- “Vulnerability and Power”: Disability, Pedagogy, Identity
A Conversation with Ellen Samuels
One of the major contributions of disability studies (ds) is the insight that our bodies change and have changed meaning over time–not just within lifetimes, but more structurally, over decades and centuries. Following the twin leads of Michel Foucault and the Disability Rights movement, scholars in ds have traced the shifting definitions of seemingly self-evident terms like “able-bodied,” “independent,” and “productive,” at the same time reclaiming derogated terms such as “crip” and “mad.”
It’s not surprising, then, how many of the founding figures in the humanities in contemporary ds have been historians and historicizers.1 Helen Deutsch’s groundbreaking work on early modern concepts of impairment and disability argues that in a culture in which bodies were vulnerable to infections, injury, malnutrition, and prenatal and birth complications, the language for physical and cognitive anomaly was both more granular and more generalized: physically disabled, blind, intellectually disabled, and injured people fell into the same amorphous category as supposed “freaks of nature” (people of unusually large or small stature, conjoined twins, people born without various limbs) and “monsters.” And the eighteenth century distinction between “defect” and “deformities” constitutes a very different vocabulary of bodily difference from the one in place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
At the same time, impairments that would in more recent times be considered wholly disabling–for example, Samuel Johnson’s several disabilities (poor vision, extensive scarring from scrofula, and a neurological condition that resembled Tourette’s syndrome)—were seen as eccentricities or deformities, rather than identifiers of a particular kind of person. Disability scholars have chronicled this dynamic relationship between historical change and embodiment, not least the ways in which marginalized gender, race, and class identities could themselves be categorized as diseases or disabilities. ds has shown the inextricability of US definitions of disability over time from the economics of plantation slavery, the characterization of bourgeois femininity as constitutively diseased, the pathologizing of a range of sexual desires and activities, as well as the historically constructed focus on independence as the measure of citizenship. That is to say, we cannot understand our past, or our present, without looking at how marginal and impaired bodies are imagined to fit into the body politic.
Ellen Samuels is part of the second generation of disability studies academics, a generation that has inherited these insights and built upon them. Trained in the field by established scholars, Samuels claims an intersectional [End Page 147] analysis of disability, sexuality, race, gender, and class as foundational to her work. Her 2014 book, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race, argues that the American obsession with knowing and fixing bodies into categories–what she calls “biocertification”–is a bedrock element of US modernity. Ranging from literary texts to scientific tracts to visual art, Fantasies of Identification takes a panoramic perspective on the place of disability as not just an aspect but a function of American self-fashioning.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Samuels in July, 2015 to talk about disability studies, gaining community, and the vexed place of disability in academia.
What do you see as your intervention into the field?
My academic background as an undergraduate was as an English and women’s studies major, and this was in the early 90s before disability studies was present in the US academy in any way. When I returned to graduate school in 1999 at UC Berkeley, I began my PhD in English right when a group of faculty there had received a grant to start a ds program. So I arrived at a very fortuitous time. I had already been doing a little bit of reading and writing in the field before that about my own disabled identity. But arriving not only as they were starting the program, but also at Berkeley, which is the birthplace of the independent living movement and Ed Roberts and all of that—such a vibrant disability community—so I was very lucky to be immersed in that.2 I very quickly felt, as...