Crip Theory
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Crip Theory

Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability

Robert McRuer

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eBook - ePub

Crip Theory

Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability

Robert McRuer

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About This Book

Crip Theory attends to the contemporary cultures of disability and queerness that are coming out all over. Both disability studies and queer theory are centrally concerned with how bodies, pleasures, and identities are represented as “normal” or as abject, but Crip Theory is the first book to analyze thoroughly the ways in which these interdisciplinary fields inform each other.

Drawing on feminist theory, African American and Latino/a cultural theories, composition studies, film and television studies, and theories of globalization and counter-globalization, Robert McRuer articulates the central concerns of crip theory and considers how such a critical perspective might impact cultural and historical inquiry in the humanities. Crip Theory puts forward readings of the Sharon Kowalski story, the performance art of Bob Flanagan, and the journals of Gary Fisher, as well as critiques of the domesticated queerness and disability marketed by the Millennium March, or Bravo TV’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. McRuer examines how dominant and marginal bodily and sexual identities are composed, and considers the vibrant ways that disability and queerness unsettle and re-write those identities in order to insist that another world is possible.

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NYU Press


Coming Out Crip

Malibu Is Burning
A 1991 issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies was one of the first major special issues of an academic journal on what guest editor Teresa de Lauretis called “queer theory.” For de Lauretis, queer theory generally emerged from academic studies of the construction of sexuality and of sexual marginalization: How have sexualities been variously conceived and materialized in multiple cultural locations? De Lauretis explains in her introduction to the volume that the conference leading to the special issue of differences (which convened at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990) was also intended “to articulate the terms in which lesbian and gay sexualities may be understood and imaged as forms of resistance to cultural homogenization, counteracting dominant discourses with other constructions of the subject in culture” (iii). De Lauretis cites a few other conferences that had convened around the topic, but she implies in an endnote that queer theory is not much connected to queer activism: queers in the conference hall, at least for de Lauretis in 1991, didn’t have a lot to do with queers in the street.1
Obviously, even if the label “queer theory” itself emerged at a California conference in the early 1990s, this is only one of many origin stories, and one that might be contested in any number of ways by contemporary queer theorists.2 For my purposes in this chapter, I cite the example simply to provide an alternative myth for the birth of crip theory. If there is, or might be soon, something that could go by the name of crip theory, and even if it similarly has something to do with studying (in this case) how bodies and disabilities have been conceived and materialized in multiple cultural locations, and how they might be understood and imaged as forms of resistance to cultural homogenization, it also has a lot to do with self-identified crips in the street—taking sledgehammers to inaccessible curbs, chaining wheelchairs together in circles around buses or subway stations, demanding community-based services and facilities for independent or interdependent living. Although I have no problem with the idea that one path to coming out crip might be going to a conference or reading about it in a book (those are, after all, paths to identification or disidentification), in general the term “crip” and the theorizing as to how that term might function have so far been put forward more by crip artists and activists, in multiple locations outside the academy.3
Carrie Sandahl explains that crip (which, like queer, undeniably has a long history of pejorative use) “is fluid and ever-changing, claimed by those whom it did not originally define.” “The term crip,” Sandahl writes, “has expanded to include not only those with physical impairments but those with sensory or mental impairments as well. Though I have never heard a nondisabled person seriously claim to be crip (as heterosexuals have claimed to be queer), I would not be surprised by this practice. The fluidity of both terms makes it likely that their boundaries will dissolve” (“Queering the Crip” 27). In what follows, I build on Sandahl’s work in an attempt to imagine how crip theory might work, or what it might mean to come out crip.4
After a brief consideration of the term “crip” in the next section, I provide—in the remaining sections of the chapter—four meditations on coming out crip in various locations, including India, the United States, and South Africa. Situating the final meditation in southern California, however, I present it in two parts: the first (located in Malibu) is cautiously critical of a disability studies tendency to focus on the image apart from the space where the image and the (disability) identities associated with it are produced; the second (located in South Central Los Angeles) is attentive to various and local (crip) identities and practices that come into purview when the construction of identity is comprehended as a complex and contradictory process always taking place in specific locations.
Malibu in this chapter is both a literal location and—as the society of the spectacle would have it—a mythical site of arrival; those located in Malibu seemingly have it made and know who they are. South Central Los Angeles, in contrast, is a site of unmaking and dreams deferred. My consideration of South Central Los Angeles, perhaps unexpectedly, focuses on the Crips most famously associated with that location—young, African American men who are members of various Crip street gangs; I am concerned primarily with the ways in which disability functions in relation to their material reality and history. Both seemingly opposed snapshots of coming out crip in Malibu and Los Angeles, as well as the three snapshots that come before, locate human beings variously responding to neoliberalism and the condition of postmodernity. In my conclusion to this chapter, I weave these critical responses together and sketch out what might be understood as five principles of crip theory, before considering briefly a queercrip story that, in several senses, brings the urgency of crip theory home. That queercrip story is at least in part my own. Claiming disability is absolutely necessary for that story, but it is not and cannot be sufficient.
Although crip theory, as I sketch it out here and throughout this book, should be understood as having a similar contestatory relationship to disability studies and identity that queer theory has to LGBT studies and identity, crip theory does not—perhaps paradoxically—seek to dematerialize disability identity. This assertion can also be inverted: without discounting the generative role that identity has played in the disability rights movement, this chapter and book indeed attempt to crip disability studies, which entails taking seriously the critique of identity that has animated other progressive theoretical projects, most notably queer theory. The chunk of concrete dislodged by crip theorists in the street—simultaneously solid and disintegrated, fixed and displaced—might highlight these paradoxes. If from one perspective that chunk of concrete marks a material and seemingly insurmountable barrier, from another it marks the will to remake the material world. The curb cut, in turn, marks a necessary openness to the accessible public cultures we might yet inhabit.5Crip theory questions—or takes a sledgehammer to—that which has been concretized; it might, consequently, be comprehended as a curb cut into disability studies, and into critical theory more generally.


In many ways, the system of compulsory able-bodiedness I analyzed in the introduction militates against crip identifications and practices, even as it inevitably generates them. Certainly, disabled activists, artists, and others who have come out crip have done so in response to systemic able-bodied subordination and oppression. Stigmatized in and by a culture that will not or cannot accommodate their presence, crip performers (in several senses of the word and in many different performance venues, from the stage to the street to the conference hall) have proudly and collectively shaped stigmaphilic alternatives in, through, and around that abjection. At the same time, if the constraints of compulsory able-bodiedness push some politicized activists and artists with disabilities to come out crip, those constraints simultaneously keep many other disabled and nondisabled people from doing so.
Toward accessible public cultures: curb cut dislodged by disability activists. Courtesy of Division of Science and Medicine, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Compulsory able-bodiedness makes the nondisabled claim to be crip that Sandahl tentatively imagines, in particular, unlikely for several reasons. First, a nondisabled person seriously making such a claim essentially disclaims (or refuses) the privileges that compulsory able-bodiedness grants to those closest to what Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm” (Sister Outsider 116). This refusal has to be active and ongoing, functioning as more than a disavowal. In other words, nondisabled crips need to acknowledge that able-bodied privileges do not magically disappear simply because they are individually refused; the compulsions of compulsory able-bodiedness and the benefits that accrue to nondisabled people within that system are bigger than any individual’s seemingly voluntary refusal of them. Second, and related, a nondisabled person claiming to be crip dissents from the binary division of the world into able-bodied and disabled—or, rather, affirms the collective crip dissent from that division. Since dissent requires comprehending the able-bodied/disabled binary as nonnatural and hierarchical (or cultural and political) rather than self-evident and universal, and since the vast majority of both nondisabled and disabled people have in effect consented to comprehending that binary as natural, it is in some ways not likely that anyone would claim to be crip, but most especially those who are nondisabled.6 Third, even if nondisabled people engage such refusal and dissent, they risk appropriation, since the space for “tolerance” for people with disabilities that compulsory able-bodiedness and neoliberalism have generated can make nondisabled claims to be crip look like appropriation (and, indeed, nondisabled claims to be crip could quite easily function as appropriation). Attuned to some of the dangers of appropriation, liberal nondisabled allies might well be wary of identifying as crip, even if that wariness inadertently reinforces a patronizing tolerance.
As will become clear, however, in this chapter I argue in favor of unlikely identifications even as I attempt to guard against easy equations or oversimplified appropriations. Not only do I generate a critical space where certain nondisabled claims to be crip are more imaginable, I also read as crip some disabled actions and performances that may not always or explicitly deploy the term. My reasons for taking these risks can be traced, at least in part, to related risks taken in innumerable queer locations over the past few decades. In many ways, the late queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa serves as a model for me in this risky project—in the context of this chapter she might be identified as the late crip theorist who was always adept at noting both how various progressive movements were congruent and how difficult it could be, nonetheless, to bridge the gaps between them. From one queer historical perspective, it is fortuitous that Anzaldúa writes, in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, that “we are the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our own respective cultures. Combined we cover so many oppressions. But the overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit, and because we do not fit we are a threat” (“La Prieta” 209). Anzaldúa’s assertion, initially published in 1981, is fortuitous because her identification with and as “queer” could be said to authorize reading This Bridge Called My Back as an originary text for what would later be called queer theory (although many of the other contributors to the anthology express sentiments similar to Anzaldúa’s, most do so without calling those sentiments queer). Because the contributions of feminists of color are often far from central in the origin stories we construct for queer theory, Anzaldúa’s 1981 assertion is an important and ongoing challengeto the field or movement.7
From another perspective, however, for many readers, even if such passages were not in the anthology, This Bridge Called My Back would still be a queer production, given its timely intervention into a monolithic white feminism and its commitment to fluidity and oppositionality, to coalition and critique of institutionalized power, and (most important) to the generation of new subjectivities. Such interventions and commitments, after all, founded a great deal of queer theory and activism of the late 1980s and 1990s. As José Esteban Muñoz insists:
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color is too often ignored or underplayed in genealogies of queer theory. Bridge represented a crucial break in gender studies discourse in which any naïve positioning of gender as the primary and singular node of difference within feminist theory and politics was irrevocably challenged. Today, feminists who insist on a unified feminist subject not organized around race, class, and sexuality do so at their own risk, or, more succinctly, do so in opposition to work such as Bridge. (21–22)
Muñoz goes on to place his own openly queer project, Disidentification: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, in a direct line of descent from Moraga and Anzaldúa’s, as part of “the critical, cultural, and political legacy of This Bridge Called My Back” (22).8 For Muñoz, however, it is the range of identifications and disidentifications that This Bridge Called My Back makes possible, and not simply the volume’s occasional use of the term “queer” that makes it such a foundational text for queer theory. Because of how the text functions, in other words, Muñoz risks reading the volume as queer, even if it is rarely named as such and even if some contributors might have quarreled, in various contexts, with the term (as Anzaldúa later did, even while [re]deploying it).9
As far as I know, Anzaldúa herself never used the term “crip,” though following her death from complications due to diabetes, there have nonetheless been fledgling attempts to link her legacy to crip movements.10 Ultimately, for me, it is less Anzaldúa’s use or nonuse of crip that leads me to position her posthumously as a crip theorist and more her career-long consideration of terms and concepts that might, however contingently, function to bring together, even as they threaten to rip apart, los atravesados: “The squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead: in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (Borderlands/La Frontera 3). Anzaldúa’s famous theory of the borderlands, even as it is grounded in south Texas and centrally concerned with what she calls mestiza consciousness, has proven so generative for feminist, queer, and antiracist work because it simultaneously invites disparate groups to imagine themselves otherwise and to engage purposefully in the difficult work of bridge-building.
Anzaldúa may now be located on the other side of the most inexorable, overdetermined, or naturalized border—the border between the living and the dead—but that location should not preclude consideration of how she might continue to speak with crip theory, or even as a crip theorist.11 Placing Anzaldúa’s assertion that “we are the queer groups.… and because we do not fit we are a threat” next to the work of another poet, Cheryl Marie Wade, helps to illustrate my point. Wade is an award-winning poet, performance artist, and video maker; she is also the former director of the Wry Crips Disabled Women’s Theatre Project. Although some of Wade’s poetry is available in print form, it is also available in forms that link it to her embodied performance, so that her wheelchair, hand gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice supplement her written text. In a performance included in Disability Culture Rap, an experimental video Wade codirected with Jerry Smith in 2000, Wade asserts:
I am not one of the physically challenged—
I’m a sock in the eye with a gnarled fist
I’m a French kiss with cleft tongue
I’m orthopedic shoes sewn on the last of your fears
I am not one of the differently abled—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m Eve I’m Kali
I’m The Mountain That Never Moves
I’ve been forever
I’ll be here forever
I’m the Gimp
I’m the Cripple
I’m the Crazy Lady
I’m the Woman With Juice.12
Although Wade clearly rejects certain identifications (what Simi Linton and others have called “nice words” [14]), the impact of her performance depends on multiplying others: gimp, cripple, crazy lady, woman with juice. Talking back to able-bodied terms and containments, or terms of containment, Wade speaks to “the last of your fears” by implying conversely that crips cannot be contained; even the words most intended to keep disability in its place—such as, of course, the derogatory term cripple itself—can and will return as “a sock in the eye with a gnarled fist.” And the punches keep coming: not only Wade’s own performance but also the location of that performance alongside the many others represented in Wade and Jerry Smith’s Disability Culture Rap suggest that both the number of in-your-face ways that women (and men) with juice will identify and the number of unlikely alliances they will shape is finally indeterminable.
This book is called Crip Theory, but imagining or staging an encounter between Anzaldúa and Wade allows me to position that nomenclature as permanently and desirably contingent: in other queer, crip, and queercrip contexts, squint-eyed, half dead, not dead yet, gimp, freak, crazy, mad, or diseased pariah have served, or might serve, similar generative functions.13 Judith Butler, perhaps, makes a similar point calling one of her essays “Critically Queer.” Positioning her own queer project, through this title, in a permanently indecipherable space (Is she critical of queer, cautioning against its use? Is she insisting that queerness is critically necessary, even indispensable?), Butler writes:
As expansive as the term “queer” is meant to be, it is used in ways that enforce a set of overlapping divisions: in some contexts, the term appeals to a younger generation who want to resist the more institutionalized and reformist politics sometimes signified by “lesbian and gay”; in some contexts, sometimes the same, it has marked a predominantly white movement that has not fully addressed the way in which “queer” plays—or fails to play—within non-white communities; and whereas in some instances it has mobilized a lesbian activism, in others the term represents a false unity of women and men. Indeed, it may be that the critique of the term will initiate a resurgence of both feminist and antiracist mobilization within lesbian and gay politics or open up new possibilities for coalitional alliances that do not presume that these constituencies are radically distinct from one another. (20)
Cautious, in this passage, of how queer “plays—or fails to play...

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