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Disability and the Avant-Garde

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Organizer: Samuel Yates

Co-Organizer: Andrew Harnish

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The formal turn is well underway in Critical Disability Studies. Inaugurated by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis, Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory, Tobin Sieber’s Disability Aesthetics, and Robin Blyn’s The Freak-Garde, the formal analysis of works by disabled artists and about disabled subjects seeks to analyze and taxonomize disability aesthetics in their manifold structures, modes, and styles. As Siebers persuasively argues, “disability aesthetics” both “names a critical concept that seeks to emphasize the presence of disability in the tradition of representation” and “refuses to recognize representation of the healthy body—and its definition of harmony, integrity, and beauty—as the sole criteria of the aesthetic.” The refusal of “normative” formal values that Siebers and others see as so fundamental to disability aesthetics is also a defining feature of the avant-garde, which Timothy Yu argues is “an aesthetic and a social grouping, defined as much by its formation of a distinctive kind of community as by its revolutionary aesthetics.” But though avant-garde art and literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are filled with what Michael Bérubé calls “deployments of disability”—that include both characterization and narrative form—and though many of history’s most famous avant-garde artists and writers have been disabled, the centrality of disability to the avant-garde remains undertheorized.

This stream aims to situate disability aesthetics as a defining feature of avant-garde art and writing, especially at the intersection of praxis, activism, and pedagogy. If disability is “individuation run amok” and set in opposition to normate bodyminds, as Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues, how do avant-garde practices refuse commodification and subsumption into normate culture industries; a kaleidoscopic fracture instead of a Benetton-esque diversity pageant? Other questions of inquiry might pursue how disabled embodiment and crip politics diversify cultural producers and practitioners in ways that disrupt conventional experiences of time, form, and the body. How mighty a disability, or crip-inflected, avant-garde differ epistemologically from other modes of the avant-garde production? How has disability been elided or obscured in avant-garde works of the past? What is invented, rearticulated, revived, risked, and left behind in practices that break from, or break open, tradition? Are the anti-normative modes of avant-garde movements inherently crip? If not, what might it mean to “crip” avant-garde practices?

Please send a 300 word abstract and a short bio through the ACLA portal by Thursday, September 20, 2018 at 9 a.m. EST. Select “Disability and the Avant-Garde” in the Seminar drop box. If you have any questions about this seminar, feel free to contact Andrew Harnish ( and Samuel Yates (

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