Module 4: The Materiality of Media
4.7 The Biopolitics of Disablement
“Other bodies are employed in the production processes precisely because they are deemed available for injury–they are, in other words, expendable, bodies whose debilitation is required in order to sustain capitalist narratives of progress.” Puar, 2009, p. 110
In the above quote, Jasbir Puar talks about how some bodies are expendable in capitalism, i.e. capitalism requires people to do dangerous work, work that often leads to injury and disablement, in order for many of our goods to be produced. In her 2017 book, The Right to Maim, Puar expands on this notion to discuss the “biopolitics of disablement”.
Transnational social, political and economic forces ‘debilitate’ or slowly wear down the bodies of those deemed ‘other’ or ‘marginal. These forces find expression in military occupation, migrant detention, transnational corporations, environmental racism and economic opportunism.
For example, in 2005, the global company, Trafigura, the world’s third-largest independent oil trader, bought unrefined gasoline from Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company. They began to try to refine it, attempting to offload the toxic waste byproduct in Amsterdam. However, due to its terrible smell, Amsterdam port authorities tested the waste and found it to be too toxic. Trafigura contracted out another company to dispose of the waste, which was then unloaded at 18 different dumpsites in Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire. More than 100,000 people had to be treated for nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, stinging eyes, and burning skin, and between 15-17 people died (Amnesty International, 2012).
Turning back to the theme of this section, how do the biopolitics of disablement operate in relation to technology and new media?
E-waste is the byproducts of resource extraction and manufacturing of digital technology and the discarded technologies themselves. The United Nations (2019) estimates that over 50 million tonnes of e-waste are thrown away each year. Robert Mejia (2016) writes, “it is well documented that the manufacturing of electronic technologies is a toxic process” (p. 231). He goes on to explain that technology users in the Global North need to understand that “the epidemiological consequences of technological production, usage, and disposal is most likely to harm poor women, men, and children of color” (p. 236), citing lead poisoning, the toxicity of mercury, and the environmental degradation caused by mining operations.
Safiya Umoja Noble (2018) writes,
“in the ecosystem, Black people provide the most grueling labor for blood minerals, and they do the dangerous, toxic work of dismantling e-waste in places such as Ghana” (p. 164).
A large dumpsite near Ghana’s capital, Accra, is the destination for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of e-waste every year, 85% of which comes from Europe. People who work at and live near this dumpsite suffer severe health consequences to both themselves and their children with reports of dangerously high levels of toxins in the area (Kwan, 2020).
In The Price of Popular Media, Toby Miller (2017) describes the dangers for workers in the as a result of breaking down e-waste, arguing that “we need to respond to this situation by connecting the materiality of media technologies to the production of disability” (p. 307). To learn more about the production of disability through a global lens, read this paper by Sona Kazemi (2017). In it, Kazemi conceptualizes a Transnational Disability Studies that investigates the production of disability through war and global capitalist economies which result from “unequal power-relations between the two constructed ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds” (p. 36).
Questions for us to consider as crip media scholars:
- What are some of the side effects of working with hazardous materials?
- Who is most likely doing this work? Where are they located? Do they have access to protective equipment and healthcare?
- How does mining and the transportation of hazardous materials impact the body?
- How does pollution, water poisoning, and environmental degradation impact individual and community health?
Following Miller’s call to trace the materiality of media, our next activity is to follow the global flow of materials, money, health, and disability in relation to techno-capital networks. Through this activity you will map the life and effects of a digital device, from raw material mining to use of the device and its disposal.
Use the world map image here (https://pixabay.com/photos/map-earth-world-planet-environment-4818844/) or find your own. You can print out the map and draw/write on it by hand, or edit with Microsoft Word, Paint, PowerPoint, Google Document, etc. If visual mapping is unavailable or inaccessible to you, answer the questions below in a list format.
Return to your Researching the Device Activity notes from earlier in this module where you researched the materiality of your media device. Use your work and research as a guide to perform the following activity.
Part 1: Materials
- Mark down the final destination (for now) of the device, where it resides with you.
- Use your research to mark down the following destinations on the map:
1) Where the minerals for the device were mined
2) Where the device was likely manufactured
3) Where the device resides now, with you
4)Where the device might end up when you recycle or discard it
- Keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to know exactly where the components of your cell phone came from. Guided by research, we will speculate possible locations the device could have moved through.
- You should have at least 4 locations marked on your map; likely more, if you’ve identified multiple minerals/materials that went into the creation of your device.
- Use arrows to connect these locations, showing the movement of materials around the globe.
Part 2: Disability
On each location where the device (or its materials/components) have moved through, list the disabilities or health implications of the creation process. What are the side effects of mining, manufacturing, using a computer, and recycling e-waste?
Part 3: Capital
- Who profits from this device? Note where the CEO of the company resides and what their salary is. A website that may help you find this information is https://www.investopedia.com/
- How much do the salespeople make at Best Buy or the Apple Store where you bought the device? Note on your map.
- How much do the designers of the device make? Are they located in Silicon Valley, Waterloo, or somewhere else? Note on your map.
- How much do the miners make?
- How much do the workers sorting e-waste make?
- Draw an arrow from your location tracing the flow of money through to the various workers on the chain, identifying who profits the most or least from the product
The map you produce may look something like this. Click a pink ‘i’ to see the device stage and health implications for each location.
- Remember that we can be critical of the production or exacerbation of disability by capitalism and other systems of violence while still being proud of our own disabled identities.
- Remember that there are people who become disabled who go through a mourning period as they become accustomed to their new embodiment.
- Remember that there are disabled people who have never desired a different body and reject mourning narratives.
- Remember that there are people who want to be cured (chronic pain, anyone?).
- Remember that there are people who do not want to be cured.
- Remember that many of us use the psychiatric or biomedical industries to manage pain or illness, and we can still be critical of those institutions AND want better access to care.
- Remember that neurodivergence is difference from physical disability, which is different from chronic illness, mental illness, being Deaf or heard of hearing and being blind or visually impaired.
- Remember that within these different categories of disability there are a wide range of experiences.
- Remember that in an ableist society, living at axes of privilege (whiteness, masculinity, wealth, heterosexuality, in the Global North, English speaking) makes survival more manageable than those of us living at multiple axes of oppression.
Countries located primarily in the southern hemisphere, that have historically been identified as "third world" by their relative poverty, technology, and lack of global dominance.