62. Fibromyalgic Fascial Cunning
In 2008, Uberto Pasolini makes a film about 23 underprivileged Sri Lankans who form a fake national handball team, trick their way into a German tournament, lose all their matches, and disappear. In a case of life imitating art, when filming wraps, a Sri Lankan actor cast as a policeman also vanishes.
Every culture has a trickster, and every trickster is characterized by ambiguity, deception, bricolage, mimicry, shape-shifting or disguise, the ability to invert disadvantageous situations, and the ability to communicate between sacred and profane worlds (Hyde, 2010). The set of theoretical and practical orientations that constitute misability — a slippery self-definition about being viththiyaasam coined as an English word-blend on a foggy day — is best explicated through a kaleidoscopic mosaic of classical Western and non-Western formulations of cunning: disparate slivers of color that may converge and part but, regardless, together form an image.
The primary formulation of cunning intelligence in Euro-Western theory is the ancient Greek concept of metis, a rhetorical art and an embodied mode of knowing and doing. Fibromyalgia's legitimacy depends on the hegemony of vision in social and medical evaluations; self-(re)presentation of the stigmatized identity becomes a critical performance. In her exploration of rhetorical touch and autistic rhetors, Walters (2014) calls metis "a tactile rhetoric based on habit," and "the sophistic practice of kairos — opportune timing — as a tactile rhetoric based on the proximity of bodies in contact and relation" (p. 23). Evading and challenging ocularcentrism, cunning-as-tactility paves the way for misability: an instinctive, embodied disposition towards difference that includes tricky logical and emotional appeals and habituated, subconscious rhetorical practices of pain.
The dominant strands of cunning in scholarship about embodied rhetoric focus on the Global North, ranging from metis to Loki to Coyote (Hyde, 2010; Dolmage, 2009; Raphals, 1992). The dominant view of rhetorical history is one that imports modern/colonial ableism into the past and disavows disabled bodies — modern rhetors and ancient/mythic figures — as Other (Dolmage, 2009, p. 7). As Dolmage suggests, we might interpret cunning figures like Hephaestus as anomalously embodied and infra-ordinary (or extraordinary) in his anomaly. We could choose to mobilize these stories and histories differently.
I believe this. I also never see myself in it. Metis is not, for instance, thanthiram, connotes art and artifice, tricky spectacles that elicit wonder, and stratagems concerning logic and administration (as spelled out in the Panchatantra, "five strategies"). In the stories about crows and owls, the clever crows defeat the mightier owls — crafty Athena's representative — and as a child, I interpreted this story to be about the unparalleled wisdom of dark-skinned people. Like Ravana, maligned in every Western undergraduate course I took that included The Ramayana. Like this Sri Lankan handball team. Like every resilient Tamil survivor.
Appa, joking about his ignorance of the humanities, once said to me: "You make everything so complicated, but some things just are."
I love theorizations about the rhetorical art of cunning, but Appa is right — I can't do anything with them. They don't teach me how to embody, inhabit, or deploy this intelligence in my Eelam Tamil queer woman skin. They don't explain how to protect myself when my inversions are reinverted. They don't tell me how, after the apocalyptic error that imperils my survival, cunning might enable me to go on.
Theoretical formulations and applications of cunning never seem to go wrong, while every trickster myth features a fuck-up. Our Hindu trickster gods are imperfect, with bodies that signify punishments incurred and inverted to their advantage. I detest that my conditions are read through normative paradigms of pity, inspiration, or tragedy, but sometimes the best way to "manipulate hostile forces too powerful to be controlled directly" (Detienne & Vernant, 1978/1991, p. 47) is to emphasize how very paavam I am. But theoretical texts are frequently critical of this disabled perspective of disability; they never call it cunning.
This practically important layer of nuance is often absent from modern applications of metis: like trickster figures, rakshasas, or , I miscalculate in clinical and academic encounters; I overplay my hand, get caught in my own masquerades, or am denied insurance coverage, medication refills, or sick days; I snap and lose all the ground I'd gained, like the sage Vishvamitra whose fiery temper caused him to lose his yogic powers.
I don't find irritability in metis, either.
There's little that a tactile rhetoric based on habit can say about me. Fascia — the body's largest sensory organ and a thinking-perceiving "both/and" "organ of form" characterized by shifting, sliding, tensional responsiveness (Schleip et al., 2014; Weig, 2020) — is not flexible and responsive in the fibromyalgic patient. Hawhee (2004) links "the corporeality of metis," its "somatic cunning" or "bodily intelligence," with athletic arts like wrestling; the flexible body is linked to the flexible mind (p. 46). The stuck fascia of fibromyalgic bodies make us unpredictably, painfully inflexible, but more cunning for it. Corporeal metis falters when applied to our flesh. Cunning, for us, is de Certeau's (1980/1984) metis: to "obtain the maximum number of effects from a minimum of force" (p. 86).
What happens if we expand cunning's provenance by centering it in ancient Middle Eastern, East Asian, and South Asian empires, which have longer continuous material histories than European civilizations? These formulations encompass other ideals and codes of conduct, such as zhi, maat, upaya-kausalya, and thanthiram. This is where I find the kaleidoscopic pieces of cunning as experienced by the chronically painervated subject body: a corpus of contingent, responsive, embodied knowledge, based on habit and performed by rote.
Misability is all this and the forehead-slapping fuck-ups, and the vistas that open when you do.
And so, the misabled rhetor-patient possesses an almost oracular multisensory, proximal cunning that glows with the justice of Maat, burns with the righteous (self-)destruction of Kannagi Amman's torn breast raining fire on Madurai. Using a European framework, the misabled rhetor-patient also possesses the Norse concept of lae, tripping and recovering her footing as often as Loki. Adroit and adaptable, but clouded by pain and fatigue, she is a blank slate ready for multivalent readings. She "passes" as sick through Siebers' (2004) disability masquerade, cuing into the "stuckness" of her fascia and exaggerating an identity that commingles the stigmatized expectation with thanthiramaana artifices that make invisible processes apparent. She is perceived as paavam. She is a clever scholar and a foolish pretty Tamil girl. She takes whatever reading is imposed on her and instinctively makes it work for her.
This is the resourcefulness of fibromyalgia.
The members of the Sri Lankan handball team were ludicrously bad at the sport and lost every game they played but won the more serious game of survival. The tricky, oft-misdiagnosed and misinterpreted patient loses all the moves the field affords her, but in being misapprehended, stands the most to gain. ↩(– 12. Prologue)