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  • Severely Queer Theory
  • Ellen Samuels, Ed Roberts Postdoctoral Fellow in Disability Studies
Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability Robert McRuer New York: New York University Press, 2006. xvi + 283 pp.

The much-anticipated second book by Robert McRuer is sure to provoke a rich response among the growing number of scholars investigating intersections of queer and disability theory in cultural studies, literature, sociology, and the arts. Yet McRuer's pioneering new work has implications beyond its stated area of inquiry, for his project, broadly stated, is not merely to elucidate an integrated "crip theory," which combines the transgressive power of both queer and disability culture, but to employ such a theory in a far-reaching critique of neoliberal, capitalist power structures. Seeking to expose and contest "the flexible corporate strategies that currently undergird contemporary economics, politics, and culture" and "invariably produce a world in which disability and queerness are subordinated or eliminated outright" (29), McRuer's analysis ranges widely among, and often draws new, even shocking connections between, cultural, literary, and political figures: witness his juxtaposition of S/M performance artist Bob Flanagan (best known for driving a nail through his penis) and Clinton administration and World Bank adviser Judith Heumann as alternate figures of disability activism.

Such juxtapositions inevitably posit the more radical figure as the more liberatory—Flanagan, not Heumann, is clearly McRuer's preferred role model—a move that demonstrates the praxis of McRuer's "crip theory," an approach that values transgression over reform, access over accommodation, and inclusion over separation. Crip theory, McRuer explains, entails a similar critique of disability identity politics as does queer theory in relation to traditional lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered modes of identity, modes whose contemporary embrace of normative rhetorics such as "we're just like everyone else" is sharply critiqued throughout Crip Theory. And as in the queer context, such an approach renders McRuer's analysis vulnerable to the critique of obscuring the material realities of disabled people's lived experience: in the United States, for example, the daily [End Page 580] impact of such reformist and identity-based structures as accommodations based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security definitions of disability, and the struggle to retain funding for such crucial programs as in-home support services, worker's compensation, and income-protection plans such as the Plan to Achieve Self-Sufficiency program (PASS), all of which are dwindling under the relentless "reforms" of the Bush, Schwarzenegger, and other right-wing administrations around the country.1

In such a fraught political atmosphere, with disabled people losing basic services and resources that allow us merely to survive, McRuer's critique of such cultural signs of neoliberalism as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy could certainly seem overly theoretical or distant from the material realities of queer and disabled people, a possibility McRuer himself acknowledges. Yet Crip Theory answers a crucial need within the queer and the disability communities, to imagine alternate ways of being that do not merely respond to conservative and neoliberal attacks but claim the possibility of new definitions of self, world, and resistance. Such work draws on the transgressive legacies of both the LGBT and disability rights movements, legacies whose deep similarities and intertwinements are rarely seen or acknowledged. McRuer's book brings these histories to the forefront, revealing the deep connections between "the 'army of one-breasted women' Audre Lorde imagines descending on the Capitol; the Rolling Quads, whose resistance sparked the independent living movement in Berkeley, California; Deaf students shutting down Gallaudet University in the Deaf President Now action; or ACT UP storming the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration" as part of a movement he describes as severely disabled/critically queer, as well as remapping the idea of "severe" disability much as queer culture has claimed such terms as "fierce" and "fabulous" to inscribe the complex cultural work of resistance (31).

This remapping of culture also includes the resituating of well-known queer theorists and activists as "crip," as doing the work not only of radical sexuality studies but of antinormative body theory that lies at the heart of contemporary disability studies. The list includes not only...


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