Debility and Frailty – on whose terms?

Feminist Review Issue 111, themed ‘Debility and Frailty’ was published earlier this month. In this blogpost, Yasmin Gunaratnam draws out the key conceptual and theoretical ways in which this issue of the journal discusses disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics. 

Our call for papers for the new Feminist Review themed issue on “Debility and Frailty” took some of its inspiration from Nasa Begum’s article “Disabled Women and the Feminist Agenda”, published in Feminist Review in 1992. Disability activist Begum, who died in 2011, demanded that feminists give attention to how the lives and concerns of disabled people are marginalised in both feminist and disability politics: “Writing as an Asian disabled woman I want to open up a debate about the position of disabled women and demand that a concerted effort is made to ensure that our needs, wishes and aspirations are incorporated into all feminist debates” (p.70). We hoped that more than two decades later, a themed issue of the journal might build upon Begum’s demands and provide further opportunities to discuss disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics.

Although we invited contributions on both “debility” and “frailty”, most of the papers in the issue have taken up matters of debility – a category radicalised from its heavily medical encodings by those in critical disability studies, history and feminism. The term has been used by the medical historian Julie Livingston to refer to ‘the impairment, lack, or loss of certain bodily abilities’ (2005, p.113). More recently, the feminist scholar and queer theorist Jasbir Puar (2012) has elaborated on Livingston’s framing of the concept, and it is Puar’s work that has generated much interest among our contributors.

For Puar, the relentless pursuit of profit creates debility through the slow depletion of marginalized populations. At the same time anxieties about health, disability and needs for care are financially exploited. Puar’s complex analysis investigates what is at stake in the demand for bodily capacity and also how new technologies (such as those that calculate our risks of disease) are redistributing the meaning of health, disease and disability so that the boundaries between disabled and non-disabled bodies are insecure. “The political mandate behind such … a move from disability to debility” Puar writes, “would not be to disavow the crucial political gains enabled by disability activists globally, but to invite a deconstruction of what ability and capacity mean, affective and otherwise, and to push for a broader politics of debility that destabilizes the seamless production of abled-bodies in relation to disability.” (p. 166).

Remarking on our aspiration to consider both of the terms debility and frailty in the themed issue, Margrit Shildrik suggests that, “One might well argue that frailty remains better grounded in lived experience, that it allows us to face the differences of ageing or ill-health head on.” (p.13). Shildrik’s article “living on; not getting better”, with a focus upon British austerity politics, questions whether the concept of debility is any more useful experientially, politically and empirically than disability. In proposing a “disability politics of transness”, Alexandre Baril feels that the concept of debility can be useful in developing a composite or “assemblage” model, which recognises that the experience of transness can sometimes be debilitating. Baril ventures, “The application of tools from disability studies to trans issues in the proposed assemblage not only uncovers cisnormativity in disability movements, but also denounces ableism in trans movements.” (p.37).

In her essay on taking the play that she wrote about her disabled son to India – “Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong” – Rahila Gupta remains uncertain about the political value of either of the terms debility or frailty. “Both terms imply weakness, brittleness, delicacy” Gupta feels, “connotations that take away agency from disabled people and emphasise their need for care and dependency and perhaps reflect the carer’s perspective.” For Anna Hickey-Moody, Puar’s conceptualisation of debility risks erasing differences of sensation, time and affect between bodies. She turns to feminist new materialist theory and arts practices with people with intellectual disabilities to demonstrate how such methods of feminist practice can become “a form of activism that allows us to bring out and appreciate modes of being and practices of relationality that are not yet perceptible or, if they are perceptible and visible, are often undervalued.” (p.160)

Despite a seeming reluctance to investigate how “frailty” as a category might contribute to feminist projects, as editors of the issue we felt that there is a need for more critical discussion of the term, especially its gendered connotations and roots. In her research for the issue, Feminist Review editor Sadie Wearing came across a fascinating text, The Aegis of Life from 1830 (already by then in its 20th edition) in the British Library. The Aegis of Life is a vivid example of the overlapping of anxieties over sexuality and gendered expressions of productivity and fitness within the concepts of frailty and debility. These find expression in the history of sexuality in the equation of (sexual) debility and (human) frailty, with forms of sexual dysfunction caused by (among other things, including ‘intense study’) indulgence in ‘self-abuse’.

More generally, as well as drawing attention to the historical legacy of words and signification, we would like to know more about what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away? Is there a risk that frailty can become an abjected other of debility? And if so, then with what consequences?

You can tweet to Yasmin or follow her tweets: @YasminGun.









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