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PhD Defense: Appearing Differently: Disability and Transgender Embodiment in Contemporary Euro-American Visual Cultures

Thursday, November 18, 2021, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

The Department of Gender Studies cordially invites you to the Public Defense of the PhD Dissertation by Lieke Hettinga on:

Appearing Differently: Disability and Transgender Embodiment in Contemporary Euro-American Visual Cultures


Defense committee:

Supervisor: Hyaesin Yoon and Hadley Renkin, CEU

External examiner: Mel Chen, University of California, US

Internal examiner: Eszter Timár, CEU

External reader: Eliza Steinbock, Maastricht University

Chair: Sanjay Kumar, CEU



This dissertation examines how contemporary cultural practices shape and reimagine the legibility and intelligibility of disability and transgender embodiment. Through an analysis of aesthetic practices, this research brings forth critical approaches to the connections between transness, disability, and visual culture. Observing that both transgender and disabled embodiment have a vexed relationship to the visual field and the “politics of visibility,” this dissertation examines aesthetic practices from the last two decades across Euro-American contexts that mobilize new ways of seeing, sensing, and knowing trans and crip embodiment. Transgender and disability, as formations of embodiment, identity, and sites of knowledge production, are not often considered in relation to each other, or at times are even explicitly disconnected. This research emphasizes the importance of the affinities between transness and disability by exploring connections between transgender and disability studies. In addition, this dissertation demonstrates that it is in the realm of the aesthetic that complex affinities and entanglements can be explored, enabling disciplinary connections that are otherwise not obvious. Methodologically speaking, this research does not presume the givenness of “transgender” and “disability” as identity formations or bodily experiences that could be visually represented. Rather, this dissertation turns to the aesthetic to find tools to unsettle what we think these categories mean, include, and exclude.

Through the optic of trans-crip critique, and with aesthetic practices as interlocutors, this dissertation makes four interventions. Firstly, building on critiques of “politics of visibility,” I propose to shift from a vocabulary of “visibility” to one of “appearing,” foregrounding the performative force of the body in demanding new frames of visual and epistemological recognition. Approaching visual cultural practices as forms of appearing enables a consideration of how the trans and/or crip body is a troubling figuration for visuality, and allows us to refuse visibility as a naturalized premise for political subjectivity. Secondly, I argue that transness and disability exist in a relationship of adjacency, where both sites complexly implicate as well as transform each other. In my analysis of artistic practices, I show how the realm of the aesthetic usefully disrupts contemporary consolidations of “transgender” as separate from disability. Thirdly, I demonstrate how rehabilitation operates as a medical and cultural logic that both disabled and transgender subjects are enmeshed in, shaping how contemporary forms of “inclusion” materialize. I discuss how trans and crip critiques of rehabilitation are crucial for refusing normative modalities of repair and cure, yet also require a complex navigation of how to refuse the structures one is reliant on for care and support. Fourthly, I emphasize the importance of opacity for transgender and disability aesthetics as both a visual and epistemological technique that allows us to conceive of a form of relationality that retains the unknowability of the “other.” Taken together, these four contributions thus position contemporary trans-crip aesthetic practices as interventions into the normative visual and epistemological logics by which trans and disabled bodies are objects of knowledge. Reorienting how we see and know transness and disability, I demonstrate how the aesthetic practices under review in this dissertation demand new forms of social relationality that are capacious for re-imagining the frameworks of recognition through which functional diversity and gender diversity become meaningful.