Cripping global queer, antiracist, and decolonial coalitions

A review of 'Crip Times' after 'Beauty is a Verb'

Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance

Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance

Robert McRuer

New York University Press 2018, 320 pages, $30.00 ISBN 978-1479874156

A politics of austerity, I conclude, will always generate the compulsion to fortify borders and to separate a narrowly defined ‘us,’ in need of protection, from ‘them.’ Crip Times, and crip times, however, can and will only end with an aspiration to the outward-looking vision proffered by the indignant ones — Robert McRuer, Crip Times[1]

When Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability emerged from Cinco Puntos Press in 2011, disability studies was in its earlier stages of organizing and thinking through the ways language congealed around and on bodies to construct difference as disability — abject, without agency, othered or made superhuman, exemplary, extraordinary. Rarely, though, did the American canon center poetry and poetics that situated the everyday, lived, complex experience of crip times and places. As an anthology of poetry and poetics, with various, short prefaces historicizing disability poetics in a United States context, the book marked an early start for disability poetics as a broader field of study, one that connected poetry with scholarship through sites of crip embodiment. This anthology, too, was a product in the most literal sense: a collectively edited work by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen designed to put poets from the 1920s to the present in conversation through an Americanist context. More to the point of product, the anthology aimed to “transform disability poetry from marginalia into part of the American text.”[2] This call for spatial inclusion was also temporal: “The time is right for it” when 1992 saw the Americans with Disabilities Act “[presaging] a watershed moment for disability poetry”[3] which culminated in Northen’s preface with magazines such as Breath & Shadow and Disability Studies Quarterly. In this vein, the editors apprehended the necessity for collective organization in disability poetics and scholarship, and Beauty is a Verb became a watershed moment of its own kind as it amassed dozens of voices over four hundred pages of crip poetics.

In 2011, though, a United States landscape of poetics operated under the neoliberal time of the Obama administration: the end of a campaign promising “change” and “hope” for those minoritized by austerity politics and weary of post-9/11, Bush administration–led warfare. The anthology itself, while centering a range of intersectional identities, explicitly emphasizes “poets with a visible disability” to undergird the “social model of disability.”[4] The work focuses on building out an existing, nationally bounded genealogy of poetry[5] and does not explicitly center the complex, global, political networks of identity and representation that recent disability, queer, antiracist, and decolonial scholars from Alison Kafer to Lisa Cacho have more recently begun to excavate. It is almost commonplace, perhaps easy in 2019, to critique an anthology that implicitly affirms a largely colonial, racist, and heteropatriarchal canon’s formation by seeking inclusion as its resolution. Critiques of systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia, for instance, foreground antiracist, feminist, and queer people of color’s scholarly work, from José Esteban Muñoz to Roderick Ferguson. It is at this point of potential coalition between non-identity-based, less visibly structured, and more globally critical scholarship that Robert McRuer’s book, Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance, emerges.

However, I would also argue that McRuer’s work adds an additional, temporal layer to its intersectional and translocal approach: published in 2018, it begins in a European-based approach under Brexit and extends to South America, while, in navigating global waters, connects to a “Trump time.” Crip Times also focuses on installation art, activism coalition gatherings, and visual ads that use “aspirational” text; I argue that these are modes of poetics attentive to dimensions that exceed or build out of word-based poetics. The mode and genre shift from Beauty is a Verb supports its function by also suggesting ways of making, reading, and writing more so than suturing together already written poems. For instance: the first two chapters argue that “an austerity of representation” (68) undergirds neoliberal approaches to disability as a representation issue by close-reading Paralympic ads in contrast with responsive activism photography campaigns as “Crip Resistance.” The second two chapters then shift to installation and relational art pieces that emphasize austerity as a remnant of colonialism, certainly, but also how crip artists are doing decolonial work by retooling terms such as austerity and aspiration in their protest art. Contrasting these two books, then, in some ways invites more so a comparison of approaches over time and place, wherein the central question remains: how is a crip time and place always already structuring the historical present, and where do poetics across modes and forms offer unexpected ways to live in, as McRuer terms it, “the age of austerity” (101)? If Beauty is a Verb explicitly writes from disability poetics across time and place, Crip Times writes from disability poetics as structuring the neoliberal moments and their translocal places.

McRuer’s book, for instance, in many ways mirrors and departs from Beauty is a Verb: like the anthology, it opens with a historical excavation of policy change and arts-based responses, even overlapping with key figures, such as Petra Kuppers, who appear in Beauty is a Verb. However, it departs from an Americanist context of poetry, opening instead with a European-based history of neoliberal propaganda that he contrasts with emergent arts forms from crip activists. In turn, and most obviously, Beauty is a Verb is an anthology of tissue: that is, it connects different artists over different poetry times and movements with the tissue of disability identities and representations, favoring “visible disability” as a way to critique its social constructedness. This surfaces in descriptive embodiment, such as Kenny Fries’s unrhyming couplet poem, “Excavation.” In “Excavation,” for instance, Fries opens with the immediacy of “taking off [his] shoes,” using an end-stopped colon to suggest that the following line will explain its relevance. This expectation is met with the explicit purpose of naming this every day act: “three toes on each twisted foot.” The initial couplet, then, moves the reader from the visible shoes, to the feet encased now made visible. These feet are described in terms of toe numbers, but also as “twisted.” The poem builds on these early, end-stopped lines by “twisting” into enjambed couplets up until the last word of the piece, which is enclosed by a period. As the syntax and combination of endstopped with enjambed lines picks up, so, too, does punctuation and pauses within the lines themselves. This creates a poem that, while formally ordered, develops shifting tones and syntax the deeper into the poem we get: “I touch the rough skin. The holes / where the pins were. The scars.” How do you touch a hole? The line break responds by explaining: “where the pins were,” implicitly visiblizing or making tactile the experience. Similarly, ableist voices’ descriptions abstract the experience — “who did? Freak, midget, three-toed / bastard. Words I’ve always heard.” When confronted with these monstrosizing abstractions, the speaker turns instead to “tear deeper / into [his] skin” — to “the place where no one speaks a word.”[6] This poem in many ways demonstrates the anthology’s early, crucial work to use poetry and poetics’ capacity for approaching the unexplainable, word-resistant experience of embodiment and its fragmentations.

Such practice-based representational maneuvers have been crucial to crip and disability communities, making it possible to critique academic impulses to name, categorize, and taxonomize while also organizing, publishing, and connecting through representation; however, this maneuver also hinges on a visibilized experience that centers the singular body and its experiences alongside poets and artists in kind. It also posits that crip times in 2011 faces first an “austerity” of representation, which McRuer’s book posits as a framework undergirding Brexit, Trump times, and the contemporary taxonomizing of access and aspiration to livability. When reading McRuer’s book, then, the framing itself of reading across modalities, continents, and individualized embodiment, but also through the singular experience as it resists comparison’s (and representation’s) necessary erasures, mark a broader discourse change toward the intersecting experiences not just of race, gender, sexuality, and crip or disability, but also of colonialism, geography, and time — or, more shortly: of diaspora. This shifted framework is not only a difference in genre and form between Beauty is a Verb and Crip Times, but also affords renewed entry points for (re)reading poems such as Fries’s “Excavation.”

There is, of course, the first and most obvious difference that denotes an institutional shift toward what crip studies might offer: McRuer’s book is published by a university press as scholarly intervention into disability studies, centering its work through a critique of the language and emphasis around visibility in crip and queer spaces: “What complex cultural work is performed as disability is recognized or made legible? How do standard modes of recognition (‘I know what that is’) preclude more expansive and perhaps resistant forms of re-cognition/rethinking?” (139–40). For McRuer’s analysis, these questions not only remain wary of inclusion-based identity reparations, but expands reading practices of disability poetics into the realm of hope and possibility: “What might be gained from a crip analytic open to apprehending as ‘disabled’ images that do not directly present as such?” (140). Crip Times joins the rapidly growing network of intersectional studies around disability, race, gender, and colonialism through a historical materialist method. More simply: it sees how historical materialism infrequently centers disability formation as a central operation to its perpetuation, but also how disability studies is just now beginning the work of joining historical materialist approaches to race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism. While the initial departure between the two books, then, seems like its form, I see the most functional difference as twofold: the political rhetoric and policy shifts into more extreme and explicit austerity (Obama to Trump), but also the necessity of thinking across radical differences that are not only the outcome of austerity, but in fact structure it — a recognition that makes it possible to build unexpected coalitions in a global framework. More simply: if capitalism’s fluid movement invests globally to secure property as access to health and livability, how can crip poetics and activism build global coalitions of not only resistance, but also of, as McRuer would term, “aspiration” (101)?

In this way, while Beauty is a Verb afforded new discursive entrances into fields of literary studies and cultural studies for crip artists and theorists by way of literary representation, McRuer’s work deftly weaves together the necessary “and” of language’s resistance to commodifiable representations. As an interdisciplinary text, Crip Times bridges analysis of poetry and poetics beyond the page, joining decolonial poetics analysis such as Sarah Dowling’s recent Translingual Poetics account of sculpture as poetry. More than interdisciplinary art forms and analysis of activist sites, though, it shares an interdisciplinary investment with queer theory, Black studies, and decolonial scholarship. This interdisciplinary approach enables McRuer’s rejection of austerity philosophies, wherein identity and representation are wielded as tools of separation supportive of interclass divisions over access to resources. Each chapter’s search for this possibility becomes an explicit branch of radical difference supporting coalitional work with scholars such as Toni Morrison and Roderick Ferguson. At the same time, it articulates the need for scholars across cultural studies fields to more critically recognize how “disability has been one ofthe key discursive building blocks of neoliberalism” (177, emphasis added). If, as McRuer argues, neoliberalism went on to work through difference as a way to justify unequal outcomes in life through individual aspiration (196), cripping difference means aspiring to caring for the not immediately recognized as worldbuilding matter (217). In this way, the “and” of this analysis enables multiple meanings as much as the multiple reading practices, both of which are necessary when approaching what Morrison terms, “something else to be.”

Joining first the possibilities offered in Muñoz’s seminal Cruising Utopia, McRuer picks up the question of “excess” as at once a signifier globally wielded to support “cost-cutting and privatization” (4) of resources, but also as a signifier of possibility and pleasure beyond reproductive property transference. Part of this coalition with queer studies is its “excessive, flamboyant defiance” that, in implicit tension with Beauty is a Verb, “ties it to models of disability […] that are more culturally generative (and politically radical) than a merely reformist social model” (19). This excess positions “cripping” as akin to “queering,” or an ongoing act that resists consolidation and commodification through an ever-expanding mode of embodiment, including, again in implicit tension with its predecessor anthology, “undocumented disabilities,” such as “borderline personality, anxiety, chronic pain […] and a range of other forms of embodiment or impairments at times not adequately or easily comprehended by the signifier of disability” (20, emphasis original). This cripping as akin to queering supports McRuer’s own ability to resist static, easily commodified signifiers of otherized embodiment: 

For Kafer and others, crip has the capacity to encompass forms of embodiment or states of mind that are arguably in excess of the able-minded or able-bodied/disabled binary. Not unlike queer at its most radical, crip often has the fabulous potential to simultaneously flamboyantly identitarian (as in, we are crip and you will acknowledge that!) and the flamboyantly anti-identitarian (as in, we reject your categories or the capacity of languages saturated in ableism to describe us!). As my use of ‘we’ here suggests, and as Kafer’s study explicitly affirms throughout, the politics of crip have generally been actively collective or coalitional. (20)

These coalitions are not, to be clear, a “being-in-kind” that would erase historical, situated, radical difference; they are instead rooted in a “being-in-common.” It is this interdisciplinary, inter-arts, inter-activist assertion that marks McRuer’s chapters, making possible the worldbuilding imaginaries if close attention is brought to language as unfixed, generative, flexible matter. Such matter and attention to language as such might offer critical tools for resisting an increasingly globalized mode of finance capital that mobilizes rhetorics of static, disappearing, and scarce resources — austerity — as reasons to cut access to welfare, housing, and care.

Initially, this might build on the recent turn in cultural studies to imagining alternative possibilities. I am thinking here of the direct references in the text to Muñoz’s utopias and Morrison’s “something else to be.”[7] However, these signals build on a larger imaginative move in cultural studies: Blackpentecostal Breath by Ashon Crawley reads for “otherwise possibilities,” Lisa Cacho’s Social Death reads for “deviance and deviations,” and Avery Gordon insists we read with a haunting methodology that builds the worlds yet to come. In short: the “aspirational” maneuver of hope surfaces again in this work. What marks McRuer’s own joining in this turn, though, is his insistence that we rethink the terms we have as they contain those possibilities: a “coalitional government” folds outward to suggest “coalitional resistance” (47), as an “austerity of representation” recruits “inspiration porn or cripspiration” (68) folds out the “potentiality, possibility” of queer desire in “disability pornography” and its excesses (79). In McRuer’s view, and in direct contrast with the intended use of Beauty is a Verb, austerity’s use as a weapon against racialized, disabled, and gendered bodies also opens us to ways of being-in-common as we deconstruct language — a maneuver responsive to the double-meanings implicit to seemingly transparent rhetoric:

Austerity arguably generates extravagant abjection, literally wounding bodies and minds and then metaphorically redoubling that woundedness by pointing to the faded scars and insisting that they merit austerity, as they have no value and supposedly generate no value. Crip/queer theorizing of resistance, I have implied here, is itself a crip tactic that opposes both such austere ways of thinking and austerity as an economic policy. […] I note the ways in which subjects in those locations collectively linger over scars, woundedness, and disability. In Scott’s sense, they take on a powerfulness that defeat does not quash or necessarily succeed in assimilating. The deconstructive potential of language and a desire to find value in abjection are at work in each of the remaining tactics in this chapter, alongside or in and through the more recognizable or legible, active collective resistance that is needed to counter austerity. (101, emphasis original)

Beauty is a Verb as an anthology made recognizable in an immediately necessary way the historical and ongoing work of crip poetry and poetics, marking out connections between different modes of living in a period of change and hope. McRuer’s text, seven years later, functions as a historical critique on the surface, but its attention to language, worldmaking, and synthesis across different fields of materialist inquiry marks the urgency of how we now need “to read beyond the cultural signs of disability that are identified and made useful for neoliberalism” (174). This imperative is urgent if, as crip scholars, poets, artists, and activists, we are to build possibilities beyond inclusion within the framework that produces precarity: that is, we may not yet have “arrived” (175) at those possibilities, but they are palpable in the turns to imagining, feeling, and being with otherwise possibilities and worldbuilding across recognizability. Crip Times, then, does not explicitly center, attend to, or close read recognizable poetic forms or print-based poetry circulation, such as that in Beauty is a Verb, but instead it lays out necessarily shifting, aspirational methods for both reading and writing poetry and poetics alongside and in common with additional arts and activist modes and genres. McRuer’s book enters here, inviting more expansive approaches to difference and austerity that require we rethink the lines of inclusion, but more than that, how language always already contains the matter for coalitions in seemingly impossible and totalizing global violence if we learn better how to (critically) read for it.

1. Robert McRuer, Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance, (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 139–40.

2. Michael Northen, “A Short History of American Disability Poetry,” in Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, ed. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), 24.

3. Northen, “Short History,” 19.

4. Jennifer Bartlett, preface to Beauty is a Verb, 15.

5. See Northen, “Short History,” 24.

6. Kenny Fries, “Excavation,” in Beauty is a Verb, 105.

7. See Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Plume, 1973), 52.