- The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment by David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, and: Theatres of Learning Disability: Good, Bad, or Plain Ugly? by Matt Hargrave
Since its emergence in the 1980s, disability studies has traditionally focused on how dominant social practices create barriers for people with disabilities. This social model situates disability in the environment as opposed to a medical view that locates disability on the individual’s body as a biological flaw that needs to be cured, palliated, or eliminated. The social model and its political counterpart, the disability rights movement, have established disability as a minoritarian identity and culture shaped by oppression and advocacy. Most scholarly analysis of disability and the arts has therefore foregrounded this social construction, focusing on critical responses to marginalization and the affirmation of shared identity. At the same time, disability is not purely a social construction. Many among us have bodily and cognitive differences that do not fit into normate expectations of how we are to live and work. Disability studies has therefore counterbalanced [End Page 188] its social model, to a lesser extent, with a more recent examination of how disabled people’s impairments impact how they must navigate through spaces and institutions that remain significantly exclusionary.
David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder observe in The Biopolitics of Disability that neither of the critical approaches described above can fully address how different corporeal and cognitive realities afford disabled people embodied knowledge and lived experience that does not primarily stem from socially imposed restrictions and oppression. A purely political understanding of disability cannot account for disability’s critical and innovative contributions to the arts and culture. It is with this conceptual problem in mind that Mitchell and Snyder, in close conversation with Margrit Shildrick’s work on critical disability as radical materialism (1997, 2002, 2009), emphasize a third approach that they call a “nondialectical materialist account of disability” or “non-normative positivism” (5). This perspective moves beyond an understanding of disability as a product of social oppression to examine the alternative ways that some disabled people live creatively on the periphery of neoliberalism. Mitchell and Snyder argue that this is particularly important in nations such as the United States, whose efforts to increasingly include disabled people only apply to the exceptional “able-disabled,” the few who are able to approximate normate bodily appearance and behavior and satisfy neoliberalism’s demands of production and consumption (12). They note that such “inclusion” actually reinforces ableist notions of full citizenship by integrating this privileged minority into what remains an exclusive, normative environment. Such tokenism and rhetorics of benevolence that demonstrate US exceptionalism elide the continued exclusion of all who cannot meet neoliberal dictates. Such “ablenationalism” is one facet of our contemporary “biopolitics of disability,” the ubiquitous process of neoliberal management of individuals that regulates all of us into ideal “hyper-market-driven-identities” (10).
In order to critically address such homogenizing regulation and disenfranchisement in ways that move beyond the social/minority models of disability, Mitchell and Snyder engage with various interlocutors in queer, feminist, political, and critical race theory to reveal the parallel and intersectional concerns of disability with other aspects of neoliberal exclusion and disenfranchisement. They encourage us to embrace “cripistemologies,” Merri Lisa Johnson’s term for ways of knowing and rethinking disability from decentered crip/queer perspectives, embodiments, crises, and prohibited critical, social, and personal experiences (in Johnson and McRuer 2014). Drawing from Robert McRuer’s crip theory (2006), they observe that all disabled bodies are queer in the sense that they “represent discordant functionalities and outlaw sexualities” (3). Jasbir Puar’s model of homonationalism (2007), in which members of “deviant” groups who are most willing and able to fetishize the norms of dominant communities are those who gain inclusion, in turn is extended to...