DSQ > Fall 2007, Volume 27, No.4

Robert McRuer's Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, is on the edge of the edge of both Disability and Queer Studies. It's also on the edge of queer and crip activism and social movements. McRuer begins his book with an introduction to his theory of compulsory able-bodiedness. This system produces disability and is woven together with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness. McRuer calls out compulsory able-bodiedness as an agent of capitalism. Crip theory is concerned with the ways in which neoliberal capitalism (the dominant economic and cultural system as driven by market priorities) has imagined and composed sexual and embodied identities. For McRuer, neoliberalism does not simplistically stigmatize differences in bodies or sexualities. There is in fact a celebration of these differences within neoliberal capitalism under the guise of free flowing ideas, which for McRuer, is more accurately an appropriation and containment of the energies produced by social movements that ultimately get funneled into free flowing corporate capital. McRuer uses Foucault's definition of neoliberalism as the appropriation of individual autonomy for the capitalist machine and he is interested in interrogating both corporate queer identity and corporate disability identity. Crip Theory the book and crip theory the framework, join the materialist critiques present in both disability studies and crip movements, while going a step further by providing a wide-reaching, global critique of neoliberalism.

Crip Theory is written for an academic audience and few moments are taken to unfold some of the critical elements upon which the framework is built. The book expects the reader to watch TV, read the newspaper, and have a clear understanding of Judith Butler. Assuming you are that reader, you will appreciate that McRuer's book and theory never sever the connection between activists and academics. The use of contemporary examples such as the film As Good As It Gets demonstrate his refusal to let the theory float in the clouds with the people being theorized left firmly rooted to the material world. Attentive to the critique that Disability Studies skims the theoretical surface when it comes to representational work, McRuer builds his framework on theory but grounds his chapters in pop culture examples.

Chapter one lays out crip theory as an interrogation of liberalism and calls for access of all kinds in counterglobalization movements. The remaining chapters bring forth case studies to illustrate the locations where compulsory able-bodiedness and heterosexuality are created while disability and queerness are simultaneously contained and constrained.

In chapter two, McRuer questions marriage and domesticity through the example of Sharon Kowalski in order to critique normalized family forms as a location of compulsory able-bodiedness. Chapter 3 works to trouble rehabilitative practices and relies heavily on the writings of Gary Fisher, an author who interrogates even the most radical notions of black, queer, disabled subjectivites. A familiarity with Fisher's text, Gary In Your Pocket would be helpful for the digestion of this chapter as McRuer fills it with original analysis and does not provide lengthy Fisher quotes. McRuer locates this third chapter at the far margins of disability studies, but at the heart of crip theory because of its embrace of noncompliance. It is this commitment to noncompliance that drives the last three chapters through the wide array of examples such as cripping composition in the academy, interrogating queer and disability representations in scholarship by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and in pop culture, and finally for its crip notions of futurity, and the mythology-exploding work of Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist. McRuer focuses on Karen Thompson as an example of noncompliance in order to interrupt scripting Thompson as heroine, a communal construction initiated by neoliberal gay organizations. Karen Thompson is partner and now legal guardian of Sharon Kowalski, whose relationship ignited national debates on the intersections of queerness and disability after Kowalski's disabling car accident, which resulted in a court case between Kowalski's heterosexist parents and Thompson. The couple's struggle for legal legitimacy made the agenda of many neoliberal, gay activist groups, despite Thompson's refusal to adopt her newly imposed heroine status after winning the custody battle. For McRuer, it is this resistance in the face of a totalizing neoliberal gay agenda where we, the queers and the crips, must begin to theorize and organize.

Teachers and students of writing will be particularly impressed with McRuer's analysis of university-level composition courses. He describes the ways in which the demands of compulsory heterosexuality/able-bodiedness require that identity is coherent and orderly in the same way that composition courses require the production of writing that privileges and demands both coherency and order as proof of a student's measurable skills. He discusses the troubled concept 'de-composition' through his own past courses on the subject. McRuer's cripping of composition is an argument for the impossibility of writing, particularly within the product-oriented paradigm that most universities work within. The argument is compelling and his concept of writing as a critical conversation that will never be either orderly or completely completed is revolutionary in a consumerist, results driven academy. This notion totally interrupts standard writing practices and invites students to disengage from production and focus on process.

There is an overall emphasis within crip theory on coalition building. McRuer locates crip analyses as the place to take up coalition building where disability studies has been unwilling to engage. He argues that crip theory is a turn towards materialism within disability studies which will lead to a new dialogic between cultural geography and disability studies. Disability studies is concerned with the social construction of normalcy and links up with McRuer's book where normalcy is constructed through materialism. He argues that Disability Studies (similar to other minority/identity centered fields) has focused on representation without an analysis on the site of production. Crip theory resists this distancing and 'makes accessible' the sites where both images and identities are produced. Through this, new images of disability coalition and solidarity can be generated.

Ultimately, queer theory is to LGBT studies as crip theory is to disability studies. Crip theory is the edgy side of activism and academic work, more interested in asking questions than finding answers. McRuer's book is a welcome addition to crips and queers working to interrogate neoliberalism and corporate commodification of crip and queer bodies. McRuer does not take the easy way out and is willing to trouble or highlight the troubled aspects of well-loved issues and people such as gay marriage and Karen Thompson. Crip Theory engages fully with Foucault's notion that in fact nothing is innocent, and in the house that neoliberalism built, everything really is dangerous.

Return to Top of Page