The metaphor of the 'body politic' is an apparently optimistic one, as it is supposed to signal the relationality and connectedness of all members of the whole. This paper argues that the metaphor does not deliver on its potential because it associates illness and disability with lack of quality of life. I argue that the embodied experience of chronic illness or disability can inform political virtues that would be salutary for a body politic confronting a health-based crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and which challenge the assumptions of the body politic as traditionally constituted. I begin by drawing on scholarly treatments of the body politic to demonstrate that the body has consistently been idealized as able-bodied, and illness and disability are framed as inconsistent with quality of life or the functioning of the whole. In part two of the article, I draw upon Eli Clare's autoethnographic reflection entitled The Mountain as a starting point for re-imagining the body politic as disabled or chronically ill. I propose two political virtues that might be drawn from such a re-imagining: reflexivity and the recognition of limits. In part three, I argue that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which disability and chronic illness are foregrounded as important political issues, disabled and chronically ill people offer key insights, advocating a politics of relationality that has its starting point in their own disabled or chronically ill bodies.

The state is the person writ large.

-Plato, The Republic


As winter transitioned to spring in March 2020, school and daycare closures were announced across Canada, stay-at-home orders were declared, and toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks rapidly disappeared from store shelves. While many people seemed to be thinking about these items for the first time, I looked to a square of toilet paper that hangs above my desk, with the words "Let it go" scrawled across it, and noted that in some ways, this moment did not require a major pivot for me. 1 I was already familiar with the irrational security that can be derived from a comfortable supply of toilet paper. I already had disposable gloves and face masks at home, and hand sanitizer by the front door and in the car. These artifacts of my time in chemotherapy, some of which became permanent fixtures in our home, were reminders of a period when closeness with my children was sometimes dangerous to me (with a compromised immune system) and sometimes to them (who needed to be protected from chemotherapy agents emanating from my body in the days following each chemo round). As a mother diagnosed with cancer while parenting young children and pondering my possible absence from their lives, the fact that I was the one who noticed and replaced empty toilet paper rolls led to my own overcoming of an impulse toward panicked hoarding. Conscientious hand-washing and sanitizing is a value that my children internalized. My condition made them aware that oversight on their part could result in hospitalization or treatment delays on my part. Recognizing our relationality and taking steps to protect one another was already normal for us. On April 20th , 2020, during a daily COVID-19 briefing, our provincial health minister commented: "We need to wait this out to find out how we then transition to what will quite frankly be a new abnormal rather than a return to the old normal" (Dr. John Haggie, qtd. in Jackson 2020). As people whose daily normal has become everyone else's new abnormal, some disabled or chronically ill people and their support networks are uniquely inured to the all-encompassing state of emergency that has gripped entire societies. The 'new abnormal,' which captures the reality of entire societies coming to grips with an illness that is both chronic and collective, speaks to a body politic used to seeing itself as "able-bodied," 2 now shocked to find itself ill and disabled, and in need of metaphors that make sense of this reality. Because of this, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for rethinking the metaphor of "the body politic."

Drawing upon political theory, writings on conceptual metaphor, and disability studies, I argue that embodied experience of chronic illness or disability can inform political virtues that would be salutary for the body politic as presently conceived, and which challenge the assumptions of the body politic as traditionally constituted. I begin by drawing on scholarly treatments of the body politic to illustrate that political theorists and political actors have long associated political community with the human body, dating to ancient times, and continuing to the present moment. This body has consistently been idealized as able-bodied, and illness and disability are framed as inconsistent with quality of life or the functioning of the whole. In part two of the article, I draw upon Eli Clare's autoethnographic reflection entitled The Mountain as a starting point for re-imagining the body politic as disabled or chronically ill, and I propose two political virtues that might be drawn from such a re-imagining: uncertainty and the recognition of limits. In part three, I argue that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which disability and chronic illness are foregrounded as important political issues, disabled and chronically ill people are sources of keen political insight, advocating a politics of relationality that has its starting point in their own disabled or chronically ill bodies.

The Political Community as Collective Body

Commenting on the myriad ways in which malignant connotations are attached to disability and illness in mainstream culture and the real, pernicious effects this has in the lives of disabled people, Simi Linton—whose memoir about disability is appropriately entitled My Body Politic—reflects:

"It wouldn't be possible to set disabled people apart and steal the candy right out of our mouths if people weren't instructed to do it. There is no single primer from which to learn such behaviors, no established decree that sets our place in the social order—it is in our drinking water. Written into works of fiction, religious texts, newspapers, art, drama, film, the annals of history, and, yes, the academic curriculum are the terms of the contract. Beliefs about disabled people, our worth and potential, are inscribed in these texts. Read the texts, watch the movies, and find the answers" (2006: 137).

The body politic metaphor in political theory is one such place where the inferior status of disabled people is written into the terms of the invisible contract that Linton describes. Metaphor is the application of language from one domain of life (the source domain) to an entirely different domain (the target domain), in order to make sense of the latter (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). History and scholarship are replete with examples of the body politic metaphor, according to which the political community is conceptualized as a human body. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes's version of the body politic, as rendered by artist Abraham Bosse in 1651, consisting of multiple bodies assembled to form the body of an imposing king, adorns the classic cover of the canonical text Leviathan and is probably the most well-known visual example. The body politic metaphor is a foundational concept within western political thought. 3 Indeed, it has been referred to as a paradigm and a "pervasive figure of speech" (Dobski & Gish 2012).

To begin with its more recent uses, consider some examples of this paradigm from the past two centuries. In the 19th century, European states portrayed Turkey as "the sick man of Europe" in order to signal their assessment that it was backward and corrupt (Ramm 2009: 102-3). The Nazis described Jews as parasites or infectious illness of the body politic—both scenarios which they used as a foundation for their genocidal policies (Musolff 2010: 2). In more recent memory, economist Joseph Stiglitz described his economic policies to reinvigorate post-Soviet states in terms of "shock therapy," thus invoking an ill brain in need of cure, however harsh.

As recently as January 2021, a book with the subtitle The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy (Jentleson 2021), used the image of the cripple to describe how senate republicans have stifled progress in the United States. In the same vein, a progressive newscast referred to U.S. sanctions on Venezuela in February of 2021 as actions "which have crippled the economy" (DemocracyNow 2021). In the same month, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader referred to the racist conspiracy theories being propagated by one of his colleagues as a "cancer" on the Republican Party (Walsh 2021). In presenting the case for the challenger to the presidency, supporters of Joe Biden implicitly framed the disordered political climate as a sick one by claiming that he was "a healer. A uniter. A tested and steady hand" (Harris 2020, my emphasis). During a recent provincial election campaign in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the incumbent premier—who is also a surgeon—discussed the possibility of introducing cost-cutting measures declaring that sometimes "it is necessary to cut off a leg to save a patient." His opponent rejoined that he'd like his doctor "to tell me if he plans on cutting off my limbs before I have an amputation" (Bill 2021). In each of these cases, illness and disability are invoked implicitly or explicitly to signal lack of quality of life. All of these examples are notable not for the fact that they are remarkable, but because they are ordinary occurrences on both ends of the political spectrum.

Negative connotations in the body politic metaphor as it relates to non-normative bodies are undeniable. So, what is to be done about it? Language is structured by metaphors. They make sense of the world by using something that is easier to understand in order to make sense of something that is difficult to understand. Simply abandoning metaphor is not an option—nor would it be desirable. In their watershed work on metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson give a convincing account of how metaphors have an experiential basis. In explaining the pervasive orientational metaphor 'good is up' (e.g., "things are looking up"), they note its physical basis: "if you add more of a substance or of physical objects to a container or pile, the level goes up" (1980: 16). More resources are usually good for surviving and thriving, thus, good is up. 4 What might be the experiential basis for the assumptions about disability and (ill) health embedded in the body politic metaphor? The metaphor dates back by at least two millennia, to a time when many illnesses that are now chronic were fatal, and disability was shrouded in superstition and myth—such as the biblical notion that disability was divine punishment for sin, or the idea that mental illness was demonic possession (Covey 2005). In cultural contexts where disability and illness are thus little understood and negatively interpreted, such bodies were seen as inconsistent with a body—real or politic—that survives and thrives.

The body politic metaphor is a reflection on interdependence among members of the political community. In its most productive sense, it is an argument against harmful self-interest. The point of asserting that the political community is a body is to indicate that all parts must work together, and each part of the whole is dependent on the rest. In different epochs, the body metaphor has also been applied to militaries as well as to the church (Hicks 1963), and to the relationship between church and state (Kantorowicz [1957] 1997). The idea that like the body, the body politic is an organism, or organic unity—a system in which the parts only function in relation to the whole—is fundamentally relational. In Aesop's oft-cited version of this metaphor, entitled The Belly and the Members, the feet remind the belly that it could not go anywhere without the feet, and the belly reminds the feet that without its nourishment, they would have no strength, thus, "all parts of the human body have their own function and are mutually necessary for its proper performance, so all members of a corporate body are essential for its health and well-being" (Hicks 1963: 29). The term "corporate" as in "corporate body" draws on the Latin corporare or "to form into a body"—corpor, or body, is its root: as in the ancient Roman corpus rei publicae (body of state) (Squire 2015, 306). To ancient Greeks it was to tēs poleōs sōma ('the body of the state') (Brock 2000: 25). On its face, this metaphor seems beneficial, grounded as it appears to be in an ethic of giving due care and consideration to all parts of the body, which exist in networks of mutuality. However, as I will argue next by using examples spanning the ancient world to Early Modern Europe, the body politic metaphor has a long history of ableism. It is narrowly prescriptive with respect to what constitutes health and good structure, and associates discord and disharmony with deviations from those ideals. I develop this argument next by discussing the metaphor's complicity in encouraging negative perceptions of disabled and ill bodies.

According to the body politic metaphor, disorder or crisis in the state is likened to sickness or impairment in the body. If one part is impaired, it affects the whole. It is worthwhile to begin with examples from Plato, since classics scholar Roger Brock argues that "Plato's use of medical imagery seems [..] to be the foundation of the later use of such images" (2000: 24). In Plato's Republic, Socrates argues that justice should orient politics at the level of collective human life, and it should likewise orient the soul at the level of the individual. He repeatedly likens a lack of justice in the state or in the soul to illness or disorder in the body. In the introduction to his classic translation of the Republic, Benjamin Jowett noted that "the Greek ideal of the State, as of the individual, is a fair mind in a fair body" (Jowett 2015 [1888]: 8). The following claim made by Socrates in Book IV of The Republic exemplifies this view: "virtue is the health and beauty and well-being of the soul, and vice is the disease and weakness and deformity of the same" (Plato 2015: 114). Similarly, the following exchange between Socrates and his protégé Glaucon, from Book X of The Republic (Plato 2015: 244) typifies this association of ill and non-normative bodies with evil and decay (Socrates narrates the exchange):

"There is a thing which you call good and another which you call evil?
Yes, he replied.
Would you agree with me in thinking that the corrupting and destroying element is the evil, and the saving and improving element the good?
And you admit that every thing has a good and also an evil; as ophthalmia is the evil of the eyes and disease of the whole body; as mildew is of corn, and rot of timber, or rust of copper and iron: in everything or in almost everything there is an inherent evil and disease?
Yes, he said
And anything which is infected by any of these evils is made evil, and at last wholly dissolves and dies?

Here, justice is likened to health and good order. The point is that it is from the healthy and harmonious (well-ordered) body (associated with justice) that the state should derive its ideal. Conversely, non-normative or ill bodies (associated with evil) serve as cautionary lessons–models of what to avoid. Examining how depictions of disability in contemporary texts such as newspapers influence popular perceptions of disability, disability studies scholar Tanya Titchkosky describes similar effects: "Disability is thus imagined as a limit without possibilities." It thus becomes "a site where the implementation of a negative ontology,' a life not worth living […] occurs" (Titchkosky 2007: 44).

As noted above, the tradition of using disability as a symbol of what is undesirable has a legacy beyond Plato. It was taken up in various ways over the following two millennia, appearing in the works of Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, and Christine de Pizan, and Shakespeare, amongst many others (Shogimen 2008; Dobski & Gish 2012: 183). In Metaphor, Nation, and Holocaust: the Concept of the Body Politic, Andreas Musolff makes links between the ideology underlying the genocidal policies of the Nazis, and the longstanding "conceptual complex of political body concepts" in western political thought (Musolff 2010: 82). In doing so, he lays out this history through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Era. However, he notes that "In view of [its] wealth of conceptual variation, any streamlined account of the metaphor's "life history" would clearly be inappropriate (2010: 83). I argue that wide variation in the metaphor is unproblematic for the argument at hand, as the ill or disabled body appears to be consistently positioned by political thinkers as "limit without possibility," regardless of the variation. Even versions that have been deemed "optimistic" merely envision the possibility of prevention, or cure. 5 Here I will offer two additional examples, taken from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, to illustrate this point.

Musolff takes John of Salisbury's writings on the body politic metaphor as a particularly prominent example from the Middle Ages. Salisbury advises that a political ruler (as 'head') should regard his role in the social hierarchy as one of careful stewardship, making sure to care for all, including peasants (the 'feet'). In making this argument, Salisbury writes: "Remove from the fittest body the aid of the feet; it does not proceed under its own power, but either crawls shamefully, uselessly and offensively on its hands or else is moved with the assistance of brute animals" (qtd. in Musolff 2010: 84). There is no space in this metaphor to derive positive lessons from a non-normative body—in this case, one that crawls because it lacks feet.

A similar stance with respect to disability and illness can be found in the Early Modern period, in the writings of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Musolff notes that Hobbes describes "things that weaken the Commonwealth" as "diseases and infirmities;" sedition as "sickness;" "defectuous procreation" as "imperfection constitution;" and conjoined twins as "mixt government" (Hobbes, Leviathan, qtd in Musolff 2010: 114). Musolff summarizes Hobbes' use of body imagery in this way: "what mattered to Hobbes, i.e., the disqualification of divided sovereignty as an apparently unworkable (and "unlivable") monstrous body" (Musolff 2010: 115).

If sedition, divided rule, and imperfect constitution are to the political body as disability and illness are to the physical, human body, there is no getting around the negative connotations attached to disability and illness. Moreover, it is easy to become muddled in the metaphor, collapsing the source and the target domains, and thus to think of ill or disabled people as needing to be expunged from the body politic. The body politic associates illness and disability with political crisis: both as cases of things going wrong and requiring intervention or cure. Even when the body politic metaphor is "optimistic" and envisions cure, rather than positioning expulsion as the only means of preventing the death of the entire organism, illness and disability are imagined as conditions that must be left behind or overcome. Health and good physical structure are associated with harmony—which are framed as necessary for the state to get along. There is no sense that chronic conditions or non-normative bodies could under any conditions signal quality of life. Consider this description of the body politic metaphor by two contemporary political theorists:

"Justice, the paramount political virtue, derives from the proper function of the parts working in harmony (homonoia) with each other for the good of the whole. Injustice arises when parts fail to perform their discrete functions or are disordered, thus introducing sickness or disease into an otherwise healthy body politic [….] Cicero argued that each member of the body politic must be ruled by laws that serve the good of the whole, for nature does not allow that a part of the body gain advantage or benefit individually either by weakening or despoiling the other parts or enfeebling the body politic as a whole" (Dobski & Gish 2012: 183).

The associations here are explicit rather than implicit:

Justice Injustice
Order Disorder
Function Failure
Health Sickness / Weakness / Frailty

Health and good structure are associated in the body politic metaphor with harmony—which I take to mean living together, in relation rather than at cross-purposes. And yet, a body that is healthy and strong in the typical sense can still fail to live in harmonious relation and achieve its ends, however loftily or humbly conceived. Conversely, a body that is 'disordered' or imbalanced can still live in harmonious relation, and achieve its ends, however loftily or humbly conceived. There is not, as far as I am aware, a version of the body politic that recognizes the possibility of non-normative embodiment, permanent weakness, imbalance, or chronic illness, as a positive model for harmony and living in relation (i.e., quality of life).

The problem with the body politic metaphor in western political discourse 6 is that it does not reflect experiences of reality as expressed by disabled or chronically ill people in a contemporary context. Rather, it trades in negative perceptions about them dating back thousands of years. This is important, because just as metaphors have a grounding in material experience, once embedded in language they have a feedback effect of priming language users to understand the phenomenon in question according to the terms set by the metaphor. "[A]ll experience is cultural through and through, [so] we experience our "world" in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself" (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 57). In this case, negative connotations surrounding disability and illness in the body politic metaphor both reflect and help to further propagate bias against disabled and chronically ill people. So, what would it look like to weave positive images of disability and chronic illness into the body politic metaphor? How can one politically re-imagine lack of balance, weakness, or even failure, in a different light? How can the ideals of relationality and mutuality which underlie the body politic metaphor live up to their promise? I begin to think about an answer to this question by exploring Eli Clare's writing on mountain climbing and disability.

Disabling the Body Politic

Eli Clare (2015) reflects on his attempt to climb Mount Adams, spurred on in spite of the dangers, because of the dominant cultural image of the "supercrip"—the person with a disability who heroically "overcomes" disability to achieve great feats. Clare describes "lurching along" up Mount Adams, his left foot steadier than the right, each step a frightening, "strategic game" because of his cerebral palsy (4-5). And yet, despite recognizing that the climb poses too many dangers and that he will have to turn back for his own safety, Clare hesitates to do so because of the oppressive message that "disability and achievement contradict each other and […] any disabled person who overcomes this contradiction is heroic" (8-9). Clare contends with the mountain, as a reality and as a metaphor, noting that in the absence of embodying supercrip status, disability is paired with helplessness, and helplessness makes people with disabilities vulnerable to myriad forms of deprivation and abuse—including, but not limited to, forced institutionalization and unemployment (9). To make use of a term coined by Patricia Hill Collins (2000), the supercrip acts as a "controlling image" for disabled people. It points to a widespread belief that the only life truly worth living (or perhaps the only life properly allowed) is one in which disability is transcended.

The supercrip and the idea that societal problems are "illnesses" or imbalances in a body politic that needs cure or restoration to ensure its survival are both ableist notions. They make disability and illness appear incongruent with quality of life on the one hand, and make politics appear incongruous with limits on the other. Clare, "lurching" along, opens an opportunity for an entirely new kind of metaphor for the body politic, one that recognizes limits as human. Clare's partial ascent of Mount Adams models virtues that are instructive for a body politic: uncertainty, self-reflexivity, and the recognition and acceptance of limits. Clare did not rush headlong and with certainty up the mountain. Each step was slow, careful and deliberate. As he made his slow progress, Clare reflected upon why he was climbing the mountain, what was motivating him, and he questioned whether his reasons for persisting were sufficient. Once he had established that the reasons motivating his ascent of the mountain did not justify pushing ahead, Clare turned around and retraced his steps back to his starting point. Revising his long-held plan to ascend the mountain—changing his position—is a decision requiring wisdom and humility. Clare's decision to turn back was an affirmation of his body and its limits as human, as home. "[H]ome starts here in my body, in all that lies imbedded beneath my skin […] The body as home, but only if it is understood that bodies are never singular, but rather haunted, strengthened, underscored by countless other bodies" (2015: 10-11). During a time of global pandemic, when information and advice are constantly changing and updating, the virtues of being reflexive (proceeding with caution, continuously revisiting one's actions and motivations in relation to possible outcomes), and recognizing limits (stopping, refraining, turning back) are instructive. Given that the pandemic is driven by human movement and contact, these virtues couple in an important way with the notion that "bodies are never singular." I develop this in more detail below, by discussing the relationality of the body politic under COVID-19 and describing how the insights of disabled and chronically ill people become particularly evident in this moment.

New Abnormals

As noted earlier, Linton argues that the inferior status of disabled people is written into the terms of an invisible contract. She states that while there is no single definitive source to which one could point to locate it, it is written into "works of fiction, religious texts, newspapers, art, drama, film, the annals of history, and […] the academic curriculum." In this article, I have focused on the body politic metaphor as developed within western political theory and its continued use in political discourse as one area where the inferior status of disabled and chronically ill people is written into the invisible contract that Linton describes. While the disabled or chronically ill body has been used in political theory to stand in for that which is wrong and undesirable, the perspectives of disabled and chronically ill people are also excluded or marginalized within politics and policymaking. Because the causes of exclusion (e.g., ableism, sexism, racism, ageism, etc.) are multiple and insidious, one cannot draw a direct causal connection between any one example of ableism, such as the body politic metaphor, and the widespread political marginalization of people with disabilities. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how specific examples of dehumanizing stereotypes about groups may contribute to marginalizing the knowledge and opinions of those group members.

Recent work on implicit bias and "epistemic injustice" explores how harm can be done to individuals and groups in their capacities as "knowers" (Fricker 2007, in Holroyd & Puddifoot 2020: 116). Because of negative stereotypes woven into cultural artifacts and discourses "a speaker might be deemed not to be trustworthy [for example] because she is black and black people are taken to be dishonest. […] Sexist and racist [and dis/ableist] stereotypes mean that some people are disempowered as knowers because of the stereotypes through which others see them" (Holroyd & Puddifoot 2020: 116). Their exclusion from politics and policymaking has caused many disabled and chronically ill people to be "absent citizens." Michael J. Prince uses this term to capture this state of affairs in Canada: "Compared to persons without disabilities, persons with disabilities experience significant cultural, material, and political disadvantages. This is evident in higher rates of poverty and unemployment, and inaccessible built environments in towns, suburbs, and cities. Persons with disabilities cope with public ambivalence, in the form of pride and prejudice, as to their needs for inclusive policy actions. They confront persistent barriers to participation in politics, education, the labour market, and other realms of community living" (Prince 2020: 3). It is worthwhile to consider whether the fact that disability and illness are rendered in political theory and political discourse as "invariably bad, undesirable, pitiful, painful, and so on" (Schalk 2013) might partially prevent a conceptualization of disability or illness as a helpful model for politics, and the inclusion of disabled vantage points as politically helpful. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for affirming disabled and chronically ill bodies as sources of political wisdom—thus opening space for "transgressive readings of disability that will disturb normative discourses of embodiment" (Erevelles 2011: 37-8). During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic the entirety of each 'body politic' across the globe has had to grapple with illness collectively. In the context of widespread illness, non-normative bodies are politically instructive—both as metaphors and as sources of political wisdom.

As exemplified by Eli Clare, bodies that are disabled, imbalanced or chronically ill must often proceed with self-reflexivity and recognize and accept limits. This disposition is instructive during pandemics. Pandemic restrictions have confirmed insights that, while perhaps novel to most able-bodied people, disabled and chronically ill people already possess. The importance of measures required to flatten the curve of infections, such mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing, and staying home, was immediately grasped by people for whom these precautions are familiar. News features and hashtags such as #HighRiskCovid19 emerged, where people with disabilities and chronic illnesses shared, in concrete terms, what was at stake in complying with public health measures:

I'm 18 years old and I have cystic fibrosis and am #HighRiskCovid19. while you might survive this virus and be fine, I won't. please protect yourself to protect people like me.

This is my 14 yo daughter. She had a heart transplant at 7 mos. She takes meds for life to suppress her immune system so she doesn't reject her heart. She wants to be an artist when she grows up. She is the reason for social distancing…so she gets to grow up.

I started wearing a N95 mask a few years ago. The frequent stares and questioning force me to choose whether I should attempt to fit in or protect myself. I take a gamble depending on the day. (For all three quotes, see Martens 2020).

As the third comment indicates, some pandemic protocols requiring everyone to adopt visible markers of human fragility—such as wearing face masks—might come as a relief to people who are normally seen as strange for doing so. When COVID-19 emerged as a collective threat at the global scale, 'healthy' and 'able-bodied' people may have become more readily able to understand themselves as potentially ill or disabled. As such, they were asked to participate in collective and ongoing regimes of care, the importance of which are already recognized within disability studies. These regimes acknowledge interdependence and relationality.

In this time of crisis for a body politic facing a pandemic, disabled and chronically ill people have had ready insights to share about a moment that is overwhelming and flabbergasting to most. As chronically ill Canadian freelance journalist Bailey Martens wrote in an opinion piece for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), "For the 44 per cent of Canadians who are chronically ill, the social distancing brought on by COVID-19 is likely nothing new. It's important to think about how vulnerable populations will be impacted physically and mentally by the decisions you are making during this pandemic" (Martens 2020). As public commentators, scholars and activists, disabled and chronically ill people are providing moral, intellectual and political guidance—their disabilities or chronic illnesses affording them distinct subjectivities and vantage points on issues that most citizens are only beginning to consider. Linton has described this insight as the "'vantage point of the atypical,' the perspectives gained from negotiating a world configured for nondisabled people" (Linton 2015: 81).

For example, arguing that all people should be attentive to and compliant with public health advice, chronically ill rabbi Elliot Kukla wrote an opinion for the New York Times describing the value of disabled or ill subjectivities in this historical moment. He noted that sick and disabled people know how to stay home and be still and separate, and also understand why it is important to do so: "We are used to heroes rushing in. But disabled and sick people already know that stillness can be caring" (Kukla 2020). This comment highlights in a striking way the political virtue of recognizing limits and proceeding with care and deliberation.

It is poignant that Kukla dwells on staying at home and being separated from loved ones. One nearly universal pandemic protocol has been painful separation. In some cases, this involves separation from loved ones because of lockdowns—this is especially difficult for families with members living in institutions. In other cases, the painful separation from others may be felt in the absence of daily excursions into spaces where they find opportunities to interact with people (libraries, gyms, offices, shopping centers, etc.). Limiting travel and self-isolating after travel, in addition to remaining six feet apart from others or being separated by plexiglass, further underscore that behaviours that were previously familiar and comforting (visiting, hugging, handshaking, shoulder-patting) are now threatening. To quote Kukla once more, some "[d]isabled people are experts in deep, luscious intimacy without touch. We are used to being creative." In the reflections of disabled and chronically ill commentators during the pandemic, one is able to observe self-reflexivity (as attentiveness to how one person's actions may affect others, proceeding with care and deliberation), and recognizing limits (as compliance with public health directives)—these are familiar to many people with chronic illness and disabilities, and they are the virtues that give societies the best chance of minimalizing loss of life during pandemics.


In this paper, I have argued that the body politic metaphor has historically valorized and reified able bodies at the expense of ill or disabled bodies. Taking Clare's ascent of Mount Adams as a starting point, I propose a creative re-imagining of this metaphor, one which affirms a body that while perhaps unsteady, nonetheless "lurches" along thoughtfully and carefully. Finally, in opposition to the traditional body politic metaphor, which frames them as politically useless or problematic, I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is an occasion for observing disability and chronic illness as sources of political wisdom. This opens avenues for diversifying the body politic metaphor. The point of the re-imagining proposed here is not to suggest that the able-bodied version of the body politic be simply replaced with a disabled or chronically ill body. The point is to resist the association of disability and illness in political theory and discourse with malfunction or that which is undesirable. The simple replacement of an able body with a disabled or ill body in the metaphor would still suggest that one body could or should be representative of all bodies. Rather, I suggest that instead of being conceived along binaries of good or bad, desirable or undesirable, affirming a variety of bodies can help us think about politics in a variety of creative ways. Medical humanities scholar Anita Wohlmann has inquired: "How can we creatively use—and maybe even misuse—problematic metaphors as tools of resistance?" (Wohlmann 2017: 127). A positive re-imagining of the body politic as chronically ill or disabled creates space for different political virtues such as reflexivity and the recognition of limits—virtues currently being modeled by disabled and chronically ill people in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. A disabled notion of the body politic recognizes and affirms limits and uncertainties, and like Eli Clare climbing Mount Adams, creates space for turning back or choosing a more cautious route. It might reject a rhetoric of heroics or transcendence, and, like Clare, find home in reality.

Works Cited


  1. I would like to thank the editors of this special volume, and especially the anonymous reviewers, whose careful feedback helped me to develop and clarify my argument.
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  2. I acknowledge the problematic implications of the term "able-bodied" and use quotation marks here to signal that recognition. However, for ease of reading I will proceed hereafter without quotation marks.
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  3. While there are numerous examples from the classical world of Greece and Rome Hicks (1963) notes that at least one example dates to ancient Egypt.
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  4. In a previous issue of DSQ, Schalk follows Kim Q. Hall (2012) in using cognitive metaphor theory only "cautiously," on the charge that it takes particular sensory, physical and physiological experiences to be universal (Schalk 2013). My reading of Lakoff and Johnson's argument is that metaphors have plausible bases in particular experiences, and that these experiences make their way into metaphors and come to appear—for better or worse—as common sense. This does not seem to be a claim that the experiential bases of metaphors are universal to all humans. Lakoff and Johnson do not appear to rule out the possibility of other kinds of experiences. Moreover, as I note later in this paper, they also acknowledge that experience is inevitably mediated by culture. Metaphors may become sedimented in the same way as hegemonic ideas, however their preponderance does not make them right or wrong, nor does it necessarily imply that other experiences and views are illegitimate.
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  5. See for example Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which argued that in pre-modern formulations, ill-body images were invoked as warnings to states that needed to return to health and equilibrium. She deemed these political diagnoses 'optimistic' because according to them, society can change course and avoid catastrophe (Sontag 1978: 76). Similarly, consider this comment from Musolff: "In terms of narrative and argumentative emphasis, […] the discrepancy between the anatomical analogy and the illness-cure scenario of the fable [e.g., the belly and the organs, or the head and the feet] is more significant. The former highlights the well-functioning, harmonious state of a stable political body, thus confirming an optimistic viewpoint that includes the notion of malfunction only as a possibility that should be avoided. The latter, however, sees that body as a fundamentally instable, insecure entity. The fable in [Salisbury's] Policraticus, focusing as it does on the Pope's remedy for Christendom, still envisages an almost automatic cure, but the text also contains quite drastic illness-cure scenarios for the worldly state" (2010: 86, my emphasis). Both of these examples still position ill or disabled bodies as undesirable, cautionary tales.
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  6. Shogimen (2008: 78) notes that medical metaphors relating to the body politic are not exclusive to the west, however the western tradition of political theory is the focus of this article.
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