Foucault and the Government of Disability

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Foucault and the Government of Disability considers the continued relevance of Foucault to disability studies, as well as the growing significance of disability studies to understandings of Foucault. A decade ago, this international collection provocatively responded to Foucault’s call to question what is regarded as natural, inevitable, ethical, and liberating. The book’s contributors draw on Foucault to scrutinize a range of widely endorsed practices and ideas surrounding disability, including rehabilitation, community care, impairment, normality and abnormality, inclusion, prevention, accommodation, and special education. In this revised and expanded edition, four new essays extend and elaborate the lines of inquiry by problematizing (to use Foucault’s term) the epistemological, political, and ethical character of the supercrip, the racialized war on autism, the performativity of intellectual disability, and the potent mixture of neoliberalism and biopolitics in the context of physician-assisted suicide.

“[A]n important, prescient, and necessary contribution…a kind of litmus test for the efficacy of Foucault’s concepts in the study of disability, concepts that lead to a refusal of the biological essentialism implied in the disability/impairment binary.”
Foucault Studies

“Tremain has done an exceptional job at organizing and procuring important, rigorously argued, and entertaining essays…. This book should be a mandatory read for anyone interested in contemporary philosophical debates surrounding the experience of disability."
Essays in Philosophy

“A beautiful exploration of how Foucault’s analytics of power and genealogies of discursive knowledges can open up new avenues for thinking critically about phenomena that many of us take to be inevitable and thus new ways of resisting and possibly at times redirecting the forces that shape our lives. Every scholar, every person with an interest in Foucault or in political theory generally, needs to read this book.”
—Ladelle McWhorter, University of Richmond  

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Editorial Reviews

Theory & Event - Margaret Price
"Each sections chapters have been arranged to highlight areas of agreement and difference, while across the book as a whole, chapters are arranged in such a way that readers unfamiliar with either Foucault or [Disability Studies] theory can derive important grounding concepts from early chapters...One of the most powerful successes is its delicate balancing of the many audiences it imagines."
Theory & Event
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472068760
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 2/16/2005
  • Series: Corporealities: Discourses of Disability Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 362
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Shelley Tremain holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from York University (Canada), lectures on Foucault at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and has published widely on philosophy of disability, Foucault, feminist philosophy, and bioethics.
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Foucault and the Government of Disability


Copyright © 2005 the University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-06876-0

Chapter One


* * *

Subjected Bodies

Paraplegia, Rehabilitation, and the Politics of Movement

Following paralysis, there is a radical break in how paraplegics experience their bodies, in what they are physically able to do, and in the ways in which their bodies are interpreted socially, assigned meanings, and allocated space in which to do and be. Foucault's notions of bio-power, normalization, and the carceral network can help us to unravel the ways that paraplegics are constituted as subjects following their accidents; in addition, the approach enables us to consider how, in various ways, they resist this subjectification. By drawing upon Foucault's analysis of disciplinary institutions (in particular, the institution of medicine), I show how the medical power that circulates in a specific facility for the rehabilitation of spinal-cord-injured people is, in the first instance, directed at producing a certain type of body-a governable and, hence, productive body-and a certain type of subject-namely, the paraplegic body-subject. I outline how this technique is enacted by drawing upon the experiences of ninety paraplegics who were rehabilitated (processed?) at the Otara Spinal Unit (OSU) in Aotearoa New Zealand, during its first ten years of operation (1976-86). In particular, I focus on the admission of recently injured paraplegics to this rehabilitation hospital, the totalizing aspects of treating motor impairment, and regimes of bodily maintenance in order to examine ways in which struggles between medical power and subjective resistance were engaged on the battlefield of paraplegic bodies in the context of a specific theater of war: the OSU.

Foucault's Legacy

* * *

Foucault's later work addresses the question of how social institutions act on the body and the implications that these actions have on the way in which a person is constituted as a subject. Foucault approaches these questions through an "analysis [of] power relations" (Foucault 1982, 219), which focuses on the deployment within the modern states of disciplinary techniques, normalizing judgment, bio-power, and the carceral network. His objective is to create a history of the modes by which human beings are objectified and transformed into subjects (208). Central to this history is an analysis of the operation and relations of power in terms of various techniques and technologies of discipline, surveillance, and punishment. These techniques emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a period during which the target of punishment shifted from the corporeal to the psychological. In that historical moment, bodies (which formerly had been subjected to the spectacle of torture and death) became the objects of incarceration, surveillance, and discipline. The goal of punishment became reform of the prisoner, who might one day emerge from the reflective solitude of the prison cell as a new subject (Foucault 1977, 11). It was believed that, locked in a cell, the criminal could not evade the ever-present gaze of the warder, a gaze that would gradually be interiorized "to the point that [the prisoner becomes] his own overseer ... exercising ... surveillance over, and against, himself" (Foucault 1980a, 155).

Prisons were only one (though, arguably, the first) node in a network of disciplinary and regulatory practices that emerged in the modern period. This larger grid, which Foucault calls "bio-power" (1979, 140), consists of various institutions-educational, industrial, military, medical and psychiatric, the police, assorted apparatuses of the state-and constitutes a "carceral archipelago" (Foucault 1977, 297), which transports the disciplinary practices of the penal institutions into the wider social body. The carceral operates as a unity by adhering to a common standard of "normalizing judgement," which penetrates all levels of society, examines, judges, roots out the abnormal, and prescribes appropriate means with which to rehabilitate individuals who deviate from the norms that it has already put in place in order to subsequently restore the individuals to these norms. Thus, a fine net of disciplinary power must be cast over an increasing number of areas of life, which imposes

a whole micro-penalty of time (lateness, absences, interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence, lack of zeal), of behavior (impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body ("incorrect" attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency). (1977, 178)

Every aspect of everyday life is made subject to a whole series of procedures designed to enforce normality: indeed, "[T]he slightest departures from correct behavior [are made] subject to punishment.... [E]ach subject finds himself caught in a punishable, punishing universality" (178).

In short, bio-power is directly solely at "the body"-its capacities, its requirements, and its potentialities. It coalesces around the social body in the form of the administration of populations; in addition, it coalesces around the individual body in a variety of settings (such as hospitals, prisons, and schools), where it takes particular forms. The objective is to render bodies "docile," that is, as ones that may be "subjected, used, transformed and improved" (1977, 136). This "making bodies docile" is achieved through disciplinary practices that divide the body into units and, in turn, subject those units to precise and calculated training. Hierarchical observation (surveillance), normalizing judgment, and the examination (in hospitals, prisons, and schools) are the techniques of "correct training" (1977, 170-92). The end product of these regimes is a disciplined subject who is both efficient and productive. The subject is productive because one effect of surveillance is to make the body an object of knowledge that yields a particular "truth"; the subject is also efficient because the "truth" that is inscribed upon a specific body increases its utility, makes it calculable, comprehensible, and compliant.

The carceral's various institutions, organizations, and associations are the sites in which bodies are compared, differentiated, hierarchized, diagnosed; in which judgments of normality and abnormality are made; and in which appropriate methods of correction and rehabilitation are ascertained in order to restore deviant bodies to the norm. By making it possible to measure gaps between individuals and to render transparent the distinctions that these differences are claimed to signify, normalizing judgments simultaneously impose homogeneity on the social group and individuate certain subjects. In other words, the disciplinary power flowing through the carceral is productive, rather than repressive. Disciplinary power not only "fabricates" the individual; in addition, "[I]t produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledges that may be gained of him belong to this production" (1977, 194). These new procedures of individualization, and the production of knowledge about human subjects that is concomitant with them, firmly locate the carceral network as the condition that made the human sciences (psychiatry, penology, psychology, and so on) historically possible (1977, 305).

Medicalizing Bodies, Medicalized Subjects

* * *

In contemporary society, the hospital is an important node in the carceral where "dividing practices" (Foucault 1982, 208) objectivize the subject as either sick or healthy, curable or incurable, complete or incomplete, normal or abnormal. The medical judges (the priests and priestesses of secular society), having assumed the right to absolve or condemn, exercise immense power over people's bodies, their health, and their lives. When a person is paralyzed, that individual's body becomes the object of this medical power. Removed to the hospital, or spinal unit, the various parts of the paralyzed body are subjected to intense diagnosis, classification, documentation, monitoring, and discipline in order to render them knowable and productive, to increase the body's utility.

Diagnosing and examining the paralyzed body is not a bad thing per se. If the paralyzed body were not invested with specific techniques and knowledge, it would quickly deteriorate and die. If, however, Foucault is correct about dividing practices, then it would be reasonable to expect that, during the process of rehabilitation, the body of the spinal-cord-injured individual would be objectivized as paralyzed, the individual would be subjectivized as paraplegic, and the subject would come to know itself in these terms. Others would also come to "know" the spinal-cord-injured individual in these terms. During this "ritual of truth," the paralyzed body is inserted into-that is, becomes part of-the medical (and rehabilitative) discourse on paraplegia that maintains the person as a particular subject, one who knows and experiences its body in a highly medicalized way, and for whom the possible ways to be a subject are constrained by the disciplinary techniques that knowledge imposes. In short, rehabilitative medicine fits Foucault's description of subjecting power insofar as rehabilitation is "a form of power ... which categorizes the individual ... attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others must recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects" (1982, 212).

As the last-cited remarks demonstrate, Foucault does not treat power as something that is "acquired, seized, or shared," which operates in a binary fashion from the top down onto increasingly limited groups. Rather, power is everywhere "exercised from innumerable points," is multidirectional, comes from below, sideways, from above, and is a general matrix of nonegalitarian and mobile force relations. As Foucault points out, furthermore, "[W]here there is power, there is resistance, resistance which is often mobile and [transitory, producing cleavages, fracturing unities], furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them" (1979, 96).

From the remarks above, we can derive a sense of the subject as one who is "divided inside himself" (1982, 208), resisting the imposition of a totalizing identity. For Foucault, this form of resistance involves the notion of "strategy" (224), or the choice of "winning solutions," which offer the possibility of contestation and "points of insubordination which ... are a means of escape" (225).

Drawing upon these insights, Haber argues that "the very self is thus fragmented into antagonistic sites of power" (1994, 105). In slipping from one site to another, the subject is able to effect an escape from any totalizing subject position. In short, a Foucauldian approach assumes that no individual subject has a single, complete, or unitary self-identity. To the contrary, the subject can occupy any of a number of subject positions, and can resist normalization from "mobile and transitory" identity standpoints, even if those various standpoints are themselves normalized subject positions. Hence, one would expect the paralyzed individual to resist the normalizing regime of medical power in the spinal unit that operates to impose a totalized identity of paraplegic. Indeed, the paraplegic individual has as its points of insubordination the various subject positions that it occupied as a nondisabled person in its former, nonparalyzed body.

Admission: Subjugation to Medical Power

* * *

Admission to the Otara Spinal Unit marks the institutional phase of a person's rehabilitation. Most residents of the unit are admitted to it while they are still in a dependent and bewildered, postinjury state of mind, knowing only that they cannot feel or move their legs. Medical power is diligently asserted over the new admissions, especially the ones who are still in the acute phase. These recently admitted patients learn very quickly that they have not only lost the power to move and feel their bodies; they have, in addition, lost possession of their bodies, in terms of knowledge and control. By contrast, medical professionals, insofar as they have read the right textbooks, know how the patient should feel, and know what needs the patient has; moreover, medical personnel are in a position to enforce their knowledge. In a short space of time, the paraplegic individual becomes aware that s/he is now in a situation where medical knowledge and medical power prevails. As one participant in my research told me:

[T]he first day that I got moved to the spinal unit ... they laid me on pillows and there was a pillow to spare, as I'm that much shorter than most. ... So they lifted me up and laid me again. And it ended up so they had a bit of me on each of the pillows but it meant that I didn't have a pillow under my fracture side. So it was really, really painful. I said, "I don't think you've laid me right." And they said, "Well, how would you know? You've just arrived here." And I said, "Well, I can see by the diagram that you're working from that I'm not in the right position," and they said, "Well, that's it. We've moved the team now and we have to do a full team lift, so you're stuck like that." And it was really, really painful, so I said, "Oh, well, what's your position on pain relief here?" And she said, "Are you in pain?" And I said "yes." And she said, "That's good, because it means you've got feeling, doesn't it?" and walked off. And I just had to lie there in agony until the afternoon shift came on.

Another participant in my research, who had been the driver of a car in which someone had been killed and against whom criminal charges were, therefore, pending, experienced similar treatment on admission to the OSU. This individual, who had sustained a neck injury in the crash a fortnight earlier, was, nevertheless, still experiencing considerable pain. Numerous x-rays had failed to detect a cause for the pain. Given the circumstances surrounding the individual's injury, the pain was attributed to imagination: an obvious grab for mitigating sympathy. The fact that the details of the fatal incident preceded the individual's arrival at the spinal unit further aggravated the situation. As the individual explains it, "The day I arrived there, I had a neck roll in-I had a sore neck-and they just whipped it out: 'No, you shouldn't have that. There's no need for that.'" The rough justice continued:

When I sat up, I couldn't even hold my head up properly. And when they were doing full-turn lifts, I used to plead with them to hold my head for me and they said, "No. You should be able to hold it for yourself." But I could never do any of that. They didn't even want to admit that there was any injury there.... Numerous times [I complained]. They said: "Oh, you've been through a lot."

The professionals ignored this individual's own corporeal account, despite observing decreased sensation and strength in the individual's right arm. Moral judgments seem to have precluded immediate and objective exploration of the symptoms. Ten weeks after the injury, evidence of damage to the cervical area of the spine at C33 was finally obtained and appropriate treatment followed.

Two additional instances of the deployment of medical power in the unit illustrate its subjugating and alienating effect. In the first episode, a woman is denied dialogue on her diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation program.


Excerpted from Foucault and the Government of Disability Copyright © 2005 by the University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Ladelle McWhorter....................xiii
SHELLEY TREMAIN Foucault, Governmentality, and Critical Disability Theory: An Introduction....................1
MARTIN SULLIVAN Subjected Bodies: Paraplegia, Rehabilitation, and the Politics of Movement....................27
NIRMALA EREVELLES Signs of Reason: Rivière, Facilitated Communication, and the Crisis of the Subject....................45
SCOTT YATES Truth, Power, and Ethics in Care Services for People with Learning Difficulties....................65
BILL HUGHES What Can a Foucauldian Analysis Contribute to Disability Theory?....................78
BARRY ALLEN Foucault's Nominalism....................93
FIONA KUMARI CAMPBELL Legislating Disability: Negative Ontologies and the Government of Legal Identities....................108
LICIA CARLSON Docile Bodies, Docile Minds: Foucauldian Reflections on Mental Retardation....................133
JANE BERGER Uncommon Schools: Institutionalizing Deafness in Early-Nineteenth-Century America....................153
DIANA SNIGUROWICZ The Phénomène's Dilemma: Teratology and the Policing of Human Anomalies in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Paris....................172
ANNE WALDSCHMIDT Who Is Normal? Who Is Deviant? "Normality" and "Risk" in Genetic Diagnostics and Counseling....................191
MAARTEN SIMONS AND JAN MASSCHELEIN Inclusive Education for Exclusive Pupils: A Critical Analysis of the Government of the Exceptional....................208
CHRIS DRINKWATER Supported Living and the Production of Individuals....................229
CAROLYN ANNE ANDERSON Real and Ideal Spaces of Disability in American Stadiums and Arenas....................245
GERARD GOGGIN AND CHRISTOPHER NEWELL Foucault on the Phone: Disability and the Mobility of Government....................261
JULIE ALLAN Inclusion as an Ethical Project....................281
KATHRYN PAULY MORGAN Gender Police....................298
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