Category Archives: Media

Book Review: The Biopolitics of Disability by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder

The term “biopolitics” was first ushered into wide use in a variety of academic fields of inquiry by French theorist Michel Foucault during his lecture series “Society Must Be Defended,” delivered at the College de France in the late 1970s. In a nutshell—and a simplified one at that, for the purposes of this review—biopolitics refers to the overall control of citizens’ bodies and states of being by state apparatuses, and the ways in which this control shows up.

A biopolitical lens can be applied to a variety of current and political events that have to do with bodies, the state, and control—from U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s fixation on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexican borders to keep “illegal immigrants” out, to the recent panic in the U.S. over the so-called “opioid epidemic” that (conveniently) leaves out the perspective(s) of people with chronic pain who depend on opiate medications to have some semblance of a normal life—the effects, positive and negative, of biopolitics are everywhere.

George Washington University Professor of English David T. Mitchell and his co-author Sharon Snyder convincingly and aptly examine the implications of 21st century, neoliberal biopolitics for people with disabilities in their new book The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment. The book’s central thesis argues that neoliberalism in the 21st century–which, in Mitchell’s words, “involves strategies of the seizure of the very materiality of life at the level of the individual” (8)—has made space for the acceptance of certain kinds of disabled bodies, but this comes at the direct expense of other disabled and marginalized bodies.

This conditional acceptance and welcoming “establishes a form of biopolitics within which nationalism and ableism come together.” Of course, some may argue that any acceptance—however conditional—of people with disabilities into the mainstream is good for all people with disabilities.

However, Mitchell and Snyder strongly contend that this is not the case. The conditional acceptance of people with disabilities who also happen to uphold certain neoliberal and abled norms—especially those regarding capitalist ideas of productivity, appearance norms, and ways of functioning—serves to push disabled people who cannot uphold those norms further past the margins of society. The conditional acceptance of disabled “heroes,” hyper-enabled sports stars, and the “Supercrip,” who is great at one thing and so inspiring to nondisabled people, are just a few examples of a neoliberal embrace of some people with disabilities, to the ultimate exclusion of others.

Mitchell and Snyder’s first chapter, “From Liberal to Neoliberal Futures of Disability,” outlines how this acceptance/exclusion process works, and how biopolitics influences who gets left out and who is accepted by state apparatuses, the media, and systems of nationalism.

A “conditional acceptance” of specific disabled bodies also has implications for people whose disabilities are unpredictable, not visible to the naked eye, or cast aside by nondisabled people in ways large and small because they are thought to be “not really disabling.” For example, think of the many jokes regarding Restless Leg Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that every hack comedian thinks are just hilarious, and the many internet comments arguing that fibromyalgia is not a real illness.

Mitchell and Snyder’s points about which kinds of disabled bodies get included in the nationalist project versus which do not were extremely compelling to me, both as a longtime reader/student of Disability Studies and as a person whose disability (fibromyalgia) forces me to walk a fine line—often with my cane—between a kind of conditional acceptance in certain settings and outright dismissal in others.

The book’s second chapter, “Curricular Cripistemologies; or, Every Child Left Behind,” is its strongest; here, Mitchell and Snyder critique academia’s overall silence when it comes to disability and disability studies—except for when universities or individual departments are able to use students or professors with disabilities to check the box for “diverse” or “multicultural” funding or hiring initiatives. Conditional acceptance rears its monstrous head again in said initiatives; some people with disabilities are accepted, but some are not.

As the authors explain, their critique in this chapter “centers on inclusionism as a neoliberal gloss on diversity initiatives that get some disabled students in the door while leaving the vast majority of crip/queer students behind” (80). The questions that Mitchell and Snyder ask here are not simply hypothetical or theoretical. There are some very real boundaries that keep the majority of people with disabilities from accessing—or thriving in—higher education.

Various chapters in The Biopolitics of Disability cover such wide-ranging topics as “disability futures” in the classic film Midnight Cowboy, the politics of disability film festivals, disability representation in independent films, online support groups for rare health conditions and the navigation of the medical industry, the labeling of certain people with disabilities as “unproductive,” and the implications of said labeling for modern capitalism.

I found this book both informative and a great call-to-arms for Disability Studies, the academic Humanities, and the disability rights movement. If you’ve had trouble understanding terms like neoliberalism, biopower, and biopolitics in the past, you should think about taking a look at this book—Mitchell and Snyder provide comprehensive definitions of these terms and real-world examples of these ideas in action. If The Biopolitics of Disability seems like a book that you would enjoy due to its content and subject matter, I’d encourage you to check it out.

The Biopolitics of Disability (ISBN: 9780472052714) is available now from the University of Michigan Press. Image via University of Michigan Press.

Roundtable: Project Semicolon Promotes Mental Illness Eugenics

In case you missed it, Project Semicolon posted a video by Wesley Chapman for World Mental Health Day, proposing an ‘end to mental illness’ by 2025. Complete with sappy music and a series of bucolic landscapes, the film is a strikingly disablist (notably, there are no captions or transcript) screed against the mentally ill community.

The faith-based Project Semicolon has exploded into the news of late thanks to its hallmark tattoo, but the distribution and support of this video illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding about mental illness, complete with eliminationist attitudes.

We decided it was time for a line by line breakdown, featuring s.e. smith, Lisa Egan, Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, and David M. Perry.

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Here we go again: Oscar season and disability porn

The 87th Academy Awards are this weekend, so it’s a good time to talk about a familiar old friend: Oscarbait. Three films this year were definitely having a go at taking home a gold statuette via one of the most time-honoured traditions of Hollywood: Cripping up. On a routine basis, one or more actors dons disability for the year, usually in a film that critics refer to as ‘inspirational,’ ‘heartwarming,’ and ‘profound.’

This year, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, and Cake all gunned for Oscar gold and other awards, with Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Aniston playing disabled characters for the big screen. None of these actors has publicly identified as disabled, while all three are being taken as authorities on disability — after all, they’ve done a bit of research and it can’t be that difficult. Moreover, the fact that these kinds of roles set actors up for awards hasn’t escaped them, rest assured.

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Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Introductory remarks and part 1

Accessibility note: The image descriptions for this series, since they are very long, can be found under the image .jpgs in each installment, rather than in the alt-text field. 

Introductory remarks: I completed the following multi-part, miniature graphic work on whiteness, white privilege and physical (dis)ability in 2010 as part of a final assignment for an anthropology class on the construction of race and ethnicity–and, old as it is, I’ve decided to share the entire work on Disability Intersections for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons. I’m not a professional artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe very strongly in both the accessibility of graphic work as a tool for anti-oppression work, and how graphic work can allow certain things to be conveyed that cannot always be conveyed in writing–particularly academic writing.

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“We cannot talk about mental health without talking about prisons”: A Conversation with Melody Moezzi

Human rights activist, attorney, writer, Iranian American, and Muslim American feminist: Melody Moezzi is all of these. She is the award-winning author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and published her memoir Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life last September. She also blogs for the Huffington Post, Ms., and BP Magazine and has provided commentary for CNN, NPR, and BBC, among others. Her memoir is a frank account of her journey with bipolar disorder, her times in and out of mental health care facilities, as well as her life as an Iranian-American woman in Middle America and the South. Written with grace and often hilarious, Moezzi’s book fills a gap in mental illness memoirs, in that is told from her perspective as a Muslim American feminist activist and attorney.

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Beyond Human: The Heaven’s Gate Cult, Transhumanism, and Me

Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO religious Millenarian group based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then at its brightest.

–From Wikipedia’s entry on Heaven’s Gate (content warning on link for description of suicide and photos)

I’ve been fascinated with the Heaven’s Gate cult ever since I saw–as an 11 year-old–a huge photograph of the members’ dead bodies, apparently peacefully posed on bunkbeds,  on the front page of my local paper, under the rather alarmist headline (and all-caps) headline HOUSE OF HORROR. As I picked up bits and pieces of information on the group that the news media breathlessly reported throughout April and May of 1997, I began to wonder if the “house of horror” headline was overblown; yes, these folks had committed mass suicide, but they had also found people to whom they could relate and live with peacefully (albeit in a fringe religious group). Was that so horrifying? To most people–and to the media–it seemed like the answer was a resounding yes.

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Is There an Underlying Problem With How We Frame Autism? Gender, Race, and Misdiagnosis

When I was 16 years old, hands flapping rapidly against the arms of the therapy room chair, a psychologist informed me I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I had never even considered it before, I barely knew a thing about autism spectrum disorders, but once I started learning, everything quickly fell into place. But it left me wondering: why was I diagnosed so late? How did no one notice, in all the years I’d been at school, that I was autistic?

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Why Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter Should Spark Coalition-Building Amongst Survivors With Mental Illness

This week, I have been compulsively following every aspect of Dylan Farrow’s open letter in the New York Times–its fallout, reactions from Dylan’s supporters, and, at times, the blatantly histrionic defenses of Woody Allen offered by some of his friends and colleagues. Dylan’s letter–and its detractors–triggered me to the point of being physically sick. I take my nighttime antipsychotic medicine and my daily morning mood stabilizer, all for my Bipolar Disorder-2 diagnosis three years ago, but I am haunted by conversations about Dylan. People that I trusted say she is a liar and mentally disturbed. These statements triggered me, and I thought I was headed toward a mixed episode with the amount of sadness and anger I felt. Reactions such as Stephen King’s tweet that there was “Palpable bitchery” in Dylan’s letter, or that of one person on my Facebook post about the incident, “You can’t take every sob story seriously, I know plenty of crazy people who would lie and try to convince the courts that the other parent was a horrible human being just to ‘win’ custody [sic]” have made my skin crawl. And those who “don’t care” and “will continue to watch his [Allen’s] films” may do well to heed the words of Beth Richie on the silence surrounding domestic violence: “Loyalty and devotion are enormous barriers to overcome.”

I know plenty of “crazy” people, too. I look in the mirror every morning, and one stares back at me. And here is what this “crazy” person has to say.

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