Kathryn Allan's Blog

In addition to running Academic Editing Canada, I'm an Independent Scholar of disability studies and science fiction (specializing in cyberpunk and feminist SF). I'm the proud co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future, a disability-themed SF anthology; editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure; and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. My PhD thesis is awesome: Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf].

As the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I am busy finalizing the travel plans for my research trip to the University of Oregon's feminist science fiction special collections. I am going to spend 10 days in the archives, pouring over the letters, papers, and research notes of some of my favourite feminist SF authors. To say that I am excited is an understatement--receiving the fellowship is a huge honour and marks a major milestone in my scholarly life. This will be my first time performing this kind of archival research, so I've been making sure to read up on the archive's holdings and narrow down my research goals as much as possible.

I would like to thank the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship and its sponsors (Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and Knight Library Special Collections and University Archives) for providing me with this amazing opportunity.

What follows is an excerpt from my research proposal to give everyone an idea of my project and what I hope to discover in the archives.

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“The Other Lives”—Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction

It’s a crip promise that we will always comprehend disability otherwise and that we will, collectively, somehow access other worlds and futures.
—Robert McRuer, Crip Theory

Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

 

My research at the Knight Library’s feminist science fiction (SF) special collection will form a central chapter on utopian feminist SF in my upcoming planned monograph on disability and temporality in SF. Starting with the so-called Golden Age of SF in the 1950s and extending into today, I want to trace the ways the genre has reflected the Western cultural attitude towards disability and people with disabilities, a vision that, while often well-intentioned, is condescending and ableist. Disability studies theorist Tobin Siebers notes the temporal tension inherent in discourses of disability: “the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them. It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future” (Disability Theory 9). I believe that the utopian feminist SF of the 1970s (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s) helped shape the conversation of disability in SF, either through the problematic “defeat” of disability (seen in the genetic engineering of the Whileaway women in Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) or through an insistence on recognizing shared vulnerabilities while celebrating bodily difference (as exemplified by the Gethenians in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness).

Alison Kafer importantly asks in Feminist, Queer, Crip, “Why is disability in the present constantly deferred, such that disability often enters critical discourse only as the marker of what must be eliminated in our futures or what was unquestionably eliminated in our pasts?” (10). My research project arises out of my growing curiosity to explore this question through the critical study of disability in SF (with a special focus on feminist SF). I am interested in the Knight Library archive’s holdings—in particular, the research notes, essays, and personal correspondence dating from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s—for Suzette Haden Elgin, Sally Miller Gearhart, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Active during and after the civil rights movement, these four prolific authors created utopian feminist SF that theorized and advocated new ways of being for women and the LGTB community. My proposed archival research will focus on the (self-identified) politics that inform their work throughout the 1970s and 1980s, seeking out lines of inquiry or attention in the differently abled body. To date, most discussions of these feminist SF writers address their engagement with the sexed and gendered body (and, to a lesser extent, the raced and classed body), but I am keen to discover if there are threads of disability awareness, or even overt advocacy, in their personal correspondence and research materials. To my knowledge, my proposed project will be among the first to investigate the archives with a disability studies framework in mind.

Given their progressive engagement with “deviant” bodies in their works (both fiction and non-fiction), the archives of Elgin, Gearhart, Russ, and Le Guin are ideal sites for this line of inquiry and will significantly inform my proposed book’s chapter on feminist SF, “Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction.” From her early novels such as Communipaths to her celebrated Native Tongue trilogy, Elgin’s oeuvre shows a sustained interest in the way language shapes our perception of people with different abilities. Well-known as an activist, Sally Miller Gearhart also explored the construction of cognitive and physical difference, most notably in The Wanderground, where an open narrative follows the telepathic (and flying!) “hill women.” Russ’s The Female Man, with its contrasting worlds of dystopian suffering and utopian genetically-engineered perfection, directly raises a conversation about the role of technology in shaping humanity. I am particularly interested in Russ’ correspondence with fellow SF writers—such as Samuel Delany, Marge Piercy, James Tiptree Jr., Vonda McIntyre, and Suzy McKee Charnas—where I hope to find mention of disability rights among the passionate debates about SF, minority rights, and feminism. In her Earthsea series, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, to name only a few titles from her large body of fiction, Le Guin takes special care in giving non-normative bodies agency and self-direction by placing them at the centre of the text. Through examination of her newly archived papers—along with the holdings for Elgin, Gearhart, and Russ—I would like to identify material to support my reading of these feminist utopian SF texts as foundational in creating a space to openly discuss dis/ability in a genre that often elides positive recognition of people with disabilities.

The Matter of Murder: Murderous Acts, Cultural Contexts, Canadian Literary Media

With an entrenched mythology related to intercultural harmoniousness and historical peacefulness, a popular global reputation for model livability (alongside being sedate to a fault), and crime rates amongst the lowest in the world, Canada cannot be said to seethe with a sense of murderousness. Its genres of storytelling, however, conjure a counter-reality.

From multi-genre works of literary fiction—ranging from Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen, Lynn Crosbie’s Dorothy L’Amour, and R.M. Vaughan’s Spells to Eden Robinson’s Blood Sports, George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue, and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy—to poetry (from Elizabeth Bachinsky and Rachel Rose to Evelyn Lau), graphic novels, drama, and audiovisual media, there is a preponderance of meditations on and depictions of murderous acts—homicide, suicide, genocide—within Canada’s litero-creative enterprise.

Amongst the questions raised by the abundance of forms representing and/or reflecting on murder is “What does murder signify?” If, after Alan Sinfield, these works stand for cultural reproduction (re: “Societies have to reproduce themselves culturally as well as materially, and this is done in great part by putting into circulation stories of how the world goes”), what murder-themed accounts of ‘how Canada goes’ are being put into circulation and with what results and purposes?

The editors of The Matter of Murder have an agreement for publication with Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Topics/approaches that might be taken into consideration:

· Cross-genre
· Representation of social and economic class
· Sexuality and gender
· Geo-politics, governmental structure, ideology, knowledge
· Community, ethnicity, race, territory
· Spirituality, religion, mythology, history
· Technology
· Consumerism, media, popular culture
· Popular historiography
· Genre works (including but not limited to science fiction, YA fiction, historical fiction)

* Please feel encouraged to forward this to any organizations, individuals, or mailing lists that might be interested *

Please send a brief query and/or a 300-word (maximum) proposal to representingcdnmurd[at]gmail[dot]com by 30 April 2014 and include a bio-bibliographical note. Accepted essays will be due 30 September 2014 and should be between 4000 and 6000 words.

Brett Josef Grubisic and Gisèle M. Baxter, eds. The Matter of Murder

As March approaches, so does my favourite conference: ICFA. After a successful presentation on disability in Star Trek last year, I thought I would stick with the film and television track of the conference. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy analyzing popular films, but it seems that everyone loves watching movie clips during conference papers. Win-win.

This year I am presenting on Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). I've seen all of the Apes movies--was alternatively amused and appalled--and went to see Rise in the theatre (by myself) because I was extremely curious about how Wyatt's film would deal with the offensive racial politics of the earlier Apes films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not fail to deliver a similarly problematic narrative of the primate other. And so another academic conference was born. Here is my proposal for my paper/clip show with analysis:

“Some Things Aren’t Meant to be Changed”—Disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the Planet of the Apes franchise goes high-tech—both in terms of the films extensive use of CGI to create the lead ape, Caesar, and in its key plot device of the creation and misuse of a “neurogenesis” drug. Referred to as “the cure” for Alzheimer’s disease, the drug ends up significantly transforming the primate mind. Like most cure narratives in science fiction, the film speaks to Western culture’s preference for an idealized “wholeness” and imagines a scenario where only the most physically dominant and intellectually capable survive (represented by the technologically-enhanced chimpanzee, Caesar). As Elaine Graham writes in Representations of the Post/Human, however, it is essential that we interrogate such narratives of the future “ideal” body: “What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century” (11). As a way to distance itself from the overt racist politics of the original Planet of the Apes series, I argue that Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead emphasizes a normative humanity predicated on the erasure of the “undesirable” ill and disabled body.

Disability studies scholars Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell observe the tendency to frame the disabled body as “primitive throwback” to an earlier time in human development: “In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own ‘primitive’ instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy’” (Cultural Locations of Disability 32). With its focus on “curing” Alzheimer’s disease and improving “natural” (but limited and “primitive”) cognitive abilities through medical testing on apes, along with a sustained focus on the animals’ institutionalization in “care” facilities, Wyatt’s film makes problematic ableist connections between primates and people with disabilities. Reading Rise of the Planet of the Apes with disability studies in mind, I want to address issues of agency, compassion, and the drive to “overcome” physical and cognitive differences. While there is a claimed desire to “cure” people, the lone female in the film, Caroline, nevertheless tells the (white, straight, able-bodied, and male) protagonist Will, “some things aren’t meant to be changed.” Where does this line of thinking—as well as the imagined apocalyptic consequences of creating “the (failed) cure”—situate people with disabilities both in the present and in the imagined future?

 

As is common at the turn of a new year, I have found myself reflecting on all of the changes that have happened in my life since I completed my PhD in 2010. Last year, in particular, was an amazing year for me professionally: in addition to presenting at three conferences (ICFA, SFRA/Eaton, McMaster), I published my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, and won the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellowship. As well, my editing and coaching business grew and stabilized into sustainable employment, and I ended out 2013 with the first two months of 2014 already booked with client work.

When I was still in grad school, there was no way that I could have imagined a year like 2013. I was sick, poor, and justifiably angry. I'm a lot healthier and more financially stable these days, but honestly, I'm still angry. I don't dwell on my disappointment with my graduate school experience anymore, but it occasionally informs my decisions to take on certain projects and it certainly comes out whenever I talk with graduate students and faculty. I don't feel like it is necessary for me to lie about my struggles with academia. After all, I left the university for many reasons. When I attend conferences, I identify as an "independent scholar" and many people are curious as to what that label means, what motivated me to leave, and how I go about my work life now.

I thought I would start the new year by revisiting some of the first posts I shared here on Bleeding Chrome. These are the entries that hurt to write and were terrifying to share. Even reading them now makes me tremor. I wish it wasn't true, but I suffered through graduate school. I made many choices to stay within a system of work that I knew didn't accommodate my sick body or respect me as an individual.

We can never go back and change the things that injure us physically or emotionally. But we can acknowledge that we suffered and that we are still here, giving voice to our experiences so that others may help us bear the weight. Maybe we don't always immediately emerge stronger or wiser, but I do believe that with enough time we can come to a point of understanding with our past struggles. Here are some of mine:

Post/Academic Shame (my first ever blog post):

After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic? ... [Read the whole post]

A Reflection on Illness and Graduate School:

In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied. Such a demarcation between able and disabled was not always there for me. At the height of my health problems, I felt distinctly apart from everyone I knew. I was ill enough at one point in my doctoral education that I missed a year. Not literally “missed a year” of course – I am not a time traveler – but certainly I lost out on a year’s worth of socialization and professional development. While the inability to participate in academe was difficult enough to deal with, the blow that came to my ego was worse. You see, nobody seemed to notice my absence. ... [Read the whole post]

Refusing Polite Conversation--Class and the Academy:

Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb. ... [Read the whole post]

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