Disability scholars Lisanne Meinen, Gert-Jan Vanaken and Tessa Vannieuwenhuyze describe the challenges that shaped Differing Bodyminds – Choreographing New Pathways, the first official event on crip theory in Flanders.
Introducing novel ideas in uncharted territory is always a challenging undertaking. The more provocative such ideas are, the higher obstacles can be expected. Leni Van Goidsenhoven and Gert-Jan Vanaken experienced this dynamic when writing a Dutch Wikipedia-entry for the term ‘crip’, somewhere in the beginning of 2021. Given some early artistic and academic engagements with the term in Belgium and the Netherlands, the time seemed ripe to pave the way for a more established position of crip and crip theory in our so-called Low Countries. “Short for cripple, crip is a term which has been re-appropriated by disabled and chronically ill people,” so they aimed to describe it in the entry. “Claiming to be crip should be read as an effort to embrace abject bodies and resisting the societal exclusion based on the constructed binary between desirable, abled bodies and undesirable, disabled ones.”
However, the entry never got published in its original form. Wikipedia gatekeepers labeled it an ‘overly activistic text’ for a term which ‘was hardly used in Dutch-speaking settings’, involving ‘post-modern “oracle language”’, which would ‘only be relevant for a small minority of disabled people’. This discouraging experience put forward some poignant questions. How does socially engaged academic work relate to activism? When is a set of ideas sufficiently established to be discussed in more mainstream settings? Is disability theorising indeed only relevant for disabled people?
A crip time and place
Differing Bodyminds – Choreographing New Pathways, the first official event on crip theory in Flanders, precisely sought to address and further dissect these questions that have been raised by a burgeoning artistic, academic and activist engagement with crip theory in Dutch-speaking regions.
Having worked extensively with crip perspectives before, literary scholar and cultural theorist Leni Van Goidsenhoven (NeuroEpigenEthics, University of Antwerp), together with dance and performance scholar Jonas Rutgeerts (Cultural Studies, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), brought three international and influential voices in the domain of crip theory to Belgium. Carrie Sandahl, Robert McRuer, and Jane Gallop gathered with a diverse group of (dance) scholars, practitioners, activists and students to explore the conceptual and methodological possibilities opened up by crip theory. For the set-up of the symposium (19 April) and subsequent doctoral school (20-21 April), the organising members of KU Leuven’s Cultural Studies department and Antwerp University’s NeuroEpigenEthics research group in collaboration with international arts center STUK departed from the frame of contemporary dance: a field where bodies generally tend to appear as able, slim and supple. The aim was to surpass these ableist assumptions and adopt the contemporary (performing) arts as a realm for anchoring three days of theorising in embodied and experiential forms of knowledge-making, ‘choreographing new pathways’ for crip bodyminds in research and (art) practice.
Two years of rescheduling added an ambiguous timeliness and urgency to the event. It has been said that over the months spent in isolation, the masses had gotten a glimpse of what it means to experience ‘crip time’: the uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment affecting everyone, regardless of disability. Invitee Carrie Sandahl, whose research and dramaturgical practice is concerned with the creation of disability (performance) art, contests this overly simplified parallel and prefers to identify the past few years as ‘crip time in pandemic time’ (Sandahl 2022). This approach provides a layered entrypoint into understanding how crip time takes part in setting out new ways of meaning-making: crip performance as cripistemology (Johnson and McRuer 2014).
Alliance between queer and crip
Temporality was also pivotal to the talks of the other two invited speakers. Feminist literary scholar Jane Gallop’s discussion centred on the queering of a linear progression of sexuality, specifically through theorising from her own crip experience as a sexual being with late onset disability. Bringing sex(y) back to disability studies, Gallop transported crip time to crip over time. Notions such as the ‘not-yet disabled’ or ‘temporarily-abled’ acknowledge the intersection of disability with aging, which also goes against the life course perpetually reinstated by neoliberalist capitalism.
Likewise, theorist of crip cultural studies Robert McRuer highlighted the entanglement of disability with larger shaping structures such as austerity measures and neoliberalism in this current moment. These are the ‘Crip Times’ that he unfolds within his book of the same name (McRuer 2018). The ongoing impact of austerity politics onto the crip community becomes visible within the frequent association of crip pacing with taking (more) time. This stands in stark contrast with, for example, the reality of one of the disabled artists with whom McRuer collaborated, Christopher ‘Unpezverde’ Núñez. Instead of slowing down, McRuer discussed how Núñez worked 20 hours a day to make ends meet: an indication of the various crip temporalities that remain invisible, obscured by smokescreens.
The common ground that shimmered through in the talks and working sessions was the alliance between the queer and the crip, whilst simultaneously recognizing its discordances. All three speakers shared a breaking down of categories, such as ‘disability’ and ‘neurodiversity’, from a queer angle. This adds an active undertone to the concept of ‘crip’, that then can actually take up a verb-like agency to crip, similar to the destabilising intent of ‘queering’. Just as ‘queer’, ‘cripping’ moves beyond its use as an identity label or marker and elucidates active ways of thinking through alterlivability and world-making. Taken up by the audience just as much as the invited speakers, this made the three days spent together into a moment prompted by crip collectivity, striving towards not just disability rights but disability justice.
Part 2 of this post covers individual presentations at the event.
Johnson, Merri Lisa and Robert McRuer. 2014. “Cripistemologies: Introduction”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 8(2), 127-147.
McRuer, Robert. 2018. Crip Times: Disability, Globalisation, and Resistance. New York: New York University Press, 134.
Sandahl, Carrie. 2022. “Our Bodies are the Archive: Crip Time in Pandemic Time and the Materiality of Disability Performance”, forthcoming.
About the authors
Lisanne Meinen is a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp’s Centre for Ethics. She is working on an interdisciplinary PhD project that maps how we can better understand neurodivergent experiences through videogames. Her Twitter handle is @lisannemeinen.
Gert-Jan Vanaken is a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp’s Centre for Ethics and at the KU Leuven’s Research Unit for Parenting and Educational Sciences. He is working on an interdisciplinary PhD on the ethics of early detection and intervention for autism
Tessa Vannieuwenhuyze is a doctoral researcher at Ghent University’s S:PAM (Studies in Performing Arts & Media) and dramaturge for oester. Her research explores the persona performance of (popular) music artists and contemporary performance practitioners in a context of new media. She is on Twitter @prformativities.