Disability & the Arts: A Playlist Syllabus

A still from the music video for “Put the Spoon to My Mouth” by Sweetmeat, featuring Wobbly Dance (Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson). Yulia and Erik are sitting on a pile of feathers, facing each other, against a backdrop of a voile canopy. There is a ventilator tube they share, each with an end in their mouths.

In the fall of 2016, I taught a course at New York University called “Disability and the Arts.” It was a first-year writing seminar in the Gallatin School for Individualized Study. Here’s part of the course description:

In this course, we will understand writing as a form of access and we will use many forms of disability art (visual, aural, performative, digital) to develop key modes of textual expression (personal, descriptive, analytical, critical). Over the course of the semester, students will develop rigorous, complicated ideas about disability through a series of essays that will serve as the training ground for critical writing skills.

During the semester I started each of my classes with a song. I began doing this as a TA at the University of Pennsylvania and I’ve found that it works nicely to transition students into class time.

I’ve also found that the song is a convenient unit for analysis that helps model the form of critical engagement I hope they take beyond of the classroom. Time that often feels wasted — idling in line at a convenience store or a long trip on the subway — could instead be spent thinking about an idea that a song explores. In my classes, an “idea” is a technical term: it’s a gold-standard element that informs a piece of writing, that calls out for further examination and illuminates a pattern across pieces of evidence. Good songs explore good ideas and good songs are easy to come by.

When you teach about disability you come to understand that no object you introduce will do its own work. We know that because we know students will not interact with our material in standardized ways. We invite that individuation into our modes of engagement. So I should mention that playing a song in class won’t work for all students perfectly. In particular, it won’t work for deaf students. In my class I had a hard-of-hearing student who asked that I raise the volume when I play audio in class. That was a simple accommodation. Had we gone further, I would have distributed the work of describing the sound qualities of the songs, making it part of our investigation of what description can do.

In its original or translated forms, music has, as Roland Barthes once wrote, “an imaginary, whose function is to reassure, to constitute the subject hearing it.” Listening to a song requires an act of imagination, which, when played for a group listening together, can activate a collective subject that is negotiated and calibrated through analysis — or in pleasure.

The songs on this playlist syllabusbear witness to the imaginary we created in our course. But it’s a partial view because they linked up to the readings, artwork, discussions, and assignments that played in the background. To see the conventional syllabus for the course, click here.

“Put the Spoon to My Mouth” by Sweetmeat

In the days before classes started, I found myself watching this video several times a day. It features a disabled duo called Wobbly Dance whose work I have long found to be stunningly beautiful. Rather than present a song I felt like I understood, I introduced this one and explained that I couldn’t quite figure it out. There seemed to be something really interesting happening around “interdependence,” I said, a word we’d start using a lot. I wanted to start things off by foregrounding my own unfinished thinking. Modeling curiosity seemed a nice antidote to thinking that good writing, like a magic trick, just appears.

Months later when the students were choosing art objects to write about for their final assignment, one of them asked to write about this song. When we sat down to talk about it, we listened to it together but couldn’t quite figure out the lyrics (and couldn’t find them anywhere online). It was a powerful moment when the student announced that he didn’t think he had enough evidence to write about the song. He would, he told me, keep thinking about it.

“Futura Free” by Frank Ocean

Throughout our term, I asked students to write up weekly blog posts. I asked them to start noticing disability around them, in unexpected places and in places where they hadn’t seen it before. The blog became an wonderfully creative space where students bandied things like poverty, urban design, pregnancy, and sleep in relation to disability.

I wanted them to notice small details that conceal large histories. And so I played this song for them, the last on Ocean’s latest album. About halfway through, it cuts to a series of audio clips recorded by Ocean’s younger brother years before Ocean became famous. There’s a wonderful grain to the audio that captures not just the quality of the technical compression that suggests its temporal distance from the present, but also what Ocean’s life was like before he was launched into the recording industry. Ocean’s obvious fascination with this audio links up to some recurring questions in his whole album about the transformation wrought by fame.

“Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?” by ANOHNI

In one of their first writing exercises, I asked students to find what I called “telling details” about an art object I assigned to each of them. These are forms of description, informed by a discerning sense of what an artwork is up to, that suggest something larger about the piece. Not only does this song bear witness to some profound questions about disability — and about the sacrifices we make to separate ourselves from the natural world in the process of becoming human — but it is full of beautiful telling details:

The rotten bodies threaded gold, the pitch of hair and sticky meat / The sea life cut with plastic, a white cross gilded gold / A case of white doves laying in the boiling snow / A sharp knife of concrete, the blue line of tuna’s throat.

“Ballad of the Absent Mare” by Leonard Cohen

At this point students were starting to think about their first essay, which asked them to describe and reflect on an art object. I wanted them to understand that writing about art produces art. Cohen has said that his lyrics are based on the “Ten Bulls,” a series of poems and pictures that are used as teaching tools in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I wanted them to trace the ways that one piece gets transmuted into another form of brilliance.

“Sound and Color” by Alabama Shakes

This song’s declaration of the wonders and sensations of the “beautiful and strange” world that “hangs outside the window” testifies to what I think is a primordial occasion for writing.

“Cripple” by Christine and the Queens

I watched some students look confused when I started playing this song. Some of them recognized the melody, but couldn’t locate the lyrics. A later version of this song would top the charts around the world in 2016, but it would be called “Tilted,” not “Cripple.” The original lyrics, had they been sung by someone who identifies as disabled, would map closely onto an idea introduced by one of our first readings in an essay by Nancy Mairs called “On Being a Cripple”: Nothing about disability itself suggests that it is pathetic or problematic. “I actually do,” the song declares, “enjoy being a cripple.”

Disability, in the “social model” that students were now familiar with, is built by a social apparatus that refuses to include people with impairments. So this song ended up accomplishing two things: bearing witness to the social model of disability while allowing students to think about how much can happen in the revision process, even for artists who would, during our semester, be lauded as visionary by the New York Times.

We’re The Superhumans

I started this class with a different kind of song, playing the audio track from a described advertisement for the 2016 Paralympics. This introduced them to the protocol for making visual material accessible to blind audiences, called audio description. What I love about this description track is that it celebrates some of its partiality, making expressive decisions that suggest just how much visual material is on the screen. It set the stage for a class about objectivity and authority in description that some students later cited as their favorite.

“Christine Sun Kim” by Todd Selby

I opened this class with a short film instead of a song. It follows a deaf artist as she makes some of her characteristic aural-turned-haptic pieces. And in the process illustrates some of the possibilities for Deaf artistry.

“Having an Argument with Myself” by Jens Lekman

It was time at this point in the semester for some students to workshop drafts of their first essays. To set the tone for the first workshop and to bring into the classroom an attention to frustrations that professors so rarely talk about when they assign an essay, I played this song by Jens Lekman that recounts a drunken conversation he has with himself during a walk around his city.

“Tessellate” by Alt-J

The students’ second essay progression asked them to put texts in conversation, focusing on skills of citation and attribution. I used many analogies for the writing process during our course. (The students’ favorite involved me bringing peanut butter and jelly to class, asking them to describe each using whatever approach they’d like, and then to describe them together in order to grasp the complexity of putting two texts into conversation.) On this occasion, I talked about tessellations, the way shapes lie next to each other without gaps to form new ones. Tessellating texts, they would find out, was a tricky bit of business.

“No Church in the Wild” by Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean

The echo chamber I furnished for their tessellations involved thinking about disability in an ecological way. We considered things like Sick-Building Syndrome, environmental justice projects, and toxicity. I played this song as an example of an artwork that engages an idea of wilderness and whose refrain, as Jack Halberstam has argued, traces the Great Chain of Being to contemporary anarchist aesthetics.

“Hopelessness” by ANOHNI

I played another track from Anohni’s latest album, offering it as available evidence for their essays since much of the songs’ concern center on contemporary ecological catastrophe. But I don’t think I knew then just how much I was foreshadowing what I would feel after November 9th.

“I Can’t Breathe” by Pussy Riot

Though the students had a prompt and a topical focus for their essays, I wanted to show them how rich analytics are like prisms that refract and expand possibilities of what is shot through them. The “ecological thought,” as Timothy Morton explains, is anything but limiting. We talked about Eric Garner’s last breaths, how he was blamed for his own death by his murderers for being disabled, and how ecologies of aspiration (in both senses of the term) often enroll ideas about dis/ability.

“What Is It Like?” by Tree Mabry

What Is It Like?
A look at invisibility, silhouettes, and humanity through a kaleidoscope.

I was lucky to come across — totally by chance — a short radio essay about audio description the same week that I took my students to the Museum of Modern Art for a Touch Tour designed for blind and vision-impaired visitors.

Our class met at 11am on November 9th, just hours after it was clear that Donald Trump had won the U.S. Presidential Election. I remember texting my friend and collaborator Simi Linton as I walked through Washington Square Park: “I don’t know what to say to them.” “Steady,” she replied. I tried.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t properly prepare for the scenario in which Trump was actually elected. I had scheduled a brilliant young artist, Jessy Yates a.k.a. Cerebral Pussy, to join us in class that day. She indeed joined us, but we had to scrap everything I had planned. (Looking now at my lesson plan for that day, I grow angrier with myself for not having adequately planned. I have pages of questions for discussion and nothing about how to handle the students who came to class crying.)

I tried to turned our classroom into a reflective space, asking us to share the room to process and begin to articulate to ourselves what will define us for years. About 45 minutes into the class session, together we watched Hillary Clinton concede the election. My students sneaked glances at me as I cried in the back corner of the room.

“Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

As the tragedies of 2016 refused to slow, I tried to keep the students engaged with their writing prompts, encouraging them to name and document their thinking in the weeks after Trump’s election. I also tried to pass along a key insight we gleaned from Leonard Cohen who died that week: sometimes the piece of your writing that doesn’t seem to be working at all will be the part that helps you resolve bigger issues about the writing. “The crack is where the light gets in.”

“I Don’t Need No Doctor” by John Scofield and John Mayer

As we neared the end of the semester, I wanted students to apprehend what I called “big disability”: disability as an aesthetic and analytic value, something we can use as well as inhabit. I played what seems like a little ditty, a song originally recorded by Ray Charles in 1971 that puts more faith in romance than in a doctor’s orders. Then I lectured on the philosophy of medicine proposed by Georges Canguilhem in the mid-20th century that provides a more serious analytic framework for that claim. Knowledge about the body, he says, begins with the patient since quantification of the differences between normal and pathological states of life are often betrayed by a more vitalistic understanding that we can sense when we experience how being sick is really “another way of life,” as he put it.

“Normal Song” by Perfume Genius

I left students with the same kind of curiosity that we started with. I wasn’t about to lecture about this song because it still baffles me, but it seems to suggest ways to resist the normalization of fear and violence. And maybe that was the most appropriate way to lead into the weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump. And as it turns out, it was where I was going to pick up in my spring research seminar on normalcy.

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