Walter Benjamin and the Language of Disability
To operate in a disabled manner, is to operate in a nexus of one-way streets. I am epileptic – my brain scatters and stops. Absence seizures make me pause, abruptly seized from this world until I am returned. As I read, my eyes continue to move, until I open them and see unfamiliar words. Sentences and passages which make no sense, and so I return to the beginning. In this way, being epileptic, being disabled, is to process the world in a circular pathway. The form and rhythm of writing helps me to discern where I am. In many ways, the strict structure of philosophy and political theory bumps up against my disabled brain. However, Walter Benjamin – that circuitous writer who finds getting lost to be a part of reading – fits into my disabled brain. He writes in such a manner that one is forced to pause and begin from the top. Readers are asked to read in a way that is epileptic. It seizes you. It disorients you. Because of this, you return to the beginning. Disability scholarship is not my home as a political theorist. However, Benjamin’s theory functions in a capacity that pushes the readership to experience the epileptic process of reading and writing. Benjamin writes in the essay On Language as Such and the Language of Man, “this mental being communicates itself in language and not through language.”1placeholder We understand ourselves in the process of speaking and acting and not through this process. The epileptic experience of language is one that is stop starting pausing and being reminded. I communicate in the process of speaking, the lostness of my words and self are as much a part of what I mean as the words themselves.
Benjamin invites us to be seized.
Disability itself can act as a form of language. My seizures are my body’s way of telling me, perhaps shouting at me that I must pause. I must rest. I must stop. Seizures express a language of the body. Benjamin’s essay On Language as Such argues that all things have a language, and in fact the language of things communicates not just the “communicable” but also “the symbol of the noncommunicable.”2placeholder Benjamin positions language as a capacity of all things, and that while we humans communicate ourselves linguistically, things communicate in a way that is “communal.” He argues, “the communication of things is certainly communal in a way that grasps the world as an undivided whole.”3placeholder Disabled bodies are often treated as things. As I became accustomed to my disabled body, I struggled to understand it. My body is a thing. My disability is neurological. It sits in my brain and strikes out at random. My body and my disability are inseparable, and while my body may not strictly be a thing it interacts with the world in a way that my cognition does not. Epilepsy bumps up against norms and structures that require my body to act in ways it cannot. It pulls me to attention and requires me to interact with the world in a way that is fundamentally communal. I cannot separate the physical structures of the world from the emotional, political, and social. Because all of these things, with their weight and their language which conveys which bodies are expected, tells my body and my disability in its own way that it is at odds. Benjamin’s texts are often esoteric and mystical. The symbolic and the cultural signifiers exemplify a deeper meaning that we cannot experience except through becoming lost and losing the clear defined lines which we are accustomed to. That lostness is the state which my body lives in – inside of a space while perpetually lost, finding pathways within the world that may startle some – the careful baby gates I used to have to prevent me from wandering during my prolonged absence seizures, seizures which would last for minutes at a time. Benjamin’s expression of language exemplifies the disabilities’ expressions. They alert us to both physical direct needs and to the symbolic messages of exclusion which wind throughout our lives. Benjamin leads readers into the body-ways and word-ways of disability.
The body-ways of disability, how my body and other disabled individuals’ bodies interpret and interact with the world, are both constructed and natural. Benjamin’s work pulls readers through a process of writing that is natural to my epileptic mind, but its form is consciously constructed to be a jolting seizing method of writing. Benjamin’s form is a critical component to his content. He ends the essay On Language As Such with a reflection on natural language. Natural language, he writes, is imbued with the creative language of God.4placeholder Benjamin’s mysticism moves the reader from the physical everyday world which can be understood secularly to a theological plane that interprets the world as being spoken into existence by God. The breath of God, God’s Word, is within nature. Catholic theologians such as Aquinas and Augustine point to the natural world as being evident of divine law. The natural world acts according to God’s distinct will, and for Benjamin – according to God’s language. Because, as he earlier outlines, communication occurs in language. Thus, it is in the natural world that we encounter God’s language. Benjamin’s theological work places the body in an important context. The disabled body is not a mistake, nor is it something which should be seen as perverse. It is natural. My body, with its quirks and twinges and jolts, is a part of the language of God. Indeed, Benjamin argues that human beings hold the creative word of God in our ability to name the things around us. Perhaps then, we may consider the process of diagnosing the body, of naming a disability, to be a divine process. My first seizure I woke up – the skin rubbed raw on the sides of my face from the carpet, my tongue swollen and bloody. I had no memory of what happened, and the fear of this unnamed unmemorable pain haunted me. The naming of this thing as epilepsy, brought peace. The naming of disabilities allows disabled people to assert ourselves and communicate in language what our bodies communicate to us – that something is not quite right. However, by rightness I do not mean that our bodies are not typical, what I mean is that our bodies are signaling an imbalance. Most often, I seize from stress. My body pulls me from an imbalanced life through seizing. My ability to name epilepsy and seizures in many ways allows me to hear my body’s language and to experience its communality with the world.
To have a disabled body is to have a body that is named. It may have been named by another person. You may have named it. Regardless, it is named, and that naming process – if we are to take Benjamin at his word – is a divinely creative process. Moreover, our named bodies communicate with the world in a way this is distinctly different. It attunes us to symbols which others may not notice – the lack of wheelchair access symbolizing refusal to some people. The flashing lights of a movie symbolizing a clear “this is not for you.” The language of my body is something I find joy in, even as it frustrates me. Likewise, the form of Benjamin’s writing, which I have described as epileptic, is joyful in its frustration.
Understanding the language of disability is a process. One that intersects with the process of naming. Readers are confronted with the process of naming as they read Benjamin. Benjamin’s work is circular. Benjamin’s essay One-Way Street is made up of a series of vignettes. Two of these vignettes are part of a singular story, although to understand this one must read through them and return to the beginning. The first vignette is titled “Flag…” The second is titled “…at Half Mast.” “Flag…” describes how loss makes us remember a person more kindly. Its final line reads, “Separation penetrates the disappearing person like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance.” The second vignette, “…at Half Mast,” is two sentences:5placeholder
“If a person very close to us is dying, there is something in the months to come that we dimly apprehend – much as we should have liked to share it with him – could only happen through his absence. We greet him at the last in a language that he no longer understands.”
The first vignette describes to the reader what loss can do to our memory. The dead may hold sway over us in a way that they did not during life. The second vignette explores the process of death less poetically, and closes with language. In reading this, readers are forced to return to the first vignette. The reader interprets each vignette through the other. We understand the two pieces’ connections through the other. Benjamin’s analysis of the dead as being like a person departing on a boat in “Flag…” comes full circles in “…at Half Mast.” Likewise “…at Half Mast” grounds Benjamin’s story of the dead person as departing at sea in more concrete language. Benjamin draws the reader’s attention to language. We greet the dead in a language they no longer know, when we speak of them as we do in the former vignette we do so in a way they would not understand. Placing this essay within the larger context of Benjamin’s works, the language of the dead is a natural language that communes with the larger natural world, reflections of God’s Word.
Reading Benjamin is an exercise in lostness – reading “Flag” and “…at Half Mast” backwards and forwards, from the second to the first, and from the first to the second again, a pathway emerges. The experience of reading Benjamin feels distinctly organic in that it puts the reader in contact with the physical process of reading in a way they may not access in other texts. The eyes backtracking and moving wildly across the page may get tired from the movement. The fingers tracing the words, tapping them occasionally, may get lost as the reader reflects on what they just read. Sometimes I lift my fingers to touch my forehead, my mind physically aching from reading Benjamin. The aching I feel is not unique to Benjamin. However, it is accompanied by a deep-seated pleasure because it is intentional. Benjamin’s form intentionally discomforts the reader. It intentionally asks us to uproot ourselves and our normal ways of reading and processing written material. We are asked to look at the world differently. This quirk in perspective is the typical way in which I encounter texts. The difference is that with Benjamin, it is intended rather than a side effect of disability.
To be epileptic is to be arbitrarily taken out of the world, to have one’s body and mind taken away and dropped back at random. Benjamin’s writing takes the reader out of the analytical form of writing. It requires the reader to draw themselves up and to plop themselves elsewhere, to revisit a sentence that only makes sense when read out of order. Benjamin disrupts the reader, he seizes them. The form of his writing requires readers to adopt a disabled mindset. Perhaps even to require them to communicate in the form of disability. To allow their body to speak to them and to wrest them from their comfort and distort the process. Benjamin brings us into contact with the divine word as our bodies understand it through intentionally distorting his work. Benjamin allows the reader to experience what he views as the divine and what I describe as epileptic.
Walter Benjamin, “On Language As Such and the Language of Man,” in One-Way Street (Verso, 2021).
Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street,” in One-Way Street (Verso Books, 2021).
Walter Benjamin, “On Language As Such and the Language of Man,” in One-Way Street (Verso, 2021), 117.
Walter Benjamin, “On Language As Such and the Language of Man,” in One-Way Street (Verso, 2021), 135.
Walter Benjamin, “On Language As Such and the Language of Man,” in One-Way Street (Verso, 2021), 135.
Walter Benjamin, “On Language As Such and the Language of Man,” in One-Way Street (Verso, 2021), 136.
Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street,” in One-Way Street (Verso Books, 2021), 53.