- Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race by Ellen Samuels
At the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to contest police authority to kill black youth with impunity, a series of revelations accompanied each case. Michael Brown, a black male shot down for walking in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri, was unarmed. Disputes surfaced about whether or not he had raised his hands in a position of submissive surrender, potentially showing that the apprehended likely cooperated with the officer’s commands. Next it turned out that not only was the youth African American, but also a larger person on his way to college in the fall. Such compounding bases for Brown’s culpability in the violence that ended his life by police bullets ultimately unraveled how intersecting bodily characteristics of race, class, gender, and disability compounded in the officer, Darren Wilson’s, post-mortem tale of the threat he experienced in this individual’s presence as a matter of course.
Likewise was true with Eric Garner, an African American, asthmatic, and large man who was killed in a “legal” chokehold by a New York City police officer for suspicion of selling e-cigarettes without a license. The multiplying ways in which body size, racial identity, and respiratory impairment served as evidence of why deadly force was called for again provided justification of police use of excessive force. Similar cases appear in the cultural repertoire of violence against non-normative bodies, such as the 1998 murder of James Byrd whose status as a black man with cerebral palsy in Texas resulted in his death through the commission of a hate crime by white supremacist murderers outside of a bar. The three men dragged the unconscious Byrd to his death by chaining him to the bumper of their truck and driving away with his body in tow over a stretch of three miles. Each instance exposed the profound cultural fantasies at work in the compounding interstices of encounters with non-normative bodies.
For Ellen Samuels in her book, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race, such fantastical terrains of material and representational violence have been unfolding since at least the mid-nineteenth century in the US. First this was through anxieties that surfaced about ambiguous bodily identities involving disabled people and the “worthy poor” as social benefits began to [End Page 367] be extended by a paternalistic Reconstruction era liberal state; later it was in eugenical empirical proofs such as fingerprinting, blood typing, and physical detection that served to solidify the need for medical professionals whose diagnostic expertise could whittle through the vagaries of appearance and personal claims to identity-based memberships. And finally, it was through late twentieth century biocertification regimes that promise to fix identity in the micro and macro worlds of traceable blood lines, and later, genetic belonging. In all cases the authority of individuals living in such bodies was eclipsed by state-sponsored efforts to bypass and disqualify what one could know about one’s own bodily truth.
Thus, Fantasies of Identification charts a coherent series of developments over the space of approximately 150 years of US history. Samuels analyzes these practices as a persistent effort at the institutional levels of political bureaucracy to fix the meanings of an inherently dynamic identity: corporeal being. If we jump forward to our own contemporary moment—as Samuels does in her discussions of biocertification regimes in Part III—such an argument plays out in rhetorics of inclusion, where a certain level of difference is allowed (even potentially embraced) however, “portrayals of ambiguous identification are tolerable only if contained and ultimately resolvable” (79). Irresolvable ambiguity—not difference per se—is the problem that threatens to undermine the solidity of what Alex Weheliye calls the “project of Western Man” (11).
Within Samuels’s history, disability operates not just as an addendum to race and gender instabilities, but as the biological/material anchor of their unfixedness (Snyder and Mitchell 124). A potential quagmire of impairment forms into that which even the most able-performative body threatens to sink and submerge...