Does disability studies romanticize disability? Maybe so, one is inclined to think after reading Nirmala Erevelles' brilliant new book. In Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic, Erevelles—an associate professor of Social Foundations of Education and Instructional Leadership at the University of Alabama—argues that prominent disability studies scholars theorize disability as an essentially transgressive category that exists outside of the socio-historical world. By fetishizing disability as a marker of transgressive difference, these scholars ignore the world economic system that creates, devalues, and even obliterates disability en masse. Thus, the romanticization of disability within disability studies makes it impossible for the field to identify—much less overturn—the ableism inherent in the global economy.

Much of Disability and Difference is a critique of disability studies scholarship that might, generally, be described as "poststructuralist." In Erevelles' view (and also my own), such poststructuralist thought about disability can entail a number of features, including the following:

  • a turn toward linguistic analyses that deny the existence of any material reality outside of language
  • a fetishization of the "local" to such an extent that any attempt to understand global dynamics puts one at risk of being labeled "essentialist"
  • a simultaneous and seemingly contradictory tendency to view disability as an ahistorical category to which all humans inevitably will have access
  • as mentioned above, the romanticization of "disability" as category that inherently upsets dominant forms of social organization.

In contrast to these poststructuralist analytics, Erevelles argues for a "materialist" conception of disability that focuses on "the actual social and economic conditions that impact (disabled) people's lives, and that are concurrently mediated by the politics of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and nation" (26). And yet, even as Erevelles emphasizes the importance of class for disability, she also argues that disability should have a privileged role in class analysis. For Erevelles, disability is "the ideological linchpin utilized to (re)constitute social difference along the axes of race, gender, and sexuality in a dialectical relationship to the economic/social relations produced within the historical context of transnational capitalism" (6, italics in text). In other words, "disability" is not simply another identity category. It provides a key to the constitution of all identity categories in transnational capitalism. Through a consideration of disability's relationship to these axes of identity and, ultimately, the existing capitalist modes of production, Erevelles attempts to enable the "transformative body politic" of the book's subtitle.

This ambitious refashioning of disability studies begins, surprisingly, with a heartbreaking personal narrative. In "Introduction: Bodies that Do Not Matter," Erevelles describes the death of her husband, the literary scholar Robert Young, at the age of forty-two. In narrating such a horrendous situation, Erevelles would be forgiven for lapsing into sentimentality. Yet, while she candidly discusses her family's anger, sadness, and frustration, she not only manages to reflect on the larger social dynamics conditioning their plight, but also emphasizes the privileged aspects of their situation. For example, in a hospital waiting room, she and Robert chat with a white patient who, upon hearing that they are university professors, exclaims "You're so lucky!" They have excellent health care benefits, while he, as an unemployed construction worker, was struggling to pay his medical bills. Through this anecdote, Erevelles introduces the conception of a "class analysis" (5), which is then deepened throughout each of the book's six chapters.

In Chapter 1, "Disability as 'Becoming': Notes on the Political Economy of the Flesh," Erevelles lays the foundation for what she terms "materialist disability studies" through an analysis of African American literary critic Hortense Spillers' essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." In that essay, Spillers analyzes the role that the violence of the Middle Passage played in the formation of African American identity. Erevelles inserts disability into this narrative, pointing out that the slaves of the Middle Passage were rendered disabled through violence. And yet, in this context in which disability is a marker of racialized violence, Erevelles asks a question that she borrows from the work of Robert McRuer: "What might it mean to welcome the disability to come, to desire it?" (Erevelles 27, citing McRuer 207).

Thinking about this question in the context of the Middle Passage is, to say the least, a sobering experience. Erevelles argues that desiring disability must entail a concrete shift in the relations of production that make disability utterly undesirable. To describe how these relations of production both utilize and denigrate disability, Erevelles turns—in a moment of understated poignancy—to the work of her late husband, Robert Young. Drawing on Young's theorization of "race as a commodity fetish," Erevelles argues that the very category of "disability" operates as a commodity fetish that occludes the violence of the socio-economic system. The only way to rid ourselves of this violence is by changing the economic relations of production.

In Chapter 2, "Of Ghosts and Ghetto Politics: Embodying Educational Policy as if Disability Mattered," Erevelles examines how the history of disability is embodied in contemporary education policy. Drawing on the works of Patricia J. Williams and Avery Gordon, Erevelles examines how the sex-ed curricula of US public schools systematically strip disabled and LGBTQI students of their sexual identity. These students are considered so vulnerable that they must be protected against sexuality, even as, simultaneously, the prospect of their having sexual desire is a source of great fear for the educational system. She concludes by theorizing "the material conditions that enable transgressive sexual politics" (91). She argues that students should be given a set of publicly funded options that would allow them to realize the "thick desire" for "'opportunity, community, pleasure and protection from coercion and danger'" (92, citing Fine and McClelland 326).

In Chapter 3, "'Unspeakable' Offenses: Disability Studies at the Intersections of Multiple Differences," co-authored with Andrea Minear, Erevelles uses her materialist account of disability studies to deepen current theories of intersectionality. Combining disability studies with critical race theory, she analyzes two narratives that highlight the mutually enforcing nature of racism and ableism: The first is Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner's Unspeakable: The Life of Junius Wilson, which recounts the story of Junius Wilson, a deaf, African American man who was castrated and held in a state mental hospital for 76 years after being falsely accused of attempted rape. The second narrative—based on Erevelles and Minear's own qualitative research—is the story of "Cassie" (a pseudonym), a young African-American girl whose educational progress and very status as a student were gravely threatened by the racism and ableism in the local special-education bureaucracy. Through these narratives, Erevelles and Minear show the intertwined nature of racism and ableism in contemporary capitalism.

Chapter 4, "Embodied Antimonies: Feminist Disability Studies Meets Third World Feminism," brings together disability studies and third world feminism to understand how imperialism simultaneously creates and undermines disability in non-Western contexts. First, Erevelles analyzes the role of disability in the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, contrasting the fetishization of disabled "cyborg" soldiers in US media and disability studies with the lack of attention shown to the Iraqi and Afghani civilians rendered disabled through these wars (137). She then examines how the World Bank, through its economic rubric of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), retroactively renders these disabled persons liabilities to the state. Economic imperialism thus creates and devalues disability in a brutal sequence that Erevelles labels the "new eugenics" (141).

In Chapter 5, "(Im)material Citizens: Cognitive Disability, Race, and the Politics of Citizenship," Erevelles examines how liberal theories of citizenship exclude the intellectually disabled from participation in the body politic. These theories are predicated on "formal justice," the abstract granting of equal access to members of marginalized groups. Drawing on critical race theory, Erevelles argues that the abstract nature of this formal justice naturalizes the socio-economic factors that exclude people of color and persons with disabilities from political participation (154). At the same time, the autonomous individual at the heart of liberal political theory is predicated on the exclusion of persons with mental disabilities who cannot maintain the fa├žade of rational independence (163). As a result, persons with disabilities and people of color (including members of both groups) are systematically denied recognition within a political system based on ableist norms of productive labor. Rectifying this exclusion entails redefining citizenship rights as "positive rights" and rethinking labor outside of economic value. Doing so places persons with mental disabilities at the center of a new conception of citizenship.

In the sixth and final chapter, "The 'Other' Side of the Dialectic: Toward a Materialist Ethic of Care," Erevelles develops a materialist ethic of care that can provide the basis for reimagining both labor relations and the body politic. She criticizes existing feminist theories that celebrate caretaking relationships without consideration of their power inequalities. At the same time, she also criticizes attempts by liberal feminists to rectify these inequalities through the fiction of "choice" (175). Instead, she proposes a dialectical approach to care that constantly intertwines a consideration of its liberating qualities with its current enmeshment in oppressive social relations. Ultimately, constituting a new body politic that can accommodate a feminist ethic of care requires "nonexploitative relations of production and consumption in transnational capital" (197). In this chapter, Erevelles thus shows how socio-economic change can both further—and be aided by—the goals of feminist, queer, critical race, and disability studies.

Its commitment to materialist political change gives Disability and Difference a surprisingly unified structure throughout its treatment of seemingly unrelated subject matter. In fact, this ability to tie together such diverse subjects is central to the book's argument: We cannot consider education policy separate from the war in Afghanistan because both phenomena are united by a transnational economic system. For this reason, I recommend reading the book as a whole, though its chapters could also be read in isolation and easily excerpted for graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses.

The book's cover depicts a silhouetted woman with one leg. Atop her head sits a tiara, and under her arm is a crutch whose blue metal radiates softly through the shadows. A participant in the "Miss Landmine" pageant, the woman has been disabled as a result of factors rooted in the current transnational economic system. And yet, by eloquently appropriating the very symbol of this system—the beauty pageant—she shows how life with a disability can form the basis of a truly different conception of selfhood and sociality. Like the book it introduces, the image is radical but not pretentious, understated and awe-inspiring at the same time.

One striking omission from Disability and Difference is the topic of internalized oppression: how individuals identify with the very socio-economic order that marginalizes them. Indeed, while Erevelles studies how "the body becomes a commodity of exchange in a transnational economic context" (29), she does not examine what, for many, is the contemporary predicament: Why do so many of us desire to become commodities ourselves? An analysis of this question would be deepened by combining Erevelles' Marxist framework with the tradition of psychoanalytic Marxism, including such thinkers as Otto Fenichel, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Joel Kovel, Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek and Eugene Victor Wolfenstein. Though these thinkers rarely address disability directly, their work provides an invaluable guide to how capitalism warps desire in order to maintain its structures. Still, any place that these thinkers, or future Marxian work, might have within disability studies will have to be premised on the contributions of Erevelles's essential book.

Works Cited

  • Fine, Michelle, and Sara I. McClelland. "Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing after All These Years." Harvard Educational Review 76.3 (2006): 297-338.
  • McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NYU Press, 2006.
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