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Academic Armchair: Sexual Subjectivities within Neoliberalism

In this week’s edition of the Academic Armchair, we talked with former Sussex researcher and current graduate student in the school of Sociology Robyn Long about her article ‘Sexual Subjectivities within Neoliberalism: Can Queer and Crip Engagements Offer an Alternative Praxis?’ As well as telling us about the work she’s done, Robyn told us about other places interested students might be able to engage with these extremely interesting perspectives. Robyn’s article posits ideas as to how ‘different’ bodies can challenge hegemonous neoliberal control. Here’s what she had to say…

Robyn’s article posits a mode of resistance that can be argued to manifest itself in the bodies of individuals who are queer, disabled or of marginal race under neoliberal society. We started our interview by asking her about this aspect of her research.

You see the body as something which is acted upon under neoliberal governmentality, something that can be oppressed and repressed, and therefore something which can be a site of resistance. Could you tell our readers about your approach to Foucault, neoliberalism and the body in your article?

So, my paper outlines the ways that neoliberalism, as a mode of governance, has impacted our everyday lives, and specifically how it has affected the ways we think about the body, sexuality, and disability.

I unpick what neoliberalism is, and the ways that it manages populations and bodies, and how these can be seen as oppressions.

Sexuality is an embodied identity and is bound to notions and imaginaries of the body, beyond our flesh and bones: the idea of the body, of ours, of others, of gendered, racialised and/or (dis)abled bodies is fundamental to sexuality. 

I see sexual agency as directly related to political agency, and so the ways that sexuality becomes managed has political implications for all of us.

When sexual agency is denied, or unacknowledged, it reinforces harmful stereotypes about who is sexual, and in what ways.

Those that are not recognised as sexual, or their sexuality is deemed deviant, are then marginalised.

Foucault deployed the term governmentality to explore the processes states use to govern populations, specifically the ways that states call on subjects to self-govern.

His understanding of power as social control is really useful for thinking about the body under neoliberalism.

I drew from Foucauldian ideas to examine the ways that discourses about the body perform oppressions.

Bringing Foucault into conversation with feminism, crip theory and queer theory allowed me to think about the ways that non-normative bodies might resist the oppressions of neoliberal governmentality.

How do you see this neoliberal governmentality as regulating or controlling the bodies of queer and disabled people specifically, and how do you propose it is possible to combat this?

Neoliberalism requires the regulation of sexuality to ensure a healthy and (re)productive workforce, which is built on the foundation of the stable, nuclear family.

There are close connections here between the workings of heteronormativity and able-bodied hegemony under neoliberalism, where the body becomes a site for self-regulation.

We see this all the time! What Foucault called ‘Technologies of the self’, compel individuals to renovate themselves, their bodies, their minds, and their lifestyles.

This means people become responsible for their own health and are encouraged to take specific courses of action, a good example of this has been the Nudge Agenda being pursued by the NHS. 

So, social control gets internalised and people become auto-regulated and auto-correcting: we know how we are supposed to act, and we try to adjust our behaviour and lifestyles to match this expectation.

Beyond health issues, these ideas come down to the ways that we see and imagine the body. Good bodies are culturally presumed to be fit, healthy, ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’, and most often white.

Bad bodies on the other hand can have any number of characteristics to mark them as lacking ‘goodness’: bodies that are too fat, or too thin, not masculine or feminine enough, black or brown, too much or not enough hair, bodies that don’t look ‘healthy’ or ‘fit’, bodies that don’t move, bodies that can’t work.

These bodies get defined by neoliberal governmentality as Other, and so they must be managed and disciplined. This discipline can take various forms, from socio-cultural aspects, such as the dearth of disabled actors in Hollywood, or more Political (with a big P) ideas such as the work capability assessments enacted by the DWP.

Feminist, queer, disabled, and crip activism and scholarship have brought important issues to the table, and together can help us to re-imagine both the body and our understandings of sex, queerness and disability.

The coming together of these academic and activist works can help to interrogate and explore the politics of appearance and resist ideas about deviant bodies.

They can also unpick the ways that bodily differences get invested with meaning and can help us to understand the ways that social norms function and affect us all. 

Getting people to think and talk about these issues is hugely important and may be the best step towards change.

Much has been written about the disabled body in contemporary society by popular critics like Judith Butler. How do you see your research as different and valuable?

So, yes, Butler’s work on abjection is really helpful here as it can illuminate the borderland between the acceptable and the unacceptable body. But there are loads of other brilliant researchers working on these topics!

I was inspired by Robert McRuer’s book Crip Theory. This really pushed my thinking and helped me to think about the ways that queer and disabled bodies are co-constructed. Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride was a deeply moving read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in identity or bodies.

Clare’s work explores the complex web of multiple identities, which we all have, from sexuality and disability, to class and religious beliefs, and how these each shape our lived experiences in the world.

Alison Kafer’s book Feminist, Queer, Crip helped me to situate these ideas within and alongside feminism and trans politics, and reproductive rights and justice. This really helped me to imagine beyond the current status quo towards an alternative future.

Sadly, so few of these authors appear on Sussex reading lists, which really surprises me, and thinking about your last question, in terms of ideas around how we combat oppression, feels quite disappointing.

My work draws on a wide range of theorists, bringing together disability studies and crip theorists with queer theorists and postcolonial scholars.

I put them into productive conversation with ideas about neoliberalism, power, and governmentality. There is so much work coming out which explores some of these areas in greater depth, so I think my article can be seen as a jumping off point.

You see sexuality as becoming figured into something exclusively for the ‘heteronormatively embodied’, and sexuality for disabled individuals as being deliberately ignored.

You can read Robyn’s article ‘Sexual Subjectivities within Neoliberalism: Can Queer and Crip Engagements Offer an Alternative Praxis?’ on Sussex Research Online at web address http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/73743/.

Could you tell our readers how you see this as being enacted, and for what reasons? Is this a significant problem in our attitude to disabled individuals, and what can be done to change this attitude?

The ways that sexuality gets represented in culture is broadly within a heterosexual frame, where ‘straightness’ is presumed and monogamous coupledom is the ideal. Any deviations from this can be incorporated into systems of heteronormativity.

So, for example, while Love Island featured the ‘bromance’ of Chris and Kem, this was only acceptable because neither are actually gay.

We can also think this through in terms of gay marriage, where once, quite recently, LGBT people were once positioned as deviant and a threat to the stable nuclear family, they are now incorporated into it. 

These ideas are useful for exploring how the sexuality of disabled people either becomes assimilated or excluded.

The governmentality framework mandates that people are responsible for their own health – that they should fix bodily ‘faults’, and those that cannot, or will not, fix these ‘faults’ must be managed.

This is where the connection between neoliberalism and the queer and crip body becomes explicit.

Sexual agency can be thought of as central to political agency, and so having this denied is a central feature of social oppression.

For disabled people, even the possibility of sexuality is often unacknowledged, or when it is, they get framed as either vulnerable or dangerous. This is the contradiction at the heart of heteroableist ideas about sexuality: disabled people are either docile, vulnerable, and asexual, or they are a perverse hypersexual threat.

If these contradictory positions are maintained, how do we begin to understand disabled sexuality, and specifically the experiences of crips who are also queer?

My work focuses less on individuals than on social groups, and the ways that ideas about bodies permeate our social worlds: from pop songs to bathrooms to sex toys, we presume a kind of body as standard, and this is deeply problematic.

Recently, Grace and Frankie’s ‘Megage a moi’ invited conversations about the aging body and sexuality and suggests a slow shift in the ways we think about sexuality and bodies, but there is still a lot of stigma about crip sexuality.

It’s difficult to suggest ways that we can change this attitude. On the broader, social level, there are a number of organisations that are trying to challenge the ways we think about disability and sexuality, but many of these are still working from a presumption of heterosexuality. But we can also interrogate our own thinking:  what does sexy look like, and why?

What assumption do we make when we are swiping on Tinder or trawling on Grindr? If we are promoting safe and open spaces in queer communities, how accessible are these, and in what ways?

Who do we presume our audience will be, or who won’t be coming?

You identify in your ‘what next?’ section the idea that you have been forced to omit from your article further points that you feel should be discussed. What, specifically, do you feel needs to be further said? Do you see other academics as wanting and being able to progress this discourse in the way you would like?

This was my first experience of my work going through the peer-review process which was a really interesting experience- there were numerous substantive edits, and of course, the limitations of the word count which forces an economy of words.

This is an area of research that I’m really interested in, and I think that there is a lot more to be said. I began engaging with postcolonial ideas, but I would very much like to develop this line of thinking further in terms of recent works to decolonise sexualities.

Also, and this was not an area covered at all in the paper, but I feel there is important work to be done in thinking through crip and queer sexuality with trans theories: I would be really interested in where the conversation goes, and examining what assumptions I’ve made in this paper.

There are absolutely academics working to develop this field and move the conversation along, and I’m particularly interested in the work Julia Bahner (Leeds) is looking into sexual citizenship for people with disabilities.

There are so many more, all working on small sections of this complex web. It’s the ways that we can bring these ideas together, how we can learn with and through each other that excites me.

We don’t have a dedicated research centre for disability here at Sussex, but the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence is always critically engaging with sex, gender and sexuality, and a few of the faculty have interests in disability studies.

They always have a great range of events and talks on, so if you’re interested in ‘what next’, I guess that would be a great place, on campus, to start!

You can read Robyn’s article ‘Sexual Subjectivities within Neoliberalism: Can Queer and Crip Engagements Offer an Alternative Praxis?’ on Sussex Research Online at web address http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/73743/.

Image: Pixabay: zstupar

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