Radical Psychology
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 mutable and particular, and second, that our here and now are radically different from those of which we read. –Abbott, 2007 p. 95

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, 2005, p. 420.

Figure 1. “Portrait of a pair of boots.”

Picture 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 to the 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. 99).

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. 6).

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.

The boots

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.

Phenomenological orientations: 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 suggested 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, 2003, 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 unevenness, asymmetry.

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 only if 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” (p. 94).

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 at me, 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 shadows

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 this body.

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 mind.

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.

The Shoes

Figure 2

Gold High Heels

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 green pants?

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 her

Stomache catches pills and booze.

She is a woman dying and she doesn’t know, she

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 the

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 looks department.

Walking disability

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 my embodiment.

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 stabilize them.

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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Biographical note:

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 development.