Debility and disability, or, let’s crip disability (rather than queer it)

It’s been a few days but it’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together (and deal with a few other bits that needed doing). Last week I was able – after a few abortive attempts – to see one of Jasbir Puar’s public lectures, titled Debilities: Sensing Bodies and Worlds.

The debilities Puar refers to are, and she did stress this, not the same as disability, but rather an overlapping category, where debility is based on a lack of affective capacity, or a a state where an individual is – and this is, unfortunately, rather hard to explain without a lot of specialist language – limited in what they can do by the conditions and demands placed on them by social, cultural, and capitalist structures (whether explicit or not); on the surface, it sounds a lot like disability. Debility is rooted in situations where human frailties are pitted against wider systems, and in terms of thinking about the damages done to people through systems of labour, heteronormativity, and so on, it’s pretty useful. I’m not entirely convinced it’s useful when it comes to thinking about disability as a distinct category (which, if I understood her correctly, Puar did not want to do, talking about the priviledging of disability as an identity category), because, while trying to deconstruct the line between disabled and able-bodied and able-minded, McRuer’s concept of compulsory able-bodiedness works a little better (although I side with Alison Kafer, who points out it is both compulsory able-bodiednes and able-mindedness, because disability isn’t just about physical impairment).

I think part of it is that Puar’s debility-centred approach is rooted in disability as an individually-experienced aspect of life – which is undoubtedly influenced by the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – and a sociocultural understanding of disability that is focused on the individual, rather than that more commonly found in the UK, where the Social Model is more prevalent (where disability is something done to people on a social level, and then experienced by individuals with various impairments). On the surface, a debility approach is more in line with the Social Model – it is about how social structures affect people, and I think they could work quite well together – Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip illustrated an approach that uses both (although she doesn’t use the term debility). However – and this was my main problem – Puar seemed almost to use the two interchangeably, or to discuss debility as though the bodies who experience it are all equal – when I would argue that debility is experienced by disabled people as additional, and exacerbated by disability/impairment.And, as mentioned above, Puar talked about the privileging of disability as a category – and I’m not entirely sure if she intended it as how I understood it, but I understood it as, in labelling some individuals as disabled, their various frailties and situational debilities were taken more seriously. For me, this is a problematic way of looking at it – it denies that a collective sense of identity for disabled people (a collective self-identifying identity) can be a useful way of challenging the selfsame capitalist structures Puar identified as problematic.

In effect, because debility is situational, and varies over time, it is not always a way of being in the same way disability is – in that debility is not also an identity (or perhaps experiential filter would be a better term, in it is a way of being in the world that colours how both the world and the self is experienced and imagined). Debility does not account for impairment, and it is not enough to account for disability – for myself, while I may not feel or be debilitated by a particular situation, I still experience that sitation as a disabled person. Focusing on situational debility, and excluding disability/impairment denies my experience and identity as a disabled person.

I don’t think Puar is trying to make them equal, or to replace disability with debility, but I think there is a danger that the body becomes ignored in a focus on debility, especially where queer deconstructivist approaches tend to hold sway. However, I think – and this is influenced by a point another audience member raised right at the end – the movement of queer theory, as a product of the neoliberal academy, into disability, is perhaps appropriating and doing violence to the histories behind the terms and identities. In that, I think I like the use of crip studies, or crip disability studies, rather than queer disability studies – crip is a seperate school of critical thought, and while it draws heavily on queer theory, it places disability and crip at the centre, rather than queer. If nothing else, there is more room for the body in crip thought – more room to acknowledge that there is an embodied experience of being crip, one that moves beyond identity into the frailties of the body – and those frailties are central to how we are in the world.


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