The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies

  • Sue Walsh


What do disability studies and animal studies have in common? On the face of it, not much perhaps; notably disability advocates have tended to resist being linked or identified with animal rights activism, in part because disability activism has tended to be more concerned to counter the idea that ‘to have a disability is to be an animal’1 or that ‘Abnormality […] pull[s] humanity back […] toward its animal ori-gins’2 than to make common cause with animal advocates.3 Even the project of dis/ability theorists Dan Goodley and Katherine Runswick-Cole of moving towards ‘a time when dis/human becomes dishuman: when any thought about the human has in mind what disability does to it’,4 might be read to betray an unease that querying the ‘human’ might inadvertently allow for a slide to the ‘animal’; an animal which is never mentioned in their paper, even if it were only in order to be dismissed.


Social Model Impairment Effect Emphasis Mine Disability Study Ontological Foundation 
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  1. 1.
    L. J. Davis, ‘Introduction: Disability, Normality and Power’ in L. J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, 4th edn (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 1–14, at 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    D. C. Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ in L. J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, 4th edn (New York and Routledge, 2013), pp. 16–33, at 18.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Another significant reason for a certain uneasiness in making common cause with animal advocates is the historical and continued prominence of Peter Singer within the animal liberation movement, given his support for the notion of disability-based infanticide. See H. McBryde Johnson, ‘Unspeakable Conversations’ in L. J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, 4th edn (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 496–508.Google Scholar
  4. See also: D. Salomon, ‘From Marginal Cases to Linked Oppressions: Reframing the Conflict between the Autistic Pride and Animal Rights Movements’, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 8: 1/2 (2010), 47–72.Google Scholar
  5. For a discussion of eugenicist ‘dehumanizing individuals with disabilities’ in order to further the cause of extending human rights to great apes, in which Singer has had involvement, see N. E. Groce and J. Marks, ‘The Great Ape Project and Disability Rights: Ominous Undercurrents of Eugenics in Action’, American Anthropologist, 102: 4 (December 2000), 818–822.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Sunaura Taylor argues that ‘We not only project ableism onto nonhuman animals, but the notion of disability itself. We really have no idea how other animals comprehend physical or cognitive difference within their species.’ She continues by arguing that ‘our human perspective shapes how we interpret [the animal’s] experience’ and that with respect to wild animals, ‘We assume that when disabilities occur “nature will run her course,” in effect saying that the natural process for a disabled animal is to die, rendering living disabled animals not only aberrational, but unnatural,’ but, drawing on the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, Taylor asks ‘how true is this?’ S. Taylor, ‘Animal Crips’, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 12: 2 (May 2014), 95–117, at 97, 100.Google Scholar
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    Also with respect to Thomas’s claim about a ‘human morphology’ that obtains ‘in any time or place’, see Lennard J. Davis’s analysis of the way ‘normalcy [was] constructed to create the “problem” of the disabled person’ in the nineteenth century. This underpins Davis’s argument that the norm is a culturally contingent concept rather than a naturally given state of being. He notes that ‘The word “normal” as “constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from, the common type or standard […]” only enters the English language around 1840’ and claims that the concept that preceded it, the ‘ideal’, indicates a culture for which ‘all members of the population are below the ideal’ and hence ‘in some sense disabled’, except of course for the corollary that for such a culture disability does not exist as such at all. In line with this, Davis notes instead that the ‘grotesque’, as the ideal’s opposite, ‘permeated culture and signified common humanity, whereas the disabled body, a later concept, was formulated as by definition excluded from culture, society, the norm’ (Davis, pp. 1–2). This argument also challenges the notion that ‘impairment’ can be seen separately from its discursive constitution any more than ‘disability’ can. For a discussion of ‘hand’ (and body) that struggles with different, but related, difficulties with retrieved essentialisms, see: D. Goodley, ‘Precarious Bodies’ in D. Goodley (ed.), Dis/ability Studies: Theorising Disablism and Ableism (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 83–99.Google Scholar
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  16. Sue Walsh, ‘Child/Animal: It’s the “Real” Thing’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 32 (Leeds: Maney Publishing for the Modern Humanities Research Council, 2002), 151–162, especially 151–153.Google Scholar
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    My argument here owes a significant debt to Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s book analyzing current discourses around reproductive technologies, where she notes that the anthropologist Janet Carsten, much like Thomas in the field of disability studies, though pursuing avowedly theoretically engaged work, ultimately expresses a fundamental ‘distrust […] of the abstract and theoretical compared to an intimate, emotional, and felt experience’. Moreover, my analysis of Thomas’s position finds much in common with the way Lesnik-Oberstein reads Carsten as ‘rel[ying] on a notion of actuality and everydayness that operates throughout her arguments as a realm of nuance, differentiation, and complication in the face of theoretical clarities and rigidities’. In my view, the following observation by Lesnik-Oberstein of Carsten stands true of Thomas also: ‘[h]owever theoretical the body may be’ in her work, there remains an appeal to a residual and ‘less abstract body, housed in the realm of the everyday and experiential’. See K. Lesnik-Oberstein, On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (London: Karnac, 2008), pp. 121–122.Google Scholar
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    Having said that, explicit and detailed engagements with cross-connections between animal and disability studies are still not that common, perhaps for the reasons I outlined at the beginning of this chapter, and are more obviously gestured towards by those who are primarily situated as scholars within animal studies. While Sunaura Taylor’s work stands as an exception to this observation, there have been some direct considerations of potential connections between animal and disability studies by animal studies scholars Cary Wolfe in What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), pp. 127–142; and Kari Weil in ‘Killing Them Softly’; Thinking Animals, pp. 116–127, both of which are largely concerned with the implications of the work of Temple Grandin. However, for a reading of Grandin that is more closely aligned to my own, see the doctoral thesis of Helen Ainslie (now Helen Santa Maria, also a contributor to this volume), ‘Why Autism? Perspectives, Communication, Community’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Reading, 2009), see especially pp. 183–221. S. Merrill Squier, Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2011);Google Scholar
  23. S. McHugh, Animal Stories: Narrating Across Species Lines (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), pp. 27–64, should also be noted here, as should the work of those writing, more recently, within an ‘ eco-ability’ context:CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    B. Readings, ‘The Deconstruction of Politics’ in M. McQuillan (ed.), Deconstruction: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), pp. 388–396, at 390.Google Scholar

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© Sue Walsh 2015

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