Lorentz Center - Perspectives on Diversity: The Cultural Life of Absence from 10 Jan 2016 through 13 Jan 2016
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    Perspectives on Diversity: The Cultural Life of Absence
    from 10 Jan 2016 through 13 Jan 2016


Perspectives on Diversity: The Cultural Life of Absence


10 – 13 January 2016


In Western culture the notion of disability is often considered as the absence of "something". It is socially seen as negative: the entire body or mind as the whole minus the impairment. The impairment is often only described as a loss. In the past, the notion of disability often had strong connotations with authenticity, or the fact that a mentally ill, deaf or blind person would be pure and innocent – as if a full access to all the senses would imply corruption. Conversely, disabled people were often considered as overemphasizing the use of the other senses which caused social tensions. Ever since the early-modern culture, impairment has carried the connotation of loss, absence or the lack of psychological determination and the need for patience.

The workshop was a first step in exploring the social life of absence, stressing the dialogue between disability and society in the past and the present. It addressed explicitly the view of society and the perspectives of the side-lined groups who aim to create a new definition of self, the group and the ‘handicap’. The aim was to create an international and interdisciplinary network to start an interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars and interest groups.


The workshop was preceded by a public event in the Boerhaave Museum, in which plenary talks on the social life of absence (by prof dr. Douwe Draaisma, writer and performer Vincent Bijlo and performer Jascha Blume) were combined with experiences related to disabilities (a session presenting the work of guide dogs for the blind and guided tours for people with hearing and visual impairments) and discussion on the life of ‘absence’ with people from different interest groups (survey and discussion). The points raised during the discussion were also addressed in the three-day workshop.

The workshop consisted of a number of sessions directed at diverse topics and of various activities including presentations but the focus was on debate and exchange.

Day one addressed the history of disability, connecting arts, history, social sciences, and experiences of disability in the public domain (and multimedia). More particularly, the focus was on issues such as the often negative representation of sensory and physical disabilities in philosophy and art since Antiquity, and on the sometimes polemic (self-)representation of people on the autistic spectrum in education and the media.

Day two was centred on disability and impairment in language and literature. The two overarching issues that were addressed were the visibility of the deviations from the standard and the acceptance of the existence of non-normative language/literacy.

The third day investigated the human animal-robot nexus. It primarily focused on the opportunities and challenges which the use of animals and machines may present for disabled citizens and it emphasized that humans, animals and machines are interdependent, rather than independent from one another and that this condition has great promise for the purposes of the disabled community.  


The public event at the Boerhaave Museum was well attended. The visitors were from the general public as well as those representing interest groups. It was highly useful for setting the stage of the workshop, as the lectures by Draaisma and Bijlo exemplified the issues of 1) absence and agency, 2) disability, impairment, and diversity, and 3) the diverging approaches used in different fields of academia (i.e., history, anthropology, media studies, empirical studies, computer science, medical science). The outcomes of these general talks aligned with the themes targeted in the workshop.

The workshop itself showed the necessity of introducing the research topics from different research perspectives. Researchers from different fields take different angles and use different jargon. The plenary talks in the morning sessions were important for getting used to the language from the different fields; the discussions in the afternoon for understanding each other’s language and for targeting questions on the cultural life of absence in the specific fields (history of disability, disability and impairment in language and literature, and human animal-robot nexus).


The attendance of researchers with a visual and auditory impairment led to concrete examples of agency and visibility (e.g., through sign language interpreters, discussion not only by pointing but also by describing). This was highly useful for everyone’s understanding and relating to the different themes. 


The final discussion on day three focused on three overarching questions: 1) self-identity and value systems, 2) the relation between the human and non-human, and 3) absence to agency. Important conclusions were that further discussion amongst researchers is essential: in terms of self-selection of value systems, of the production and ordering of spaces, and the reordering of diagnosis, scholars need to develop a role in allowing these processes, spaces, and multiple narratives to come forth. One specific research element was diagnosis and intervention of disability. Although the aims of biomedical models of (dis)ability and subsequent steps in rehabilitation techniques are useful to some extent, they should not bypass the individual’s sense of agency and empowerment. In that respect the line between absence and agency is always subject to the individual's presence in the context of different power relations (both positive and negative).

On the basis of these outcomes, future steps are being explored, mainly in the academic arena, for further discussion (through journal articles and international meetings).


Monika Baar (Leiden, Netherlands)

Anne Baker (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Elise de Bree (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Piet Devos (Montreal, Canada)

Douwe Draaisma (Groningen, Netherlands)

Babette Hellemans (Groningen, Netherlands)