[Readings: Licia Carlson, “The Human as Just an Other Animal: Madness, Disability, and Foucault’s Bestiary”; Kari Weil, “Killing Them Softly: Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics”; Cary Wolfe, “Learning from Temple Grandin: Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject” from What is Posthumanism?]

The last group of readings for the course explores connections between the fields of disability studies and animal studies. In the intersections that the authors find in each of the texts, the impetus of the investigation is aimed at, not necessarily finding a definitive answer to how we might understand or define the “human animal” beyond the limiting boundaries of liberal humanism, but at identifying and posing questions, and seeking out new directions for study. In this blog post, I’d like to take note of the important ambiguities that each of these texts explores, since the answers to questions of subjectivity and identity entertained by both animal studies and disability studies are far from straightforward.


In “The Human as Just an Other Animal: Madness, Disability, and Foucault’s Bestiary,” Carlson seeks to understand the contradictory way in which discourses of animality are employed, that is, in both critical and positive terms. Carlson notes:

…on the one hand, the disability critique challenges associations between the ‘cognitively disabled’ and non-human animals, and calls for us to humanize our view of disability; on the other hand, the critical discourse on non-human animals calls in to question the ontological and ethical privileging of the human over the non-human animal, and calls for us to ‘reassert our human animality,’ i.e., to recognize our own animal nature. (118)

Carlson parses Michel Foucault’s text Madness and Civilization to determine whether we might read in Foucault the same ambiguous discourse. She notes that, in revealing how the figure of the “madman” as a non-human animal becomes discursively constructed over several historical and epistemological periods, resulting in the dehumanization of those classified as “mad” or “insane,” Foucault “does not explicitly argue that we must sever our ties with our animal nature altogether” (126). This leads Carlson to ask, “in studying the mask of the beast worn by the madman, does Foucault unmask some dimension of our animal nature as human beings?” (126).

While madness may be constructed as animality, Carlson notes through Foucault (via Pascal) that the hegemony of reason — “the Reason that silences and excludes madness” — can, itself, be regarded as a form of madness and, thus, animality (126). Carlson interprets that Foucault’s goal here is not to resolve this tension, but to reveal how these two positions can co-exist and how the tension between them is made possble. Carlson suggests that knowledge of the assumptions that support the perceived otherness of the animal or “madman” might dissolve this tension, might allow for a more nuanced understanding of various subject positions.


The notion of a model of subjectivity not based on language is the subject of Weil’s text “Killing Them Softly: Animal Death, Linguistic Disability, and the Struggle for Ethics.” Her central concern is the significance of the human animal in relation to the death of the non-human animal. Through the examples of Temple Grandin and J. M. Coetzee’s character David Lurie, Weil observes that “killing animals brings us face to face with the inadequacies of our language, or at least with the rational and logical thinking it enables. Death is the place where the conceptual and ontological distinctions that language makes possible break down, including the distinctions between human and animal” (91). The moment of death represents a moment where the human recognizes in the animal a shared vulnerability to mortality.

However, this position is also problematic, since it involves the suffering and sacrifice of the animal; as Weil notes, for Grandin and Lurie, communion with the animal leads to animal sacrifice, rather than a condemnation of this killing (95). In Weil, the central ambiguity, then, is the notion that empathy is always “contradictory and contentious” (96). Even Wolfe’s notion of “ethical pluralism,” defined by Weil as a sense of responsibility for those different from us, is nonetheless problematic in the light of animal killing. Her final question sums up this problem: “is the ability to kill softly enough?” (96).


Generally, Wolfe’s text What is Posthumanism? seeks to destabilize the foundations of the liberal humanist subject and elucidate a new posthumanist model of subjectivity. In the chapter “Learning from Temple Grandin,” Wolfe notes that disability studies and animal studies are in ideal positions to do just this, in the sense that both “[pose] fundamental challenges” to “the liberal justice tradition and its concept of rights,  in which ethical standing and civic inclusion are predicated on rationality, autonomy, and agency” (127). These fields encourage “new lines of empathy, affinity, and respect between different forms of life, both human and nonhuman,” allowing for new relationships and possibilities to emerge (127-8). As mentioned, both Carlson and Weil, too, focus on affinity as a central way whereby diverse life forms might form compassionate connections — not in the sense of particularities, but in terms of the more general condition of mortality.

Wolfe uses the example of Temple Grandin to explore the decentering of liberal humanist ability that prioritizes the organization and mastery of space by reframing this “ability” as, actually, an impairment to connecting with and understanding the experiences of nonhuman animals (131). As Wolfe explains,

…disability becomes the positive, indeed enabling, condition for a powerful experience by Grandin that crosses the lines not only of species difference but also of the organic and inorganic, the biological and mechanical. In a kind of dramatization of the category meltdowns identified canonically in Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto,’ disability here positively makes a mess of the conceptual and ontological coordinates that Grandin’s rendering of the passage surely reinstates rhetorically on another level. (136)

Wolfe is centrally concerned with pointing out that the liberal concept of subjectivity, even as it attempts to accept and incorporate uniqueness or difference, nonetheless imposes upon these identity categories the expectations of its normative model. Even some disability studies scholarship celebrates the empowerment of disabled people and validates this subject position by appealing to the language and ideals of the “normal” subject (138).

Overall, Wolfe’s assertion in this chapter is the importance of an overall tolerance of ambiguity that disregards classification and instead encourages biodiversity across species lines and “an ethics based not on ability, activity, agency, and empowerment but on a compassion that is rooted in our vulnerability and passivity” (141).


These three articles all highlight the ways in which ability (in the liberal humanist sense) is, at a very basic level, a measure of an individual’s “rationality, autonomy, and agency,” all of which define the degree to which we might consider that individual a fully human subject. In this tradition, “inhuman” qualities — those that reject Reason and identify more readily with so-called basic primal behaviour — are aligned with a sort of animality. The drive to maintain hierarchies and boundaries between the human and animal worlds reinforces a conception of the “human” that is both exclusionary and limiting. It is exclusionary in the sense that those whose physical or mental states do not conform to the aforementioned ideals are understood in animalistic terms; it is limiting in the sense that potential positive relationships or affinities between human and non-human animals are restricted.

I see this type of mentality, certainly, at work on the PatientsLikeMe site, where affinity, especially, involves the search for others whose experiences (physiology, mental states, medical history) are the same as one’s own. As I have discussed, the very naming of the site positions users in a realm separate from everyday, “normal” (perhaps, fully human) spheres of activity. Underlying the language of the site is intense anxiety over the threat posed by deviations from “rationality, autonomy, and agency.” Particularly important here is the preoccupation with categorization, which divides and organizes in order to impose control. In the context of animal studies, these categorizations and hierarchizations are what limit our possibilities for connection and interaction; moving in a more positive direction involves the approach that Derrida endorses: that “there is not one opposition between man and non-man; there are, between different organizational structures of the living being, many fractures, heterogeneities” (qtd in Wolfe 139).

[Readings: Elizabeth Grosz, “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit” from Freakery; Anne Fausto-Sterling, “Gender Systems: Toward a Theory of Human Sexuality” from Sexing the Body; Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” from The New Media Reader]

The three writers that I discuss in this post — Elizabeth Grosz, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Donna Haraway — are all concerned in their respective texts with the presence of boundaries that structure our definitions of human identity and subjectivity. The writers examine these boundaries particularly in terms of binary conceptions of sexuality, but more broadly, they are concerned with what Grosz calls “the psychical, physical, and conceptual limits of human subjectivity…, marking the threshold, not of humanity in itself, but of acceptable, tolerable, knowable humanity” (55).

Grosz analyzes the figure of the “freak” for the role this identity category plays in reasserting stabilizing notions of “normalcy.” Grosz sees the freak as significant (both fascinating and repulsive), since he or she

is an ambiguous being whose existence imperils categories and oppositions dominant in social life. Freaks are those human beings who exist outside and in defiance of the structure of binary oppositions that govern our basic concepts and modes of self-definition. They occupy the impossible middle ground between the oppositions dividing the human from the animal…, one being from another…, nature from culture…, one sex from the other…, humans and gods…, and the living and the dead. (Grosz 57)

In discussing hermaphroditism, Grosz notes the practice among medical practitioners, despite recognition of the complex factors that constitute a subject’s sexuality, to surgically correct “the subject’s nonconforming sexuality so that it comes to approximate one or the other category of sexual identity (61). Grosz points out that, in popular discourses, it is not “sexual profusion” (the presence of clear-cut male and female parts) but “sexual indeterminacy” (the presence of neither male nor female genitalia) that seems to be intolerable (61).

The presence of this ambiguity that disrupts binary thinking is also manifest in the example of conjoined twins who are “undecidably singular and plural, individual and collective” (64). The drive here is to separate the twins so that they can each live happy, healthy, “normal” lives. Overall, Grosz suggests that “freak” figures, represented in her discussion by the hermaphrodite and conjoined twins, serve as mirrors that reflect back to us our insecurities about the instability of our own identities; the freak is the “monstrous being” within our own psyches that we must reject in order to “make the bounded, category-obeying self possible” (65).

In “Gender Systems: Toward a Theory of Human Sexuality,” Fausto-Sterling also wishes to explore ambiguity in the context of sexual identity. She calls for a more complex understanding of human sexuality that rejects binary thinking in favour of ambiguity; even her method, after philosophers John Dewey and Arthur Bentley, involving the practice of “see[ing] together . . . much that is talked about conventionally as if it were composed of irreconcilable spheres,” rejects the separation of nature from nurture or genes from environment (Dewey and Bentley qtd in Fausto-Sterling 235).

Much of Fausto-Sterling’s discussion focuses on the ways that “the changes that occur throughout the life cycle all happen as part of a bicultural system in which cells and culture mutually construct each other” (243). While gender and sexuality are often understood as inborn and only superficially constructed by social experience, the writer argues, through the example of smiling, that human behaviour develops in a much more complex way. In the example of smiling, “at the same time that the muscles and nerves that govern smiling develop and become more complex, so too do the functions and social contexts that elicit smiling… Thus, a physiological response becomes ‘socialized’ not only in terms of intentional use but also in terms of the actual body parts (which nerves and muscles are used and what stimulates them) themselves” (245-6).

The drive to find a universal explanation for sexual behaviour and gender acquisition is, according to Fausto-Sterling, futile and unproductive. Instead, the focus should be on examining individual difference, studying sex and gender as part of a developmental system, and being more thorough and exploratory in investigations of environmental components of sexual development (246).

Fausto-Sterling is also interested in how “individuals interpret sexual physiology in the context of institutional and individual gender” (250). Citing Judith Lorber, the author notes that gender, as a social institution, is interested in establishing social statuses for the designation of individual responsibilities; in this process, gender creates the binary positions of man and woman, thus imposing particular power relations (250).

This last point regarding the institutional components of gender is particularly salient in the context of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” wherein the writer seeks to expand, beyond the restrictive prescriptions of social institutions, the possibilities for human identity, thought, and action. One central thrust of the ironic political myth that Haraway elucidates in this piece is the goal of disassembling boundaries that have been imposed upon human identity by various forces, including Christian and Oedipal narratives and origin stories–myths of “original unity, fullness, bliss and terror” (Haraway 517). The “three crucial boundary breakdowns” at the centre of Haraway’s piece are the separations of human from animal, animal-human from machine, and physical from non-physical (517-8). In the cyborg world that Haraway envisions, “people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (519). The “freak” that Grosz cites in her piece is, perhaps, a version of the cyborg figure that Haraway envisions. The two writers use similar language to describe the hybridizations and ambiguities that these figures contain.

The world Haraway envisions blurs boundaries so as to negate their existence; this blurring is a repudiation of the disciplinary control that seeks to contain bodies, but is it also an ultimate denial of, perhaps valid and important (minority) subject positions? While the ability to decide boundaries, to categorize and to label, is certainly a privilege of those in heteronormative positions of power, isn’t there also some power that comes from asserting a minority identity? At the same time, it may be argued that this only supports hegemonic structures. In blurring boundaries, however, is Haraway not, also, paradoxically erasing difference? Her goal is to sabotage power relationships that have actually created difference, as well as to open up multiple, limitless possibilities for identity. I am, perhaps, misunderstanding Haraway, but it seems to me that there is something within the cyborg figure that also seeks to homogenize (if that makes sense?); or, maybe this is simply a drive for equality — for a level playing field.

Lastly, somewhat tangentially, it also seems strangely optimistic to expect that if humans were “unafraid” to hybridize, to abandon the categorical structures of the liberal humanist subject, that there would not still exist social hierarchies. Would difference simply be enacted in other ways and according to new criteria? Of course, Haraway’s imagined cyborg world is not intended to be taken so literally, but simply to call into question the myths on which we have formed identities and social structures…

[Readings: Judith Butler, “Critically Queer” from Bodies that Matter; Robert McRuer, “Introduction: Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence” from Crip Theory]

The pair of readings that I discuss in this post both work to develop theories that address cultural expectations of compulsory heteronormativity. First, Judith Butler analyzes the reappropriation of the term “queer” by LGBT individuals and develops a theory of gender performativity; applying Butler’s conceptual framework for queer theory to the field of disability studies, Robert McRuer later adapts the notion of gender trouble to understand what he calls “ability trouble.”

According to McRuer, queer theory, in its central concern with the deconstruction of compulsory heterosexuality, relies on the same basic notions regarding disciplinary power and the normative as does disability studies; not only this, but McRuer also theorizes that “compulsory heterosexuality  is contingent on compulsory able-bodiedness, and vice versa” (2). Finding links between systems of able-bodiedness and heterosexuality that work to produce both disability and queerness, McRuer suggests that the introduction of “normalcy” gives birth to both of these interrelated compulsions.

Just as Butler argues that heterosexual identity is, in fact, always an elusive categorization, able-bodied identity, too, is an “inevitable impossibility” (10). Along these lines, McRuer notes an important gap in relation to disability that echoes Butler’s differentiation of “virtually queer” and “critically queer” identities. He observes:

Everyone is virtually disabled, both in the sense that able-bodied norms are ‘intrinsically impossible to embody’ and fully in the sense that able-bodied status is always temporary, disability being the one identity category that all people will embody if they live long enough. What we might call a critically disabled position, however, would differ from such a virtually disabled position; it would call attention to the ways in which the disability rights movements and disability studies have resisted the demands of compulsory able-bodiedness and have demanded access to a newly imagined and newly configured public sphere where full participation is not contingent on an able body. (30)

The focus here is not necessarily on demystifying dichotomous ways of thinking that distinguish able bodies from disabled bodies, but on rejecting the narrative of normalization and attitudes that seek to “fix” disabled bodies. The compulsions that both Butler and McRuer identify must be resisted because they represent manifestations of an overall emphasis on “discipline, regulation, [and] punishment” (Butler 232) and derive from what McRuer locates in neoliberalism as “the appropriation and containment of the unrestricted flow of ideas, freedoms, and energies unleashed by the new social movements” in favour of “the unrestricted flow of corporate capital” (2).

One point that I found quite interesting in McRuer’s chapter was his reminder: “…think, after all, of how many institutions in our culture are showcases for able-bodied performance” (9). Certainly, physical excellence in athletic endeavours is valued in contemporary North American culture; physical fitness is now, more than ever, a cultural obsession, as reflected by the growing number of reality television shows that seek to “fix” problems of obesity and physical undesirability. In considering McRuer’s point, the tradition of the Special Olympics came to mind. Arguably, even in this cultural forum, where disability is, perhaps, the “norm,” extraordinary feats of physical ability are celebrated; disabled athletes are applauded for their efforts to train their bodies to do things that “normal” bodies can do.

McRuer usefully adapts and expands upon many of Butler’s arguments regarding compulsory heternormativity. I wonder how the notion of performativity might fit into discussions of disability and compulsory able-bodiedness? How are ability and disability performative? That is, how do they “[echo] prior actions, and [accumulate] the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior, authoritative set of practices” (Butler 226-7)? While McRuer doesn’t state explicitly that he’s referring to performativity, I suppose this connects to his discussion of “flexibility,” in the sense that able-bodied individuals define themselves through and against the foil of disabled individuals (as in the example of Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets); able-bodiedness means the ability to adapt to multiple and various situations, while disability means flexibly accommodating and validating able-bodiedness by functioning as its “other” (McRuer 30).

I suppose I’ll have to conclude this post with a question. Despite understanding McRuer’s discussion of “flexibility,” I’m still not entirely clear on how able-bodied or disabled identities are actively performed. I understand how one can act “like a girl” or “like a boy,” not, as Butler notes, by way of choice, but resulting from the “forcible citation of a norm”; as she goes on to say, subject formation is dependent on, first, the existence of “legitimating gender norms” (232). But, how does one repeat or cite “a prior, authoritative set of practices” that makes one able-bodied or disabled? What, exactly, are these practices?

[Readings: David Wills, “Hamilton, 1970” from Prosthesis; selections from Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, eds, The Prosthetic Impulse; David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor” from Narrative Prosthesis]

…the problem of the representation of disability is not a search for a more ‘positive’ story of disability, as it has often been formulated in disability studies, but rather a thoroughgoing challenge to the undergirding authorization to interpret that disability invites. There is a politics at stake in the fact that disability inaugurates an explanatory need that the unmarked body eludes by virtue of its physical anonymity. (Mitchell and Snyder 60)

The readings in this module all address questions regarding the materiality and metaphorics of prosthesis and/or prosthetics. In the introduction to The Prosthetic Impulse, Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra express the overarching goal of the essays in the collection to understand the (post)human impulse to materially, figurally, or metaphorically promote or resist human contact with an increasingly technologized world (4). As Smith and Morra emphasize, these essays are united in their consensus that “the point of prosthetic contact — and the dialectic of the edges in such contact — is also part of a process that recognizes exactly how ‘the prosthetic’ is an integral or ‘interconstitutive’ part of the ‘human'” (7).

Vivian Sobchack, in her chapter “A Leg to Stand On,” is specifically interested in exploring the “interconstitutive” nature of embodiment. Her text seeks to counter the romanticization or glorification of the prosthetic at a time when the absorption of technology by the body is seen as “sexy,” “exotic,” or futuristic (19, 32). By discussing her own prosthetic leg as a literal, material object, rather than a displaced and generalized idea, she also seeks to complicate common metaphorical uses of the prosthetic. Sobchack argues that “most of the scholars who embrace the prosthetic metaphor far too quickly mobilize their fascination with artificial and ‘posthuman’ extensions of ‘the body’ in the service of a rhetoric (and, in some cases, a poetics) that is always located elsewhere” (20). The prosthetic metaphor, further, appeals to the notion of the originary wholeness of human corporeality; the body is “constituted in purely objective and visible terms: body ‘parts’ are seen (from an ‘observer’s’ point of view) as missing or limited, and some ‘thing’ other (or some ‘other’ thing) is substituted or added on to take their place” (Sobchack 22). The author emphasizes the fact that, in reality, the prosthetic becomes incorporated into an individual’s “body schema” (to use theorist Mark Hansen’s term) in such a way that the prosthetic, itself, becomes “transparent” or unquestioningly part of the body, like any other biologically-produced limb (Sobchack 22).

Underlying Sobchack’s discussion is the same inclination that preoccupies David Wills in “Hamilton, 1970,” the first chapter of his text Prosthesis. Wills refutes the notion of an original “wholeness” of the body, suggesting that fragmentation or “incompleteness” lies at the heart of corporeality. As he notes, “…the whole never was anywhere, neither in the singular nor in the total, because the parts were always already detachable, replacable, because the transfer effect upon which the general is constructed is there at the very beginning, in the nonintegrality of that beginning, called prosthesis” (15). Wills’s emphasis on a “conjunction or enfolding” spans both the material and the discursive and engages the notion that the search for clear boundaries between the natural and artificial will always inevitably descend into a never-ending “spiral… no way back to a single origin, yet no way out of the appeals to and of the same” (17).

And yet, despite this refutation of wholeness that unites the authors, there is also a discrepancy in the way that each uses and understands the concept of prosthesis or the prosthetic. This is clear, also, when reading Sobchack’s chapter against David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor”; these authors claim to use Wills’s definition of the term “prothesticize,” and in doing so implicate some of the integral issues that Sobchack expresses with regards to its use.

Mitchell and Snyder use the notion of narrative prosthesis to signify a narrative technique that attempts to compensate for a lack in the text, or that serves as a “crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (49). As the authors explain, “our notion of narrative prosthesis evolves out of this specific recognition: a narrative issues to resolve or correct — to ‘prostheticize’ in David Wills’s sense of the term — a deviance marked as improper to a social context” (53). In this sense, the prosthesis is regarded as an “add-on” or substitution that corrects an initial problem. In response to this perspective on prostheticization, Sobchack argues: “this predication (and point of view) elides the phenomenological — and quite different — structural, functional, and aesthetic terms of those who successfully incorporate and subjectively live the prosthetic and sense themselves neither as lacking something nor as walking around with some ‘thing’ that is added on to their bodies” (22).

There would seem, then, to be a degree of conflict between the observations that Mitchell and Snyder articulate — namely, that the literary representation of disability serves as “an opportunistic metaphorical device” (47) — and the very metaphorical structure that the authors use to express this narrative technique — what in Sobchack’s terms would represent the “scandal of the metaphor,” that being its use as a “fetishized and ‘unfleshed-out’ catchword” (21).

Admittedly, having read only one chapter of the larger project that is Narrative Prosthesis, I may be making an unfair assessment of Mitchell and Snyder’s use of the term. The sense I get from this chapter, however, is that there is little attention paid to the complexities of the prosthetic; that, instead, the prosthetic metaphor is used rather loosely and in a way that is, as Sobchack says, displaced from its mundane, material reality. At the same time, is it possible that Sobchack’s analysis of the prosthetic metaphor, or her definition of prosthesis, itself, is overly restrictive? For Sobchack, the reality of the prosthetic is the body’s incorporation of a bionic limb; for Wills, the prosthetic extends as far as language, writing, and the subjective pronoun “I.” At conflict here seems to be the importance of understanding disability, or the prosthetic condition, in its existence as specific material reality, against the impulse to view the body as always already existing, more generally, in a state of both material and immaterial prostheticity.

While Sobchack insists upon the specificity of such metaphorical language in referencing back to, not necessarily the literal object, but “‘common opinion’ about the object and context” (21), Wills articulates the insufficiency of language in expressing the concept/state/idea of prosthesis. He states: “So I name it prosthesis, I give it a name to the configuration that is too complex and imprecise to have a name… The name for it is the name for the possibility of naming or uttering in general, and thus there is an urgent necessity to name it. To name it with a name that limps into existence; name it, as I do, prosthesis” (Wills 20).


Turning away from the language of prosthesis, I think it’s also important to explore the nuances of Mitchell and Snyder’s argument more closely, since their analysis of disability representations is rather in-depth in this text. Their arguments relate closely to those by Ato Quayson in Aesthetic Nervousness, who sees disabled literary figures “as a fulcrum or pivot out of which various discursive details emerge, gain salience, and ultimately undergo transformation within the literary-aesthetic field” (34). I think, importantly, in both cases, these representations are seen as “opportunistic” or exploitative, since they rely on “programmatic (even deterministic)” portrayals of disabled characters that serve larger narrative interests (Mitchell and Snyder 50). Central to this portrayal is the action of objectification that occurs, as disability serves to provide the narrative with a grounding in the materiality of the corporeal body, while the text attempts to “repair” this deviance or to employ it as “the hard kernel or recalcitrant corporeal matter that cannot be deconstructed away by the textual operations of even the most canny narratives or philosophical idealisms” (Mitchell and Snyder 49).

The function of these representations is akin to the cultural work of queer and disabled representations in the context of mid-twentieth-century military culture that David Serlin discusses in “Disability, Masculinity, and the Prosthetics of War.” The drag performances of amputees in the American military rehabilitation centres of the 1940s were employed, as Serlin says, in a “socially and ideologically productive” way to, paradoxically, affirm the masculinity and heteronormative status of individuals recovering from injuries sustained in battle (Serlin 175). Similar to the use of disability as a narrative technique through which to affirm or deny particular subject positions, in the U.S. military context, the queer disabled body was absorbed within an ideological agenda that sought to affirm its own definition of “ablebodiedness and heterosexual masculinity” (Serlin 160).

Much of this reading recalls my prior discussions of Foucauldian disciplinary knowledge and power, specifically, as articulated by Shelley Tremain in “On the Subject of Impairment.” The treatment or deployment of “deviant” or subversive bodies in texts that seek to assert heteronormative ideologies is, in effect, a way in which difference, or the threat of difference, is created so that normalcy can then be enforced or enacted.


[Reading: Shelley Tremain, “On the Subject of Impairment” from Marian Corker and Tom Shakespeare, eds., Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Studies]

In her book chapter, Shelley Tremain analyzes “how the sort of biomedical practices in whose analysis Foucault specialized have been complicit in the historical emergence of the category of impairment and contribute to its persistence” (33-4). While the impairment-disability differentiation has traditionally been used in the same way as the sex-gender distinction, relying on the notion that impairment (like sex) is biological, while disability (like gender) is socially/culturally created, Tremain explores how (like sex) impairment cannot be understood as a purely descriptive term. Quoting Judith Butler, she notes that “there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (34). Tremain wishes to emphasize that even physical states that may appear to be linked to nature are nonetheless subject to interpretations that limit their meanings.

Employing Foucault, Tremain’s central contention is as follows:

Inasmuch as the ‘impairments’ alleged to underlie disability are actually constituted in order to sustain, and even augment, current social arrangements, they must no longer be theorized as essential, biological characteristics of a ‘real’ body upon which recognizably disabling conditions are imposed. Instead, these allegedly ‘real’ impairments must now be identified as the incorporated constructs of disciplinary knowledge/power that they are. As effects of an historically specific political discourse — biopower — impairments are materialized as unitary and universal attributes of subjects through the iteration and reiteration of rather culturally specific regulatory norms and ideals about human function and structure, competency, intelligence and ability. As universalized attributes of subjects, furthermore, impairments are naturalized as an interior identity or essence on which culture acts in order to camouflage the historically contingent power relations that materialized them as natural. (42)

Here, Tremain mobilizes the Foucauldian concept of biopower to suggest that the category of impairment actually “persists in order to legitimize the disciplinary regime that generated it in the first place” (43). The very material nature of these conditions relies on a particular understanding of a healthy, normal, or able body that, in effect, works to produce impairment, just as the social model proposes that normative discourses create disability. Indeed, Tremain points out that “only people who have, or are presumed to have, an impairment are counted as disabled. Thus the strict division between the categories of impairment and disability which the social model is claimed to institute is in fact a chimera” (42). In the end, “impairment has been disability all along” (Tremain 42).

Tremain’s deconstruction of the language used to categorize and understand disability works toward revealing how “deviance” is policed and regulated in contemporary societies. In response to this highly theoretical discussion of disability, I think the question remains as to whether or not this reading skirts the practical, physical, embodied side of disability. The contention that impairment exists as a culturally-relative value judgment is certainly well-founded; however, merely for the sake of being contrary, I wonder if there are, indeed, identifiable physical or cognitive states, definable as impairments, that transcend specific historical, social, or cultural moments? This is perhaps tangential, but I find myself wondering if this chapter forgets that impairments actually do cause real barriers to everyday living and that, even with sufficient accommodations, impairments can still impair?

I’m not sure how to phrase this without sounding completely ignorant or naive, but I also wonder about normativization (or rehabilitation?) in general. We might consider that people who identify as “impaired” or “disabled” or “sick” and who seek out “solutions” or accommodations that will make their lives more easy or more “normal” recognize a desire to work toward a particular ideal of living. This may be because they have no other option — because a normative living environment is not well-suited to their particular condition. While it is important to view disability, not as a problem to be solved but as another mode of embodiment, one that, as Titchkosky notes, our society needs, I also can’t help but think that there are certain conditions that no person would ever (or should ever) desire. (This is particularly clear to me after reading so many forum posts on the PatientsLikeMe ALS discussion board; disability (or disease, if that is a more apt descriptor) like that absolutely needs a cure.) This series of questions is quickly degenerating, but these are the questions that have cropped up throughout readings by disability scholars and activists… many of which are, perhaps, unanswerable.

Overall, I realize that Tremain is not arguing that impairments are not real physical conditions, but instead that their labelling as “impairment” is imposed by a disciplinary regime that seeks to regulate difference. At the same time, I wonder how people with impairments would respond to this idea? I also wonder how this argument adds to what Corker and Shakespeare in their introductory chapter identify as the need for disability studies to remain grounded in activism and the goal of emancipation for people with disabilities. What can we do about this situation? Will a change in language result in a better understanding of disability, or is our language always already tainted by the interests of the hegemonic regime out of which it emerges?

[Reading: Marian Corker and Tom Shakespeare, “Mapping the Terrain” from Marian Corker and Tom Shakespeare, eds., Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Studies]

This week’s text, Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Studies, seeks to situate disability studies scholarship within various movements progressing from modernism to postmodernism, discuss key postmodern texts through which disability studies can develop, and reflect on the ways in which postmodern theory can work toward a better (more complex, nuanced, fair) understanding of disability.

The first chapter by the editors of the collection does an excellent job of outlining various theories of postmodernist thinkers. Mainly for my own selfish purpose, this post will simply synthesize some of the key concepts that Marian Corker and Tom Shakespeare explicate in their introductory chapter.

At the heart of postmodernism is poststructuralism, which reworks the modernist concept of the subject to reveal that subjects do not autonomously create themselves or their worlds. “Rather, subjects are embedded within a complex set of social relations. These relations in turn determine which subjects can appear, where and in what capacity. The subject is not something prior to politics or social structures, but is constituted in and through specific socio-political arrangements… [P]oststructuralism contends that modernism’s focus on the individual as an autonomous agent needs to be deconstructed, contested, and troubled” (Corker and Shakespeare 3).

Corker and Shakespeare identify the following theories, relying mostly on postructuralist deconstructions of language and culture, to be of particular interest for the study of disability:

  • Jean-François Lyotard  identifies in the postmodern turn “the decline of the legitimating power of meta-narratives” that “presuppose an ahistorical standpoint from which to understand the human mind, knowledge, society, and history” (Corker and Shakespeare 5). Rather than understanding culture or history through “a rational knowing subject and a universal mind, we imagine multiple minds, subjects and knowledges” (Corker and Shakespeare 5). The importance of this perspective is that it promotes tolerance toward social differences, local specificity, ambiguity, and conflict.
  • Jean Baudrillard also rejects epistemological and ontological truths, but to a greater degree; Baudrillard sees “postmodernity as a ‘post-industrial’ society, where the primacy of the mode of production in defining social relations is replaced by the primacy of the mode of information and its transmission through technology” (6). Because we live in an age of hyperreality, there is no distinction between signifier and signified; therefore, social ‘differences’ like disability are merely captured in processes of simulation… leading Baudrillard to refuse the fetishization of difference or minority status.
  • Jacques Derrida‘s concept of différance, to denote meaning that includes both identity (what it is) and difference (what it isn’t); in this sense, meaning is continuously deferred. Therefore, from a Derridean perspective, “‘normativism’ needs ‘disability’ for its own definition: a person without an impairment can define him/herself as normal only in opposition to that which s/he is not — a person with an impairment. Disability is not excluded from ‘normativism’; it is integral to its very assertion” (7). This deconstructionist approach reveals how our thinking is always necessarily rooted in binary logic.
  • Michel Foucault reveals how ‘truths’ about identity or normativity or nature are produced by discourses that create “dominant and subjugated subjects” (7). Particularly important for disability studies, “Foucault shows us that social identities are effects of the ways in which knowledge is organized,” while also revealing connections between knowledge and power. “Modern power is not ‘sovereign,’ a result of coercion from outside, but ‘disciplinary’ because of the ritualized and institutionalized action of the techniques of power and their normalizing effect on modern life” (8). Shelley Tremain’s chapter provides an in-depth look at how Foucault’s theories of knowledge and power are applicable to the concepts of impairment and disability (see next post).
  • Jacques Lacan‘s theories, in the context of disability, suggest that “the entire order of disabling culture divides us into two states — impaired and ‘normal’, in the form of a hierarchy that privileges the latter. It does so through linguistic structures that are so deep that the ‘tyranny of the normal’ not only breaks up the impaired/’normal’ dyad, but does so to the degree that any possibility of relationship to the normal is repressed in the unconscious as the imaginary. The entire concept of identity takes place through this repression of impairment, in such a way the people with impairments cannot affirmatively identify with others like themselves” (9).
  • Judith Butler‘s notion of performativity, developed through the “‘queering’ of the Foucauldian concept of ‘the docile body’… [uses] the phenomenological theory that social agents constitute ‘reality’ through social practice. She criticizes the commonly held idea that femininity and masculinity are the cultural expressions of material fact, namely the female or the male body. Instead of the notion of gender as an expressive act, she proposes viewing it as a performative one. Thus, the idea of gender, ‘race’ and disability as corporeal styles makes it possible to examine how individuals live in their bodies and, in this process, constitute gender, ‘race’ and disability in social relations” (10). This does not mean that the performative act is deliberate or singular, but is instead “the ritualized practice by which discourse produces the effect it names” (10).
  • Donna Haraway‘s interest in complicating what counts as nature or natural appeals to posthumanist ways of thinking about embodiment. “Acknowledging that there have always been bodies that create ontological anxiety in their failure to conform, Haraway also points to technological practices such as xenotransplantation, genetic engineering, transsexual surgery and cloning, and the way in which they blur the boundaries of the fixed human body” (12).

Corker and Shakespeare argue that these and other postmodern theories can strengthen the conceptual power of disability studies scholarship. They identify the need for a more comprehensive social theory of disability than the social model, while also recognizing the need for disability studies to have a practical, as well as an activist, orientation. The goal of disability studies should be “the development of inclusive societies“; to “benefit from the new theoretical toolbox” that postmodernism and poststrucuralism offer, disability studies must conceive of theory as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself (15).

[Readings: Tania Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment; Rebecca Garden, “Disability and narrative: new directions for medicine and the medical humanities”]

Texts never just get it right or get it wrong insofar as they are also a ‘doing’ — right or wrong, texts are always oriented social action, producing meaning. Texts do not just talk about the world, even though that might be their self-proclaimed intention. Texts, insofar as they appear, are our world. That is, for any word on disability to make sense, it needs to gesture at a whole world that allows for such a sensibility. (Titchkosky 21)

In this post, I’ll focus mainly on Tania Titchkosky’s Reading and Writing Disability Differently, since Rebecca Garden’s article about disability studies in the context of the medical humanities is also rooted in the same goal of revealing the problems created by the medicalization of disability. This concept has been brought up in previous posts. It essentially refers to the understanding of disability as a biomedical problem to be solved, rather than a complex set of social, cultural, environmental, and other factors that influence an individual’s way of being. Escaping from the preoccupation with trying to define disability, Titchkosky seeks to identify the meanings of disability within contemporary Western culture (12).

Titchkosky argues that conversations in mainstream media and bureaucratic realms regarding disability or using disability metaphors (conversations that address such phenomena and activities as “storms, war, genetic testing, accidents, physician-assisted suicide, unsafe work environments, and mass ultrasound projects” (Titchkosky 6)) preclude the possibilities of viewing disability as “a desired status” or “as a difference that the collective needs” (Titchkosky 6). Titchkosky wishes to examine the ways in which readers, on a daily basis, encounter textual constructions of disability and interpret them in normative ways that reinforce the notion of disability as a problem. For Titchkosky, disability does not represent aberrance from some agreed-upon norm; disability is a concept created by and between people. It is “made meaningful by the ways we say it to be and live its being” (Titchkosky 12). In other words, disability is “textually enacted”; we encounter disability through texts and our sense of its weight and substance within society and culture is a process of intertextual interpretation (Titchkosky 17). Disability is, therefore, an interpretive issue that implicates understandings of embodiment in general. In her examples of print media from popular Canadian news sources like The Globe and MailNational Post and CBC, Titchkosky reveals how “disability is made present as the space of provocation where we might begin to reread how culture puts our embodiment to text and textures all of our lives” (9).

In her book, Titchkosky hesitates to propose a sweeping solution to remediating social attitudes toward disability, since even so-called “solutions” proposed by medicine (i.e. eliminating genetic mutation), government (i.e. campaigns for inclusivity), and popular culture (i.e. narratives of overcoming disability) continue to paint disability as an undesirable, problematic state of being that would best be eliminated (141-3). Instead, her goal is to communicate the necessity of “developing self-reflective and critical responses to textual constructions of disability” (Titchkosky 26).

Citing Joan Scott, Titchkosky asserts the idea that “we do not discriminate because we have noticed a difference. Rather, within a hierarchicalized techno-bureaucratic capitalist culture, we discriminate and thereby enact difference” (24). Throughout the book, Titchkosky notes instances of these discriminations and reveals their basis in texts that create a reality, rather than just serve to represent one. In the example in Chapter 3 of a young girl’s “medical mystery,” specifically, her parents’ choice to follow through with the pregnancy knowing that their daughter will be born disabled, Titchkosky argues that “the condition of the text’s emergence is empowered by, and simultaneously empowers, the genre, or language game, of medicine” (83). As Titchkosky goes on to say,

the sensibility of the text reflects that which has conditioned its existence just as much as the text activates a form of medical language that seduces the reader into a taken for granted relation to this language use. In the context of the text resides an ongoing activity of not only making up meaning of people and issues, but also constructing the appropriate relations between these people and those issues. I am speaking here of the issue of ‘governmentality’ or, as Foucault puts it, the conduct of conduct, which governs our governing of our selves. (83)

This activity occurs in the sample text through various writing conventions; namely, the appeal to the authority of the medical establishment and its technologies as producing otherwise unknowable truths; the movement from the detection of abnormality to the depiction of disability as a “simple biological mistake” that leaves the victim “short-changed” (Titchkosky 90); the implication that a woman’s choice to bring an “abnormal” pregnancy to full term is “unruly” or “monstrous” and results in the child’s victimization (Titchkosky 94-5); and the use of skewed statistics and “authoritative” medicalized discourse to reinforce the problem of disability.

In response to this textual construction, Titchkosky encourages the questioning of hegemonic ways of knowing (particularly those that appeal to medicalized discourse) in favour of a more reflective mode that “attempts to understand all stories and all truths as engaged in and accomplished through the social action of interpretation” and that understands individuals (readers and writers) as creators of meaning (102). Here, Titchkosky proposes a practice whereby “readers can read their readings” and be aware of alternative interpretations (103).

Reading Titchkosky’s text has helped to open up some questions regarding the PatientsLikeMe social networking site, discussed previously. In the context of the user profile, individual users’ experiences become narrated primarily through a highly medicalized discourse. What is the effect of this profile information and its use of (pseudo-)medical language upon the types of conversations that happen in other places on the site, where communication is less scripted? I have yet to examine the discussion boards, where probably some of the most valuable exchanges (for individual users, anyway) are happening. I anticipate that the narratives told here communicate a much different emphasis, where perhaps the focus is not so much on tracking and evaluating levels of normalcy or well-being, but instead, sharing more personal and complex stories about what it means for individuals to live with particular conditions. I wonder, too, if these discussion board contributions depart from the fixation on defining oneself according to a disease or condition, and instead, work to explore other facets of identity? How far do these discussions stray from the imperatives of the site or the intended uses imagined by the site’s creators?

I think an exploration of this aspect of PatientsLikeMe will provide important texts through which to explore how meaning is created on the site; how do the site’s users reinforce or subvert the interpretations imposed by the user interface? Do users question the “normative violence” of their representation through the user profile? Does their social action in other areas attempt to complicate the medical discourse that dominates some parts of the site? These are some questions I will keep in mind as I continue to track the ways in which PatientsLikeMe users mobilize the affordances of the site to meet their own needs and interests.