Archive for June, 2014

‘Cultural Locations of Disability’ Snyder and Mitchell

June 24, 2014

I used Snyder and Mitchell’s chapter on ‘body genres’ (the version published in Problem Bodies, Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić, eds) in the paper on Dead Space – along with Narrative Prosthesis. Now reading the rest of Cultural Locations of Disability. The following notes on their Introduction are to help me with my writing and thinking. So that is the function of this post…


pp 5-11. Defining the cultural model of disability. The cultural model as presented by Snyder and Mitchell involves disability as lived experience as well as an epistemological vantage point. That means that the material aspects of disability are not shelved (p 7.) as per some versions of the social model.

To make related points (when thinking about games and embodied interpretation – in the paper for FROG 2013) I had used Siebers’ work on perspective and the ideology of ability (2009). I think there are relevant bits in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, Snyder, Brueggemann and Garland-Thomson, 2002 (from memory, the bits I’m thinking of are more about epistemology than phenomenology – but it is still about embodied/situated knowledge…). I think Linton, also, made points about disability, positionality and insight (Claiming Disability, 1998). I need to go back and check.

‘p 10’ “the cultural model has an understanding that impairment is both human variation encountering environmental obstacles and socially mediated difference that lends group identity and phenomenological perspective […] This insight shifts disability from either a medical pathology or signifier of social discrimination into a source of embodied revelation” (Snyder and Mitchell p 10)

P 7. ‘Bodies still subject to normalization schemes find themselves disciplined with respect to the performance of skills and functions that are alien to them (or outside of their grasp) […] variations in small motor skills that attend cerebral palsy result in endless rounds of fitting beads […] hearing-impaired individuals are given batteries of audiological exams’ (Snyder and Mitchell p 7-8).

Aside…Oh my, that strikes a chord. The bead thing is particularly weird from a game studies perspective. Some of the long assessments my kid went through in 2012/13 as a 3 year old, featured a series of ill-defined tasks that looked like games. Unlike a game, however, the rules/goals were not properly explained, and the results that were generated had serious and seriously tiresome real-world outcomes (further procedures, additional assessments, etc.) Example: a timed beads onto a string test – where the doctor did not specify at the start that she wanted the beads on the string in a particular colour order. That is cheating!

P 12 “disability has become the keystone in the edifice of bodily based inferiority rationales build up since the late eighteenth century. For it was at this historical moment in Europe and the United States that, as Michel Foucault observes, “a technology of human abnormality, a technology of abnormal individuals appears precisely when a regular network of knowledge and power has been established” (2003, 61). Abnormality has a history, and by designating a specific historical moment of arrival, Foucault demonstrates that the appearance of pathological bodies is dependent upon techniques of identification […] of normalcy and deviance)” (Snyder and Mitchell p 12).

The authors then trace ‘disability as keystone’ in Darwin, early feminism, and in Marx (pp 12-16). There is an account of the emergence of ‘measurement instruments’ (p 19) and a consideration of how these emerged with and fed into eugenics discourses in various ways.

From the perspective of my research, there is a miasma of vital, untidy, out of sequence connections between Snyder and Mitchell’s account, Ball’s work on eugenics, Foucault and education (see earlier posts). Making sense of this may take some time.

Snyder and Mitchell p 21 ‘If, for Virginia Woolf, women historically function as a device to reflect the image of men back to themselves at twice their normal size, should we suggest something similar with respect to the cultural function of disability for subjects seeking to establish, by contrast, their abilities?’

That’s what Dead Space does! (Tampere paper, 2014).

Snyder and Mitchell describe the ‘battery of interventions’ that surround the disabled body (p 21) and argue that these interventions are ‘the outgrowth of a history in which disability has functioned as the “obviously” undesirable location in a geography of beliefs that must repeatedly perform their neutrality by reasserting, again and again, this defining undesirability’

‘People with disabilities have seen themselves anchor a scientific research industry that continually circles back to some variation on the age-old observation that disability is a misfortune, because our research “reveals” that same point time and time again.’ (p 21)
These points are pertinent to “disability as problem that we fix” research as well as popular culture, e.g Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (ed K Allan, Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

P 22 ‘the making of disability into a potent medical and social classification in the United States’ [that surfaces, p 23] when individuals are faced with the uniquely modern demands of industrialization and urbanization’ (Snyder and Mitchell, referencing Goddard 1914) […] disability categories proliferate as an increasing value is placed upon bodily homogeneity, concepts of quantifiable health measurement, and the workplace standardization of capacities. […a 19th and 20th century] arsenal that sought to make myriad forms of abnormality visible through the development of disciplines and professions that depend on discovering increasing degrees of human deviance.’ P 23

The links between self care and national identity (p 23). Eugenics, reform and public health (p24).

There are really interesting things here about modernity and its attempts to manage the body, and about the pervasive assumption that the disabled body is available to researchers. They point out that “the contemporary academy continues to pursue “more research on disability” with unquestioning assumptions about the ethics of the perpetual availability of disabled bodies” (p 34) – a point that seems particularly loaded in relation to education research. Modernism might have involved the development of instruments and procedures to measure and then eradicate bodies framed as deviant, and yet (as has been remarked elsewhere, I think it was in Claiming Disability, and/or in Enabling the Humanities…I need to check this) it also generated new sites for the production of disability; war (obviously) and medicine (as advances in intensive care or prematurity translate into better survival rates). Snyder and Mitchell also argue that eugenics was not some weird aside or dodgy digression (or ‘momentary aberration’ p 26), rather, that eugenicist thinking about the body, measurement and difference have had and continue to have significant impact on culture.

Notes on…

‘Conclusion: Compulsory Feral-ization’ from Cultural Locations of Disability, Snyder and Mitchell, University of Chicago Press.

Thanks to certain pervasive narratives of disability (as deficit other) disabled people are targets of an “an inexhaustible research machine – one that wantonly uses up their bodies, their energies and their time. One of the primary oppressions experienced by disabled people is that they are marked as perpetually available for all kinds of intrusions, both public and private.” (Snyder and Mitchell, p 187).

Disability and the subaltern (p 188) Disability as something to be “”solved” and then perpetually returned to its cultural location of mystery”

There’s an excellent section during which the awkward relationships between disability studies and the ‘health sciences’ (clinical, applied, therapy, special educational needs), is discussed (p 188 – 189). Example: “Disability studies is recognized as both a threat and a saving grace of sorts among the health sciences. It represents a threat in the sense of a once silenced object now given the agency to talk back to the professions that would speak its inferiority; a saving grace in that the inclusion of disabled people in any meaningful way suggests fields that are beyond reproach in their humanitarian commitments.” (p 189).

Oh !


The discussion then moves from the place of disability studies within academic institutions (and its problematic relationship with clinical/health sciences/therapeutic fields, to historical and ethical issues associated with research on disabled people (as distinct from research by disabled people).

P 193. While other marginalized bodies may have suffered from insufficient attention “the oppression of disabled people has occurred as a result of their perpetual identification as an object of research”, while “Disability history has been marked by the overindulgence of the medical sciences and therapies in the scrutiny of “biological” differences.

July 16th 2014 –

I had to give up copying down the bits that seemed important – there’s too many good bits. Snyder and Mitchell end the book by stressing the significance of textual analysis to disabilty studies. If you feel disconsolate, bleak or weary about the construction of disabled people through research design, and the volume of research being done ‘on disabled people’ compared to the amount of research undertaken by disabled people – read this book. It is a tonic.