Exciting New Scholarship

Disability studies has hit town. Actually it did that a longish time ago – this reporter may be a little behind the times. I noticed a new ‘Disability studies’ section in the University bookstore several years ago, and there are jokes about the subject in the Dictionary, which we started writing three years ago.

Now disabled people have gotten into the business of problematizing: Disability studies has arrived in academia. Of course, the medical study of disability is long-standing, but the new approach establishes an interdisciplinary field on the model of women’s, queer, and ethnic studies…”Disability studies is us looking out at the world and seeing how that looks to us.” It also critiques “how disability is represented in all kinds of texts—in literature, film, the annals of history.”

Should I be polite and serious and respectful and say I think that sounds like a good idea? But I don’t. I think it’s boring and scab-picky and whiney and trendy and tiresome.

For the past two years, Columbia has hosted a monthly seminar for area faculty and grad students. Organized by Linton and colleagues, its topics range from disability in late capitalism to the intersection of disability and queer studies. Just last May, the field was officially recognized as a division by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

That’s quite a range! From disability in late capitalism to the intersection of disability and queer studies – it’s breathtaking in its scope. And the MLA has recognized it as a division – well no wonder I don’t feel polite and respectful. If it were sociology or history, I might be, but just yet another branch of literary Theory? Er – no thanks.

Disability scholars aim to revolutionize the way disability is imagined in our culture. Rather than pathologizing individuals, they ask how society accommodates different bodies (or doesn’t). Disability, they point out, highlights the dynamic nature of identity itself: Entry into the disabled community could be a matter of an overlooked stop sign or the emergence of a lurking gene.

Cackle! Yeah, I suppose it could. Kind of like an episode of the Twilight Zone – you overlook a stop sign and – run over three pedestrians, and the next thing you know, You Have Entered The Disabled Community.

The what? What community? Why is that a ‘community’? Well we know why – the MLA has just said – because there are studies programs, that’s why. If there are studies, there’s a community. Don’t fret that it seems kind of insulting and stupid and oversimplifying to assume that everyone who has some sort of ‘disability’ therefore belongs to a ‘community’ of people with some sort of disability – it may seem that way but really it’s a Liberation Movement. Or something.

Anyone who’s taken a women’s studies class or read Edward Said will be familiar with the terms of the field. The study of disability, like that of gender, race, and sexual orientation, is rooted in bodies perceived as “other.” All of these disciplines use the language of critical theory—Foucault, with his interrogations of power, the body, and pathology, is big in disability studies. And these related fields can cross-pollinate. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who teaches in the women’s studies department at Emory University, promotes the integration of feminist and disability studies.

Doesn’t that sound exciting! Doesn’t that just sound like a stimulating cross-pollinated field? I’m tempted to enroll at Emory right now, so that I can learn why feminists are disabled and disabled people are feminists and all of them will be saved by the language of critical theory.

Although disability has fruitfully integrated with other identity studies, the field has not always received a warm welcome. Alison Kafer, who teaches feminist and disability studies at Southwestern University, attributes resistance in part to funding, but on a deeper level, she notes that “women and queers and people of color have often been cast as sick. That’s how discrimination was justified.” Now those minorities are saying, “You know what—we’re not sick,” and they shun association with people still seen as defective. The ambivalence is mutual; some disability scholars want to jump from what they see as the sinking ship of identity studies. As University of Illinois at Chicago’s Lennard J. Davis pointed out in a 2004 conference paper, “We are in a twilight of the gods of identity politics, and there is no Richard Wagner to make that crepuscular moment seem nostalgic and tragic.” So disability studies has arrived, but is it too late?

Oh, I do so hope so. I do so hope identity politics and especially identity studies are on a sinking ship. I do so hope scab-picking will at last go out of fashion and people can go on to something better.

But institutionalization may not be the primary goal. As Garland-Thomson says, “We don’t necessarily need people majoring or minoring in disability studies. We need to create a system in which educated people have it as a category of understanding.” She observes that many canonical literary works have a neglected disability aspect: Ahab in Moby Dick is an amputee, Shakespeare’s Richard III is a hunchback…In studying literature—or any subject—disability is simply an additional lens at our disposal.

Yes but – so what? So the hell what? Many ‘canonical’ literary works have people with hair, too; many have people who walk around; many have food; many have travel; many have characters wearing clothes. So what? Does that mean there have to be hair and walking around and food and travel and clothes studies? What do people see through the ‘additional lens’ of disability? Especially, what do they see that requires a new division in the MLA, or section in the bookstore?

Exciting scholarship is being generated. Last March’s issue of the PMLA (the MLA’s publication) featured papers from a recent MLA conference, including “Deaf, She Wrote: Mapping Deaf Women’s Autobiography” and “Crip Eye for the Normate Guy: Queer Theory and the Disciplining of Disability Studies.”

Exciting? Exciting? Hoo-boy.Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow needs to get out more, or do I mean less.

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