Friday, 27 September 2013

Feminist disability theory

Gendering Disability, edited by Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison (Rutgers University Press, 2004) is a collection of eighteen essays based on a three-day conference organized by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University, March 1-3, 2001. Other research emerged from the Institute for Women's Leadership, supported by the Ford foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The book is divided into four parts: Positions; Desire and Identity; Arts and Embodiment; Citizens and Consumers.

The contributors include:

Catherine Kudlick, Lisa Schur, Melissa McNeil, Thilo Kroll, Russell Shuttleworth, Sumi Colligan, Ann Fox, Adrienne Asch, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Bonnie Smith, Sarah Chinn, Daniel Wilson, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, Robin Adele Greeley, Kristin Lindgren, Allison Kafer, Corbett O'Toole, Georgina Kleege 


Bonnie G. Smith explains her sense of 'exponential intellectual excitement' at the coming together of disability and gender studies. She looks forward to 'a better vision of a common landscape that can provide new room for growth.' There is also an awareness of the 'activist and scholarly paths' that run through this collection (1).

This was a stimulating book and in my view lived up to his declared project to show 'the possibilities for crossdisciplinary hybridity and for intellectual and activist growth.' (6)

Having just re-read Erving Goffman's Stigma (1963) which deals at length with the social interactions between the stigmatized and 'the normals' I was intrigued to read Adrienne Asch' account of her experiences and her conclusion that 'The law can do nothing about the sorts of informal interactions described above that make up so much of the lives of people with disabilities...' ("Social Justice and Personal Identity", 9-44, 12)

Selected Quotations from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Corporeal comparisons

'To embrace the supposedly flawed body of disability is to critique the normalizing phallic fantasies of wholeness, unity, coherence, and completeness. The disabled body is contradiction, ambiguity, and partiality incarnate.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 100)

Understanding the common ground

'The informing premise of feminist disability theory is that disability, like femaleness, is not a natural state of corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, excess, or a stroke of misfortune. Rather, disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 77)

An outline of the four aspects of disability:

'first, it is a system for interpreting and disciplining bodily variations; second, it is a relationship between bodies and their environments; third, it is a set of practices that produce both the able bodied and the disabled; fourth, it is a way of describing the inherent instability of the embodied self.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 77)

Recalling the pioneers

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that there is a lack of knowledge in disability studies of the relevance of the earlier work in Women's studies and feminist theory. As a result, 'disability studies does a great deal of wheel inventing.'  (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 73)

Emergence of new academic discipline

'Over the last several years, disability studies has moved out of the applied fields of medicine, social work, and rehabilitation to become a vibrant new field of inquiry within the critical genre of identity studies.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 73)

The Bigger Picture: Identity based critical enterprises ...

'such as gender studies, queer studies, disability studies, and a proliferation of ethnic studies, all of which have enriched and complicated our understandings of social justice, subject formation, subjugated knowledges, and collective action.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 73)
 What feminists need to do

'Conversely, feminist theories all too often do not recognize disability in their litanies of identities that inflect the category of woman.' (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 73)

Disability studies and feminist theory working together

'both are insurgencies that are becoming institutionalised, underpinning inquiries outside and inside the academy. A feminist disability theory builds on the strengths of both.'  (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 73)

The Return to humanity

'to understand how disability operates is to understand what it is to be fully human.'  (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson: 100)

Publisher Description

Disability and gender, terms that have previously seemed so clear-cut, are becoming increasingly complex in light of new politics and scholarship. These words now suggest complicated sets of practices and ways of being.

Contributors to this innovative collection explore the intersection of gender and disability in the arts, consumer culture, healing, the personal and private realms, and the appearance of disability in the public sphere—both in public fantasies and in public activism. Beginning as separate enterprises that followed activist and scholarly paths, gender and disability studies have reached a point where they can move beyond their boundaries for a common landscape to inspire new areas of inquiry. Whether from a perspective in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, or arts, the shared subject matter of gender and disability studies—the body, social and cultural hierarchy, identity, discrimination and inequality, representation, and political activism—insistently calls for deeper conversation. This volume provides fresh findings not only about the discrimination practiced against women and people with disabilities, but also about the productive parallelism between these two categories.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Critical analysis of Kristeva's use of the Abject


Definitions of the Abject

  • The cast off; the taboo; the unclean; filth
  • The excrescence: mucus, blood (especially menstrual), nails, urine, excrement, vomit
  • The uncanny; the corpse
  • The monstrous mother; the alien
  • A psychoanalytic and aesthetic theory expounded by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.
  • “On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.” (Kristeva)
  •  "To each ego its object, to each superego its abject". (Kristeva)

Cultural Applications:

Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line; Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

Whitney Museum of Abject Art (1993).

Outline of the Strengths and weaknesses 

of the Kristeva's model of the Abject



Appeals to universal sense of disgust when faced with body fluids and waste products

Explains popular cultural narrative of horror and misogyny

Builds on a tradition of psychoanalysis derived from Freud and Lacan

Appeals to the reality of violence against women and links with its psychosocial dimensions.

Relates to common patterns of encoding based on distinctions between clean and unclean

Creates an ambiguous and richly poetic metaphor for the sense limit and liminality

Outlines a conflict in gender between patriarchal signification and the female imaginary

Explains female oppression as an inability to cast off the internalization of the mother

Maps out an aesthetic and political category derived from both from psychoanalytic reading and corporeal differences

Establishes a widely- deployed key term to describe and organize an abject art movement

The Weaknesses

A fuzzy, confused and contradictory category is loosely sketched.

The psycho-analytic foundations have been superseded and discredited.

The psycho-analytic models appeal to an academic and professional cult rather than open enquiry

Tends to re-enforce horror and disgust rather than celebration of the open body (Bakhtin)

The abject category relies on a questionable notion of primary matricide

The explanatory model is grounded primarily in  its application to avant-garde art

Rather than being actually or potentially emancipatory, the abject school of enquiry reproduces the script of exclusion and exploitation.‘Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you?’ (Spivak 1992: 62)

The mythological or aestheticizing approach displaces the actuality and singularity of lived bodily experience

It is unclear how affirmative or redemptive forms of the abject upstage and displace negative and destructive modes of abjection

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks: ‘What are the cultural politics of application of the diagnostic taxonomy of the abject?’ (Spivak 1992: 55)

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of

 The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

(Quibble Academic, 2013)


Further reading

Betterton, R. (2006) ‘Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity, and Maternal Imagination’, Hypatia 21(1): 80–100.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Constable, C. (1999) ‘Becoming the Monster’s Mother’, pp.173–202 in A.Kutin (ed.)
Alien Zone II. London: Verso.

Covino, D. C. (2004) Amending the Abject Body: Aesthetic Makeovers in Medicine and Culture. New York: The State University of New York Press.

Creed, B. (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Frueh, J. (2001) Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gear, R. (2001) ‘All Those Nasty Womanly Things: Women Artists,Technology and the Monstrous-Feminine’, Women’s Studies International Forum 24(3): 321–33.

Halberstam, J. (1995) Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (1992) ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, 295–337 in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P.A.Treichler (eds) Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge.

Harrington, T. (1998) ‘Speaking Abject in Kristeva’s Power of Horror’, Hypatia
13(1): 138–57.

Jacobs, A. (2007) On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis and the Law of the Mother. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. L.S.Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Menninghaus, W. (2003) Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, trans. H. Pickford. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1991) “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman.”  New Left Review 188 137-150.

Oliver, K. (1993) Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Russo, M. (1994) The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. NewYork: Routledge.

Shildrick, M. (2002) Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. New York and London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. (1990) ‘Questions of Multiculturalism’, 54–60, in Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym.London: Routledge.

Spivak, G. (1992) ‘Extreme Eurocentrism’, Lusitania 1(4) (Special Issue ‘TheAbject America’): 55–60.

Ussher, J. (2006)  Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body. London: Routledge.

Yaeger, P. (1992) ‘The “Language of Blood”: Toward a Maternal Sublime’,
Genre 25 (Spring): 5–24.

Young, I. M. (2005) On Female Body Experience: ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.