David T. Mitchell, Susan Antebi, and Sharon L. Snyder, eds., The Matter of Disability: Materiality, Biopolitics, Crip Affect (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2019), xii + 284 pp.
For those of us working in disability studies, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder are eminent names on the reading list, known, among other things, for their groundbreaking work on Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000), Cultural Locations of Disability (2006), and The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment (2015). For their 2019 book, The Matter of Disability: Materiality, Biopolitics, Crip Affect, Mitchell and Snyder have teamed up with Susan Antebi—a rising scholar within the field and author of the award-winning Embodied Archive: Disability in Post-Revolutionary Mexican Cultural Production (2021)—to provide their readers with yet another timely account on—in this case quite literally—the matter of disability.
In this collective volume, the three co-editors have carefully assembled eleven contributions that are each placed in one of the following categories: “Part I: The Matter of Subjectivity” (37-86), “Part II: The Matter of Meaning” (87-140), “Part III: The Matter of Mortality” (141-226), and “Part IV: The Matter of Memory” (227-72). Although I would have loved to read even more on the “Matter of Meaning” and “the Matter of Memory,” two sections that are very compelling but are limited to two contributions each, I whole-heartedly agree with Nick Winges-Yanez who has praised the book for providing an exceptionally cohesive and yet versatile whole (n. pag.). Indeed, the editors explicitly recommend reading the book in its entirety—a sentiment I share, although each contribution also holds much value in and of itself.
The four main sections are preceded by a remarkably dense, at times challenging, introduction that successfully connects ideas from new materialism, posthumanism, and disability studies to think about disabled embodiment and the complex relations that shape our experiences of the body and the very matter that surrounds it. The collection purposefully moves away from strict social model approaches to disability and, in doing so, follows in the footsteps of feminist disability studies scholars. Particularly in the UK, where ideas of social constructivism have long dominated the field, feminist scholars began to recenter the body in disability studies early on, with first publications hitting the academic book market in the late 1990s (Thomas; Shildrick). As Mitchell, Antebi, and Snyder point out in their introduction, over the years, these feminist attempts have been joined by critical voices from queer theory, critical race theory, neo-marxists theory, and sexuality studies—unfortunately, though, without profoundly changing these respective fields and against the continuing resistance of social constructivists (5).
The collective volume can and, if I may propose, should be read as continuing this critical tradition while productively extending its theoretical framework. Along the lines of posthumanist new materialist thinking, Mitchell, Antebi, and Snyder ask their readers to “recognize the materiality of disability’s active participation in the process of meaning-making itself” (2). Their call to rethink the disabled body as an active participant within a complex (material and discursive) network offers an innovative approach to disability in that it moves beyond the diagnostics of disability that, as the editors aptly remark, are inherent to both medical and social models of disability. Indeed, all contributions to this issue successfully stray away from ranking the discursive practices that mark the body above its actual agency and vice versa. Instead, they emphasize materiality’s agency more generally to arrive at a more holistic understanding of disability. Obviously, though, more needs to be done to follow up on the volume’s ambitious aim of “rescu[ing] [disability] as the more active, dynamic, and substantive materialization that it is. Or, rather, [to show that] posthumanist disability theory assists the social model in surrendering its inability to give an ever-mutating materiality its due” (4). Indeed, with its timely focus on questions of complex embodiment, the collective volume offers many points of contact for scholars outside the United States and Canada, where, except for German Americanist Olga Tarapata, the book’s contributors are located.
The book’s overall aim seems to be deeply rooted in the thinking of the late Tobin Siebers, whose unfinished essay “Returning the Social to the Social Model” is placed at the beginning of the first section. Siebers’s in-depth critique of the social model led him to think of disability as a “complex embodiment” that is defined not by a lack (whether physically or socially) but by the knowledge it generates in and of the world (42). Rounded off by an analysis of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Siebers’s essay pushes us to think of disabled people as agents that have the power to transform the frequently inaccessible environments they live in by finding alternative ways of being in the world. Personally, it felt like a rare treat to read one of Siebers’s final contributions to disability studies in this collective volume. Like many scholars of my generation, I was first introduced to disability studies through Siebers’s field-defining Disability Theory and Disability Aesthetics (for an open-access version of the German translation of Disability Aesthetics, see Siebers, Zerbrochene Schönheit). Together with his previous work, the present essay has the potential to guide readers in their understanding of what disability theory does and can look like in the future.
What is striking about Siebers’s approach, and what follows throughout the book, is the successful attempt to “engag[e] readers in the task of thinking the world through disability rather than the more customary way of thinking disability through the world” (xii). The contributions in this volume encourage readers to think about disabled embodiment in visceral terms, foregrounding the impaired body without pathologizing it. Joshua Kupetz’s essay “Disability Ecology and the Rematerialization of Literary Disability Studies” in part one of the volume is particularly stimulating in this regard. Using disability ecology as a critical framework, Kupetz offers a fascinating reading of Richard Powell’s novel Gain (1998). Including some of the most tangible examples throughout the volume, Kupetz’s analysis sheds light on how human and non-human actors shape and are shaped by disabled embodiment. His reading uncovers how disability is as much a catalyst for new meaning as it is itself a “dynamic state of perpetual becoming” (55).
In section two of the book, Angela M. Smith illustrates in exemplary fashion how affect theory can help us understand different reactions toward disability—ranging from disgust to fascination—and their discursive production. Focusing on the latter, Smith examines the popular use of “disability drag” in film and television, a phenomenon that some scholars and activists also have, perhaps more fittingly, called “cripping up” (Fox and Sandahl). Smith proposes that the widespread practice of non-disabled actors dressing up as disabled can lead to a “dis-affection” of disabled and non-disabled audiences alike. Smith’s notion of “dis-affection” offers an innovative angle for analysis and productive ground for future discussions. As she explains, the term “dis-affection” denotes “a desire to be affected by disability, [that subsequently leads to] a disorienting distancing from ableist affects, and an opening towards alternative disability affects” (130). At the same time, the term also accounts for a more general distancing and disbelief on the side of disabled audiences.
The article that stayed with me the longest is David Oswald’s “Why Lennie Can Teach Us New Tricks” in section three of the book. While some of the contributing authors miss addressing the relation between their primary texts and their accounts of the non-literary world, Oswald reveals the potential impact of literature on everyday thinking and, in its most radical and lethal form, on decision-making processes. Recounting the case of José García Briseño, Oswald briefly traces how, between the years 2004 and 2017, a Texan court legitimatized the executions of several mentally disabled convicts—most of them men of color—by explicitly referencing Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In his reading of the novella, Oswald extends and complicates previous criticism of the book’s eugenic message by emphasizing what he calls “tropological confusion”: “the conflation of idiot and dog tropes, as well as the ambiguity that it activates for readers” (206). He goes on to show how such tropological confusion contributes to an ambiguous signification of mental disability in American culture—one that, although it is linked to both abjection and affection, does not allow for a consideration of the life of mentally disabled people as human life.
The volume closes with an essay on “Posthumanist T4 Memory,” which is invested in the past and the present of eugenic thinking in Germany. In this final contribution, Mitchell and Snyder reflect on the history and remembrance of “Aktion T4,” an official program under which the Nazis carried out mass murders targeted at disabled people. While they have previously published texts on T4, the present chapter is particularly recommendable as it concludes thirteen years of unique scholarship that Mitchell and Snyder pursued together with their students, American colleagues, and German disability studies scholars and activists. The chapter traces some of the changes that, thanks to the countless efforts of disabled activists, scholars, and allies, have been implemented at the former killing sites since the early 2000s. However, the interviews that Mitchell and Snyder include in their chapter also reveal—at times quite shockingly—that much remains to be done. Although, as the authors demonstrate throughout their chapter, “direct links between Operation T4 and the Holocaust abound” (262), in its remembrance, T4 has yet to be officially recognized as one of the preceding catalysts of the Holocaust. While the overall book seems best suited for more advanced readers in disability studies and posthumanist theory, this final essay lends itself to public or classroom discussions, especially in Germany (see also Snyder and Mitchell, A World; Mitchell, “T4”). Needless to say, it should be considered a must-read for anyone approaching the volume.
Overall, the essays in this volume, especially if read concurrently, provide a fresh perspective and a valuable contribution to recent disability studies scholarship and critical theories of embodiment more generally. For readers with little to no prior knowledge in posthumanism and/or disability studies, The Matter of Disability may prove challenging at times. Yet, while the book expects much of its readers, readers can also expect much in return.
Gesine Wegner (Philipps-Universität Marburg)
Bolt, David. “Not Forgetting Happiness: The Tripartite Model of Disability and its Application in Literary Criticism.” Disability & Society 30.7 (2015): 1103-17. Web. 6 June 2021. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2015.1071240.
Mitchell, Cameron, dir. T4 Memorialization and the Holocaust in Germany Today. 2015. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 June 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJadwVLA78A.
---. Zerbrochene Schönheit: Essays über Kunst, Ästhetik und Behinderung. Bielefeld: transcript, 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2021. https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-1132-8/zerbrochene-schoenheit/.
---. dir. A World without Bodies. 2002. YouTube. YouTube, 4 Sep. 2014. Web. 4 June 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTfeZOJ20k4.
Winges-Yanez, Nick. “Review of: Mitchell, David T., Antebi, Susan, & Snyder, Sharon, L., eds., The Matter of Disability: Materiality, Biopolitics, Crip Affect. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2019.” Disability Studies Quarterly 40.1 (2020). Web. 4 June 2021. https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/7414/5538.