Dangerous Discourses: Anxiety, Desire, and Disability

Margrit Shildrick. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 8, Issue 3. Summer 2007.

The pleasure and danger of sexuality, and more particularly of sexual relations, is a theme that suffuses contemporary society, making clear that the expression of erotic desire must always be accompanied by a certain anxiety. Although some of that anxiety is clearly material and precautionary-the avoidance of unwanted pregnancy, and the current fear of HIV/AIDS, for example, both being concerns that break through specific cultural contexts-I want to address the issue somewhat differently through an investigation of which psychic factors are at play in the western imaginary. Despite the ubiquity of sexual discourse, the question of who is to count as a sexual subject is contested and uncertain, not just as a matter of practical concern but at the psychological and ontological level too. The western discomfort with many manifestations of erotic desire-that denies or prohibits infant or childhood sexuality, or expresses disgust in the face of older people’s desire-is most clearly invoked by forms of differential embodiment that cannot be subsumed unproblematically under the rubric of the normative body. Neither young nor old people are non-normative in their own terms, and yet their difference from the adult body, which is assumed to be the standard-albeit with gender variations-for sexual agency and affect, is taken to disqualify them from discourses of pleasure associated with sexuality. Where, then, embodiment is more radically anomalous and resistant to recuperation either projectively or retrospectively, as in congenital disability for example, that disqualification is so sedimented that it is scarcely challenged on an empirical level and even more rarely interrogated as to the nature of its psychic underpinnings. In this paper, then, my purpose is not to make empirical inquiry into the multiple ways that people with visible disabilities are denied sexual subjectivity but to address the question of what is at stake in the cultural imaginary that requires such a closing down of possibilities. Following previous work on monstrous bodies (Shildrick, 2002), which explored the cultural, political, and legal devaluation of corporeal difference, I want here to contextualize the putative threat of anomalous embodiment in terms of the specific intercorporeality of the sexual relation.

The Category of Disability or “Anomalous Embodiment”

What then comprises the category of disability, or what I have less contentiously referred to as anomalous embodiment? Although some form of definitive answer is often called for-in academia no less than in terms of a general public-it is one that I, along with many other critical disability theorists, and particularly those working within a postconventional framework, am reluctant to provide. To set out any mutually agreed series of parameters would be to close down, and thus normalize, what must otherwise remain a shifting nexus of both physical and mental states that resists full and final definition. On the simplest level, what counts as disabling anomaly varies greatly according to the socio-historical context, and even were the inquiry limited to a westernized location in our own time, the category remains slippery, fluid, heterogeneous, and deeply intersectional. As Judy Rohrer (2005) notes:

There are differences in type of disability (in a reification of the mind/body split, disability is usually broken down as physical or intellectual), in impact (minor hearing loss versus paralysis), in onset (disability from birth/gradually becoming disabled/ suddenly becoming disabled), in perceptibility (having a “hidden disability” and “passing” as non-disabled versus being unable to hide a disability), in variability (most disabilities change across time and space), and in prevalence (disabilities vary by sex, ethnicity, age, and environment) [p. 41].

While here the implication is that the “otherness” of disability is hard to pin down in any substantive way, there is also a more complex sense in which the binary distinction between disabled and non-disabled is contestable along deconstructive lines as well. Lennard Davis (2002), for example, encapsulates one highly provocative aspect of the issue when he speaks of “the instability of the category of disability as a subset of the instability of identity in a postmodern era” (p. 25). None of this means that the term “disability”, and its various sub-categories, is beyond use but only that it remains always open to question, indeed always poses the question of what would constitute “non-disabled” (Price and Shildrick, 1998). Although many disability advocates use the term “temporarily able-bodied” (TAB) to describe the normatively embodied and to remind them of the impermanence of their morphological status, the convergence of categories is more profound. As Thomas Couser (1997) puts it: “Part of what makes disability so threatening to the non-disabled then may be precisely the indistinctness and permeability of its boundaries” (p. 178).

With these provisos in mind, I shall focus, for the purposes of this article, on what is visibly anomalous to a degree that challenges normative expectations of the human body. To Davis (2002), physical disability is “a disruption in the sensory field of the observer” (p. 50), and although I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment, I am more concerned here with the disruption to an observer’s psychic field. It should not necessarily be assumed, however, that normative expectations are limited to observers who are themselves classed as non-disabled. Although the greatest problem for people with disabilities may spring from the disavowals of that majority, the self-understanding of every one of us-however we are positioned-is inevitably deeply imbricated with the cultural imaginary to the extent that, like people of color, gays, or women, disabled people may both accept and resist the dominant discourse. What is at stake, then, is not some simple opposition between those with and without socio-cultural capital but a discursive context in which those who are normatively embodied, people with disabilities, disability scholars, and activists alike are all caught up in the interplay of barely recognized forces. Nonetheless, as I note later, it should not be overlooked that the significance of the interventionary potential and limits of psychoanalytic discourse plays out differently across those groupings. That my reflections are directed primarily-though never exclusively-towards the former group speaks more to the dominant power relations that I wish to trouble than to any belief that the members of any singular category are uniquely implicated. Moreover, to locate the problematic as a matter of cultural rather than personal construction in no order undermines its psychic inflection, for what is at stake is the critical intersection of material experience, representation, and psychosomatic symbolization into which we are all differentially drawn.

Responses to the Visibly Anomalous Body

In the west, all forms of differential embodiment are highly productive of normative anxiety insofar as they threaten to overflow the boundaries of what Kristeva (1982) calls “the selfs clean and proper body” (p. 71). Despite the post-Cartesian entrenchment of the notion that the self-possessive inviolability of the bounded body grounds the autonomous subject, most of us are both consciously and subconsciously engaged in strategies that provide protection against the putative dangers of encroachment that other bodies seem to pose. One consequence of seeking to maintain the illusion of the separation and distinction necessary to the sovereign subject is that all encounters between self and other are potentially risky and must be negotiated within a strict set of normative rules and regulations that construct the parameters of safety and danger. In such a context, the sexual relation itself, and the operation of desire as that which extends beyond the self to the other, is always a locus of anxiety, a potential point of disturbance to the normativities of everyday life. Alongside the potential loss of self, corporeal integrity-with the threat, as I discuss later, of regression to the fragmentation of infancy-is also at risk. As Alphonse Lingis (1985) remarks of the orgasmic body:

Is it not a breaking down into a mass of exposed organs, secretions, striated muscles, systems turning into pulp and susceptibility? The orgasmic body is …the body drifting toward a state on the far side of organization and sense … [pp. 55-56].

In consequence, sexuality both invites heightened disciplinary constraint and continually breaches it. And where sexual discourse characteristically links pleasure and danger in the erotic, it is not simply as opposing or alternative courses or outcomes, but as an irreducibly intertwined dimension in the very structure of the relation. Nonetheless, our investments in a cultural imaginary of self-determination work to occlude the uncertainty of all sexuality by imposing an impressive system of legal, cultural, and moral constraints that construct categories of the licit and illicit that seek to contain or eliminate perceived risk. But what is it that determines which behaviors, or indeed which bodies, are illicit?

My suggestion is that if any coming together of bodies, and more specifically the intercorporeality of much sexuality, is encompassed within an implicit anxiety about the loss of self-definition, then that anxiety-which operates within us all-is at its most acute where the body of the other already breaches normative standards of embodiment. Insofar as the other in its alterity is always a possible threat to the integrity of the self, the radically different other who fails to observe the same boundaries is doubly so. The illicit then concerns the potential of a contaminatory threat to the self, an interchange not between self and other where each is in a familiar category, but between strangers where the substance of what passes across boundaries-be it sensation, emotion, or material-is unknown. For people with disabilities who are habitually positioned as outsiders, the restrictions on sexual pleasure, the implication that it is somehow illicit, the denial even that their sexuality could be significant at all, speak not to any engagement with the realities of lives that in their differential embodiment have differential possibilities of expression and connection, but at least in part to the fear occasioned when bodily self-control seems to be or is compromised. Despite the widespread misconceptions about disabled people’s sexuality that permeate not only lay opinion but also social and welfare policy (Shildrick, 2004a), recent empirical evidence supports the view that despite sometimes necessary variations in active expression, there is little distinction to be made in the levels of sexual desire (Nosek et al., 2001; Shuttleworth, 2002; Vansteenwegen, Jans, and Reveil, 2003). At the same time disability scholars, and particularly those working within queer and feminist theory, are increasingly problematizing the conventional parameters of sexuality in order to explore non-normative constructions of sexual identities, pleasures, and agency that more adequately encompass multifarious forms of embodied difference. For the reasons already discussed, it is not that the people with disabilities are outside the cultural imaginary that mobilizes anxiety but that sometimes their practices must be, perforce, productively innovative. As Tom Shakespeare (1999) comments, “Non-disabled men have things to learn from disabled men, and could profitably share insights into gender relations, sexuality and particularly issues of physicality and the body” (p. 63). The manifest insecurities I address, then, are not primarily those of the disabled person but of the one who though considering herself within normative parameters already experiences the anxiety of an inherent fluidity-a certain messiness-of the sexual relation and is further undermined by contact with the unpredictability of a body that does not behave as her own. It is as though her own self-control is at stake, as though her own ability to draw boundaries of distinction between self and other-which though they may be temporarily suspended in any sexual encounter are normally recuperable-is put in permanent doubt.

One major consequence is that the sexuality of disabled people is effectively discounted-even when it is spoken-not only in society at large but-because none of us escape the dominant discourse-in a form of what is perhaps self-censorship in the disability movement itself. In a very common complaint that public representations veer between the asexual and the hypersexual, Alison Kafer (2003) notes:

There has been an excited discourse around disabled people’s sexuality as inherently kinky, bizarre and exotic. Medical and popular assumptions that people with disabilities are asexual contribute to the discourse about sexuality and disability while the sexuality of disabled people may be denied in these conversations, it is being denied loudly and repeatedly, not silently [p. 85].

But it isn’t simply a question of ensuring that more sexually positive representations are put in place. So powerfully entrenched in western culture and social policy is the devaluing of sexuality in the context of disability, so bound about with unspoken anxieties at any sign of the eruption of such sexuality, that it suggests that the very lack of adequate recognition should be characterized as a disavowal that requires not simply a socio-cultural analysis but an inquiry into its psychic origins as well. As yet, however, the existing literature in disability and sexuality is relatively sparse, a gap that is justified in part insofar as the social model of disability-which is the most widely utilized framework among disability activists and theorists-is largely directed to more material socio-political concerns that are susceptible to rights discourse. The model has little or nothing to say on the subject of sexuality and has no place for the question of desire in particular. And where sexuality is deemed to be of high significance, it is often read through a broadly Foucauldian model that gives little credence to psychic factors. As Foucault ( 1997) himself puts it, “What matters is the relationship between what we actually do, are obliged, allowed, and forbidden to do in the field of sexuality, and what we are allowed, forbidden, or obliged to say about our sexual behavior … It’s not a problem of fantasy; it’s a problem of verbalization” (pp. 125-26).

My primary concern is with bodies, and while it is undeniable that disavowal is as forcefully operative in the context of developmental disability as in physical (and perhaps in some scenarios even more so), for now my analysis is largely limited to visibly anomalous embodiment, and I make no specific claims about its wider application. My argument is that in relation to the potency of the cultural imaginary, and to what is effectively the question of the other, psychic dimensions can provide a convincing explanation that throws up many potentially fruitful avenues of enquiry. In this I follow Jacque-line Rose (1993), who has argued convincingly in another context that the socio-cultural realm should not be addressed “as if it were free of psychic and sexual processes, as if it operated outside the range of their effects” (p. 41). I shall concentrate on psychoanalysis and the effect of unconscious prohibitions on desire rather than simply on the psychosocial way in which thwarted desire plays out around particular forms of embodiment. And though the discipline invokes a certain ahistorical grounding for its central concepts, that should not disqualify its insights, for there is nothing in either the Freudian or Lacanian canon that would deny the ideological investments that both shape the particular manifestation of psychic concerns and infiltrate psychoanalytic discourse itself. Freud clearly understood the imbrication of the social and the psychic, in which the body, and especially sexuality, acts as a privileged mediator, while as Malone and Kelly (2004) note: “Lacan’s polemics about ego psychology, social engineering, the mediocrity of psychology all point to his sensitivity to the permeability of the psychoanalytic closet to socially regnant ideologies’ (p. 26). Though it is not the primary purpose of psychoanalysis to uncover, for example, the variously raced or classed specificities of its subjects, it can provide the tools whereby sense might be made of the differential instantiation of what it takes to be individually transhistorical and transcultural psychic determinants. The Lacanian turn to the constitution of subjectivity clearly opens up the field to a reading that takes account of the mutually determining effects of gender, culture, and race, for instance-and, though it is rarely remarked, (dis)ability.

Anomalous Embodiment through a Psychoanalytic Lens

Let me begin, then, by developing the psycho-cultural significance of the Lacanian infant body that displays initially an inherent dis-integration and frustrated mobility and yet emerges subsequently as a coherent sexed and sexual subject in the Symbolic. What, then, has been repressed, or cast aside, in order to achieve that putative unity and order? More important, which forms of embodied subjectivity cannot be countenanced, and how might that relate to the disavowed sexuality of people with disabilities? In opening up this particular line of inquiry, I do not expect it to resolve the questions I have posed (which are perhaps not the even the right questions) but rather to suggest ways in which the “why” of the problematic rather than the “how” of its effects could be investigated. However any one of us is embodied, the refusal to countenance what lies beyond the normative, and the consignment of the sexuality of some people to a dangerous discourse, is an effect of the parameters that put limits on the sexuality of us all. The task then is both to retrace the constitution of the normative sexual subject and to reclaim other modes of sexual becoming. The psychoanalytic narrative proposed by Freud, and reiterated by Lacan, is deeply disruptive of the supposed security of the subject in the broadest sense, and more particularly so in that the inherent excessiveness of sexuality risks always splintering the imaginary unity of the bounded ego. Psychoanalysis lays bare, moreover, the intimate connection between desire and anxiety, which for Lacan at least are both necessary constituents of the subject. To characterize desire in terms of lack as Lacan does is, however, by no means self-evident and it would be instructive to read his schema against the insistence of Deleuze and Guattari that desire is always productive and mobile. For now, let me review the Lacanian understanding of how the early infant emerges as a subject.

According to the most familiar formulation outlined in the essay of the same name (Lacan, 1977a), the infant-prior to the “mirror stage”-experiences himself or herself only as a body in bits and pieces, as fragmentary and discontinuous rather than whole and integrated (p. 4). It is the experience of what Lacan calls ule corps morcelé” a body no more or less real than the conceptually unified corpus that will eventually take its place. What is undeniable is that the infant, far from achieving the self-determining normative standards that characterize adult life, is immersed in “motor incapacity and nursling dependency” (1977a, p. 2), a state in which the mother is an all-powerful figure, but one not separable from the infant itself. As is well known, Lacan figures the rupture in the infant-maternal dyad as the moment at which the growing child comes to realize a mirrored image of his own body as whole and separate and is enabled to disavow or cover over his actual incapacity and disarticulation in the assumption of what Lacan calls “the armour of an alienating identity” (p. 4). Yet that emergence of an integrated self is based from the first on a misrecognition, an identification with an exteriority, that serves to inaugurate both an imaginary anatomy and a phantasmatic self. Moreover, it is not simply physical disunity that is cast aside but a startling series of negative images to which, Lacan claims, the infant is exposed in the imaginary prior to the illusion of wholeness: “images of castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body, in short … imagos of the fragmented body” (1977b, p. 11). These are surely highly significant, for they will remind us not so much perhaps of the disabled bodies that we encounter or experience for ourselves day to day, but certainly of the socio-cultural fantasies that have always surrounded disability, and particularly in historical representations of the monstrous (Shildrick, 2002). These are the forms of embodiment that must be suppressed in order for the child to achieve the stability and distinction that mark out the normatively embodied subject.

What Lacan’s scenario clearly suggests is that any body that persists in its manifestation of dis-integration and disunitypar adigmatically any visibly disabled body-may become the repository of both corporeal and ontological anxiety. The phantasmatic sexed and gendered subject who emerges in the Symbolic is always fissured by its own inaugural méconnaissance, and deeply insecure in its apparent normativity. Its hold on order, control, and selfdetermination is fragile and uncertain, maintained only by strategies that hold at bay those others whose own corporeality re-awakens intimations of a fundamental disorganization and lack of self-completion. It is here that the western wariness about, or even aversion to, touch is rooted, for above all the normative subject must avoid the indeterminate physicality of intercorporeality. The scopic drive, heralded by the mirror stage, and remaining dominant throughout life, is the primary means by which the subject distinguishes itself from its others. But if the specular interval between self and other serves to protect the illusion of singularity and corporeal unity, then any point of contact threatens a loss of differentiation. Where in addition the body of the other cannot be subsumed under the rubric of identity to the selfsame, then its putative danger to psychic security is greatly accentuated. It may appear overwhelming. The enduring difficulty is that although the otherness of such threatening corporeal forms must be repudiated, that otherness is not simply external to the subject but always recalls the incompletely repressed experience of infantile dis-organization. The relation of the anomalously embodied other to the subject takes on all the irresolvable ambiguity of the abject: neither wholly part of the subject, nor safely outside; disavowed, yet disturbingly familiar (Kristeva, 1982, Shildrick, 2005). Indeed, Kristeva (1990) herself makes the links with the Freudian concept of the uncanny as that which irrupts when it should not appear. Lacan does not speak of the abject as such, but insofar as he identifies Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (Freud, 1919) as a grounding text from which to theorize anxiety (Harari, 2001), the connection is assured.

In contradistinction to other psychoanalytic approaches to the phenomenon, Lacan insists in his unpublished seminar on anxiety not only that anxiety is “not without an object” but that its appearance signals the too-closeness of an other who is excessive to representation and who threatens the symbolic order (Harari, 2001). As Richard Boothby (1991) puts it: “Inasmuch as it is formed on the basis of a unifying perceptual Gesalt, the ego is liable to anxiety in fantasies of the fragmented body, or corps morcelé” (p. 143). The issue then is not that the object of anxiety fails to appear, or has been lost, as Freud sometimes understands it, but on the contrary that what should be lacking is perversely present. Given that for Lacan, lack is a necessary constitutive element of the symbolic subject, the danger lies precisely in lacking lack. So what is it that appears? This is how Roberto Harari (2001) glosses Lacan: “The object that provokes anxiety ..[is] the desire of the Other, as the Other requires that the subject erase its borders, handing itself over to it in an unconditional manner” (p. 75), and again: “Structurally speaking, anxiety … suspends the imaginary mapping that intuitively recognises the difference between an inside and an outside” (p. 162). In other words, faced with the reappearance of its pre-subjectival phantasies that should have been banished-faced in substantive terms with the body of disability-the subject is endangered by the putative failure of its own boundaries of distinction and separation. And Lacan (1988) makes it quite clear that the threat of such disarray and fragmentedness is not some aberration from the normal experience of the human being but is intrinsic to every one of us (p. 169). Accordingly, the trigger that reopens a conscious experience of anxiety, or more seriously of outwardly projected hostility, need be nothing more extraordinary than a corporeal encounter with disability.

The Personal and Cultural Significance of Differential Embodiment

Given the potential of such an approach to offer some explanatory account of the relation in the imaginary-which as Lacan notes is always structured in binary terms-between disabled and nondisabled, why is it that even most disability theorists remain reluctant to investigate the insights of psychoanalysis? The explanation is surely that the rejection of the medical model, which dominated the understanding of disability until relatively late in the twentieth century, is so strongly entrenched in disability politics that any perspective that seems to entail a return to individual pathology is to be avoided. The confusion between an approach that psychologizesand in a strong sense privatizes-the experiences of people with disabilities, and a psychoanalytic approach that inquires into the cultural imaginary is widespread and has been successfully challenged very rarely. Robert Wilton’s (2003) sophisticated essay, for example, on the way in which disability figures a symbolic substitute for castration in Freud and Lacan offers an important addition to the field of critical disability studies, and yet is almost unique in its development. Significantly, Wilton makes consistent and strong links between the social expression of disability as a “tragic loss” (2003, p. 374), the lack that it stands in for psychoanalytic discourse, and the generation of a psychic anxiety that precludes the positive expression of disabled sexuality. In better known disability scholarship, Lennard Davis’s (1997) brief excursus into Lacanian theory is equally radical when he points out that in the specular moment of encountering the disabled body, “the moi is threatened with a breaking up, literally, of its structure, with a reminder of its incompleteness,” and that the “normal” body “is in effect a Gesalt-and therefore in the realm of what Lacan calls the ‘imaginary’“ (p. 61). Davis’s account remains relatively underdeveloped, nonetheless, and he makes no move into the area where disability intersects with sexuality. In contradistinction, it is my own strong contention that once the problematic is moved away from the abstraction of theory and posed within the context of everyday possibilities, it becomes clear that it is the encounter with an anomalously embodied other positioned within the arena of sexuality that is the most threatening and disruptive. The opening up of the subject to a certain degree of the uncertainty and risk that is always inherent in the intercorporeality of the sexual relation is significantly intensified by the operation of corporeal difference. The psychic underpinnings of the disavowal of the very possibility that the disabled person should be sexually active, sexually identified, and sexually engaging become all too clear.

In order to more fully appreciate how the psychic register plays out in the material world of differential embodiment, it is important to note that anxiety is never merely negative but is generated as much by fascination as by threat. The fraught relations of pleasure and danger are always complicated by the ambiguous nature of desire itself. The point is that as a psychic response in the unconscious, desire must always represent a failure of satisfaction, a lack of self-completion that exists only because the object of desire has already been lost. If, then, desire is structurally articulated with lack, it will always be mired in the tension not only of opposing sensations (erotic excitation and its falling short), but of identity formation itself. The goal of desire-what Lacan calls the objet á-is caught up in an endless series of displacements in the place of the other that substitute for the originary loss of the first love-object, the mother. In terms of its psychic meaning, that loss is the necessary consequence of the symbolic castration that cuts the child off from the dangerous plenitude and. jouissance of the maternal-infant dyad and instead promotes the advent of the speaking subject. In some accounts that do no justice to either Freud or Lacan (Minsky, 1996), the seemingly nostalgic fantasy of a “return to the womb” is used only to figure precisely what is desirable, but that is to overlook the anxiety-provoking threat that such a reintegration implies. Because desire, in the sense of a demand that is beyond satisfaction, is operative only in relation to the child’s accession to independent selfhood in the Symbolic, it is paradoxically both a desire for an imaginary self-completion in the desire of the other, and a longing for the indistinction of intercorporeal dependency. With regard to the latter, desire, in effect, is founded on and directed towards the very thing that must be repudiated in order to achieve a putatively stable identity: the subject, then, must either turn away or risk dissolution. As Robyn Ferrell (1996) succinctly notes: “Repression can be seen as a process of distinction” (p. 16). But does what is repressed here-desire for or of the mother-find its counterpart in other repressions that equally speak to an intercorporeality that is both seductive and threatening?

Now clearly desire in the sense outlined is by no means coincident with adult sexuality, though that is precisely where the striving for, and failure of, satisfaction most usually plays out. What is significant from the point of view of understanding the socio-cultural response to the disabled body in a sexual context is the way in which the practices of normative sexuality are assumed to develop. If, as psychoanalysis proposes, they originate in the infant’s initial experiences of erotic pleasure in its own body-pleasure that is set in motion by close maternal care in the mode of breast-feeding, cleansing and rubbing dry the genital organs, by body manipulation in all its forms, and so on-then adult sexuality itself, as the major trajectory of desire, is permeated with a nostalgia for the fragmented, incomplete body, the body, in other words, that is intrinsically dependent on another. It is, at the limit, a lingering desire for a phantasmatic identification-the corps-a-corps-with the maternal figure. In the light of such presubjectival underpinnings, and given the further insight that all desire is deeply rooted in a narcissism which must stand against the operation of any intersubjective desire for the other as other, it is clear that the psychic interconnections that bring together desire and identification are highly complex. Indeed, they are always potentially destabilizing to the embodied subject. What is at stake here is not only that the putative mother is the focus and grounding of both desire and disavowal but also that while any intimation of a return to the disorganized corps morcelé is a matter of psychic danger, its half-remembered pleasures also signify a seductive promise. On the bases of such paradoxes, which continue to multiply and thread throughout the domain of sexuality, could we not speculate that the rejected body of disability is at once what figures the repression of the selfs own fragmented body, and what figures a state of sexual satisfaction? Could it be that the normatively bounded and embodied self-experiences a psychic pull precisely towards that which it overtly rejects?

What I am suggesting is that for the subject in the symbolic order the disabled figure may represent, like the mother herself, both a forbidden and desired other, the locus of a lost sexuality that lacked nothing. The characteristic response to people with disabilities exhibits just such a split in that alongside a normative imperative to devalue or silence sexuality, there is also a highly evident strand of voyeurism, which spills over into a fetishistic focus on disabled bodies precisely as sexual. Moreover, the differential responses are by no means mutually exclusive. On the one hand, then, there may be not simply a refusal of recognition but something approaching disgust, a phenomenon that cannot be simply opposed to pleasure for in it, as Menninghaus (2003) notes, the ambivalence of attraction and repulsion is always at work. Indeed, disgust “disguise[s] a repressed or rejected …pleasure, rather than the total absence of any relationship with pleasure” (p 36). On the other hand, a very slight shift of emphasis accomplishes the move from disgust to embrace, and the endorsement of what might otherwise be disavowed. A good example of the latter-though the operation of pleasure is only one of the many dynamics in play-would be the growing number of internet sites intended for self-named amputee devotees. In the disability movement, devotees are the subject of contentious debate largely around the issue of power relations, but what is interesting from a psychoanalytic perspective is the extent to which even a putatively obsessive fixation calls into question the rigidity of normative sexual development. More generally, the doubled circulation of both fear and fascination that is so often evident with regard to anomalous bodies (Shildrick, 2002), and that more specifically here marks the context of disability and sexuality, speaks to an inherent instability and vulnerability in a normative order that relies, above all, on repression. It is not my intention to imply that the insights of a psychoanalytic approach can be literalized in terms of socio-cultural organization and behavior but that the contradictions and discontinuities, and the attendant anxieties, which mark everyday practices find their roots in unresolved and irresolvable psychic tensions, and most particularly in the impossible structure of desire.

As a preliminary and limited inquiry into the interior sense of pleasure and danger that frames the cultural imaginary, the model so far proposed has a certain explanatory power, but analogous to the Lacanian account of the feminine, it seems somewhat gloomy, in this case for those people who are disabled. Although the value of investigating normative anxiety-indeed of recognizing that the normative warrants investigation-is undeniable, it scarcely yields a positive account for those who wish to celebrate sexuality and sexual expression within the context of disability. In other words, although the explication of the sexual dynamic of disabled/non-disabled relational anxiety may be compelling, disabled people themselves may nonetheless reasonably question the utility of the psychoanalytic approach. Indeed, if instead of seeking to understand the socio-cultural unease that underlies the silencing of such sexuality, the focus were to shift away from the normative to the anomalous, it is as yet unclear whether the psychoanalytic model could escape the burden of the apparent impasse into which non-normative sexuality is driven. It is not that the ambivalence that subtends all expressions of desire can be put aside, but that the model may fail to provide the ground on which the hierarchical structure of the disabled/non-disabled binary-and the sexual expression “proper” to each category-could be contested. Given the apparently inherent masculinity and heteronormativity of the model, it is a question of how desire can be figured as belonging to an excluded group in which just those attributes may, for functional as well as preferential reasons, be at stake, and whether the sexuality of those with disabilities could be adequately encompassed within the analytical framework laid out. The danger is that any attempt to configure the sexual desire of disabled people on the narrow ground of (hetero)normativity risks fixing it as inherently defective and incomplete. There are troubling conceptual questions too: does, for example, the mirror stage, as the threshold of the self-other relation that grounds mature sexuality, take on the same significance for the infant whose actual bodily dis-organization exceeds and outlasts any illusory reflection? If the ethical task of inquiry is to instantiate a more positive mode of thinking the sexuality of disability itself, then the Lacanian model may be simply ineffective, and the exploration of a less apparently deterministic alternative-a Deleuzian model, for example-might prove more productive.

How Can it Be Otherwise? Desire as “Process” versus “Lack”

The first question, however, is whether the Lacanian or Freudian model from which the former derives could encompass the possibility of being otherwise, without that signalling a failure of psychic development. Let us for a moment return to the crucial stage at which the infant acquires its sense of itself as whole and separate, the point at which the possibility of sexual subjectivity-indeed subjectivity as such-is opened up. As Lacan (1977a) recounts it, the moment is one of a “triumphant jubilation and playful discovery that characterize … the child’s encounter with his image in the mirror” (p. 18), an encounter that sets the scene for a disavowal of the early infant body as it now figures retrospectively in the imaginary as wounded and disorganized. Yet, as Debra Bergoffen (2000) points out, the infant

reads its original experience of embodiment through the lens of the later imago to call it fragmented and uncoordinated rather than exuberant and polymorphous. The adult, orienting itself round the legacy of the imago, reads its experience of the ambiguous body through the lens of the ego to call it threatening rather than exhilarating [p. 103; italics added].

Now although what Bergoffen is addressing explicitly at this point is the question of how the inauguration of gender is linked to the desires at play in what she calls “the metonymic-imaginary game” (2000, p. 103) of the mirror, her remarks recall other dimensions. As I have already outlined, it is surely possible to surmise that what is at stake here is the formation of a cultural imaginary in which the disabled body-precisely in its incompletion, ambiguity and uncoordination-is rejected or disavowed. But is there any chink in the armor of the normative subject that could make it otherwise? Is the anxious-yet, insofar as fascination remains, psychically incomplete-putting aside of the body that lacks wholeness and unity an unavoidable step for the developing sexed and gendered subject, or simply one possible trajectory among others? The wider issue is whether the normative framing of the psychoanalytic account represents the limits of its intelligibility, or simply a contingent closure that can be opened up to a different reading.

Unlike Lacan, for whom the early phase of infancy indeed appears beset by negativity and danger, Freud (1905) presents the same lack of coherent impulses in a more positive light. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” he sets out his theory of polymorphous perversity as the originary capacity of the infant to take sexual pleasure in every part of his or her own body. Before the ideally sequential development of erotogenic zones of the body-the oral, the anal and the genital stages-Freud’s proposition is that the body’s surface is undifferentiated in its facility for sexual excitation. In origin, then, sexuality is highly versatile and plastic. Subsequent libidinal investments in specific loci are the result not of some natural instinct but of an intensification of affect and meaning that is both accidental and regulated. The turning away from all but sexually differentiated genital sexuality in the face of “shame, disgust and morality” (p. 28, n. 2) is a development that fixes adult sexuality as the outcome of a process of repression about which Freud himself is increasingly ambivalent. Even at the time of the relatively early appearance of the collected “Three Essays” in 1905, when Freud was cautious in his approach to so controversial an issue, he drew the conclusion from his study of childhood sexuality (albeit one based on the analysis of adult patients) that:

a disposition to perversions is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct and that normal sexual behaviour is developed out of it as a result of organic changes and psychical inhibitions occurring in the course of maturation [p. 97].

In other words, the distinction between perverse and “normal” sexuality is far from clear-cut, and moreover, the latter cannot be thought without the former. What Freud meant by “perversions” were simply sexual activities that engaged with parts of the body or other material entities beyond those “designed for sexual union”, or that lingered in an intermediary stage in relation to the sexual object (1905, p. 16). And where in childhood, such perversions were seen as innate, their reappearance in adulthood is considered problematic only insofar as they signal incomplete libidinal substitution, or more specifically a failure of repression. Yet, it is repression not perversion that produces neurosis; as Freud(1905) puts it: “Neurosis is the negative of perversion” (p. 104). In short, although genital heterosexuality may represent an ideal, it could be considered in the mode of a neurosis, while equally the openness of non-normative sexuality may take on a far more positive light.

The difficulty is that despite Freud’s own ambivalence, the psychoanalytic position remains unsympathetic to the appeal of polymorphous pleasures. It is committed to seeing such “erotogenic zones as nostalgic reminiscences of a preoedipal, infantile bodily organization …[and] seeing the multiplicity of libidinal sites in terms of regression” (Grosz, 1995, p. 1999). In the Freudian scenario, both psychic and ideological operations are clearly at stake, and Freud insists that repression of the plethora of sexual objects in infancy is the necessary dimension of advanced organized societies in general. Nonetheless, it is not clear on a socio-cultural level why the supposedly universal prohibition on incest as the founding repression-which effectively instantiates sexual difference and the heterosexual matrix-should also entail the abandonment of other less potentially disruptive elements of polymorphous pleasure. If at the psychic level, the castration complex and its resolution represent the mechanism by which desire for the mother is effectively covered over, then what is it that inhibits the expression of alternative forms of desire that speak not to prohibited relations between normatively embodied subjects but to differential forms of embodiment? Short of falling back on the principle that all forms of desire are mobilized by loss of the mother-which would not explain why heteronormative desire should alone escape censure-the appeal to psychic and social stability, and its implicit acceptance of regulatory controls, appears overplayed. What this might seem to suggest is that were the parameters of appropriate adult sexuality less rigidly defined, if the polymorphous nature of sexuality were not suppressed, then there would be a place for alternative forms of sexuality without a perceived loss of psychic well-being. We might, indeed, even expect an exuberance that marked the lessening of the anxiety generated by incomplete repression. The potential implications for a more positive model of sexuality specifically with regard to disability are considerable, for were the plasticity of sexuality to be acknowledged rather than repressed, then those whose bodily difference may quite literally preclude them to a greater or lesser extent from normative forms of sexual practice would not be denied expression. The circulation of desire and the partial satisfactions of pleasure would be as much the unremarkable province of people with disabilities as they are for the able-bodied majority, rather than the site of overt disgust and shame.

Nonetheless, just as Liz Grosz (1995) concludes, in her attempt to theorize feminine and more specifically lesbian desire, that psychoanalysis cannot escape its conventional framing in masculinist sexuality, I am inclined to doubt that the Freudian/Lacanian model could be sufficiently reconfigured to go beyond the assumption of normative embodiment. Moreover, even were such a shift of emphasis possible, would the turn to polymorphous pleasures be enough to finally disturb the psychical link between desire and loss? By way of contrast, the decisive rejection of psychoanalysis enacted by Deleuze and Guattari (1984, 1987) enables them to reconceptualize desire in terms of its productivity, and by implication sexuality as a matter of flows, energies, and capacities that could always be otherwise. The disorganized body that Lacan sees as the impossibility of stabilizing a unified self who will become a subject in the Symbolic is rewritten precisely as the body-without-organs, the body that far from signalling separation and distinction persists only by making connections in the flux and flow of desire that is without either a fixed aim or object. It is, among other things, a turn towards the positivity of intercorporeality rather than an anxiety about its dangerous significations. Above all, desire itself-though no more filled and closed down than in the rival model-is no longer figured in terms of lack but is always directed outwards to establish ever renewed libidinal zones that, as Grosz (1995) writes, “are continually in the process of being produced, renewed, transformed, through experimentation, practices, innovations, the accidents or contingencies of life itself (p. 199). Perhaps it is here that the conjunction between disability and sexuality could be more positively rethought, although it may not be fruitful to pose the problematic in terms of an either/or choice between Lacan and Deleuze. If we are to gain both some understanding of what mobilizes anxiety-albeit often in the form of fascination-in the normatively embodied majority, and a fuller expression of the sexual potential within disability, then clearly much work remains to be done. For now what matters is that whichever approach is preferred, the whole area of sexuality and desire that has been largely unspoken, and particularly so outside the growing influence of critical disability studies, should be opened up to innovative ways of thinking that go beyond the familiar and stultifying binaries of the cultural imaginary. Any new sexual discourse carries a certain disruptive danger, but it is a danger that all of us, however we are embodied, should be willing to embrace.