Volume Eight, Issue 1
Reading boots: Reading difference
Nancy Viva Davis Halifax [*
But for the reader who is open to it,
the lyrical text provides a
representation of human mutability and particularity in their most
vivid form. This
encounter forces us to face two things: first, that we, too, are
particular, and second, that our here and now are radically different
from those of which we read. –Abbott, 2007
Performative writing turns the
personal into the political and the
political into the personal. It starts with the recognition that
individual bodies provide a potent data base for understanding the
political and that hegemonic systems write on individual bodies. This
is, of course, only to articulate what feminists have understood for
years: The personal is political. – Pelias,
, p. 420.
Figure 1. “Portrait of a pair of boots.”
These scuffed, black leather boots, the subject of my reverie, disclose
an aspect of disability, reveal how worlds are shaped through the
materials and objects that accompany us in daily life. These boots
disclose the individual as well as the cultural and social world that
we live within. The tact that I take as I move closer to them, as I put
them on, includes lyrical inquiry. Lyrical inquiry allows me to make
particular sorts of truth claims. “A lyrical writer aims to tell us of
his or her intense reaction to some portion of the social process seen
in a moment” (Abbott, 2007 p.76). Herein,
I am exploring an artifact, which
through a considered series of encounters allows me to better
understand the marking of the anomalous body. These scuffed, black
leather boots disclose an aspect of disability, a shaping of a social
world through their material emplacement within it.
What I have noted over my years of observing is that people often have
shoes or boots that are mirror image twins. “Look down at your feet and
you can see them, look across the way, and see the boots that person
over there is wearing.” The boots in this photograph (Figure 1) would
be fraternal twins, with the inherent ambiguity of something that is
and yet is not. Twinned, yet not identical although they came into the
world that way. Lyrical inquiry is filled with ambiguity, akin
anomalous body, which discovers wildness as medicine attempts
symmetrical certainty. There is a disruption as these boots and this
body, stride into the world. Lines of discourse, of power relations,
are interrupted. Lyrical inquiry is a form for those who “often have
had little opportunity to see their experiences through their own lens
or write them in the forms in which they want to be represented”
(Neilsen, 2007 p.98). It allows me to
tell about these boots, to find their
poetics as it relates to this body. These boots are a form of body
writing as they connect the walking that is necessary to my writing, to
“the particular ground on which we walk” (Abram cited in Neilsen, 2007, p.
The language I use is expressive, each word resonant with potential for
engagement. “The impact […] can be achieved with resonance” (Neilsen, 2007,
p. 94) and we can achieve an inclusionary scholarly practice that is
not reductive but connective. Like deFreitas (2007) I sense that “Readers are
more willing to playfully interpret, critique, and imagine otherwise
when reading an explicitly arts-informed narrative” (p. 336).
Stomp it out.
The knowledge from this body dances
Or lumbers, depending on the day,
And which foot tramps forward.
I am a teacher, writer, arts-informed inquirer in the field of critical
disability studies. The tradition of my work as I perceive it
necessitates a lyrical writing (Cixous, 1976,
Ferris, 2008, Neilsen,
2007) a feminist
consciousness, an awareness of anomalous embodiment (Shildrick) and a
poetics of social justice (Hartnett). In this weaving I perform a
meditation on a particular aspect of my autobiography that reaches
beyond this body to those of others. The personal is political.
A poetics of social justice differs from a politics of social justice
in its expression but not in its content or will. Perhaps for some it
is easier to say that politics and poetics are different rather than
similar, that the body of the poet is not a political body. Hartnett
suggests that we must engage our deep desire for social justice by
“foregrounding ethical concerns, commit to structural analyses of
ethical problems, adopt[ing] an activist orientation, and seek[ing]
identification with other” (2003, p.
6). Furthermore he reminds me of Elaine
Scarry and her imperative that scholars cultivate “a reverence for the
work of the imagination” (2003, p.
My tasks are at times clear and unambiguous as stated by Estella
Conwill Majozo: “To search for the good and make it matter: This is the
real challenge for the artist. Not simply to transform ideas or
revelations into matter, but to make those revelations actually
matter.” And the challenge for the messy scholar? The one who carries
art across the threshold into her office making it into a studio or
writing room? She is the one blurring the lines, creatrice. She
embodies the ambiguities, emotions, and tensions that arise between
language and action through her gestures, language and thought that has
not yet found form. Her world encompasses multiplicity, fluidity, the
intersectional and anomalous aspects of embodiment that are not always
visible. Her work insists we exist on a fluid continuum.
Yet she hesitates to speak.
Holds a finger to her lips to slow the passage of words.
Let them come one at a time.
I am trying to find a language to present this world of the body,
including its affective moments, to create a picture of the poetics and
politics of embodied resistance in all of their soft and sharp natures.
The languages are textual and non-textual. It is my hope that this
writing will speak to bodies other than my own, add to a growing
literature on lyrical inquiry from a feminist perspective, develop the
relationship between lyrical and arts-informed inquiry more deeply.
They are black and lace up the front. 8 eyelets. Scuffed. Comfortable.
If you put your foot in them you might not feel as steady as I. Aglets
are missing from the laces. Captoed now from where the shoemaker
stitched new leather over old.
This portrait of a pair or boots, an ordinary object, might be
questioned. Why photograph such ordinary things? Portraits usually are
reserved for more important articles, usually people. For me, it is
because hidden in them, is a story.
Walking and writing
Ahmed (2006) notes that phenomenology is a
turning toward objects that appear
within experience. For me the object that appears are these boots
(Figure 1). They have been part of my life for a decade. For years they
have held my feet in different positions against the surface of this
earth/world/home. You know these boots because you see a photograph of
them, yet you will not know them through the intimacy of wearing them.
Your feet won’t settle into them cozily the way mine do and have done.
The being of these boots bring into question, interrupts aspects of
taken-for-granted bodies (Heidigger in Diedrich,
2001, p. 211). When I first
acquired them I could not just put them on my feet; their “readiness to
hand” was an “unreadiness” (Heidigger in Diedrich,
2001, p. 211). They had to
be unreadied for my
body, for our steady walking.
They are part of my trade as a writer, for it is through movement that
I most often find words. Without these boots I might not walk and hence
not find words. Or different words would be apprehended. “The object is
an effect of towardness: it is the thing toward which I am directed and
which is being posited as a thing, as being something or another for
me, takes me in some directions rather than others” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 27).
These boots direct me toward particular aspects of the world. They also
then direct the world toward me for from there exists a trace, a
mapping of my call upon the world.
The laces are old and I recall the breaking of them one day, the twice
wrapping around ankles before tying, when the slightest of pulls lead
to the worn threads surrendering to separation. One hand holding a
short lace, the other startled at the empty eyelet.
There is a recognition between me and my boots as we orient toward each
other and thinking and writing. This morning I awaken to enter the
world and they are standing asleep, there in the corner. The night has
been long and for some time my bed was filled with daughters and a cat.
One with nightmares, one with flu, and one because she was cold. My
boots await; sitting with broadfooted patience to be put on so that
they can lead me into a world of words and away from the domestic.
Before leaving home we put our feet into something, boots, shoes, or
sneakers. And when we return, we take them off. Growing up I was told,
“Don’t make a mess.” Even with these words haunting me at each entrance
and exit I find I don’t often turn my attention toward footwear except
when I am going to buy another pair. I may echo that we have not turned
much of our thought toward the material aspects of disability, such as
the shoes and boots of disability. Those objects that cover our feet,
protect the 7,800 nerves in each foot, and 52 bones that they share.
There were two recent occasions that made me conscious of this absence.
One was the exhibit Out from Under:
Disability, History and Things to
Remember and the second was an article by Olsen in which he
we extend our social relations to the things with which we share our
social world–those things that reach out to us and form us as we
respond to them. He writes that we ought not to place material objects
within the “ruling ontological regime of dualities” but rather imagine
that we are “kindred” (2003, p. 88).
As beings of a tactile world, belonging
to ‘their family’, we are
intimately connected to things, our kinship welds us together; and
‘things them-selves’, Merleau-Ponty now says, are ‘not' at beings but
beings in depth, inaccessible to a subject that would survey them from
above, open to him alone that. . . would coexist with them in the same
world’ (Merleau-Ponty, 136, cited in Olsen,
, p. 98).
The difference between my boots as material objects and myself is
relative. In this world view my boots are part of me, they greet me,
hold my feet off the surface of the earth. Yet there are days when we
as a pair know frustration. The
rocky coastal surfaces press hard
against an immobile sole and stiff ankle, supporting quiet bony fears.
I wear these because I am crippled, and so come to delight in
Olsen entices me to share “concern for the properties and competences
possessed by the material world itself” (p. 91). The material aspects
of disability found in these boots leads me to a shared world where we
are connected to the material. The things that touch us, such as the
materials of medicine, the shoe an orthotist builds, change us, shape
us. With the idea that a sole of a shoe could be built up there came
the idea that a person’s gait could be shifted. That people who walked
abnormally could be normal. Of course this binary is accepted
we think of categories as reified, rigid, and stable. We may instead
think from a critique of Modernist thought that they are restless,
fluid, and never at ease. We need also to confirm a writing that is not
a “realist, modernist tale, about personal loss, recovery” (Denzin, 1998 p.
202) but a text that “potentially answer to Trinh’s (1991, p. 162) call
for the production of texts that seek the truth of life’s fictions in
which experiences are evoked, not explained (1991, p. 94). The desire
is to move the reader/audience to a “reflective, critical action”
My stride without these boots occasionally makes me think of a movie
with Kate Hepbourne and Carrie Grant where she loses a shoe, Bringing up
baby is that film and she goes on about her lop-sided gait “Look
look at me, I was born on the side of a hill.” Like her I prefer
comedy. My disability is too diverse for the tragic or heroic model so
often presented as a trope.
Measuring from hip to knee to ankle,
each leg confused
Me, left and right made no sense.
I saw the lines from high above. His
Cold hands drove me to winter
Outside the window where I climbed
To rest in solid arms.
McLung Fleming (1974) reminds us
that the meaning of an object can be
determined in part by the numbers that we locate. These boots have been
produced by the millions and distributed internationally. However as an
artifact, this particular pair of boots speak to disability and step
out of the standardized production run through their modification by my
orthotist. They are not like other boots. These boots effect me, they
effect they way I walk, the clothes I wear, the gaze that is drawn to
us as a couple.
These are working boots, solid, meant for work on factory floors, the
walking days of postmen, and the fraught lives of housewives who liked
the comfort and durability. The first decade of production saw 80% of
their production being purchased by women over 40 years of age.
Things in the world shape us just as we shape them. These boots are
scarred and sutured. When I find another wearing boots that mirror mine
I wonder about their history and may begin to imagine. I wonder at what
points in time they are as conscious of their boots. Being aware of my
boots is of course also suggestive that I am aware of my particular
embodiment, that disability is embodied consciousness.
Scarred surfaces are where there is a
confusion of nerve endings, where
a small touch or hurt begets sensation unbeknownst to unmarked parts of
I place my foot inside the hollow comfort of my boots and lace myself
into them for the day ahead. Sitting, bent over on the stair, I thread
the black laces through the eyelets and wrap them round, once, twice
and tie a bow in the front. In the airport one of my favourite things
to do is have my boots polished. I sit high up in one of the chairs
with my feet in the blocks. A man below me takes thick black polish and
smears it first on one boot. The quiet against this wall is a haven for
those of us passing from one land to another. The smell of the polish
reminds me of when I used to polish my father’s shoes. These occasional
shinings allow a communion with my father through polish, spit and
shine. There is something oddly gendered about this space. I don’t see
many women here, but won’t let that bother me. My first time I remember
being anxious that the man tending my boots would be careless. But he
wasn’t. He took each of my boots carefully in his hands. As if he knew
these boots were my body. And he never stared.
One way of measuring in social science is called unobtrusive and it is
a rather lovely term; however like all ways of understanding, our
interpretations must be leashed. An unobtrusive measure is one that is
inconspicuous, nonintrusive, but it measures also what is often
unobserved except by those who seek carefully. Who bring different
aspects of the world into the foreground, aspects that for others will
usually remain as background.
If a social scientist saw my boots and performed an unobtrusive measure
I wonder what they would calculate? The wear on the heels, the holes
and stress across the ball girth, or the back of the ankle where the
triple stitching is come undone? Would they find the places I could not
walk by looking at these boots and the scars upon them? Would they come
to understand disability oppression through these boots? They might
rightly note that these boots were worn a great deal. But what other
interpretations might be warranted? Would a physician look at these and
perform a diagnosis through them creating a pathography of the wearer?
Boots have been a sign for me of a history of my body, of difference.
Wearing boots with a lift allow me to come forward with one step as
nondisabled and with the next step as disabled…. And so it goes. One
step after another. Each leg teasing cultural categories and creating
anxiety about the body they belong to. Am I disabled or not? One leg
suggests so, the other not. Shall we look at the body as a whole or in
pieces, a corpse? No matter. There is too much ambiguity here. “Such
undecidability is deeply unsettling to the cultural imaginary,
particularly one that incorporates an image of the embodied self as
whole, separate and invulnerable” (Shildrick,
2005, p. 763). Yet this ability
for half of my body to pass, while the other half does not will make
some disability scholars annoyed. Better for this body to make up her
Radically othered, marked devalued, abject, I decide which foot to put
forward. My boots become too much a metaphor. I lose their materiality.
They are in some manner metonymic of my embodiment. A stand-in. Lace
myself back into them. They help to make my walk less gimped. Without
them I walk without too much rocking, my gait is practiced from years
of physiotherapy, cycling, walking. The internalized messages and the
anxiety. Inside there is a constant dialogue. Straighten up. Shoulders
back and down, relaxed. Tighten the stomache. Pretend the spine is a
string of pearls, fluid and flexible. You can do this.
The fear I might really become who I am someday. That girl on the
sidewalk, so pitifully thin, so marked and broken that when waiting for
a cab people mistook me for the girl I once was.
I was walking from the subway to the hospitals one Monday toward work.
I was working as a psychotherapist; working “in psychiatry” as they
say. I remember our hospital had a foot clinic, where people attended
with their various troubles. But they didn’t have anybody who could do
what I needed. They did help me find a guy who could re-create my
shoes. It was the guy they used–they sent everything to him. But I am
losing you, the woman I am talking about, and more importantly the
shoes that were shaping your world. Together you were walking toward
the stairs of the subway. Hobbling, tiny steps with a sway in each one.
The walking became a shuffled cursing. You wore shoes that didn’t fit.
Your feet pushed into them so your toe cleavage spilled out. You had
just been released from the ward and you had to make it home cause you
had nothing else and it’s all they could give you. You had been in over
the weekend so we never met. Only outside. Here, on the street. As
usual, I was wearing my all-seasonal boots. So we couldn’t trade. They
wouldn’t fit. We stood facing each other for a few awkward moments. You
told me they gave you these shoes, a subway token, and an appointment
for a follow-up.
What else can you give?
Not your Jacksons or Shadbolts.
There, that dress. Why not those
Hibernating in your closet.
Will the poor always be with us?
Like it was her fault how she got
there. You drive it home by
Giving her clothes that don’t fit.
Hard on the eyes in a dress ten or
fifteen years past its day
And a woman works hard to look good
even in that ya know.
Somewhere a woman is walking up steps
in shoes too small
For her or you, and her head is down
Always down so you can’t catch her eye
She mumbles under her breath so you
can’t take that away
Like everything else.
She retains the rocks that she stares
at in the concrete
Certain they’re the ones she danced
on at Chaleur Beach
With her hand in her mother’s, two
figures against a darkening light.
If only she were here now and not
caught some far where
Like the way the heel of this damn
shoe catches in the step.
And her wrist easily catches in
razors and other sharp instruments and
Stomache catches pills and booze.
She is a woman dying and she doesn’t
Walks with her head down and her feet
entangled in rocks, her
Wrists dipped in the colour red. You
can see her any day when she walks
Stairs with her downward watch,
The rocks blazing.
My memory won’t stop. I create a portrait of a pair of shoes (Figure
2). I think you were a size 9. And the shoes they gave you were 7 and a
half. I remember the swell of your arch across the top. These shoes
might make your world a different one if the hospital had them for you
that day. Look at them. Not new, but your size. And kinda ok in the
Whenever I went into the shoe repair shop I would panic that the wrong
shoe would come to me with a lift on it. I didn’t want to leave both in
case this happened but I did want the correct shoe to have the lift. My
left/right confusion threw me into disarray. I physically touch each
side of my body over and over again, whispering its name quietly while
staring at the shoes. I need to have things in front of me in order to
know what I am doing. Having things hidden away just doesn’t work.
Boots are an object in my everyday life, they are also a small
prosthetic for me for they extend my leg into the world of the normate
and give me a gait that is less cripped. I don’t embrace this gait but
too many days in shoes without a lift are a cause for concern for other
aspects of my embodiment and the way muscles pull and tendons contract
to contend with my anomalous embodiment. Tobin Siebers amongst other
disability scholars remind us that disability is a positive identity,
yet we don’t yearn for additional embodied forms (2008). The pain I
experience makes me resist any identity that would cause me to discount
These theoretical boots with their lift, like the too-small shoes, do
something. They make disability present. The shoes, although too small,
allow the woman to leave the psychiatric ward and enter society. My
boots with their lifts also allow me to enter society. In their task of
normalizing, the boots and shoes also estrange, disaffect, make
strange. The shoes made the woman more strange, they created for her
more of a presence than she may have wanted. Her gait was not
normalized. She was cripped through this application of the shoe, more
apparent. Curiously she may have been able to pass, prior to this gift.
In some way we were repeating a larger historical narrative tied to
physical and psychiatric disability where the latter was related
to “exclusion and surveillance” and the former to “regimes of recovery
and assistance” (Stiker, 1999, p.
114). “Ambiguous bodies that do not
fit existing criteria for identification keep in place, or are even the
condition of possibility for, the desire to tell bodies apart from each
other through the accumulation of knowledge” (Ahmed,
2006, p. 92). This
desire to tell bodies apart rests on assumptions that it is possible to
accumulate knowledge about ambiguous bodies that will successfully
The desire for a fixity of disability and disabled bodies provokes my
anxiety. The ground of disability is a rocky, rolling ground, a
shifting landscape. Our bodies are ever changing. The disability
scholarship I practice is ragged, uneven, and allows me to dig deep
into the earth. These boots have feet in them and attached to them are
legs and the rest of this writer’s body. It is inescapable. The
anomalous boots have an anomalous body attached. The scars on the boots
have a scarred body that they carry around. The boots are old and worn.
Falling apart even, not many years left. As an object these boots make
me aware of how much I am a “concerned user of things” (Olsen, 2003, p, 96)
things that carry me through this world, and that link the world and
this body. Never alone, but in relationship with one another, we
encounter the world together, we care for one another. Time for a trip
to my shoemaker.
Those of us who put ourselves forward each day, with or without boots,
curious about embodiment, questioning and valuing categories of
vulnerable embodiment are not alone. Like my boots, this arts-informed
text pads softly off into the night leaving uneven tracks. Art holds
ambiguity and tensions. It supports playful entrances to evocative
texts. As I walk away from this text I leave these photographs as
complex representations, representative of a material encounter with
disability and a phenomenological and lyrical following.
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preface to lyrical sociology.
Sociological Theory, 25(1),
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Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cixous, H. (1976). Cohen, K., & Cohen,
P. (Trans.) The laugh of the
medusa. Signs, 875-893.
de Freitas, E. D. (2007). Research
fictions: Arts-informed narratives
that disrupt the authority of the text. Interchange, 38(4), 335-350.
Denzin, N. K. (1998). Interpretive ethnography. CA:
Diedrich, L. (2001). Breaking Down: A
phenomenology of disability, Literature
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Transforming transmuting transcending transfixing transfiguring
transcribing pain. Text and
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poems of hope and terror. Lanham, MD: Altamira.
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an argument, an anecdote. Cultural
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Visual Culture, 6(1): 13–24.
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body, genealogy and
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gender, and cultural politics. New York and London: Routledge.
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University of Michigan Press.
Nancy Viva Davis Halifax brings her interdisciplinary experience to her
teaching and research, which is located at the intersections of health
care, gender, embodiment, difference and disability, arts-informed
research, and pedagogy. She has worked broadly in health research using
the arts and documentary, and participatory methods with economically
displaced persons in Canada. Her research uses the arts for sustaining
and creating conversations around social change, self-determination,
social auto/biographies, and for engaging communities in social