Jonathan Sterne on his book, Diminished Faculties

Interview by Toni Nieminen

Toni Nieminen: First, congratulations on Diminished Faculties, what a wonderful read it was! I find your form of writing very interesting. The mixing of different voices and genre-specific stances, that you flag through linguistic and stylistic means, is such a creative way to engage with the reflexivity of one’s positionality as a researcher. Two examples stand out: in chapter three you provide counterexamples to the historically and ideologically constructed, yet compulsorily imagined connection between voice and the mouth, by constructing an imaginary art exhibition (where the reader is being seduced by textually expressed sensorial nuances) and then you end the book by providing an impairment handbook to the reader rather than a conventional conclusory discussion. Both passages are brilliant. Could you elaborate on where you came up with the idea to style your book in this way, where are you drawing inspiration from? What possibilities for and limits to academic writing does such a form gesture at?

Jonathan Sterne: Thank you for reading, thank you for the kind words, and thank you for these great prompts to think more about this work. A couple general thoughts on style. Someone told me that this is in some ways very much a “full professor” book. I don’t think I could have written Diminished Faculties in my early 30s, when I wrote Audible Past; maybe someone else could have, but not me. Disability Studies has also changed a lot over the last decade and a half. There is much more work on technology and media, and some of the theoretical discussions have really taken major steps forward.

Both chapters that you mention actually began from stylistic impasses. With the help of research assistants and friends, I had collected a large body of artwork and art-adjacent representation of the voice that was in a sense beyond the mouth for Chapter 3. It was meant as part of the same project as Chapter 2, since that’s all about the dork-o-phone displacing the point of emanation for the voice. I have a few close art historian colleagues and the original plan was to write something about it all in the visual culture studies tradition. But I couldn’t come up with a good thesis. At the same time, I was really looking for a way to extend my critique of the ideology of vocal ability. So I tried a show-and-tell approach.  At first the art exhibit was a conceit, but it got more and more serious. After the first round of review, Zoe de Luca, who designed the layout, suggested I take it really seriously. A writing discipline like that always works really well for me. So, we borrowed the layout from another museum and designed the exhibit which she drew, and Darsha Hewitt re-drew. Darsha is an artist who does a lot with sound technology, but also has a drawing practice. Then I rewrote the chapter in the second person, like an exhibition guide. It was also an interesting exercise in representing accessibility in image description and the like.

The conclusion presented other interesting challenges. The original version of the book ended with Ya-Ya vomiting on me and the haiku at the end of Chapter 5. That’s how I wanted it to end, but all the reviewers wanted a conclusion. I asked friends and my social media feeds: what are the best conclusions to academic books you’ve ever read?  It was crickets! At least in my constellation of fields, conclusions aren’t a high art form. I had recently read Jenn Lena’s Entitled: Discriminatory Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts, which has a fantastic conclusion in part because it doesn’t really have an expansive introduction. I realize I was in the same situation. But while I wanted a didactic conclusion, I didn’t want it to look like a mirror function of an introduction. In my other work, I am often reading technical writing and documents, and of course there is also a tradition of workshops, workbooks, and such in gender and sexuality studies. So, I don’t know exactly how I came to the user’s guide idea, but once I did, I decided to follow it as meticulously as possible, just like in the imaginary exhibition chapter. It is in some ways the perfect didactic form for this project. I asked Darsha to illustrate because she’s skilled in technical drawing, and I liked the illustrations in the Madrona Labs software instrument manuals, which are in turn derived from the manual for the Buchla Music Easel, an early portable synthesizer. But it wound up going a whole other direction: the illustrations are all Darsha and not really modelled on either manual. I might someday have a book on obsolescence in me as I have been fascinated with the phenomenon of user manuals for new products that include instructions for disposal, so that also had to be in there.

Toni Nieminen: In the book, you argue that illness, impairment, disability, and debility are all conditioned by a divergence from medical or social norms as well as by an ideology that always prefers ability. You gesture at how this preference might be political but is more precisely orientational – that is, felt, lived, and negotiated – an argument I find convincing. However, you choose to center impairment and decenter disability in your analysis. Can you elaborate on this choice; how does it reflect your own positionality and what do you expect to either add to or play down within the social model of disability, and by extension Crip studies, by focusing on impairment?

Jonathan Sterne: I think the benefit is a) a wider net to capture aspects of debility and disability that aren’t always at the foreground elsewhere in the field and b) a more vigorously constructivist and realist account of the material and experiential dimensions of both categories like disability, debility, and impairment. I am hardly the first person to note the constructedness of impairment as a category, and yet, one still finds a lot of writing in the field that holds on to a nonconstructed basis for disability. Concepts like Tobin Siebers’ complex embodiment and Alison Kafer’s political/relational model try and synthesize the fact that things like pain are real, and that disability is ultimately tied up with cultural classification, histories of institutionalization and stigma, and politics. I am convinced by that perspective, but what often happens in practice is that ideas that used to be mapped onto disability, like “the inability to do something” are simply displaced onto impairment.

All that said, I wrote the book to sit on the shelf next to lots of books about disability. I wouldn’t want to privilege impairment or decenter disability beyond my text or as some kind of general theoretical principal or political commitment. It’s part of a massive mosaic.

To answer the me part of your question, Diminished Faculties necessarily bears the marks of my own positionality. When I began the book, I wasn’t even sure of my own place in the various orbits of impairment and disability; that status changed during writing as I went on my cancer meds, and I am now as clear as one can be about my own identifications. That’s one of the reasons why it’s written as it is: it is not a book about my trauma, my grief, my therapy (apart from speech therapy) or my own marginalization. Textually, I feel like that is space better occupied by others. As my blog shows, I’m not a terribly private person, but there’s a difference when I’m writing for a scholarly conversation. My contribution is more circumspect, intentionally. It is deliberately intellectualizing some dimensions of experience. But it also reflects my own intellectual and political biases. It took a lot to get me to the point of writing about myself for others. I was dragged back into phenomenology while shuttling in and out of consciousness in both the personal and political senses of the term. It sort of happened to me. Friends really had to encourage me to write the first part of the book; I was reluctant. And at first, I also resisted phenomenology—someone actually had to tell me to accept that this is what I was doing.

That also put me in a very good position to recursively apply the theory of disability to the theory of disability: so much writing in disability studies is resolutely affirmative regarding disability experience, and implicitly operates as if that experience is immediately available to the person having it, even as the same scholarship mounts a vigorous critique of the ideology of ability. Almost all of the great disability studies mounts a critique of the self-sufficient subject, but in the field, we still often suspect that critique when discussing categories of experience. Along with everything else, we need a place from which to interrogate the category of experience, which is one of the through-lines of Diminished Faculties. Because I’m privileged enough that (at least in this text) my experience doesn’t require an additional demand for validation, I was in a good position to experiment with that and consider the problem. That’s my job in this book. It is definitely a moment of looking inward, rather than outward. Other writers have other agendas: I don’t think it would be fair to place that particular interrogatory burden on top of Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics, Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access, or Michele Friedner’s Sensory Futures.  

Toni Nieminen: You argue that phenomenologists are better off thinking of experience as something conditioned by contextuality and situationality rather than universality. However, and this might sound like a conventional counterargument to such a statement, to state something about anything requires some universally-ish mediated and shared categories of experience in order for communication and interaction to take place. What is your take on this dualism, and how can impairment phenomenology be modelled and geared to support a political struggle for Disability justice (if this is even the point), which as a political movement – despite being a cluster of multiple, spatially and temporally located ones – has historically drawn upon collectively and publicly shared notions of experience?

Jonathan Sterne: I don’t think you need a universal category or agreement for communication to happen. You need some kind of alignment among positions in order for agreement about reality to happen, that someone reading me will think I mean what I think I mean. But that’s not universality. Differences in positionality also produce communication, though it may be a form of productive understanding or conflict. Disability studies is particularly fertile ground for phenomenology and for communication theory because the experiences of disability are so radically different. For instance, I have lots of shared political affinities with autistic people, but I’m pretty damn allistic, so phenomenologically, we are pretty far apart. I absolutely love Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism but the first time I read it I Did Not Get It. I had to work at it. Similarly, I find the writings in Deaf Studies very illuminating for my work on sound, but I have a very different experience of and relationship to my own hearing.

I’m no social movement scholar, but as far as I can tell, the Disability justice movement is more about shared political goals and affiliations. I think those probably come more out of shared classification, and in some cases voluntary identification. People claim disability for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they may want to; other times they may have to as a form of self-advocacy; other times they may have no choice. Still others never claim the term at all, as Alison Kafer reminds us.

I’ve moved in both worlds, and sometimes the intellectual necessities are fundamentally different. Sometimes the alignments aren’t clear until after the fact. Sometimes scholarship and activism can work in concert. In this way, disability studies is like other fields that have emerged as a response to political projects: there isn’t one ideal alignment between scholarship and activism. I wouldn’t want “immediate usefulness to activists” as a litmus test for scholarship, just as I wouldn’t want “theoretical correctness” as a litmus test for activism.

As an activist, one needs a theory of the situations in which they are operating, a theory of change, a theory of communication, and a theory of practice. These all change depending on context, positionality, prior experience, and so on. That kind of theoretical work emerges more from practice and mentorship in the first instance and can be enhanced with reading.

Sometimes scholarship can speak directly to those needs, as in action-research, or collaborative work. Sometimes the connections are orthogonal and surprising, which is also good and important. But scholarship also affords the opportunity from a retreat from some of the pressures and immediacies in which activists find themselves. At the same time, it is often more caught up with the politics of knowledge. This has been my experience touring Diminished Faculties. Because of my prior work, I’ve found myself with audiences who know almost nothing about disability or disability studies. I also find that talking about disability to disabled audiences is also an important moment for political work within the academy: it’s about transforming spaces that have historically been structured around ableism.

Toni Nieminen: Your book can be posited as an auto-ethnographic account in that your own experiences of living with cancer have shaped and enabled you to think about experience in a fragmented way, whereby change and contingency become the point of departure in experience and perception. Considering some criticisms of auto-ethnographic writing (who gets to say what, when and why), do you reserve impairment phenomenology for those living with impairments, or is it accessible also to the non-impaired? If so, how does the project change in the process? Further, and this is something you gesture towards in the concluding handbook, do you think that impairment phenomenology can be used as a research tool across disciplines?

Jonathan Sterne: This is a fantastic question! I think about this a lot. Who can and should write about impairment and disability? Anybody can. More people should. All are welcome. But as the saying goes, “nothing about us without us.” Writing about disability starts with reading work in disability studies. There is an awful lot of sanctioned ignorance among ableds, which is how you get neo-eugenic access policies and disability simulations, as well as scholarship that uses or engages with disability from an ableist frameworks. So, the first step is struggling to overcome that sanctioned ignorance.

I don’t think there should be a passport for writing about anyone, but there is a responsibility to the group you are studying, and a moral requirement of social solidarity if you are in a privileged position with respect to them. In the humanities this is often personalized around the charisma and ethos of the intellectual—as in, to be wrong is to be morally deficient. I hate that, but I also understand it. For disabled people, the emotional stakes can be amplified because the personal and political are commingled, and we are so often represented by others against our will, especially in institutional contexts. Our challenge as scholars is to resist this impulse to completely personalize position-taking, while being attentive to the fact that universities and the field of academic writing are very ableist spheres, which often crowd out and systemically exclude disabled people. Right now in universities, we have a situation where most of the claims to putative expertise on disability come from nondisabled people. We have to ask how such a fucked-up result came to pass and what it will take to transform that situation. We need to deal with this in concert with other challenges our institutions are facing around their ongoing racist, colonialist, cis-sexist, and heterosexist histories. It is perennially unfinished work.

As I mention above, I don’t use the label auto-ethnographic for Diminished Faculties, though I’m also a believer in Barthes’ “author is dead” thesis, and others will categorize me as they like and I’m fine with that. My resistance to the term is that I think all ethnography involves the position of the ethnographer (so ethnography without a reflexive turn on the ethnographer is bad ethnography). There’s also a systematicity and intentionality to ethnographic research that’s absent in Diminished Faculties. It’s a very fragmented text both in terms of subject matter and method.

Toni Nieminen: I like how you describe fatigueness not as a medical outcome but as a relational phenomenon and an act of refusal. Can this reading of fatigueness be aligned with other impairments and what does this tell us about the reality of refusal more broadly? Here, I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts about disabilities and impairments other than those you discuss in your book, that is, fatigueness, hearing or speaking – for example, how about neurodivergence?

Jonathan Sterne: On one level, I think there is a specificity to all disabilities (and all theory) that can’t be ignored. My training in cultural studies kicks in and I’m always tempted to say, “this is not meant as a universal theory; it’s a set of ideas that can be transported and transformed, or abandoned as needed.” Impairment theory is at best inspirational literature. Neurodivergence and fatigue are pretty different, and both fall both inside and outside the parameters of disability, depending on what we’re talking about.

At the same time, fatigue phenomenology also highlights the weight of the world that brings people to a political position of refusal more broadly. In that sense, it might help elucidate a dimension of the politics of refusal that has been generally downplayed, because of the affirmative politics of self-assertion in most texts that perform refusal. I understand the necessity and even urgency of that work. As with my comments on impairment above, my hope is that this would sit next to other texts on refusal, not supplant them.

From the disability studies side, many impairments and disabilities might also have their own possibilities for a politics of “already having refused”; or a politics that is somehow complementary to that framing. Autistic writing often comments on the absurdity of neurotypical social life; one could read refusal into that without too much effort. Depression and ADHD also have elements of refusal built into their modalities of interacting with the world. Though these are also great examples of the limits of universalizing my theory: to take an example from ADHD—and I’m writing as a neurotypical here—my sense from talking with people and reading is that a phenomenological state like hyperfocus requires its own theorization. It could be read as a kind of refusal, but maybe it’s better understood as some kind of hypercommitment?  I don’t know. I definitely hope to explore these questions in more depth.

Thanks also to Meesh Fradkin for comments on a draft of my responses.