DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

A number of books recently have brought cultural and disability studies together by questioning the binary medical/social models through which disability is viewed. Works such as Lennard Davis's Bending over Backwards, Robert McRuer's Crip Theory, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's Cultural Locations of Disability and several essays in Lennard Davis' revised Disability Studies Reader have criticized the medical model — the idea that disability rests in a physical or cognitive impairment — but have also questioned whether or not the social model doesn't throw out the lived body with the social constructionist bathwater. Tobin Siebers' essays have been at the forefront of this critique, and this book gathers them together in what is one the most important contributions to disability studies since Lennard Davis' Enforcing Normalcy. And like this important predecessor, Siebers makes good use of theoretical and cultural studies approaches to disability to historicize the disabled body against the tendency to treat disability as a metaphor for something else. This latter tendency, what Mitchell and Snyder in an earlier book call "narrative prosthesis," is now subjected to ethical and philosophical critique that posits a realist ethos grounded in a revitalized identity politics.

I suspect that Disability Theory will be controversial in a number of areas and will probably ruffle feathers both in disability studies as well as in realms of cultural theory. And that's all to the good. As I read (and teach) new scholarship on disability studies I see the same rhetorical sleights of hand being used to deconstruct ableist ideology without much critical reflection on the assumptions that underlie this endeavor. Siebers' book is a caution about how easily academic discourse produces the illness it seeks to cure. "We" all agree that the medicalization of the body has been harmful to persons with disabilities. "We" all agree that this model locates the "problem" in the impairment and not in the social and cultural barriers to full participation in social polity. "We" all agree that ideological state apparatuses reinscribe power on the body and render them docile. But as Siebers points out, the social model, by focusing on the social meanings of disability tends to dismiss the body as a kind of empty code of signifiers. That is small comfort for a person experiencing chronic pain or receiving dirty looks when boarding a bus or being denied access to a job, courtroom, or medical insurance.

The latter are a few of the examples that Siebers uses to show the complex nature of disability and the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all definition of the term. The book uses such examples sparingly but to good effect, including personal anecdotes that position the author as someone who knows from experience. Siebers is particularly good on the problem of "passing" in which the person with a disability must negotiate the door to the medical closet, opening it enough to expose one's disability to a skeptical able-bodied public or else closing the door in order not to offend anyone. He makes good use of Eve Sedgewick's Epistemology of the Closet to show the multi-valent meaning of "coming-out" or becoming visible as a disabled person in which the ability to pass is complicated by the phenomenon of invisible disabilities (deafness, chronic illness, certain cognitive and neurological impairments, etc.). Perhaps his most powerful critique is reserved for the accusation of narcissism leveled against disabled persons whose "special needs" require business owners to bend over backwards to accommodate access that able bodied persons take for granted. Siebers' diagnosis of the close connection between narcissism and disability politics is one of the best aspects of this book and helps explain why disability continues to be a missing element in social justice. If a constituency is perceived to define rights claims for "special accommodation" around individual medical conditions, then that group could be said to be self-serving and narcissistic — hardly the best climate in which to mount a social movement.

Siebers' primary purpose in this book is twofold: to revive identity politics as a necessary political and social option for considering disability and to unsettle the influence of certain post-structural theorists in reading disability. For the first case, he provides an important historical survey of how identity politics rose to influence during the 1960s and 1970s, and then fell from favor due to the rise of social constructionist theories. Siebers wants to revitalize the concept of minority discourse, not as an argument for more balkanized subjectivities (black, woman, gay, lesbian, etc.) but as a necessary stance in any rights-based claims for empowerment. He understands that as a class that is potentially inclusive of all individuals, claiming disability as a minority position is a hard sell, but he wants to argue for a "complex embodiment" that acknowledges the differences among persons with disabilities. He is highly critical of adapting the identitarian position that reduces all persons with disabilities to a single class, but he also feels that without some sense of collective identity, claiming rights under federal and state protections will be difficult.

As for social construction, Siebers recognizes that although experience is constructed through social attitudes and prejudices, the identities produced within such conditions are "real" and valid for purposes of public policy, community formation, and jurisprudence. In other words, it is possible to adopt a social constructionist theory of experience for disabled people while respecting the legal claims based on this experience. This is the thrust of chapter six in particular, but it informs much of the writing in this book. Siebers criticizes the ways that Michel Foucault's theory of the docile body and bio-power have been used as an all-purpose definition of how persons with disability are medicalized. He notes that in Foucault's distinction between the pre-modern soldier and the modern "docile" soldier, there lies an ableist ideology that prefers the former as a default. He is also critical of Judith Butler who, despite her important critique of constructionism as being inadequate to material bodies, nevertheless tends to treat "abject bodies" (and by extension disabled bodies) as lacking authentic subjecthood. The bottom line for Siebers is that the most synthetic critiques of identity — the ones on which much current disability in the humanities is being written — tend to reinscribe the idea of an able-bodied standard, even while undermining the authority of some single identity position. Speaking of Butler, Siebers notes that she claims "society uses pain of guilt to produce conformity with the heterosexual body" but that in her work, pain is rarely physical and more likely something like "pain of guilt or social repression."

This book has two audiences as its focus: "critical and cultural theorists [who need to understand how] disability studies transforms their basic assumptions about identity, ideology, politics, meaning and the body," and disability scholars whom he wants to put " into contact with signal thinkers in the adjacent fields of cultural studies, literary theory, queer theory, and critical race studies"(1). Because Siebers has a solid foundation in critical theory and continental philosophy, he is in an ideal position to raise these issues at a sophisticated level. But because he is a superb reader of texts (court cases, avant garde art, newspaper and media reports, literary history) he can bring much needed local detail to these theoretical arcanae.

One way that he provides texture to his theoretical excursions is by introducing what he calls "dossiers" into his text at various points to interrupt and provide illustration for what he is saying at a local level. These dossiers — statements by public officials, quotations from newspaper editorials, short discussions of legal cases — are concrete examples of how disability is framed in the public purview by pundits, editorials, and media columnists. The dossier represents, as he says, "a deliberate act of identity politics, and I offer no apology for it because identity politics remains in my view the most practical course of action by which to address social injustices against minority peoples." It is clear, however, that each dossier complicates the idea of disability as a single entity and illustrates, without editorial comment, the variety of positions being taken around issues of embodiment in the public world. Some readers may feel that the sudden eruption of a dossier in the midst of a theoretical discussion is distracting, but I feel that they actually offer a public counter-theme to the theory that suggests the importance of grounding theory in concrete examples. It is a good example of Siebers' "realist" position in action.

This counter-argument owes a good deal to the work of Paula Moya and Satya Mohanty whose theories of realism provide an important framework for negotiating between social constructionist claims and lived reality. Siebers adapts their views to show that yes, disability exists as a set of social constructions but once that reality is made it takes on a "shape, politics, and history that belongs to the realm of human action" (82). This position offers Siebers a chance to attend to complex embodiment in specific cases (Deaf persons differ fundamentally from people in wheelchairs in their attitudes about disability; people with chronic illness differ from people with spinal injuries, etc.) while maintaining a "moral universalism" that provides support for considering disability as a minority position. Siebers uses his own house as an example of the limits of "universal design" in addressing the needs of various kinds of disabled persons — himself included. His concern is not simply for a more inclusive meaning of disability but an awareness that unless we have an inclusive definition of disability, it will continue to be seen as a sign of weakness, pathos, or injury instead of a condition that impacts all of us.

One of the most important things about this book is its discussion of the relations between sexuality and disability. Siebers' remarks on sexual surrogacy, architecture, and sexual pleasure are very important, especially given the powerful role of sexuality in cultural theory in which disability seldom makes an appearance. His most controversial claim, in this regard, will be the idea that persons with disabilities are a "sexual minority," in the terms advanced by Jeffrey Weeks and others. He understands that sexuality does not define disability but that disability "defamiliarizes" attitudes towards sexuality in significant ways, expanding our notions of what sexual activity accommodates and what it does to break down barriers between privacy and public life. Most non-disabled persons seldom think about disabled people having sex, and many feel that disabled persons should not participate at all in reproduction. Siebers wants to explode such ideas and explore why they are so pervasive. His discussion of disability "sexual culture" will broaden our knowledge of these matters. It will also broaden the meaning of "access" to include accessibility to spaces and persons, sites of pleasure and erotic practices that are seldom included in discussions of universal design.

Disability Theory's cover features a painting (Pattern) by Riva Lehrer in which the artist depicts herself lying on the grass, drawing with a lipstick an idealized outline of a naked woman's body over her dress while looking at her face in a mirror. It is a complicated commentary on the category of mimesis with the artist drawing the body society desires on the disabled body society refuses to see, using the cosmetic tool that distinguishes, as we have heard recently, soccer moms from pit bulls. Because the mirror into which she looks is turned away from us, the artist sees something different from what we, as viewers, see. What we do see is the complex act of self-mirroring that occurs between the natural body (the artist is lying sur l'herbe after all) through its multiple manifestations as subject and object, woman as artist and woman as object of gaze, and, finally, disabled subject as creator of her own view of herself. It is an appropriate image for Tobin Siebers' book, concerned as it is with the way that narratives of bodily normalcy are imprinted on the bodies of disabled people and particularly the way that the bodily difference is gendered. Disability Theory rescues the historic body of disability from its diaspora into theories that require bodily difference without subjects attached.

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Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Davidson



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