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Expert Comment: The Biopolitics of Disability

David Bolt 150 x 150 Wednesday 25 November 2015

Dr David Bolt, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies and Director, Centre for Culture & Disability Studies discusses new book The Biopolitics of Disability by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. 

Few, if any, have done more for cultural disability studies than recent Liverpool Hope visitors David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder (George Washington University). Monographs, edited works, articles, chapters, films, conference papers, and so on, everything they do makes an important contribution to the field.  The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment is no exception. Explicitly a work of cultural disability studies, this new interdisciplinary monograph should also be of interest to people working in Critical Race Studies,education, film studies, gender studies, health studies, history, literary studies, queer studies, philosophy, sociology, and social psychology.

As Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies (Liverpool University Press), I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the growth of this work, for I’ve published some of the material in the form of articles. Inevitably, I’ve been greatly influenced by the book, which has informed a number of my recent publications and keynotes. Indeed, the book’s ideas underpinned the highly successful conference that was hosted by the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies this summer.

The book sets out to register some of the aftershocks of neoliberalism that have rendered those of us who identify or are labelled as disabled more present than ever before. This apparent presence results in part from a neoliberal tolerance that Mitchell and Snyder so aptly call inclusionism. The contention is that opportunities may well have opened to formerly excluded groups (and long may that continue), but for inclusion to become truly worthwhile it must involve recognition of disability in terms of alternative lives and values that neither enforce nor reify normalcy. The Biopolitics of Disability, then, critiques neoliberal inclusion that is fundamentally normative and thus predominantly ableist.

Implicit in the ablenationalism of the book’s title is the assumption that people seeking to access the so-called full benefits of citizenship must have minimum levels of corporeal, intellectual, and sensory capacity, not to mention an accordance with various subjective and cultural aesthetic conditions. In these terms, those of us who identify or are labelled as disabled will be rendered both wanting and deviant. Drawing on work in and around crip theory, the premise in The Biopolitics of Disability is that all bodies deemed deviant are also deemed “queer” insofar as they represent Othered sexuality, desire actively contested as socially illegitimate (as epitomised in the pseudo science of eugenics). The book reframes the biopolitics of this scenario to recognise the value of non-normative forms of being and the associated cultural production; it provides readers with an opportunity to pursue alternative paradigms for theorising experiences of bodies deemed deviant but socially acceptable in accordance with neoliberal tolerance (and, by extension, inclusionism).

Put forward in The Biopolitics of Disability is the need for non-normative positivisms that cut across ablenationalism. After all, the fight for equality is both limited and limiting in its very scope, while empowering and progressive potential is offered by the profound appreciation of Peripheral Embodiments. That is to say, inclusion may well be paramount but it can become transformative and more comprehensively productive when disability is recognized as a site for alternative values. This book leaves us in no doubt that the overt interdependence associated with disability betrays a deeper truth about humanity and thus an example for living beyond the biopolitics of neoliberalism.

Dr David Bolt - full profile

Centre for Culture and Disability Studies (CCDS)


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