Following last week’s introduction to the Differing Bodyminds – Choreographing New Pathways event, disability scholars Lisanne Meinen, Gert-Jan Vanaken and Tessa Vannieuwenhuyze review the presentations from their groundbreaking symposium and doctoral school, which sought to establish the position of crip theory in the Low Countries.
Jane Gallop’s presentation at the symposium started off by highlighting the ongoing relevancy of queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s minoritising/universalising binary from Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick 1990). Whereas it is generally agreed that taking disability into account goes beyond the interest of a selective minority, she also argued that it can be incredibly productive to delineate ‘the disabled’ from ‘the able-bodied’, for example when advocating for disability rights.
What Gallop intended to clarify here, is that the intention is not to completely resolve the contradiction, but to think with it. This thinking with, rather than against, is the essence of her project to anecdotalise theory, theorising from situations and positions that go against the grain. Although handled slightly differently, it approximates McRuer’s approach of crip theory as a particular mode of doing disability studies in conversation with queer theory and the arts: lived experience confirmed. It implies, in other words, carefully paying attention to and accommodating the paradoxical potential that is part and parcel of working both with and against established disability identities, representations, and rights.
Within his assertion of crip theory as a particular mode of doing disability studies, McRuer hinted at the generative world-making potential of crip. Crip is therefore, according to him, not just a theoretical perspective; it is also urgently activist. Sandahl chimed in on this view that crip worldmaking is, even more significantly than Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s queer worldmaking (Berlant and Warner 1998), concerned with the concrete. Crip worldmaking entails the literal reshaping of spaces, imagining a wider variety of (differing) bodyminds in these spaces. One such example of crip worldmaking was Sandahl’s own presence in the event through Zoom: as such, she presented a way of making an impact that did not stand in the way of responsibilities, risks and restrictions that go hand in hand with the often precarious situation of taking care of an impairment and a family.
Where Gallop and McRuer mostly explored, expanded and tied together key terms and concepts in crip studies (crip, cripping, queering), Sandahl applied these definitions to art-making practices. She proposed to look at crip not only as a noun, a verb, and an analytical mode, but also as a dramaturgical tool. From her position as a dramaturg, closely working with a wide variety of artists, she spoke extensively about her crip dramaturgical practice. With great care and creativity, she aims to use methodologies that actually center disability phenomenology. Instead of fostering an orientation that talks back to the mainstream, she argued, it is crucial to focalise disabled people themselves and their movement vocabularies. Guided by the questions of the seminar participants and concrete examples from her dramaturgical practice, Sandhal discussed the emotional and physical experience of impairment, proprioception, crip time, space, narratives, disability culture and community. One of her main points that resonated strongly with the group was her plea for building access and accommodations into a creation or a piece from the beginning, rather than merely as an add-on.
The complexity of crip collectivity
However, creating crip performances does not come without hurdles. In order to shed a nuanced light on this, Sandahl introduced the term representational conundrum, a conundrum that was, although more implicit, as much key to the paradigms in which Gallop and McRuer operated. The transition of wheelchair athlete Kris Lenzo to contemporary dance creation, as Sandahl unpacked, asks the question of how to ‘dance disability’ as an aging dancer without disabling oneself. How do you, in other words, develop a sustainable choreography? In another case about blind sound artist Andy Slater, similar conundrums arose in the set-up of an exhibition. How do we share sensory experiences in an inter-impairment setting?
So, “if it takes at least two people to make a crip” (McRuer 2006), one can’t help but take the complexity of said crip collectivity into account. What if these two people have very different and, maybe even opposing, needs? It reminded one of the authors of this piece of what Kenian writer and theater maker Ogutu Muraya noted during his keynote lecture at a conference the week after Differing Bodyminds: we should not reduce ‘complex’ to ‘complicated’. Unexpectedly, Muraya’s keynote reverberated with the contents of the event under review. What Sandahl advocates for is, indeed, carefully attending to complexity, rather than fixating on finding a straightforward answer or a solution. The experiences she shared as a dramaturg who tends to be wary of narratives of ‘overcoming’ disability, attested exactly of that. What if that overcoming-narrative is what works for an artist, because it is what society wants to pay for? What if that is what results in success, in making a living? Speaking from her own personal experiences, she likewise opened up about being in essence against institutionalisation, yet coming to terms with the fact that, at some times, she needs it as well. An important aspect that crip thinking introduces therefore also points towards documenting one’s own evolving stances.
Living through the crip conundrum
The accessibility of academia was first touched upon within McRuer’s discussion of the anglocentrism of disability studies, which asked about the implications of the hegemony of the English language for the accessibility of the field. The fact that academic conventions often remain hermetic despite attempts at broadening their horizon, points towards the performativity behind academic format’s installment of a normative script. Jane Gallop’s methodology hinges onto the performative process of producing theory: working anecdotally, by theorising from the personal anecdote, from the marginal, opens up towards theory anchored in an actual lived crip experience. The question of “who has the access and possibility to do so?” resurfaced at various points throughout the seminar though, which led the group towards elaborate ponderings on what a crip(ped) academia would look like.
But, also on a less abstract level, we – as participants, organisers, and speakers – found ourselves faced with and living through the crip conundrum, negotiating a disability space where voicing one’s needs did not necessarily meet the other’s. A literal space and place that, in contrast to expectations, did not entirely live up to its promise of accessibility, or confusing moments where we wondered how to continue while recognizing the inevitable flaws of our practices, made us aware of the cracks in cripping. It showed how choreographing new ways through undoing the illusory smooth surface of crip theory as a ready-made solution might turn it into an even rockier road. At the end of the day, the generative tension between art, academia and activism that lingered in the room heightened an awareness of the range of roles we take on in different contexts, much in the way Sandahl grounded her own positionality, and how a certain flexibility within that can assist in focusing on the attainable, cripping our own (yet shared) m².
Taking in the meta-situation was equally enriching from the perspective of future directions for a continued exploration of crip theory. This especially emerged within the afterthoughts exchanged in the corridors and the laughter shared over lunch and drinks in the sun. It struck us, for example, how much the speakers had focused on crip in relation to classic formats of art, the live performing arts, and related forms of text creation, and how little there had been said about the shift social media must have brought about for the crip community. Yet, being introduced to the very vivid TikTok hashtag #hotistic in between the lines of the event by a fellow participant shows how lived crip experience functions in tandem with more established discourses. In reality, as became clear through shared personal stories, crip, neurodivergent, and queer perspectives must not only be combined to create new alliances, but already flow through each other in daily life as experienced by the participants.
A crip critical lens
The wide-ranging, passionate and even destabilising food for thought that erupted from the time spent within the context of Differing Bodyminds mainly solidified crip’s potential as a critical lens through which we can evaluate any phenomenon and look at how it functions in order to uphold or challenge normalcy. A significant part of crip’s value clearly resides in how it transcends its use as a mere identity marker. Beyond an identification as crip, crip theory allows us to crip established perspectives, as a thought experiment, entering a state of vulnerability where you are willingly taking on an outsider perspective. Crip theory leaves an opening for ‘not getting it right’, a collective experience that we all had a taste of. By facilitating an encounter with crip theory in the flesh, thinking with disability rather than around it, perforating the expected and desired, this event most certainly made a crucial contribution to a world where crip’s presence on Wikipedia is beyond dispute.
Berlant, Lauren, and Warner, Michael. 1998. ‘Sex In Public.’ Critical Enquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Intimacy, Winter 1998, 547-66.
McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 134.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Oakland: University of California Press.
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.