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Disabling effects: Negotiating M’charek’s analysis


Examined Life - Judith Butler & Sunaura Taylor

Documentary film, directed by Astra Taylor

2008, Zeitgeist Films

Clip: 14 mins, RT: 88 mins


able-ness, able bodied

dis-abled, disability

difference, surface

social status, stigma

the variant body





M'charek, Amade. “Fragile Differences, Relational effects: Stories about the Materiality of Race and Sex.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 17.4 (2010): 307-22.

In Astra Taylor’s 2008 documentary Examined Life, Astra’s sister Sunaura Taylor is filmed sharing a walk with famed philosopher and theorist Judith Butler, on the streets of San Francisco. Sunaura, a fantastic visual artist and advocate for awareness on issues impacting the physically disabled, engages with Judith in a terrific conversation about disability, discussing how the label is not definitively formed by physical and psychological situation but largely in relation to prevailing social status’ categorizations of so called "able-bodied" “healthy” persons as a large lump sum separate from a minority who are different.

Their exchange is representative of the sort of action needed to do what Amade M'charek says about the human capacity for transformation: “Differences…are not given ‘entities’ out there, awaiting dis-covery; rather they are effects that come about in relational practices” (307). By walking together and experiencing and sharing the ways in which a variant body moves and needs, acts and responds to the world, it becomes possible to think about boundaries as permeable.

transcription (segments of dialogue):


Judith Butler: I'm just thinking that nobody takes a walk without there being a technique of walking. Nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk, outside of ourselves. And that maybe we have a false idea that the able-bodied person is somehow radically self-sufficient.

Sunaura Taylor: It wasn't until I was in my early 20s, about 20-21, that I became aware of disability as a political issue. And that happened largely through discovering the social model of disability, which is basically... in disability studies they have a distinction between disability and impairment. So impairment would be my body, my embodiment right now. The fact that I was born with arthrogryposis (...) basically my joints are fused, my muscles are weaker, I can't move in certain ways. This does effect my life in certain situations. (...) so there's that embodiment, our own unique embodiments. And then there's disability, which is basically the social oppression of disabled people.


JB: So, would disability be the social organization of impairment?

ST: The disabling effects, basically, of society.


JB: There is an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze called "What can a Body do?", and the question is supposed to challenge traditional ways in which we think about bodies, right? We usually ask, what is a body, or, what is the ideal form of a body, or, what's the difference between the body and the soul, and that kind of thing.

But 'what can a body do' is a different question, it isolates a set of capacities, and a set of instrumentalities or actions, and we are assemblages of those things, and I like this idea. It's not like there's an essence and it's not like there is an ideal morphology; what a body should look like... it's exactly not that question. Or, what a body should move like. One of things that I've found in looking at gender and even violence against sexual minorities or gender minorities... people whose gender presentation doesn't conform with standard ideals of femininity or masculanity is that very often comes down to how people walk, how they use their hips, what they do with their body parts, what they use their mouth for, what they use their anus for, or what they allow their anus to be used for.



ST: When in those in between moments, in between male and female, in between death and health, when do you still count as a human?

JB: My sense of what's at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency. (...) do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs? And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue, and not just my personal, individual issue or your personal individual issue? So there's a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup, and hopefully people will take it up and say yes, I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs, and I want to organize a social-political world on the basis of that recognition.


In her analysis of difference, M'charek cites the thought of Butler on materiality, where “identities and differences matter in both senses of the word” (309: Butler, 1993), and does so to argue for a relationality that is inclusive of science and technology as part of a view on a society with un-stable boundaries. This same social fabric that is highly influential on the constraints Sunaura points to that define disability seems like it should be at odds if not for Butler’s consideration that the diffracting patterns of a societal construction which blend and mash together as an embodied site of interdependency, a.k.a within a world of threads that connect our materiality and matter to that around us.

Then where difference is materialized in relation, and enacted in bodies, M'charek’s introduction of Bruno Latour’s concept “matters of concern” attempts to interrupt/segment/partition the process of taking differences as ‘matters of facts’, so that we can better determine what makes it possible to measure the means of our interdependency.

M'charek’s incorporation of Latour’s methodology of an “interested science” of experimentation as means to uncover matters of concern in representations of difference and interdependence could be useful, but only where the patterns of interference are utilized as a generative technique to realize gaps in the weave of our collective social fabric, so that we move beyond ridged delineations in our language and other symbols, in keeping with the non-stableness of boundaries so necessary to articulating and living a de-essentialization.


Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

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