A Feminist Disability Studies perspective on the disabled and post-human body: further philosophical considerations.

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 4376


This paper takes a Feminist Critical Disability Studies perspective towards post-humanist philosophy. The essence of this research inquiry is to reflect upon how dominant societal representations of constructed categories pervade conceptions of identity – both socially and personally. The focus of inquiry is upon the identity of disabled women. This analysis is facilitated through cultural and textual representations that are deconstructed to highlight normative myths that have roots in the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Furthermore, this research aims to incorporate this information into future re-imaginations of the human that directly challenge traditional and segregationist ideologies around human ‘value’.

The research will take a critical disability theory perspective to historical notions of self-hood, strongly engaging ‘stigma’ theory in this analysis (Goffman, 1963). Reflection on this information and understanding will inform inquiry into modern cultural representations of the body that is both disabled and female. This will be further informed by a critical analysis of how ability/disability binary opposition informs social constructions of disability and womanhood. Foucauldian perspectives on discourse and power will predicate arguments within this context. It is through critical analysis of fixed ‘knowledge’ surrounding disability, impairment and self-hood that research will contribute new insights into re-configurations of human identity. These will recognise the instability of binary oppositions that inform fixed categories and social constructs of self-hood. This context fulfils the essential critical theory aim of deconstructing existing ideology within the context the human inhabits. Engagement with the deconstruction of dominant societal ideas that support binary oppositions and fixed notions of identity and self-constructs will be informed by Derridean (1967) understandings of the deconstruction process.

Research Aims

The first research aim considered for this inquiry is to identify dominant notions of the ‘disabled self’ and their historical roots (specifically engaging with the period of the Industrial Revolution. Reference will be made to late-eighteenth century Britain’s industrialization and post-industrialization processes as analysed by Mitchell and Snyder, (2010)). The second aim of this research is to enhance an understanding of how the historical context of disabled identity underpins the stigmatisation of people with impairments, cultural and societal representations of disability and discourse used in the context of this field. This process will be furthered through the deconstruction of dominant ideology that underpins common societal understanding of fixed categories. Lastly, this research aims to configure future understandings of self-hood that support inclusivity in contemplating disability and identity.

Research Questions

1) To what extent did the Industrial Revolution inform normative expectations of the human body?

The research aims can be transfigured into research questions through their inherent potential for interdisciplinary inquiry. Firstly, the research aim of identifying dominant modes that surround the ‘disability’ construct, alongside analysis and understandings of the Industrial Revolution will be translated into the question of: ‘To what extent did the Industrial Revolution create the “norm” of a “productive” body ?’. An understanding of this point is predicated by the notion of the Industrial Revolution period in Britain as transformative in the imaging of the human body, due to the cultural influences upon the context in which identity exists (Barnes, 1991). This research question is an essential starting point for post-humanist inquiry. In order to challenge the construct of the human body and the conscription of identity that is attached to bodies that are viewed as ‘lacking’, the information that informs this text must be deconstructed. To facilitate this process, it is necessary to provide a historical background that evidences strong emergences of categorisation alongside cultural, social, economic and political change. The Industrial Revolution period engages in tandem with all of these factors. Further to this, a review of the literature shows a strong theme of the emergence of the ‘productive’ body during this time (Barnes, 1991; Mitchell and Snyder, 2010; Finklestein, 1981).

2) Do concepts of ‘lacking’ and ‘enhanced’ bodies inform the stigmatisation of disabled women within society, as analysed through cultural and textual representation, and how is this done?

To develop this engagement between historical roots and modern representations of human identity, the second research aim posits the question of how far concepts of ‘enhanced’ and ‘lacking’ bodies that emerged from the Industrial Revolution predicate the stigmatisation of disabled women within modern society. This inquiry is built upon the foundational knowledge and understanding of the ‘lacking’ body as an anomalous text supporting the continuum of ‘enhanced’ bodies that are perceived as productive within society. This research question is imminent in post-humanist inquiry as an active engagement is raised with the factors and discourse that both legitimise and devalue bodies. This research section will rigourously engage with theoretical aspects of what constitutes a ‘valid’ human body (Mitchell and Snyder, 2010). Further insight will be obtained as to how the body and social/actual identity is performed (Butler, 1999), with reference to the construction of commonly accepted normative myths and categories (Davis, 2010).

3) To what extent can the process of establishing a post-human conceptualisation of the body engage with Feminist Critical Disability Studies theory to effectively address stigmatisation arising from binary oppositions within society?

The last research question will investigate and establish the extent to which re-imagination of the human body can be facilitated through a post-humanist framework that is largely informed by Feminist Critical Disability Studies theory. Inquiry and understanding that may have arisen from the previous research questions will be used as foundational knowledge for future constructs of self-hood and post-humanist concepts. The deconstruction of ability/disability categories that inform representations of the human body and identity will provide essential information of how context informs value judgements on bodies that are stigmatised within society. This research questions aims to challenge commonly accepted notions of ‘disability’. Through centralising Feminist Critical Disability Studies issues, this process will politicize cultural and textual representations of the human body that is both disabled and female. Through this critical analysis, the last research question will examine the extent to which the post-human body can effectively reconfigure binary oppositions into a more holistic and open understanding of the body and identity (Deleuze and Guattari, in Goodley, 2009).

Relevance of the Research

This research is highly relevant within critical disability theory inquiry as it seeks to further establish the process of deconstructing binary oppositions and the discourse that supports such fixed ideas within societal modes of thinking that both dominate and reflect cultural representations of disability. Through centralising disability identity within the social construction and internalisation of self-hood, this research is centralising disability within analysis into body politics (Goodley, 2013). This ethos will be further refined throughout the research process as theoretical aspects of social identity and stigmatisation of people who are ‘fixed’ within certain constructed categories are critically analysed. An examination of this understanding will enhance the potential for politicization of the aims of the study of critical disability that have to do with deconstructing the contradictory ideals and information behind ableist notions (Goodley, 2009).

In order to consider the nature of ‘post-human’, ‘enhanced’ and ‘lacking’ bodies, concentration upon cultural and textual representations of disabled women is essential. Through this analysis, politicization of identity can be unravelled and historical factors that inform common understandings may be realised (Bolt, 2014). This may be understood through the notion of culture as reflecting the organisation of societal gains and human losses (Williams, 1958). The presence of cultural and textual representations of disabled women may be understood beyond its current context, in order to deconstruct the information that creates the perception of its presence (Derrida, 1968).

By considering this knowledge and by deconstructing cultural and textual representations of disabled women, research can follow inquiry that highlights the influence of binary oppositions. This process involves understanding the nature and creation of such fixed categories as a product of the Industrial Revolution period in Britain. This information is essential within the formation of post-humanist reconfigurations of the human body as it gives an in-depth understanding of the history and creation of the context that informs concepts of identity and the human body. In order to define the terms ‘enhanced’ and ‘lacking’, research must address a period of time during which certain values where attributed to the conceptualisation of bodies. Further, the prevalence of such attributes predicates the representation of disabled woman within modern society. To challenge such myths, which revolve around a non-existent ‘norm’, research inquiry seeks to progressively notice and challenge the development of totalising forms, in order to challenge their existence and acceptance.

Interdisciplinary Nature of the Research

New hybrid approaches to foster interdisciplinary goals that are realised by a meeting of fields (for example, the social sciences, humanities, engineering and bioscience) may prosper with an ethos of person-centredness and the application of technology to supporting people. Research that entails a Feminist Disability Studies perspective of post-humanist philosophy is essential for subjective accounts that can enrich scientific notions of objectivity (Hernstein Smith, 2013). It is essential to consider the representation of minority groups, namely, women and disabled people, within a bio-hybrid network that seeks to conceptualise human life and critically develop and analyse the way in which we communicate with societal constructs and technological inventions.

The current research on post-humanist theories of identity, through a Feminist Disability Studies lens has an excellent foundation and scope for interdisciplinary potential. An essential engagement with critical and cultural theory will underline interdisciplinary relationships within the research. This assertion is a broad attempt to encapsulate the diverse communication between different texts, such as literary texts, cultural and historical representations of disabled women and deconstructive modes of critical analysis – underpinned by key engagement with post-humanist theory and Feminist Disability Studies.

By explicitly recognising the interdisciplinary nature of the research context as focal to the nature of the research and its aims, a connection with this ethos encounters the post-humanist understanding of the human as a fluid subject that chimes with the instability found in theoretical approaches to the meaning of texts. Critical engagement with research that examines such texts is highly significant for developing an understanding of how disability is reflected within particular genres, thus confronting the nature of discourse that is employed to reflect power relations and social constructs within certain periods (Bolt, 2006). Most importantly, research methodology that encompasses textual analysis avoids the historical issue of imposing upon the lives of disabled people by conducting research that requires practical and, perhaps, objectifying engagement as a means of collecting data (Barton, 2005).

There is wide scope for research aims that consider binary oppositions and deconstruction of contexts that inform and create human bodies in terms of interdisciplinary potential. Firstly, feminist theory will be strongly engaged in deconstructing the idealistic notions of what is ‘normal’ that construct the traditional human body. This inquiry is predicated by the knowledge of identity as a performance of attributes that are attached to socially constructed categories, such as disability and gender (Butler, 1999). I am able to summarise that staring forms an important part of identity control (Garland-Thomson, 2009).

Despite Butler’s (1999) theory of performativity focusing upon gender, I feel that this theory has great significance for informing an understanding of how marginalised people support the existence of those situated within the centre, from a Feminist Disability Studies perspective (Garland-Thomson, 2011). Similarly to gender, disability is a social construct, informed by its context. Of particular relevance is an understanding of the power of binary oppositions within society and the knowledge that to facilitate social change, it is necessary to conceive of identity outside of these categories (Butler, 1999). This understanding of interdisciplinary research is critical for re-imagining the structure, context and conceptualisation of bodies within a post-humanist framework. This point is evidenced within a post-humanist concern of deconstructing the subject in order to understand the past influences and experiences that construct identity (Braidotti, 1994). Consideration of this concept leads to engagement with transhumanist theory, in the sense of collating past experiences in order to incorporate technology that would address human suffering (Marsen, 2008).

To further develop the interdisciplinary nature of this research, the ‘norm’ construct will be critically analysed through cultural and textual representations of disabled women. The main focus of this inquiry will be on metaphorical understandings and meanings. Through deconstructing the information and power behind such metaphors, the rigid categories that fix bodies will be challenged (Goodley, 2009). Considering this point, a critical disability studies approach has a maximised potential to engage with theoretical inspiration from cultural studies and the humanities. The nature of research of the body and human identity as a holistic process that is informed by historical notions of knowledge and continues to be open to interpretation is symbolic of a humanities perspective of life (Braidotti, 2013). The research inquiry seeks to challenge totalising metanarratives that have informed ability/disability categories since the Industrial Revolution. Considering this point, the nature of the research does not permit aims of complete re-imaginations of the human body. Instead, the post-humanist framework is used to re-evaluate the prescriptions of identity and reconfigure the body through Feminist Critical Disability Studies theory. Through engagement with post-human theory as interpreted by Braidotti, the research understands roots of binary oppositions as interpretative, thus repelling the totalising nature of historical and cultural claims upon the human body. Further, the research recognises disability and gender as social constructs that are differentiated from the dominant mode of the body as ‘complete’ and male, as predicated within the Aristotelian formation of the body (Garland-Thomson, 2011).

Considering the interdisciplinary nature of this research, it is clear that a concise and clear engagement with diverse modes of thinking of the post human is necessary within the research inquiry. The nature of this process engages with a philosophical connection to the human body. Philosophical thought surrounding concepts of reality and being is able to merge with critical theory perspectives on future creations of human identity and physicality. This view is intrinsic to the research inquiry as it recognises the infallibility of metanarratives that surround the human body. Using this concept, modern representations of human bodies can be understood as essentially post-human in relation to historical notions of identity and self-hood (Nichols, 1988). Engagement with sociology of technology theory arises from this deepened understanding – the aesthetics of the body are challenged in order to develop an imagining of the human body (Halberstam and Livingston, 1995) that rejects traditional organisational modes stemming from fixed categories rooted within the capitalist gains of the Industrial Revolution. An objective critical analysis of representations of disabled women seeks to develop an understanding of the contexts which inform the acts of the text instead of suggesting that the text intrinsically owns certain attributes of nature (Pepperell, 1995).

Positioning of the Research

The main inquiry of this research is designed to critically examine conceptualised notions of the human and personal/social identity in relation to societal support of binary oppositions that predicate ableist values and ideals. Through this critical inquiry, understanding and knowledge of the complexity of the human body can be deepened. The deconstruction of such norms chimes with the theory surrounding rhizomes. Seminal theory that examines the nature and substance of rhizomes consists of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972-1980). This text is of seminal importance within the research of post-humanism as it fundamentally opposes the fixed concepts that arise from binary oppositions. In order for the research to fully understand and analyse cultural and societal implications of identity, ideas of ‘ability’, ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’ need to be deconstructed (Goodley, 2001). This will elucidate the historical roots and modern translations that marginalise people through ‘fixed’ terms of identity prescription and formation. Concentration on rhizome theory will significantly focus on resisting conventional ideas surrounding ability/disability that stem from the industrialization period. This will be facilitated through the critical disability theory issue of examining the historical construction of social constructions and the discourse that is employed within a culture that reflects the ethos of such notions of human identity.

Research Design and Methodology

Research that is conducted by non-disabled people can be oppressive to disabled people (Shakespeare, 2006). Branfield (1998, cited in Shakespeare 2006) furthers this understanding by explaining the suspicion that has arisen towards non-disabled researchers, understood by the ethos of ‘Nothing about us without us’ (Charlton, 2000). This term describes the imperative that disabled people have control of relevant research to ensure that the process does not seek to objectify people. However, a counter-argument suggests that non-disabled people may have an important role to play in research for disabled people (Duckett, 1998, cited in Shakespeare, 2006). The acknowledgement of different perspectives within research leads to the idea that a feminist understanding within disability studies research would be invaluable. There is a mediating and mutual factor of the understanding of the impact of marginalisation against groups in society and throughout history (Galvin, 2003).

Linked to the idea of enriching research through the use of different perspectives, textual analysis would be a very worthwhile choice of methodology as it can provide a rich and well illustrated insight into current social practices and the social agents that may influence such events (Fairclough, 2003). An exploration of the discourse used in texts is an important factor. Findings from this can yield evidence of the dominant views of society at the current time, as the discourse used shape perceptions and representations of disability.

An ethical advantage of using textual analysis as a form of research is that it is only time consuming for the researcher and does not require such commitment from participants (Snyder and Mitchell, 2006). The information sourced from this form of research is invaluable as it investigates the enormous impact of culture on the narrative of disability (Haller, 2010). Developing this, research has identified that a spectrum of stereotypical notions takes precedence within cultural representations of disability (Barnes, 1992). Considering this, cultural representations of disability need further exploration within the field of disability studies (Shakespeare, 1997). The analysis of representations of disability within text encourages the reflection of disability in a wider sense; for instance, providing a rich insight into the current attitudes towards disability (Cheyne, 2013). A notion for a Feminist Disability Studies analysis of representations of disability within film may be established, as the term of objectification is prevalent within the power imbalance created within male voyeurism of women (Morris, 1991).

The research methodology confirms a feminist stand-point from which approaches are underpinned. However, it is recognised that there is no conclusive concept of a total feminist methodology (DeVault, 1999). This understanding of the fallibility of totalising concepts is a valid foundation for the research design and methodology within inquiry into the fluid nature of the self and holistic interpretations that may replace traditional binary oppositions. Considering this understanding, the research methodology will stem from a Feminist Disability Studies perspective. This would yield great influence within the research design; women and disabled people are explicitly recognised as marginalised groups within society: groups that are constructed as a means of continuing the existence of the centre.

The research approach is purely theoretical as it compromises an analysis of cultural representations of people, underpinned by a Feminist Disability Studies perspective. This standpoint is critical for the research process as it reflects the ethical meaning of avoiding research that encroaches upon the time and efforts of disabled people. Instead, by analysing and deconstructing texts that are already within the public domain, no ethical damage to individuals is posed. The methodological design aims to refer to two critical categories that are viewed as essential within research aimed at Feminist Disability Studies issues, as referred by Waller (2005). Firstly, the methodology focuses on marginalised groups within a social context. Explicit recognition is given to environmental and historical factors that continue to oppress people through support of binary oppositions that value ableist ideals. Further to this notion, the cultural representations will compromise only disabled women. This decision is underlined by the notion of actively recognising the subordination of disabled women within traditional research. The next methodological foundation is a holistic and on-going engagement and open communication with this foundational concept. The methodological decision to analyse cultural representations of the body that is both disabled and female is geared towards coming to conclusions about social change through challenging binary oppositions that have traditionally defined the parameters of identity.

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