Opening Presentation, March 24, 2022: Dr. Nirmala Erevelles
Dr. Nirmala Erevelles is Professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research interests lie in the areas of disability studies, critical race theory, transnational feminism, sociology of education, and postcolonial studies. Specifically, her research focuses on the unruly, messy, unpredictable, and taboo body—a habitual outcast in educational (and social) contexts. She is the author of Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Towards a Transformative Body Politic (Palgrave 2012).
ANGELA SMITH: It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Nirmala Erevelles. Dr. Erevelles is a professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research interests lie in the areas of Disability Studies, Critical Race Theory, Transnational Feminism, Sociology of Education, and Postcolonial Studies. Specifically, her research focuses on the unruly, messy, unpredictable, and taboo body: a habitual outcast in educational and social contexts. She is the author of “Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Towards a Transformative Body Politic.” Dr. Erevelles, as Dean Stockton mentioned, was also the speaker for our Disability Studies Lecture this past Monday. And if you were able to attend, you received a glimpse of her materialist approach to disability, as it is bound up with race, class, and caste, and as it operates in capitalist, globalist, and environmental politics.
Today we’re thinking about how to teach and engage disability in our courses and classrooms, guided by Dr. Erevelles’ article, “’What Thought Cannot Bear to Know’: Crippin’ the Limits of Thinkability”, which we read before gathering here today. It is my delight, then, to turn the floor over to Dr. Nirmala Erevelles.
I’m just trying to share screen. I’m sorry, I have to be allowed to share my screen again because I logged in, I’m sorry. So, while we are getting that done, that’s okay, I just wanted to say thank you for, first of all, inviting me for this. Because this was supposed to happen two years ago, just after the pandemic, and, as I said on Monday, I just feel very blessed to be in company with all of you here today, because so much has happened and it’s also good to see that all of us have kind of made it through that time. And in some ways. I also wanted to mark this as a critical time, because it’s something I also realized as a pedagogue, as somebody who teaches, that so many of my students have also gone through some really harrowing times. They’ve had both some beauty and a lot of pain going on, and so, I am deeply appreciative of every opportunity — I think I appreciate it a lot more — of every opportunity to interact within spaces, that seem almost as if it’s going to kind of swallow us up, and so I just wanted to mark this as a positive moment for that.
I’m thinking now that, yes, I can share my screen. Also, I want to just describe myself: I am a South Asian woman who’s wearing glasses, I have a black and white, kind of spotted shirt, and I have shoulder length, like, it’s got some reddish highlights in my hair. As Angela Smith just talked about a few minutes ago, the lecture I’m going to give today, I’m not going to be reading from a script, so I hope it’s going to be a little more fluid when I talk.
But I really wanted to highlight some critical points in the article that was distributed to all of you to read. So, I’m not going over the article per se, because the article itself was using a class in Nurse Education to talk about teaching at the limits of thinkability. I wrote it eight years ago, and I think I’ve grown from that article, and I think that I want to use today as a space to conceptualize what it means to talk about disability within this context of thinkability.
And if you’ll notice that my article started with this quote, which I kind of broke up. It was in Deborah Britzman’s article. And so, this is her quote, and I wanted to put it on my PowerPoint more like poetry, because it felt like poetry, and so I’m just going to read it out to you for a second, and then talk about how it is framing the rest of this presentation. So, the quote says, “To engage the limit of thought where thought stops what it cannot bear to know, what it must shut out to think as it does, allows consideration” — and this is, actually, the latter part is a quote from Judith Butler introduced into this quote — “allows consideration into the cultural conditions that… make bodies matter, not as sheer positivity, but as social historical relations, forms of citations that signify more than individuals or communities need or want.” So, while I’m not going to unpack all of the details of the quote, I really wanted to, in some ways, mark for us this moment in Critical Disability Studies. This moment where we’ve had, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement; this moment where we are finally, I hope — actually, not so much in my university — but at least engaging settler colonialism; we are looking at, kind of, the sheer impact of a pandemic.
So, it seems we reached a point where, at least in the logic of my article, you may think we have engaged and maybe exceeded the limit of thought. And I’m going to put some pressure on that celebratory moment. Not so much because I’m not doing this kind of woke culture, or the call-out culture, or whatever else, but for us to really stay and look at what those limits are, in a sense. Then, I’m going to put pressure both on Critical Disability Studies and what are our current limits in Critical Disability Studies, but also what are the current critical… the limits in the other categorical, the other progressive theoretical spaces as Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, of course, Critical Race Studies right? To kind of really push literally, you have to literally push those limits and see what is it, what is it that enables us to stop thought? To engage the limit? What is it that we cannot bear to know? And I want to name it precisely as that critical contradiction because we’re doing it in a university space, and to think about how the academia itself thrives on pushing us to spaces where we are required to in fact, engage, not engage, but actually to stop thinking.
I have a senior in high school, who is currently in the last bit of making a decision for college. I was not educated in the US for undergraduate, and I’m a single mom, so I didn’t have anybody else, so this was my first experience of engaging an application and admission process that was so horrifyingly ableist, racist, classist, and, of course, completely unaffordable. And it doesn’t matter where you were on this kind of vast pace, or this notion of academic ability that you have. Whether you were scoring “low” on the ACT or high, almost everybody I have spoken to among several parent groups have faced this kind of horrible feeling of not being worthy enough to be part of academia. I have never talked about it before because I never experienced it. Somewhere, there was this logic that, somehow, we muddle through this notion of meritocracy. So here we are, actually at a university. I’m at a university, you’re at a university, we are in these exclusive places, we are here because we are considered, in some ways, bodies that matter in higher educational spaces. And so, when I talk about… like, I know this is also about accessibility, I was going to engage accessibility in a very conceptual context. Meaning, what does access mean in spaces that put off more barriers for even engaging these spaces? What are the kinds of conceptualizations we accept as normal, or we take for granted, to justify our presence in these spaces? And then the last part, what are the social historical relations? And I go more than citational, because I see the discursive, but I also go beyond that to see the ways in which we make some bodyminds matter and not others, both in our curriculum, in our admission policies, in our practices, and in the ways we engage our students. So that’s the space where I’m moving to.
So, as points of reflection, I wanted us to think about the limits of thinkability in the curriculum, especially to disabled bodyminds inside and outside the academy. Because even in Critical Disability Studies, there are certain body minds that are not included, at least in certain contexts. I’m talking about our fellow community members who have what you would call intellectual disabilities or cognitive disabilities, and because I am also a professor in education, I witness it on a daily basis, the ways that these bodyminds continue to be excluded in segregational spaces. For whom, education is not about the liberation of thought, right, but it’s really about making do, teaching people basic skills of survival, and for whom their very futures continue to be, in a lot of times, carceral-like institutions, or maybe institutionalized settings. But also, very much subject citizens — and I’m using the words “subject citizens” as opposed to “citizen subjects”— who are also presumed to be: “Oh, it’s okay to perform really violent kinds of behavioral and other modification processes.”
For many of us who are fighting for civil rights, who have been very active in the forefront of arguing for, you know, war crimes and arguing against these kinds of violent procedures on a daily basis, certain members of the Disability Community seem ignored and rendered invisible. So my first question is, in terms of thinking of the limits of thinkability of the curriculum, in what ways do these subject citizens appear in our discussions? Do they flag the limits, are those the spaces we do not want to cross? And then, the second question becomes, what are the historical materialist conditions — because I’m a materialist, I’m kind of obsessed with that — that constitute these limits? What allows, somehow or other, to justify, what are those conditions? So that’s why, when we are thinking of access, I’m also encouraging you all to think beyond technological access. We need that. There is economic access, social access, and most crucially, also intellectual access.
I feel that, in my daily work as a professor at a university, I feel implicated, and at the same time, responsible for engaging those limits: the places where my thought is not allowed to go. And when I make all these arguments, I’m using disability as the central construct but I’m also thinking of it intersectionally. And, for me, the easiest example that I can give you is because of of my work in education, and it’s the number of children who are living at the intersections of race, class, gender identity, and disability, who experience the most brutal violence, and particularly the violence of invisibility, because they’re not engaged by the very theoretical, conceptual, radical movements and theorists in the space for discussion.
So, if you can see the example, it’s kind of a more simplistic example when I’m talking to the nurse educators in the article. But, here, I’m engaging the fact that they are skewed, at least in my daughter’s high school: the students with significant disabilities, like multiple impairments, I would say that, are predominantly poor and black and brown. They enter my daughter’s high school through a side door, because we have to protect them. They do not participate in the major activities of the school. When people are talking, even when we engage about racism in education, we are not engaging with those students. Anti-racists in education don’t actively engage with those students who have so-called — I mean not “so called”, they’re real — they have cognitive and intellectual impairments.
So, when we are writing these radical pieces on what happens to students of color and how schools produce the school-to-prison pipeline, the group of people who are justified in being excluded are those who actually, in fact, challenge our notions of — and that’’s why this becomes important — what thought cannot bear to know. We are really afraid to challenge our notions of rationality, this notion of intelligence that, even though we claim we don’t believe in, we still use in so many ways. Like, I feel very conflicted! My daughter scored “well” on the ACT so it’s not on me to throw it out, but then I have to ask myself, what is my allegiance to the very constructs that exclude people? So, when I’m talking about it, I’m not speaking from the side of purity; I’m speaking as also implicated very much in that process.
And then that’s where access becomes critical, because there is a certain political economy that enables each of these things to occur, these things of exclusion. The very political economy of technology. Whereas if you go to, a lot of times, upper-class parents of any race, but also particularly white parents, have access to technologies. And technologies don’t mean just, you know, just these kinds of machines, right? I’m talking about everything. They have access to technologies that are made and produced in nations that also produce disabilities for those groups of people, while they were manufacturing those things. There’s a lot of data on how manufacturing the very computer I talk on, like we are using right now to make it accessible, produces blindness, like visual impairments, for people who are manufacturing these things, right? So, there is a political economy, and you’ll see later when we are talking about this idea of “relational,” this is what I mean by: this analysis will also make us take into account a “relational.”
So, when I teach my courses in Disability Studies, I always have to start by reminding my students that an understanding of ableism or a critique of ableism have to account for the relational understanding of who’s in and who’s out of the academy. Who’s within carceral spaces and those that are free. Within those that can consume technology and those that cannot. That’s where the thinkability comes in. So, we can’t do… at some point, the woke moment is something that we have to create. That’s why I have the last line which is, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” So, how are we going to approach the limits of our discipline and our pedagogy and our institutions? And how do we transform those limits into emancipatory possibilities? And I’m not thinking that we can transform them tomorrow, but what are the moves we are going to make to, in fact, take it apart?
And so, I just had these three things, because my article was talking about this notion of evidence-based practice. I know at the university, too, we are being asked — and I’m at the University of Alabama; my legislators are just voting this week to ban Critical Race Theory. And what we are really being pushed to do is create universities that produce good worker bees in a capitalist system, and so we want more evidence-based practice, as opposed to what they’re calling this rhetorical analysis, which is what we produce to Critical Race Theory, right? So you understand that I’m not going to go past that.
The issue of truth and lies, as alternative facts: you know that. We lived through four years – and more! I mean, one of the things it’s easy for us to act as if these arguments existed just in the last four years of a particular presidency. But if you understand imperialism, you live in a world where alternative facts have always existed, and some of our stories have always been erased. And so, this is another issue that’s going to trouble those limits is, what do we accept as truth and lies? It’s not just those people whom we also kind of dismiss as those ignorant people who are different from us. We, ourselves, hold truths.
I’m going to use that, in this context here, because it will come up as a pedagogical strategy. And I have had to think and be very careful about how to say this in classrooms. Because we know war creates disabilities, so that it is a very much Critical Disability topic, but when we were talking…. I’ve been asking in my very conservative city where we are always pro-war, always pro-war, this is the first time I am finding myself in an uneasy alliance. I’ve always been anti-war, so I say I’m finding myself in an uneasy alliance with some of my people around this attack on Ukraine. I’ve been asking about… My police department has colored their big headquarters in blue and gold. The same police department that has had a couple of shootings for Black Lives Matter. so it’s even within the year that this was not an alliance, right, so that’s what I mean by truth and facts.
The fact that when some of our third- — as a woman from India, I understand what I talk about when I use the term “third world,” I’m talking about politically — I’ve never seen those kinds of alliances ever being built to mourn the people who’ve been killed in other imperialist wars. And what does it mean to be disabled within those contexts? In worlds that we are not even recognized? have we talked about what happens to disabled people in Iraq, in Libya, in Palestine? I mean, that’s Jasbir Puar’s work, right, so that’s the critical thing that she makes an argument there, but in Afghanistan? What kinds of disability sensibilities have we produced in those contexts? So those are also, like the critical, what is it about the limits of thinkability? Here, it’s not about saying we are good or bad, that good victims or bad, I’m not making that argument. But I’m pushing us to think of what those limits are. And that’s where I also want to push against that concept of reality as a social construction. Like, everything is a social construction. But I want us to think about reality as the historical materialist conditions.
Because when you start talking about the historical materialist conditions, you’re going to look at the historical, literally the histories, the economic, you have to engage transnational capitalism, you have to engage imperialism, you have to engage colonialism, and, of course, you know, racism, because these are all historical materialist practices. They’re not just identities, they’re not just discourses. And so, for us to frame the real in these particular ways would be in some ways transformative. And so this, I’m not going to go… I mean, many of you will be phenomenologists but the part that I really, the idea I wanted to play out there, I loved that argument that was made about bodies of knowledge and knowledge of bodies. And with bodies of knowledge, I want to play on it in two ways: not just as a curriculum but also which bodies do we perceive as those that contain meaning? The erasure of bodies that lie at the intersection of race, class, and particular kinds of disabilities, impairments, right, are not the bodies that constitute a central part of our curriculum, our epistemologies, and that’s where, I will argue that’s where the epistemic violence kind of thing comes up. Because it’s in fact that these bodies are erased, the only way they come up is when they come up as pathological. So, people in psychology, nursing, and education will say, “Yeah! We have entire courses that talk about education for students with cognitive impairments.” But they appear in those contexts as pathological examples of what we do not wish to have, what we do not wish to think about. So, how do we rehabilitate them in order to fit into the context?
The other point I wanted to make here was the argument that Patterson and Hughes make, which I alluded to earlier, about the notion that impairment is an intercorporeal thing, not intra. But it is a relational concept, that even impairments that we think of as biological, those meanings are constituted in relation. I’m arguing that we need to think about it relationally in a kind of intersectional space, right? And so, that’s what I would mean by carnal information: “carnal” has this kind of very embodied thing, but I also want to mark “carnal” that can be both full of desire but also a desire tinged with a kind of violence. Because of the ways in which we erase the carnality of certain kinds of disabled subjects.
So, that’s when the majority of my paper is, then really asking us, and this is where you’re going into discussion, this would be the three issues. It would be a useful space for you to think about, take any one of them, and think about the aspects of it that shape the ways in which you engage intellectually, within practice, within activism. You know, the ways in which, if we did the study of limits and those were exactly those definitions, the important thing here is the unmarked criteria. We know the marked criteria. The unmarked criteria that works to dismiss as irrelevant, or valorize as relevant, a particular mode of thought.
Actually, the whole day yesterday I was working on behalf of a family friend, from a working-class family, a young, black boy with multiple impairments, and the violence, trying to push back against a school district that is refusing to give him a 504 plan. Even though he has visual impairment in one eye, he really can’t see through that, and he has several mental disability issues, one of them being ADHD. They’ve already had to fight first to not have him pushed into alternative schools, the alternative school is the school to prison pipeline, is prison. And to see the ways in which he does not appear, at least in my community, when the anti-racist, radical people are talking about race, he doesn’t appear as somebody who matters. Not among those in the disability community, because he fits in this nebulous space of “not,” so that’s a limit. The study of ignorances: what are the things that dis-enable us to be able to engage these things, what are the logics? Some of the logic is the logic of respectability in the context of this young boy, the logic of active ableism, because they’re… I mean the schools cannot, schools still do not appreciate, cannot understand, multiplicities of intelligence, or whatever intelligence is, right? This notion of intelligence, we still take that for granted, who is in and who is out.
And then the studying of reading practices: what is it that stops us from doing those kind of critical readings that we seem to do so easily in other spaces? That’s the thing that bothers me is, we can be so woke and yet so ignorant in this space. And I use “ignorant” because it is, I think, an active word. It is active, it is something that we can do with it, it is not a label. Ignorance is something that we can change, and that can be through the reading practices and the study of the limits.
Therefore, while I’m using Disability Studies as a transformative intervention — and I think I need to move you all to this other side so I can read this — I’m really talking about, what is the ways in which your curriculum, your bodies of knowledge, and your knowledge of bodies engages this notion of disruption? And how do you reproduce the neoliberal vision that justifies segregation? And that’s what I mean by where certain disabilities, disabled bodyminds are both, not just within