Alison Kafer is a professor of feminist studies at Southwestern University, where she also teaches in the environmental studies and race & ethnicity studies programs. She is the author of the book Feminist, Queer, Crip (Indiana, 2013) and of essays in a number of journals and anthologies, including Disability Studies Quarterly, Feminist Disability Studies, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, South Atlantic Quarterly, and Sex and Disability. She is currently working on the question of what comes after crip and disability by engaging concepts of haunting, skin, trauma, and crip cultural production.
My name is Alison Kafer. I came from Austin, Texas [to attend VIBE]. I do work in disability studies, and I’m particularly interested in how disability studies and disability movements link up with and don’t link up with other movements. So, thinking about questions of solidarity and proximity and relation, and thinking about that in terms of activist movements and in terms of theories. Which theories travel— why and why not? I think that theorists have been talking a lot and activists have been talking a lot about the need to imagine different types of futures and different kinds of futures that are connected to different views of the past and different experiences of the present. Artists offer us tools for doing that; artists are making new worlds through their work. What they make and what they conjure and imagine gives us ideas, gestures, patterns and designs to occupy space and time differently, which is amazing.
Crip comes from activist communities in the US and the North American context. It comes from the word crippled. But activists have taken it up as a reclaiming of the word. It often gets talked about as an umbrella term. So, it's a word that can encompass various types of experiences of disability and some would say, also of deafness. But the word has an edge, and it has different edges for different people. So for folks who are not familiar with disability communities it can have an edge, I think a good kind of edge, of like sort of in your face and it challenges ideas about disability. But I think within some disability communities and I would think also certainly within some Deaf communities it has a different kind of edge, in that it doesn’t always do the coalitional work that people say it does. It's like all language—it has promise and risks, right. So I think sometimes, myself included, we use it without thinking about that it is not a word that resonates for everyone, and that lack of resonance is not necessarily a sign of disconnection from disability or disconnection from anti-ableist work but actually can come from a different lens on those questions.
I have an incredibly rich disability community virtually and at events like this. I don't have one in my day to day life, and so it is always inspiring and nurturing and enlivening and multi-sensorially amazing to be in these spaces. Everything I have heard has been new and inspiring. But there is also a level of ambivalence in being in these spaces in that they are not spaces I have with me all the time, and I think that's true for I would think other folks here as well. And so, what are the communities we carry with us? And what are the communities that we often carry alone? And what are the communities we leave behind? These are not new thoughts or questions, but I just feel them very acutely in these kinds of spaces. And you are catching me at the end of the conference, right, when I am getting ready to leave so it's even more present.
Artists offer these representations that can allow people to be seen or witnessed or heard or felt who don’t get that in their daily lives, or don’t get it in affirming ways. But recognition can also be deeply painful. And so it’s not new, but it’s important. And I think that spaces like this offer room for ways to think about ambivalence as also being an essential part of social justice work.
Holding onto the dream of an accessible future and more accessible spaces is like beauty. That just fills me with joy. But part of that has to be recognizing that we get closer to that by bumping up against each other and edges and so we have to be open to that and be vulnerable to that tension. It's a work in progress and it's a work in progress that takes place over people's bodies and minds. And so wow can we do that justly?
I mean a lot of the art here [at the conference] is art I have struggled with, because I don’t actually know that I have the bodily capacity to interact with it in the way that it is intended to be interacted with. But that has made me think about other things I take for granted , assumptions I make. That sense of discomfort and occasional alienation I think is hard but it pushes me.
I was an art major in college and the year after I graduated from college I was in a fire and that’s how I became disabled. And… my hands were radically changed, damaged in that fire. So the deep affective response that you’re feeling [from me] in relation to these questions of art are about art and artists, but they are also I think about my own continuing to sort of think through trauma. And I don’t really make art anymore in the sense of creating visual art and I have all these amazing models of people who make art with different kinds of bodies and who have made art after trauma or after transformation. But it's just not something I have done. And I know, on some deep level, that to do it would require a kind of reckoning that I haven't made space for, intentionally or not. So there’s a kind of recognition I think in art making that I deeply value and it feels familiar to me, the vocabulary feels familiar to me. I feel grateful that I have a kind of profession that allows me to spend time with artists and examine what they do and think through it and put it into different vocabulary. That isn't easy. I mean writing is really hard and it also requires a reckoning with trauma, but it's a kind, it’s a kind I have made space for in a different way.
There is a part of me that thinks I will start work in a different form one day, but I may not. But just knowing that other temporal relations are possible, I think in some ways makes it available for me to have these kinds of conversations.