Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future, No. 3

This series is intended to flesh out some of the remarks that I made in a pivotal paragraph of my reply to commentators in the Pacific APA symposium on Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. In the previous post in this series, I returned to the paragraph in order to consider the remark according to which philosophers continue to deny that ontological and ethical commitments condition accessibility to philosophy. I referred to the APA’s Guide to Best Practices in Establishing and Running Summer Diversity Institutes in order to illustrate my claims in the post, concentrating especially on how the ontological assumptions of the guide are co-constitutive with the discursive practices about the apparatus of disability that the guide implicitly promotes and the implications of this combination for disabled philosophers, students and faculty.

In this addition to the series of posts, I want to revisit the claim that insofar as philosophers of disability have focused their attention almost exclusively on conceptual questions, theoretical approaches, and a normative agenda that their predominantly nondisabled and white mainstream philosophy interlocutors have essentially determined for them, the constitutive forms of power that Foucault identified have been disregarded. This claim follows from a claim that I made earlier in the symposium reply, namely, that I think that most of the work currently done in philosophy of disability is outdated and has limited transformative potential (if any). The latter claim is implied in my reference in the previous post to “mainstream [philosophical] analyses of disability (including mainstream feminist analyses of disability).”

My argument, in other words, is that a more astute and politically and philosophically sophisticated and transformative philosophy of disability would rely upon Foucault’s analyses of power, analytical and methodological practices in which few philosophers of disability currently engage consistently.

Some of Foucault’s most innovative insights comprise the claim that power is productive rather than merely repressive. With the various theoretical tools through which Foucault advanced this idea—for example, discipline, governmentality, normalization, mechanisms, and apparatuses—he went against an entire tradition of political and social theory that has deeply entrenched ideas according to which power operates through forms of prohibition and punishment, subtraction and limitation, refusal and penalty.

This idea, the idea that power is repressive and punitive, is an element of what Foucault called a “juridical” conception of power. On the terms of juridical conceptions, that is, power is possessed by (i.e., is given to and can be taken away from) a central authority, reigning down upon subjects through repression and control. Although Foucault did not deny that power can take these juridical forms, he argued that the most effective operations of power (force relations) are produced through coercion and control, often with the conscious and even enthusiastic endorsement of a given subject, enabling subjects to act in order to constrain them. Power is not substantive, for Foucault, but rather inheres in relations, is diffused throughout society, circulating in complicated networks and formations.

Mainstream philosophical analyses of disability, including most bioethical analyses of disability, assume juridical notions of power. Most (“analytic”) philosophy of disability also assumes that power is fundamentally repressive rather than productive. On these understandings of disability, the identities and subjectivities of disabled people are found rather than made; impairments and disabilities are prediscursive human characteristics (properties, attributes, or differences) rather than artifactual products of (among other things) the very medical, administrative, and academic classifications that identify and measure them; and people with impairments and disabilities—rather than modern inventions of the apparatus of disability whose identification and signification as such are designed to enable normalization of populations in the service of neoliberalism—have existed everywhere, throughout all of history.

With this understanding of different ways in which power can be construed, we can now critically evaluate Elizabeth Barnes’s claim that disability is a “mere difference,” rather than a “bad difference,” and her criticism of the “circularity” of my argument according to which impairment is as socially constructed as disability, that is, her criticism of my argument that (the apparatus of) disability produces impairment as its naturalized foundation. In other words, when the productive character and capacity of power is understood, it can be recognized that Barnes’s claim with respect to the ontological status of disability and her criticism of my ideas about the ontology of disability rely upon a juridical conception of power that does not adequately account for the political and discursive production of nature, impairment, body, and other (real) social constructions.

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