Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.
For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.
Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.
Heyes’ goal throughout her text isn’t to state that there is perfect analogy between trans folx, weight loss program adherents, and cosmetic surgery recipients. Rather, Heyes believes that by investigating each of these, in turn, we can understand something further about how societal pressures and normativities put pressure on each group in ways that limit their capability for authentic intersubjective self-generation. She argues that, through our relationships to societal images, we become complicit in our own colonization and adherence to these norms.
In the case of trans women, Heyes explores the long history of arguments from within certain strands of second wave feminism which either pathologize the desire for gender reassignment, discount the experience as that of “men who think they’re women,” or, at best, claim that trans individuals don’t go far enough in transgressing against gender norms. For weight loss program adherents—the site at which Heyes inserts herself into the text—images of thinness and idealized skinny bodies, and notions of “virtuous self-discipline” complicate the relationship between someone who wants to change how they see themselves and their image in the mirror; is this really for them, or is it for the world?Finally, for cosmetic surgery recipients, societal ascriptions persist which reinforce the notion that anyone who is beautiful on the outside, must necessarily be so on the inside, and so surgery becomes sold as a means to fix persons and intersubjective problems. From there, Heyes moves on to theoretical examination of normalization, somaesthetics, and Foucault’s ethical stance. Heyes’ tools and methods throughout the text are based on a combination of embedded ethnography, Foucauldian genealogy, and sociological textual analysis. Ultimately, Heyes argues that while Foucault’s ethics are a good starting point, anyone seeking to use them must constantly ask questions about the operation of power, identity, community, intersubjectivity, and norms. Heyes says we must seek the intentional construction of these things, rather than just letting them accrete into a form that oppresses and subsumes us. Any normative stance must be one that acknowledges and widens the field of possibility for valid lived experience and choice.
In Bodyminds, Schalk sets out to do exactly what is laid out in the subtitle of the text: explore (dis)ability, race, and gender in and via black women’s speculative fiction. Schalk uses tools and methods from disability studies, Black feminist studies, women and gender studies, and literary analysis to place works by Octavia E Butler, Phyllis Alesia Perry, N.K. Jemisin, Shawntelle Madison, and Nalo Hopkinson in conversation, and to examine what those works can teach us about the possibility space we might be able to carve for thinking differently about all of those subjectivities. To do this work, Schalk defines a few specific terms and tools, such as intersectionality, Crip Theory, Bodyminds, and (dis)ability.
The term “Bodymind” comes from disability theorist Margaret Price who says that the term has to do its own theoretical work, and can’t just be thought of as “Mind+Body;” rather it is the continual interplay and integration of that cohesive, fluctuating whole. Schalk defines (Dis)ability as the “overarching social system of bodily and mental norms that includes ability and disability,” noting that this “also highlights the mutual dependency of disability and ability to define one another.” (Dis)ability is about the relationality and the porous movement between categories, rather than any static state. Additionally, this framing can accommodate superpowers, extrasensory perception, magic, etc., examinations of which are crucial to Schalk’s project.
Schalk begins each chapter with introduction sections and the chapters themselves build on each other, while also sitting whole individual essays. All jargon is defined and explained, and assumptions are critically investigated. Chapter 1, “Metaphor and Materiality,” uses Butler’s Kindred to explore the neo-slave narrative genre, which Schalk describes as working to reclaim those edges of brutal truth which more traditional slave narratives sanded down. Schalk uses speculative fiction specifically because it allows for a new way to examine the categories of race, gender, and (dis)ability. No other genre, Schalk says, allows for the elements of a character’s lived experience and identity to be read as both metaphor and material textual reality, something which it is crucial to do if we want to ensure that representations of disability are more than tokenistic and ableist disability metaphors.
From there, Schalk goes on to deconstruct the notions of able-Mindedness, the implications not having of disability representation in texts about the future, and the wider implications of this kind of work for black feminism and disability studies. Throughout the text, Schalk explores how each of the works under investigation engage in a process of either carefully rendering that metaphor/material conjunction, or of “defamiliarizing” the concepts we think we understand. In the end, Schalk argues for a full intersectional engagement of this (dis)ability, race, gender, and culture, because all categories of oppression “are constantly shifting and shaping each other.”
While both of these texts are fantastically useful, there are a couple of problems that stood out, in my reading. First, while Heyes herself is not trans, and she explicitly says that she doesn’t want to overstep by trying to speak for trans folx, much of her conversation in chapter two could easily be taken as an invalidating stance on trans lived identity; even though this text is 12 years old, much of Heyes’ language regarding trans individuals is outdated, even at that point. Later, Heyes seems to more clearly view trans folx as valid and criticisms from outside as “imposed constrictions” of the kind of power and valence operations she wants to challenge, throughout, but that’s not well foreshadowed, here.
Similarly, I would have liked more exploration of the operations of normative bodies and power in relation to disability and prostheses; the lack makes me wonder whether it’s excluded specifically because it constitutes a drastically different quality to the relations laid out, in the rest of the text. Schalk, for her part, could have spent more time in the final chapter, and throughout the book, examining the notion of gender in relation to the intersection of trans lives, Black lives, and (dis)ability, as that space seems like it would be extremely fruitful, in this context. Additionally, Schalk’s discussion of the lack of disability representations in fiction about the future makes only second hand parenthetical reference to the Star Trek universe, when that shows representations and failures thereof have informed conversations within the speculative fiction community for decades.
On the whole, both of Sami Schalk and Cressida J Heyes have presented research which shows the operations of sociocultural norms, narratives, and imaginaries translate into the perceived possibilities and lived experiences of a wide range of people, and especially women. For Heyes, those norms, narratives, and imaginaries are often oppressive and restrictive, and must be examined, explored, and understood in order to be more thoroughly resisted. For Schalk, our narrative and imaginary spaces are the most fertile sites for resistance and exploration of new ways of understanding the world… as long as we recognize and push back against the ableism, misogyny, and anti-Black racism with which our society works to infuse them.
While there is some difference between the concept of the bodymind and Heyes’ construction of identity and interiority, I contend that we can use bodyminds as a site to bring a non-normative, process-based notion of the self into Heyes’ arguments about normativity. Through this, we can argue that, if there is anything like a “True Self,” it’s that self which is always embodied and in process of becoming, and so changes to the body necessarily change this self, but in a way that is almost trivially true: Changes to our embodiment change who we are and how we think, but who we are and how we think can lead us to change our embodiment.
For both Heyes and Schalk, in order to effectively resist oppression and open a space for marginalize people to fully live in their embodiments, we have to know, demonstrate, and practice more modes of being, and on my reading, the intersection of both of their works holds the beginnings of a rich methodology for achieving exactly this.