Displaying items by tag: Disability Studies

ICFA--my favourite conference (and the only one I now attend)--is coming up next month. This year I have a full slate: in addition to participating on an archival research panel, I will be moderating a discussion panel I organized on "Fantasizing Disability," and presenting a paper on the character Ripley from the Alien franchise. Despite my apprehension around the current US political climate, I'm looking forward to being at ICFA and continuing important conversations about disability representation in genre (because facism is antithetical to disability rights). My abstracts follow:

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Fantasizing Disability

Genres of the fantastic present opportunities to explore worlds fundamentally different than our own, where bodily norms are questioned and disrupted. Fantasy in particular has the potential to create novel relationships to and characterizations of disability. While fantastic worlds frequently imagine diverse bodies (from elvish to gigantic to alien) interacting with each other, the genre often reduces disability to a symbolic medium and disabled characters to one-dimensional stereotypes. Fantasy (as well as science fiction and horror and all of their subgenres) abounds with disability tropes such as the curse of disability, the magical cure as a reward, the disabled villain, the disabled guru who helps the hero, the triumph narrative, and the trope of the “supercrip” (a person who gains compensatory powers for their disability). Given the necessity of integrating inclusive and realistic depictions of human diversity in genre narratives, this panel will address the representation of disabled people and disability in the field of the fantastic. How has disability representation changed since the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales of Rumpelstiltskin and wicked stepmothers? Why has disability become a mark of a character’s evil-doing or, alternatively, pure innocence (and how can we challenge these readings)? In what ways do disabled bodies act as sites of identification for the audience? What opportunities do various fantastic subgenres—from steampunk to fairy tale re-tellings—offer authors and readers in depicting and understanding disability? Located in an intersectional disability studies perspective, this panel will explore both the reductive tropes and transformative potentials of disability representation in the field of the fantastic.

Panelists: Sara Cleto, Derek Newman-Stille, Nisi Shawl, Fran Wilde Moderator: Kathryn Allan

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Beautiful on the Inside: The Alien Perfection of Ripley

Science fiction film has long explored medical science’s quest for perfection of the human physical form. Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien launched one of the genres most successful franchises (spawning four other films) and created the iconic feminist action hero, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Drawing on feminist disability studies, my analysis of the Alien films will focus on the character of Ripley and trace the ways her narrative revolves around the anxiety of what lies unseen within the (imperfect) human body and how to achieve an ideal form. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her foundational work, Extraordinary Bodies, coins the term normate, which refers to “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (8) (often in antithesis to the disabled or the “freak”). I argue that Ripley, at first, is this social figure, but by the end of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 installment, Alien: Resurrection, her body has simultaneously become more ideal and more horrible as she transcends normate humanity (from the inside out) to achieve an alien perfection.

Garland-Thomson further writes that: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category” (“The Story of My Work”). Applying this framing to my reading, I am particularly interested in such moments of recognition in the Alien films: when, and in what ways, does Ripley see herself in the alien, as being something other than “normal”? In my discussion, I will address how Ripley relates to the non-normate bodies of the androids (as represented by Ash, Bishop, and Call) and of the aliens—each body offers a possible design for human physical perfection but differs in their interior authenticity (e.g., blood) and organic function (e.g., reproduction). In a universe where the alien body is declared perfect (as repeated throughout the films by various agents of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), what then constitutes the ideal human? Through my analysis of Ripley, I hope to continue demonstrating the generative potentials of bringing a disability studies framework to science fiction in exploring the social and medical definitions of humanity, as well as in expanding the future possibilities of disability identity.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Special issue: The Intersections of Disability and Science Fiction

Guest editors: Ria Cheyne (Disability and Education, Liverpool Hope University) and Kathryn Allan (Independent Scholar, Canada)

“No other literary genre comes close to articulating the anxieties and preoccupations of the present day as clearly and critically as SF, making it a vital source of understanding advances in technology and its impact on newly emerging embodiments and subjectivities, particularly for people with disabilities.”

--Kathryn Allan, Disability in Science Fiction

Reflecting the status of science fiction as a genre that spans multiple mediums and audiences, this special issue of JLCDS seeks articles that explore the intersection(s) of science fiction, disability, and disability studies. What possibilities might science fiction or science fiction theory offer to disability activists and the field of disability studies? How might disability theory, or a disability-informed approach, enrich or transform our understanding of science fiction as a genre or as a mode of thought?

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

Representations of disability in science fiction literature, comics/graphic novels, film, art, music, video games, or television, and their implications for our understanding of genre and/or disability.

Science fiction fan culture (including conventions, fanfic and other forms of fan production).

Science fiction and prosthesis.

Science fiction and eugenics/genetic engineering.

Science fiction and the posthuman.

Accessibility and science fiction environments.

The political and ethical consequences of imagining future worlds with or without disability.

The figure of the alien or cyborg in science fiction and/or disability theory.

Disability and queerness in science fiction.

Disability and indigenous futures in science fiction.

Science fiction, disability, and medical humanities.

The influence of disability activism on professional or fan-based science fiction production.

Submissions that consider how disability intersects with other identity categories are particularly encouraged. The guest editors welcome contributions from independent scholars.

Please email a 500 word proposal to cheyner[at]hope[dot]ac[dot]uk and kathryn[at]academiceditingcanada[dot]ca by March 15, 2017. Contributors can expect to be notified by April 26, 2017. Full drafts of the selected articles will be due by December 6, 2017. Please direct any questions to either guest editor.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

The application period for the 2016-17 Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship is now open! If you have any interest in feminist SF or in the authors whose papers are housed at the University of Oregon's Libraries Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), then I strongly encourage you to apply. These collections are a treasure trove of cool ideas.

Find out all the details about the Le Guin Feminist SF Fellowship (and the Centre for the Study of Women in Society) here.

This is also a good excuse to give an update on the state of my fellowship research, which is still on going. I admit that I wish I was further along but I've made peace with the fact that I only have so much time and energy to dedicate to my writing. That said, I am constantly picking away at the hundreds of (scanned) letters that I returned home with. I think that the biggest challenge--aside from finding the time when I am both well enough to work and not committed to my day job--is dealing with the affective aspect of the research. I was not prepared to be so emotionally undone by what I read in the letters (in particular those of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Suzette Haden Elgin, and Sally Miller Gearheart). Finding a balance between a scholarly reading and a personal one has been tough, but I think I've finally found the approach that is right for me. Writing about Russ' letters for the WisCon Chronicles (link below) was a real turning point for me in this respect. I basically have realized (and embraced) that I am a creative non-fiction writer at heart (dare I say, an essayist!), so interweaving my own story with those of the women whom I am studying is how I can best honour their work.

My current project is still a book-length one, but instead of being a primarily academic text, it is going to be a series of essays tracing how I came to my disability identity through reading science fiction. My archival research will significantly inform several of the essays (as winning the fellowship was a watershed moment in both my scholarly and personal life). I hope to have this essay collection mostly drafted by year's end but I'm allowing a longer timeline. My writing pace is definitely a slow burn these days.

All this said, here's everything I have published to date relating to my Le Guin Feminist SF Fellowship research:

2013 Proposal for the fellowship, "Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction"

2014 Interview (conducted when I was at the UO archives)

2015 Transcript of "Ethics and Methods in the Archive: A Roundtable Conversation at ICFA 36"
[published in the Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction, Vol. 3(1)]

2015 Letter, "Dear Tiptree, Dear Alice [with Notes]" in the award-winning Letters to Tiptree (Eds. Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, from Twelfth Planet Press)

2016 (forthcoming) Essay, "Learning to Love Joanna: Letters on Feminism, Anger, and Courage" in The WisCon Chronicles (Vol. 10) (Ed. Margaret McBride, from Aqueduct Press).

I'm excited and keen to share more of what I learned from my archival research. I know that I am an infrequent blogger, but watch this space for updates in the future!

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or BADD for short), and this is my first year participating. For those of you new to my blog and my work, when I’m not running Academic Editing Canada, I’m busy with my independent scholarship in disability studies and science fiction. I recently wrote a post about my disability identification, “Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me,” if you’re curious, and many of the posts on this blog deal with my reflections on being a chronically-ill graduate student, and how that experience informs my research today. I also edit science fiction (SF), and I want to mention some good news right away— because I’m super proud of it—that Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction stories that I co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!

There are many things that I could write about when it comes to my experiences of ableism, but I thought I’d share some of my observations as an independent scholar invested in bringing disability studies into science fiction studies. At the moment, I am frustrated with the genre academic community's engagement with disability—it is still such a marginalized conversation outside the handful of us who work at this intersection (mostly grad students and recent PhDs).

There are many oversights and microagressions I have witnessed or encountered in my role as scholar and writing about them in any specific detail feels unsafe and “unprofessional.” I know that this is ableism at work. I can say that I have felt devalued in my interactions with a few journal editors. I have made requests for accommodation on presentation times that were entirely ignored. And I’ve had to withdraw an accepted paper at a conference because its scheduling was so mishandled. These are just a few incidences that have affected my ability to fully participate, and I have heard many, many more examples of ableism from my disabled academic friends and peers. It is extremely common to hear, for example, in all kinds of academic and casual conversations, professors using ableist language, like “lame” and “crazy,” to describe unpopular or unusual ideas and people. This language hurts.

Articles addressing disability in any meaningful way are infrequent finds in genre journals—and, if they do appear, most of them are locked behind paywalls where I (and everyone else who lacks access to university journal databases) cannot read them. While I appreciate the difficulty of scheduling large, multi-track conferences, it is frustrating that the few papers about disability are often placed on panels about “otherness” or monstrosity (this has happened twice to me). It seems that genre conferences do not know where to effectively place a disability studies paper and this is a problem. It makes talking about disability in a sustained, critical way (that intersects with feminist, queer, anti-racist, and such other important concerns) that much more difficult.

While Disability Studies is becoming less marginalized in science fiction studies, there is a long way to go for it to move from a momentarily interesting “hot topic” to an actually active and engaged conversation that does not rely on a small handful of people to constantly bring it up. Since I started presenting on disability in SF at conferences (though I am not able to attend more than one or two a year I do follow what’s going on online), I have learned just how new and marginal disability studies is in the academic genre community. For example, the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference theme this year is “The SF We Don't (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.” Although many axes of identification were included in the original call for papers (CFP), there was no mention of disability! It took the wonderful Ria Cheyne to point out its absence before “disability and ability” were added to the CFP. Furthermore, there are no papers, from what I can tell from their conference program, that directly address disability. This is an all too common scenario that I have seen played out too many times.

Additionally, in a practical sense, there needs to be more people talking about disability and calling out ableism because so little is actually happening to improve the working conditions for a countless number of disabled graduate students, adjunct/sessional and tenured faculty, and administrative staff. Just check out some of the stories on PhDisabled (which is an amazing resource for disability recognition and advocacy). Conference organizers need to work harder in ensuring that their venues are fully accessible and in developing clear policies around accommodations for people with disabilities. Journals need to be open access and available on a variety of platforms.

I can’t speak to how other academics are trained in graduate school, but I know that for me, the process of interrogating cultural truths was held up as a foundational goal. I also know that when I see an absence of knowledge, especially one that causes or reinforces existing harm, I feel an obligation to speak up and say, “this is something we need to be talking about.” This is how I feel about the representation of disability in science fiction. There are very few popular SF texts that show realistic depictions of disability, whether it be physical or cognitive disability, chronic illness, or neurodiversity. It is a niche topic in terms of academic study but literature and film (and all media) show us what is and what is not possible. SF is an important place where cultural producers and consumers think through what kinds of lives matter and who gets to take part in creating the future world. I believe that genre scholars have a responsibility to meaningfully and significantly engage with disability—both theoretically and practically—sooner than later.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Wednesday, 25 February 2015 16:57

Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me

For the past several months I’ve been working on an essay about my fraught (for me) position in the disability community as a person with (undiagnosed) chronic illness and (diagnosed) mental health issues. I have placed “undiagnosed” and “diagnosed” within brackets because I do not like these words. They don’t work for me but because they carry such a heavy dual weight of medicalization and disability community identity I spend a lot of time worrying about them. I haven’t been able to finish more than fragmented paragraphs describing my disability experience—I guess this is because my understanding of it is also fragmented. My notes on this essay-in-progress are sentences and phrases that litter all of my electronic devices and have spilled into a notebook where I write by hand when I can no longer sit at my computer desk or hold my phone comfortably. I am unable to write that essay and so I am writing this one.

I’ve started and stopped the process of medicalization—the request for a diagnosis—for well over a decade. I have not always received the help I needed. After going through a long series of ill-informed, over worked, or simply misogynistic and lazy doctors, I gave up trying to seek a diagnosis when, six months after I completed my PhD, the doctor I was seeing refused to accommodate my request for a disability benefits application nor offer any other help than the advice, “hang in there.” After nearly five years of “hanging in there” (which I think I’ve done pretty damn well at considering everything) I am finally seeking a diagnosis again. It’s a slow process and I am not interested in rushing it. I do not expect there to be a diagnosis. I expect to be told that my physical problems are all in my head, of my own making. I expect to hear the words “less stress” and “more exercise.” And then I will do my best not to break down into tears at this dismissal of my knowledge of my own body and mind because to do so would prove them exactly right.

When we ask one another to declare ourselves we too often do so with the expectation that the other person will have the same words that we do. When it comes to my experience of myself as chronically ill, I have found time and again that this language of disability does not fit comfortably in my mouth or settle easily in my mind. At a moment of existential crisis a few months ago, I read Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled” and I was calmed. She writes: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category.” Perhaps my own awareness is enough. While I see myself in the category of “disabled” as Garland-Thomson defines it, I know that for most people who see me, I do not fit their conception of disabled. I look “too well” (because when I’m not well, I am at home and no one, other than my partner, sees me). I often speak of disability in academic terms (because it’s the language that first taught me to understand my experience). I also don’t introduce myself—in person or online—by way of my health status. In fact, the more unwell I feel, the less I will mention it. While many people find community by disclosing their physical and mental disabilities and illnesses, this has not been the case for me until very recently. And the number of times I have found understanding and support are still outweighed by a life’s history of exclusion and isolation.

The truth of the matter is that I am scared and anxious a lot of time and I don’t know what to say. Part of this is due to brain chemistry and part of this is due to experience. I am still figuring out how to piece together all of the truths of my life, how to speak the right words, how to connect. I don’t have any finishing thoughts about my experience with chronic illness and the disability community. There are only partial revelations and contradictory understandings. I know that I need more people in my life than I have right now. I need to read more disability studies theory and science fiction books. I need to write more (in both creative and academic ways). Fragmentation and uncertainty are exhausting, and no matter how hard I try to make my peace with them, I need solid things right now. This post is an anchor.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Thursday, 20 November 2014 17:46

Anger and Accomplishment

It’s been far too long since I last updated the blog with a personal post (so long, in fact, that I’m not even going to look up the date of the last one I wrote). The motivation to write today has come from PhDisabled posting my piece, “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School.” Although I wrote it years ago, seeing it on the PhDisabled blog, and knowing that people are reading it, has dredged up a lot of the sadness and anger from that time. Not that those feelings were buried too far down; I’ve been wallowing in self-doubt and social anxiety for the past several weeks, unable to engage with anything beyond my immediate client work. Seeing my post published, despite the feelings it stirred up, was exactly the push I needed to start writing again. I’d like to thank @zaranosaur, of PhDisabled, for being unequivocally supportive and for understanding that rage can move us to great action. While I may often feel stuck in a never-ending cycle of exhaustion, I am able to move through/beyond it. Sometimes it is anger that pushes me, but, more frequently now, it is the support and encouraging words of like-minded people that impel me to speak.

Lots of really cool and amazing things happened, and are happening, this year. As the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I researched the feminist SF archives at the University of Oregon for two weeks this spring! My head is still spinning from that experience--I have so much work ahead of me with that project, which is both overwhelming in scope and inspiring in content. I’ve made steady progress with my independent scholarship: a successful paper on disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes at ICFA; a published article on disability studies and SF in the SFRA’s SF 101: Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction; and, acceptance of a chapter on disability in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (in a forthcoming edited collection on anomalous embodiment in YA SF). And there is, of course, the project taking up most of my extra attention these past few months, my collaboration with Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire in co-editing a disability-themed, intersectional anthology of SF short stories, Accessing the Future.

My intent in listing my accomplishments is two-fold: one, to share with the people who are interested in my work (because, apparently, they are such people out there!); and two, as a reminder to myself that I am doing okay. It is easy to forget that I’m not merely lying about the house, feeling unwell, bothering the cat, and wishing for things to happen. Though at a slower pace than I’d prefer, I am making progress in realizing my ambitious goals. I need to tell myself this. I need to see the evidence of my intent in front of me, on the screen. I need this effort and hope to be shared in order to feel real to me. Because it is so damn easy to succumb to anxiety and depression and self-doubt, and then forget about everything I have done and, perhaps more importantly, everything that I can do.

I’ve a whole folder of half-finished blog posts and essays. I think it’s time that I revisit them and finish the ones that still feel relevant and pressing. Even if, after finishing my PhD 4 years ago, it may seem inappropriate or “too long,” I’m still upset about my experiences in graduate school. How can I not be? I spent 5 years pursuing my PhD, and most of that time sucked. I refuse to put on rose coloured glasses and write a revisionist history of my grad school years. A forced nostalgia would be easier, and would make many of the conversations I have with academics more pleasant, but that would only contribute to the silence that persists around the poor engagement with chronic illness and disability in higher education. The fact that a site like PhDisabled exists speaks to the necessity of anger and of fostering a community of acknowledgment and support.

There are so many issues and experiences that I still need to write about. Three years ago, in “A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School,” I wrote: “as I move farther into my independent research, the scars I have from my time spent in grad school demand exploration and healing.” I’m still very much involved in this process. Despite everything I have accomplished in the years since then, I continue to hurt. Dealing with chronic illness is an every day challenge, which is certainly one kind of hurt, but I’m also talking about the hurt that comes with losing community, with necessary transitions and self-transformations. My independent scholarship is deeply rooted in my experience of illness, of being angry and having no outlet for it while I was in graduate school.

But I made it through and I’m no longer hemmed in by academic expectations of job performance. I plan on using every moment of that hard earned freedom (because having a PhD does afford me certain socio-economic privileges) to do what I love doing. I love freelance editing and coaching graduate students. I love science fiction and disability studies. I love thinking through the connections between all of these passions and figuring out ways to make all of this effort and excitement tangible. Because if I make my own life better, then I’ll have more tools to help other people. This is what my anger does now: it builds.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Wednesday, 04 June 2014 04:10

CFP: Anomalous Embodiment in YA Spec Fic

“I don’t think I am like other people”: Anomalous Embodiment in Young Adult Speculative Fiction.

Editors Sherryl Vint and Mathieu Donner are seeking submissions for a volume of essays on young adult literature entitled Anomalous Embodiment in Young Adult Speculative Fiction.

The large commercial as well as critical successes of such works as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series have pushed young adult fiction to the forefront of the literary world. However, and though most of these texts themselves engage in one way or another with questions related to the body, and, more precisely, to a body that refuses to conform to social norms as to what a body ‘ought to be’, few academic studies have really explored the relation that young adult fiction entertains with this adolescent ‘abnormal’ body.

In her work on corporeal feminism, Volatile Bodies, Elizabeth Grosz suggests that adolescence is not only the period during which the body itself undergoes massive transformation, shifting from childhood to adulthood, but that it is also in this period that ‘the subject feels the greatest discord between the body image and the lived body, between its psychical idealized self-image and its bodily changes’ and that therefore, the ‘philosophical desire to transcend corporeality and its urges may be dated from this period’ (Volatile Bodies 75). Following upon Grosz’s observation, this interdisciplinary collection of essays addresses the relation that young adult fiction weaves between the adolescent body and the ‘norm’, this socially constructed idealized body image which the subject perceives to be in direct conflict with her/his own experience.

This collection will thus be centred on the representation, both positive and negative, of such body or bodies. From the vampiric and lycanthropic bodies of Twilight and Teen Wolf to the ‘harvested’ bodies of Neal Shusterman’s novel Unwind, YA fiction entertains a complex relation to the adolescent body. Often singularized as ‘abnormal’, this body comes to symbolise the violence of a hegemonic and normative medical discourse which constitutes itself around an ideal of ‘normality’. However, and more than a simple condemnation or interrogation of the problematic dominant representation of the corporeal within young adult fiction, this collection also proposes to explore how such texts can present a foray into new alternative territories. As such, the collection proposes a focus on what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s label the anomalous body, or embodiment re-articulated not necessarily as the presumption of an inside and an outside of normality, but rather as ‘a position or set of positions in relation to a multiplicity’ (A Thousand Plateaus, 244), one which interrogates and challenges the setting of such a boundary by positioning itself at the threshold of normativity.

We are particularly looking for contributions on works which either (1) interrogate, problematize the dominant discourse on normative embodiment present in YA fiction, (2) emphasize, by a play on repetition or any other means, the limitations of the traditional discourse on the ‘abnormal’ or ‘disabled’ body, and signal the inherent violence of such normative paradigms, and/or (3) propose an alternative approach to the anomalous body. Relevant topics include (but are not limited to):

· (Re-)Articulating disability;

· The adolescent as ‘abnormally’ embodied;

· Transcending gender and the sexuated body;

· Medical norms and the violence of ‘normative’ embodiment;

· Bodies and prosthetic technologies, or the posthuman boundary;

· Genetics, Diseases and medication, or transforming the body from the inside;

· Cognitive readings of the body, or how do we read body difference;

· Embodied subjectivities, anomalous/abnormal consciousness;

We invite proposals (approximately 500 words) for 8’000-10’000-word chapters by Monday 15th September. Abstract submissions should be included in a Word document and sent to Sherryl Vint (sherryl[dot]vint[at]ucr[dot]edu) and Mathieu Donner (Mathieu[dot]Donner[at]nottingham[dot]ac[dot]uk). Please remember to include name, affiliation, academic title and email address. Postgraduate and early-careers researchers are encouraged to participate.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

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.

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog

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?

 

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
Monday, 12 August 2013 17:21

Disability in Science Fiction: Cover Talk

My edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, is available for sale August 14th (Google for your choice of internet bookseller)!

I received my author copies late last week and the book looks beautiful. I love the cover (thanks to Andrew Holden and Tom Pepper)--I think it perfectly reflects the critical analysis going on inside. When I was brainstorming ideas for the cover, I wanted an abstract image of a person being dissected, or broken down into their physical parts. The shearing away of the mid-section stands in for the ways in which the disabled body is often medicalized into its "problem" parts (instead being viewed as a functioning whole). I also wanted to express the impact of technology on the body--the "+" and "Ø" signs represent binary code (1s and 0s). And since there is an emphasis on prostheses in book, the arm in red both marks the simultaneous absence/addition of such technology to the body.

The image can be read in a number of interesting ways, relevant to both science fiction and disability. In the design, there is a sense of transcendence from the fleshy body that I didn't anticipate coming through. I like that the figure appears to continue off the left side--no arm is visible there but the person nevertheless feels complete. Overall, I think the cover nails the focus of the content of the collection.

I hope that people enjoy Disability in Science Fiction and decide to take up their own responses to the ways in which disability and people with disabilities are represented in science fiction (and fantasy, horror, romance, mystery, and all the other understudied genres). There is a lot of critical ground to cover, images to unpack, and new stories to be written. Disability in SF is only one piece of a larger, on-going conversation and I'm excited to be part of it!

Published in Kathryn Allan's Blog
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