rethinking culture

Perhaps the only way one can determine a culture is a culture, independent of other cultures, is by what it produces. That is to say, the only way one can differentiate between cultures is through it’s art, and the same applies to subcultures. I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’* seminal work on fan culture as part of my research into cinephilia, and I naturally started to reflect on disability culture.

In cultural studies, as with anthropology or archaeology, a culture can be only be viewed through it’s art,, as this is what it leaves behind (and this includes religious artefacts). The only way we can know anything about, say, Neolithic man is by examining the artefacts from the ground; when we study a modern foreign culture, we similarly view it through the prism of what it produces. We can learn so much about the German psyche from watching the German TV programme Heimat, for example. (in relation to the accompanying texts, of course)

Thus, in a way we can tell a culture or subculture is there by what it produces. As Jenkins points out, fan fiction and fan art point to a thriving subculture; one which has ‘poached’ the original text and expanded it to make it something else. New ideas are being produced; new art is being made. There can be no doubt that this is culture, and that fans can be said to have a subculture.

But this got me thinking again about the old ‘us and them’ dichotomy. If fans can be said to have a culture, why can’t disabled people? I still reject the idea that disabled people are a subset of humans, and I still think that to see ourselves as systematically and maliciously discriminated against is too simplistic, but the fact remains we do generate our own art. I mean, look at the bbc ouch website, look at the band boys on wheels, look at the theatre group DV8. just as fan fiction and fan art is an articulation of a type of love, these groups are an articulation of the experience of being a person with a disability in western culture. Indeed, the same applies to this very blog – although it is not solely about my disability, in part I aim to describe the thoughts of a young man with cerebral palsy. I could, I suppose, have called it the ill-informed ramblings of a student, or ale-drinker, or cross-dresser, but there’s no escaping the fact that my cerebral palsy is a central part to my experience of life.

I suppose this constitutes a re-think on my part. Disabled people do have their own culture in that they produce cultural artefacts specific to their experience. I think this is as it should be. Yet I worry that this culture or society has become too bogged down in a politics of difference and antagonism; where people have to worry about which words they use; where people get accused of being ‘disablist’. This mindset becomes self for filling – the more we shout our heads off about how we are discriminated against, the more we will be. This is why in the past I have tried to rethink the concept of a disabled subculture, framing it only in terms of an antagonistic paradigm. However, I now see this way of thinking as blinkered and too extreme. We are a subculltuure, just as trekkies are, or any other minority. What we as a community should be doing, I think, is articulating our experiences: our thoughts, fears, likes and dislikes, just as any other human being would. We need to continue to produce those cultural artefacts: to write, to compose, to dance; we need simply to be ourselves, not a steriotyped amplification of ourselves intent on showing people how wrong or ‘disablist’ they are. Only then can we, individually and as a subculture, achieve equality.

*never to be confused with Karl or Keith

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