Distraction Free Reading

Becoming More Capable

We need to exercise the imagination in order to elbow away at the conditions of im/possibility.

Ingunn Moser & John Law (1999, 174)

What is it to be capable? How might we elbow away the conditions that limit ability, to become more capable?

In this short piece, I take seriously Rebekah’s invitation to account for “different ways of doing, acting, and living in the world.” The anthropological imperative to “take into account difference” and consider how objects “intersect with social worlds, imaginaries and emergent social practices” speaks to my ongoing efforts to engage with the long and troubled relationship between technology and dis/ability. Specifically, it resonates with my work that asks what, if anything, artificial intelligence (AI) might offer the blind and vision impaired.[1]

In this post, I draw on disability studies, science and technology studies (STS), and feminist technoscience to make space for an idea of capability that I’ve found especially generative in rethinking this pairing of ability and technology, and in asking what AI could be good for.[2] Also, I find works like that of CASTAC contributor Shreeharsh Kelkar to be valuable in critically examining what AI introduces to the technosocial assemblages of work, entertainment and leisure, and the boundaries enacted in/through such configurations. Like Shreeharsh, I hesitate to define, again, what counts as AI. Turning things around, my concern is for a capability achieved with others, and what the possibility of becoming capable together might mean for designing AI-with-dis/ability differently.

The accomplishment of capability

The commonly referred to deficit model in disability studies presents an especially worrying version of capability.[3] This version places the individual along a spectrum of ability, where what he or she can or cannot do defines him/her as more or less capable.[4] Thus, blindness and vision impairment are indicative of an absence of ability. Worse still, if being human is defined by a set of pre-defined abilities that constitute a ‘prototypical body’, then any absence conjures up the image of an actor who is less-than-human.

It’s this version of capability that Charles Goodwin troubles in his analysis of the conversations between an aphasic man, Chil, and his family (Goodwin 2004; Goodwin, Goodwin & Olsher 2002). Chil has only three words in his vocabulary: ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘and’. In a ‘formal linguistics’, Goodwin argues, Chil, with such a limited repertoire of words, “might seem an atypical, marginal figure for the study of human language, a defective actor who can be easily ignored without theoretical loss” (2004, 152). The “psychological and neurological structures necessary for linguistic competence are to be found” in the “mental life” of the speaker, and thus Chil is defined by a bodily absence, an individual deficit (2004, 153).[5]

However, in actual talk, Chil shows himself to be a competent and adept conversationalist. Goodwin details how communicative features such as ‘nonsense’ syllable use, prosody, intonation, turn-taking, and interactional, embodied resources like gaze and posture, are used by Chil to not just participate in ongoing conversational talk, but initiate and direct such talk himself.

The trouble with the deficit model of dis/ability is that it presents a version of capability that presumes a ‘normal’ human, and a deviation or absence of some ability, such as a limited lexicon, to be indicative of a “defective actor.” Yet this captures nothing of the mutual accomplishment of capability where such things as talk must be understood as emergent phenomena, achieved in concert, with the involvement from others and a range of situational resources in-action. In the deficit model, capability is judged comparatively, always against some notional normative figure, always with an absence or lack that detracts from a ‘pure’ or ‘genuine’ presence in the world. It gives no room for capability as achieved: how all of us might come to be capable in and through worlds strewn with ‘continuities and discontinuities’, and through ‘good and bad passages’ (Moser and Law 1999).

“It’s the world”

In my own fieldwork, I have found this idea of a deficit in ability troubled in a similar way. One informant, Jerry, compared how people ‘take in information’ who have been blind from birth (as he has) with those who have recently lost their vision:

We have a shared method I suppose of taking in information… It’s not… I don’t have to spend that time imagining the visual switch… They refer to the world that they live in as being like living in a fog, you know, nothing’s very clear. But I never had that feeling that my world is a fog. It’s the world.

I’m struck here by Jerry’s allusion to a world that is not forever placed in contrast to another. The ‘shared method’ is about collectively coming to be capable—living a life not dominated by a loss (“a fog”), but by being/becoming capable in/with the world. Another informant, Sarah, offered a concrete example:

I was quite young when I learnt to take other cues. You know, people’s voice, what they sound like, how much they’re talking, are they suddenly really quiet [when] they’re normally really chatty, that they’re just not quite themselves. But the idea of catching someone’s eye across the room, that’s a foreign language to me. I just don’t even know what… I can in theory know what that means but in practice even if your head is facing towards me I don’t know who you’re talking to necessarily.”

For Sarah, a visual cue—catching someone’s eye—is other-worldly. This could highlight an absence in Sarah, the fog she lives in, a deficit in ability; yet it feels more genuine to say she has become capable in/with a world that is other-than-visual.[6] Dis/ability and what renders one more or less capable is afforded through a continual attunement in a world with others.

Jerry’s and Sarah’s reflections—that say so much to me about worlds that are other-than-sighted—bring to mind two related threads of work. One is a moving series of works from the artist Sophie Calle. In photos, videos and stories, Calle has people ponder on colour (“La Couleur Aveugle”) and beauty (“Les Aveugles”), and first and last sights (“Pour La Dernière et Pour La Première Fois”). Not all of those people Calle collaborates with are blind—some are seeing things for the first time (“Voir la mer”)—but in each case the audience is invited to rethink the relations between person, experience and sight, and imagine worlds that are more-than-sighted and actively brought into being.

How can we think capability and dis/ability beyond the human “normal”? | Image public domain

A second related thread that reminds us of our active presence in the world is one which resonates with “the arts of feminist speculative fabulation” (Haraway 2016) and provides significantly different versions of capability to work with. In particular, it brings to mind Donna Haraway’s fabulations of human-machine entanglements and multi-species companionship, and also Vinciane Despret’s lively stories with animals (e.g. 2016; 2013). Haraway equips us with generative ways of imagining worlds actively brought into being, of composites of actors (of all kinds) defined not by “bounded utilitarian individualism” (Haraway 2016), but by becoming-with each other.

Such versions of capability give us so much more to work with: dis/ability not constrained by the imagined limits of what it is to be human, and rendered more capable by the conditions, the practices and the assemblages of actors (of all kinds).

So what if we—those of us who think and live with dis/ability—found ourselves able to work with capability along these lines? How might we approach dis/ability, and imagine new stories of technology and dis/ability? This is not the place to speculate on these imaginaries, but I argue it puts a different onus on emerging technologies like AI. The versions of technosocial fabulations we might begin to tell here are not of the repair or replacement of vision (or other deficits in ability) but of enlarging what and how we become-capable-with, become more capable.


Despret, Vinciane. 2016. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? London: University of Minnesota Press.

Despret, Vinciane. 2013. From secret agents to interagency. History and Theory 52(4): 29–44.

Goodwin, Charles. 2004. A Competent Speaker Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Aphasia. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14(2): 151–170.

Goodwin, Charles, Goodwin, Marjorie H., & Olsher, David. (2002). Producing Sense with Nonsense Syllables: Turn and Sequence in Conversations with a Man with Severe Aphasia. In Cecilia E. Ford, Barbara A. Fox, & Sandra A. Thompson (Eds.), The Language of Turn and Sequence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. London: Duke University Press.

Moser, Ingunn. 2005. On becoming disabled and articulating alternatives. Cultural Studies 19(6): 667-700.

Moser, Ingunn and Law, John. 1999. Good passages, bad passages. The Sociological Review 47(S1), 196–219.

End notes

[1] I owe a deep thanks to Cynthia Bennett, Cecily Morrison and Anja Thieme for much of my thinking on disability and also contributing to the fieldwork we have undertaken so far.

[2] This research should be situated in an industrial research setting in which AI and machine learning are (again) in their ascendency, treated as a driving force behind innovation. However, for the sake of brevity, I won’t linger here on this peculiar cocktail of research and corporate driven innovation, one that I’m well aware will raise more than a few eyebrows.

[3] I use version in this piece with reference to Despret’s use of the word, and specifically her contrast between version and vision. See Despret’s explanation in her interview published here: Buchanan, Brett, Chrulew, Matthew, & Bussolini, Jeffery. (2015). On Asking the Right Questions. Angelaki 20(2): 169.

[4] For an examination of ‘spectrum’ as a conceptual device (and, specifically, as it pertains to autism) see Thomas, H. and Boellstorff , T. (2017). Beyond the Spectrum: Rethinking Autism. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(1).

[5] Likewise, Moser provides us with a range of cases in which people with constrained mobility, dementia, and so on come to be capable through their emerging relations with things, with chairs, computers, food, music, etc. See, for example: Moser, Ingunn. 2011. Dementia and the Limits to Life: Anthropological Sensibilities, STS Interferences, and Possibilities for Action in Care. Science, Technology & Human Values 36(5): 704–722.

[6] I’m reminded here of Clifford Geertz’s celebrated wink. The wink does its work because of the world in which it is produced. Without that world, it means very little. Geertz, Clifford. 1994. Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In, Michael Martin and Lee C. McIntyre (Eds.) Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 213-231.

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