Tim Dean: “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability”
Guest Writer: Claire Barber

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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[On November 12, 2012 the Unit for Criticism hosted Tim Dean (Buffalo). His lecture "Stumped: The Pornography of Disability," is written about by guest writer and unit affiliate Claire Barber (English). This is the second of two posts on the Tim Dean lecture]

Disabled Sexualities: Those Who Shouldn’t Have Sex and Why

Claire Barber (English)

The flyer for “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability” warned that presenter Tim Dean would show a clip of pornography; yet, some audience members were obviously unprepared for this footage as they walked out before he completed the talk. Based on the title, they must have known that Dean would speak about pornography, but some element of this particular pornography was too much for them. In the presentation, Dean provided several explanations for similarly averse responses to representations of sex among disabled individuals. In this post, I reflect on these propositions and draw out their implications.

First, I applaud Dean for treating a topic that is too infrequently discussed: the sexuality of disabled individuals. As a scholar of disability studies, I have been disturbed by the ways in which what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “normates” treat sex among disabled individuals. Whether we’re talking about the amputee and his partner in the video that Dean showed; a sexual relationship between two mentally challenged individuals, as in The Other Sister (1999); or a boy with an autism spectrum disorder discretely masturbating in a semi-public location, as described by Tito Mukhopadhyay, many able-bodied individuals read these as events that shouldn’t happen. And if they do, they must remain hidden from able-bodied individuals or risk public censure.

From film The Other Sister

As in Dean’s study of the bareback subculture, this presentation drew attention to one possible motivation for disabled individuals who create pornography: “to make certain forms of intimacy visible.” By recording and publicizing non-normative sexual acts—what Dean called “stumping”—the individuals in the video he screened push normates to grapple with the uncomfortable reactions that they have to such scenes. These reactions include disgust, the feeling to which Dean paid the most attention. Many able-bodied individuals confronted with “abnormal” bodies and acts judge them as being in bad taste, so to speak; therefore, they attempt to regulate such expressions of sexuality rather than investigating the cause for their reactions.

This feeling—and the attendant desire to disable sexuality—is closely tied to an interest in maintaining the innocence of individuals with disabilities. This term frequently appears in discussions of disability and cultural attitudes toward disabled individuals. Etymologically, innocence has explicit connections to sexuality (via the guilt associated with sin); thus, any use of this term (an autist’s supposed inability to lie, for instance) has sexual undertones. There is a fine line between helping individuals with disabilities to develop their individual capacities and restricting their potential so that they more closely adhere to normative behaviors and expectations. When we infantilize disabled individuals, we affirm the perception that they do not have sexual desires (which children are also supposed to lack). As Dean suggested, an able-bodied commitment to the preservation of innocence relegates disabled individuals to a perpetual childhood closely intertwined with asexuality.

Many able-bodied individuals read disabled bodies as asexual based on an assumption that when (hetero)normative sexual acts are no longer possible, sex itself is out of the question. Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey presents one popular instantiation of this fact. When he is paralyzed (a reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover), he and other characters acknowledge that a sexual life will no longer be possible for him, which provides sufficient reason to release Lavinia from their engagement. It does not matter that he still can move his upper body, which makes many other sexual acts possible. Reproduction will not happen, so their sex life will not be fulfilling and, thus, shouldn’t exist. Obviously, queer and feminist theories have done much to refute such restrictive statements, but the specter of reproduction still haunts explorations of sexuality among disabled individuals. Surprisingly, reproduction among disabled individuals continues to raise extreme concern in our society, which means that many normates still consider sterilization to be a legitimate option, particularly for individuals with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.
Character Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey

The issue of sexual expression becomes even more precarious when we turn to social attitudes toward individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Individuals with these disabilities are often read as “weak-minded,” unable to make decisions for themselves, even if they are able to live independently. By contrast, individuals with physical disabilities are recognized to be “able-minded,” in control of their thoughts and desires, even if they are not able-bodied. It is necessary to recognize this distinction between cognitive/intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities in any discussion of sex among disabled individuals, a theoretical area that I would have liked to see Dean develop further.

As individuals with intellectual and cognitive disabilities enter adolescence, a primary argument mobilized by normates against their sexual activity concentrates on consent—they don’t know what they’re doing. One complication with obtaining or confirming the consent of individuals with these disabilities is that they may express themselves or participate socially in ways that differ from normates; therefore, their consent may be more difficult for normates to recognize and, thus, easier to overlook. Consequently, able-bodied individuals often rely on social conventions and legal statutes to disable the sexuality of these individuals.

It is true that there are legitimate concerns about the sexual (and physical) abuse of individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, as the work of Donna Williams and Dawn Prince-Hughes shows. However, the infrequently discussed and yet ongoing problem remains: how to allow disabled individuals to have fulfilling sexual lives without letting them become victims of abuse. While I have no solution for this problem, I want to draw attention to the predicament and state that neither forbidding disabled individuals from participating in sexual activities nor sweeping the issue under a figurative rug resolves the situation.

Therefore, Dean’s presentation pushed us toward an important discussion, one that many people prefer not to have. In the process, he located disability porn as a means of resistance that aligns it with disability rights and advocacy, a provocative claim. With the distribution of “Stump Grinder,” the video’s creator advocates for the existence of sexual desire among disabled individuals and what may seem to many the paradoxical desire of disability by normates. The disabled individual represented here is presented to the viewer as a desired being—available for desire by the viewer, but already desired by his partner.

By making this form of intimacy visible, the maker of “Stump Grinder” has the power to both disable and enable the viewer with the potentially shocking nature of this sexual encounter. Like many of those who left the presentation, we may be disabled by an encounter with that which we would rather not see because to see it means that we must recognize the existence of sexual desires and acts among disabled individuals. The person who created the edited version of "Stump Grinder," "2 guys, 1 stump" (which Erin McKenna describes in more detail) likely found him/herself in such a position. But, this recognition can enable able-bodied individuals to think and engage differently with others. In Unlimited Intimacy, Dean writes that “sexual action generates sexual community,” and “Stump Grinder” has this power to create a community organized around and supportive of expressions of sexuality among disabled individuals.

As Dean suggested in relation to another film, “Stump,” the climax may be not just an individual’s orgasm but also the individual’s “awakening to the sexual possibilities” of his disability. I can only hope that the viewer experienced a similar mental climax during Dean’s presentation as his or her eyes were opened to the sexual possibilities of disability.

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Tim Dean, “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability”
Guest Writer: Erin McKenna

Thursday, November 15, 2012

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[On November 12, 2012, the Unit for Criticism hosted “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability,”a lecture by Tim Dean (University at Buffalo). His talk is described below by guest writer, Erin McKenna, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism in Recreation, Sport and Tourism.]

Dean addresses the audience in Levis Faculty Center
“'What the Hell is Going On?' The (Im)mobility of being Stumped”

Erin McKenna (Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism)

Tim Dean’s lecture on Monday pulled from his chapter in his forthcoming edited project, Porn Archives. As in previous books such as his recent Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, Dean discussed the potential for queer porn, in this instance combined with disability, to function as a site of mobility. This mobility stands in contradiction to the immobility often associated with disability as well as to the moment of maximum intensity in sexual activity that renders the body immobile or disabled. Dean further challenged normative assumptions about mobility through the motif of “being stumped.” In addition to referring to the amputees in the online porn Dean took for the basis of his analysis, “stumped” also pointed to the reaction of the heteronormative, able-bodied viewers of this porn and their inability to grasp the appeal or purpose of this activity—a reaction built into the video Dean screened by means of a spliced in clip in which the actor Kevin Bacon asks, “What the hell is going on?”

Dean opened his talk by discussing the link between disability and destitution, and how the current biopolitical situation does not show concern for all bodies. However, as porn becomes increasingly accessible both in its production and consumption, new opportunities for challenging normative ideas about the range and potential of the disabled body emerge.

Contemporary porn, according to Dean, emphasizes the freakish: the larger-than or smaller-than-life anatomy and the non-normative body. However, such spectacularization of non-normative bodies need not always produce exploitative effects. By eroticizing bodily variables, disabled porn creates a space for making disabilities sexy. Moreover, disabled porn moves beyond the exotification of the anomalous body common in freak shows, as those engaging in disabled porn are turning themselves into sexual subjects rather than objects to be gazed upon. While disabled porn is a small subset of porn production in its entirety, Dean suggested that porn, like novels, should be judged by the most interesting examples, not (or not only) the most common or banal. Disability porn falls into the more innovative, interesting category and has widespread implications. In addition to changing how the disabled Other is perceived, disability porn also has the potential to impact self-identity because disability is a reality for all bodies which are equally subject to injury, aging, and mortality. Nevertheless, as Dean pointed out, the representation and gaze on the disabled body is not a stable one.

In his analysis, Dean provided a visual example to the audience with the video “2 guys 1 stump” to point to how disabled porn can be usurped and used for other reasons. The video amended a longer original version which was published by one of the men who appears in both versions. While the longer version (which Dean did not screen) provides a relatively unmediated contribution to online disability porn, Dean was interested in the less erotic but more mediated and metatextual edited version. In this version the synchronization between erotic movements and background music from Super Mario Brothers “Mario Invincible” can be interpreted as trivializing the sexual behavior. The concluding clip from the movie Tremors (1990) derives from a scene in which a group of guys are looking at something off screen and Kevin Bacon asks “what the hell” they just saw. Dean suggests that this closing scene supports and encourages the heteronormative reaction of disgust and a lack of understanding towards the sexual practices of queer “crips.”

While the modified variation of “2 guys 1 stump” has the potential to illustrate the tendency to disparage disabled and queer pornography, Dean also discussed videos that depict other possibilities. For example, in one video, a disabled man in a wheelchair is approached by another man who takes him into a room where his amputated limbs are caressed before a series of sexual encounters among the numerous men in the room. Significantly, when the amputee is penetrated, his partners use condoms suggesting that he, unlike his partners, is HIV negative and wants to remain that way. Moreover, in this video as well as others that Dean analyzed, the amputated limbs are remapped from sites of pain or pity to erogenous zones.

Dean concluded by talking about how this remapping of the disabled body in queer crip porn mobilizes disabled bodies. More than just compensatory, the stumps of amputated limbs enhance erotic pleasure for disabled bodies. Disabled porn thus expands the range of possibilities for the body and for porn; it works against normatization by rendering identities irrelevant. While the heteronormative able-bodied subjects may be “stumped” or immobilized by their lack of comprehension for the erotic pleasures of non-normative bodies and subjects, the stumps of the disabled are fostering mobility.

Dean fielded a number of questions on the subject after his talk. Several audience members asked Dean to address the logic of capitalism in his work on the porn archive, especially given that Linda Williams’ assessment of it in her influential book Hard Core which first appeared in 1989. Dean pointed out that while Williams’ study was groundbreaking, she was restricted by the limited access and knowledge of porn that was available in the 1980s. Today’s porn industry is therefore much more diverse and accessible than what her study could reflect. To illustrate, he referred to the examples described by the various contributors to Porn Archives focus less on the money shot. In addition Dean finds this porn to be minimally or not at all exploitative because so much of it is amateur and non-commercial. Dean did admit that there is more to uncover when considering the way that capital is exchanged on Internet sites even for non-commercial video producers. He suggested that this might follow a technology-driven logic rather than a capitalist logic per se.

Other questions revolved around the issue of disgust and whether disgust and pleasure are the only possible responses that emerge from heteronormative, able-bodied viewers of queer crip porn. While Dean admitted that there are other possible reactions, his focus on disgust derived especially from the comments posted on videos. The time taken to express such disgust points to its significance, he noted. He also suggested that his interest in disgust is paramount partly because queer theory tends to focus on shame while simultaneously avoiding the topic of disgust. Thus, there is much to uncover regarding disgust.

An audience member followed up with a question about how disgust can also be a transformative or mobilizing experience and whether that disgust then serves to mobilize the heteronormative, able-bodied viewer. Dean’s response addressed a previous question about Bodily Integrity Identity Disorder. He said that while he had not come across any porn that dealt with BIID, most kinds of sex challenge bodily integrity, which is one of the reasons that people have to confront this psychological barrier at a certain age in order to engage in any kind of sexual act.

Several audience members asked Dean to elaborate further on the ways that disabled porn challenges heteronormativity and the inequality of non-normative bodies. Dean responded that porn is much less heteronormative than people assume and that because of new technology, disabled people can make porn pretty easily, which allows for self-representation. Dean emphasized that he avoids talking about disabled porn as a fetish because it minoritizes the practice rather than highlighting its universal implications, which is one of the main things his work attempts to address.
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David Harvey, “Rebel Cities”
Guest Writer: Katherine Skwarczek

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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[On November 8, 2012 the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities hosted “Rebel Cities,” a lecture by David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics. His talk is reviewed below by guest writer, Katherine Skwarczek, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism in English.]

Katherine Skwarczek (English)

Harvey addresses a large audience in Foellinger
David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities, argues for the revolutionary potential of urban spaces, particularly as reflected in recent right-to-the-city movements. In his talk, Harvey explained the inherent—and under-theorized—relationship between capitalist growth and urbanization to which these movements implicitly react.

Because capitalism requires perpetual growth, it continually seeks opportunities for profitably investing its surplus and employing excess labor. Both now and in the past, Harvey explained, capital frequently locates these opportunities for investment in urban development and transformation. Harvey summarized the economic crises in the US by quoting a recent financial statement: to recover from recession, we build houses and then fill them with things.

Harvey emphasized the cyclical and repetitive nature of these historically intertwined processes of capital accumulation and urbanization, beginning with the 1848 revolution in France as an example. The uprising began as a crisis of capital, juxtaposing dire social needs with a capital surplus that refused to meet them. Such a crisis, Harvey claimed, is a revealing moment for capitalism, unmasking its inherent irrationality and absurdity. As conservative forces rallied to gain control over the new republic and suppress working class revolution, Louis Bonaparte, whose 1851 coup was immortalized in one of Karl Marx’s best-known essays, acted on the theories of contemporary radicals like Saint-Simon, by commissioning Baron Haussmann to re-build Paris. This vast urbanization project successfully absorbed surplus capital and labor, while also facilitating the overhaul of the French financial system. By creating new credit institutions that made debt-financing—and speculation—possible on an expanded scale, Bonaparte, who eventually styled himself as Napoleon III, was able to finance this massive urban project.

Haussmann’s renovations not only built new houses, parks, and boulevards, but also transformed the urban experience itself. According to Harvey, this new urban lifestyle, based on spectacle and commodity culture, was essential to the pacification of urban populations. Eventually, however, the property boom led to a speculative boom with an explosive finale: in the re-building of the city, the working class had been pushed toward Paris’s periphery. During the 1871 Paris Commune, workers sought to reclaim a Paris they had built but from which they had been excluded.

“The Paris Commune”
Harvey drew parallels between the crises of the Second French Empire and similar crises related to capital growth and urbanization in the United States. The Great Depression, he suggested, was preceded by a speculative boom closely tied to property markets. Recovery from the Depression in the late 1930s was spurred by housing and infrastructure projects, assisted by the re-organization of financial institutions and mortgage reform. Although World War II absorbed much surplus labor, anxieties about its return resulted in a vast postwar expansion in housing construction. The result was the suburbanization of America, and its attendant social, environmental and political effects (McCarthyism, for instance). These issues ultimately reached a crisis point in the urban riots of the 1960s and financial recession of 1973.

Harvey views the current recession as the most recent iteration of the cycle of surplus capital, urban development, and property speculation. China is perhaps the most recent example of a nation that has used immense urban development to spur economic growth, but this solution, Harvey cautioned, is temporary and fragile.
Chinese ghost city, from here

Though Harvey stressed the important impact of the capital growth “syndrome” on cities, by the end of his talk he encouraged us to see the reverse: the ways in which people can in turn make and re-make their own cities. Harvey’s working class is not the typical Marxist factory-worker but rather the city laborer, who produces the urban space, yet is often relegated to commuting in from its periphery. Urban dwellers can harness their considerable political and economic power to re-organize city life. Harvey cited as an example recent Miami organizations coming out of the right-to-the-city movements that were mobilized during the 2012 elections. An urban network, possibly on the scale of the worldwide anti-war protests of 2003, could potentially coalesce into a system of support and alliance for even greater re-organization of production and consumption.

The potential stakes of this re-organization are enormous. In seeking to radically alter the organization of city life and, thus, capital, these movements might ultimately halt the cycle of boom and crisis. Though the capitalist growth machine is embedded in urbanization, Harvey urged his audience to also see the potential power of urban life, and to consider the development of human capacity, and not the growth rate, as a true measure of social success.
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Seminar, Tricia Rose: Black Noise & Hip Hop Wars
Guest Writer: Kerry Wilson

Thursday, November 8, 2012

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[On November 2, 2012, the Unit for Criticism in collaboration with IPRH hosted a seminar with Tricia Rose (Brown) devoted to discussing some of her groundbreaking scholarship on hip hop.]

Kerry Wilson (Institute of Communications Research)

The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory kicked off this year’s series of events on “The Eighties in Theory and Practice” by hosting a seminar, in collaboration with IPRH, with prominent cultural critic and Brown University Africana studies professor, Tricia Rose. Rose is the author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy, and The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters. She also co-edited Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture with Andrew Ross . During the seminar, Rose lectured on and led a discussion about the cultural context of the 1980s as it relates to hip hop culture and the larger discourses of black expressive culture and mainstream popular culture.

Rose pulled from her books to emphasize the social and political structures present in the 1980s that were responsible for creating the conditions for hip hop culture’s emergence. During the 1980s, Rose argued, structural and cultural shifts changed the representations of African Americans in the popular discourse. She marks the year 1989 as especially significant in bringing together hip hop’s complex narrative structures with a noticeable inclusion of female voices and a large presence of local radio outlets and record labels devoted to African American audiences.

After 1989, deregulation increased the concentration of media and, thus, decreased the narrative space for African American cultural expression in the United States by commodifying a monolithic representation of African Americans. Yet, according to Rose, hip hop culture has expanded in other countries because of its centrality to the globalization and export of American culture. The global expansion of hip hop culture exacerbated the already polarizing debate about the merits of hip hop culture and became the impetus for The Hip Hop Wars.

The seminar’s discussion period focused on challenging commercialized hip hop through alternative means of cultural consumption and production. Discussants considered the Internet as a possible, albeit problematic, challenge to the mainstream discourse of a monolithic African American community in commercialized hip hop.

Rose implored the group to seek out alternative media and organizations as a way to subvert the control of corporatized media sources. She especially recommended Robert Glasper’s Black Radio to exemplify the kind of alternative media that still has the potential to inspire challenges to the status quo in the way that US hip hop did in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Rose, scholars who combine theory and practice are better equipped to engage with the realities faced by those outside of the academy and create new knowledge based on praxis.
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