Notes on Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism and the Problematization of Disability in Feminist Philosophy

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I aimed to denaturalize disability by arguing that disability is an apparatus of power rather than a natural human difference, personal attribute, or biological characteristic. My argument is thus distinct from the approaches to disability that disabled philosophers of disability such as Barnes, Silvers, and Stramondo take and that nondisabled philosophers such as Francis, Kittay, and Reynolds advance. My argument is also distinct from the relatively homogeneous approaches to disability that these (and other) philosophers advance insofar as I elaborate a historicist and relativist approach to disability that draws upon Foucault’s insights about (among other things): the problematization of phenomena, constitution of the subject, intentional and nonsubjective character of neoliberal forms of power, and governmentality. Foucault’s work, I argue, offers the most philosophically and politically sophisticated and astute tools with which to denaturalize and debiologize disability, enabling feminist philosophers of disability to examine the artifactual character of the apparatus of disability and in particular the problematization and constitution of disability in philosophy.

In the first chapter of my book, I offer rudimentary definitions of both historicism and relativism, definitions implicitly and explicitly elaborated and substantiated over the course of the book through discussion and arguments about (for instance) feminist materialisms, the historical contingency of conceptions of normality, the constitutive and disciplinary uses of medical and administrative classification, and the emergence of styles of reasoning. I define historicism in the book as “the philosophical doctrine according to which beliefs and values emerge as a consequence of historical events and circumstances” (12). I define relativism as “the philosophical doctrine according to which different societies and cultures create different beliefs and values under different historical conditions” (12). I argue, furthermore, that the relativism of my feminist philosophy of disability is “established and substantiated by and through its historicism; that is, the historicism of my feminist philosophy of disability is both theoretically prior and antecedent in practice to its relativism, which is, therefore, a derivative of its historicism”(13). I also assert that insofar as I advance an argument for the historicist and artifactual character of disability, I establish its relativist character.

Given my argument that feminist philosophers of disability who wish to denaturalize disability should adopt (Foucault’s) historicism and relativism, I was disappointed when I read the recent discussion of Serene Khader’s latest book, Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic, on the PEA Soup blog. Although Khader does not seem to discuss a political conception of disability in her book (Note: I have read only portions of the book on the web and scanned the index), the summary of the book that Khader provides in the PEA Soup post and comments following from it apparently stand in opposition to my historicist and relativist approach to disability in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and elsewhere. 

One of Khader’s claims is that the argument of the book goes beyond the universalism-relativism debate in feminism; it should be noted, however, that Khader does not bypass the debate itself, is not indifferent to the debate, nor ignore it, but rather comes down firmly on the side of universalism. In short, Khader’s position seems anti-relativist. Indeed, in the summary of the book offered at PEA Soup, Khader explicitly states that relativism is “wrong,” though she does not present a definition of relativism in this summary, nor in response to ensuing comments on the post,  nor (as far as I can see) in the book itself. I hope, nevertheless, that such a definition is offered in the book and that I missed it. For I agree with David Wong (2006) and other philosophers that no criticism or dismissal of relativism should be accepted that does not at least attempt to provide a “nuanced and plausible” definition and elaboration of that theoretical doctrine.

Pace Rachels and others (including some of the commentators to Khader’s post), I maintain that relativism, especially if it is combined with and derived from historicism, has tremendous subversive and transformative potential. Insofar as Khader does not seem to seriously consider “nuanced and plausible” relativist alternatives to universalism, it is surprising to me that she draws on Foucault’s approach to power and in particular his insights about governmentality. For one of the aims of Foucault’s own project in his later genealogical work was to identify the ways in which “what is given to us as universal, necessary, and obligatory” is “occupied by the singular, the contingent, the product of arbitrary constraints.” Notwithstanding these initial observations, however, I admit that I must read Khader’s book in its entirety before I address at greater length her adoption of Foucault’s claims.

I want to return to my remark that Khader’s book does not seem to advance a political conception to disability. To be sure, no book of feminist philosophy or theory should be expected to do everything; thus, it might seem unreasonable for me to expect Khader to provide such a conception of disability in the course of reflections on a seemingly separate topic.

My concern stems, however, from my perception of the continuing assumption on the part of nondisabled feminist philosophers that disability is separate from the issues discussed in the book and the continued centrality afforded to the perspectives and issues of nondisabled women in transnational and other feminist philosophy, especially given the discursive space that the book apparently affords (nondisabled?) women’s role as caregivers, the potential burden that such gendered work imposes (in light of asymmetrical relations among women internationally), and requisite negotiation of it. Recall, for example, how Heather Widdows, whom Khader thanks in the acknowledgements of her book, virtually excludes disability from her analysis of transnational norms of beauty and appearance, offering a troubling analysis of disability in the few remarks that she does make about it.

The continuing tendency of feminist philosophers to give primacy to the experiences, perspectives, issues, and indeed very social construction of nondisabled women and their lives was brought home to me once again when I recently read “Feminism for Working-Class Women is the Best Feminism,” an article at Justice Everywhere that implicitly construes women as nondisabled and, by contrast, disabled people, seniors and elders, etc. as genderless, reduces (genderless) elders and disabled people to recipients of gendered care, and almost enthusiastically endorses institutionalization of elderly and other people. Disabled people have, for decades, consistently and almost unanimously articulated opposition to their institutionalization, identifying the ways in which such institutionalization devalues and dehumanizes them, objectifies them, and limits the prospects and scope of their lives. Indeed, both (1) the reduction of elders and disabled people to genderless recipients of care and (2) the enthusiastic endorsement of the institutionalization of elders and disabled people, in the context of a feminist philosophy article, demonstrate (among other things) how far removed feminist philosophical and theoretical analysis remains from critical philosophy and theory of disability and from a more general awareness of the historical, economic, and cultural conditions of possibility for disabled people’s current subordinated social situation.

Here, then, is another chapter in the repeated problematization and constitution of disability in feminist philosophy and philosophy more generally.

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