Wall-E: Theorizing Disability and Ecocriticism

This is a brief abstract of the paper that I will present at the annual conference of the Midwest Popular Culture Conference in Chicago. My interest throughout my academic career has been on morality: how can we live in the least violent manner, that is, how can ‘we’ be hospitable to those on the margins? How, in fact, can we question and undermine the very notion of social norms? My most recent work is focused on disability and ability in an environmental context. The following abstract if deeply interested in how disability (and ability) changes according to social context (in disability studies we talk a lot about how disability is socially constructed). Here it is:

In Pixar’s 2008 film Wall-E the world is trashed by humans who are isolated from their environment by technology and consumption; nondisabled humans create a seamless, bordered world of privileged access for themselves, commit ecocide, and then escape into space. Ironically, the world has been reconstructed–so as to provide access—by nondisabled people to such a degree that nondisabled people have become physically impaired (“fat”, though I do not argue, as many have, that the film is simply fat phobic since norms and bodies are a product of the environments that they exist in; the film is illustrating how our bodily norms are in constant flux). As their environment changes so do, ever so slowly, the bodies of the typical human. Humans are for the most part oblivious to these naturalized processes grounded in an environmental context. The nondisabled, however, are not oblivious to difference, or any impairment, that disrupts their socially constructed world. 

Wall-E, from the standpoint of his original programming, is part and parcel of this Humanist project. Fortunately, Wall-E is not psychologically stable (in view of his original programming) nor able-bodied: Wall-E, a trash compactor, for example treasures that which his ableist programming would have had him carelessly compact. In short, Wall-E is not in sync with society and society demands that he be so. Wall-E, who simultaneously becomes a material metaphor for disability and nature, escapes the repair shop, and dislodges humans from set patterns, both physical and cognitive, opening them up to their ecological relation to the world. 

The question lingering at the end of Wall-E might be: How might humans remain open to difference (nature and disability)? It is such a difference that opens a hole in our representations, allowing for vulnerability and a more relational understanding of who we are in the world.

Wall-E shows how the dual use of disability studies and ecocriticism is productive for both theoretical paradigms: Impairment is shown to be a product of environment even while a disability that is out of sync with a socially constructed environment is valorized as a means of knowledge that cuts through an instrumentalized world, revealing the larger environment. On the other hand, the film also mounts a critique of the limits of the ‘social model’: it is after all the excessive rearrangement of the world in human terms that causes so much environmental harm in the first place. After the (un)conscious arrangement of the world to suit the nondisabled and the conscious (attempt) to arrange the world to suit people with disability, the film prompts us to ask: Can the social model (that is, an awareness of ecological relation) be used in a way that is truly relational, that is, profoundly aware of humans and nature?

Thoughts?

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