- Theorizing Disability Studies
In his 1999 review essay "Crips Strike Back," Lennard Davis heralded the advent of a humanistic disability studies which seeks "to examine the constructed nature of concepts like 'normalcy' and to defamiliarize them" (504).1 Davis observed that longtime resistance to including disability as a category of analysis was being overcome by the excitement of "the emergence of a whole new field in literary studies at the moment when many felt that there was nothing new under the hermeneutic sun" (510). One sign of this shift, Davis noted, was the initiation of a disability studies series by the University of Michigan Press. In 2008, that series, Corporealities: Discourses of Disability, published two significant monographs, by noted literary scholars Michael Davidson and Tobin Siebers. These two thoughtful, engaging, and wide-reaching works demonstrate how much the field of humanistic disability studies has grown in the decade since Davis's essay, as well as providing fruitful indications of the field's next directions.
While Davis noted the contentiousness of claiming disability as an identity category like gender or race in the 1990s, Siebers positions his [End Page 629] collection of essays, Disability Theory, squarely in the middle of a wider debate as to the usefulness of identity studies itself, vigorously challenging the idea that "[i]dentity is out of fashion as a category in critical and cultural theory" (11). In so doing, Siebers explicitly aligns himself with the "new realism of identity" promulgated by Paula Moya, Linda Martin Alcoff, and Satya Mohanty, among others.2 Like these scholars who draw upon ethnic and postcolonial studies to conceive of a new relevance for identity in the twenty-first-century critical landscape, Siebers argues passionately that "identity politics remains … the most practical course of action by which to address social injustices against minority peoples and to apply the new ideas, narratives, and experiences discovered by them to the future of progressive, democratic society" (15). But unlike the divisive either-or scenarios described by Davis, Siebers envisions a widely inclusive identity politics in which disability is unquestionably included along with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—a politics that has taken material form in recent years through The Future of Minority Studies Research project, which has notably included disability as one of the primary "minorities" under study.3
Perhaps due to my background and current position in gender studies, I found myself wondering if Siebers's impassioned defense of the study of identity is entirely necessary, especially for the likely audience of readers drawn to his book in the first place. More compelling are his innovative remarks on disability, not simply as an additional component of identity studies, but as a crucial theoretical framework for such studies:
My argument here takes issue with those who believe that identity politics either springs from disability or disables people for viable political action. I offer a defense of identity politics and a counterargument to the idea, embraced by the Right and Left, that identity politics cannot be justified because it is linked to pain and suffering. The idea that suffering produces [End Page 630] weak identities both enforces the ideology of ability and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of disability: disability is not a pathological condition, only analyzable via individual psychology, but a social location complexly embodied.(13)
Siebers explores what he means by the complex embodiment of social locations through eight loosely connected essays, about half of which have previously appeared in anthologies and journals such as American Literary History and Literature and Medicine. Thus Disability Theory represents in many ways the development of Siebers's theoretical approach to disability over the course of years, during which time his voice has been highly influential within the field. This unification and expansion of that voice is a welcome contribution to a field still endeavoring to establish disability as a topic of theoretical discourse rather than medical intervention.
Yet again, Siebers's goal is...