Teodor Mladenov. Critical Theory and Disability: A Phenomenological Approach. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2016; 232 pages. ISBN: 978-1628921991.

Reviewed by Shelley Tremain, Independent Scholar.

For several decades in the twentieth century, the term critical theory was used as a proper noun (i.e., Critical Theory) that referred specifically to the work of an intellectual movement of German philosophers and Western European Marxist social scientists—from Horkheimer and Adorno to Marcuse and Habermas—who constituted what came to be known as the Frankfurt School. Members of the Frankfurt School held that “critical” theory could be distinguished from “traditional” theory by the fact that the former sort of theory sought human “emancipation from slavery,” acted as a liberating influence, and worked “to create a world which satisfies [human] needs and powers.” (CT, 246) In other words, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School was designed to be both normative and transformative, with concrete political and social implications. Beginning in the late twentieth century, with the rise of feminist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, and other social and political movements—movements that variously shared some of the aims of the Frankfurt School—the term critical theory began to be used more generously. Indeed, the term critical theory is now widely used to refer to a broad spectrum of social and political inquiry. It is this latter, broader, sense of the term that Teodor Mladenov’s recent book, Critical Theory and Disability: A Phenomenological Approach, employs in its title and text (Habermas is the only early proponent of Critical Theory who makes an appearance in the book).

A promising contribution to disability theory and philosophy of disability, Mladenov’s book draws primarily upon the phenomenologies of Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger (with the occasional use of Husserl and Gadamer), both to offer a new understanding of the social phenomena surrounding and constitutive of the discursive object called “disability”, and to critically examine how other disability theorists have conceptualized this object. Chapters of the book are devoted to considerations of disabled people and sexuality, personal assistance and disabled people, discrimination, media representations of inaccessibility and disability, the classification and assessment of disability in public policy, and the promulgation by multilaterals such as the United Nations of policy instruments designed to establish an international consensus about safeguards for disabled people. Importantly, the discussions about personal assistance, sexuality, discrimination, and the classification and assessment of disability provide readers with a glimpse of the social situation for disabled people in Bulgaria (67–185), a population to which disability studies has paid little attention. There are a few places in these discussions where Mladenov draws on Foucault’s work, and these tend to be the strongest arguments in the book. In a chapter on assessment of disability, for instance, Mladenov uses Foucault’s insights about the emergence of modern medicine and the disciplinary control of certain bodies to develop claims about the linkages found in Bulgarian policies of disability assessment between the medicalization of disability and productivity. (72)

Not surprisingly, given Mladenov’s being situated within the United Kingdom, there is no shortage of discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of the British social model of disability (BSM). For more than thirty years, the BSM, an historical-materialist approach to disability and the social situation of disabled people, dominated disability theory and activism within the U.K. and even internationally; meanwhile, Foucauldian, feminist, and phenomenological approaches to disability have steadily undermined the BSM from the mid-1990s onward. As Mladenov explains it, the BSM utilizes a distinction between impairment and disability that parallels a distinction between sex and gender made in twentieth-century feminism. Many of the criticisms that philosophers and theorists of disability (including Mladenov) have advanced with respect to the BSM’s impairment-disability distinction likewise parallel criticisms that feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler have directed at this version of the sex-gender distinction. (45–53) In several places, I have argued, for example, that insofar as proponents of BSM claim that there is no necessary connection between impairment (construed as a politically-neutral, biological human characteristic) and disability (construed as a contingent form of social disadvantage), they fail to recognize that impairment is also socially constituted, a necessary condition of disability on their approach. (Tremain 2001, 2015) Other disability theorists—such as Tanya Tichkosky, Jackie Leach Scully, Bill Hughes, and Kevin Paterson—have drawn on the work of Merleau-Ponty to argue that the BSM does not take into account the phenomenology and materiality of the lived, impaired body. Mladenov maintains that his phenomenological approach to the BSM and, more generally, his reconstructive claims about disability are nevertheless innovative, because he takes himself as having introduced the idea that disability is always already mediated through the body. However, even though the argumentation that he uses to advance his claims about corporeal mediation is more rigorous and nuanced than that of other disability theorists who have relied upon Merleau-Ponty’s work, it is not made clear how, or even whether, Mladenov’s contribution in this regard ultimately differs significantly from theirs, or goes further in terms of its implications.

Two other issues are worth noting. First, Mladenov’s use of Heidegger’s work on ontology and technology to expand and deepen the philosophical bases of his idea about mediation of the disabled body cannot go unaddressed. By now, it has been unquestionably established that Heidegger was affiliated with the Nazis. To be sure, whether the propaganda of Hitler and the Nazis can be identified in features of Heidegger’s writing remains contested in intellectual circles. Furthermore, some scholars argue that the merit of Heidegger’s insights should be kept distinct from his deeply problematic political affiliations. My own view is that insofar as Hitler and the Nazis systematically exterminated an estimated 275,000 disabled people during their reign, the use of Heidegger’s work in a book about critical theory and disability demands an explanation, if not a justification, neither of which Mladenov offers. We might ask, for instance, whether the value that accrues for disability theory from the incorporation of Heidegger into a book on disability and critical theory outweighs the serious ethical and political concerns that use of his work should raise for disability theorists. We might also ask whether the use of Heidegger conflicts with the significant efforts of disability researchers and activists who have laboured to get Nazi atrocities against disabled people formally recognized and memorialized by governmental and non-governmental bodies internationally. I am inclined to answer the first question negatively and the second question affirmatively.

Second, the fact that my own influential work on the BSM is cited in Mladenov’s book but not discussed led me to consider additional meta-theoretical questions and concerns about the book. I noticed (for example) that discussion of the work of other prominent women disability theorists (such as Tichkosky and Scully), including work that has drawn heavily on Merleau-Ponty, is also largely absent from the book, although in some cases the work is cited in the book’s endnotes and bibliography. By contrast, Mladenov critically engages with the claims of most of the male disability theorists—including Hughes, Colin Barnes, Tom Shakespeare, and Nick Watson—whose work is routinely discussed in the disability studies texts produced in the U.K. When the claims of this group of male disability theorists are taken together with the claims of the male phenomenologist philosophers through which Mladenov reads disability theory, the result is a book that seems to be dominated by men—a troubling extension of the legacies of androcentric biases and masculinism that have conditioned the tradition of Euro-American, Western philosophy and the interdisciplinary field of disability studies, especially in the U.K. (It might also be noted that of the four endorsements that appear on the back cover of this book, all were written by men.) In short, worries about Heidegger aside, Mladenov’s book is by and large a solid contribution that adds to certain aspects of the existing literature of disability studies. But it also raises serious concerns about how important theoretical work produced by disabled women is marginalized within this field. While certain disciplines and interdisciplinary subfields have taken steps to address this sort of marginalization, it has received insufficient attention within disability studies. Its other strengths notwithstanding, in this respect Mladenov’s book seems to reflect uncritically a significant problem within contemporary disability theory.

Additional Works Cited

Horkheimer, Max. (1972), Critical Theory (New York: Seabury Press).

Tremain, Shelley. (2001), “On the Government of Disability,” Social Theory and Practice 27:4: 617–36.

Tremain, Shelley. (2015), “This is What a Historicist and Relativist Feminist Philosophy of Disability Looks Like,” Foucault Studies 19: 7–42.