Book Review

Jane Alexandre

Disability Arts and Culture: Methods and Approaches

Petra Kuppers, ed. Bristol, UK/Chicago, US: Intellect 2019

A collection gathered from five years of the publisher’s archives exploring the interplay between disability and contemporary culture, this seeks to place disability culture studies alongside such other liberatory cultural studies as feminist historical re-visioning and post-colonial critical theory. Under Kuppers’ curating, there is no understanding of disability as tragedy or deficit.  Rather, the perspective is on disability “as a mode of living that is or is not supported in a particular cultural arrangement, with culturally specific effects on the personal and the social level”.

Fourteen essays are grouped loosely into “Texts and Complexities”, “Discourse Analysis:  Cultures and Difference”; “People’s Voices:  Qualitative Methods”, and “Ethnographic Approaches:  Project Reports”.  As a basic criterion, Kuppers mandated that disabled people be in active roles, demanding ethical engagement with what it means to be “disabled, precarious, vulnerable or dismissible” in society. Issues of “How to navigate relative power, how to address medical narratives, how to consume and produce material while living under pressures of gazes, stereotypes and old stories” rose to the fore. The range of settings (geographical and situational), research/practice methods, forms of art-making, and reporting varies widely—as do the disabilities under discussion, and the vocabulary developed to discuss them. 

Kuppers particularly sought out ethnographic and participatory action research methods, as in her view these methods “ensure reflections on power relations and goal setting in research”.  She further mandated that the collection overall be international in scope, so while she identifies the UK and the US as being the birth places for disability culture production and research, the collected essays represent work far beyond those borders.

Beyond the specific descriptions of innovative art-making herein, the collection as a whole explicitly and implicitly invites readers to consider how knowledge is created.  In particular, Kuppers urges attention to the citational webs provided by individual contributors, “for their perspectives on important genealogies for their particular projects, [is] grounded in different disciplines and national frameworks…In this relatively young discipline pool, it is possible to be strategic in one’s choices, and to shape origin stories that reflect the world we want to live in:  one that aggregates its narratives from multiple perspectives and experiences”.  A worthwhile exercise, indeed.

-Jane Alexandre