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Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer
University of South Carolina Upstate / George Washington University

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any movement intent on changing

the world must be in search of a good theory. Of course, opening our
introduction to these special issues with such a sweeping assertion is, at best,
grandiose and overblown (dreams of changing the world in our moment
perhaps border on madness) and, at worst, saturated with an unfashionably
cruel optimism in which we are really talking about a cluster of promises we
want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us (Berlant
93). As we flesh out in this introduction, then, what a theory grounded in
cripistemology might look like or how it might work, we dutifully complain,
gripe, and moan, even as we search (compulsively, and with ambivalence) for
glimmers of relief. Well-versed in contemporary disability theory and queer
theory, and intimately acquainted with negativity, failure, hopelessness, and
passivity, we know that it does not always get better, and when it does, there
is a cost attached.1 Pain rears its sometimes inarticulate, sometimes articulate
head here. As Lisa wrote to Robert from an urgent care waiting room as we
completed this introduction, the willful crip rejoinder to it gets better is its
always something.
Cripistemology of the Closet

Its always something is arguably a Southernism, a bit like I feels it in

my bones or Lord, girl, theres only two or three things I know for sure.2
And in facteven if a major international conference on cripistemologies
1. The list of texts in question is too long to fully delineate, but three touchstones in addition to
Berlants are Edelman, Halberstam, and Puars The Cost of Getting Better.
2. Ruth Davis Cross, a 90-year-old disabled African American woman in Kenans A Visitation of
Spirits, provides us with the former remark (5); Dorothy Allisons Aunt Dot, in Allisons memoir of
Southern life (that includes reflections on class, gender, sexuality, abuse, addiction, and institutionalization), with the latter (5).
Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 8.2 (2014), 127147
ISSN 1757-6458 (print) 1757-6466 (online)

Liverpool University Press


128 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

was held at New York University in April 2013cripistemologys origins

are literally non-metropolitan (see Fig. 1). We narrate the terms emergence
below to locate it in the backwoods and branch campuses of disability and
queer theory. By way of these deviations from the metropole, we will
route cripistemology through a reconsideration of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwicks
now-classic Epistemology of the Closet in order to bind cripistemology to
crisis and pivot these two special issues of the Journal of Literary and Cultural
Disability Studies away from certain dominant ways of knowing disability in
our moment.
Neoliberal disability epistemologies are highly lucrativethis much we
know for sure. Disability identity is now part of capitalisms array of target
markets; a crip economy akin to the globalized queer pink economy is
emergent (materializing out-and-proud disabled consumers, in and out of the
academy), even if crip dollars, pounds, and euros are not yet as thoroughly in
circulation as pink dollars, pounds, and euros. What we might term the debility
dollar, however, is one of the most sought-after currencies in the world; in
the United States alone, money spent on actual or seeming impairments
represents 17.6 percent of the GDP. Hypostasized beneath neoliberalism, a
global psychopharmaceutical industry compels targeted consumers to know
about and from a space of impairment: Ask your doctor, Big Pharma instructs
the consumer, if Cymbalta is right for you. We argue that all too many ways
of knowing disability are beholden to the debility or crip dollar, caught up
in economies that actively closet what Lisa Duggan (in the roundtable that
follows this introduction) identifies as crip forms of intellectual, political, and
affective creativity. But the closeting of crip creativity can never be complete,
as the history of crip activism, performance art, and theory richly demonstrate,
and as the terms origin story also illustrates.
It all began on the Piedmont. Lisa coined the term in the spring of 2010,
coiling and uncoiling this bit of wordplay on the tongue as a way to process
and contain the not entirely comfortable mental churning that followed an
annual queer studies event called Bodies of Knowledge, held at the University
of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Robert had given
a keynote on Disability Nationalism in Crip Times, addressing impairment
in relation to the US military internment camp in Guantnamo Bay, Cuba
(or, more properly, representations of that camp), while also providing an
intellectual history of transnational queer/crip theory. The piece concluded
that the geopolitics of disability in the current world order call for analyses of
bodies beyond bordersspecifically, of impairments not immediately legible
within the identity-based or nationalist terms that characterize the disability

Introduction 129

rights movement in Western Europe and much of North America.3 Lisa had
just finished her memoir, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, a queer/crip reada
claiming, an inhabitingof borderline personality, dropping the word disorder
from the title to contest the pathologization of this disability identity. Formally
innovative, the memoir sutured together many types of discourse (medical
texts, self-help books, fairy-tale, personal email, autobiographical memory) to
evoke a stuttering, self-interrupting flood of ways of telling her particular story
instead of adhering to one voice or paradigm of illness narrative. She too was
thinking deeply about impairments not always legible in the disability rights
movement or disability studies, even if the field was about to take what Robert
has called elsewhere The Mad Turn.4
3.The keynote eventually became an article in another special issue of the JLCDS on
Able-Nationalism and the Geo-Politics of Disability.
4. The phrase, from a 2012 MLA presentation, referenced in particular the work of Margaret Price on

130 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

The back and forth in this mix generated discussion about knowing and
unknowing disability, making and unmaking disability epistemologies, and the
importance of challenging subjects who confidently know about disability,
as though it could be a thoroughly comprehended object of knowledge. We
were questioning, in other words, what we think we know about disability,
and how we know around and through it. Two weeks later, Lisa texted Robert,
Were really talking about cripistemologies here. Robert posted on Facebook
that Cripistemology is the best new word Id heard in a long time, thanking
Lisa for coining it. In that moment, the term emerged as something shared.
Traveling through bar conversations, texts, and status updates, cripistemology
refused the usual routes of academic knowledge, accumulating meaning in the
ephemera of conference chatter, social networking, and other queer gatherings.
Cripistemology is everywhere in theory, once you start looking for it. It
lurks, arguably, in places like Sedgwicks Epistemology of the Closet, a text
we find freshly useful for locating cripistemology within terminological and
geopolitical crises of our moment and for asking questions about remote
locations, styles, and modes of transmission for prohibited knowledge about
disability. Interestingly, Sedgwick was present at the inception of Crip
Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, as Robert was writing
about Gary Fisher and secured her permission, as executor of Fishers estate,
to use one of Fishers images on the cover. In his email conversations with
Sedgwick in 2005, Robert mentioned how much resonance her own work had
for disability studies, since she had at that point written not only about Fisher,
but about HIV/AIDS more generally (and about other friends living with HIV,
most notably Michael Lynch), breast cancer, and depression. Sedgwick warmly
affirmed in response to Roberts comment on her proximity to the field that
indeed she was, as it were, in the neighborhood.
Epistemology of the Closet is not explicitly about disability and predates
Sedgwicks direct remarks on the subject, but it would be easy to include this
text in a study of the crip language that saturates Sedgwicks work (emphasis
Epistemology of the Closet proposes that many of the major nodes of thought and
knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structuredindeed,
fracturedby a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition,
mental disability in academia, and was further substantiated in Daviss 4th edition of The Disability
Studies Reader, released in 2013 with a noticeable uptick in articles addressing mental disabilities.
5. In the following two paragraphs, we reintroduce but extend and develop an argument first put
forward by McRuer in We Were Never Identified: Feminism, Queer Theory, and a Disabled World
(150, 15253).

Introduction 131
indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The book will
argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must
be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that
it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition;
and it will assume that the appropriate place for that critical analysis to begin is from
the relatively decentered perspective of modern gay and antihomophobic theory. (1)

Epistemology of the Closet has been widely influential in multiple critical

fields, even if some of these bold opening claims are debatable.6 As we open
these special issues of JLCDS on cripistemologies, we might, however, cede
Sedgwick the twentieth century, and suggest, provocatively and playfully, that
thought and knowledge in twenty-first-century Western culture as a whole is
structuredindeed, fracturedby an endemic crisis of ability and disability.
And we would be willing to make at least a partial case that this crisis is indicatively female. Even more to the point, an understanding of virtually any aspect
of contemporary Western culture must be not merely incomplete, but damaged
in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical
analysis of able-bodied/disabled definition and the appropriate place to begin
is the relatively decentered position of crip, anti-ableist theory.
Indicatively female describes the cripistemological crisis we are theorizing
here for several reasons: the changing face of global health crises such as the
HIV/AIDS pandemic, the prominent voices of feminist theorists in debates
about disability knowledge (debates we trace in the section that follows), and
the disproportionately female low-wage labor force generated by the neoliberal
restructuring of the global economy over the past four decades. In and out
of the academy, more women than men compose a casualized workforce,
providing a cheap labor supply. Although roughly the same number of
university-level courses are being taught in Europe and North America as
in, say, 1975, these positions are now typically contingent and insecure, and
more women than men bear the burden of their mind-numbing, backbreaking
workload. We write this introduction during a standoff over health in the
United States, with the government currently shutdown over conservative
efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act. The ACA (however weakly) attempts to
distribute health care in the US to a wider swath of people. When such care is
not distributed more publicly, it is essentially privatized, and again women take
up much of this labor. As some universities respond to new federal health-care
initiatives by limiting adjuncts to two courses per semester rather than paying
6.Duggans Sapphic Slashers is just one text that puts forward a more historical account that might
deeply trouble the claim that Sedgwicks crisis is indicatively male.

132 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

the fringe costs that would be required by the ACA if they continued to allow
part-timers to teach three, four, or five courses per semester, this population
of workers is super-exploited.7 The crisis is indicatively female because it
points toward disabling structural positions largely occupied by women, an
observation we make not as an ableist lament about more disability in the
world, but to comment on the gendered dimension of able-bodied privilege.
The shifting economy under neoliberalism is also about service and
exhausting affective labor (smile! take care of me!)labor that continues to be
gendered female. Crip theory in this crisis should ask who cares: literally, who
performs service work, but also, more coarsely, who gives a shit about you and
your need to be smiled at? Which bodies/minds/impairments in this moment
of crisis will count as authentically and publicly disabled? Which will not?
How will disability and impairment be measured? Thinking about all of this
in the twenty-first century requires attending to many topics of conversation
from that legendary weekend in Spartanburg: movements in search of theories;
mad turns; illegible disabilities; dysregulated emotions; the states power to
produce, contain, deny, or (mis)recognize impairment; disability beyond or
across borders.
Unstable Crips

Although we are writing out of the context of friendshipand toward cripistemology as marked by collaboration and convivialitywe do not want
to present the concept as something everyone in the field will find equally
appealing, or as part of an image of disability studies as a stable interdisciplinary field. Disability studies is stalled, at times, by too much consensus,
too much harmony, too much propriety, too much citing (on the same page)
of theorists articulating very different points. We propose to do some of the
difficult work of identifying these points of divergence, and to proceed without
fearing conceptual instability. Specifically, Lisa has noticed that it has become
de rigueur in certain theory circles to wince at references to identity-based or
embodiment-based knowledge (or even epistemology, as in, Arent we past
that by now?), and Robert has noticed that is equally typical among certain
other scholars to mock or disavow references to poststructuralism, pleasure,
or the slipperiness of meanings, texts, and bodies as too intellectual and,
7. All wage labor is exploitation, as surplus capital is extracted from the labor we perform, but this
group of workers merits the label super-exploitation given the extremity of the situation.

Introduction 133

from a certain angle, too queer (all lubrication and fantasy). Picture us saying
this to each other on the phone and then just sitting there, blinking. Beneath
these caricatured encampments lie meaningful conceptual differences, and
we invoke this crisis not to resolve it but to place it, odd angles and all, under
the umbrella term cripistemology, where these varied, unstable crip positions
could be construed as deeply imbricated in, and trying to do justice to, a range
of necessary and queer turns in disability studies: phenomenological, transnational, affective.8
To get at these tendencies toward instability, we begin in a differently
Sedgwickian place, with Susan Wendell, whose 1989 article, Toward a Feminist
Theory of Disability, destabilized basic philosophical assumptions about
whose knowledge matters.9 If disabled people were truly heard, Wendell
predicted, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would
take place. Instead, disabled peoples knowledge is dismissed as trivial,
complaining, mundane (or bizarre), less than that of the dominant group (104).
Her description of becoming disabled (or falling ill overnight), learning to live
with a body that felt entirely different . . . weak, tired, painful, nauseated, dizzy,
unpredictable, and recognizing that suddenly able-bodied people seemed to
me profoundly ignorant of everything I most needed to know (104), relocates
disability knowledge from nondisabled to disabled bodies and community.
She values knowledge derived from the everyday experiences of those at odds
with a world structured for people who have no weaknesses (104). She asks
good questions, like, Where does a person sit down to rest, if necessary, at the
grocery store?
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson takes up the call, a little over ten years later,
to make feminist theory accountable to the disabled women it often excludes,
invoking the rubric of standpoint epistemology:
[A] feminist disability theory presses us to ask what kinds of knowledge might
be produced through having a body radically marked by its own particularity, a
8. We allude here to McRuers comment in Crip Theory: Instead of invoking the crisis in order to
resolve it . . . crip theory . . . can continuously invoke, in order to further the crisis, the inadequate
resolutions that . . . compulsory able-bodiedness offer[s] us (31).
9. Here we shift from Sedgwick the poststructuralist to Sedgwick the phenomenologist, or the
space where she is both at once. Indeed, Sedgwick is an excellent example of the often overlooked
(or misrepresented) fact that poststructuralism does not embrace social constructionism to the
exclusion or negation of the material body: I would warmly encourage anyone interested in the
social construction of gender to find some way of spending half a year or so as a totally bald
woman (Tendencies, 12). She remains interested throughout her 1993 anthology in questions of
how to occupy most truthfully and powerfully, and at the same time constantly to question and
deconstruct, the sick role, the identity of the person living with life-threatening disease (261).

134 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

body that materializes at the ends of the curve of human variation. For example,
an alternative epistemology that emerges from the lived experience of disability is
nicely summed up in Nancy Mairss book title, Waist High in the World (1996), which
she irreverently considered calling cock high in the world. What perspectives or
politics arise from encountering the world from such an atypical position? Perhaps
Mairss epistemology can offer us a critical positionality called sitpoint theory, a
neologism I can offer that interrogates the ableist assumptions underlying the notion
of standpoint theory. (Integrating, 2021)

Garland-Thomson describes her term as a perhaps clunky allusion to the

well-developed concept of feminist standpoint theory, and explains that her
use of sitpoint particularizes standpoint theory to disabled women by calling
attention to the normative assumption that one perceives the world from a
standing rather than sitting position (Feminist, 1570). Although clunky is
hardly out of place in disability studies (somehow the heavy orthopedic boots
described by Riva Lehrer in Carrie Sandahls work-in-progress, Code of the
Freaks, come to mind), we suggest cripistemology to sharpen the neologism
while performing similar cultural work: thinking from the critical, social,
and personal position of disability. Yet the term also expands the focus from
physical disability to the sometimes-elusive crip subjectivities informed by
psychological, emotional, and other invisible or undocumented disabilities.10
Wendell and Garland-Thomson evoke the sensory experience of disability,
what it feels and looks like, as well as the body politics of disability, how it
operates as a cultural location of stigma and defiance, marginalization and
collective organizing. Their work to call forth a legible, politicized disability
identity is a key type of cripistemology. Placing such consolidations of disability
knowledge next to recent scholarship that problematizes the category of
disability produces sensations of cognitive dissonance (what Mel Chen in this
issue terms brain fog, even) that is arguably constitutive of crip theory and
crip thought processes.
This is the difficulty before us: to attend to rejected and extraordinary bodies,
and at the same time to explore disability at the places where bodily edges and
categorical distinctions blur or dissolve (where the disabled body as literal
referent is, if not dematerialized, then differently materialized). As an example
of the latter, we turn to Jasbir K. Puar, whose recent work renders the concept
of disability knowledge unstable in useful ways. In The Cost of Getting
Better, Puar proposes an intervention in the binaried production of disabled
versus nondisabled bodies that drives both disability studies and disability
rights activism (153), a statement of what may seem to be unambiguous
10. The term undocumented disabilities is Anna Mollows, in this issue.

Introduction 135

opposition to Wendells and Garland-Thomsons ideas. In resisting disability

exceptionalism, and, with it, attachments to the difference of disabled bodies
(153, emphasis ours), Puar might be seen as pulling the chair out from under
sitpoint theory, and that may be in part how she intends her argument. Her
position does, nonetheless, widen the curve of human variation referenced by
Garland-Thomson as other nonprivileged bodies inescapably come into focus
in her argument. Although the rhetoric of inclusion is typically associated
with precisely the kind of neoliberal politics against which Puar writes, her
concern with precarious populations (154) both destabilizes the category of
disability and opens its borders to include more and different kinds of bodily
and affective experiences. What distinguishes Puars position from some
liberal feminist interventions in disability studies is its openly non-innocent
recognition that inclusion is necessarily predicated oneven convivial with
exclusion. In shifting from the material concerns of individual bodies and built
environments to the differently material concerns of transnational capitalism,
she repeatedly foregrounds, moreover, questions regarding which bodies are
targeted for life (Terrorist, 24) and which bodies are made to pay for progress
(Cost, 153).
In Prognosis Time, Puar describes an interdependent relationship between
the neoliberal consumer subject who assumes the right not to be injured by
products made by other bodies who are selected for this work because they
are deemed available for injury, expendable bodies, bodies whose debilitation is required in order to sustain capitalist narratives of progress (169). We
want to add to this analysis of differential availability for injury by widening
the category of expendable bodies or bodies whose debilitation is required
by larger economic forces to make room for many more of us than might
at first appear to belong there. Cripistemology further unwinds the spring
between debility and capacity, not only by recognizing the ways one populations capacity depends on the debility of others, but also by recognizing the
ways capacity depends on debility within a single individuals body or life (a
recognition that remains, however unstably, indebted to sitpoint theory).
For example, I (Lisa) have limited my willingness to travel over the past year,
after many years of traveling to visit family or give lectures on other campuses,
and constantly aggravating my chronic back pain. Now that I am less willing
to travel, my family perceives my physical situation as having gotten worse,
but my physical situation has actually stayed the same: it varies. Scoliosisrelated disability is episodic, not linear, a matter of intensities, sensations, and
situations, not illness and cure. Limiting my travel resulted not from worsening
symptoms but from changing perceptions of personal responsibility to engage

136 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

capacity in the service of obligatory family time and holiday ritual (smile!), or
in my role as diversity worker in the neoliberal university and aspiring guest
lecturer in the academy at large, when that capacity risks prolonged physical
pain and debility. Driving or flying long distances hurts. It also means risking
a recurrence of incapacitating back problems comprised of muscle spasms,
mobility impairment, slowed productivity, and other costs of rehabilitation. If
it seems, at times, as if its always somethingif not back pain, then dizziness,
nausea, anxiety dreams, eye infections, inflamed ligaments in the arches of my
feetthose somethings arrive with less frequency and less disabling force when
I slow down, redefine able, and turn down the invitation to speak or visit. I
am not unable to travel; I am frequently unwilling.
The inter-implications of capacity and debility have led me to this place of
crip willfulness, which sounds like a mean place of stubborn resistance, but feels
like a calm relinquishing of fantasies that I can force things (situations, bodies,
emotions, sensations) to be other than they are. It is a refusal to insista refusal
to act in accordance with the system of compulsory able-bodiednessthat
requires individuals to mask, suppress, and disregard discomfort in the process
of determining what is possible, of what we are capable. You cannot always
close the gap between how you do feel and how you should feel, willfulness
theorist Sara Ahmed writes. Behind the sharpness of this cannot is a world
of possibility. Ahmed reclaims killjoy as a site of productive misalignment
with cultural instructions to be (or act) happy in oppressive circumstances. If a
cruelly optimistic culture insists that we fake it till we make it, the crip killjoy
refuses to play along. Describing the decision not to travel in terms of debility
(I cannot) remains, however, much easier on my relationships and professional
standing than describing it in terms of capacity (I will not), and, recalling Puar,
my commitment to insistently rendering bare the instability of the divisions
between capacity-endowed and debility-laden bodies (Prognosis, 169) works
better to bolster decisions internally than to frame them to family members or
supervisors. In such lived environments, I become a stealth cripistemologist.
Sometimes comfort comes from relaxing into debility instead of frantically
scrambling away from it. Harriet McBryde Johnson says as much in her memoir
of muscular dystrophy, Too Late to Die Young, opening with her choice at age
15 to stop forcing her body into medically prescribed straightening devices
and relaxing instead into a deep twisty S-curve (1). Since my backbone
found its own natural shape, she explains, Ive been entirely comfortable in
my skin (2). Cripistemological inversions or, in less binary terms, dysplasias
of ableist logic, might pause over the endless deferral of comfort within this
system of compulsory able-bodiednessand here I return to the scoliosis

Introduction 137

that places me on the twisted spine spectrum with Harrietto reflect on the
futility of this idea of future comfort, as it propels us further into discomfort
by working harder to finally get somewhere more comfortable: better posture,
a better professional position, or the golden years of rest and leisure, even as we
grind joints, contort muscles, and injure discs (this, too, is the cost of getting
better). The decision to be capablelike the decision to be thin (girl, I could
tell you stories)is a winding road of self-deprivation presented as a cultural
good. The decision to be unstable, incapable, unwilling, disabled (the sharpness
of this cannot) opens up a world of possibility.
Sensational Crips

Cripistemology, both product of and comment upon the work speed-up or

productivity imperatives of neoliberalism, provides an inevitable auto-critique
of these pressures. Disability movements of all sorts have always desired
better knowledge about disability: better than the monovocal singularity
of the medical model, better than a rehabilitative model seeking a restored
identity or sameness, better than eugenic or genocidal dreams of a world
without disability, a world incapable of valuing disability or recognizing the
value generated by disability. In such contexts, disability movements have
attended to sensations (bodily, mental, behavioral) that could not be so easily
charted, graphed, or eliminated, but that offered insights into individual and
collective bodily experiences, gesturing toward what Roderick A. Ferguson
theorizes as something else to be (Aberrations, 133). The phrase comes from
Toni Morrisons Sula, and Ferguson works with it to instantiate the roots of
contemporary queer of color critique in a coalitional vision emerging from
women of color feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the fact that Sula
is not explicitly a lesbian novel, Ferguson argues that it resonated as such
for women of color feminists not because it materialized a representative
lesbian identity but because it provided alternatives (that could be called,
among other things, black lesbian) to the pathologization of difference, the
displacement of those pathologies onto surplus populations, and the political
and cultural challenges to such conservative formations (Aberrations, 111).
The pathologization of difference and displacement of those pathologies onto
others positioned differentially in a shifting global economy is part and
parcel of the new mode of exploitation (Aberrations, 110). Women of color
feminism, and later queer of color critique and transnational queer critique,
in formulating alternatives to heteropatriarchal and nationalist constructions

138 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

of nonheteronormative difference as deviance (Aberrations, 111), continually

(and, in many ways, sensationally) gestured toward a something else to be
that produced coalitions as a site of antiracist, feminist, and queer critique
(Aberrations, 137). We cite this women of color/queer of color legacy here as
a foundation of cripistemology, a model and source for its attentiveness to
bodies caught in new modes of exploitation (its always something) and its
coalitional generation of new modes of creativity. This citation, furthermore,
makes explicit the crip critique already posed by the creative vision of women
of color feminism as it attended to what was happening, differentially, to bodies
and minds caught up in the transformations taking place, rejected processes
of pathologization and making-deviant, and gestured outward to new ways of
being-in-common together.
Yet what Ferguson terms elsewhere an adaptive hegemony where minority
difference [is] concerned (Reorder, 6) ensures that the neoliberal institutions
in which we move also increasingly desire better, more valuable and
marketableeven sensational, in another sense, cutting-edgeknowledge
about disability. All of us are caught up in those processes, if in uneven ways. The
tension between a long-standing cripistemological yearning to attend patiently,
carefully, and collectively to varied sensations, on one side, and, on the other, the
neoliberal compulsion to get better and to be better/sensational/exceptional
quickly, individually, vying for the best position and bringing prestige (and
higher rankings) to the institutionis one of the reasons that we want to attend
to the ways that cripistemologies emerge from the backwoods and branch
campuses of disability and queer theory. It is perhaps no accident that much of
the material in these special issues has been generated by independent scholars,
graduate students, and/or non-US-based academicsalthough certainly not
automatic, we suspect that the former kind of yearning (to attend to each other
carefully and collectively) often germinates elsewhere, apart or away from the
spectacle of the metropole or the Research 1 university, even as the latter kind of
yearning (to be the best, to have the best) is in evidence everywhere.
Each of us feels the compulsion to be sensational and to work at the
accelerated pace that would vouchsafe that status, and we are both subject
to the sensations (some of them necessarily medicated if not medicalized)
that result from that compulsion. One of us (Robert) works at a mid-size
research university in the United States capital, Washington, of
three metropoles (along with New York and Los Angeles) that Michael Hardt
and Antonio Negri identify as a cluster of new Romes (347). It is a university
increasingly known for the sensational knowledge about disability generated
there (with more members of the board of the Journal of Literary and Cultural

Introduction 139

Disability Studies than any other university). I (Robert) have, in that pressurecooker context, at times asked my doctor whether Xanax might be right for me
and have, at times, accessed that prescription through friends when a doctor
has said, NoXanax is far too addictive. One of us (Lisa) works at a small
regional state university. In the administrative role of Director of Womens and
Gender Studies, she accesses benefits that some colleagues do not (summer pay,
a student worker to photocopy research materials, a load reduction from 4/4
to 2/2), all of which remain precarious from year to year, and faces obligations
some colleagues do not (a traditional business schedule year-round, clocking
in through an online system for reporting departures from this schedule,
a loss of scheduling flexibility). To make things ironically worse, I (Lisa)
received a salary correction in 2012 that raised my income significantly but
also subjected me to campus-wide scrutiny, shunning, and heightened micromanaging of my daily schedule and programming agenda, creating a change in
pace of life that led me to experience my body as more disabled than before the
speed-up.11 Casting an eye toward positions at research institutions, making up
a word like cripistemologies to get there, I imagine professors on a 2/2 load
with no administrative obligations who experience more control, more creative
flow, more respect for their aspirations to publish, more meaningful exchanges
with upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, more freedom, more
pleasure. The hope for a research position, the longing, the high productivity and the long hours and physical pain it requires, the anxiety, despair,
resignation (and, yes, occasional Xanax addictions): all these affects fuel and
benefit a system that increasingly construes professors as expendable bodies.12
Yet, the more gleeful existence elsewhere in the academic hierarchy is itself
an illusion. Keguro Macharias widely circulated piece On Quitting, detailing
his decision to leave a tenure-track job in LGBTQ studies at a prominent US
research university outside Washington, D.C. to return to Kenya, illustrates
all that we are getting at here: I begin to wonder, Macharia writes in 2013
(using language that has percolated and been shared for decades by women of
color feminism and queer of color critique), about the relationship between
geo-history, the saturation of space with affect, and psychic health. Macharia
laments the accelerated, isolating, racialized labor demanded of him in the
United States academy, where depression feels surrounding, womb-like, and
11. Wendell describes pace of life as a factor that determines how disabled a person is (Rejected, 90).
Likewise, Puar remarks that neoliberalisms heightened demands for bodily capacity mean no one
is ever able-bodied enough (Cost, 149).
12. This narrative is indebted to Cvetkovich for putting into words the experience in academia of
depression in the form of thwarted ambition (17).

140 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

I burrow under covers to experience it even more. At times the sensations

generated by his structural position are slippery and difficult to define (not
only depression, but bipolar and seasonal affective disorders are among the
signs he uses to make sense of his experience), and he relies on the readers
imagination to fully plumb the depths of their intensity: It gets far worse than
I will ever confess. And then worse than that.
The academy tells me what I should desire, Macharia opines, but in
resisting these compulsions and returning to Kenya, he is indebted to long
traditions of seeking other ways to be. On Quitting bodies forth the cripistemological crisis of the twenty-first century, the instability of ways of knowing
from and through forms of pain that may not register as legible impairments,
let alone disabilities, as well as the duality of sensational crip that we tease
out in this section. Macharia ends with an image of impairment that indirectly
underscores what we mean as we bind cripistemology to crisis: Leaving the
U.S. will not remove me from toxicity and exhaustion. At best, it will allow
limited detoxification, perhaps providing me with some energy. Perhaps it will
provide a space within which scabbing can begin, and, eventually, scars that
will remain tender for way too long.
Limited Detoxification: On Crip Friendship

Many of us are reaching for something else to be, something other than and
elsewhere from the new modes of exploitation such as those Macharia identifies
in the contemporary university. Such reaching and searching will inevitably
take place, Audre Lorde suggested more than 30 years ago, in a society where
the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need (qtd
in Ferguson, Aberrations, 110). Ferguson opens his analysis of the queer work of
women of color feminism with this quotation, adding Lordes recognition that
we must recognize that we need each other. . . . There are no more single issues.
Lorde, too, imagined a less toxic world, especially in her account of living with
breast cancer, The Cancer Journals, one where healing might take place, even
as she recognized, like Macharia, that the scars would remain tender for a very
long time. And even though Macharia in the twenty-first century writes of a
different punishing system and different cosmetic reassurances than Lorde in
the twentieth (the American Academy rather than the US health-care system
and Cancer, Inc.), both systems encourage one, in Lordes words,
not to deal with herself as physically and emotionally real, even though altered and
traumatized. . . . [W]e are allowed no psychic time or space to examine what our true

Introduction 141
feelings are, to make them our own. With quick cosmetic reassurance, we are told
that our feelings are not important, our appearance is all, the sum total of self. (57)

Cripistemology, as we imagine it, does not assume epistemic privilege for

the disabled person; it is quite clear in Lordes memoir that certain ways of
knowing are actively blocked for some women living with cancer. Lorde does
not blame individual women for such blockage; she, like Macharia after her,
rightly blames the systems through which we move. Still, Lorde and many
others do foreground the ways in which disability experience in relation
(tangible floods of energy rolling off these women toward me, Lorde writes
[39]) produces new/different/better knowledge.
Nor does cripistemology restrict epistemic privilege to the disabled person.
Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick are among the many others who write about
disability-in-relation, specifically about a deepening understanding of disability
through their relationship as a disabled and nondisabled person. Rejecting the
idea that there is some privileged standpoint from which disabled people alone
can speakas though theirs is the only authentic understanding of the specific
embodiments in question (64), they still invoke personal experience (the
medically deteriorating condition of one of us [69]) as one epistemologically
useful ground for insights into grand matters (the disunity at the heart of all
human beings and the disruption of the illusion of corporeal and psychic
wholeness, and the sense of bodily separation [69]). On a smaller scale, Shildrick
describes learning about touch, care, and corporeal boundaries in proximity to
Price, whose multiple sclerosis has resulted in decreased sensation across large
areas of her body (69) and a fluctuating sense of touch (72). These bodily traits
left Shildrick on uncertain friendship ground: I found it difficult to know at any
given moment whether a greeting hug was still experienced as a sign of affection,
given and returned, an unfelt and therefore meaningful gesture or even a more
or less painful assault (72). What we take from their narrative is not only the
intended point about the instability of the disabled body and of all bodies
(72), but also that the production of knowledge about disability comes not only
from being disabled but from being with and near disability, thinking through
disabled sensations and situations, whether yours or your friends.
We are familiar with the solace and learning that take place in the context of
crip intersubjectivity. Both of us have gotten better at managing boundaries as
a result of our own collegial friendships, for example, with Anna Mollow. Most
recently, Lisa learned to assert limits of time, energy, and physical and psychological stamina as a direct result of practice in asking how best to accommodate
Annas Environmental Illness. Learning about Annas EI had the unexpected

142 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

benefit of making Lisa willing, finally, to ask for accommodations of her own
physical and psychological conditions, not only from seeing Anna model
this work, but from realizing the joy produced by working with and around
the needs of someone you care about. Disability knowledgeembodied and
relationalis about disability (knowing how long Anna can be on the phone,
knowing how long Lisa can type at a desk in a given day) and extends beyond
disability (knowing how to say no, realistically assessing timeframes for
specific tasks, incorporating self-care into the equation). Price and Shildrick
write toward the very large-scale insight that ethics itself must be rethought
(73); their call for thinking together and otherwise (74), for us, echoes parts
of the virtual roundtable that launches this double issue, as some participants
imagine cripistemology as confusing what any one individual might think,
generating alongside that confusion doubt, uncertainty, or failures to know.
The possibility of better ethical models inhabits this dimension of the term, as
the failures or necessarily partial quality of knowledge generates pressure on
each of us to ask, rather than assume, what encounters require of us.
This brings us to our own experience of disability-in-relation. Cripistemology, we joked, emerged from a queer marriage of our two scholarly styles.
Lisas creative work, in particular, is often formally innovative, intense, and
deeply personal, giving voice to at times barely articulable experiences of pain
and, paradoxically, also of pleasure. Sometimes Lisas work is about identity
(cripping a DSM category, for example). Sometimes, however, her work is
about anguish that is identity-disintegrating. Roberts work, in contrast, is
concerned with locating queerness and disability on/in the current geopolitical
and socioeconomic moment and attending to the ways in which that moment
generates specters of disability everywhere (Crip Theory, 199). This concern
encompasses many, like those in his essay on Guantnamo, whose experiences
cant or wont, for various reasons, materialize as disability, because the word
at times functions as what Gayatri Spivak calls a global master word. For
Spivak, master words innocently claim to represent all women or workers
and in the process mask the non-innocent and hierarchical relations of power
embedded in language (104). Put differently, our own fledgling cripistemological thinking surfaced orgasmically from the encounter between those
two specific (and, we hope, complementary but differently generative) ways of
knowing. Marriage, of course, was the wrong word for what happened, not
least because cripistemology emerged from a conference quickie, a drunken
one-night-stand. Crip humor aside, our different ways of knowing-in-relation
germinated into not only limited detoxification, but a sustaining crip friendship,
a relational site from which to know disability differently (Titchkosky 10).

Introduction 143
Material Crips

We have been talking throughout about materialism in two ways: the

materiality of embodiment upon which both disability studies and critical
theory more broadly have focused of late and the shifting material relations of
production that have brought us to the cripistemological crises of the twentyfirst century.13 The critical content of this issue and the one that follows likewise
engages both materialisms. We open with a virtual roundtable that gathers 12
leading scholars of race, gender, sexuality, and disability to reflect on the work
the neologism might perform. What emerges from their conversation is a thick
consideration of bodily experiences, histories, and possibilities. Proliferating
cripistemology affirmatively, as Puar phrases it in her own contribution to
the roundtable, participants thread their reflections through women of color
feminism, contemporary health activism by undocumented immigrants, crip
critiques of the new DSM, crip humor, and many other concerns. Mel Chens
provocative Brain Fog: The Race for Cripistemology, a version of which was
Chens keynote address at the cripistemologies conference at NYU, follows
the roundtable. Extending many questions we raise in this introduction,
Chen crips the situated or partial perspectives that feminism has bequeathed
us through a consideration of how academic systems generate cognators
expected to perform always-sharp mental acuity. This academic demand
for expert cognators not only blocks a consideration of how people with
intellectual disabilities might be part of an open and accessible university-tocome, but also of the uneven and often foggy ways in which all minds operate.
The remaining two articles in the first issue attend cripistemologically to
symptoms, pain, and ways of knowing that emerge from pain. Anna Mollows
Criphystemologies: What Disability Theory Needs to Know about Hysteria
considers the experiences of those with undocumented disabilitiesthose
whose impairments are not necessarily named, whose perspectives on their own
bodily experiences or symptoms are discounted, and who are repeatedly told
its all in your head. Reading Sigmund Freuds epistemological disablement
of hysterical patients (most notably, Dora), Mollow attends to what both
psychoanalysis and disability theory have resisted knowing about suffering.
Alyson Patsavas, in Recovering a Cripistemology of Pain: Leaky Bodies,
13. Without positioning ourselves stably or decisively in the current feminist debates over old
and new materialisms, we note, here, that we are in the neighborhood of the conversation being
advanced by, among others, Alaimo and Hekman, toward the deconstruction of the material/
discursive dichotomy, whose effort to address the dis-ease in contemporary feminist theory
likewise bears the imprint of crip theory (6, emphasis ours).

144 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

Connective Tissue, and Feeling Discourse, surveys a range of representations

of pain (from popular journalism to journal entries from her own life) in order
to position sensation as fluid and relational. Building on the feminist disability
theory of Shildrick, Patsavas argues that pain is a leaky experience that flows
through, across, and between always-already connected bodies.
Two of the articles and one of the Comments from the Field in the second
special issue (JLCDS 8.3) look backward, suggesting that there are proliferating
origins to cripistemology. Eli Clares Yearning toward Carrie Buck, a work of
creative nonfiction, interweaves the history of early twentieth-century eugenic
sterilization (in all its raced, classed, and gendered dimensions) with reflections
on Clares own experiences, including being diagnosed as mentally retarded
in 1966. Yearning, in Clares work, becomes a way of bearing witness to the
many bodies [that] have vanished into the whirlpool of history. Kateina
Kolovs The Inarticulate Post-Socialist Crip: On the Cruel Optimism of
Neoliberal Transformations in the Czech Republic attends to other bodies
essentially disappeared into history. As the Czech Republic moved, post-1989,
from socialism to a neoliberal modernity, disability metaphors proliferated to
make sense of (and dismiss) the Communist past. Kolov cruises through the
journalism of the period to analyze the disability positionalities that were and
were not available, materializing in the process a post-socialist crip that resists
the compulsory overcoming or rehabilitation narratives of neoliberalism, and
works with and against the socialist past to envision what she terms a crip
horizon. Jennifer Tyburczys trans-crip history, Leather Anatomy: Cripping
Gay Masculinity at International Mr. Leather, focuses on Tyler McCormick,
a disabled transman who won International Mr. Leather in 2010. Tyburczy
considers the discourses of compulsory able-bodiedness and homonormativity
that animated and evolved in gay leather culture from 1979 to the present.
The concluding two articles of these special issues bring us back to education,
expanding the overview of educational systems in our introduction. [Every]
Child Left Behind: Curricular Cripistemologies and the Crip/Queer Art of
Failure, by David Mitchell with Sharon Snyder and Linda Ware, argues
for teachable moments organized around crip/queer content that interrupt
normative cultural practices. Inclusive education, even as it purports to
leave no child behind, leaves all children behind, and the crip/queer art of
failure is necessary, the article suggests, to undo success as it is currently
understood through models of educational inclusion. Finally, Sarah Brophy
and Janice Hladkis Cripping the Museum: Disability, Pedagogy, and Video
Arts theorizes a scrapes thematic, a dissident scraping of bodies against
institutional containment. Surveying Scrapes, a video art exhibition they

Introduction 145

curated at McMaster University, the authors analyze the critical and coalitional
work the exhibit made possible.
We hope it is clear in our conclusion that, in and through this abundance
of contemporary and historical cripistemological material, we are actually
suggesting something contra our opening: it is not the case that any movement
intent on changing the world must be (simply) in search of a good theory. We
hope cripistemology at its best demonstrates that theorizing is and always
should be multi-directional (and multitudinous), that it is not brought from on
high to a movement in order to fuel and direct it: disability movements, queer
movements, crip movements, and others are always and have always been
excessively and pleasurably generating new theories. Its always something,
but bodies in relation to disability in all its unstable valences make from that
something ways of knowing and being-in-common that point us beyond
truths universally acknowledged and toward proliferating crip horizons.

To turn a phrase that Robert once wrote in Crip Theory, it takes at least two
people to make a cripistemology. In truth, it has taken many more than two.
For their willingness to participate and their textured consideration of this
new term, we are grateful to the members of the virtual roundtable discussion.
Their exchange pushed us to clarify what we meant by this word, even as the
word took on a life of its own, beyond our design or imaginations. Likewise, the
authors of the articles deserve recognition for their creativity and persistence
over the course of a fairly intense two-year period of collaboration from
abstracts to final drafts. We have enjoyed the transcorporeal pleasures of this
thinking-togetherness. At a very late hour, Margaret Fink, Cassandra Hartblay,
Mara Mills, Sami Schalk, and Jonathan Hsy agreed to write the four other
Comments from the Field that work so well with the theme of our special
issues; we are very grateful for their contributions. Our editorial insights into
the articles collected here were enhanced and, at times, exceeded by the input
from our outside reviewers: Brenda Brueggemann, Elizabeth Donaldson, Beth
Ferri, Alison Kafer, Anastasia Kayiatos, Petra Kuppers, and Susannah Mintz.
Finally, we thank Lisa Duggan and Mara Mills for organizing the conference
on cripistemologies at the NYU Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality
in April 2013, an event that consolidated, problematized, and proliferated
the term in ways that shaped our evolving perspective as we developed the
introduction. We have written at length, in the preceding pages, about the

146 Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer

pain and distress of working in academia; moments like that conference or this
presentation of our special issues bind such pain and distress to the pleasure
of seizing opportunities to abuse the academys hospitality together.
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