feminist queer crip
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Alison Kafer, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2013, 276pp., ISBN: 978-0-2530-0922-7, $75.00 (Hbk)/ISBN: 978-0-2530-0934-0, $27.00 (Pbk)
Feminist Queer Crip by Alison Kafer covers many of the issues that have been widely discussed in feminist or disability studies for some time. Kafer, who is currently an Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University in Texas, deals with topics such as transgender and reproductive politics, ecofeminism and cyborg theory, as well as queerness and disability. As an overarching frame for her analysis, Kafer deploys crip theory with the objective of offering a politics of crip futurity.
Drawing on McRuer’s (2006) conceptualisation of crip theory as a main reference point, Kafer makes a clear distinction between the meanings of crip or crip theory and disability studies. For Kafer, the term crip still has the ability to make people feel uncomfortable and stir things up and, therefore, has a much greater potential to challenge common understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance. Kafer sympathises with crip theory, because she misses a critical pungency in disability studies, whereas crip theory is more contestatory, more eager to investigate the risks and exclusions of identity politics. It also acknowledges the important influence of identity in the development of the disability rights movement. Consequently, the author positions Feminist Queer Crip along the lines of this thinking in radical and seemingly contradictory terms.
For her investigation Kafer divides the book into seven thematic chapters. She deals specifically with themes such as the concept of ‘crip time’, female sexuality and disability, heterocentrism and ableism, ableism and the depoliticisation in public campaigns and the possibility of cripped cyborg politics after Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, environmental politics and disability. She concludes with an outlook on feminist, queer, crip futures and coalitions.
As a starting point for her elaborations Kafer locates her understanding of disability in a political/relational model. This is an important differentiation, because for a long time discussions about disability have been dominated by debates between the social model, which sees disability as socially produced, and the medical/individual view of disability and their respective impacts on disabled people. In the 1970s, disability rights activists introduced the social model. Instead of endorsing deficiency and commiseration, this model stated that disability was mainly a barrier on top of impairments constituted by a hostile social environment. The disabled person was not the problem, but rather social, architectural and economic obstacles and discriminatory thinking caused exclusion from participation in society.
Disability scholars have identified the medical view as a paradigm that sees disability as a clinical problem and a biological deficiency. Thus, it primarily advocates treatment/rehabilitation in terms of an adjustment to an idealised abled body. This view usually claims absolute scientific, apolitical and unbiased objectivity. The individual model is a closely related cultural mind-set that categorises disability as something pitiful where disabled people can be portrayed as suffering from a miserable fate.
Alison Kafer acknowledges the significance of the social model for the empowerment of disabled people, but also tries to address factors that lead to new problems from a current perspective, for example a simplified focus on physical impairment or the ignorance of possible disabling effects of impairment. Kafer argues against a rigid distinction between disability and impairment, because chronic illnesses, fatigue or pain can have a negative impact on disabled people’s lives irrespective of external conditions. Her own political/relational model sympathises with the social model, but builds on social and minority model frameworks, where disability reflects specific political contexts. Kafer also does not broadly condemn medical interventions and supports a renewed interrogation of the medical approach that also reflects its ideological and political biases towards disabled people.
Kafer shows a clear awareness of the possible pitfalls of her approach, for example when she suggests the renegotiation of medical interventions in disabled people’s lives. She knows about the tenacity of cultural norms and how they shape our perspectives on queer and/or disabled bodies. However, Kafer’s strong discourse–analytic approach is also a weakness of the book. When it comes to the influence of the materiality of socio-economic factors in women’s lives under capitalist conditions the analysis remains rather silent. For example, when she discusses abortion rights versus disability rights, she shows a rich insight into the social and cultural status of disabled bodies and how one position is weighed against the other. The book acknowledges the validity of both sides and advises a bridging around shared values of civil and human rights. However, the discussion does not explore the role of the—still predominantly female—reproductive labour and how it shapes women’s decision-making and living conditions. The debate ends up suggesting possible collaborations between disability and reproductive rights as well as justice movements, but explains only partially why the identification or prediction of certain impairments can still serve as a justification for the abortion of disabled foetuses. Even when Kafer talks about Haraway’s idea of socialist feminism in A Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway, 1985), her investigation falls short. In this essay Haraway dismissed traditional ideas of feminism that would cling to identity politics. Rather she aimed to replace identity thinking with affinity. In that sense the cyborg could be seen as a metaphor to overcome the boundaries of outmoded notions of gender, feminism and politics in a socialist feminist framework. However, when Kafer addresses the subject, she remains vague and refers to future discussions.
For anyone interested in queer crip theory this book is a valuable read—although it runs a risk of not being accessible to a wider audience outside of academia. Kafer offers a well-informed and differentiated insight from a culture discourse perspective.