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  • IntroductionCripistemologies and the Masturbating Girl
  • Merri Lisa Johnson (bio) and Robert McRuer (bio)

“Cripistemologies: Introduction” served as the opening to the first of two special issues of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. It was largely drafted in November 2013. In that introduction, we promised to do the hard work of attending to differences of scholarly opinion in disability studies instead of presenting a false sense of harmony among disability scholars. Likewise, we put cripistemology forward knowing that not everyone would find it equally useful. The word itself is unfamiliar, difficult to spell, and no less difficult to say. In fact, Lisa originally described it to Robert as something almost akin to stimming, moving its many-angled shape around in the mouth to manage the intense-world sensations of body and mind after a conference has been planned, hosted, and almost but not quite moved beyond.1

cripistemology c r i p i s t e m o l o g y c r i p i s t e m o l o g y cripistemology

A spring. A coil. A curlicue.

A word that will not stop repeating in your head as you try to fall asleep and nothing, not even the usual tricks of breathing and touching in rhythm, will send you off to sleep after the nervous pleasures and exhaustive energy of a queercrip gathering.

We described the term as circulating in unorthodox ways, with a wide swath of time between the term’s coinage and the publication of JLCDS 8.2. We might say now that the term circulated in awkward ways, gesturing toward Zach Richter’s theorization of awkwardness: “Like unmanageable bodily fluids that exist through numerous bodily tubes, Awkwardness is given expression through history in a series of attempts to grasp and emergences.” During that awkward time between coinage and publication, the term was taken up, examined, made [End Page 245] the central focus of a big-city conference, refuted in a special issue of a web journal, and considered in detail in emotionally charged discussions on the Facebook pages of our friends, and friends of friends—all before either of us had published one word excavating the concept of cripistemologies (with the exception of the initial call for papers). This multi-directional response further bodies forth the nonlinear temporality of the term’s emergence, marking the way certain forms of knowledge or even conversations about knowledge can feel extremely volatile, touchy, prickly, and sometimes (as we both fell silent after the first round of responses to the arguably premature refutation) sort of impossible. When we said not everyone would love our new word, we may have underestimated its polarizing force, as we found ourselves pulled, vortex-like, into larger/older conversations about knowledge and language, insiders and outsiders, academic depravity, phobic narratives, and the capacity of words not only to name sensations like pain and pleasure, but also to cause them, sometimes at the very same moment.

Not unlike the experience of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose infamous conference paper title, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” ignited a firestorm over perceptions of academic work as self-indulgent, unimportant, and detached from real-world concerns, so, too, did cripistemologies. When, in November 2013, we were rereading, and then working closely with, Sedgwick’s reflections on epistemology, embodiment, illness, depression, and HIV/AIDS, we never imagined (even as we opened with a riff on Pride and Prejudice) that her work on Jane Austen and masturbating girls would have anything to do with cripistemology. Perhaps there is nowhere to go in contemporary theory that Sedgwick has not already been.

“The phrase itself is already evidence,” Sedgwick writes in the opening sentence of the essay in question (“Masturbating,” 818). The phrase is “a smoking gun […] that lets absolutely anyone, in the righteously exciting vicinity of the masturbating girl, feel a very pundit” (818). Elsewhere, Sedgwick describes how the attacks on her essay, the claims of academic degeneracy and self-indulgence, came at a toxic moment—immediately following her diagnosis with breast cancer—when she was least prepared to respond with anything that might resemble autonomy and self-assurance. What Richter terms “the peculiar...


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pp. 245-255
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