- Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability by Shelley L. Tremain
Shelley Tremain's book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, considers how disability has been incorrectly contained by medical ethics or ignored entirely by mainstream philosophy. She argues for an antifoundational approach to disability that accounts for the historical and material conditions of people while also attending to the conditions of disabled philosophers themselves. This important contribution to the fields of philosophy, gender studies, and disability studies explicitly addresses how ableism has impacted academic discourses in philosophy, harming disabled philosophers, disabled people, and the production of knowledge in these areas. This interrogation of ableism in academia comes as a through line of analysis rather than a footnote. Tremain also excavates these fields for moments where Foucault has been dismissed, bringing them into focus and arguing saliently for Foucault's continued contributions to conversations about structures of power.
Tremain's book is rich with ideas about how disability, philosophy, and feminism fit together. Her work intervenes in a conversation about disability and philosophy using research from a reconstructive-conceptual and metaphilosophical sphere, arguing that the two inform (and co-constitute) each other. In the reconstructive-conceptual sphere, she uses Foucault's work to develop an antifoundational approach to disability that "does not rely upon a natural, transhistorical, and transcultural metaphysical and epistemological foundation" (9). In the metaphilosophical sphere, her research allows her to "investigate mechanisms, practices, and policies that sustain the marginalization of philosophy of disability within the discipline and the virtual exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession" (11–12). She does this in order to show how disability is an apparatus of power and to challenge the philosophical notion that disability is somehow natural.
The first two chapters identify and explain disability as an apparatus of power. Tremain does an excellent job of discussing Foucault for an interested audience who might not specialize in Foucauldian analysis, both briefly summarizing key arguments and providing detailed close reading. This deep attention to the text is one of the strengths of the book. Resisting a natural or biomedical conceptualization of what disability is, she writes, "By contrast, the historicist and relativist feminist philosophy of disability that I articulate in what follows takes as the starting point of inquiry the assumption that disability is an apparatus of force relations, a product of human invention and intervention all the way down" (18). She warns of the dangers of reinscribing the medical model and, [End Page 174] just as importantly, questions why the study of disability has been contained within applied ethics.
In the second chapter, Tremain outlines how Foucault is useful to understanding the complex social/power relations surrounding disability. She starts by defining discourse, careful to separate discourse from a distinctly linguistic meaning, and explains the ways in which the "problem" of disability is discursive. It is not only the language surrounding disability that matters but the power structures that can be uncovered through investigating that language. She explains how discourse is the way forward, but also a hindrance, and that we have to be aware of how disability is mired in discourse in order to break free of it: "How has the combination of (1) philosophical discourses that reinforce and expand the apparatus of disability and (2) discursive practices within professional philosophy that consistently obscure or erase critical analyses of disability enabled (3) resistance to the apparatus of disability within the discipline and profession of philosophy themselves?" (48). Thinking about how knowledge practices reinscribe meanings (especially medical meanings) about disability seems especially important, and comes at a time when other scholars, notably Elizabeth Barnes (2016), are also and reevaluating models and language surrounding disability.
Tremain responds to criticisms of disability scholars and feminist scholars in chapter 3 and chapter 4. In chapter 3, she addresses criticisms of Foucault from disability scholars. These scholars, she argues, dismiss his work based on his misappropriation of disabled people's material conditions. Tremain suggests instead a contextual reading of Foucault that acknowledges his situation of bodies that are subjects of forces of...