Category Archives: Politics

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.

Crazies, Guns, and Public Policy

2015 has been a grim year for the United States, with hundreds of gun violence incidents involving four or more victims, equating to more than one a day. This flood of horrors includes mass shootings (four or more victims, regardless of fatalities) and mass killings (four or more people shot and killed), and it accompanies the 1,100 and counting people shot by police in the US over the course of the year. Our collective crisis of violence is deeply disturbing, and so is the simplistic response: The instantaneous attribution of violence to mentally ill people, despite scientific evidence, and the pointed silence on mentally ill people shot by police.

For the mentally ill community, every single mass shooting results in a collective bracing against the tide of disablism that will result as the sane public insists that only crazies do this sort of thing, and that to stem the tide of gun violence, we need only make it impossible for mentally ill people to get guns. This rhetoric, complete with slurs, comes out of the mouths of presidential candidates. It crops up endlessly on social media. It appears in opinion editorials in major newspapers. It serves as a reminder that we are the dregs of society — that despite amply illustrating with statistics on mental illness and violence that we are not a threat, we will continue to be viewed as such.

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Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 4

Previous installments: 1, 2, and 3.

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. 

Click “Read More” to read part 4 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

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Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 3

Previous installments: part 1; part 2.

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. 

Click “Read More” to read part 3 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

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Why Feminist Disability Studies?

Every so often, I remember that even though I’ve left academia for good, there was one part of feminist and disability studies that made me feel less alone, and still does: feminist disability studies.

Although a solid anthology (which I reviewed for Global Comment) on the discipline was published in 2011, feminist disability studies and theory are still on the margins of feminist academia in some places; at least, it was when I was pursuing my M.A. and dealt with higher-ups who couldn’t reconcile the personal and the political (or “real life” and “scholarly praxis”) being so intricately interwoven for people like me. Before I start to sound like one of those “back in my day” grumps (I’m still in my twenties, after all), it’s probably a good idea to give a general overview of why feminist disability studies is necessary, and how it formed.

In doing so, I hope to also make the case as to why a specifically feminist focus on disability–in both academia and activism–is not just “splitting the movement apart” or “making the movement weaker” like some critics of the very idea of intersectionality say happens whenever a person who’s not white, abled, middle-class or higher, straight, or cis points out the issues within feminism. Because despite the best efforts of disabled feminists on the web, in the academy, and in activist groups, disability is still not on the feminist radar by and large.

Although Women’s Studies within the academy has opened up new understandings of gender, sexuality and their interactions with various systems of oppression, it has, like its activist counterpart, been critiqued—and rightly so–for leaving certain people out.

Scholar Chandra Mohanty contends that some Women & Gender Studies programs in the U.S. academy have implicitly supported “a kind of careerist academic feminism whereby the boundaries of the academy stand in for the entire world and feminism becomes a way to advance academic careers rather than a call for fundamental and collective social and economic transformation.” Unsurprisingly, something similar has happened in social justice circles, and online social justice continues to experience  controversies over careerism, representation, and who gets to speak on behalf of “the community.”

In another essay from her 2007 collection Feminism Without Borders, Mohanty argues that some Western feminist groups and texts “[have been] critiqued for their homogenizing, even colonialist, gestures; they have been critiqued, in fact, by those most directly affected by the exclusions that have made possible certain radical and cultural feminist generalizations.” Though Mohanty also notes that such critiques sometimes “have the risk of falling into culturalist arguments,” her point still stands, particularly for feminists and women who have been mostly left out of the movement because they do not fit what has been constructed as the mainstream “feminist” subject position: that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, “liberated” feminist from the global north. Similar to some of the characteristics of the “normative” Western feminist described above, abledness has been and overwhelmingly continues to be an unspoken norm in both the academy and activist circles; reliance on these unexamined norms continues to take place in feminist spaces as well.

These “social patterns of bias and exclusion,” as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson call them, are “based on ability norms that operate similarly to gender and racial systems.” While such seemingly disparate groups as feminists of color, disabled feminists, trans feminists, and queer feminists may have different issues, they have something significant in common: they’ve all traditionally been excluded from mainstream feminism. Members of these groups, in various venues, have also raised important questions that interrogate who is excluded, why, and what steps can be taken to break that cycle.

However, those with the most privilege have traditionally called the shots as to where the energies, focus and concern are directed within feminist activism and scholarship, and middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, white feminists with access to media power have tended to not want to share the spotlight. Like many other groups that don’t quite fit more privileged feminists’ ideas of what “real” feminists are or what a “feminist” issue is, widespread attention paid to feminists with disabilities, and thought given to disability in feminist scholarship, seem noticeably absent within the feminist academy.

Feminist disability theory has been going on, however covertly and perhaps unnoticed by the mainstream, within Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies for many years. Central texts, at least in the U.S., have included Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1985), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s full-length cultural studies work Extraordinary Bodies (1997), and anthologies such as Gendering Disability (2004), edited by Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison, as well as the work of scholar-activists such as Barbara Hillyer, Cheryl Marie Wade, and Simi Linton.

Feminist philosophers such as Anita Silvers and Susan Wendell have done invaluable work on invisible disability, chronic illness, and the Western myth of bodily control; additionally, many queer theorists and activists, including Eli Clare, Robert McRuer and Abby Wilkerson, have taken up the disability studies cause under trans, queer and feminist activist and scholarly banners, thus showing that transgender theory, queer disability theory and feminist disability theory are, in fact, related–and are all important to cultural and area studies.

Garland-Thomson offered some useful working guidelines for feminist disability studies and theory in a 2005 article first published in Signs:

 Feminist disability studies…questions our assumptions that disability is a flaw, lack, or excess…it defines disability broadly from a social rather than a medical perspective. Disability, it argues, is a cultural interpretation of human variation rather than an inherent inferiority, a pathology to cure, or an undesirable trait to eliminate. In other words, it finds disability’s significance in interactions between bodies and their social and material environments.

In a 1988 article, feminist philosopher Susan Wendell contended that feminist disability studies cannot be totally, abstractly theoretical: “To build a feminist theory of disability that takes adequate account of our differences, we will need to know how experiences of disability and the social oppression of the disabled interact with sexism, racism and class oppression” (“Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability”).

Feminist disability theory and studies not only offer new possibilities for feminist theory as a whole, but powerfully illuminate issues that have traditionally been important to feminist theory in new and exciting ways, including include abortion and prenatal testing, assisted suicide and the right to die (or live), pace-of-life issues, media culture, cultural messages about the body, the experience of chronic illness and pain, the social construction of “normative” versus non-normative bodies, the medical establishment, labor, and sexuality. However, many feminist theorists and activists currently do not consider these issues from a feminist disability viewpoint at all–much less consider how these issues affect or might affect those living with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions.

Even as it continues to make inroads, feminist disability theory will need to acknowledge and bridge perceived “gaps” between theory and “real life” if it is to remain on the cutting edge; such a continued process could perhaps be modeled on Bonnie Zimmerman’s contention that successful theory should “[root] the production of knowledge in real social relations and commitment to social change.” While the many linguistic accessibility issues with disability theory, feminist theory, and feminist disability theory are beyond the scope of this piece, it’s been a common (and correct) criticism of academic theory that it is written and designed to be understood by an ever-shrinking number of people who have the “right” college or advanced training in the Humanities, social sciences, and/or area studies. This, unfortunately, leaves out people who could also benefit from using theory to understand sociopolitical issues in their own lives–but who might not have the “correct” (or any) credentials.

Although the theoretical is important, in matters of disability and ability, it is equally important to remember that peoples’ lives are still being talked about; no lasting social change is possible if this goes unacknowledged or minimized. Theory that doesn’t take lived experience into account is not very useful, and this is one of the many qualities of an academic approach to social issues that feminist disability theory–like feminist theory, disability theory, and other area studies–needs to keep at the forefront in order to remain vibrant, useful, and interesting.

Brain Drain: Chronic Pain as a Disability

Recently, the Tumblr blog Chronic Femmes–which positioned itself as a resource for chronically ill femmes–was the subject of controversy after one of its moderators answered a reader question by saying that it was important for people with chronic pain, chronic health issues, or mental health issues to not “[appropriate] disabled” when identifying themselves as chronically ill (along with some other problematic statements, such as one’s disability status only counts if that person can receive or currently receives public assistance because of their disability). Many Tumblr users with chronic pain and health issues took exception to this–although the moderator who wrote the response, Kendall, quickly apologized for her mistake, the incident itself demonstrates a common misconception about chronic pain and illnesses that feature chronic pain as a symptom–that neither are “really” disabling or debilitating.

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What Would True Mental Health Reform Look Like for the US?

Mental health reform in the US typically comes up in one context only: in the wake of incidents of rampage violence. Such incidents are tragic and horrific, and almost as soon as they hit the news, observers decide the person responsible must have been ‘crazy,’ absolving themselves of further exploration of the incident — crazy people ‘just do that,’ and that’s how it is.

Despite the fact that this is a rampant misconception, it’s a commonly held and supported belief, bolstered by media coverage of rampage violence and mental illness. Typically, the longtail aftermath of such incidents is to demand two things: better gun control (usually from the point of view that guns need to be kept out of the hands of mentally ill people) and better regulation of crazy people — for, surely, if mentally ill people were compelled to take medication, register with government agencies, and undergo similar indignities, they wouldn’t be prone to randomly shooting scores of innocent people. (Something the vast majority of mentally ill people actually aren’t prone to doing in the first place — to the contrary, mental illness is a very serious risk factor for being exposed to violence, and mentally ill people are usually victims, not perpetrators, of violence.)

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Skepticism and Chronic Pain: A Match Made in Purgatory?

I’ve been a lurker in the online skeptic community for a long time. I am also a feminist with fibromyalgia and several other health conditions (lifelong cerebral palsy and debilitating allergic reactions amongst them).

Whether it’s Dawkins-style puffery on which health conditions “actually exist” versus which are “somatization disorders” or, say, discussions of chronic illnesses that reduce said illnesses to strictly theoretical exercises instead of things (albeit misunderstood things) that impact peoples’ lives, there appears to be an unwillingness to make space for–and listen to–people with those very conditions.

Now, the notion of a skeptic and atheist with a “controversial” health condition will seem strange to some, and even stranger still because of the relative absence of skeptics with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and chronic health conditions in the online skeptic community. The feminist community — even online, where things like gender, ability, race, class, age, and sexuality supposedly “don’t matter” — suffers from similar problems when it comes to including and welcoming people with disabilities, as Neurodivergent K outlined in this excellent post at Feminist Hivemind. The old second-wave canard that women are physically strong is an unquestioned assumption in many modern feminist circles — and has the effect, unintended or not, of leaving out women with disabilities who are not strong or whose health conditions prevent them from being physical dynamos. The idea that chronic illnesses and disabilities like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and related pain/fatigue conditions are bad for the feminist movement–because women with these conditions apparently fulfill the stereotype of women as “weak” and fragile–has also gained some traction in feminist theory, most notably from feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter, who wrote a book in the late 1990s positing that CFS, Gulf War Syndrome and other “controversial” illnesses were media-spread, hysteria-driven epidemics comparable to alien abduction. Add to this the blithe unconcern that mainstream feminism has with disabilities of all kinds–and with women who have disabilities–and you’ve got a fairly unsafe environment for feminists of all genders who happen to have disabilities, or who think that (GASP) disability, chronic pain, and illness are feminist issues! After a while, it starts to look like current online “feminism” is only concerned about fighting for the rights of abled women–those without chronic pain, illness(es), physical disabilities, mental health conditions or who are neuroatypical. Thanks, feminism!

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