Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

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Call for Papers
The imperfect Historian: Disability Histories in Europe

«I’m not a professional historian, but nobody is perfect» Michel Foucault, University of Vermont, 27 October 1982

Just like gender, race and class, disability has become a standard analytical category in the historian’s tool chest nowadays. Up until now Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky’s book The New disability history: American perspectives (2001) still provides the most thoughtful introduction to the burgeoning field. If Longmore and Umansky’s American perspectives have proved to be crucial in the promotion of disability history as a well-established historical field of study it, at the same time, led to a kind of methodological determination based on the social-constructivist approach of history and closely connected to the on-going emancipatory processes of persons with disabilities all over the world. With this call for papers we would like to invite disability scholars working within or on a European context to explore new possible ways of relating the intellectual craft of disability history to the political ideals of emancipation and liberation of persons with disabilities. We especially would like to encourage disability scholars to make use of post-modernist philosophies and theories of history in order to deal with the problematic feature of ‘identity’ in current disability theory.

Inspired by the American perspectives of Longmore and Umansky many disability historians up until now have written disability histories in order to underpin the positivist construction of sovereign, independent emancipated identities for persons with disabilities with historical evidence. Despite the undeniable importance of the concept of ‘identity’ for the social model of disability, it has been argued that in our neo-liberal societies, “power” cannot solely be seen outside or in contrast to identity. Emancipatory processes solely focusing on identity, it is argued, fail to grasp the fact that identity in our neo-liberal societies is placed at the core of power technologies resulting in governable subjectivities. In other words: who we are and what we want to be is now one of the many elements used in strategies to determine how we behave ourselves in the world. Given this contemporary suspicion towards the concept of ‘identity’ we would like to encourage scholars to explore to what extent post-modernist philosophies and theories of history might suggest a way of writing disability histories beyond social-constructivism. Without having the intention of being exhaustive we would like to suggest two possible roads.

First of all it seems attractive to refer to the wide-ranging ideas and insights developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his thought-provoking oeuvre. If disability historians have, of course, already explored some of Foucault’s ideas in the context of social-constructivists inspired histories it seems that some of Foucault’s later concepts – like governmentality, limit-experiences and Art of life – might enable the disability historian to get rid of the problematic features attached to ‘identity’ without letting go the imperative of social change. With regard to the gay movement, for example, Foucault has argued in at least one interview that it was more important to find out new ways to be gay than to define a gay identity. Based on this relatively unknown Foucauldian perspective in disability circles, disability histories then could try to reconstruct the many possible and sometimes conflicting ways of being that have been explored by persons with disabilities throughout history.

Secondly, we would like to refer to some refreshing meta-historical theories that all, in one way or another, have stressed the fact that also history is a construct and that historians often write narratives in order to prove personal opinions and by using problematic methodologies. It is argued that many historians up until now have used a simplified concept of time – focusing on natural evolution and logical chronologies. While emphasizing the necessity of writing histories that deal with experiences of exclusion and the relationship between power and diversity, authors operating from this new meta-historical perspective have abandoned the representation of history as something which continuously becomes better. Authors like Haydn White, Jörn Rüsen, Walter Benjamin or Reinhardt Kosselleck have argued against this progressive model of history while at the same time underlining the importance of social change. Just like the ideas of Michel Foucault these authors can offer disability historians fruitful pathways that go beyond the social-constructivists histories of disability ‘identity’ and explore new ways in which disability histories can be written.

Generally speaking we would like to encourage disability scholars to submit contributions that explore divergent terrains of disability history, not as much as to stress the existence and importance of disabled identities, but rather to formulate a critique of “normalcy” and to reveal the manifold and often conflicting ways of being disabled in history. One could say that the central motif of this book is the de-construction of borders. Hereby we explicitly aim at enlarging the methodological toolkit of the disability historian by using narrative methods and discourse analysis. As we personally believe that no single history can claim to be perfect or once and for all can reconstruct the past in the light of a better future we would like to provocatively title this collection The imperfect historian.

Based on a notorious statement made by Michel Foucault at the beginning of the 80s, our main intention is to seek possible ways of applying disturbing philosophical and historical theories to the methodology of disability history in order to show that imperfection might be a fruitful perspective for disability historians – just like it is for persons with disabilities.

Anyone interested in this call for papers should electronically send an abstract of no more than 500 words and a brief CV to Sebastian Barsch: The deadline for the abstracts is March 31, 2011. All of the abstracts will be reviewed by the editors of the book proposal: Dr. Sebastian Barsch, Dr. Anne Klein and Dr. Pieter Verstraete. Participants will be notified towards the end of April 2011 whether their abstract is accepted.
The deadline for a first draft of the full article then will be September 30, 2011.

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