Ambivalent Pleasures: Pleasure, Desire, Authenticity, and the Production of Value in Online Disability Cultures




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This dissertation, “Ambivalent Pleasures: Pleasure, Desire, Authenticity, and the Production of Value in Online Disability Cultures,” examines how discourses of “desirable disability” manifest in cultural productions and Internet publics. I trace the circulation and intensification of this discourse in popular culture, exploring the neoliberal commodification of identity politics that occurs and, concomitantly, is contested, as a result of this discourse. I undertake this analysis through a combination of discourse and textual analysis, examining a range of audiovisual material from the last ten years including independent film— The Sessions (2011), streaming television—Netflix’s Special (2019-2021), and social media—Jillian Mercado’s self-presentation on Instagram. Alongside neoliberal attempts to commodify desirable disability, I analyze the complex relations between pleasure, desire, and authenticity that undergird desirable disability. Building on a foundation of crip theory, critical disability methodology, and critical/disability media studies, this dissertation asks the following questions: first, how is desirable disability visualized and narrativized across intersections of race and gender; second, how do the sociotechnical systems in which desirable disability is visualized and narrativized reproduce those same oppressive processes that disability activism works to actively resist? In the case of disability, the language and practices of desire are acts of resistance. They are a reaction against medical and scientific regimes of cure, which position disability as undesirable. However, even when advancing the notion of desirable disability is a rejection of a model of cure—and thus, is a model for world making and knowledge production— this embrace of desirable disability online invites economies and structures of desire that allow for value extraction and processes of neoliberal logic and communicative capitalism, which effect different bodies unequally in differing historical and cultural contexts. These are the contradictions this dissertation scrutinizes. As radical method and in its activist form, desirable disability seeks to capacitate the disabled body. However, practiced within culture industries, it also allows for the commodification of labor and lived experience, giving rise to those same ableist—and racist and misogynistic—ideologies that disability activism strives against. This dissertation seeks to critically examine these structures of power-knowledge, sketching out these oppressive specters in the service of imagining more just worlds, bearing in mind the centrality of medium affordances and limitations that is key to this project, and seriously considering the cultural work of disability and disabled people within and across media industries. Most importantly however, I aim to demonstrate there is no single discourse of disability and desire. I take up a constantly modulating constellation of politics, culture, and technology that work upon publics differently, to produce crip imaginings of the future.



Fine Arts, Cinema