Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability Theory

Article excerpt

Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2008. isbn 978-0-472-05039-0 pbk 231 pp. $23.95

Tobin Siebers' Disability Theory is an important book for contemporary Disability Studies. It is important not only for its often provocative explorations of such pressing issues as pain, sexuality, and human rights, but also because Siebers is a major participant in one of the most vigorous debates within the field at the present time-the question of methodology and how we do Disability Studies in the humanities. This is a book with a clear agenda: to counter the critiques of identity politics that have emerged among disability scholars-we might think of Lennard Davis announcing the end of identity politics in Bending over Backwards, or Robert McRuer's poststructuralist stance in Crip Theory-and to advance minority studies as an approach to identity and difference (3). Disability Theory persuasively dismantles the arguments of those on both the Right and the Left "who claim that identity politics offers only self-victimisation and political paralysis" (194); instead, Siebers contends, minority identities are here to stay and should form the basis for transformative political activities (70).

Siebers' methodological argument is expounded most fully in his chapter on Body Theory, but is in evidence throughout the whole monograph. It hinges on critical analysis of the ideological differences between poststructuralist and realist approaches to disability, and to identity politics more generally. Identifying himself as a philosophical realist, Siebers deplores poststructuralism's "desire for absolute critique" (122) and exposes what he sees as the limitations of social constructionist theories of identity. In order to effectively challenge the "ideology of ability" (7) that permeates contemporary society, the book argues, we need to revise some of the assumptions of the social model of disability and develop a "theory of complex embodiment" (22). This focuses on the realism of the body and is especially urgent in relation to sexual performativity and physical suffering. It involves cultivating a "sexual culture" (135) among people with disabilities and acknowledging the negative aspects of pain, rather than idealising pain and disabled sex as forms of embodied resistance. Disability Theory makes a significant start to the project of demythologising disability experience, and Siebers' discussion of pain-a topic that tends to cause an impasse within Disability Studies-is, I think, one of the book's most important interventions.

After an introduction that sets out Siebers' key terms and concepts-the ideology of ability, disability identity, minority identity, and complex embodiment- the book comprises a series of independent but interrelated essays, respectively dealing with narcissism, queer theory and passing, the law, sexual culture, and human rights. During the course of the book, Siebers moves confidently through disability-oriented appraisals of some of the most influential cultural theorists and philosophers of the present moment. Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Elaine Scarry, and Donna Haraway are re-read from disability-informed perspectives, sometimes with startling insights. Foucault's docile bodies, if read as disabled bodies, are rendered a "bad invention" (58) underpinned by the ideology of ability. Butler attracts criticism because, ironically, "bodies, disabled or otherwise, rarely appear" in her writing (75). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's epistemology of the closet is thoughtfully re-theorised to account for disability passing in Siebers' analysis of "Disability as Masquerade," and his pertinent engagement with human rights discourse in Chapter 9 is buttressed by his reinterpretation of Hannah Arendt's seminal work. …

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