Tag Archives: bodies

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 7

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 345, and 6. Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs, under the “read more” tag; click the images for larger versions.

Regarding the “tender point” test referred to in this installment : In 2010, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) revised the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia so that rheumatological exams do not utilize the “tender point” test. The new diagnostic criteria include a Widespread Pain Index (WPI) and Symptom Severity (SS) Scale.

NS-page35

Continue reading “Nervous Systems: Part 7” »

It’s Personal: Some Reflections on Nonfiction Writing and Chronic Illness

When it comes to actually sitting down and writing, there seems to always be something mental or physical that’s in my way. I suck at poetry, so no writing poetry for me, even if it’s just two or three lines. Short stories? I am terrible at those, too, although I occasionally manage to write one and then forget about it, only to find it years later stuffed away in one of the 25 or so computer desktop folders that I’ve created for my writing. I tried writing a sci-fi novel once, starting when I was 13, stuck to it for a good two years, and only gave up entirely when my very own case of major depressive disorder in high school basically sucked that one out of me.

Continue reading “It’s Personal: Some Reflections on Nonfiction Writing and Chronic Illness” »

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” »