Hughes, B. (2002) 'Bauman's Strangers: impairments and the invalidation of disabled people in modern and post-modern cultures', in Disability and Society, Vol 17, 5: 571 - 584.

[This is an attempt to apply Bauman's analysis of the origins of the Holocaust to studies of disability. Briefly, the attempt to dominate the world cognitively, with a set of basic categories and simple oppositions, leads to domination and eventually extermination of anything that is different. This is very similar to the warnings of Horkheimer and Adorno on the oppressive tendencies in Enlightenment].

Modernity means  'no mess, no matter out of place' (571), and this ambition is taken to be an indication of civilisation. Difference is discouraged, seen as chaos, and was either ignored or positively repressed. Modernity operates with  'the myth of cultural essentialism' (572), so that everyone is seen as having some universal human nature. Difference is a challenge to this view, and the challenge is met by  'discrimination and disadvantage' (572).

Work on the stranger can be investigated in order to assist the necessary critique of modernity  [and Hughes briefly reviews the work of Simmel and Schutz. Personally, I think he gets Schutz wrong, and ignores his insistence that the problem with strangers is that they have quite different yet equally valid social knowledges.] The sociology of the stranger also flourished in the Chicago School with its interest in the American 'melting pot' on its doorstep. Hughes warns against the tendency of this approach to argue that everyone is a stranger to some extent, faced with modern culture: the problem is a political one for him -- with thismore existential approach  'it matters little whether or not one is a disabled person' (573). Nevertheless, this work on the stranger has led to some significant work on Otherness. In the work of Bauman, the interest is in how social relations construct some people as strangers, as out of place or repulsive.

Foucault on madness and its social significance gives us a clue to the modernist vision of a clean and pure world. Modernity continually re-defines and extends its notion of purity and order. This gets combined with fear of the stranger who is also typically seen as impure or in some sense  [and there is a reference to Elias on the civilising of the 'volatile medieval body'  (574), and to Bakhtin on the social disorder of the carnival and the baroque body]. Modernity attempts to regulate this impurity, and to separate it from normal life -- the impure are contagious and threaten the health of normal people. One result of this was the seclusion and confinement of the disabled, followed by different kinds of segregation, including economic ones.

The healthy body literally vomits out the stranger for Bauman. Medical values clearly incorporate bourgeois universalistic ones (575). The disabled were early targets of medical practices, especially those with mental illness. Those that could be 'cured' were readmitted to society, those that could not be cured were excluded [ I also thought of those who were disabled during later life as the result of an accident. Maybe these people are seen as less 'abnormal' than those born with a disability?]

These tendencies lead to the controversial claim in Bauman that the Holocaust itself is typical of modernity, and its mechanisms the formal equivalents of more acceptable forms of management of strangers --  'It is the end that justifies the means and so the means matter not' (576). Thus disability can be dealt with with a range of techniques from eugenics and incarceration to extermination, as the Nazis demonstrated [the counterargument is that Nazism itself is far from typical of modernity but is an exceptional case at best]. Bureaucratic machines are dissociated from moral considerations and maintain a social distance from their victims. Bauman wants to insist that Levinas was right to argue that responsibility for the other is the first principle of rational thinking.

Post-modern thinking seems to be more promising, with its celebration of pluralism and difference, and its scepticism towards neat categories and universal concepts. In postmodernism 'a context for more tolerant behaviour emerged' (578). The disability movement arose from the counter-culture and the early challenge to medical authority. It benefits from a tolerance of different kinds of cultures as ways of life, and thus  'difference and heterogeneity can become a basis for social relations' (578). Disabled people are still not fully accepted as normal, but the dominance of the disciplined able body has been challenged. It is possible that disability will become not 'a symbol of disorder and tragedy... [but]... nothing out of the ordinary' (579). They will be granted the respect due to all others: this respect is connected to respect for one's own difference  (579).

However, postmodernism also has its dangers. The main way to celebrate difference is by being a consumer. The disabled run the risk of appearing as inadequate consumers unless they are able to gain access to employment far more readily. Furthermore, toleration of difference seems to be limited by  'our "ocularcentric" culture' (580), with its interest in aesthetic physical perfection of face and body. More generally, a postmodernity can co-exist with modernity  [or, indeed, with new waves of fundamentalism and pre-modern culture]. Celebrating difference is not likely to lead to a particular programme of cultural politics  [we know the difficulties that the followers of Derrida got into --see Fraser]. [This is possibly where the failure to acknowledge the important cognitive aspects of the stranger may lead to undue optimism -- for Schutz and the others, strangeness is permanently generated, but most importantly, it resists simple attempts to understand others]. There may be a renewal of the modernist project. Disabled people  'are still viewed as symbols of tragedy' [as victims] (581).

In particular, there is still a tendency to exhibit revulsion towards disability, or to respond with charity -- merely another way of handling the disabled as irredeemably different,  'the "light" side of institutional disablism' (581). Compassion  'is a hair's breadth from barbarism', since both draw from modernist conceptions (581) [vedry controversial of course, and itself in risk of substantial illicit generalisation].

Bauman is useful for showing how modern culture itself  'transforms impairment into disability, bio - physical status into oppression' (582). Its tendency to produce the ordinary as a simple category simultaneously  'constructs the extra ordinary as a threat or a danger' (582). The promise of postmodernism is only limited. However, the possibilities need to be investigated in Disability Studies.

back to key concepts