Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Criphystemologies: What Disability Theory Needs to Know about Hysteria

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Criphystemologies: What Disability Theory Needs to Know about Hysteria

Article excerpt

Through a reading of Freud's case history Dora, the article argues that the cultural construction of "hysteria" is a crucial factor in the oppression of people with what may be termed "undocumented disabilities"-that is, impairments that are neither visible nor definitively measurable by modern Western medical technologies. The contention is that the prevailing theoretical paradigms in disability studies are of limited use in developing critical analyses of undocumented disability. Insofar as the social model of disability (and the related "critique of the medical model") downplays connections between disability and suffering, it may reinforce the oppression of subjects with undocumented disabilities. Such subjects, often marked as "hysterical," must struggle to obtain recognition of the disabling suffering that is experienced. The article introduces the term criphystemologies to reference epistemologies that validate the lived experiences of people with undocumented disabilities.

Introduction

There's a funny thing about hysteria: although it's a medical term with a pervasive cultural life, it almost never makes an appearance in disability theory. Peruse the tables of contents, indexes, and titles of the most influential texts in the field: the word hysteria is seldom found. This is a crucial omission for people who have what I call "undocumented disabilities." Undocumented disabilities result from impairments that are "invisible" (i.e., unapparent to the casual observer) and not definitively measurable by mainstream Western medical technologies.1 My own disabilities-environmental illness, repetitive strain injury, chronic back pain, and irritable bowel syndrome-fall into this category, as do many others, including depression, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, and borderline personality disorder.2

Although the term hysteria does not have the same currency today as it once did, people with undocumented disabilities are routinely hystericized-that is, we are treated as if our impairments were "hysterical" symptoms rather than legitimate diseases-by the mainstream Western medical profession and the culture at large.3 Health-care practitioners attribute physical symptoms to "psychosomatic" disorders, and they dismiss both physical and emotional suffering as "stress" or "attention-seeking behavior." In the media, our impairments are derided as "fashionable illnesses" and "diseases du jour." Co-workers, family members, and friends opine that our symptoms are "all in our heads" and suggest that we "push through." We are suspected, moreover, of fabricating our disabilities to obtain undeserved "entitlements." Blamed for causing our impairments, we are denied social accommodation and support that in post-ADA society are granted to many people with disabilities that are visible and/or documentable. For example, public spaces designated "accessible" usually pose insurmountable access barriers to people with environmental illness. Likewise, people with undocumented disabilities that prevent them from working typically have their applications for disability benefits denied multiple times.4

A contestation of dominant social and cultural reactions to undocumented disability has not thus far been a central project of disability theory. Given the field's emphasis on the stigma attached to visible and documented disability, and given its history of dissociating disability from suffering (a history that may impede the efforts of subjects marked "hysterical" to obtain recognition of the disabling suffering that we do experience), a radical critique of the concept of hysteria requires the framing of new epistemologies of disability. I propose to call these new ways of knowing disability criphystemologies. My neologism-derived, of course, from the present issue's groundbreaking concept, cripistemology-calls forth a mode of analysis that disrupts accepted conceptions of disability in three overlapping ways. …

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