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  • Disability Justice and Beauty as a Liberatory Practice
  • Mordecai Cohen Ettinger (bio)

I have a firm and persistent belief—perhaps it is even a conviction, rooted in and in alignment with my vision for collective liberation—that all people hold the capacity to conceive of and experience beauty in a manner that well transcends that which we are conditioned into recognizing as beautiful by normative, twenty-first-century, United States societal standards. I posit that there exists a type of phenomenological overlay or precursor to the highly disciplined and disciplining modes of beauty that operate to glorify and legitimize the institutionalization and embodiment of white christian supremacist, ableist, heteropatriarchal, settler-colonial capitalism. This phenomenological process is "beauty as a thing in and of itself," an affect state and experience that even as it is always already socially, culturally, and historically conditioned and constructed—often as a means of control, conquest, and submission—is also something enduringly subjective and connected to expansive and positive states and possibilities.

The development of my own aesthetic and phenomenological sense of beauty, not unlike the development of my vision and analysis of collective liberation, have necessarily and indelibly been informed by the social movements of which I am a part. Through the works curated by Sins Invalid's annual performances featuring disabled artists and the grounding principles of disability justice that is masterfully conveyed in their 2016 disability justice primer, Skin Teeth and Bone: The Basis of Movement Is Our People, the extended Sins Invalid community—led by the founding executive director Patricia Berne, and many other staff and performers—have played a tremendous role in this development. I interpret and experience Sins Invalid's body of work and their incubation of the disability justice [End Page 237] movement as opening up a field of knowing, witnessing, and reclaiming beauty that is in and of itself a liberatory practice.

This type of beauty—intrinsically relational—is lived, breathed, shared, and cocreated. It can be accessed through communion with the vastness of our living breathing planet and nonhuman beings, the unique and irreplaceable intimacy of friends, lovers, family, and chosen kin, or through art. When collectively experiencing works of art like those in the annual curated Sins Invalid performances, liberatory beauty emerges adjacent to and entangled within normalizing and coercive performances of beauty. Yet these experiences live and breathe in resistance to them and are in close kinship with "truth," "awe," and "wonder." Here, I introduce truth, awe, and wonder, as phenomenologically lived and experienced, and perhaps, as such, they can only be fully known and understood through the practice of a lived and contemplated life supported by opportunities to touch in liberated zones/prefigurative worlds, like those generated through Sins Invalid's performances. Since time is so constrained and enclosed upon in late capitalism, especially for people with disabilities, I configure beauty as this contemplation and communion that also involves the liberation of time. This requires reclaiming interior space and imagination, in and of itself an act of beauty, sometimes subtle, sometimes silent, sometimes bold decolonization.

Capitalism and the matrices of oppression that support and enable it, inure us against the experience of beauty in and of itself, ultimately marginalizing and rendering "ugly"—worthy only of derision, rejection, abuse, (mis)use, and death—all who fail to service the perpetuation of white christian supremacist, heteropatriarchal, ableist capital, and often reduces beauty to a hypercommodified means to an end: domination. Following the analysis of Black feminist thought as articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Sins Invalid envisions disability justice as centering intersectionality. Ableism is inherently always already white supremacist and heteropatriarchal. To undo ableism, we must see our collective liberation as inextricably connected. In disability justice, as proposed by Sins Invalid, movement towards conjoined liberation, a process which necessarily exposes and challenges ableism, transforms that which is ugly into beauty. No one and nothing is disposable.

From this lens, practices and performances that witness, know, encourage the recognition of one's own (nonnormative) crip beauty, and engage in what Sins Invalid announces pithy organizational description as an "unshamed [End Page 238] claim to [that] beauty" constitute rebellion if not revolution. For if, as disabled people, our existence is...


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