Feminist, Queer, Crip is a theoretically complex, materially grounded and surprisingly accessible text that pushes readers to consider the relationship of disability to time, particularly the ways in which disability and disabled people are written out of time and out of the future. As Kafer writes "disability is seen as the sign of no future" and this vision of the future is considered natural, self-evident, and not up for debate (3). Considering topics as various as the Ashley X case, the Foundation for a Better Life "Pass it On" billboard campaign, reproductive technology, cyborg theory, and environmentalism, the book focuses on two central questions: how and why is disability being utilized and depoliticized in cultural conversations, and how can disability studies scholars and activists intervene in order to reveal disability as "a category to be contested and debated" (3)?
For anyone invested in feminist disability studies, the release of Alison Kafer's first monograph has been highly anticipated. Her previous articles, which have appeared in major feminist studies journals and both the Gendering Disability and Feminist Disability Studies anthologies, have consistently provided important and nuanced ideas about the intersections of gender, sexuality and disability/ability. Ever since hearing Kafer's book would be released in summer 2013 under the amazing covering-all-the-bases title, Feminist, Queer, Crip, I was eager to know if the book would live up to the expectations many of us had for it.
Feminist, Queer, Crip offers a necessary intervention into all three of its titular fields: feminist theory, queer theory and crip theory/disability studies. Kafer puts these theories into conversation by revealing their overlaps, their dissonances and the ways in which each has failed to previously fully engage with the others. And although issues of gender, sexuality and disability are most central to the text, I was impressed, and at times even moved, by Kafer's deft inclusion of race and class throughout the book, acknowledging in multiple moments and sections the ways in which people of color and poor people are put at particular risk when it comes to the cultural erasure and depoliticization of disability in the future.
In terms of queer theory, Kafer's ability to critique as well as build upon previous work is most evident in her first chapter, "Time for Disability Studies and a Future for Crips." In this chapter Kafer provides an extensive overview and critique of theories of queer time, from Lee Edelman to J. Halberstam, explaining how these theories seem to rely upon notions of disability through reference to illness and death and yet also cast disability out. In response, Kafer provides her own elaboration of crip time and the ways in which this notion intersects with and strays from concepts of queer time. She writes: "Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of 'how long things take' are based on very particular minds and bodies…Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds" (27).
Chapters 3 and 5, "Debating Feminist Futures" and "The Cyborg and the Crip," are most salient to debates in feminist theory. In Chapter 5, Kafer engages with Donna Haraway's cyborg, noting that Haraway's cyborg theory is one of the first places where disability played a prominent role in feminist theory. Several disability studies scholars have already critiqued the way that Haraway uses the disabled body as an example of cyborgian technology-bodily fusion without considering the material reality of prosthetic use which may include pain, discomfort, social stigma and more (Kafer provides a robust list of these previous disability studies critiques in footnote 22 on page 206). Most of the previous critiques, however, have not engaged with the feminist origins of Haraway's piece and few have attempted to provide a sustained, nuanced engagement with the concept, resorting instead to (appropriate) critique followed by relative dismissal. In contrast, Kafer provides the most complex, thorough and balanced critique of cyborg theory available in disability studies to date. She not only provides close readings of the original manifesto, but she also delves into the woman of the color feminist inspirations for the manifesto and the various ways that cyborg theory has been taken up by other scholars. Chapter 5 ends with Kafer asserting that while cyborg theory isn't necessary to disability studies, there are ways in which the concept can still be usefully redeployed by disability studies scholars as a cripped cyborg theory.
Feminist, Queer, Crip goes beyond feminist and queer theories to provide additional interventions to DS scholars and teachers. First, Kafer makes clear that this book is not simply an intellectual exercise to think about disability as purely concept or aesthetic, but rather is grounded in radical disability rights, feminist and queer politics. It is an activist text concerned with material realities that can be affected by theory, but must also be aligned with praxis of various sorts. My favorite example of this in the text is Kafer's description of her "liberating" a Foundation for a Better Life bus stop sign with fellow feminist crips Ellen Samuels and Anne Finger.
In this delectable insertion of personal activist action, Kafer details how the three women located one of the "Pass it On" signs featuring a person with a disability on a Berkley bus stop. She writes about how the three women semi-surreptitiously used spray paint and stencils to alter the words on the sign from "Lost Leg, Not Heart: Overcoming" to "Lost Leg, Not Rights: Overcoming Pity" (100-102). Kafer writes that almost no one paid attention to this daytime guerilla action by three white disabled women and that the sign was replaced shortly after by a television ad. Nonetheless, the story is a perfect example of how Feminist, Queer, Crip is invested in both theory and praxis; how Kafer helps readers not only locate ableism in the quotidian or even the seemingly benign, but also encourages us to actually do something about it. (The margin of my book beside this story just has a heart with joyful lines radiating from it.)
Finally, Feminist, Queer, Crip is eminently teachable. While the chapters build upon and relate to one another, each is topically self-contained and could easily be read individually. The concepts vary in terms of complexity, but the chapters are accessible to mid- to upper level undergraduates and all graduate students. I could see the chapter on Ashley X being used in a medical ethics undergraduate course, while the chapters on crip time and cyborg theory would be perfect for a graduate queer or feminist theory course alongside the texts Kafer critiques. This type of inclusion of a disability studies critique with the non-disability-studies texts rather than on "disability week" of a course would also mark an important, integrating move in syllabus creation to do exactly what Kafer ultimately asks disability studies scholars to do: to find disability (and then incorporate disability theoretical critique) in places where we previously have not. Where disability has been overlooked, cast out or depoliticized, we must bring it back, analyze it again and bring attention to the role disabled minds and bodies have played and continue to play in various cultural discourses. The classroom is one place we can do this.
Where else can we locate and bring attention to issues of ability and disability in the academy and beyond? Alison Kafer finds it on the billboards on her way home, in the news stories about cybernetic technology, on the hiking trails in state parks, and in the future or futures we imagine and create for ourselves. In the end, Feminist, Queer, Crip reminds us what we in some ways already know—issues of ability and disability are all around us—but Kafer doesn't just remind us of this fact with her book, she also prompts us to do more with our scholarship and activism by being a bright and innovative example of powerful, intersectional and grounded disability theory.
- Hall, Kim Q. Feminist Disability Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Print.
- Smith, Bonnie G. and Beth Hutchinson. Gendering Disability. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Print.