Up Against Power and Prestige With Puar

I (and others) have long thought that, for the most part, Tom Shakespeare’s and Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s respective work in disability studies has lost its critical edge. Yet both Shakespeare and Garland Thomson continue to be widely regarded as icons in the disability studies circles of their respective countries (England and the United States) and beyond. In large part, the resilience of their respective statuses in disability studies seems attributable to the intransigent sway of prestige and pedigree biases in the academy and their apparent willingness to repay this debt. For both Shakespeare and Garland Thomson have, each in their own way, increasingly adopted, repackaged, and rearticulated the individualized and medicalized assumptions about disability (and about social problems more broadly) that the field of bioethics generates, doing so in order to make bioethics more palatable to disability studies scholars.

That Shakespeare and Garland Thomson have nevertheless retained their privileged statuses in disability studies internationally is likely also due to the persistent dominance of the U.K. and the U.S.  in the disability studies community internationally.  In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I explain the shortcomings of the historical materialism (U.K.) and liberal individualism (U.S.) that predominate in these geopolitical domains, arguing that Foucault’s understanding of power relations—especially his insights about biopower, governmentality, the constitution of subjects, apparatuses, and neoliberalism—offers a more philosophically and politically astute critical approach to disability than these alternatives.

Thus, I was happy to see the way in which the theoretical hegemony of these geopolitical domains is broached and potentially destabilized in the NWSA Call for Papers that I posted yesterday. In particular, I was happy to see Jasbir Puar’s work on disability acknowledged and recommended as providing a way out of the two-approach dilemma that has circumscribed scholarship on disability and disabled people’s activism almost since their inception. Puar (2017) agrees with me about the usefulness of Foucault’s insights about biopower and biopolitics. I agree with Puar that the approach to diverse forms of subjecting force relations that Garland Thomson and other feminist disability theorists take is “clunky,” failing to adequately appreciate the mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing character of seemingly disparate tactics of power.

Whereas Puar thinks that Foucault’s own claims about biopolitics can take us only so far and must therefore be reconfigured, I believe that Foucault’s idea of biopolitics can take us farther than Puar allows and can be extended in ways that she may not have recognized. I find in Puar the tendency to conceive disability in individualistic terms, that is, to understand disability as a property, characteristic, or difference of individuals rather than as a matrix of power. For instance, although Puar has lauded the distinctiveness of my approach to disability and power, she has been critical of my use of the term disabled, worrying that I cover over important distinctions between “types” of disabilities (see Puar 2017, 171-172n81).

As readers and listeners of my work might have guessed, my argument is, however, that Puar’s concerns about both the limitations of Foucault’s insights about biopolitics and my decisions with respect to terminology would be assuaged were she herself to take up Foucault’s idea of apparatus and understand disability in this way, that is, understand disability as a far-reaching apparatus of neoliberal force relations in which everyone is implicated and entangled rather than a personal characteristic or attribute that only certain people possess and embody.

 In my view, the approach to disability that construes it as an apparatus opens up new discursive spaces in which to articulate decolonial analytics of disability and offers new ways in which the mechanisms of disability that imperialism produces can be addressed. I want to argue, furthermore, that the conception of disability as an apparatus provides a way to critically respond to and alleviate the individualizing objections with respect to causality that Puar and others seem to have (perhaps inadvertently) reintroduced into critical discussions about disability.


Puar, Jasbir K. 2017. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Tremain, Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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