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Rosemarie Garland-Thomson lecture 'Eugenic World Building & Disability'

Gerard Goggin (

Thursday, 19 March 2015 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEDT)

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson lecture 'Eugenic World...

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“Eugenic World Building and the Problem of Disability”

a public lecture by Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Thursday 19 March, 6pm-7.30pm

 Seminar Room (S226), Level 2 Woolley Building (A20)

Department of Media & Communications
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University of Sydney (Camperdown Campus)

Supported by Dept of Media and Communication, Centre for Disability Research and Policy, & Charles Perkins Centre, Health Humanities Node, University of Sydney & Critical Disability Studies Thematic Group, The Australian Sociology Association, in conjunction with Curtin University

About the lecture, “Eugenic World Building and the Problem of Disability”

 A crucial challenge for Critical Disability Studies is developing an argument for why disabled people should be in the world, should inhabit our democratic, shared public sphere. The ideological and material separation of a national citizenry into the worthy and unworthy based on physiological variations imagined as immutable differences is what I call eugenic world building, which strives to eliminate disability and, along with it, people with disabilities from human communities through scientific and medical technologies, such as genetic manipulation, selective abortion, and medical normalization. It is justified by the idea that social improvement and freedom of choice require eliminating devalued human traits in the interest of reducing human suffering, increasing life quality, and building a more desirable citizenry. In this lecture, I suggest that a eugenic understanding of disability as inherent biological inferiority leads only to addressing disability through systems of compensation and normalization and, when this fails, through systems of exclusion and elimination. I argue, instead, that the traits and ways of being in the world we think of as disabilities must be understood as the natural variations, abilities, and limitations inherent in human embodiment. When this happens, disability will be understood not as a problem to be eliminated but, rather, as a reality to be accommodated through a sustaining and sustainable environment designed to afford access for the range of human variations.

In developing this argument, I trace the logic and history of eugenic nation building in the Holocaust, define and explain the role of the “normate” in eugenic logic, and provide a Critical Disability Studies reading of the 2005 novel and 210 film Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This reading takes apart commonplace assumptions about “normate” and disabled lives, which underlie contemporary eugenic logic. In opposition to this logic, I offer a counter-eugenic argument that variant forms and functions we count as disabilities and abilities do not predict or determine, in any coherent or meaningful way, quality of life, human value, happiness, merit, achievement, virtue, contribution, or potential—in short, any of the criteria for evaluating a human life. I conclude that the question of whether we want to be or have disabled people in the world is the wrong question. The right question is how can the disabled people in our shared world now inhabit it effectively.


About Professor Garland-Thomson

 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Disability Studies Initiative at Emory University ( Her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, bioethics, and women’s studies. Her work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities, broadly understood, to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy. She is the author of Staring: How We Look (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (Columbia University Press, 1997); coeditor of Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum (Routledge, 2010) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (Modern Language Association, 2002); and editor of Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York University Press, 1996). Her current book projects include Habitable Worlds: Disability, Technology, and Eugenics, which places materialist analysis of the built environment in conversation with eugenic practices and thought, and a work on narrative bioethics.

 About the organizers

 The Department of Media and Communication, School of Letters, Art, and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney (

 Centre for Disability Research and Policy, University of Sydney (

 Critical Disability Studies Thematic Group, The Australian Sociological Association (

For more information or queries about this event, contact Professor Gerard Goggin:, 02 9114 1218

Have questions about Rosemarie Garland-Thomson lecture 'Eugenic World Building & Disability'? Contact Gerard Goggin (

When & Where

Seminar Room (S226)
Dept of Media & Communications
Woolley Building A20
University of Sydney, NSW 2006

Thursday, 19 March 2015 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEDT)

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Gerard Goggin (

Professor Gerard Goggin

Department of Media and Communications

University of Sydney

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