Episode 5: Contra*Neoliberalism with Robert McRuer

In Episode five, Vanderbilt Graduate students and Critical Design Lab members Maggie Mang and Rebecca Rahimi speak to Robert McRuer about his book Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance.

Show Notes and Transcript


  • Crip, queer theory 

  • Austerity politics and globalization 

  • Crip times 

  • Art and activism 


Robert McRuer, Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance (NYU Press, 2018) https://nyupress.org/books/9781479874156/

Further readings recommended by McRuer on globalization, geopolitics, and the political economy: 

Further readings on art and activism

Disability justice 


Introduction Description:

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Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid



Episode Introduction: 

Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing. 

I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie .  I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory.  Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl 

In Episode five, Vanderbilt Graduate students and Critical Design Lab members Maggie Mang and Rebecca Rahimi speak to Robert McRuer about his book Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance, published by NYU Press in 2018. 

This episode is about crip theory and the material world, including ways that disability activists are critiquing processes of austerity and gentrification through art and design. This work really marks a shift within the field of disability studies toward thinking about radical disability theory and activism as practices of reclamation and re-invention, and builds on earlier work in crip theory by Carrie Sandahl, Alison Kafer, and Robert himself.  Here, we are interested in how these ideas can also influence material production, such as design. So here are Maggie, Rebecca, and Robert!


Maggie Mang:               Hi, we are here today with Professor Robert McRuer of George Washington University, to talk about his newest book, "Crip Times: Disability, Globalization and Resistance," which was published recently through NYU Press. My name is Maggie Mang.

Rebecca Rahimi:           I'm Rebecca Rahimi.

Maggie Mang:               And we are first-year graduate students at Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health and Society. We are actually here to day to record this interview for Contra, which is a podcast put out by the Critical Design Lab, which takes the methods from critical and interrogative design to look at the often messy intersections between technology, embodiment, the built environment and disability.

Rebecca Rahimi:           So we'll be speaking about your research and your newest book, and you've really contributed to the world of crip theory and queer crip theory. Do you mind describing that for our listeners, who might not be familiar with that field? And, additionally, you've used concepts like crip times and austerity politics in your book. Do you mind explaining these concepts for our listeners?

Robert McRuer:            "Crip theory," is a big project that we are currently in the process of inventing. I would say what it can potentially mean, but like "queer," the word "crip" is a reclaimed and reinvented term that has been circulating for decades, really, in disability culture and disability activism, and has come to be a sort of edgy, in-your-face, defiant, out-and-proud word. I think, like "queer," it has the sort of advantage of being, as I say in the book, fabulously identitarian and fabulously anti-identitarian at the same moment, by which I mean that "crip" has been a term that many radical disability activists have used to describe their own identities. But "crip" also tends to be an analytic and a term that's useful for thinking about bodies, minds and behaviors that don't fit neatly into our available languages for thinking about impairment, disability, illness and the body.

Robert McRuer:            So crip theory, as a project, I think, like feminism as a project, in that feminism is capable of thinking about the ways in which anything that seems not, on the surface, to be deeply about gender is actually saturated with issues about gender. I think crip theory simultaneously brings to the fore the ways in which disability, even if it's invisibalized in a given topic or issue or situation, is actually quite central to how we might conceptualize and rethink and remake the topic at hand. So I think I've just named feminism and have previously named queer theory, crip theory is sort of deeply in conversation with those radical projects as well.

Robert McRuer:            "Austerity politics" tends to be a global consensus at this point that is very sedimented even if, in specific locations, austerity is sometimes declared to be at an end. So, for example, in this moment, the British government is now saying, "Oh, austerity is done." A project that they officially embarked on in 2010, but the logic of austerity still animates that location and most locations around the globe. Specifically refers to a program of cutting vital public services, privatizing those same services, imposing fees for healthcare, education, transportation, didn't exist before, raising the retirement age, all in the interest of addressing a supposed crisis, usually a budget crisis. Sometimes a deficit crisis, sometimes bailing out the banks, but "austerity" is the sort of "universal solution," in scare quotes, to those supposed crises.

Robert McRuer:            I argue in the book that that actually is a failed policy that masked the ways in which austerity has actually facilitated a massive redistribution of wealth upwards. The other term that you wanted me to unpack was ...?

Rebecca Rahimi:           "Crip times."

Robert McRuer:            Ah, "crip times." So I used the concept of crip times, I think the concept of crip time circulates into civility communities to talk about the ways in which disability enables us to experience and rethink and relive temporality otherwise. So crip time, sometimes refers to a slowing down, a questioning, of modalities of speed and efficiency and the compulsion to go faster and faster and faster. Crip time refers to thinking about the ways in which the body actually has its own ideas about how long something might take or what needs it has and so forth and so on.

Robert McRuer:            "Crip times," as a concept I use in the book to talk about the moment that we're living in, where I argue disability is a sort of central but under-theorized element of, one the one hand, political economy in general, on the other hand, a global politics of austerity. So I argue that crip times is a way of sort of calling attention to disability centrality to our moment. But I also use the term, if that is, arguably, sort of negative, I also use the term to describe the generativity of crip activism and art. So the centrality of disability to a global austerity politics has radicalized many artists and activists in generative ways that has led to the production of new forms of activism, different modalities of art, and these are forms of art and activism that cross borders with ease and so, "Crip Times," also has that, positive, generative, "cripistimological" we might say, if we think of cripistomology as a term for thinking about ways of knowing with, and through, and across disability.

Robert McRuer:            So "Crip Times," speaks to that generative sight and moment.

Maggie Mang:               Along those lines, you're also one of the few scholars who look at disability alongside questions of the political economy. Why do you also have to take into consideration that neo-liberalism, when talking about things like access?

Robert McRuer:            Well, I think whenever we're talking about neo-liberalism of the past few decades, we really have to think about the ways in which neo-liberalism hijacks identity. So in some ways, LGBT identity is the prime example, where you have a really radical movement that was reshaping our notions of being uncommon and sociality and sexuality and desire in the 70s and 80s. And you get neo-liberal capital in the 80s and 90s, starting to get that, and domesticate it, and tame it, and market to it, and put forward representatives while sort of forgetting, or invisibalizing, the more radical demands of the movement.

Robert McRuer:            So I think you have to watch that with any sort of identity category that's caught up in neo-liberalism, and all identity categories are. So disability needs to be thought of in that regard in relation to neo-liberalism. Certain str- I mean, there's many ways of narrating the history of the disability movement or disability movements, and disability studies, on- I think there's amazing work being done by emerging scholars like [Leslie Frye 00:08:30], whose dissertation was on rethinking the ways that we tell the story of disability rights movement as a particular story that's largely very white and about independence and self-sufficiency and work, and she's doing really this amazing recovery work narrating the story differently through African-American histories on other ways of thinking about origins of the movement.

Robert McRuer:            So the first thing I would wanna say about political economy is it's kind of been there from the beginning. And some origin stories of the disability movement would be explicitly Marxist, many of the models that emerged in the UK in the 70s and 80s were sort of openly Marxist. But also in Scandinavia as well, you had a lot of radical conversations going on in Denmark and Sweden about what a more accessible world might look like and how that accessible world might be brought into being by changing structures of oppression. There's a book that I'm citing in the background here that's "Loneliness and Its Opposite," about Scandinavia, that gets at those histories.

Robert McRuer:            So the first thing I would say is that, thinking about political economy has a long history in disability justice movements and in disability studies. I do think, though, that over the past decade and a half, there has been a sort of geopolitical turn that's marked by, for instance, a series of special issues of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disabilities studies, that focus on post-colonial theory, on transnational theory, and there's a way in which Nirmala Erevelles' book on "Disability and Difference in Global Contexts," I think is the title, I may have mistaken that slightly, but her book really sort of called us to attention on the question of needing to think globally.

Robert McRuer:            Not that it wasn't going on in other locations before that, but I think that book does mark a milestone that is followed by a range of books that are very different but can still be seen as a kind of cluster of books focusing on political economy and disability. So I'm thinking of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's book, "The Biopolitics of Disability." "Crip Times," also certainly fits in there. I would also say that, in a different way, Jasbir Puar's recent book, called, "The Right to Maim," that's on debility and disability, also is just part of that larger conversation that's happening right now in, and across, the field about geopolitics and political economy.

Rebecca Rahimi:           Thank you. So in your most recent book, "Crip Times," you speak about the ways in which you approach notions of disability, social justice and global politics in the economy through the lens of art. And we were wondering what led you to look at global policies and acts of resistance through the lenses of art, performance, and design? And is that a connection that is readily or inherently obvious, or was there a moment or event that sparked this particular connection? What about art allows for these spaces of generative thought and imagined possibilities?

Robert McRuer:            There are two arts that are central to the second half of the book, and one of them, Liz Crow, was just at my university last week, talking about her 2015 performance piece called, "Figures." Just briefly, she did a performance piece where, for 11 days, over the course of March and April of 2015, she sculpted 650 human-like figures out of raw river mud, and each one was meant to represent someone living at the sharp end of austerity, and sometimes dying.

Robert McRuer:            And as she sculpted each piece, social media broadcast a story that would go with each figure. Performance had many aspects, including a tour eventually, they were put on display and toured, and eventually burned in a bonfire while these 650 stories were read aloud to then scatter the ashes into the ocean.

Robert McRuer:            So it's interesting that Crow captured something in her talk last week that really, I think, captures something about my own thinking about art. She stresses repeatedly, "I haven't given up on the other kind of activism, when in this dangerous moment, it's urgent that we have direct action and marches and protests" But she also wants to sort of find a space for valuing certain kinds of activists slash artistic practices that are more about getting us to reflect and think differently and, to get back to "Crip Times," slow down. And so, while affirming that need that's obvious for collective resistance in this dangerous moment, I kind of really want to affirm in the book the ways in which artistic practices also generate a kind of crip time that allow us to think otherwise and slow down and imagine other worlds.

Robert McRuer:            Yeah, I also try to, theoretically, tie that idea into "Queer of Color Critique," specifically the work of Darieck Scott, who wrote a book called "Extravagant Abjection." He similarly puts forward a bifurcated affirmation of the need for collective resistance, which is obvious, but then also asks what happens when we linger in literary ways, in artistic ways and cultural ways, linger over woundedness and abjection, and for Scott, and his book on African-American literature, on blackness. So I'm very influenced by that line of thought in both "Crip," and "Queer of Color Critique."

Maggie Mang:               Especially a perfect segue into the second question. So you said in your work that you actually highlight the works of Liz Crow, and Livia Radwanski. And so we're just curious of how, why such an affinity for these two artists? What of these two works, and of the mediums and the messages and intent that they're working with, and really strikes you and fits into the larger work that you're trying to do in your book?

Robert McRuer:            There's several reasons. Certainly I profoundly appreciate the deep, feminist commitments that drive both artists' work in very different locations in the world, and I also was sort of looking for a sort of parallel and maybe inversion. Clear to me, when I met Liz Crow in 2014, that I wanted to do something with her art, and with the performance which was still to happen at the time that I met her.

Robert McRuer:            The book had coalesced around austerity politics in the UK, this piece was directly on that, it was deeply located in crip culture and disability activism. And so I wanted to focus on her work while really appreciating the ways in which that location in disability culture nonetheless spun out into this textured thinking about class and poverty and inequality, which is massive in the UK and increasing everywhere. But the income equality in the UK is staggering.

Robert McRuer:            Radwanski is sort of the inversion of that, where she is a leftist, feminist thinker, and artist, whose work is not specifically about disability, but who thinks deeply about issues of class as she attends to both processes of displacement, mainly in Mexico, but in other locations as well, but also to the ways in which poor communities mobilize, collectively, to address displacement and economic injustice. What struck me about her work, once I started working with her very closely, was how disability was just right beneath the surface. So, in some ways, she was the inversion of Crow, but a perfect pairing for her.

Robert McRuer:            So the reason I ended up working with an artist working in Mexico, she's a Brazilian photographer working in Mexico, I was attentive to the ways following the London 2012 Games, the British government was trumpeting itself as the model for access around the globe, and traveling the globe with its selling, basically, its vision of disability access. And so I was struck by the ways in which a certain kind of photo op and event was happening, redesigning Mexico City space outside the British Embassy and other locations at the same moment that heightened processes of gentrification were displacing other populations, and Radwanski's photos grapple with that.

Robert McRuer:            So the chapter on her photography has Britian's selling of its access functioning as a smoke screen in two ways, both covering over what was happening back at home, to the increasingly precarious situation of disabled people, and also covering over, in the very space where they were offering access as this sort of export, covering over the fact that accelerated processes of gentrification were displacing people in Mexico as well.

Rebecca Rahimi:           Now this kind of moves on to a bit of a broader question, but touches upon things that you discussed in previous talks, such as the one image that you brought up at the London Paralympic Games with the two tennis players being covered by the mayor of London and the prime minister, and one of Radwanski's images of the yellow couch with the blanket on it, and Crow's figures. These types of really striking and symbolic images, and we were wondering how certain images, more than others, come to symbolize or represent the whole of a movement. For instance, you bring in the example of the student protests in Chile, and how the photo that came to represent the movement was of a young, presumably able-bodied woman, as opposed to the image of the march with individuals on the hunger strike.

Rebecca Rahimi:           What might these symbols have to offer when thinking about concepts of embodiment, dissemination, affect, and why do you feel that we prioritize certain images over others?

Robert McRuer:            I mean, I think the forces that lead certain images to become representative and that marginalize or invisibalize others, are multiple. I think that one would be simply, sort of compulsory able-bodiedness, which generates the need for images of health, youth, vigor, able-bodiedness, and makes an image like Camila Vallejos' that you're referencing with the initial 2011 student movement, makes an image like that sort of ready to hand for global dissemination. Which is not at all to discount how amazing she was at the time, as a leader of the student movement, but I'm also saying that it's not like we can't also acknowledge compulsory able-bodiedness made her more easily representative than the much more marginalized images of the hunger stikers, even though I think there are very striking images of the hunger strikers, Chilean students who, for a long period of time, went without food to protest the imposition of fees on higher education and wanted education to be free and accessible for all.

Robert McRuer:            So compulsory able-bodiedness certainly contributes to that process, and I think working in tandem with forms of neo-liberal identification so that image, many paralympic images, become photo ops for politicians that score certain identity points for covering over their policies. I think that is as true in the London 2012 games where actual disabled people were outside the stadium protesting the fact that the government was cutting policies and imposing even harsher means tests to guarantee that you would get benefits, so you had to be proven that you were not "fit to work" if you were going to, that's the phrase that's used, if you were not going to receive your benefits or ...

Robert McRuer:            So I think the Olympics happened at this moment where incredible, punishing policies were being put in place, and photo ops helped cover over the cruelty of that. I think it was less talking about the Paralympics and more about the World Cup, I think that was really in evidence in Brazil, too, where the World Cup gets kicked off, literally, by a disabled person using this fancy, technical exoskeleton that allowed him to kick a ball, and then the games start. And meanwhile there was the hashtag that described this movement, I don't speak Portuguese so I'll botch this, but it's something like "O gigante acordou" or something like that, "the giant has awoken," that was talking about the fact that Brazilians were in the streets saying, "We want hospitals, we want schools, we don't want stadiums in the middle of the Amazon that are gonna suddenly be completely vacant after this global spectacle for capital."

Robert McRuer:            And so it's interesting the ways in which in both those mega sporting events, disability ended up kind of covering over other kinds of protests that were happening.

Maggie Mang:               You also talk about, you in your book, how the push for disability rights is starting to register in some places more than others. And while, obviously a very complicated answer, I'm wondering what, in your research, has revealed about- What are the certain pressure points that allow these acts of resistance to register on a broader scale?

Robert McRuer:            That is a difficult question, and it speaks to my optimism of the will, as a theorist. I don't always know that I'm right, right? I think I am often in locations where I'm talking with colleagues and activists and artists about disability all the time, and it then affectively feels, to me, like something is happening, right? And so it's easy to say that, "Demands for disability justice are starting to have effect." I think that there's something also performative about that statement, like willing it into being by saying it. But I do also think that the sheer quantity of cultural production that is happening with the radical crip art and activism, that sheer quantity is suggesting that something is really going on that is in excess of the nation state, in excess of one location, and the very idea that the phrase, "disability justice," can circulate at all is an indication of something shifting.

Robert McRuer:            So it's a term that has its origins in "Crip of Color Critique," with Mia Mingus being one theorist who's really credited with forwarding that idea of disability justice, but also the performing group Sins Invalid, they are organizations and individuals who want to think outside the limitations of a disability rights model, to something more expansive. So the fact that that's circulating, I think speaks to something that's happening at least in thought, if not always in terms of concrete things that we can yet measure.

Rebecca Rahimi:           Well, Professor McRuer, thank you so much for sitting down with Contra and answering these questions. We so look forward to your talk here today at Vanderbilt and are very excited for your new book. Thank you.


You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, Leah Samples, and Rebecca Rahimi. Kevin Gotkin created our intro and Cassandra Hartblay designed the logo. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com

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