Tag Archives: ableism

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.

Nervous Systems: Part 2

Here is the second installment of my theoretical/graphic memoir on disability, visibility, and gender! Previously: Part 1

Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs; click the images for larger versions. Should you need more background on the “Supercrip” trope, a piece that I wrote for Bitch on the topic (all the way back in 2009) is cited on page 7.

NS-page7

 

Continue reading “Nervous Systems: Part 2” »

Nervous Systems: Introduction and Part 1

Note: The following graphic work was part of my Master’s thesis. Rather than letting it sit and collect dust–and, just as crucially, now that I have a bit of distance from it–I have decided to share it. It will run on DI in several parts; since the chapters are quite long, I’ll be dividing it up for maximum readability. Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs; click the images for larger versions.

Text description for this comic can be found below the jpegs.
Text description for this comic can be found below the jpegs.

Continue reading “Nervous Systems: Introduction and Part 1” »

Six Things I’ve Learned From Dealing With Chronic Pain

Six Things I’ve Learned From Dealing With Chronic Pain

As I have written about in many locations around the web (including this site), I have chronic pain and fatigue caused by a condition called fibromyalgia. I started experiencing symptoms at 20, was diagnosed at 21, and in the eight years since my diagnosis have learned some things that may or may not prove useful to both other people with chronic pain and/or health conditions, and “healthy” people as well. The following is less about what having this condition is like on a daily basis (please see my xoJane article linked above for more on those aspects), and more about (insert triumphant violin swells here) WHAT I’VE LEARNED from having a debilitating illness that I will have for the rest of my life:

Sometimes a “positive attitude” is not the best course–try to aim for a realistic attitude instead. I know that maintaining a “positive attitude” is all the rage these days, but for some people it is simply not a great choice. There is no faster way to make yourself feel bad about having “negative” thoughts/energy/whatever than to try to actively banish these thoughts by trying to “think positively” instead of, y’know, dealing with those negative feelings. Bad feelings are a part of life, and they need to be dealt with so you don’t end up making yourself feel worse by trying to wish them away. This is why I try to cultivate a realistic attitude–I have both good days and bad days when it comes to pain and fatigue, and I can acknowledge and work with that instead of stuffing any negative feelings down under the guise of being POSITIVE all of the time.

Continue reading “Six Things I’ve Learned From Dealing With Chronic Pain” »

Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 2

Previously: 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. 

Click “Read More” to read part 2 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

Continue reading “Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 2” »

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.

Continue reading “Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Introductory remarks and part 1” »

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.

Continue reading “Beyond Human: The Heaven’s Gate Cult, Transhumanism, and Me” »

When Education is a Privilege, Not a Right

In the United States, the government promises free universal access to education through high school (grade 12), providing funding to a vast network of public schools across the nation. The education system in practice is a deeply flawed, troubled institution, one rife with discrimination, inequality, and gross imbalances; children of colour going to school in a facility with clogged toilets and peeling walls while their wealthy counterparts enjoy an airy, leafy campus with impeccable facilities and the best, most modern technology, for example.

But on the surface, education in the United States is supposed to be a fundamental right, something accessible to all children. In fact, the country so aggressively pursues it that to not go to school is to find yourself meeting the truancy officer; if you don’t go to public school or who have parents with the power to pay for private education, you must be homeschooled with a curriculum approved by the state. In other words, this is more of an enforced right, as it were, at least for some students; again, inequality shows here when it comes to which students are closely watched and encouraged to stay in school.

Continue reading “When Education is a Privilege, Not a Right” »