Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
Review by David Adelman, Email: David.email@example.com
Cynthia Barounis’s Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood (2019, Temple University Press) is a study of the literary production of alternative masculinities across the 20th and 21st century— from Jack London to Eli Clare and beyond— and the political possibilities of vulnerability, susceptibility, and porousness. It simultaneously builds on existing scholarship in Queer Theory and Disability Studies, repeatedly linking the two across time and space, and implicitly making the argument that one cannot (or should not) be studied without the other. In short, this text is the co-mingling of the two.
This biopolitics Barounis advocates for emerges in the form of “antiprophylactic citizenship.” Most basically, antiprophylactic citizenship is the rejection of clinical authority and its articulations of knowledge-power. This mode of participation, in turn, is built on a foundation of “antiprophylactic masculinity”: a rejection of hegemonic masculinity; the need to be “invulnerable, impenetrable and impervious to injury”. Barounis repeatedly calls on a radical politics of dissent and refusal. Antiprop hylactic citizenship is also a refusal of the status quo. Vulnerable Constitutions is not only in conversation with scholars like Alison Kafer and Robert McRuer, but also Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani, and more contemporaneously Mel Y. Chen and Jasbir Puar.
As Barounis places it, this book is, in part, a “sustained focus on the queer body as an object of medical diagnosis”. That is, Barounis is interested in various (mostly literary) cultural productions that focus on the queer body as medical oddity or defect. Additionally, Barounis works to historicize antiprophylactic citizenship, and while not fundamentally utopian, Barounis writes that she sees her analysis of antiprophylactic citizenship as a way to excavate the “queer-crip possibilities in American citizenship”.
Functionally, this attempt to historicize antiprophylactic citizenship is very often accomplished by bringing various historical objects in conversation with one another—James Baldwin and the DSM, William Faulkner and the history of eugenics, and so forth. However, perhaps the most interesting thread of this text has to do with antiprophylactic citizenship in the absence of “traditional” maleness or sexuality. I am referring to Barounis’s chapter on Eli Clare, Shortbus and asexuality.
Portions of this text serve as a corrective to the uncritical embrace of sexual practice as the default emancipatory posture for disability. In other words, Barounis critiques the notion that to be perceived as healthy and “normal”, one must also be sexual. The consideration of asexuality here is a salient thread, both within Disability Studies and Queer Theory. Put bluntly, the field of asexuality studies is relatively new and by placing asexuality, Queer Theory, and Disability Studies together Barounis is pursuing new lines of inquiry and productive questions.
Yet, seen in another light, Shortbus’ very inclusion prompts comment. It is the only film in discussion, perhaps because of the visibility of its asexual characters, and there is very little discussion of the audience, either theoretically or by way of reception. Put differently, films may be read as texts, but they are not texts in the same way a novel is. This is less of an overt critique and more an observation for future research— what does the application of antiprophylactic citizenship look like for practices of media making or collaborative frameworks more generally?
Relatedly, Barounis includes bodies not “traditionally” male. Often, as in the discussion of Testo Junkie, Transness as a state gets glossed as a liminal space; porous and vulnerable, recourse away from regimes of hegemonic discipline. At the same time, Barounis reads Eli Clare’s transition as a way to discipline his body, or at least to make it more legible. That is, to make sense of it. This is another implicit thread of the text, that antiprophylactic citizenship is about finding coherent ways of understanding the world. I do not see the contradictory nature of transgender identity as it is theorized here to be a fault of the text, rather, it is a strength. It demonstrates the ways in which antiprophylactic citizenship is modulated by circumstance.
This is perhaps most provocatively grappled with in the epilogue, vis a vi the discussion of Tony Matelli’s sculpture Sleepwalker, which as Barounis points out, slips the bounds of categorization from an example of an antiprophylactic masculinity when viewed as a vulnerable body to male hegemonic aggressor when viewed as a reminder of male sexual aggression on a women’s college. Of course, the sculpture is both, depending on the viewpoint. This is all an entry into discussing the theoretical stickiness of trigger warnings. Barounis makes the point that trigger warnings operate along lines of a double logic — they can be both an antiprophylaxis and an agent of oppressive systems. Ultimately however, Barounis posits the idea that the antiprophylactic citizen is imagined to “gradually cultivate physical and political resilience”. “Resilience” here, ideally, is a productive vulnerability. That is, an openness to democratic ideals of inclusion and diversity. Even if, as Barounis puts it, we occasionally wound one another.
In conclusion, this text is useful for anyone working at the intersection of sexuality and Disability Studies. It is notable for its theoretically sophisticated discussion of asexuality, particularly considering crip theory, and could even be included in discussions of political economies of the body. In short, it builds on a long cannon of refusal, while also being deeply interested in capacitation, and implicitly at least, crip worldmaking.
Barounis, Cynthia. Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood. Philadelphia, Temple University Press. 2019.
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
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