Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Tremain, Shelley. (Ed.). Foucault and the Government of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 340 pages, $60.00, Cloth 0-472-09876-4

Reviewed by Robyn Fishman, California State University Long Beach

Governments all over the world have attempted reform by removing labels like "imbecile" and "lunatic" and encouraging society to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Restructuring language and societal constructs is part of the process society might use to rehabilitate its self concepts. History mirrors these discussions when it records how society conceptualizes itself, defines power, and disseminates knowledge. It is impossible to miss the parallels between current discussions of disability in relation to societal policy and laws and Foucault's previous discussions about the institution, governmentalities, and bio-power. While Foucault never specifically wrote about disability, he probably would not mind this eclectic variation on his work. In Foucault and the Government of Disabilities, Shelley Tremain brings together the work of seventeen academics to assess how Foucauldian theory relates to the current interpretations and presumptions of disability.

This collection tackles questions of legal protection, group care, education, medical, and societal treatment of the disabled community. With so many topics and types of analysis, the way in which these articles are organized and structured becomes important. This work is divided into four sections. The first half dealing with epistemology and histories is not without problems, but its articles are mostly coherent and well argued. The last two sections are more muddled and repetitive.

In the first section, the articles by Martin Sullivan and Scott Yates are clear examples of the need for a brief synopsis of data collection, analysis, and selection procedures that could have been provided in the body of the work or in end notes. Sullivan thrusts the reader into the personal experiences of paralysis without explanation for his choice of subject. Yates evaluates the care of those with learning disabilities without grounding the reader's experience. Because learning disabilities is a large umbrella category which covers multiple levels within each evolving diagnosis, Yates's vague, broad use of the label of learning disability leaves the reader confused, without needed clarity.

Other articles such as "What Can A Foucauldian Analysis Contribute to Disability Theory" by Bill Hughes balance these ambiguities. In his essay, Hughes discusses of the limitations of using Foucault. Hughes struggles to find a comfortable balance between Foucault and present debates about agency within the disabled community. This article's concerns, which are the most critical of Foucauldian analysis, are echoed by the surrounding authors' work. The arguments of the writers are well rounded and honest about the limitations of using Foucault. They strive to find a comfortable balance between Foucault and present day debates about agency within the disabled community.

This collection's editor, Tremain, readily admits that there will be pieces that overlap. Reading the collection, it is obvious that her reference is aimed at the third and fourth sections. Repetition does not take away from the work of each author, but it does make pushing through the last half of the collection tedious. In a shining moment at the conclusion, Kathryn Pauly Morgan handles sexual dimorphism with a sense of humor and a bit of irony in "Gender Police." She successfully uses Foucault's theories to clearly outline the purpose for this collection.

The greatest asset of this collection of essays is that it gives perspective to models of disability. There are clear advantages and disadvantages of the legal, socio-political and medical definitions of disability. Discussions of how power and knowledge are formed in medical, legal, and social contexts allow us, as Ladelle McWhorter suggests, to re-examine our premise about the ways in which we label people, and how the consequences of those labels effect the way disabled people are regarded. It is clear from Martin Sullivan's article, "Subjected Bodies: Paraplegia, Rehabilitation and the Politics of Movement," that those outside the direct experience of disability must reconsider the difference between how an individual deals with his/her disability and a medical diagnosis. His article clearly articulates one of the strongest themes of this collection: who defines normality and the consequences of that definition in terms of shaping treatment of disabled people. Tremain's collection is evidence that Foucauldian theory is a positive step towards evaluating medical and socio-political discourses in parallel, if not together. This is not a direct call to arms, but an examination of the problems and complications that occur when current problematic models of disability interact.

The value of applying Foucault and his theories to how we interpret and deal with disability is promising. This collection has not completely addressed all the issues or problems that using Foucault's theories invite. It functions as a stepping-stone for things to come. The nature of the writing and the repetitious character of the second half may relegate it to the shelves where the truly dedicated Foucauldian theorists, disability historians, activists, and political scholars would search. It will miss the mark for the stated aim of reaching all people at all levels. The collection is useful in that it offers clarity in the way the authors simplify and explain Foucault. His relationship to their studies could open new dimensions for disability scholarship.  

Copyright (c) 2005 Robyn Fishman

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Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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