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Response to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory (2008)

In his 2008 monograph, Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers presents critiques of major theoretical thinkers of culture and identity including Freud, Butler, Sedgwick, and Foucault. By theorizing from the standpoint of disability identity, Siebers mixes cultural criticism with a progressive identity politics, ultimately proving the intellectual insights made possible by including disabled experience within the realm of philosophy.

On the one hand, I am drawn to Siebers’ notion that within a theoretical paradigm that recognizes disability, the social construction of identity takes on a material valence. The built environments we currently move through are built for only some of the population; those whose movements are not accommodated, both rhetorically and practically, are disabled. By examining legal cases in which spaces like courthouses, polling stations, and the like exclude disabled bodies (especially bodies of people with mobility impairments), Siebers shows how participation in American citizenship and full personhood work within a system of compulsory able-bodiedness that naturalizes able-bodied supremacy. Emerging from this hidden (but obvious) “ideology of ability,” disabled people are cast as narcissistic malingerers, flawed in their ability to use spaces properly, and thus justifiably excluded from full participation in society.

While Siebers acknowledges that critical cultural theory has provided important tools for theorizing minority identities he grapples with the way deconstructive arguments have  “obstructed the capacity for the social model [of disability] to offer a strong and rational critique of ableism based on political ideals” (81). For instance, deconstructive arguments about gender often come down to the assertion that sex/gender identities exist fully within cultural discourse, that they emerge from discourse-laden perceptual lenses through which we, as products of a given culture, come to see the world. An anti-sexist politics, in this case, aims its efforts at denaturalizing sexist gender knowledge through cultural critique and the establishment of counter discourses. Within these theories, the essentialist notion that a woman can be identified by a particular body are eschewed, and identities are rendered entirely as products of accepted social convention, language, and traditions of representation.

Siebers worries that many deconstructive theories insufficiently attend to the realities of impairment and inaccess within the built environment as constituent forces in identity formation. As he puts it, “The body is, first and foremost, a biological agent teeming with vital and often unruly forces. It is not inert matter subject to easy manipulation by social representations. The body is alive, which means that it is as capable of influencing and transforming social languages as they are capable of influencing and transforming it” (68). Here Siebers argues for the centrality of the body as a complex space that exists prior to (or perhaps simultaneous with) language and social construction. While Siebers agrees that it’s important to intervene on ableist discourse that casts disability as a personal tragedy, he believes disability politics requires that we attend to material concerns within the built environment.

At the same time that Siebers defends identity politics as a necessary anti-abelist force, he also defends the value of personal narratives about disability, rejecting the idea that they are narcissistic or further group oppression. He sees storytelling as a necessary “political process through which private emotions and thoughts are made compelling to the public imagination” by “tell[ing] stories [about disability] in a way that allows people without disabilities to recognize our reality and theirs as a common one.” He argues that “only in this way will we be recognized politically” (48). Here Seibers acknowledges the power of disability identity for revealing the workings of abelist society, for laying bare the literal construction of disabled experience by the nondisabled majority.

Because of my interests in cognitive disabilities in educational spaces, I found myself most drawn to his chapter on “Disability as Masquerade.” While the majority of Siebers’s book theorizes about disabilities produced from mobility impairments, in this chapter he explores the performative nature of invisible disabilities. I’ve written about this chapter at some length here:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gGa8VzCK1LeBAevszSQoBCEv3GIKOTcCeJI7Cl8S1xQ/edit Siebers himself does not delve very deeply into his claim that this performative model applies to dyslexia as well as a host of other disabilities not visibly written on the body. However, I believe an investigation of the ways dyslexia is performed in educational settings will lead to a compelling analysis of the archetecture of learning and education that renders some intellectual performances disabled and others not. I will keep these arguments in mind as I delve into other performance based theories on my list with Mark, including Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure and Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling.

 

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