Foucalt and the social model

I’m currently reading Foucault and the Government of Disability, edited by Shelley Tremain (2005); I read it a few years ago, but not properly, and certainly not critically – so I’m re-reading it.

Foucault is one of those theorists whose ideas I love, but I find wading through his ideas a bit of a struggle – although I admit I often have this issue with a lot of theorists; theory seems to inevitably lead to verbosity. She wrote, with a tendency to write a paragraph when a sentence would do herself.

Tremain’s introductory chapter lays out the basic concept of the book – Foucault’s work on bio-power and government, particularly normalizing structures and concepts that are perceived to empower rather than constrain, can be used to explore disability. The rise of bio-power is linked, briefly, to the development of the concept of normal – which I liked as a concept when Lennard Davis wrote about it in Constructing Normalcy (Disability Studies Reader, 2006, pp. 3-16). I think – or at least I think at the moment – that this concept of the “normal person” is particularly useful when thinking about disability, as well as BDSM and pain – none of them are “normal”, although pain can perhaps be perceived as a normal part of life (indeed, the loss of the ability to feel pain – physically or mentally – is cast as an impairment; it is only when pain becomes chronic that it becomes an impairment).

That said, I have an issue with Tremain’s contention that a Foucaldian understanding of power and government is incompatible with the social model of disability. I will be the first to admit that I have an issue with the social model, in part because of pain; I struggle to see how a strict reading of the social model – that we are disabled by society, not by our impairments – takes account of the problems that impairment can cause; there is little space for links between the two halves of disability and impairment. The experience of impairment, particularly chronic pain – and here it becomes much more about my own experience – is for me disabling, in that it restricts me from doing certain things, or from enjoying activities; it is not, however, an external disabling – I am disabled from within, and no amount of removing barriers is going to stop pain from being a problem.

With Tremain’s reading, the social model uses “juridico-discursive … conceptions of power” (p. 9); power here is repressive, and comes from a centralised authority. However, I would argue that disablement, as a process or experience, is much more about Foucaldian governmentality than it first appears. Yes, there are repressive structures – particularly when it comes to the built environment and physical barriers – but there are also those regimes and technologies, which disable in more subtle ways. The regimes of – for example – psychotherapy and physical fitness – act to disable by creating impairments, or structuring impairments (in this case, mental health issues and weight) as problems to be cured; being sane and “fit” is both the normal, and the empowered way – and remaining mad and fat (and therefore disabled) is a choice. These more subtle regimes of bio-power force disability on the impaired body by creating the idealised, unrealizable normal, then casting it as an empowering choice; it is this that leads into the concept of compulsory able-bodiedness as suggested by McRuer in Crip Theory (2006).

Having said all that – I agree with Tremain’s reading of impairment – “the constitutive power relations that define and circumscribe ‘impairment’ have already put in place broad outlines of the forms in which that discursive object will be materialized … the category of impairment emerged, and in many respects, persists in order to legitimize the governmental practices that generated it in the first place” (p. 11). It is this construction of impairment – as well as the embodied experience of that construction, of being impaired – that needs examining in order for the social model to be improved; society disables the impaired body, it represses and restricts; but the construction of impairment itself is a control upon disability, and unpicking how the two are tightly linked (instead of being discretely consequential) may well help to destabilise disability/impairment to the point where it is no longer possible to be disabled – only somewhere on a spectrum of bodily form.
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