In the Journals

Disability Worlds: Wenner-Gren Symposium

The 2018 Wenner-Gren Symposium was “Disability Worlds,” and the papers are now available as a Current Anthropology supplement, open-access to all! Here is a PDF of the entire collection, and the abstracts are below.

Disability Worlds: Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplement 21
Danilyn Rutherford

[excerpt] From March 9 to 15, 2018, at the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, the Wenner-Gren Foundation hosted a symposium that brought together 17 scholars from seven countries around the world (fig. 1). Their goal was to investigate the worlds that have arisen around disability, the socially experienced state of difference and disadvantage experienced by people with nonnormative bodies and minds. It was a week of unexpected resonances and spirited debates. The political became the practical, as participants drew connections between the limits that confront disabled people and those that hamper our field. We used CART, a communication system that projected a written version of the conversation as it unfolded. The group included a revoicer to help those unaccustomed to atypical speech. These improvements in access fostered sharper thinking, with the participants paying close attention to what was being said. Even as the symposium focused on disability worlds, it created one of its own, shifting the stakes and norms of academic debate.

Disability/Anthropology: Rethinking the Parameters of the Human: An Introduction to Supplement 21
Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp

As an analytic and an object of study, disability provides a powerful lens to refocus and potentially transform thinking about new and enduring concerns shaping contemporary anthropology. At its most basic, the recognition of disability as a universal social fact helps us to understand the cultural specificities of personhood and to reconsider the unstable boundaries of the category of the human. This special issue of Current Anthropology is based on a 2018 Wenner-Gren international symposium on disability addressing this underrepresented area of research. The articles published here demonstrate the transformative value of critical anthropological studies of disability for many of our discipline’s key questions regarding kinship, biopolitics, the life course, inequality/racism, war and violence, technology and materiality, and the importance of disability to decolonizing perspectives in anthropology.

The Politics of Disability Performativity: An Autoethnography
Devva Kasnitz

Disability is a concept that grows as we think about it, forcing us to adjust our conversations in vocabulary and rhetoric depending on which disability world we inhabit or address. Understanding disability starts with exposure to disabled people’s bodyminds in their own spacetime and an appreciation of disability expertise. The disability justice movement pulls the intersectional performance of disability out of the intimate sphere so that it can play a role in policy, an analytic where anthropology should shine. This article is particularly addressed to anthropologists with a new interest in disability and critical disability studies scholars with a frustration with anthropology. I use exemplary analysis of actual dialogues drawn from an autoethnographic record of my own perceived mobility and speech impairments to explore my biopolitical positioning as disabled. Anthropologists have the capacity to move disability theory forward, feeding it with ethnographic fuel. While the anthropology of disability uses insightful ethnographic methods to understand specific impairments in specific contexts, the reflexive turn in anthropology has not yet embraced disability. We are still better off remaining individual disability experts; our collective efforts are still an “embarrassment to power.” This article, as part of a collective special issue, aims to change that.

Disability Expertise: Claiming Disability Anthropology
Cassandra Hartblay

This paper stakes out a space for a critical global disability anthropology that considers disability not as a medicalized classification of impairment but as a relational category. Disability expertise, I argue, is the particular knowledge that disabled people develop and enact about unorthodox configurations of agency, cultural norms, and relationships between selves, bodies, and the designed world. Disability expertise is a descriptive domain, that is, a container into which ethnographers might enumerate observations about how disabled people enact personhood and moral agency in diverse cultural settings. To illustrate what I mean by disability expertise, I draw examples from one interlocutor’s experiences, described in interviews conducted during broader ethnographic research in Russia. I elaborate one particular domain of disability expertise: managing perceptions of disability, especially the tendency of nondisabled people to view disability through the tropes of suffering and pity. I call for anthropologists to claim disability anthropology as a space for critical, interdisciplinary knowledge production.

Disability, Anonymous Love, and Interworldly Socials in Urban India
Michele Friedner

This essay considers disability studies scholars’ investment in “the social” as a site of rehabilitation, recuperation, and cure in order to argue that in urban India, the case is otherwise: the public often engages with disability through “anonymous love,” which produces opportunities for the concretization of disability as a category, for disabled people to exist socially, and for validation of an existing social. I argue, however, that this conceptualization and enactment of the social is empirically unfulfilling and analytically limiting. I then turn to ethnographic research conducted in deaf churches in order to consider what other forms of engagement might emerge when we include the interworldly—engagements with God, the Divine, or the Spirit—in our analysis of disability worlds. This essay argues that including the interworldly offers an alternative animation of the social as a concept. Overall, attending to the interworldly leads to the creation of nonliberal and nonsecular alterworlds where alternative renderings of the social that are not premised on the politics of biosocial recognition are made possible.

Activism, Anthropology, and Disability Studies in Times of Austerity
In Collaboration with Sini Diallo
Pamela Block

How can we practice an “anthropology of disability” that is in respectful alliance with the disabled people and disability groups we study? What does critical theory making look like within the politics of such collaborative practice? What valued expertise do anthropologists offer and what do anthropologists gain? In an age of austerity and precarity in academia and in general, disabled people and disability groups struggle for survival while secure funding for grants and programs supporting graduate students and emerging scholars is increasingly precarious. In what interdependent spaces is it possible to imagine disabled activists and scholars working together for survival into an uncertain future? These questions stand at the heart of this collaborative auto-ethnographic essay.

Prosthetic Debts: Economies of War Disability in Neoliberal Turkey
Salih Can Açıksöz

Following the neoliberal restructuration of the Turkish welfare and banking systems in the 2000s, many veterans of Turkey’s Kurdish war faced debt enforcement due to failed payments for prosthetic limbs. Veterans responded to debt collection by turning their own bodies into spectacles of debt and sacrifice by publicly removing and showcasing their debt-ridden prostheses. The media interest in these prosthetic spectacles further amplified the visceral threat of dismemberment evoked by veterans’ embodied performances. The public debates surrounding “prosthesis repossession” cases extended well beyond veteran welfare issues, inscribing all sorts of social and political anxieties on the amputee veteran body, such as anxieties around the incommensurability between the value regimes of nationalism and neoliberalism or around the Syrian refugees. Providing a window into larger questions about the interconnections between disability, gender, nationalism, and neoliberal capitalism, prosthesis repossession cases show us how debt and disability coproduce each other at the nexus of consumer debt and nationalist welfare in Turkey. By homing in on the prosthetic re-membering and dismembering of veteran bodies in a rapidly changing health milieu, we see how the political economy of violence and the violence of political economy become complicit in the production of debt, dismemberment, and prosthetic rehabilitation.

Torture without Torturers: Violence and Racialization in Black Chicago
Laurence Ralph

What happens when trauma becomes a political frame for recognizing anti-black racism and police violence? I grapple with this question by illustrating the ways that survivors of police torture must present themselves as a part of a disability category. More broadly, this article demonstrates that, as opposed to being a category of difference unto itself, the idea of police torture in Chicago has been transformed through legal precedent, activism, and the resulting legislation to emerge, as it has in its latest rendition, as a medical condition. I argue that the role of trauma in producing such categories of disability is not unidirectional. Since racialized debilitation always already informs societal institutions before any contemporary incidence of state violence occurs, these concessions reify a “racial caste system” by putting the onus on the traumatized to gain state recognition. If they do not, then they have no one to blame but themselves. In sum, I show that the problem with trauma as a legal category is that it justifies inequality for black victims of police violence because these concessions betray a tacit assumption that they are debilitated by virtue of their racialized status before they can gain relief through the law.

People as Affordances: Building Disability Worlds through Care Intimacy
Arseli Dokumaci

This article builds on the critical disability theory of affordances that I have been developing through ethnographic inquiries and the notion of “microactivist affordances,” by which I mean micro and everyday acts of world building with which disabled people literally make up, and at the same time make up for, whatever affordance fails to readily materialize in their environments. Drawing from fieldwork in Turkey and Quebec with people who have chronic pain and mobility-related disabilities, I explore how microactivist affordances emerge, not through the complementarity of a single perceiver and the world but through the complementarity of multiple perceivers and the world, within the particular material conditions of living with disability. Taking into account the sociality of my interlocutors’ microactivist affordances and their, after Ginsburg and Rapp, “disability worlds,” I propose the notion of “people as affordances” as a way to describe how people can enable the emergence of, or directly become, affordances for one another, especially where no other affordances exist. I then explore the various forms that “people as affordances” may take and that allow people to create access by their own means, and the socialities within which that access creation may—or may fail to—materialize. Finally, I suggest that “people as affordances” can provide new ways of understanding care that I, after Mia Mingus’s work, conceptualize as “care intimacy.”

The Ability of Place: Digital Topographies of the Virtual Human on Ethnographia Island
Tom Boellstorff

In this article I explore the relationship between digital place and disability through an ethnographic study of disability experience in the virtual world Second Life. I discuss how forms of landscape and interface shape disability experience, how building relates to “being-inworld” in digital place, and how proximity and collaboration relate to disability embodiment in a virtual context. “Participant building” on a virtual island created for this research, “Ethnographia,” complements participant observation and other methods to investigate these questions of digital place. Through these lines of analysis, I develop a notion of “digital topography” to illuminate the implications of digital place for disability and human experience more generally. This allows for differentiating digital places from digital media and thus forging conceptual frameworks that reflect how the internet is not a unitary entity. It also allows for considering digital emplacement as related to, but distinct from, digital embodiment. This helps draw attention to questions of digital placemaking alongside the better-known phenomena of avatars. Avatars are important, but it is crucial to highlight the virtual geographies without which the emplacement of those avatars would be impossible. These materials speak to broad questions regarding embodiment, ability, the digital, and the real.

The Skilling Journey: Disability, Technology, and Sociality in Postconflict Northern Uganda
Herbert Muyinda

In Uganda, people affected by war-related impairments may engage in “skilling” as a way of dealing with the disability problem. The aim is often to acquire skills that can enable them to adapt to their new conditions. As we look closely at the process, two questions arise: How are the skills passed on to persons with disabilities (PWDs) translated into daily life experiences? How do these processes (re)shape the “world-making” of PWDs in such settings? In this paper, I examine skilling as a translation process—the interface between the sociotechnological innovations (skills) developed to deal with disability and the socioeconomic shifts due to violent conflict, and how such interface influences the making of disability worlds. I analyze the global-local (dis)connections and their influence on the skilling journey of PWDs. Through ethnographic vignettes in war-torn Gulu District in Uganda, I illustrate how skilling processes and PWDs’ translation of technologies are influenced by changing socialities in the diverse domains of interaction: the individual and the collective, the formal and the informal, and the physical and the technological. I observe that skill is socially constructed: it is linked to people’s lives not only through bodily (dys)functions alone but also through social connectivity—sociality.

In the Long Run: Ugandans Living with Disability
Susan Reynolds Whyte

Uganda has progressive legislation in place to support the rights of people with disabilities, and it has received donor support over the years for special education and community-based rehabilitation programs. Yet while political mobilization and interventions that aim to minimize disabling conditions have been important, they are not necessarily seen as a means to achieving rights and self-sufficiency. Using examples of families I have known for decades, I show how disability interventions and institutions affect their lives in the long run. James Ferguson’s approach to relations of dependence is useful in understanding how people in eastern Uganda perceive the possibilities in disability projects. I contrast global health time as instantiated in such projects with lifetimes of people and families with disabilities. Humanitarian and development projects sometimes feed into life projects such as education, housing, livelihood, and making families. But their impact is often not so great in the long run of lifetimes intertwined with lives of intimate others.


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