The Critical Limits of Embodiment: Disability's Criticism
No one is ever more than temporarily able-bodied. This fact frightens those of us who half-imagine ourselves as minds in a material context, who have learned to resent the publicness of race- or sex- or otherwise-marked bodies and to think theories of embodiment as theories about the subjectivity of able-bodied comportment and practice under conditions of systematic injustice. From this perspective, disability studies may be twice marginalized—first, by able-bodied anxiety; second, by a tendency to treat disability as just another hindrance to social mobility, perhaps one best left to medical discourse or descriptive sociology.
New work in disability studies, however, challenges established habits of thought about “having” a body. Disability studies dissolves deeply entrenched mind-and-body distinctions and further destabilizes the concept of the normal, whose charted internal ambiguities have themselves become too familiar. An ethics and a politics of disability are crucial to the work of the university—pedagogically, theoretically, and institutionally. But reconfiguring knowledge in light of disability criticism is a project that is likely to take longer than making public space accessible.
Disability studies teaches that an assumed able body is crucial to the smooth operation of traditional theories of democracy, citizenship, subjectivity, beauty, and capital. By assuming that the normative human is an able-bodied adult, for example, liberal theory can conflate political or economic interests with desires, political representation with having a voice in policy-making, social organization with voluntary association, and so on. Liberal theory naturalizes the political by making it personal. And the “person” at the center of the traditional liberal theory is not simply an individual locus of subjectivity (however psychologically fragmented, incoherent, or troubled). He is an able-bodied locus of subjectivity, one whose unskilled labor may be substituted freely for the labor of other such individuals, one who can imagine himself largely self-sufficient because almost everything conspires to help him take his enabling body for granted (even when he is scrambling for the means of subsistence). However, the mere possibility of a severely cognitively disabled adult citizen disrupts the liberal equations of representation and voice, desire and interest. Advocacy for the severely cognitively disabled is not a matter of voicing their demands. More generally, the intricate practical dialectics of dependence and independence in the lives of many disabled people unsettle ideals of social organization as freely chosen expressions of mutual desire.
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We wish to thank the supporters of Critical Limits of Embodiment: A Conference on Disability Criticism, held at the University of Chicago in May 2000, which laid the groundwork for this special issue of Public Culture. In particular, we thank the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Globalization Project, the Committee on Cinema and Media, the Committee on Jewish Studies, the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, the Center for Transcultural Studies, and the Nineteenth Century Workshop. Special thanks are due to the staff of Public Culture, including Caitrin Lynch, Kaylin Goldstein, Mayanthi Fernando, and William Elison. Finally, this conversation began with Robert McCarthy, was nudged forward by Larry Rothfield, and was realized through the efforts of Temby Caprio, a tough interlocutor and a willing organizer.