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Disability as Multitude: Re-working Non-Productive Labor Power

David T. Mitchell, Sharon L. Snyder

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, Volume 4, Number
2, 2010, pp. 179-193 (Article)
Published by Liverpool University Press
For additional information about this article
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Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4.2 (2010), 179194 Liverpool University Press
ISSN 1757-6458 (print) 1757-6466 (online) doi:10.3828/jlcds.2010.14
Disability as Multitude
Re-working Non-Productive Labor Power
David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
Temple University and Independent Scholar
People with disabilities are often relegated to the status of non-productive labor power as
a key aspect of their social depreciation. Marxist tradition situates potential and unemployable
workers as members of the surplus labor force (those who embody potential labor and
therefore exert downward pressure on wages and job security), but this designation fails
to adequately capture those situated essentially outside of Capitalism. While theorists must
continue to critique the ravages of poverty that result from chronic unemployment, the article
employs Hardt and Negris concept of multitude as a means of imagining alternative value for
non-productive bodies (Empire)particularly in their ability to form alternative networks of
existence and resistance to normative relations of consumption, competition, and class confict.
Such an active engagement with concepts of corporeality (i.e. the body as active mediator of the
world rather than passive surface of imprintation) is critical to a more fully politicized realization
of disability as instrumental to what Spinoza called the radical potential of true democracy.
Beyond Surplus Labor Power
One signifcant contribution of Disability Studies to the feld of Cultural Studies
has been in charting transformations in historical understandings of human
variation. Whereas the term handicapped marked individual bodies as insuf-
fcient, disability re-orients critique away from individual malfunction and
toward interactions of bodies with inadequately adapted environments. Further,
the term disability also identifes material bodies (the corporeal) adjusted to
approximate norms, average capacities, and subjective aesthetic standards. Dis-
ability moves away from late eighteenth-century ideas of individual incapacity
(and, ultimately, social Darwinian unftness) toward populations that experi-
ence socially produced exclusions based on sensory, cognitive, and/or bodily
typicality. In other words, as a result of Disability Studies scholarship and mod-
ern day disability movements, disabled people have shifed from modernitys
exception (a lineage of defect to be isolated and eradicated) to postmodern
exceptionality (failing bodies resuscitated by an increasingly medicalized state).
In the latter state, the ontology of disability retrieves a formerly fallen object and
makes it newly available for cultural rehabilitation. While rehabilitation ofen
refers to a productive process of recovery, leading to a return to employment
180 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
and the activities of civic life, here the term suggests something less optimal
yet equally signifcant. Cultural rehabilitation refers to normalization practices
through which non-normative (i.e. non-productive) bodies become culturally
docile. Tis process accomplishes its task of adjustment through the exercise of
neo-liberal power that is both benign and disciplinary.
Rather than social pariahs, disabled people increasingly represent research
opportunities in the sense that medical sociologist Aihwa Ong means when
she argues that treating ill and disabled Cambodian refugees in the U.S.
increasingly became the justifcation for state and local clinics to obtain much-
needed funding from the federal government (96). Rather than a former eras
economic burden, then, disabled people have become objects of care in which
enormous sectors of post-capitalist service economies are invested. In the terms
of recent theories of political economy, disability has been transformed into a
target of neo-liberal intervention strategies. Disabled people, once thrown out
of the labor system because of their lack of productivity in a competitive labor
market, now fnd themselves at hand for [the] purposes of accumulation at
a later point in time. Put in the language of contemporary postmodern polit-
ical theory, we might say that capitalism necessarily and always creates its own
other (Harvey, 141). Te historical production of others situates bodies in a
position tantamount to un(der)explored geographies: they come to be recog-
nized as sites for the exercise of the primitive accumulation that fuels capitalism.
While such developments arrive, inevitably, with their own contradictions,
they also provide opportunities for re-thinking disability, not only as socially
but also as materially produced subjectivities. In turn, people with disabilities
produce their own alternative navigations that provide opportunities for both
analyzing their further integration within networks of late capitalism (that
which Michael Hardt calls afective labor), and also attendant modes of resist-
ance to dominant models of consumption, family, sexuality, labor, functionality,
etc. In other words, this article is an initial foray into ways in which we might
actively think disability into the picture of the production of social networks,
forms of community, and biopower. For as Hardt explains, the two orders of
engagement are not mutually exclusive:
In the production and reproduction of afects, in those networks of culture and com-
munication, collective subjectivities are produced and sociality is produced. Even if
those subjectivities and that sociality are directly exploitable by capital. Tis is where
we can realize the enormous potential in afective labor. (Affective Labor)
We want to begin thinking about new horizons of disability in a multicultural,
transnational, and post-imperialist world. To apply the prefx post- to these
Disability as Multitude 181
historical movements is not to suggest their end. Each continues a dynamic
legacy of exploitation, travesty, and domination that reverberates in the afer-
math of a lengthy period of military and cultural subjugation. However, like
other dynamos (the term Henry Adams used to represent the churning engine
of industrial capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century) they must come
to rest of their own inertia or metamorphose into a new hegemonic amalgam:
one made of the scraps of the old imperial machine and alternative formations
of resistance now co-opted; a newly minted, prostheticized, even if ultimately
compromised social organization. As Hardt and Negri argue, rather than feeling
doomed about the saturation of imperial power through networks of capitalism
we might also see room for potential: Te immediately social dimension of the
exploitation of living labor immerses labor in all the relational elements that
develop the potential of insubordination and revolt through the entire set of
laboring practices (Empire, 29).
International movements of disabled persons have managed to cultivate
forms of insubordination within global capitalism by leveraging pressure for
social equality and accessible public commons with reference to other move-
ments demanding similar objectives. In 2000 a group of disabled women in
South Korea protested a dangerous lif by setting up tents in an underground
subway; a Bosnia-Herzegovina disabled student-led campaign made pedestri-
ans aware of curb cuts for wheelchair users by painting them bright yellow; and
a Russian disability group blocked entrance to the Moscow underground rail
system to hinder others from entering as they were excluded due to a lack of
alternative forms of ingress. In each of these examples, people with disabilities
staged their protests by seeking to produce parallel experiences of exclusion in
others who took their own ease of entry in public spaces for granted. Global
disability movements have waged their campaigns around concepts of univer-
sal access to collective areas while also calling attention to the dwindling exist-
ence of the commons under neoliberal privatization schemes.
Te creativity of these civil disobedience tactics turns exclusions on their
head. In Marxist terms, disability protest makes people who are not identifed
as disabled see the world as if through a camera obscura. Tey use the produc-
tion of temporary inaccessibility for non-disabled users in order to point out
the daily impediments faced by people with disabilities. Even in the midst of
protesting structural barriers disabled activists are narrated as fragile and as
taking unnecessary chances with their already too fragile health. However, as
Mike Davis points out in Planet of Slums (2006), a proper systemic analysis
needs to invert the terms of this recognition by placing the blame for vulner-
ability in its appropriate place: Fragility is simply a synonym for systematic
182 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
government neglect of environmental safety (125). Additionally, within dis-
ability collectives we fnd alternative discourses to consumption, standardiza-
tion, and belonging that ofer important possibilities for collective political
action on a global scale.
Teories about new forms of political resistance bear a great deal of signif-
cance for Disability Studies and global disability movements. Tis is not only
because the forms of political resistance now operative might allow a new
assessment of disability bio-politics on a global scale (witness the recent pas-
sage of the 2006 United Nations charter on global disability rights), but because
international disability movements may serve as key examples of Hardt and
Negris controversial formulation of postmodern militancy:
Te multitude designates an active social subject, which acts on the basis of what sin-
gularities share in common. Te multitude is an internally diferent, multiple social
subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less,
indiference) but on what it has in common. (Multitude, 100)
Within this defnition of coordinated yet non-unifed insurgencies, Hardt and
Negri have most consistently cited the Zapatista movement and the spontan-
eous uprisings of protestors during meetings of the G8. Te sociology of these
resistance groups reveals the participation of members who do not align them-
selves primarily on the basis of foundational social identities such as race, class,
ethnicity, or gender. Rather, contemporary resistance movements bring with
them alternative values of living that oppose corporatist, consumptive models
of everyday life. Tey specifcally attack late capitalist culture in terms of the
productive dimension of biopower wherein lifestyles of over- and under-con-
sumption operate as false universals (Empire, 27).
It may seem strange to cite disability movements in the context of a defnition
of multitude that is not based on identity. Afer all, disability seems to mark a
horizon of contemporary identity-based politics based on variable bodily cap-
acities, appearances, and experiences of stigma developed without common
community institutions or practices of everyday life. For Negri, the multitude
is the power of the singularities that are brought together within cooperative
constellations; and the common precedes production (Kairos, 215). Tis
characterization better captures the productive multiplicity that characterizes
movements of disabled peoples goals at a micro and, ultimately, macro level.
First, disability does not constitute a shared social condition. Instead, dis-
abled people recognize the intense diferences that constitute their bodies (what
Negri calls resistant singularities) as their greatest commonality. Te embrace
of idiosyncrasy, functional diversity, and aesthetic impropriety across bodies
Disability as Multitude 183
has both an empirical and socially derived utility. Tis embrace is empirical in
the sense that disability movements contest inadequate universalist categories
of medicine and rehabilitation. According to Disability Studies, the imprecision
of medical taxonomies of deviance simultaneously pathologizes and groups
disparate experiences as shared when they may in fact be disparate in a phe-
nomenological sense. Te embrace is socially derived because the unity of
disabled people fghting for their rights seeks a radical edge that is essential to
revolutionary politics:
Te [multitude], the producers of the common formula from which they arenone-
thelessexcluded, are the motor of the materialist teleology, because only the mul-
titude of the poor can construct the world under the sign of the common, pressing
forth relentlessly beyond the limit of the present. (Negri, 185)
As explained above, cross-cultural eforts by disability groups to seize the com-
mons in the name of universal accessibility for all bodies contests the neo-
liberal states justifcation of privatization. Disability movements, as opponents
to accumulation by dispossession, play a critical role in the expos of neo-
liberal practices that disenfranchise people from access to shared public space
(Harvey, 43).
Beyond these two important applications of Disability Studies to critiques of
postmodern capitalist containment strategies, disability may also be approached
in a manner that, perhaps, no other political theory allows. Rather than focusing
on more traditional Marxist objects of resistancesuch as the worker or the
masses or class confictHardt and Negri expand the boundaries of efective
political culture not only beyond identity (particularly that of nation), but also
beyond the critical Marxist category of surplus labor power. Whereas surplus
labor power denotes a concept of an ever available pool of laborers that assists in
keeping wages down, job security tenuous, scab labor a prevalent threat against
worker agency, and a misdirection of identifcation between the proletariat,
potential proletariat, and the bourgeoisie, the category leaves entire populations
outside of the defnitions of resistance. Negri puts the question in this manner:
But can those who are excluded from work still be considered part of a living labor?
Of course, since even the excluded are part of the common. And the poor person,
who is more excluded than anyone, i.e. the singularity at the greatest risk at the edge
of beingat the point where Power closes of the teleological striving towards the to-
comethe poor, therefore, are the most common. For if it is only the common that
produces production, those who are excluded but participate in the common are also
the expression of living labor. (Kairos, 225)
In order to create a less exclusionary defnition of subjects beyond notions of
labor and surplus labor (both remain tied to defnitions of competitive markets),
184 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
Negri uses living labor to suggest forms of creativity that cannot be reduced to
an economic value. His defnition of resistant subjects does not simply expand
outwards to include those who occupy non-productive bodies, but rather
takes its lead from those whose capacities make them unft for labor as the
baseline of human value. In fact, the more risk individuals experience within
capitalism, the less likely they are to feel invested in its continuance. As those
cultural constituencies lef out of the loop of potential labor, non-productive
bodies are inoculated against participating in the misdirected destabilization
of workers as so ofen characterizes the activities of those in the surplus labor
The Work of Non-Productive Bodies
Who are the inhabitants of non-productive bodies? What do they have to do
with disabled people? Why have they existed below the radar of radical labor
theory for so long? Non-productive bodies are those inhabitants of the planet
who, largely by virtue of biological (in)capacity, aesthetic non-conformity, and/
or non-normative labor patterns, have gone invisible due to the infexibility
of traditional classifcations of labor (both economic and political). Tey rep-
resent the non-laboring populationsnot merely excluded frombut also
resistant to standardized labor demands of human value. As many recognize,
the term disability was frst coined in the mid-1800s to designate those incapa-
ble of work due to injury. Tis grouping identifed disabled veterans of the Civil
War as eligible for various governmental supports: a pension, prosthetics, life
training, etc. Likewise, the diagnostic category of feeblemindedness in the same
period defned those who, due to congenital feature, were incapable of par-
ticipating in a competitive market-based economy. Tis group also qualifed for
levels of public support largely received in centralized, carceral forms of insti-
tutional care. As we argue in Cultural Locations of Disability (2006), member-
ship in this latter classifcation group resulted in the coercion of individuals to
exchange their liberties for social supports. Tis designation as non-productive
developed in spite of the fact that many institutional residents participated in
laboring economies developed within institutional societies: residents farmed
1. In Tus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsches philosopherprotagonist, Zarathustra, gets tired of human-
ity and takes up a life among the ironically titled, higher menthose who have been excluded from
dominant culture due to their discordant bodies, behaviors, and appearances. We analyze this alter-
native social formation of disabled people in chapter 3 of Narrative Prosthesis: Discourses of Disability
Disability as Multitude 185
the institutions land, provided housekeeping services to fellow inmates and
administrators, supervised each other on behalf of the institution, produced
products for the statebrooms, clothing, baskets, excessively low wage
rates. In many cases nothing more was provided in exchange for their labors
beyond the beneft of living an excluded life within the walls of the institution.
Within this context of disability as non-productive bodies lay an unseen net-
work of labor practices where the presumably insufcient provided for them-
selves within the walls of an undetected economy. Institutions ofen operated as
if they were small city-states that actively rendered the labor of the non-labor-
ing classes invisible. In many cases by the early twentieth century, a majority of
institutions could claim themselves as self supporting. Ironically, such claims
in efect disproved the theory upon which institutions were based: those who
could not compete in a labor market should be sheltered from its demands in an
institutional world that functioned as a closed circuit of dependency and care.
Instead, institutional residents made an ideal labor forcethose who could ef-
ciently meet the needs of their own segregated societywhen conditions could
be adjusted according to the principle: from each according to their ability to
each according to their need(s). Te realization of Marxs famous formulation
in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha within institutions consequently posed a threat
to reigning orders of capitalism operating beyond the walls of the institution.
In fact, historically, capitalists and bourgeoisie alike have sought remedies
in legislatures across the country against institutional labor practices. Blind
broom-makers in downtown Chicago were shut down because their efciency
undermined the ability of other broom manufacturers to make a proft during
1910. Tese workers with visual impairments, in turn, went on strike and forced
the city to re-open their place of employment on the basis of their status as an
exceptional class of laborers.
Tis is one of the great ironies of institutional life
for those who were deemed non-productive on the basis of physical, sensory,
and/or cognitive incapacity.
Te identifcation of hordes of people designated as non-productive bod-
ies and located on the outermost fringes of productive economies replaces
now antiquated categories such as the masses. Te potential for widespread
civil unrest proved compromised because workers found themselves engulfed
within networks of capital that kept them enthralled. Further, as modernity
gave way to post-modernity, the antagonistic divisions between workers and
2. Te history of this early disability identity-based labor protest and other conducted by deaf work-
ers in 1903 can be found in the Chicago Disability History Exhibit that ran from April 20September
15, 2006 at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. We believe these may be the frst
labor movements by self-identifed workers with disabilities.
186 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
capitalists that were anticipated to fuel revolution became increasingly blurred.
No longer did one participate in a simple, agonistic division of labor, but, for
Hardt and Negri, David Harvey, Frederic Jameson, and other political theorists,
late capitalism now saturated every nook and cranny of life and became increas-
ingly confused with the natural order of things. One could fnd no outside to
capitalist production given that the network of exchange had grown so difuse
and pervasive (here we fnd Hardt and Negris concept of biopolitics, borrowed
from Foucault). Capitalisms power came to be increasingly located in its ability
to naturalize its own artifcial economic context within every social interaction.
Tis marked the birth of what Marx anticipated as social capitalism.
Te critical question asked by todays theorists of postmodern political econ-
omy is that which Negri poses to himself in his essay, Kairos, Alma Venus,
Multitudo: Nine Lessons to Myself : how can this biopolitical (intellectual and
co-operative) mass, which we call multitude, exert governance over itself ?
(209). In other words, where does resistance manifest itself once a concept of
the workers revolution no longer seems tenable and how will this resistance
govern itself without the institution of new hierarchies of inequality?
In order to formulate responses to Negris question as articulated further in
his writings with Michael Hardt, Empire, Multitudes, and Commonwealth, we
must unpack it in as literal a way as possible. Biopolitical represents the degree
to which every aspect of living is ensnared by late capitalism: economic, social,
artistic, cultural, etc. Whereas modernitys capitalism saw division and segrega-
tion as its strategy of divide and conquer among laboring parties in a strategic-
ally segmented labor production process (i.e., the prior economic production
mode of Fordism), Postmodern capitalism elevates cooperation across spatially,
geographically, and culturally difuse networks that place individuals in contact
with each across disparate geographies. Multitude replaces masses in that
a multitude is defned as productive singularities (bodies) that cannot be col-
lapsed into a universal formula of normative labor identity. And here we will
make our claim: within this formulation of resistant bodies Hardt and Negri
essentially recognize forms of incapacity as the new galvanizing agent of post-
modern resistance.
Non-productive bodies represent those who belong to populations desig-
nated unft by capitalism. Tus, whereas traditional theories of political econ-
omy tend to stop at the borders of the laboring subjects (including potential
laborers), the concept of non-productive bodies expansively rearranges the
potentially revolutionary subject of lefist theory. If one is wired into the
system in some mannerand, for Hardt and Negri, there is no such thing as
an outside to this formulationthen one actively participates in the global
Disability as Multitude 187
give and take of biopolitical life. While such a claim may seem to defate the
potential for signifcant political action, given the seemingly boundless abil-
ity of capitalism to produce subjectivities advantageous to its own livelihood,
the alternative proves equally accurate: those whom Frantz Fanon designated
the wretched of the earth come into greater contact with each other through
immaterial communication networks characteristic of modes of production in
afective labor markets and opportunities for collective action increase. We
now ofer a brief description of how disability collectivities may be recognized
as the paradigm of this alternative formula of resistance.
Disability as Deconstructive Method
By the end of the nineteenth century, eforts to segregate, restrict, and oppress
populations, identifed variously as feebleminded, subnormal, deviant,
etc., went increasingly trans-national. Eugenics, the social engineering project
that sought to eradicate defective traits from a nations hereditary pool, went
global. Scientifc collectives were formed, restrictive policies were translated
from one cultural context to another with relative ease, categories of pathol-
ogy proliferated, and parallel populations found themselves increasingly the
subjects of incarceration practices. Policy-makers, scientists, psychiatrists, and
institutional administrators referenced the efective restrictions at work in other
nations in order to put pressure on their home legislatures to adopt frm meas-
ures. In other words, modern capitalism recognized the utility of international
markets in segregation strategies toward disabled people (and others deemed
non-normal) and actively traded in their dissemination (there are echoes of
Homi Bhabhas DIS-semi-nation here). In Cultural Locations of Disability, we
point out that a profound and devastating irony was at work in the progressive
period: as the discourse of disciplinary eugenics became increasingly mobile
and international, disabled peoplethe very subjects of that discoursefound
themselves increasingly immobilized. Teir labor was not absent, but rather cor-
doned of and contained within the parameters of the modern-day institution.
A fully Foucauldian network burgeoned within this period with disabled
people as the global objects of its eforts. Within the U.S., Canada, west-
ern Europe, and Australia, nations argued a logic of racial improvement and
purity; in Russia the old czarist lines were disqualifed as inferior due to
the eugenics concept of inbreeding; in Asia entire countries such as Korea
found themselves disabled by virtue of another (Japan in this case) colonizing
powers emasculation of the country. In other words, the discourse of eugen-
188 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
ics, applied unevenly and non-uniformly, functioned as a meta-disqualifer of
entire populations whose diferences (perceived or actual) served as the source
of their inferiority. Here we fnd the historical roots of a global efort to classify
bodies as non-productive and therefore outside of capitalist competitive labor
markets all together.
Te modern-day disability-rights movement, consequently, is not essential-
ly European or American or Western by necessity of the fact that wherever
the discourse of eugenics could be found (in one form or another), counter-
insurgent forces arise. Tese resistance strategies increasingly surface within
populations designated as non-productive, but, for Hardt and Negri, non-
productive bodies prove imminently productive because they occupy outposts
of alternative biopolitical discourses, lives imagined and realized in contrast
to, even counter-posed against, more dominant discourses of consumption,
productivity, family, and nation. In part these insurrectional communities of
non-productive bodies begin with a deconstructive method in that they cre-
ate group conceptions founded on theories of the malleabilitythe necessary
mutancy evenof strict borders, classifcations, and social relationships.
Te introduction of this strategic fuidity proves critical to the creation of
counter cultural formations as they rely upon the expos of the artifciality
of late capitalisms naturalness as their political alternative. Disabled bod-
ies, as defnitively multiple forms of embodiment that cannot be universal-
ized even within condition groups, rely for their insurrectional force on the
non- transcendental nature of their diference. Tis is the impetus for upsetting
medical and rehabilitation-based models of pathology that transect the globe.
Disability movements function as counter-discursive resistance eforts at the
global level while sustainingand even honoringlocal diferences. Tis is
one of the powerful lessons that Jim Charltons Nothing About Us Without Us
(2000) has brought to Disability Studies with its comparativist, international
interview methodology.
Meet Me at the Global
We draw to a conclusion with a laundry list of ways in which disability groups
produce a viable counter-narrative of biopolitics.
Disabled persons are made, willingly or not, into the legitimate non- workers
those who refuse to participate not in productivity but in the productive net of
capitalism that ensnares all in the seemingly infnite practice of consumption as
synonymous with life. Te disabled people that we know are some of the worst
Disability as Multitude 189
consumers on the planet because they have neither the means, the interest, nor
the gullibility of mistaking meaning with market. For instance, disabled artists
in the U.S. live some of the most sparingly non-consumptive lives and, yet, this
is what we admire about them the most.
Tose who identify as non-disabled ofen strain to occupy the increasingly
common forms of prosthetization that supplement failing bodies trying to nav-
igate late capitalist environments. To a great degree this prosthetic discomfort
comes about for those still inhabiting narratives of the natural body. Disabled
people, in turn and by necessity, have surrendered this artifcial nostalgia for a
version of their bodies as natural, pure, and unsupplemented. In this manner
they become, truly, the quintessential project of postmodernity.
Global capital increasingly relies on the development of workforces that can
manipulate immaterial data across an ever-expanding array of communication
networks. Such labor ofen involves a variety of skills such as: (1) the ability to
sit in rooms with others for hours on end; (2) the capacity to performatively
represent oneself in cybernetic space through non-visual or oral forms of com-
munication; (3) the ability, and even willingness, to function in virtual locations
that are not subject to aesthetic criteria of appearance that so ofen result in
exclusions of disabled people from employability; (4) substantial amounts of
leisure time that goes relatively uninterrupted by the nuisance of family, friends,
or love interests (we mean this only partially as tongue-in-cheek); and (5) a
willingness to be devoted to ones job because so much of what counts as an
outside life has already been rendered unavailable (the inaccessibility of rec-
reation, religion, or geographies beyond an immediate space). We are increas-
ingly approaching a time when all that formerly passed as the undesirability of
life in a disabled body proves increasingly advantageous from the standpoint
of an immaterial labor market.
However, and perhaps even more importantly, even outside of the formal
workforce disabled people fnd themselves manipulating data of a political
nature across national boundaries. Disabled peoples organizations and dis-
abled individuals now routinely exchange survival strategies and political tac-
tics with other non-productive bodies in formerly unreachable locations. Tus,
the international participation of eugenics discourse in the earlier part of the
last century has been met by an increasingly globalizing discourse of counter-
eugenic eforts. Disability rights movement leaders now exchange policies and
solutions with each other in order to pressure their own legislatures into adopt-
ing human rights platforms based upon comparisons with other policy- and
rights-based actions. Tese eforts efectively turn eugenic-based strategies on
their heads and can be fueled by commerce across global cybernetic networks.
190 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
Following out the logic of non-productive bodies allows us ways of conceiv-
ing of disability as a potentially efective political foundation for new forms of
resistance, particularly in that disability (as those who refer to TABS [the tem-
porarily able-bodied] remind us) potentially cuts across all marginalities. Yet,
its founding recognition of unity based in diference (i.e. what we have called
in another context, the politics of atypicality or intensive individual singulari-
ties that cannot be neatly collapsed in a coherent identity) could prove more
efective than those diagnosed by Laclau and Moufe and iek as balkaniz-
ing identity-based approaches to diference that undermine more spontaneous
forms of collective action.
Of course we do not mean to overlook the fact that disability collectivities
have discovered creative ways of fracturing their own collectivities, particularly
on the basis of unproductive debates over who is disabled and who is not-
disabled, disability hierarchies, tokenism, marginalization of expressive modes
(i.e. putting the pragmatics of policy over arts), the neglect of disabled people of
color, old boys and old girls networks of power brokering, and so on. But there
is also a series of productive ways to organize political constituencies that we
owe to the creativity of disability movements around the worldnamely, since
disability movements continue to operate at the meta-national level, disabled
people without borders.
To return to Hardt and Negris thesis explicitly, we stress that disabled bod-
ies prove so integral to late capitalism because the model upon which capital-
ist exchange rests has shifed so dramatically. Disability may present the best
intervention object of all in that it provides an opportunity to renew capital in
new geographies of the body. Because disabled bodies persist throughout his-
tory, and in militarized economies we produce them in great numbers at home
and abroad, market economies increasingly reference them among their tar-
get audiences.
Marketing Imperfect Identities
Nearly all of capitalism now fnds itself pitched toward imperfection as the
standard with product supplementation as the solutiondiuretics, impotency,
indigestion, mobility aids, depression, manias, hearing loss, vision correction,
chronic fatigue, etc. Te body has become a multi-sectional market; whereas
Fordist capitalism cultivated divided worker populations by hierarchicalizing
the assembly line; postmodern capital divides us within our own bodies. We are
now perpetual members of an audience encouraged to experience our bodies
Disability as Multitude 191
in piecesas fractured terrains where the bad parts of ourselves are mul-
tiple. Whereas disabled people were trained to recognize their disabled parts as
defnitely inferior, late capitalism trains everyone to separate their good from
bada form of alienation that feeds the markets penchant for treating our
parts separately. Te body becomes a terrain of defnable localities, each colo-
nized by its particular pathologies dictated by the medicalized marketplace.
Tis late capitalist litany of bodily frailties, imperfections, and incapacities gluts
advertising networks as the hegemonic product pitch strategy of today. Within
this environment disability rapidly becomes synonymous with a humanity that
we are all seeking to overcome. Te imperfect is our standard.
Te rise to legitimacy of comfort industries results as the twentieth century
closes. We are all subject to disciplinary regimens of the therapies that have now
transcended their subordinate position within health science and medicine to
become our cultural training gurus. Even more than Medicine, the Terapies
have now gone cultural and encourage our mass dedication not to perfection
but to the infnite pursuit of improvement. Once relatively isolated disabil-
ity rehabilitation regimens are now applicable to all citizens, just as all citizens
grow increasingly responsible for policing their own well being. Terapy is the
market, and the degree to which one resists therapy is the degree to which one
resists greasing the market. Refusal of our bodies as perpetual objects of profes-
sional labors provides a model of resistance wherein the ways our bodies func-
tion does not lead us to fall prey to regimes of standardization. We now fnd
ourselves encouraged not to conform to a general norm but rather condition-
based norms that others who presumably share our disability group establish.
Tis is really nothing but a move from a medical model based on an elusive
average body to a therapy-based norm of an elusive average disabled body.
Today late capitalism thrives on the production of new spaces for exploit-
ationthe promotion of the exotic as a strategy of consumption rather than
the promise of the homogeneous amid locales of diference. Te body itself has
become an outpost for this strategy. An intensive interior is now cannibalized
as new erogenous zones of intervention. To combat this tendency, disability
culture rises as a counter-valuing mechanism; one that cannot aford to mis-
take its own artifcial productions as more natural, but rather, following Hardt
and Negri, as a self-acknowledged product that seizes the biopolitical terrain as
revisable. Non-productive bodies work a revolution within the conception of
worker subjectivity. Te non-productive body is not simply a body incapable
of working within the narrow standardization eforts of capitalism, but rather,
as Hardt and Negri explain, it represents the way some deviants perform dif-
ferently and break the norms in doing so (Multitude, 200). Tese diferences
192 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
may result in a rigid exclusion from dominant economic networks but they
continue to produce and, in turn, be produced: thus, postmodernism may be
generally described as a culture of manufactured sentience: one that wires the
life of feeling and fesh directly into the circuitry of prosthetic supplementation
(i.e. prosthetics from sip n puf systems to Xbox cyber realities).
Democracy and Disability
A true democracy based on variation cannot be collapsed into a totalizing
essence/identity/unity. Based on their multiple formulas of diference, disability
organizations help to expose transcendence as a false dream of market com-
pensation. If we conceive of disability as a material expression of variation, then
embodied diference may be recognized as a paradigm for true democracy. Spe-
cifcally, those made expendable by late capitalism on the basis of a congenital
or acquired incapacity serve as an active recognition that normalization func-
tions as little more than a faade that disguises humanitys defning heterogene-
ity. Atruer disability-based model of social production is better understood
as the interdependency of intense singularities working for common goals
rather than the obverse which is the functioning logic of capitalism: intense
singularities suppressed by common goals and imposed by corporations upon
those who produce products and profts from which they do not adequately
Politicized alternative disability-based social organizations have tended to
situate their counter-discursive productions at both the macro and micro levels
of experience. At the micro-level diferences proliferate and disability dedicates
itself to unearthing the lack of duplication from one body to another; at the
macro level disability draws together socially debilitating experiences (i.e. lack
of employment, ouster from sexual circuits of interaction, exclusionary archi-
tectural standards, etc.) and identifes the degree to which global oppression
operates on disabled people across cultural contexts. As a result, bands of dis-
abled people have produced viable alternatives to the consumptive models of
capital and the expulsion of bodily imperfection in order to envision a meaning-
ful contrast of lifestyles, values, and investments adapted to life as discontinuity
and contingency. Tis is a material, albeit thoroughly subjective, realization of
the World Social Forums rallying slogan A Diferent World is Possible.
Disability as Multitude 193
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