Disability and identity politics

Identity politics is a general idea that some groups are oppressed within society, or more specifically, that one’s identity makes one more vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, marginalisation, even violence. This would seem to be particularly relevant to the disabled body and issues surrounding the social construction of disability coupled with the hegemonic myth of normalcy. Identity politics is essentially concerned with reclaiming or transformation of negative attitudes towards a group, primarily through awareness raising. It has been described as:

[a] demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied… The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different” (Kruks 2000, p 85).

This would seem to fit in with disability theory, and further:

What is crucial about the “identity” of identity politics appears to be the experience of the subject, especially his or her experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic or self-determined alternative. Thus identity politics rests on unifying claims about the meaning of politically laden experiences to diverse individuals.” (Heyes 2014, unpaged)

Bearing in mind the diversity of disabled people, but the similarity of their being excluded, disempowered or discriminated against, identity politics would appear to serve as an appropriate framework within which to address the group’s political goals.

Nevertheless, Heyes points out that one problem with identity politics is the adoption of a “single axis of identity as discrete and representing the self“, which is of obvious concern to people who may very well be oppressed for different reasons by the dominant culture, or even by different groups within society

“To the extent that identity politics urges mobilization around a single axis, it will put pressure on participants to identify that axis as their defining feature, when in fact they may well understand themselves as integrated selves who cannot be represented so selectively or even reductively (Spelman 1988)” (ibid, n.p.)

The second problem is that by associating with a particular social group, its members may be coerced into adopting identities or behaviours that are not necessarily ones they would choose voluntarily, and thus inhibiting their capacity for self-determination:

“Just as dominant groups in the culture at large insist that the marginalized integrate by assimilating to dominant norms, so within some practices of identity politics dominant sub-groups may, in theory and practice, impose their vision of the group’s identity onto all its members.” (ibid, n.p.)

For example, Black women and gay Black men may find themselves excluded from heterosexist and masculinist identity politics of African-American men. This is interesting, and I wonder how it would transpose onto disability identity politics? Are there more dominant sub-groups within the disability umbrella group? Would groups that are seen as more acceptable to society have supremacy over those that are less acceptable? One way out would seem to be ‘strategic
essentialism’ proposed by Spivak, where subjects are temporarily “essentialised” in order to enable them to mobilize against oppression, to “bypass or acknowledge difference” without subscribing to the essentialist dogma (2012, p 432).

King (1993) recounts being introduced to another (more severely) disabled person at a party; the person introducing them assumed that disability would serve as a common experience to share, but in fact:

The experience of disability for the two of us was more different than my experience is from the daily experience of people who are not considered disabled. So much for disability solidarity” (p 73).

As such, she questions the very concept of disability, since we are all at some point on the continuum between physical completeness and “total bodily dysfunction” (death); when does impairment constitute a disability and when is it merely an inconvenience?

Taking disability rights as a whole, any group mobilization would be in the shared interests of the group and not call into question the marginalized subjectivity of individual members, or be defined by their collective identity. As such, any non-specific unified group of disabled people would owe more to liberalism than identity politics. On the other hand, according to the social constructionist theory, the marginalizing experiences that disabled people share come about as a result of social injustice as opposed to immutable difference.

Just as heterosexuality was rendered a necessary term by the naming of homosexuality, the idea of normal was not required until the deviant had been identified, and Heyes points out that this dichotomy is “hierarchical and masquerades as natural or descriptive“.

Another problem with identity politics is the way in which the very act of recognizing a group’s specificity reifies those same identities that were the products of oppressive structures in the first place: “a paradox familiar in identity politics: the very identity they aim to dispel must be invoked to make their case“. By accepting the term disabled as a position from which to argue for disability rights would thus already seem to be an act of oppression – by accepting the definition one acknowledges the dominant culture:

there is a certain violence already in being addressed, given a name, subject to a set of impositions, compelled to respond to an exacting alterity. No one controls the terms by which one is addressed, at least not in the most fundamental way. To be addressed is to be, from the start, deprived of will, and to have that deprivation exist as the basis of one’s situation in discourse” (Butler 2004, p 139).

Post-structuralists argue that this mistakenly assumes a “metaphysics of substance that structures the very notion of the subject … who is characterized essentially as a pregendered substance or “core“” (Butler 1999, p 14). In contrast, they maintain that the subject is already a product of discourse “socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts” and thus, what defines a subject “is always relative to the constructed relations in which it is determined” (ibid, p 15). As such, Heyes concludes:

“There is no real identity—individual or group-based—that is separable from its conditions of possibility, and any political appeal to identity formations must engage with the paradox of acting from the very subject-positions it must also oppose.” (2014, n.p.)

The problem with identity politics then would appear to be its premise that the identity it embraces is that which the dominant Other had accorded it, and merely reclaiming that identity as one’s own serves to emphasise the group’s “dependence on this dominant Other, and further internalizes and reinforces an oppressive hierarchy” (see also Freire 2000, p 63).

One solution to this problem of identity is the disarticulation of performances to subvert accepted meanings. According to Butler, “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (1999, xv), and she invites disarticulation that “will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” (ibid, p 177). How feasible is this in a disability context? Of course, Butler is referring to the performativity of gender as a politically enforced act (ibid, p 187), and as such any disruption of the performance would break the illusion of gender as being essentially immutable and question the validity of such assertions. Disability performance would entail a break with generally accepted notions concerning disability, and as such are quite hard to pin down. Perhaps the performances by Frank Moore and Viktoria Modesta (as well as the Artificial Limb project), and the work of blind photographers are to my mind the kinds of performance Butler is referring to, where preconceived notions are deliberately subverted. Of course part of the problem lies in the stereotypes of any given society, which is why the approach I have taken in Kazakhstan is quite different to that which I’d take in the UK, for example. Nevertheless, I do believe that some of the material I am presenting will if not challenge misconceptions, then at least inform.

Heyes touches on disability as “a diverse and dynamic set of experiences of social injustice that sediment self-understandings among the disabled and motivate a politics that insists dominant cultures change their exclusionary social practices” without providing any depth or real engagement with whether disability issues are dealt with adequately or not by identity political discourse. I suggest this is in part because there is no clearly defined answer, and those not directly engaged in the disability debate generally tend not to have particularly strong opinions on the matter.

Lennard Davis (2006) suggests that disability is a relatively new political category in civil rights and social discourse, and as such a disabled identity has only recently been formed, which may go some way to explain why some are reluctant to let go of the social constructionist model that was so instrumental in mobilizing disabled people and defining their discrimination. In his analysis, in a similar way to second wave feminists like Butler, who began to critique essentialist theories that had initially brought the group together, the disability movement is experiencing internal conflict due to inherent diversity and differences of interest within the group. He proposes that both disability and identity are malleable and not fixed, and that the very size and diversity of the category ‘disabled’ work in its favour, eschewing the essentialist limitations of identity groups. Ultimately, the category of disability could be expanded to include the whole of humanity as a protected class, which would achieve the goals of removing societal barriers and enabling access for all. In what he calls a ‘dismodernist’ view of the world, “difference is what all of us have in common… dependence, not individual independence, is the rule” (p 239). This feeds into Butlerian notions of interdependency, which I look at in more depth here.

Donna Haraway (1991) also points out the problems encountered in radical feminist discourse by not addressing other identities, and the following passage could be read as a warning to disability theorists:

History and polyvocality disappear into political taxonomies that try to establish genealogies. There was no structural room for race (or for much else) in theory claiming to reveal the construction of the category woman and social group women as a unified or totalizable whole” (1991, p 160).

Abandoning a singular dominant theory that has served revolutionary goals runs the risk of the movement collapsing into an infinitude of differences without establishing meaningful connection, but as Haraway explains: “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference” (p 161), by which she means that it is important to analyse and explore difference in order to separate real difference from that which has been imposed. She also points to the dangers of attempting to condense collective experience into a unanimous voice:

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one.” (p 173)

Her point is that in order to function well the movement does not necessarily have to be a totality, gender is after all not a global identity, and much of real experience is overlooked in attempting to create a universal theory; instead she advocates employing a “powerful infidel heteroglossia” to address the issue of regenerating the feminist movement – once again, something that could perhaps be applied to disability theory.

Susan Wendell (1989) believes that if non-disabled people were to understand themselves as potentially becoming disabled at some point in their lives, society might then be organized in such a way as to integrate disabled people more fully, citing Sue Halpern:

Physical health is contingent and often short-lived. But this truth eludes us as long as we are able to walk by simply putting one foot in front of the other. As a consequence, empathy for the disabled is unavailable to most able-bodied persons. Sympathy, yes, empathy, no, for every attempt to project oneself into that condition, to feel what it is like not to be ambulatory, for instance, is mediated by an ability to walk (Halpern 1988, 3).”

She states that the physical and social organization of life is constructed on the premise that everyone is strong and healthy and has no weaknesses. In idealizing the body, its strength and our ability to control it, we are negating bodily diversity and preventing ourselves from identifying with, indeed loving our own bodies; even bodies that come close to the ideal will fail at some point. The disabled body is a reminder of the existence of pain, the fragility of the body and the inevitability of bodily failure, and to avoid confronting these realities such bodies are devalued and marginalized (just as the elderly are institutionalized).

Man’s desire to have power over nature, to control the body and the natural bodily processes of ageing and death further stigmatizes the disabled body: “In a culture which loves the idea that the body can be controlled, those who cannot control their bodies are seen (and may see themselves) as failures” (p 249). While those bodies that refuse to be controlled, those that cannot be treated or repaired by medical intervention will come to “symbolize the failure of medicine and… of the Western scientific project to control
nature” (p 250).

Wendell suggests that a fear of pain contributes to the construction of negative attitudes towards the body, and that by understanding pain we can acknowledge the body’s limitations and weaknesses and reduce our fears about ultimately deteriorating and dying.

“Many of our ideas about autonomy, health, and self-determination in this late twentieth-century culture are based on a model of the body as an efficient machine over which we should have total control. This is particularly true of the current medical establishment, which is based upon an arrogant belief that doctors should be able to “fix” whatever goes wrong, returning us all as quickly as possible to that classical ideal.” (Allbright, 1998 unpaged)

To resolve the issue of fixed identity, Halberstam and Livingston (1995) propose the concept of ‘posthuman
bodies’ that challenges the “medical/aesthetic disciplinary monopoly on ‘the body’” (p 1). This rejects the idea of a fixed or reified body, and instead blurs the distinction between self and other to create an embodiment that is generated at nodes of intersection between bodies and discourse:

Posthuman bodies are the causes and effects of postmodern relations of power and pleasure, virtuality and reality, sex and its consequences. The posthuman body is a technology, a screen, a projected image; it is a body under the sign of AIDS, a contaminated body, a deadly body, a techno-body;” (1995, p 3).

This would seem to fit in with the general notion of disabled body as deviant, refusing to conform. Indeed, the authors later state that the concept of posthuman offers the possibility for disenchanted subjects to “betray identities that legitimize or de-legitimize them at too high a cost” (ibid, p 9) which accords with the ideas that some people deny their disability or refuse to be classified as such out of shame or fear of stigma.

In contrast to tendencies of ranking the human according to hierarchical classification systems, which reify the breach between self and other, the posthuman “emerges in the pattern of resonance and interference” between difference and identity, avoiding the problems encountered in identity politics where one may belong to several subordinate groups at once. The posthuman body does not attempt to become an integrated whole: “Driven instead by the double impossibility and prerequisite to become other and to become itself, the posthuman body intrigues rather than desires” (p 14).

More importantly for disability discourse, the posthuman body is one that is in a state of disintegration: “Disintegration as a political strategy attacks the oppressive imaginary gulf between the eternalized and “safe” body and the body at risk, the provisional body” (p 15) as such the disabled body infects people with the fear of contagion, much like the PWA or cancer patient, which is why they are viewed by society as already dead.

Haraway’s notion of the cyborg (1991) could also be applied to disability identity on multiple levels. Firstly, with its attendant sensory and mobility aids the disabled body is usually encountered as a fusion of human and equipment, a “hybrid of machine and organism” (p 149), while the apparent fragmentation of the unruly or deviant body can be interpreted as the “disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (p 163) and finally the very visibility of impairment dismantles the barriers between public and private, facilitating “the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the body politic” (p 170) and as Haraway suggests “paraplegics and other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most intense experiences of complex hybridization with other communication devices” (p 178).

As Haraway sees it, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (p 154) which fits in precisely to disability discourse, the idea of fractured identities and identities in flux, as well as the acceptance of technological means for facilitating communication, mobility and other life activities. The cyborg identity Haraway defines as “a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities” (p 174) a way of dealing with multiplicities of identity. Cyborg politics is about struggling against perfection in language and communication, understanding that there can be multiple interpretations and meanings, accepting the noise and imperfections of heteroglossia, “rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine” and by doing so,

subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of ‘Western’ identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind” (p 176)

Cyborg politics is not rooted in identity or based on a myth of original innocence, and as such does not claim a position of moral superiority; there is no common language and no privileged reading, and therefore no dualisms or binary systems of power.

Judith Butler (2009) proposes a leftist politic that focuses less on identity and “more on precarity and its differential distributions“, since in her opinion, precarity “cuts across identity categories as well as multicultural
maps” (p 32) in this sense populations can mobilise against the state and its exploitation of civilians in furthering its own economic and political objectives.


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