Cartoon: 1st block, two female figures, three male figures, one male figure with a letter E on  his chest, and one wheelchair figure--male figure says I am EVERYMAN, the comic book character that everyone can relate to!; 2nd block, female figure says, I can't help but notice that your name is EveryMAN rather than EveryPERSON. Male figure says, Well, yeah, I'm not a woman; 3rd block, a different male says, Plus you're kind of white bread; wheelchair figure says, And solidly middle class; 4th block, Male figure with E on chest says, Look, I'm not too rich or too poor or too ethnic or too female or too gay or too differently abled! I'm just a perfectly normal guy like the rest of you!

Excerpt from a comic strip by Joseph Hewitt

Of all the specific liberties which may come into our minds when we hear the word 'freedom,' freedom of movement is historically the oldest and also the most elementary. Being able to depart for where we will is the prototypal gesture of being free, as limitation of freedom of movement has from time immemorial been the precondition for enslavement. Freedom of movement is also the indispensable precondition for action, and it is in action that men primarily experience freedom in the world.

-Hannah Arendt, "On Humanity in Dark Times" (1970)

If as Karl Marx famously suggested, "to be radical is to grasp things by the root," perhaps we shouldn't begin the study of social movements with the principles they espouse or the aspirations they articulate, but with their implications for the must fundamental human concerns: how do people navigate, or move within, the world around them? How do discourses of physical ability (capable/debilitated) and mental acuity (slow/fast) shape social possibilities? How do they shape academic scholarship and social policy? Taking the movement in social movement politics more seriously than has thus far been attempted is the intellectual enterprise that animates this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly.

The word "movement" has a political valence that we tend to associate with "social movement politics" and with the prospect for social justice. As such, "social movements" should ostensibly be concerned with "liberation," with "freedom" from persecution, perhaps even "liberty and justice for all." Movement Politics suggests that, far being something marginal groups can aspire to attain in some straightforward sense, "Freedom," might well prove to be something of a chimera—that freedom is at best a noble aim, at worst, a sinister delusion; that the same period which saw the formal end of coercive economic and political systems and the "birth of freedom" saw the formation of institutional structures created to safeguard the privileged standing of people who benefitted from an exploitative matrix of interlocking systems that threatened to come undone. Whether freedom can ever mean what it purports to be in its most ambitious iterations remains to be seen. Yet it is the conceit of this special issue that the modern concept of freedom relies on at least three misguided axioms about the human condition that continue to animate research in the humanities and social sciences, that modern Freedom has several indices: unprecedented social mobility (Cohen, Schraeder); the capacity for Reason (Dilts, Jones, Martin, M. Ralph); and physical mobility (L. Ralph), distilled uncritically into the plight of "mankind" in diverse genres of modern writing.

Social movements are usually very much concerned with insisting upon the humanity of all people, with condemning "man's inhumanity to man." But, the gendered inflection of this seemingly universal principle is but one sign of it obsolescence. In other words, for all sorts of reasons, we would be wise to think more carefully about the conceptions of man, the ideas of humanity, that shape political projects. The scholars assembled here seek to challenge and critique these assumptions by drawing heavily on some of the most recent developments in Disability Studies, which have shown how crucial it is that we attend to the distinct and yet overlapping forms of differentiation that shape social aspiratons and which structures ideas of personhood. 1

Critical insights concerning the human condition—as in the scientific conception of evolution, from early hominids through the present—frame human progress as increased efficacy at bipedal progress and rational thought. But how, we might ask, have these two presumed capacities—to walk and think in normative ways—led us to exclude sustained attention to social actors with a rather different orientation to perception and mobility? To put the question a different way: how might more careful attention to different forms of perception and genres of mobility help us to enhance and customize the political theories and aspirations that drive our diverse initiatives? In a related vein, we might ask what happens when the forms of disability that endow us with critical insights the human condition are not reducible to the formal categories through which they are recognized?

Lauren Berlant has thoughtfully shifted our attention from politics as a particular sort of plan to politics as a procedure for articulating social aspirations, for theorizing attachment, for cultivating the promise that our diverse networks of affiliation will reward our initiative. Rather than limiting her inquiry to the particular rationale that people articulate for political programs and beliefs, she is interested in the architecture of desire through which we articulate a plan for our individual and collective strivings. 2 Movement Politics, is likewise concerned with the broad range of objects and forms of technology—the social programs and economic and political cleavages—people navigate in the course of unfurling their lives.

In this way, Movement Politics seeks to tarry with the boundaries of this framework as thus far articulated. 3 More specifically, Movement Politics insists that all scholarship is deficient to the extent that it fails to question the forms of debility that structure social action. Thus, this special issue does not merely draw together related work as part of a sustained inquiry concerning a particular topic. Instead, we aim to show how the insights of Disability Studies can be used to illuminate themes in disciplinary domains that would otherwise seem distinct, from Science and Technology Studies (Cohen) to Film and Media (Jones) to Poetry (Bennett), Anthropology (Martin, M. Ralph) and Legal Studies (Dilts and L. Ralph). Still, these pieces resonate with a shared commitment, that at the heart of what we do there often lurks a story about disability/debility if only our conceptual tools are refined enough to grasp that insight.

Only some of the articles featured here might initially appear to be related to any of the others. Stuart Schraeder, Facundo Chávez Penillas and Andrew Dilts have a lot to say about transformations in capital, yet the examples they cull vary in space and time. Emily Cohen examines the micropolitics of prostheses, as she shows how disabled veterans in Colombia deploy and manufacture artificial limbs. In a related vein, Laurence Ralph discusses Chicago gang members who have lost limbs in the violence associated with their economic enterprises, and yet such loss might either provide an opportunity to pursue anti-gang advocacy or, even more frequently, help foster exalted status as a wounded veteran in the context of these non-governmental military exploits. So the "politics" in movement politics need not correspond to some particular agenda or ideal. Instead, we are concerned with the politics of mobility, with techniques for securing access and opportunity, with a diverse range of aspirations, expectations and technologies. In the process, Movement Politics attends to four related genres of movement—social movement politics, social mobility in economic and political aspirations, physical debility/disability, and the spectacle of the disabled body in commodified arenas (whether music, publishing, film, or sports)—with each constituent article placed in a deliberate sequence to enhance and enrich insights that emerge from the one that precedes it.

Julie Livingston has used the word "debility" to encompass the broad range of physical injury and illness people have occasion to experience, and the nuanced articulations of disability that surface in different time periods and distinct social contexts. Jasbir Puar has thoughtfully combined "debility" with attention to "capacity" in a broader matrix of "affect" which conditions individual responses in relation to the social arena(s) in which they take place. 4 The foregoing analysis builds on both approaches and yet resists abandoning the language of disability altogether in light of the enduring relationship that obtains between the formal language of disability and the social movement known as the "disability rights movement" (M. Ralph). 5 Thus Movement Politics is concerned to explore how further interrogating scholarly approaches to disability might help to complement and enrich disability rights activism. This task is complicated by the fact that the experience of social actors that modern nation-states formally classify as "disabled persons" can potentially differ from the experience of social actors who struggle with illness and injury and various forms of physical and mental and spiritual or psychological or affective debility (Cohen, Bennett, L. Ralph) but who prove unable to secure formal classification within this constituency (Schraeder)—even if these distinctions do not surface in ways that can be anticipated or grasped in any consistent and comprehensive manner (Jones, Martin, M. Ralph). It is precisely this dialectic between those who could conceivably fall within the category of disability yet don't always manage to do so and those who are routinely, though not always, classified as such that forms the intellectual point of departure for Movement Politics. In the United States, this tension is palpable in the formation of the post-bellum nation-state and the trends toward economic and political restructuring which gave rise to formal indices of disability yet excluded some populations that were widely held to be debilitated from entry into that category (Dilts, Ralph).

Thinking through disability in this way has particular implications for geographies of debility that center on the Atlantic world, where bureaucratic notions of disability—and competing ideas of debility and capacity—have been central to the formation of modern political and commercial aspirations. Makandal, the eighteenth century marron leader from Saint Domingue (later, Haiti) had attracted attention from plantation authorities as early as the 1757 for masterminding a rash of poisons that triggered "widespread panic as deaths on plantations" escalated with unparalleled frequency. Despite being an amputee who had lost an arm in a plantation sugar mill some time before, Makandal was later found "guilty of making himself formidable among Blacks, and of having corrupted and seduced them by marvels." 6

Meanwhile, the process of formally emancipating enslaved Africans in the wake of the British Abolition Act of 1807 would involve its own bizarre discourse on debility, as only able-bodied slaves could be manumitted, or freed from slavery, in many plantation contexts, leaving disabled slaves trapped in illicit forms of unfree labor. Not to mention the litany of psychological conditions—institutionalized in early diagnostic manuals, like the DSM IV—which identified an array of purported mental illnesses associated with slaves who refused to work (disasiea ethiopica) and those with the propensity to rebel (drapetomania). Meanwhile, practitioners of Afrodiasporic religions who experience visits from enslaved ancestors sometimes exhibit physical disabilities during the moment of ritual possession, attesting to injuries from manacles and other antebellum technologies of subordination. 7 And beyond these structural resonances, there are moments of individual ingenuity that articulate these seemingly disparate forms of social distinction, as when the African American slave Ellen Craft escaped from bondage by posing as a disabled, white, male slave owner, co-starring her husband as her personal slave. 8

In this sense, we might return to Puar's formulation concerning capacity-debility-affect to consider how discourses of disability intersect with economic systems structured by a different and yet related scheme: credit-debt-morality. After all, both frameworks provide a basis for evaluating social action. And while discourses on capacity-debility and credit-debt appear self-evident to many people, they rely for their efficacy on structures of affect and morality, 9 respectively (M. Ralph). After all, in what sense can any person be understood to have experienced a loss or a gain in the absence of a context with clear parameters for defining social norms and ideals? In teasing out the contradictions of modern progressthe vicissitudes of modern subjectivity—Movement Politics mines the field of Disability Studies for productive angles from which to reconfigure established domains of inquiry. The guiding ethos of this special issue is that critical traditions are cumulative. In the same way that it is utterly inconceivable to produce a comprehensive analysis of any social formation that does not account for economic cleavages or competing forms of political leverage or the way that gender, sexuality and race define social belonging, we believe competing notions of debility and capacity, and bureaucratic formulations of disability, are central to understanding social life. In this spirit, we offer Movement Politics, not so much as an authoritative statement on these matters as an incitement to further research along the lines we tentatively sketch in what follows.


  1. For scholarship in this vein that is especially illuminating consider: Michael Bérubé, "American Studies without Exceptions," PMLA: Publicatiions of the Modern Language Association 118.1 (January 2003): 103-113; James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, eds., Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001); Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (New York: Routledge, 1996); Shelley Lynn Tremain, ed., Foucault and the Government of Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2005); Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability, Trans. William Sayers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982); Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, eds., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (New York: Modern Language Association, 2002); Lennard J. Davis, Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University, 2002); Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (New York: Verso, 1995); Doris Zames Fleischer and Freida Zames, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); Kenny Fries, ed., Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out (New York: Plume, 1997); Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007); Julie Elman, "Medicalizing Edutainment: Enforcing Disability in the Teen Body, 1970-2000, PhD dissertation, George Washington University, 2009.

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  2. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), xx.

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  3. In many ways, the idea of disability with which we tend to operate owes its origin to bureaucratic designations for people who were injured on the job and thus could no longer qualify as laborers. In this context, disability was initially tied to vagrancy—a transience born of economic dislocation—though this social category would likewise come to mark someone who was immobilized through medical illness or physical impairment and who was bureaucratically categorized as such. See Deborah Stone, The Disabled State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 61.

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  4. Livingston's project to cultivate historical and ethnographic specificity concerning questions of debility is of immense value, especially given the fact that the World Health Organization released its first-ever report concerning disability in June of 2011. See "World Report on Disability, 2011." For more on "debility" as a point of departure, see Julie Livingston, Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), as well as "Insights from an African history of disability," Radical History Review 94 (2006): 111-126. Also see, Jasbir Puar, "Prognosis Time: Toward a geopolitics of affect, debility, capacity," Women & Performance: Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2 (2009): 161-172.

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  5. Samuel R. Bagenstos, Law and the Contradictions of the Disability Rights Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). See also Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Times Books, 1993).

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  6. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 33-34

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  7. "After writhing about on the floor for several minutes, the 19th-century runaway congo slave animating Arcaño's body that summer afternoon in 2004 arose and began demanding tobacco and rum. These would be his only rewards for risking recapture. "Manuel," the pseudonym by which he was known to everyone except Arcaño, who alone knew his real name, walked with a noticeable limp, caused by the shackles that were still attached to his ankle when he fled the plantation. He therefore needed to use a special cane to keep from falling," see Kenneth Routon, "Conjuring the Past: Slavery and the Historical Imagination in Cuba, American Ethnologist (November 2008): 636.

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  8. Uri McMillan, "Crimes of Performance," Souls 1 (January 2011): 29-45.

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  9. David Graeber persuasively argues that all systems of credit-debt rely on moral assumptions in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House).

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Copyright (c) 2012 Michael Ralph

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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ISSN: 2159-8371