Perfect You

[On January 2 of this year, the day after BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY was launched, I posted a review of Widdows’s Perfect Me. Since this review of Widdows’s book is having a revival of sorts on Twitter and, furthermore, since many new readers/listeners might have missed the review when I initially posted it at the New Year, I’ve copied it below. As always, your feedback is welcome.]

I still can’t decide which is better: a book of feminist philosophy, such as Kate Manne’s Down Girl (2018), that disregards disability almost entirely, or a book of feminist philosophy, such as Heather Widdows’s Perfect Me (2018), that seems to add disability to its analysis as an afterthought and does so in a way that (re)naturalizes and (re)biologizes disability. Perhaps there really is no salient difference between the two kinds of feminist philosophy texts. After all, both sorts of approaches to feminist analysis revolve first and foremost around nondisabled women (and men) and reinforce the exclusion of disability from serious consideration in political discourse.

Not surprisingly, Manne’s book and Widdows’s book have each garnered much attention in philosophical and wider feminist circles. That their respective failures to adequately address the apparatus of disability seem to have thus far gone unnoticed is indicative of the intransigence of depoliticized notions of disability in both philosophy and feminist studies and of how little attention philosophers and academics in general, feminist philosophers and theorists in particular, and the literate public give to the production of disability and the social, economic, and political position of disabled people.

Notwithstanding the fact that I perceive and have pointed to broad similarities in the ways that Manne’s book on misogyny and Widdows’s book on beauty as an ethical ideal should be situated with respect to critical philosophical analysis of disability, for the purposes of this post I set aside Manne’s neglect of (the apparatus of) disability. In this post, that is, I consider only how Widdows employs disability in Perfect Me (subsequent parenthetical pagination refers to this text). Among other things, I think that Widdows’s brief discussion of disability in Perfect Me both undermines claims that motivate the overall argument of her book and reinstates an individualized and medicalized conception of disability.

Widdows’s remarks about disability span roughly a page-and-a-half of her 341-page book. In fact, the discussion of disability that appears on pp. 150-151 is the first and (as far as I can see) only explicit mention of disability in Perfect Me, though uncritical endorsement of notions that rely upon an individualized and medicalized conception of disability—“health,” “healthy,” “healthy functioning,” “disorder,” “risk,” “abnormal bodies,” and “suffering”—peppers Widdows’s analysis of beauty throughout the book. Most philosophers of disability will, of course, recognize the missed opportunities of this book to advance a politicized analysis of disability, especially, though not exclusively, in the chapter in which Widdows examines the social construction of notions of normality (121-137).

I certainly was disappointed to see that none of the substantial body of work on the construction of normality and practices of normalization that I and other philosophers and theorists of disability have generated is mentioned or even referenced in this chapter, let alone seriously entertained (for instance, see Tremain 2001, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2017; Hall 2016; Amundson 2000; Davis 1995). That this aspect of Widdows’s book has gone unnoticed too, or at least unacknowledged, is an example of ableist exceptionism and a testament of the extent to which most philosophers and many feminists (among others) disregard philosophy and theory of disability. I want to point out, therefore, that the work on normality and normalization that philosophers and theorists of disability have produced is some of the best, if not the best, critical writing available on the topic.

I surmise that Widdows’s training in and implicit allegiance to analytic philosophy and in particular analytic bioethics likely precluded opportunities for analysis of disability from her discussion of the relations between normality, normalization, beauty, and disability, as well as from her understanding of these relations that the discussion of them articulates. Were, however, Widdows to have engaged with (for instance) my work on normality and the incremental normalization of force relations that neoliberal bioethics enables, she might have recognized how the genealogies of impairment, normality, and normalization that I have provided undercut the dated claims about disability that she ultimately makes in her book, claims that variously serve to re-naturalize and re-medicalize the apparatus of disability and that, hence, run counter to some of the most philosophically and politically astute work currently done in philosophy and theory of disability.

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (2017) and elsewhere, I advance arguments according to which the ideas of normality and impairment are artifactual mechanisms and effects of biopower, which is a complicated matrix of social power relations that facilitates population management and control in the service of neoliberalism. In her own way, Widdows [a] argues that normality is a value-laden social construct, never neutral (122, 131-137), and [b] claims to avoid causal explanations about the production of this construct (i.e., normality) and its association with beauty as an ideal (73). My argument in this post (and in a future publication) is that the discussion of disability that Widdows includes on pp. 150-151 of her book and remarks that she makes elsewhere in the book significantly compromise both [a] and [b].

Given that I am a Foucauldian feminist philosopher of disability, I feel compelled to point out that the most effective way to throw into relief the artifactual and contingent character of normality or any other seemingly natural and objective practice, state of affairs, identity, and value is to trace its genealogy, that is, to trace the historical accidents and contingent circumstances from which the given practice, state of affairs, identity, or value emerged (see Tremain 2015, 2017).

I think that if Widdows were to have consistently drawn upon Foucault’s insights, she might not have been as ambivalent as she seems to be about (among other things) the ways in which operations of power on the micro-level of individual subjects are related to more systemic forms of power, nor would she have taken recourse throughout her book to contestable ideas about ideology in order to, in effect, offer causal explanations (43). I want to suggest that Widdows’s ambivalence is predictable insofar as she seems not to appreciate that Foucault’s insights about the productive character of power cannot be easily reconciled with elements of juridical conceptions of power that represent power as fundamentally repressive, among which elements the idea of ideology is central.

Insofar as appeals to ideology always (as Foucault noted) presuppose the existence of a pristine realm of truth that ideology obfuscates and to which it prevents or withholds access, Widdows’s claims that ideology plays a role in the production and naturalization of ideals of beauty (43) necessarily presuppose that there exists a realm of truth with respect to beauty that ideology about it distorts or obscures. Yet an argument, such as Widdows’s, that presupposes an unfettered realm of truth about beauty and closely associates the value of beauty with the value afforded to normality cannot, without contradiction, also assume that there is nothing objectively true about normality nor assume that the idea of normality is never value neutral.

Indeed, although Widdows repeatedly asserts that normality is never neutral, always value laden, her explicit remarks about disability actually belie these claims. On p. 150, Widdows writes:

[T]hose who fall outside the normal range [of acceptable appearance] fall into two broad groups. The first are those who are disfigured by disability or accident or have physical features that are dramatically outside the normal range. No matter what those in these groups do they will never be able to attain normal. The second group are those who fall only a little outside the normal range, who could bring themselves within the normal range using products or procedures. For the first group there is no possibility of attaining normal, and therefore as appearance matters more, it is likely that discrimination against this group will increase. In addition, those who fail to measure up to appearance standards will become rarer, as appearance issues become regarded as disabilities. (150)

This passage in Widdows’s discussion of disability is both troubling and, I want to argue, virtually self-contradictory. Notice that in order to distinguish between people who can never become normal and people who can become normal with some effort, Widdows installs a stable and unchanging conception of normality, despite her subsequent suggestion that the category of disability itself shifts in dimensions. For Widdows, no measure of social change could bring perceptions of the people in the first group within the normal range of appearance standards. In other words, Widdows seems to suggest that some people are prediscursively outside of the normal range of appearance standards. In short, some people are, it seems, objectively, naturally, and ontologically, abnormal. Normal and abnormal aren’t historically contingent, culturally specific, and value-laden social categories after all, at least not for everyone, at least not when they are applied to some people.

Although Widdows’s final remarks in the cited passage seem to suggest that she regards disability as a historically contingent and culturally specific phenomenon, subsequent remarks that she makes on p. 151 indicate that her ideas about the ontology of disability are far more undeveloped than an account that characterizes disability in this way would be. Put plainly, Widdows’s remarks on p. 151 rely upon a rather inaccurate representation of the British social model of disability, an early model of disability whose distinction between impairment (construed as a biological characteristic) and disability (construed as a form of social disadvantage) naturalizes and medicalizes impairment and, hence, naturalizes and (re)medicalizes the apparatus of disability. As I have argued in a number of places, the distinction between impairment and disability that the British social model of disability institutes is in fact a chimera that collapses upon scrutiny. Impairment is as socially constructed as disability.

As I (and others) have also pointed out, furthermore, there can be no notion of natural, or objective, impairment without a correlative objective notion of normal. Were Widdows to have read some of the work in philosophy (and theory) of disability that has been produced in the last two decades (rather than rely on a single book of disability theory from 1990), she might have written a more philosophically substantiated, coherent, and astute analysis of (the apparatus of) disability and its implication for work on beauty as an ethical ideal. Because Widdows’s discussion of disability in Perfect Me has instead revived outdated arguments about disabled people that will now likely receive a wide audience, I remain undecided about whether the discussion should have been left out of the book altogether.

References

Amundson, Ron. 2000. Against Normal Function. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 31C: 33-53.

Davis, Lennard J. 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.

Hall, Melinda C. 2016. The Bioethics of Enhancement: Transhumanism, Disability, and Biopolitics. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Manne, Kate. 2018. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tremain, Shelley. 2001. On the Government of Disability. Social Theory and Practice27 (4): 617-636.

Tremain, Shelley. 2006 Reproductive Freedom, Self-regulation, and the Government of Impairment in Utero. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 21 (1): 35-53.

Tremain, Shelley. 2008. The Biopolitics of Bioethics and Disability. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 5 (2/3): 101-106.

Tremain, Shelley. 2010Biopower, Styles of Reasoning, and What’s Still Missing From the Stem Cell Debates. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 25 (3): 577-609.

Tremain, Shelley. 2015. This is What a Historicist and Relativist Feminist Philosophy of Disability Looks Like. Foucault Studies 19 (1): 7-42.

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

Widdows, Heather. 2018. Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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