Little scholarship exists on the intersection of disability studies and Chicana and Chicano studies. Indeed, aside from the very fine scholarship of Julie Avril Minich, I have not encountered many scholars engaged fully within both of these fields.1 I thus found myself excited at the opportunity to review Suzanne Bost's new book, Encarnación: Illness and Body Politics in Chicana Feminist Literature. Bost treats a range of issues often considered to fall within disability studies, including physical disability, illness, and pain. Her attentiveness to diverse forms of embodiment proves in some ways as productive as one might hope, offering an at-times useful contribution to disability studies. However, the book ultimately founders on a number of theoretical and political contradictions that prevent an otherwise promising argument from being fully realized.

Bost pursues two general lines of inquiry in her book. The first is an exploration of how conceptions of disability, illness, and pain and their meaning vary across cultural contexts. Specifically, she considers how Chicana (and Mexican) writers and artists have thought about pain and illness and how they have differed from dominant ways of thinking among Anglo-Europeans. This argument makes a welcome contribution to disability studies, and I believe that it is for this contribution that most readers will find Bost's book useful. Through examinations of works by Frida Kahlo, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Ana Castillo, Diane Gamboa, and Maya González, Bost argues that these writers and artists turn to pre-Columbian spirituality and imagery in their works specifically in relation to disabled bodies and bodies in pain (particularly, although not exclusively, in self-representational works). More importantly, she argues that the effect of this turn is to ground their representations of pain, illness, and disability in non-Western understandings of the relationship between self, other, and community and of the body. This positioning breaks important ground for disability studies, as, for example, when she discusses Anzaldúa's hesitancy to identify as "disabled" and when she argues that within many cultures, including both Chicano and pre-Columbian cultures, understandings of which bodies are and are not "normal" or "able-bodied" can vary significantly (13-14).

Bost's integration of disability perspectives and attentiveness to the body also provide interesting new readings of the work of Anzaldúa, Moraga, and Castillo. The most successful of these is chapter 2, on Anzaldúa, where Bost is able to offer a much fuller account of the role of spirituality and mysticism than many other critics have, in part by connecting Anzaldúa's views on pain with her conception of the body which, in turn, is deeply connected to her spiritual worldview. Notably, Bost observes that Anzaldúa understands pain in ways that defy traditionally Western understandings, seeing it, for example, as a means for expanding consciousness rather than as a limit to meaning. The discussion of Castillo is less successful, in part because of a lack of sustained consideration of the possibility that at least some representations of disability by Castillo (who is nondisabled) might have a problematic relationship to what scholars like Tobin Siebers have described as a fetishistic use of physical disability to signify something other than actual disability (e.g., emotional loss, psychological or historical trauma, or the fracturing of social identity).2 To be fair, Bost does bring up the question of whether Castillo's use of disability might be "problematic" or even "offensive" (181 and 189). However, she ultimately does not seem to consider these questions to have much to do with her main arguments.

The second line of inquiry in Bost's book relates to my reservations about her discussion of Castillo. Bost engages in a recurring argument with something she describes as "identity politics," although she never offers a definition of what she understands that to be. Her recurrent dismissive references to "identity politics" might ultimately be attacks on a figure made of straw. At several points, Bost seems to associate "identity politics" with nationalism (for example, on pages 80 and 196). However, she seems interested in denoting something much more inclusive, also vaguely referencing forms of feminist and disability "identity politics." The closest Bost comes to offering a definition of "identity politics" comes in her citations of Wendy Brown's 1995 work, States of Injury. However, Brown's work has been repudiated by a number of scholars in critical race, feminist, and disability studies, making it a controversial authority at best.3 And yet, for Bost it is apparently the only definitive work on "identity politics" (despite Brown's own failure to give any substantive examples of "identity politics" in her book). Bost thus makes a number of unsupported assertions about "identity politics," such as that "identity politics … isolate [sic] identity from larger contexts and networks of power" and that "identity politics seek [sic] sameness and protect the boundaries around identities" (186, 187).

The sorts of qualities that Bost off-handedly attributes to identity politics function primarily in the service of her larger argument in support of solidarity across groups and acknowledgment of the internally multiple experiences of individuals and groups. However, it is not clear that a denigration of political identities is necessary for this argument. Indeed, many scholars of identity argue that forms of identity politics allow one to adequately attend to multiplicity and to make coalitions across and among groups.4 Whereas Bost describes "Latina" as a "bordered identity" that she sees Castillo as moving beyond, one could as easily argue that "Latina" is a porous identity, the politicization of which allows Chicana feminists like Castillo to make connections to others who are not Latina (176-77).

Given the limitations of Bost's criticism of "identity politics" and its dispensability for what is most interesting about her arguments, one might ask why she finds it necessary to engage in it in the first place. Most contemporary defenders of "identity politics" would fully agree with Bost's advocacy of coalition and acknowledgement of the internal complexity and multiplicity of identities. Many advocates of identity politics have concurred with her criticism of nationalism.5 On one level, it might be tempting to think that there is only a semantic difference between Bost's characterizations of disability, pain, illness, and multiplicity as transcending identity politics and other scholars' characterizations of them as expanding possibilities for identity politics.

However, despite Bost's occasional protestations to the contrary (196-97), the overall effect of her repeated abjection of "identity politics" is to discredit the invocation of identity for the formation of political coalitions and movements. Bost briefly entertains, in her introduction, the suggestion that her own subject position might have a relation to her work. Although this leads her to discuss her identity as a white woman and as a Catholic, she doesn't mention whether or not she identifies as disabled. She ultimately rejects the possibility that her own racial identity might explain her attitude toward identity politics, although she does maintain connections between her Catholic upbringing and her understanding of pain as having meaning beyond the superficial. I would counter, however, that there is something at least troubling about Bost utilizing the tools of Chicana feminism and disability studies (academic endeavors with deep roots in identity-based political movements) to argue against identity-based politics. I am not saying that the same argument could not have been made by someone who identifies differently, but it would have been helpful for Bost to have at least reflected with more earnestness on this issue. In any case, the dismissal of identity ultimately leaves Bost without resources to explain her choice of texts (all by Chicanas, with the exception of Kahlo's work) or these writers and artists' decision to draw primarily from pre-Columbian indigenous worldviews (as opposed to, for example, psychoanalysis, Buddhism, or French poststructuralism). Indeed, in quotation after quotation, Anzaldúa, Moraga, and Castillo make reference to "racial" and "genetic" rationales for their respective turns to indigenous sources, defying Bost's assertions that they are rejecting all forms of identity politics. Ultimately, this kind of theoretical inconsistency dooms what could otherwise have been a valuable contribution to disability and Chicana/o studies.

Endnotes

  1. See Julie Avril Minich, "Disabling La Frontera: Disability, Border Subjectivity, and Masculinity in 'Big Jesse, Little Jesse' by Oscar Casares," MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 35, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 35-52.


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  2. Siebers, Tobin, "Disability as Masquerade," Literature and Medicine 23, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 1-22.


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  3. See, for example, Michael Hames-García, "How Real Is Race?" in Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, eds., Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), pp. 308-39; Tobin Siebers, "Disability Studies and the Future of Identity Politics" in Linda Martín Alcoff, Michael Hames-García, Satya P. Mohanty, and Paula M. L. Moya, eds., Identity Politics Reconsidered (New York: Palgrave, 2006), pp. 10-30.


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  4. See, for example, Minh T. Nguyen, "'It Matters to Get the Facts Straight': Joy Kogawa, Realism, and Objectivity of Values," and Michael Hames-García, "'Who Are Our Own People? Challenges for a Theory of Social Identity," in Paula M. L. Moya and Michael Hames-García, eds., Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 171-204 and 102-29. See also Carrie Sandahl, "Black Man, Blind Man: Disability Identity Politics and Performance," Theatre Journal 56 (2004): 579-601.


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  5. See, for example, Michael Hames-García, "How To Tell a Mestizo from an Enchirito®: Colonialism and National Culture in the Borderlands," diacritics 30, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 102-22.


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Copyright (c) 2011 Michael Hames-García



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