Disability Studies

Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability

Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness & Disability
Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness & Disability

Even though Crip Theory was published before Disability Theory, it was really useful for me to read them in the reverse order. It helped to read some strictly disability theory prior to diving into how it intersects with queer theory, which is admittedly not my field. My reading of this book was also aided by McRuer’s ability to relate complex theory to popular media and political events and to very clearly define the different concepts and theories he introduces.

Crip Theory begins from the observation that though queer theory and disability often intersect and are interconnected, the connections between heterosexuality and able-bodied identity have been overlooked (1). This is just the beginning of a book-length discussion of compulsory able-bodiedness. This system, which produces disability (because, as he explains, the introduction of the “normalcy” of able-bodiedness creates compulsion), is similar to the way the system of compulsory heterosexuality produces queerness (2). These systems are exacerbated by the economic and cultural force of neoliberal capitalism. Within the book, neoliberal capitalism plays an integral role in ideas and freedoms are exchanged, how people compose identities within and against its constraints, and how oppression is reproduced (3).

For McRuer, the two come together when we look at labor. Within neoliberal capitalism, we are free to sell our labor (to have able bodies) but not free to do or have anything else (8). So compulsory able-bodiedness gives us the appearance of choice without actually allowing choice.

The third major introductory component that fits within these systems is the flexible body. Flexible bodies are “gay bodies that no longer mark absolute deviance, heterosexual bodies that are newly on display. The out heteorsexual works alongside gay men and lesbians; the more flexible heterosexual body tolerates a certain amount of queerness” (12). In a sense, then, the flexible body is one that is both tolerated more and more tolerant. In an economical sense, the flexible (laborer’s) body is mobile and replaceable, which ties back to the system of compulsory able-bodiedness because that laborer must be physically able to do the work or they will be replaced.

One of McRuer’s major goals within Crip Theory is to tie together these major concepts by queering disability studies:

Queering disability studies or claiming disability in and around queer theory, however, helps create critically disabled spaces overlapping with the critically queer spaces that activists and scholars have shaped during recent decades, in which we can identify and challenge the ongoing consolidation of heterosexual, able-bodied hegemony. 19

A “critically queer” position is one that embraces the failure of acting within the norm and works to weaken that norm (30). Similarly, a critically disabled position embraces the work of the disability rights movement and DS, resists compulsory able-bodiedness, and demands a new public sphere where full participation is not dependent on ability (30). Thus, crip theory works like queer theory, working not only to resist the (oppressive, suppressive) norm but also to enact progressive change. Subsequently, this is where cripping comes from. Cripping insists that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness is not and should not be the norm; cripping also imagines bodies and desires that fit beyond that system (32). McRuer’s book is an act of cripping as he identifies popular cultural representations of disability and queerness, analyzes how they operate systemically, and suggests new and other ways of creating better or, perhaps, more accurate representations.

"Cripping with the Queers," comic by cripstrips.wordpress.com

Crip theory, what McRuer refers to as the queer theory of disability studies, is an opportunity to “come out as you are (not)” (71). He asks, “What does it mean, for the purposes of solidarity, to come at as something you are—at least in part—not?” (57). His question relates to able-bodied persons claiming crip identities, and crip theory provides an avenue to navigate that seemingly contradictory action. In fact, crip theory facilitates a number of actions:

  • claiming disability while being critical of the rehabilitative ideologies of identity politics;
  • claiming queer histories of coming out while being critical of the parent culture;
  • demanding that another/accessible/disabled world is possible;
  • questioning how public and private cultures of (dis)ability are conceived, materialized, and inhabited. 71-72

Given my positioning within Rhet/Comp, my questions about the applicability of crip theory were tied to the work I do: teaching composition. And, of course, McRuer has a chapter dedicated to composing queerness and disability. He begins with quotations from both Burke and Cintrón about composition’s dependency on order and measurement and asks:

Can composition theory work against the simplistic formulation of that which is proper, orderly, and harmonious? 147

If, as the dictionary definition suggests, composing is somehow connected to labor, is it possible to resist the impulse to focus on finished products … and to keep that labor in mind as we inquire into what composition means and into what it might mean in the future? 148

The quick answer to both of these questions is “yes,” but the more hesitant answer is “well…not yet.” As McRuer very directly argues, composition is a channel for corporate universities to pass down marketable skills: order, efficiency, flexibility, professional-managerial skills (148). This skills-based focus runs parallel to the neoliberal push for not only contingent (read: flexible and replaceable) labor but also labor from standard bodies. McRuer writes, “On one side, the flexible body of the contingent, replaceable instructor; on the other, the flexible body of the student dutifully mastering marketable skills and producing clear, orderly, efficient prose” (148). That is, composition asks for standard writing produced by standard bodies (a la compulsory able-bodiedness).

Composition also asks for, and requires, compulsory heterosexuality. Composing straightness, then, is the production—from different and multiple disorderly desires and embodiments—of a final “perfect” product that is so fetishized that the messy, embodied process cannot be acknowledged at all. The process of composition, ironically, becomes “unthinkable” (151). Although it’s forceful language, it’s not far-fetched.

When I was working on my M.A., my program supported portfolio-based first- and second-year comp courses. I often wrestled with how much process played into this course because, theoretically, it seems like it would have a major role. We received a portfolio at the end of the course with original papers, revisions, and a final product. This seemed to value the process, but the final paper was weighted more than the original or in-process versions, which meant that the final product was what really mattered. Regardless of the process, whether the student worked really hard on multiple revisions or a student turned in a pretty good paper the first time around and made few revisions for the final product, the final product ruled the grade. And, as any of my students could have attested, their in-process grades didn’t matter to their transcript, but that one final grade sure as hell did.

In many ways, this intense focus on order and structure and perfect final products is a result of what McRuer describes as “postmodernizing urgency” (153) and what many recognize as ongoing cries of literacy crises. There is consistent concern about what skills students have, how those skills measure up to other schools and students in other countries, and what kind of workers those skills allow students to be. Aside from orderly, likely un-critical and boring final products, this panic ensures two things: stigmaphobia and rehabilitation.

Stigmaphobia, which Erving Goffman describes as an adherence to conformity and normative practices caused by a fear of social stigma (82), is essentially fear-based compliance. Programs conform to the order-and-efficiency models for fear of disassociation or a withdrawal of funds from the university; instructors conform for fear of being fired from the department; and students conform for fear of a bad grade from the instructor.

Next, there is rehabilitation,which Henri-Jacques Stiker describes as a two-part process of identity and integration, wherein (queer & disabled) persons are stripped of deviance, made identical, and then assimilated into a unified social order (112). In a sense, it is the result of stigmaphobia, of what Talmadge Wright describes as “risking inspection by others, having one’s identity defined by others as suspect, as ‘deviant,’ or ‘criminal,’ or as just ‘sick’ (1 qtd. in 118). As McRuer argues, rehabilitation both requires compliance and, like composing processes, makes noncompliance unthinkable (113). Students must comply with the order and rules of composition because, often, FYC is a required part of a university’s curriculum.

Despite this cycle of compulsion and fear and order, however, McRuer argues that there is room to crip composition, to reject what composition currently is and to imagine what it can be. This is de-composition, “a process that involves an ongoing critique of both the corporate models into which we, as students and teachers of composition, are interpellated and the concomitant disciplinary compulsion to produce only disembodied, efficient writers” (149). De-composition turns its back to the standard writing produced by standard bodies and the fetishized final product detached from any embodied composing process, instead drawing attention to the “disruptive, inappropriate, composing bodies—bodies that invoke the future horizon beyond straight composition” (155). In this way, McRuer argues that although the final product is fetishized as standard (straight & able-bodied), the composing body—the student body that writes and struggles and falters and revises—is queer/disabled (156). This does not mean that these bodies are disabled in the traditional sense, that they have a disability. Rather, McRuer posits disability more theoretically:

Disability refers to the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of bodily, mental, or behavioral functioning aren’t made (or cant be made) to signify monolithically. 157

This is not to say that all student writers are disabled or that, when we as instructors have disabilities or when we have students with disabilities, those disabilities and the associated pain/oppression/isolation are any less real. For McRuer, this is a method of containment that devalues the importance or sobriety disabled/queer rights if it can claim those experiences are true for all of us. Instead,

[T]here are moments when we are all queer/disabled, and that those disabled/queer moments are desirable. 157

These moments, particularly for composition, seem kairotic. They are the moments of real writing and real critical thinking that lead to messy drafts and imperfect final projects that develop real ideas and demonstrate deep, critical thinking. These moments of “desiring queerness/disability” (159) that make up critical de-composition are closely tied to the final, idealized paper. It’s not useful to assume that the final paper, the paper that has gone through five revisions throughout the semester, is better or more worthy of praise than the process that the student took to think critically about her ideas and words.

This idea of cripping composition ends with the message that it’s good to desire queerness and disability, a sentiment echoed in the book’s conclusion. McRuer shares the “spectral disability” that haunts us all: “If we live long enough, disability is the one identity we will all inhabit” (200).  The question then becomes not how we can prevent or forestall this inevitably but how we can embrace or, possibly, even desire it. McRuer asks us to think about what it could mean if we were able to welcome the spectral disability yet to come rather than fear it. Earlier in the book, he described a vision for a more accessible society:

An accessible society, according to the best, critically disabled perspectives, is not simply one with ramps and Braille signs on “public” buildings, but one in which our ways of relating to, and depending on, each other have been reconfigured. 94

True accessibility means doing more than meeting ADA regulations or producing student-workers who have “marketable” skills. Even as I write this, I think back to Cathy Davidson and her arguments for rethinking both disability and teaching practices as we move further into the 21st century. The same corporate skills, the same standard bodies, are not necessarily what the work force needs. As McRuer promises, there are opportunities to “somehow access other worlds and futures” (208). Re-imagining the needs of those worlds with an eye toward social justice and changing economic and cultural needs seems like a good start.


McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NY: New York UP, 2006. Print.


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