Reeve, D. (2014) ‘Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: An analysis of disabled people’s experience of welfare reform in the UK’, paper presented at 7th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 9-11 September.
This exploratory paper will utilise the liminal figure of homo sacer (Agamben, 1998) to consider the experiences of disabled people living at the sharp end of a major reform of the welfare system supporting those traditionally considered too ill to work. This is happening at a time of high unemployment and economic recession in the UK.
Two aspects of homo sacer will be discussed in this paper. Firstly it will be shown how disabled people can find themselves caught up in an ‘economic’ zone of indistinction, as a consequence of a state of exception caused by these neoliberal policies. For example, the changing of eligibility criteria for out-of-work benefits paid to disabled people has resulted in a group of disabled people who are now deemed to be fit-to-work rather than unfit-to-work. However existing barriers to paid work – whether related to the consequences of impairment or to employer attitudes – remain unchanged and so rates of employment remain low compared to non-disabled unemployed people.
Secondly, a key aspect of homo sacer is that (s)he can be killed with impunity, without the death being treated as homicide (Agamben, 1998). There have been a number of recent deaths and suicides of disabled people that have been attributed directly to benefits cuts or to the anxiety and stress caused by the work capability assessment process. The government refutes these claims and simply offers condolences to the family of the dead claimant. This ‘letting die’ of disabled people as a consequence of welfare reform could be seen as an example of the inherent structural violence associated with neoliberalism (Tyner, 2014)
This paper aims to use the figure of homo sacer to illustrate the contradictory and precarious positions that disabled people are often forced to adopt as a consequence of neoliberal welfare reform.
Reeve, D. and Soldatic, K. (2012) ‘‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’: Welfare reform and the Work Capability Assessment’, paper presented at Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane, 3rd International Conference, Chester University, 26-27 June.
Disabled people and their entitlement to social security benefits are now a central concern of neoliberal economic policy debates (OECD, 2009). As a consequence, across western (neo)liberal democracies, a redefinition of who is seen as ‘really disabled’ is taking place. The form that this takes varies with country; in the UK this has resulted in many disabled people who were formerly in receipt of Incapacity Benefit, being now declared as ‘fit to work’ under the successor Employment Support Allowance.
As the coalition government continue their plans to reform disability benefits under the auspices of a time of austerity, the Work Capability Assessment is a key tool to separate out disabled people into those deserving of support, those deemed fit to work and those in the intermediate work-related activity group. Drawing on interviews with disabled women talking about their experience of claiming ESA, this paper will discuss their experiences of attending a WCA medical. We will show how these women internalise governmental and media discourses about who is seen as disabled (and worthy of support) and the ways in which they navigate the complex, trap-laden setting of the WCA medical.
This paper will be presenting new ideas which are still under development by the two authors. One line of discussion will show how these narrative accounts illustrate the ways in which ESA and the associated WCA lead to economic zones of indistinction (Agamben, 1998). In these liminal spaces disabled people are no longer protected by the welfare state and instead find themselves at the mercy of prejudiced employers and part-time, insecure work opportunities. This paper will also discuss the impact on the emotional health of these disabled women caused by their negotiation of the multiple, shifting, conflicting identities foisted upon them by external agents.
Reeve, D. (2011) ‘From geek to theory chick: Developing understanding(s) of psycho-emotional disablism’, paper presented at Postgraduate disability research: A critical space to engage, Warwick University, 13 July (keynote).
In this paper I reflect on the intellectual journey taken during the time I
studied for my PhD – complete with missed turnings and numerous
mechanical breakdowns. I then discuss the impact that several different
theorists have had on the way in which I have explored the concept of psychoemotional
disablism, showing the rich insights which interdisciplinary thinking
can bring. Finally I end by identifying some of the questions which face those
of us in critical disability studies if our work is to remain relevant to the
everyday lives of disabled people.
Reeve, D. (2009) ‘Biopolitics and bare life: Does the impaired body provide contemporary examples of homo sacer?’, in K. Kristiansen, S. Vehmas and T. Shakespeare (eds) Arguing about Disability: Philosophical Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 203-217.
Agamben describes the concept of homo sacer which refers to someone whose “entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him [sic] without committing homicide” (Agamben, 1998:183). Homo sacer can be considered to be an outlaw or bandit; someone who is not simply outside the law and indifferent to it, but who has instead been abandoned by the law. This renders homo sacer exposed and threatened on the threshold where life and law, inside and outside, become indistinguishable. Whilst Agamben uses homo sacer to analyse contemporary Western politics, I will utilise this figure on a less grand scale to present some initial ideas about how homo sacer can provide a model for the exclusion of disabled people from participation in society.
I will argue that foetal screening and the recently proposed (and rejected) Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill represent clear examples of bare life within which “normative schemes of intelligibility establish what will and will not be human, what will be a liveable life, what will be a grievable death” (Butler, 2004: 146). I will also explore the ways in which institutional care of disabled people and enforced psychiatric hospitalisation can be linked to recent discussions about the nature of refugee camps and detention centres – examples of modern day ‘camps’ which represent states of exception.
Finally I will use the concept of homo sacer to consider some examples of psycho-emotional disablism arising from the experience of living and moving within the zones of indistinction between inclusion and exclusion, exception and rule. This paper aims to show that the liminal figure of homo sacer offers an alternative to existing Foucauldian analyses of disability which focus on the production of normality rather than the suspension of law and production of exception provided by Agamben.
This chapter was my first publication using the work of Agamben, an approach which underpinned my PhD thesis.
Reeve, D. (2009) ‘What can Agamben’s Homo Sacer offer to an analysis of contemporary psycho-emotional disablism’, paper presented at CeDR/ASS seminar, Lancaster University, 19 May.
This seminar paper captured the key findings from my PhD study and presented them to colleagues at Lancaster University.
Reeve, D. (2008) Negotiating Disability in Everyday Life: The Experience of Psycho-Emotional Disablism, PhD Thesis, Lancaster: Lancaster University.
It has been recognised that disability studies has been excellent at theorising structural disablism which affects what people with impairments can do. However, disabling factors which affect people with impairments at the psycho-emotional level, have been relegated to the domain of personal trouble. Building on the ideas presented in Female Forms by Carol Thomas, this thesis has two strands: an empirical description of the complexity of psycho-emotional disablism and its effects on identity, coupled with an application of the work of Giorgio Agamben (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life) to theorise this experience of psycho-emotional disablism.
At the centre of this qualitative study were ten disabled people who took part in a two-part narrative interview method and talked about their ‘experiences of disability’. The data was analysed in detail and revealed the complex interactions between structural disablism, psycho-emotional disablism, impairment effects as well as ‘disability identity’. I show how psycho-emotional disablism can be divided into two distinct forms: direct psycho-emotional disablism which can happen within interpersonal interactions between disabled people and others and indirect psycho-emotional disablism which can occur as a consequence of the experience of structural disablism. I also consider how the experience of psycho-emotional disablism affects the different ways that people with impairments identify or not as disabled, and how this has a temporal and spatial aspect as well as being impacted by impairment effects.
Agamben’s work on homo sacer is used to explain the existential insecurity associated with the experience of psycho-emotional disablism. The concept of a ‘zone of indistinction’ is extended to introduce psychic and economic zones as well as the more common spatial zone of indistinction. I demonstrate how these zones can be found in examples of (in)direct psycho-emotional disablism and suggest that the impaired body is an example of bare life.
Reeve, D. (2008) ‘Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: What can the work of Agamben offer disability studies?’, paper presented at 4th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 2-4 September.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as part of his analysis of contemporary Western politics (Agamben, 1998), describes how the figure of homo sacer can be considered to be an outlaw or bandit; someone who is not simply outside the law and indifferent to it, but who has instead been abandoned by the law. Whereas Foucauldian approaches have been useful in understanding the ways in which technologies of power differentiate the abnormal from the normal, Agamben instead focuses on how the suspension of law (states of exception) can create zones of indistinction where homo sacer can be found. One good example of a zone of indistinction is that of Camp Delta set up to hold US ‘detainees’ (rather than ‘prisoners’) who are at the mercy of presidential decrees and the will of military personnel. The camp itself occupies an indistinct spatial zone because of its location in Guantánamo Bay – it is on Cuban soil, but outside the realm of Cuban law.
In this paper I will draw on narratives of disability experiences generated as part of my PhD to present some ideas about how these concepts of homo sacer and zones of indistinction can be used to understand some contemporary experiences of structural and psycho-emotional disablism.
Structural dimensions of disablism affect what disabled people can do; examples include barriers in the built environment or lack of information in accessible formats. I will show how flawed implementations of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK lead to spatial zones of indistinction where disabled people find themselves (legally) both included and excluded at the same time. This is because of the unspecifiable ‘reasonable adjustments’ term in the Act which means that disabled people are at the ‘mercy’ of planners and architects as to how these adjustments are implemented. Although there are examples of excellent inclusive design, this is not guaranteed; so whilst a separate entrance for wheelchair users restores independence, it does not necessarily restore the disabled person’s self-esteem and dignity.
Finally I introduce the new concept of ‘psychic’ zones of indistinction to examine some examples of psycho-emotional disablism experienced by people with visible impairments. Within most parts of society it is considered rude to stare or call people names; however for many people with visible impairments this is a daily occurrence and can feel invalidating and humiliating. I suggest that these psychic zones of indistinction are created by the suspension of behavioural norms or ‘internal’ laws’. In addition, the disabled person is never certain of how the next stranger will react to them which reflects the way in which homo sacer is always ‘at the mercy of his fellow men’.
Reeve, D. (2007) ‘Homo sacer and zones of exception: Metaphors for the contemporary experience of disablism?’, paper presented at Disability, Discourse and Community Psychology: The 1st Seminar, Research Institute of Health and Social Change (RIHSC), Manchester Metropolitan University, 6 July.
Longer version of the paper presented at the NNDR conference earlier in the year.
I turned up at this conference and one of the speakers had failed to arrive – so I was asked if I could present something. Luckily I had the NNDR slides on a USB stick in my bag, and after 15 minutes of adding in some extra material and some kind soul printing out a copy of the original presentation notes for me, I gave an impromptu presentation!
Reeve, D. (2007) ‘Homo sacer and zones of exception: Metaphors for the contemporary experience of disablism?’, paper presented at Nordic Network on Disability Research, Göteborg, Sweden, 10-12 May.
Agamben, as part of his analysis of contemporary Western politics, describes how the figure of homo sacer can be considered to be an outlaw or bandit; someone who is not simply outside the law and indifferent to it, but who has instead been abandoned by the law.
Whereas Foucauldian approaches have been useful in understanding the ways in which technologies of power differentiate the abnormal from the normal, Agamben instead focuses on how the suspension of law can create zones of exception where homo sacer can be found.
In this exploratory paper I will draw on narratives of disability experiences to present some initial ideas about how homo sacer and zones of exception can be used, on a less grand scale, to understand the experience of structural and psycho-emotional disablism.
I will show how implementations of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK can lead to spatial zones of exception where disabled people find themselves both included and excluded at the same time.
Finally I will introduce the concept of psychic zones of exception created by the suspension of behavioural norms or ‘internal laws’ to discuss psycho-emotional disablism occurring within interpersonal interactions.