Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"It is, then, the various interactions between bodies and world that make disability from the raw material of human variation and precariousness."

Found this early statement on disability studies at

It is useful to me in its succinctness, also because it helps me pinpoint just where my ambivalence flares up. Where disability meets studies. Ambivalence. A desire to apply pressure or respond to pressure from both directions. Flare up, my own body, inflamed at the junctures, so much so as to impede movement, forward or backward. Disability as mode of looking at identity or disability as the end point itself, this moment. My stunted fingers on these keys. They have tips. Your corneas. My skin, happily burnt by unexpected hot days, here? Have you checked in with your skin, the envelope that holds you here?

What we can only ever refer to/know and most need to know.

The New Disability Studies in the Humanities

by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
Just as the academic world imagined what we now think of as the social construction of race and gender as invisible, narrow, or marginal prior to the 1970s, it also until recently viewed disability as a medical issue or specialized training area peripheral to consideration in the humanities. The grass-roots scholarly movement called the New Disability Studies in the Humanities seeks, however, to overturn such a medicalized understanding of disability and to replace it with a social model of disability. This view defines "disability," not as a physical defect inherent in bodies (just as gender is not simply a matter of genitals, nor race a matter of skin pigmentation), but rather as a way of interpreting human differences. Within such a critical frame, disability becomes a representational system more than a medical problem, a social construction rather than a personal misfortune or a bodily flaw, and a subject appropriate for wide-ranging intellectual inquiry instead of a specialized field within medicine, rehabilitation, or social work. Such a critical perspective extends the constructivist analysis that informs gender and race studies, this New Disability Studies at the same time insists on the materiality of the body, its embeddedness in the world by focusing on issues such as equal access for all, integration of institutions, and the historical exclusion of people with disabilities from the public sphere.

This New Disability Studies explores disability as a historical system of thought and knowledge that represents bodies some bodies as inferior, as in need of being somehow changed so as to conform to what the cultural imagination considers to be a standard body. In other words, this critical perspective considers "disability" as a way of thinking about bodies rather than as something that is wrong with bodies. The New Disability Studies looks, for example, at such issues as changes in the way disability is interpreted over time and within varying cultural contexts, the development of the disabled as a community and a social identity, the political and material circumstances resulting from this system of assigning value to bodies; the history of how disability influences and is influenced by the distribution of resources, power, and status, and how disability affects artistic production. The New Disability Studies also probes the historical formation of the social identity "disabled," presenting it as a way of organizing physical, mental, and emotional variations into a large and diverse group of people who may have no more in common than the stigmatized designation of abnormality. In other words, we study the historical and cultural consequences of how this interpretive system creates what Benedict Anderson calls an "imagined community" of "the disabled," a social group that all people will join if they live long enough.

The New Disability Studies is burgeoning in the humanities, reflecting major paradigm shifts in recent critical thought and practice. Here are some examples: First, recovering the history of disabled people is part of the shift in the practice of social history from studying the powerful and the elite to focusing on the perspectives and contributions of the previously marginalized. Second, theorizing disability as an identity category responds to critical theory's inquiry into the body's relation to subjectivity, agency, and identity. Third, framing disability in political terms reflects the post-civil rights impulse toward positive identity politics. Fourth, insisting on the integration of disability into the curriculum and disabled people into the classroom corresponds to the recent humanistic commitment to serving under-represented populations. Fifth, examining disability arises logically from literary theory's emphasis on discourse analysis, social constructivism, and the politics of representation.

The informing premise of the New Disability Studies in the Humanities is that disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body. Operating similarly to the gender and race systems, the disability system produces subjects by way of cultural and linguistic practices that differentiate and mark bodies. This comparison of bodies legitimates the distribution of resources, status, and power within a biased social and architectural environment. As such, disability has four aspects: first, it is a system for interpreting bodily variations; second, it is a relationship between bodies and their environments; third, it is a set of practices that produces both the able-bodied and the disabled; fourth, it is a way of describing the inherent instability of the embodied self. Disability is defined broadly to include a cluster ideological categories as varied as sick, deformed, ugly, old, maimed, afflicted, retarded, insane, mad, abnormal, or debilitated--all of which disadvantage people by devaluing bodies that do not conform to cultural standards. Thus disability functions to preserve and validate such privileged designations as beautiful, healthy, normal, fit, competent, intelligent--all of which provide cultural capital to those who can claim such status, who can reside within these subject positions. It is, then, the various interactions between bodies and world that make disability from the raw material of human variation and precariousness.

The New Disability Studies focuses its analytical lens on the myriad sites where culture elaborates disability. It ranges across such discourses as history, art, literature, religion, philosophy, and rhetoric, engaging the critical conversations of aesthetics, epistemology, cultural studies, ethnic studies, feminism, the history of the body, and issues of identity. Disability is everywhere in culture--from Oedipus to the Human Genome Project--once critics know how to look for it. It is a narrative about human differences we can chart over time, an interpretation of physiological and mental traits we can query, an exclusionary discourse we can excavate, and a fiction about bodily variation we can reveal. Most important, these narratives shape the material world, inform human relations, and mold our sense of who we are. In short, then, the New Disability Studies interrogates disability; it challenges our collective stories about disability, redefining it as an integral part of all human experience and history.

on Twitter

, where this blog lives now. because it can be read and posted to through that app, one-handed, on my back, by a body of water, or in the cool olive green light above my mattress. This is articulation my spine had not dreamed of before.

My blog lived on Tumblr for a minute

because it is so much easier to access from my phone. fallinginrealtime.tumblr This is the feed. No, I don't like it. I can't add another virtual box. I'll make due with Twitter.

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