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Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

Reflections on Disability, Capitalism, and Time

In Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Philosophical Musings on March 23, 2015 at 9:00 AM

“Don’t worry, it’ll happen. Just give it some time.”

“But you’re so young. You’ve got plenty of time to try things out.”

“We’re young, though. We’ve got plenty of time before we have to deal with that.”

As a single young adult with an invisible, chronic degenerative condition, these are some of the most unnerving comments that I hear all the time, however banal and unordinary they seem. I hear them especially as a first-year graduate student, a time when the possibilities are supposedly vast and unpredictable, if not entirely “endless.” And as a twentysomething, I have these comments directed at me both from other young adults as well as those who are older, often with the assumption that age is inherently synonymous with a range of life opportunities that are only possible because of time.

To me, such comments are illustrative of how a certain normative standard of temporality is so consistently invoked, rendered so commonplace, that it is beyond noticeability or scrutiny. Unless we’re confronted with clear, visible instances of a bifurcated futurity in youth—say, someone with a terminable health condition—we generally go about our day with unquestioned and prefabricated assumptions about how human life should unfold across our linear version of time.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions and counterarguments, such as that neither youth nor old age are the same for everyone, across all geographical and cultural contexts. We see instances of how standardized periodizations of age are called into question, for example, when examining the culturally divergent definitions of ‘adulthood’—of what it constitutes and when it starts—or the social construction of adolescence. But the dominant time and age-related assumptions are nevertheless there, codified into our social institutions and reproduced in our colloquial expectations.

Although we are conditioned into thinking of it as an absolute and natural given, a mere backdrop against which social events unfold, I would agree with others that time, like space, is socially constructed. We’ve made decisions on how to read it–say, along axes of terrestrial movements using a sexagesimal system and a Gregorian calendar—and how such time is to be “spent” (an allusion to the naturalized connection between productivity, consumption, and time). Histories are made and remade, and our relationship to them shapes our sense of the future as well as our identities and experiences in the present.

And as with other facets of our social existence, the political economy has been instrumental to the ways we conceptualize time, humanity, and the trajectories of life. It’s worth remembering that the production of our first time-telling instruments was driven, in large part, by the needs of agricultural production. The advent of capitalism accelerated the changes as efficiency, productivity, and time became especially intertwined—a fact that was well noted by the so-called founders of sociology, particularly Marx, Weber, and Simmel.

I bring up this social history to highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of how we temporalize life into discrete parameters and periodizations that are far from “natural.” Capitalist time has performed an incredible feat in measuring virtually everything against time-based markers of efficiency, a fact seen most cruelly today in the way neoliberal logic uses quantifiable metrics to convert schools into test-taking factories, bodies into malleable overtime engines, and brains into calculating computers. Even in our dominant allopathic healthcare, the logic of capitalist time is used in the treatment of bodies as machines, with an increasing trend toward “specialization” turning organs or bodily systems into isolatable cogs and pinwheels.

For people with disabilities or chronic conditions, such parsing of time under this logic continually works against us as our bodies are said to “betray” us. We internalize the idea of failure when we can’t all measure up to the same standards of productivity and efficiency, and rather than devoting our limited energies to living life within a still-enriching range of possibilities, we are punished through de facto institutions of punishment and control: incarceration, hospitalization, or a regulatory “welfare” and its inordinate criteria of eligibility. (Those institutions, as it turns out, have their own alternate temporalities that involve “checking out” from the typical spatial and temporal conditions of the working masses.)

That said, when speaking of the ways in which time doesn’t “work in my favor,” I speak of the perverse ways in which social institutions and everyday expectations of normalized life trajectories make it difficult to live life with my particular set of abilities, skills, and interests. Being coerced into making decisions that align with certain pre-planned futurities, I find it difficult to peg any decisions around future-bounded notions of “climbing the ladder” or “starting the journey” of a career—not to mention those temporalized notions of partner-finding and family-making—when I can’t even be certain of my ability to wake up or pull myself out of bed the next morning. Living with a degenerative condition, I exist in a much different temporality marked by daily, sometimes hourly, unpredictabilities–a temporality that relates unevenly with the presumed “willing and able” logic of long-term work projects or social expectations. Given the nature of the condition, I’m unlikely to see the sort of “rewards,” like certain job opportunities or social accomplishments, that capitalist time tells us to wait for.

Sure, we can talk about how such “uncertainty” is true for all of us, that we can all get struck by a bus tomorrow. But with a disabling chronic condition, those questions of the future are always weighted against the very real possibilities of a changing body in an unaccommodating world. Although I have dreams for the future like everyone else, when I’m reminded of how my in-pained present was the future at one point, I’m also reminded that the future is far from being a limitless or delayable abstraction.

Indeed, it is this tendency toward ‘delay’ that permeates our social life that I see as pivotally hinged to the logic of capitalist time. We justify excessive and exploitative work conditions in the present using obscure promises based on ‘delayed’ rewards and ambiguous futures. (“Don’t worry, you continue working this hard, and you’ll get there.”) We ‘delay’ our attention to issues like climate change or death-promoting destruction in the global south, pointing to all the work that needs to be done before we get to those luxurious issues. If we only had all the time in the world, we would provide that helping hand.

All of which leads me to wonder: why are we so busy in the first place?

Oh, right. All that work.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time "running out" uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time “running out” uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

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