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Cultural Critique 55 (2003) 182-216

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What Can Disability Studies Learn from the Culture Wars?

Tobin Siebers


My concern in this essay is threefold. First, I will be arguing that disability is a significant register in the many and various disputes that have come to be known as the "culture wars." The culture wars are not only about what culture will mean in the future but also about who deserves to be included in our culture, and the determining factor in these political decisions often depends on being able to display a healthy body and mind. Statements that label cultural attitudes, minority groups, lifestyles, and works of art as "healthy" or "sick" are not metaphors but aesthetic judgments about the physical and mental condition of citizens. My general purpose is to rethink the culture wars from the point of view of disability studies, a revision that entails a critique of the reliance of cultural and aesthetic ideals on the healthy and able body as well as an appreciation of alternative forms of value and beauty based on disability.

Second, I want to suggest that a political unconscious represses the role of disability in cultural and aesthetic representation. This issue is by necessity related to my first concern. Fredric Jameson argues that the experience of human community functions as a "political unconscious" that represents the "absolute horizon" of all interpretation (1981, 17). 1 The political unconscious, he concludes, determines the symbolism by which the forms of aesthetic objects are given as representations of community, but what has not been considered is whether the political unconscious may also regulate aesthetic forms, excluding those suggestive of broken communities and approving those evocative of ideal ones. My specific test case here is the controversial Sensation exhibition shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in [End Page 182] 1999, but my main point will be that the inclusion of disability changes the definition of the political unconscious in surprising ways.

Third, I claim that aesthetics is pertinent to the struggle to create a built environment accessible to people with disabilities. The debate in architecture has so far focused more on the fundamental problem of whether buildings and landscapes should be universally accessible than on the aesthetic symbolism by which the built environment mirrors its potential inhabitants. While universal access must remain the ambition of the disability community, a broad understanding of disability aesthetics reveals the hidden inhibitions and defense mechanisms that work against advances in universal design and undercut the political and social participation of people with disabilities. It also shows that aesthetic disgust with disability extends beyond individual disabled bodies to the symbolic presence of disability in the built environment. In short, we see again the influence of a political unconscious. My particular goal is to give some idea of the group psychology that lies beneath the rejection of disability and accessible architecture from the public sphere. This part of my argument requires as a jumping-off point a brief consideration of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

In 1990 conservative politicians attacked the ranting profanity and feral behavior of performance artist Karen Finley to make their case to close down the National Endowment for the Arts. The "talented toiletmouth," whom the NEA has funded on three occasions, fills the stage with shrieks and spit, sometimes stripping off her clothes and smearing chocolate, alfalfa sprouts, and yams over her buttocks. Her wild orations about excrement and menstruation rattled the shockproof veterans of the New York City downtown art scene in the late 1980s—and outraged the enemies of the NEA who could not grasp the critical element in her performances. "I use certain language," Finley explains, "that is a symptom of the violence in the culture" (Lacayo 1990, 48). For the conservatives, Finley and other controversial artists are obscene and un-American, one more sign, as Newt Gingrich put it, of "the cancer eating away at our civilization." 2

In 1996 a Michigan Farmer Jack store fired Karl Petzold, a courtesy clerk who bagged groceries for ten months, after shocked customers complained about his verbal outbursts...