Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Identity Politics and Disability Studies: A Critique of Recent Theory

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Identity Politics and Disability Studies: A Critique of Recent Theory

Article excerpt

Despite its emergent field status, disability studies in the United States has been on the academic scene long enough to have developed its own critical conventions. One of these entails introducing the topic of disability by way of contrast: disability has been neglected as an identity category, while the concerns of other marginalized groups have been more scrupulously attended to.1 Building upon this observation, the critics I will discuss in this essay have made groundbreaking political and theoretical interventions, insisting that disability must be understood as a social condition rather than an individual defect. Their claim that disability has received far less critical attention than race, gender, or sexuality is incontrovertible, and it is worth repeating. Nevertheless, the almost obligatory recitation of the charge calls for critical examination, especially insofar as it functions to prescribe, as a remedy, the installation of disability as another identity category. This recommendation is explicitly articulated by many prominent disability scholars, most of whom consider the central goals of disability studies to include forging a group identity. In Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, Simi Linton writes that disabled people have "solidified as a group" and that her "experience as a disabled subject" and her "alliance with the community" are "a source of identity, motivation, and information" (5). David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder lament that "critical parallels with other minoritized identities have been slow in coming" (2). And for Rosemarie Garland Thomson, people with disabilities are "political minorities" whose oppression consists in part of having been denied "subjectivity or agency" (6; 11). Even Lennard J. Davis, who sounds a death knell for identity politics in Bending Over Backwards, nonetheless predicts in this book that disabled people's membership in what he designates "the most marginalized group" will paradoxically facilitate the emergence of disability as a "neoidentity" (29; 26).

Identity, agency, and subjectivity: these are the familiar rallying cries of identity politics movements; yet they are somewhat dissonant in a postmodern era, which has seen a proliferation of theories undermining identity as a viable concept, as well as the formulation of an array of critiques of particular forms of identity-centered politics. Many disability scholars-even those who have insightfully drawn upon poststructuralist theories in their work-have greeted these developments with ambivalence or frustration. Constructivist challenges to identity, they have sometimes suggested, are academic luxuries that come at the cost of attention to the real lives of people with disabilities. Consider the following moments in some of the most important writing in disability studies. In Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson warns that, until civil rights protections for people with disabilities are firmly in place, "a disability politics cannot . . . afford to banish the category of disability according to the poststructuralist critique of identity" (23).2 While Thomson's language suggests fiscal irresponsibility, Susan Wendell describes postmodernism in terms of moral failing, accusing its proponents of "cruel" indifference to "the hard physical realities that are faced by people with disabilities" (44-45). Similarly, Tobin Siebers suggests that "recent body theory has reproduced the most abhorrent prejudices of ableist society" (DT 741). At one point in Enforcing Normalcy, Davis figures poststructuralist theorization as selfish erotic indulgence; postmodernists, he suggests, ignore disability because it is not sexy. In the introduction to this book, Davis argues that the typical postmodern theorist, whom he dubs the "critic of jouissance," is enamored with visions of the body as "a site of jouissance, a native ground of pleasure." For this reason, Davis suggests, "the disabled body is a nightmare for the fashionable discourse of theory. …

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