David T Mitchell & Sharon L Snyder. Handbook of Disability Studies. Editor: Gary L Albrecht, Katherine Seelman, Michael Bury. Sage Publications. 2001.
Introduction: The Uneasy Home of Representation
Because a brief exchange can often capture the core of a conflict, let us begin this chapter with an anecdote. Following a Society for Disability Studies meeting address by Henri-Jacques Stiker on the history of disability in European painting, noted disability scholar Paul Longmore ended the evening by asking, “Does disability ever represent anything other than a negative image?” Stiker had presented a lengthy history of teratological images during his talk—disabled people projected from slides and transparencies as the embodiments of every period’s cripples, lunatics, mendicants, drunkards, misfits, fools, court dwarves, maimed veterans, and cheating card players. A painted catalogue of grotesques.
Members of the audience openly wondered how worldly ruin could be symbolized without resorting to the spectacle of disabled bodies. And, conversely, could disability represent anything other than ruined bodies? Stiker argued that his interpretations demonstrated three important points: the transhistorical nature of artistic interest in disability, the ability of art to serve as an archive for recapturing historical attitudes that would otherwise be lost, and the capacity of artists for creating disability images that continued to resonate (negatively or otherwise) with viewers across history and cultures. None of these responses directly addressed the issue of negative symbolism. Instead, Stiker implied that recognizing the nuances in characterizations of disability from one period to another could sufficiently complicate our historical understanding of its cultural properties. As the evening’s participants walked away, we overheard musings on Stiker’s responses as only partially satisfactory. The event threatened to go down in the collective history of the Society for Disability Studies as more evidence of the problem with disability studies in the humanities.
As that year’s program coordinators, we wondered how humanities scholars could better respond to this most basic query. Similar questions had come up following presentations on disability in literary narratives. Where could one locate more affirming depictions of people with disabilities? Weren’t literary and artistic archives perverse in their representational distortions of the disabled body? Didn’t one become disheartened over time with the unbearable symbolic weight of literary characterizations? This is, not to mention, the central issue of how study in the humanities could contribute to the pragmatic needs of disabled communities and the contemporary political rights movement!
Beginning nearly 30 years ago, a resurgence of concern over the consequences of dehumanizing representations (i.e., monster, freak, madman, suffering innocent, hysteric, beggar) of the disabled has resulted in suspicion over the ultimate utility of representational studies about disability. Truly, literary and historical texts have rarely appeared to offer disabled characters in developed, “positive” portraits. But the belief that literary study has little to offer our more politicized understandings of disability experience rests uncomfortably with us.
Previously, proponents of the universality in art had sought to salvage the significance of disabled literary characterizations by viewing them as evidence for inherent frailties in what used to be called “the human condition.” For example, Herbert Blau (1981) defends literary portraits of disability by explaining that they cause us to “concede that we are all, at some warped level of the essentially human, impaired” (p. 10). A catalogue of disabled representations in literature includes some of the most influential figurations of “suffering humanity” across periods and cultures: the crippled Greek god, Hephaistos; Montaigne’s sexually potent limping women; Shakespeare’s hunchbacked king, Richard III; Frankenstein’s deformed monster; Brontë’s madwoman in the attic; Melville’s one-legged, monomaniacal Captain Ahab; Nietzsche’s philosophical grotesques; Hemingway’s wounded war veterans; Morrison’s truncated and scarred ex-slaves; Borges’s blind librarians; and Oe’s brain-damaged son. Astonishingly, this catalogue of “warped” humanity proves as international as it does biologically varied. Why does disability characterization so often result in indelible, albeit overwrought, literary portraits? With this in mind, the exchange between Stiker and Longmore takes on the contours of a disciplinary crisis that needs to be theorized directly.
We suggest that the “problem” of disability representation is the result of two predominating modes of historical address: overheated symbolic imagery and disability as a pervasive tool of artistic characterization. Yet while scholars in literary and cultural studies have produced important readings of individual disabled characters and the centrality of disabled types to specific genres, we have largely neglected to theorize the utility of humanities work for disability studies in particular and disabled populations in general. This chapter seeks to survey developments in the study of disability across the humanities in an effort to provide a governing logic for the necessity of the humanities to the evolution of disability studies in general.
We also seek to explain the myriad ways that scholars have complicated the question of “negativity” without surrendering usable politics. Recent studies of disability in the archives provide a manifestly multifaceted base on which to build our own period’s address of disability representations. Consistent throughout will be our own efforts to assess both the pervasive and the hyper symbolic nature of disability. Somewhere between these difficulties, humanities scholars make their uneasy home in disability studies.
From the outset, most critical approaches to disability representation sought to theorize negative imagery as the impetus of their scholarship. Like many areas of humanities’ investigation into questions of the social construction of identity, disability scholars first interrogated common stereotypes that pervaded the literary and filmic archives. Disability was viewed as a restrictive pattern of characterization that usually sacrificed the humanity of protagonists and villains alike. A few key characters continually surfaced as evidence of this tendency: Shakespeare’s murderous hunchbacked king, Richard III; Melville’s obsessive one-legged Captain Ahab; and Dickens’s sentimental hobbling urchin, Tiny Tim. The repeated citation of these three figures as central to disability characterization initially demonstrated, at the most basic level, that disability existed in canonical literary works. Unlike the marginal presence of racial and homosexual characters, for example, literary scholars promoted the idea that disability played a visible role in several of the most important works in European and American literature. Although the recourse to these three examples gave the impression that this presence proved hardly overwhelming, interpretations of negative images nonetheless secured the argument that disability had been neglected in the critical tradition. The early scholarship also demonstrated a complicity of the literary in the historical devaluation of people with disabilities. For instance, one of the first disability studies collections to devote space to questions of literary and media images—Gartner and Joe’s (1987) Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images—emphasized the pernicious nature of stereotypes. Disability writers and scholars, such as Leonard Kriegel, Deborah Kent, and Paul Longmore, exposed representation as a devious device of mainstream and artistic mediums. Kriegel’s (1987) essay, “Disability as Metaphor in Literature,” took on the entire literary tradition by boldly declaring that depictions of disability fell far short of realistic portrayals of human complexity. In his analysis of the coronation scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III, he located what he believed to be the two most pervasive and insidious images in the literary tradition:
In the ascent, the red-caped figure crawls up the steps [to the throne], like some gigantic insect, to take that which he has cheated others of. Imposing its limitations to rob legitimacy, the broken body begs for compassion. In the history of Western literature, both before and after Shakespeare, there is little to be added to these two images, although there are a significant number of variations upon them. The cripple is threat and recipient of compassion, both to be damned and to be pitied—and frequently to be damned as he is pitied. (Kriegel 1987:32)
Importantly, Kriegel’s sense of outrage parallels many disability critics who see the meta-phoric opportunism of literature as a form of public slander. In establishing the two poles of disability characterization—threat and pity—Kriegel (1987) provided a shorthand method for disability scholars to gain control of a limiting literary archive. Richard III represented an early example of stigmatizing cultural dictates to which even Shakespeare capitulated. The writer’s world, according to Kriegel, evidenced the “vantage point of the normals” (p. 32), and in doing so, characters with disabilities would evidence a scapegoating attitude rife in culture and history writ large. Even if, as Shari Thurber (1980) pointed out, “the disabled have a bad literary press” (p. 12), the literary archive would at least serve as a reliable repository for documenting demeaning attitudes toward people with disabilities.
Kriegel’s (1987) commentary proved emblematic of what we refer to as the negative image school of disability criticism that sought to diagnose literature as another social repository of stereotypical depictions. Unlike other minority studies of literary representation (such as race and sexuality) that found a desired counter to demeaning cultural attitudes in their own literary traditions, literary scholars of disability found little refuge in creative discourses. The negative image school found literary depictions to be, at best, wanting and, at worst, humiliating: “While metaphoric use of disability may seem innocuous enough, it is in fact a most blatant and pernicious form of stereotyping” (Thurber 1980:12). The core of this argument centered on disabled characters as one and the same with disabled people. There was a direct correlation, argued these scholars, between debasing character portraits and demeaning cultural attitudes toward people with disabilities.
In this way, the argument of the negative imagery school set out to establish a continuum between limiting literary depictions and dehumanizing social attitudes toward disabled people. In his seminal essay, “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures,” Paul Longmore (1997a) helped to diagnose film and television as influential reinforcers of cultural prejudice toward disabled people. Rather than Kriegel’s (1987) two-pronged analysis of disability types in literature, Longmore found three common stereotypes perpetuated by electronic media representations: “Disability is a punishment for evil; disabled people are embittered by their fate’; disabled people resent the nondisabled and would, if they could, destroy them” (Gartner and Joe 1987:67). Longmore’s analysis of popular mediums created a neat parallel with Kriegel’s arguments in that they both saw contemporary attitudes about people with disabilities informed by these repeated paradigms and plots.
The restrictive elements of stories about disability created a portrait of an uncompromising public belief in the limited options for people with disabilities. “Disabled characters abound, but the ways in which they are portrayed and the development of narrative around them is relentlessly negative” (Pointon and Davies 1997:1). From the outside, the meager nature of the lives of disabled characters was depicted as inevitably leading toward bitterness and anger that made them objects of suspicion. In fact, Kriegel and Longmore argued in tandem that disability portrayals could be understood best as a form of cathartic revenge in which the stigmatizers punish the stigmatized to alleviate their own worries and fears about bodily vulnerability and inhumane social conditions.
What stands out in the analyses of the negative image school is the importance of plots that emphasize individual isolation as the overriding component of a disabled life. The angst surrounding the status of people with disabilities surfaced in expressive discourses as a desire to seclude the offending party within a drama of his or her own making. Longmore (1997a) first identified this element as the most pervasive and debilitating aspect of disability representation. By depicting disability as an isolated and individual affair, storytellers artificially extracted the experience of disability from its necessary social contexts. The portraiture of disability in literature and electronic media became a matter of “psychologizing” the cultural understanding of disability. Disabled characters were either extolled or defeated as a result of their ability to personally adjust to or overcome their tragic situation. Longmore pointed out that “[social] prejudice and discrimination rarely enter into either fictional or nonfictional stories, and then only as a secondary issue” (Gartner and Joe 1987:74). Because representations of disability tend to reflect the medicalized view, which restricts disability to a static impairment entombed within an individual, the social navigation of debilitating attitudes fails to attain the status of a worthy element of plot or literary contemplation.
The failure of a politicized interest in the disability plot could be evidenced in any number of ways within a variety of genres. For instance, Hafferty and Foster (1994) argue that the defining feature of disabled experience comes as a result of “an awareness that issues when disabilities and handicaps are created through interactions between people with physical impairments and an unyielding and antagonistic environment” (p. 189). Yet, in their analysis of disabled detectives in crime novels, Hafferty and Foster discover that the reading public is encouraged to “view matters that are rightly located within social settings as residing in individual achievements and/or failures” (p. 189). The collusion of literary techniques, such as passive dialogue and readerly identifications with individual protagonists in the detective genre, serves as stylistic conventions that help “shape the messages being delivered” (p. 193). This almost exclusive focus on negative representations functioned as a means of humanities-based “proof” that discrimination against disabled people not only existed but also was fostered by the images consumed by readers and viewers alike.
While the analysis of the negative image was carefully supported by a largely structuralist model that slotted disability types into generic classifications and representational modes, the unearthing of discriminatory images tended to collapse all representations into a sterile model of false consciousness. In The Cinema of Isolation, Martin Norden (1994) extended and exaggerated Longmore’s argument of isolating disability media portraits by drawing up all of film history into a net of conspiracy. The Hollywood filmmaker, according to Norden, participates in an exploitative scheme that seeks to capitalize on the visual spectacle that disabilities offer to the camera eye. Film has taken the place of the nineteenth-century freak show “in the name of maintaining patriarchal order” (p. 6). Despite the historical prevalence of disabled people in film, Norden condemned nearly every image as the product of filmic castration anxiety and discriminatory beliefs. As the editors of Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media, point out, “It is too simplistic to talk about negative’ compared with positive’ images because although disabled people are in general fairly clear about what might constitute the former, the identification of positive’ is fraught with difficulty” (Pointon and Davies 1997:1). The scholarship on the negative image strained beneath the weight of such wholesale condemnations of representational portraits.
Yet despite research that saw most artistic and popular representations of disability as debilitating to reigning cultural attitudes, the analysis of negative images helped to support the idea that disability was socially produced. Identifying common characterizations that reinforced audiences’ sense of alienation and distance from disability began an important process of scholarly attempts to rehabilitate public beliefs. Literature and film provided a needed archive of historical attitudes from which to assess ideologies pertaining to people with disabilities. While social scientists sought to understand contemporary beliefs about disabled populations, humanities scholars began to sift through expansive representational preserves. These materials solidified arguments in disability studies about disabled people’s position as historical scapegoats. In many ways, this impulse still undergirds humanities-based politics of critiquing the trite and superficial portraits churned out on a daily basis by the mainstream media. To change negative portrayals, a powerful commentary was needed to make authors more self-conscious of the conventions at work in their own media.
In addition, humanities scholars of the negative image looked for the opportunity to identify against the grain of disability’s presumed malignancy or excessive fragility. For example, Leonard Kriegel (1987) found himself declaring identification with Richard III’s personal antipathy toward the incomprehension of an able-bodied world, even as he condemned Shakespeare’s too-easy bid for dramatic pathos. If Kriegel’s affectation proved somewhat perverse, he nonetheless anticipated later efforts to embrace the definitive humanity (or alienness) of disabled characters as a move of transgressive identification. In this manner, disability studies scholars in the humanities began to seek out the lines of convergence and divergence from their own experiences in literature and film.
Social Realist Disability
One important insight that consistently surfaced in the scholarship on negative imagery was the charge that most disability portraits proved inaccurate and misleading. A new social realism was needed to counter misguided attitudes about people with disabilities. As Deborah Kent (1987) argued in “Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama,” one could posit a direct correlation between the lives of fictional disabled females and social attitudes toward women with disabilities in general. “An assessment of the disabled woman’s place in literature may serve as a barometer to measure how she is perceived by society. Conversely, the literary image of the disabled woman may influence the way disabled women are seen and judged in real life” (Kent 1987:48). The equation between fictional images and lived experiences of a disabled person was viewed by the social realist perspective as a way of elevating the analysis of literature to a pragmatic necessity.
Like many materialist literary movements before—Georges Lukacs for Marxism, Virginia Woolf for feminism, and W. E. B. DuBois for African American studies—disability critics rushed to explain the inadequacy of historical images by posing that which was left out of the picture or distorted for the sake of a dramatic portrayal. Social realism called for the solution of more realistic representations. The social realists’ primary criteria centered on whether literary depictions served as correctives to social misapprehensions about the specifics of disability experiences. We can sumup this line of approachin the humorous point made by Irving Zola (1987) in his survey of popular detective fiction. Out of hundreds of novels that forward disabled detective “heroes,” never once did Zola find a wheel chair user commenting, “God dammit, how I hate stairs” (p. 505). Realism promoted a more direct depiction of the political reality of disabled characters, from architecture to attitudes. Realistic depictions, argued social realism, will offer familiarity with an experience that has been understood as thoroughly alien.
Social realist scholarship sought to decrease the kinds of alienation that pervade social views of disabled people. If the negative image resulted from associations of disability with personal failure, tragic loss, and excessive dependency, then social realists searched for more accurate images that could effectively counterbalance this detrimental history. For example, one positive exception to the cinema of isolation was found in Waterdance, a 1980s film drama that documents the medical, romantic, and social life of a recently paralyzed man. The realism of Waterdance could be located, for some, in its depiction of the punishing technology of modern medicine or by the camaraderie that develops between disabled men on a hospital ward. The call for social realism also helped to boost critical interest in autobiography as a counter-representational reality to artistic metaphors and opportunistic spectacle. G. Thomas Couser’s (1997) Recovering Bodies analyzes the restorative properties of recent disability memoirs not only to the writers but also to the literary tradition itself. In each of these examples, humanities scholars sought reparation in the idea that a more adequate representation could be found in films, autobiographies, or fictions that attended directly to the embodied experience of disabled characters. In attempts to offset a negative portrait of the disabled, realist images would offer up a more substantive, fleshy substitute.
Following Zola’s (1987) lead, several disability commentators tried to stress the issue of inaccurate portraiture by striking at the literal level of representation itself—disabled characters, they argued, failed to measure up to the “reality” of disabled lives. In his discussion of the award-winning film Passion Fish, the paraplegic writer, Andre Dubus (1996), amusingly explained the limitations of Hollywood film productions about disability:
I remember one scene in Louisiana, they’re [the paraplegic protagonist and her aide] on a wharf and there’s this little skiff, and she tells the nurse, “Get me in the boat.” Now these are things I live with all the time. Next scene, she’s in the boat, and I said, How the fuck did she lower this woman from the chair into the boat in the water? Show me that and you’ve got some story. (P. 5)
Others, such as Hafferty and Foster’s (1994) discussion of deaf detectives in crime novels, argued that despite the characteristic feature of “deafness,” the protagonist rarely experienced the dilemmas of life as a hearing-impaired person negotiating a hearing world. Deaf or hearing-impaired detectives were rarely depicted as having to supply themselves with “a steady stream of sign language interpreters to facilitate [their] daily communication with others,” nor were they subject to the routine or disastrous misinterpretations of daily life. Their summation of this lack of fictional realism evidences that “[fictional detectives] may be deaf, but [their] lack of hearing seems to have no impact on, or even relationship to, [their] work as … detectives” (Hafferty and Foster 1994:195).
In identifying examples of inaccurate characterizations, social realism did not resort to a superficial call for “positive images” that would celebrate the lives of people with disabilities in a romanticized light. Rather, scholars approached even the production of self-styled “positive” portraits with skepticism and saved some of their most severe critiques for notions of disabled “heroism.” In his essay on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Paul Darke (1994) ended with the following admonition to readers: “[Lynch’s film] is not the liberal, tolerant, and pro-difference film it, and its supporters, suppose it to be … often the positive image of disability is really very negative, so, beware of bearers of positive images!” (p. 341). For Darke, not only did the film of Merrick’s life distort the facts of his experience within an incarcerating medicalized view of monstrous oddity, but the production also objectified his image in a freak showlike spectacle of difference for the titillation of its viewers.
Within the social realist perspective, the problem of inadequate representation was attributed to two predominating issues: either the complete paucity of “positive” examples in narrative traditions or to the under theorized nature of what constitutes a negative image. In other words, the call for more realistic depictions of disability provided another side of the negative imagery coin because to critique inadequate, dehumanizing, or false representations is to simultaneously call for more acceptable representations. Yet the distinction between negative and positive proved a difficult one to define. As Darke (1994) points out, that which parades itself as “fixing” the historical record often ends up in the pathos of an individual life or in the falsely superhuman portrait of the overcompensating crip.
Most important, the social realist perspective developed arguments that demonstrated the narrative penchant for extracting the social conditions of disability from the act of characterization itself. British scholars, such as Tom Shakespeare (1994), argued this point most succinctly by noting that fictional portraits often ignore “the way in which disability is a relationship between people with impairment and a disabling society” (p. 287). Unlike other identity movements that called for a politics based on a more individualized representational approach to their lives, social realism argued that depictions of disability had suffered from a history of excessive individuation. Isolation and excessive idiosyncrasy were the bane of disabled people’s representational lives, and social realism would push for the necessity of a relational or social model.
As David Hevey (1992) argues in The Creatures That Time Forgot, “The reformation of oppressive imagery is only important (or, at least, more than superficially) if it is linked to wider social issues, such as access” (p. 102). “Positive images” would not be determined by their ability to portray disabled people in a good light. Instead, Hevey argued that acceptable portrayals primarily entailed the refusal to deny, disavow, or suppress the site of struggle and oppression that characterizes a contemporary understanding of disability. Hevey and other social realist perspectives insisted on politicizing disability by portraying it as the result of the interaction between impairment and physical and attitudinal environments. Limitation needed to be represented in a visceral way, but it should not be relegated to the level of an individual predicament or a purely embodied phenomenon.
The call for action in social realism ultimately centered on a belief that disability would continue to be misconstrued and relegated to the “dustbins” of history if the able-bodied were left to construct disability images from their own prejudices (Shakespeare 1994:283). The issue came down to a matter of controlling the means of production. If disabled people took responsibility for the production of their own images, then, the social realists reasoned, the image would effectively “evolve” into more acceptable forms. On one hand, a literal representation of disability would capture the myriad negotiations of a fraught social environment; obstacles would prove themselves of societal making rather than individual limitation. Also, technology, previously hidden in the corners of homes and institutions, would take center stage in the drama of disability as a lived experience. In this vein, the recent remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film Rear Window, with Christopher Reeve, would be revolutionary in its tracking shots of respirator tubing and high-tech sets sporting gurneys and elevators.
On the other hand, the social realist perspective would supply an openly politicized image of disability. As Hevey (1992) puts it, the issue of positive representation would be “tied to the general movement for rights … whereby image-politics become[s] a part of the struggle for access, not an excuse for it” (p. 103). The acceptable image legislated by the social realists would be based first and foremost on a representational advocacy in which images function as a weapon of political action and as one site of redress to social incomprehension.
The significance of the social realist model has continued to dominate recent theories of disability in the humanities. The political objectives that informed this perspective helped to fuel some of the innovations of recent work in the development of a nuanced historical revisionism. Yet, while the influence of social realism continues, recent work has fueled its own investigations by diverging from some of the foundational assumptions of the social realists. Critiques or revisions of social realism have been based on four key principles relating to issues of aesthetics and historical retrieval.
- Social realism assumed that disability tended to be concealed rather than pervasive in the literary and filmic traditions.
- The practitioners of social realism created a largely ahistorical paradigm that overlooked the specificity of disability representation as an ideological effect of particular periods.
- Social realism presumed that no disability perspective had ever informed the “inaccurate” images that pervaded the social realist’s critique.
- Social realism projected its own contemporary desires onto the images that it sought to rehabilitate.
Both the scholarship on negative images and the paradigms promoted by social realism adopted a relatively static structuralist bent to their shared methodology. Interpreters quickly channeled all images into a few representational possibilities, and the results became rather monolithic. There was the passively suffering angel of the house, the overcompensating supercrip, the tragically innocent disabled child, the malignant disabled avenger, and the angry war veteran. Yet, while these shorthand categorizations would show up in a variety of popular texts and genre formulas, they nonetheless preempted a more engaged historical scholarship. The generic classification of disabled types produces an ahistorical interpretation that tends to see disability representations as slanderously consistent across cultures and periods.
How could disability scholars complicate the issue of negative representation by placing disability within a more specific historical context? Could disability scholars develop a theory capable of explaining the seemingly paradoxical idea that dehumanizing portraits of disabled characters could also buttress a previous generation’s critique of debilitating institutions such as medicine? Would disability studies in the humanities rest its contribution on the depreciation of its own archival material in the name of stereotypical creations and suspect politics?
To begin with, a new historicism of disability representations in the humanities sought to perform an anthropological unearthing of images that could help to reconstruct a period’s point of view on human variation. Stories provided more than cultural escapism. They situated themselves as explanatory paradigms for revealing the supernatural and social origins of disability’s appearance in the world. An early example came in Susan Schoon Eberly’s (1988) discussion of the figure of the changeling in European folklore. Like the shifting and faerie-like changeling himself (these figures are usually male), Eberly argued that cultural uncertainly about the origins of physical disabilities such as dwarfism, cretinism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and so on often engendered tales of fantastical children. “Specific examples of changelings, solitary fairies—both domesticated and reclusive—and the offspring of fairy-human matings … seem to offer identifiable portraits of children who were born, or who became, different as a result of identifiable congenital disorders” (Eberly 1988:58). The “special nature” of changelings, who often did not walk, talk, or run unless they were not being watched, suggests a literary effort to explain a mysterious physical phenomenon. The changeling tales sat on the cusp of a historical shift between medieval superstition and medical diagnoses of congenital disabilities.
In a parallel vein to Eberly’s (1988) arguments about disability as an explanatory mystery of literary interest, Davidson, Woodill, and Bredberg (1994) argued that the rampant representations of disability in nineteenth-century children’s literature served a similar function. Borrowing from a primarily religious discourse of social instruction for the middle classes, Victorian tracts on disability forwarded physical variation as a divine mystery that could not be comprehended by empirical discourses. “Disability can not be under stood in human terms. Like all forms of human suffering, it needs to be placed within God’s mysterious scheme of things” (Davidson et al. 1994:43). As instructional tales, Victorian children’s literature reveals a penchant for discussing disability in terms of individual responsibility and the need for charity toward the infirm. Nineteenth-century authors sought to mitigate social readings of malignancy by enfolding disabled children within a paternalistic cultural logic of financial and moral benevolence.
Unlike social realist methodology, historical revisionists focused most of their attention on the function of disability in “high art.” The importance of efforts to historicize disability representations demonstrated that artistic narratives played a key role in forwarding a logic or system of explanation for birth anomalies and environmental accidents. Even after the professionalization of modern medicine, literature continued to serve an important explanatory function in the cultural understanding of disability. The changeling figure offered up by Eberly (1988) and Davidson et al. (1994) proffered disability as a product of mainstream beliefs, and literature participated in the process of trying to pierce its mystery by offering up tales of other-worldly creatures or social “unfortunates.” The historical analysis of disability helped identify the shifting investments of cultures when confronted with the variability of human biology and psychology.
Within the studies developed by the new historicists, disability was recognized as a product of specific cultural ideologies that did not simply reveal reductive or stigmatizing attitudes. As Diane Price Herndl (1993) theorizes in her work on the female invalid in Victorian literature, the disabled subject should neither be interpreted as an “entirely passive construct nor as an entirely active agent” (p. 12). Instead, the writer and disability as the representational object of the writer’s discourse situate themselves more dynamically with respect to the culture within which they are produced. “Neither the woman experiencing an illness nor the author writing a story about a woman’s illness is free of the ways that illness has been represented before, but neither one is entirely constrained either” (Herndl 1993:12). Herndl’s turn helped to complicate the terrain of previous approaches by arguing that disability portraits provided a window into a more dynamic interchange between culture, author, text, and audience. Disability was a product of an interchange between all of these positions that create and re-create the disabled body as a potent product of literary investment.
Thus, while the prototypical image of the leisurely Victorian woman may fit comfortably with the image of suffering femininity because each is stripped of her agency within a patriarchal and ablist order, nineteenth-century women writers also sought to challenge that image. Consequently, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s portrait of a woman’s descent into madness in The Yellow Wallpaper could be interpreted as an unflattering portrait of cognitive disability, the storyteller’s strategy seeks to upend the controlling medical model of femininity’s excessive frailty and emotional instability. Or, while the infamous hunchbacked doctor, Chilling worth, in The Scarlet Letter grows increasingly decrepit as his immoral motivations deepen, Hawthorne’s characterization strategy evolved out of nineteenth-century literary efforts to condemn medical practitioners to the deterministic dictates of their own pathologizing discourse on the body. Both of these stories evidence a “negative” outcome with respect to the disabled character, but their object of critique parallels the political objectives of the contemporary disability movement.
The resistance to dismissing disability images as merely detrimental proved evident in an array of essays included in our anthology, The Body and Physical Difference (Mitchell and Snyder 1997a). Historical revisionist efforts produced interpretations that situated disability as both a perpetual societal obsession in the West and as the object of complex cultural beliefs. Many of these efforts unearthed examples of cultures that integrated, rather than scapegoated, people with disabilities in surprising ways. Martha Edwards (1997) argues that rather than holding a static, denigrating belief about disability as had been previously argued, ancient Greek texts evidence that disabled people were often integrated into the fold of ancient communal life. Felicity Nussbaum (1997) locates a utopian political alliance between marginalized disabled and feminist communities depicted in Sarah Scott’s eighteenth-century novel, Millenium Hall. Maria Frawley (1997) analyzes Harriet Martineau’s Victorian autobiographical explorations of invalid subjectivity that revised the traditionally passive medical patient into an active negotiator of her own corporeal experience. Cindy LaCom (1997) argues that nineteenth-century women writers countered the monstrous sexuality of female disability in male novels with more empowering images of disabled women who escaped the patriarchal discourse of feminine objectification. In her discussion of twentieth-century German literary representations of disability, Elizabeth Hamilton (1997) documents a movement from the grotesque to the political in the works of disability autobiographers. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997) argues that disability in the works of African American women writers serves to destabilize the dominant binary codes of abnormal/normal, male/female, and desired/undesired by openly exploring marginal identities in political, rather than stigmatizing, terms. Finally, Caroline Molina’s (1997) reading of the film The Piano argues that the female protagonist’s “disabling” muteness is resignified by the end of the story into a sign of female refusal to participate in masculinist discourses.
What connected these alternative interpretations of disability was a twofold interest in using an expansive literary archive to solidify the variability of human physiology and reactions to biological mutability. Disability had begun to be recognized as a potent vehicle of political critique at various moments in the literary tradition. By and large, these alternative representational modes had been ignored or overlooked by literary and disability critics alike because of insufficient paradigms for analyzing disability as a site of literary investment. What changed in these analyses was not the disabled object of representation itself but rather the goals of the methodology brought to bear on those objects. This archival resurrection of disability helped to demonstrate that disability, like all representational objects, could be mobilized in a variety of directions. In demonstrating the existence of alternative disability discourses within literature and film, disability scholars provided evidence that challenged the assumption that our moment occupied the only “forward-looking” cultural perspective on disability in history.
Other disability scholars in The Body and Physical Difference anthology interpreted historical reactions to disability as the site of conflicting ideological agendas. Scholars applying this approach deflected attention away from disability representation and toward a critique of social institutions that authored disability as “Other.” Lennard Davis (1997) assesses the paradox of the art historian’s ability to interpret the armless body of the Venus de Milo as a vision of aesthetic perfection, while cultures continued to devalue human “armless” figures as less than ideal. Following the American Civil War, David Yuan (1997) finds that the rise of a modern prosthetics industry sought to “rehabilitate” not only wounded war veterans but also the national wound that disrupted North-South relations. Jan Gordon (1997) interprets the potent symbolism of male disability in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other modernist works as an effort to symbolize the decline of privilege and power in the British aristocracy. Martin Pernick (1997) demonstrates that eugenics, as exemplified in propaganda films that rationalize the medical murder of disabled infants, ultimately premise the determination of expendability on an aesthetic criterion. David Gerber (1997) compares competing ideological interests between the political right and left in the patriotic “repair” of war hero Al Schmid’s blindness in The Pride of the Marines and in his relation to the Blind Veterans Association. Paul Longmore (1997b) reads the telethon industry’s sentimental display of childhood disability as a product of nineteenth-century American discourses on paternalistic philanthropy. In a critical look at contemporary U.S. disability autobiography, Madonne Miner (1997) contrasts the stories of disabled men and women to assess their purchase on traditional narrative schemas of male emasculation and female victimization.
At work in these approaches has been a developing conception of what Lennard Davis (1995) set out to define in Enforcing Normalcy as the “construction of the normal world” (p. 22). Within this schema, Davis and the essayists mentioned above invert the historical imperative to designate, define, and diagnose disabilities by turning the “normal” into the producer of pathology. Rather than authorize cultural institutions as the arbiters of deviance, the study of normalcy would expose disability as “not a discrete object but a set of social relations” (p. 11). The production of disability as human oddity or exceptional limitation in science, as in art, would be founded on the norm’s ability to disguise itself as transparently average. In this way, the corporeal norm poses as universally desirable—the barometer against which all biologies are assessed and compared. Normalcy studies seek to debunk the norm as an ideological abstraction that is based on a faulty empiricism.
Medical anthropologist George Canguilhem (1991) had argued that medicine’s decision to use a bodily ideal to assess an inherently dynamic and adaptive biology effectively surrendered any claim to scientific objectivity in the nineteenth century. Much recent literary criticism rests on the following inversion: Rather than simply serve as deviations from widely expressed biological traits, disabilities exemplify that the ideal of the norm cannot exist without its “deviant” contrast. By using literary and filmic archives to demonstrate that norms shift throughout history and across cultures and thus are definitively unstable, normalcy scholars effectively theorize concepts of the norm as not only flawed and artificial but also feeding a eugenicist mind-set in society. In doing so, the humanities continue to wage a pivotal battle against the objectification of disability in medical science and its popular offshoots.
All of these studies speak to the primacy of disability in representational discourses. Yet, while disability has proven one of the most commonly applied features of narrative characterization, readers and viewers have consistently received disabled characters as isolated cases. Building on the narrative theories of Susan Stewart, we have argued that “disability studies seeks to understand the ways in which we produce the private room of disability in our most public discourses” (Mitchell and Snyder 1997a:17). The historical revisionist turn in the humanistic study of disability sought to dismantle this “private room” by consolidating a body of scholarship that demonstrates what the French disability historian, Henri-Jacques Stiker, argues was the necessity of recognizing disability as not only integrable but also integral to human communities and biologies across time (Stiker 1999). In other words, the historical revisionists argued that physical and cognitive difference was the rule rather than the exception of historical experience.
One result of this historical revisionism has been to seek out authors and artists in history who are disabled—or who experienced serious involvement with disabled people. With disability saturating narrative discourses in the literary and filmic archives, one may also presume that some of the works were produced by disabled people or by writers with disability-identified perspectives. Within the approach of biographical criticism to the disability contexts of authorship, three tendencies have predominated:
- The analysis of critical readings on disability by able-bodied and disabled scholars alike,
- The analysis of the relationship between literature and medicine, and
- The interpretations by disabled writers of other disability characterizations in history.
Biographical archival work on notoriously “deformed” storytellers, such as Aesop and Socrates, and disabled and chronically ill authors such as John Milton, Alexander Pope, George Byron, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Stephen Crane, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust (to name a few) have sought to discern a “disability logic” in their individual artistic works and personas. This undertaking has resulted in serious corrections and complications of the literary historical record while also challenging the idea that disability images have been exclusively the product of able-bodied authors. Since disability offers its own routing of an author’s experience in the world, biographical scholarship on disabled authorship properly assumes that revisiting texts from this disability studies orientation will yield important insights into the influence of disability identities on creative efforts. Whereas “successful disabled people … have their disability erased by their success” (Davis 1995:9), this scholarly work seeks out the inevitable impact of disability on the creator’s worldview.
In our essay, “Infinities of Forms” (Mitchell and Snyder forthcoming), we claimed scholarly works for disability studies such as Eleanor Gertrude Brown’s Milton’s Blindness. Originally published in 1934 and recently reissued by Columbia University Press as a landmark in Milton studies, Brown grounds her interpretation of Milton’s poetry on her own experience as a blind person. Taking on an openly essentialist claim to her understanding of Milton’s verse, Brown acknowledges the power that disabled experience can lend to disability interpretation:
To the interpretation of Milton’s life and writing after the loss of sight, I add my knowledge of blindness. And on account of this bond of union, I bring to the task an interest such as Milton must have given to the writing of Samson Agonistes. Thus, by similarity of experience alone, I am rendered a more able critic. (Brown 1934: preface)
From a disability vantage, with a decidedly “contemporary” inversion of “able” rhetoric, Brown (1934) asks disability questions of Milton’s poetics—a method that results in fresh and compelling interpretations.
The importance of the critic’s commitment to locating the contexts of disability experience in history cannot be understated. For instance, Alexander Pope’s influential standard biographer, Maynard Mack, placed Pope’s scoliosis in a separate sphere from that of his poetics—a move that results in fairly abstract pronouncements about Pope’s oft-quoted line, “This long disease my life.” However, disability scholar Helen Deutsch (1996) overlaps Pope’s “deformed” body and his classical poetics to insightful results. In Resemblance & Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture, Deutsch contends that “deformity enables Pope’s particular brand of imitation to go originality one better: his poetry marks itself not as original but as impossible to duplicate” (p. 27). In her recent work, “The Exemplary Case of Dr. Johnson,” Deutsch (forthcoming) also explores the implications of disabled authorship for eighteenth-century poetics. Her research
considers the history of the authorial body in eighteenth-century Britain, beginning with the visible deformity of Alexander Pope’s curved spine and closing with the indecipherable inwardness figured by Samuel Johnson’s unruly body…. Disability has in fact distinguished the English literary canon—itself a product of the eighteenth century—as a catalog of authorial monsters and paradoxically representative oddities. (Deutsch forthcoming)
The discovery and “outing” of disabled authors in literary history have followed archival work undertaken by practitioners in the field of literature and medicine. As borne out by its name, the field of literature and medicine partakes of an affinity with the disposition of medical practice. Hence, scholars have undertaken research to label authors in history with contemporary medical diagnoses and assess their attitudes toward their doctors (never very good)! One finds, in this branch of literary study, a focus primarily on literary depictions of doctors and their treatment of diseased patients. This allows literary and medical critics, for example, to focus on a birth scene in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to critique Polly’s insulting treatment from white doctors while overlooking her “crippled gait” as a key component of her character and her relationship to her husband.
Pivotal in the literature and medical arena, Philip Sandblom’s (1982) Creativity and Disease usefully discerns examples whereby artists and writers throughout history have found creative potential in the experience of a physical or cognitive impairment. Sandblom’s research serves as a useful casebook of disabled writers; he even claims an identification with disabled people by recalling his own victimization at the hands of medical error. At the same time, like many medical professionals, his assessments rest on psychologizing the attitudes of disabled artists with all the distance, prejudice, and misconstruence engendered by an objective posturing. Indeed, he also seeks to rehabilitate the good intentions of literary history’s doctors against the insults of their writer-patients. Among many examples of ill-founded literary diagnosis, Sandblom quotes Sir Francis Bacon’s equation between deformity and vengeful personality as a means for understanding the psyches of Lord Byron and Daniel Defoe. “These unfortunates [people with congenital malformations], then, sometimes react with quiet resignation but more often with revolt and extreme efforts to compensate, now and then with artistic creation” (Sandblom 1982:107). In Sir Francis Bacon’s words, “Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn, therefore all deformed persons are extreme bold” (Sandblom 1982:107).
Whereas Sandblom (1982) interprets Byron’s artistic work as an overwrought revenge on the universe, the new disability biographical criticism would reread Byron’s poetics with an eye toward his artistic vantage on social attitudes. In other words, just as sociological disability studies assesses the social, as opposed to the personal, origination of disability issues, so does the new disability literary study look to the social and aesthetic grounds for the artist’s revisionary efforts. Disability biographical critics would more likely argue that Byron’s embrace of Shakespeare’s villainous hunchback, Richard III, and his refiguring of the play in his drama, The Deformed Transformed, follow Alexander Pope’s own penchant for claiming as personal monikers all the slings and arrows (“bottlenecked spider,” “hunchback’d toad”) tossed in the direction of “monstrous” humans. This transformative impulse in literary work, undertaken by disabled literary artists, figures prominently in our own moment’s effort to find evidence of disability perspectives—even disability as a social role and subjectivity—in history.
This biographical line of disability interpretation has led literary scholars to analyze the disability involvement of able-bodied writers in history as well. Scholarship is currently immersed in interpreting the effects of disability households and experiences on writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Mary Austin. How does Walt Whitman’s nursing of wounded and disabled Civil War veterans inform his poetical claims about fostering perfect national health? How do Mark Twain’s significant relationships with deaf friends affect his depictions of deaf characters and American Sign Language? Does Mary Austin’s institutional incarceration of her cognitively disabled daughter find expression in her art and writing? Many literary scholars have assessed Virginia Woolf’s sickbed seclusion as key to her creative life. How might we also interpret her repeated complicity in squabbles over the invalid pronouncements of men with disabilities on women’s writing?
While one might expect to find a natural sympathy toward disabled communities and other socially marginalized identities based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and race, often the opposite is true. For example, throughout A Room of One’s Own, Woolf complains that society rates women’s abilities even below those of crippled men in the great ladder of existence. Critiquing the superfluous nature of male discourse on female mystery, Woolf asserts that “whether they were old or young, married or unmarried, red-nosed or humpbacked—anyhow, it was flattering, vaguely, to feel oneself the object of such attention, provided that it was not entirely bestowed by the crippled and the infirm” (Woolf  1981:28). Other examples aboundin the tradition, for minority commentators tend to place disability as a social grouping from which they must escape to assert the positivity of their own culturally devalued identity. For instance, film scholar Judith Halberstam has argued that imposing stigmatized physical traits on minority bodies reveals an ideological devaluation of the dominant culture toward sexual and racial minorities (Halberstam 1995:3). In other words, the “real” stigma of a disability deforms the otherwise evident value of gender and race as cultural differences.
Counter to the participation of authors in the historical devaluation of disability identity, many writers have sought alternative models in the archive to balance against their own experience as disabled people. The Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe (1996), who fathered an autistic son, reclaims the work of Flannery O’Connor as an example of a disabled author who wrote eloquently out of her own experience of lupus. In rereading O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, Oe argues that the very basis of her originality sprang from her navigation of a debilitating condition. “I am sure it is the same accumulated practice that comes into play when the obstacles encountered by all those who labor in the fields of art are somehow—by trial and error—cleared to reveal a landscape no one has seen before” (Oe 1996:57).
Likewise, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered severe migraines and stomach ulcers and, later in his life, underwent a stroke and became aphasic, spent much of his life’s work ironically championing social outsiders such as “cripples” and “grotesques.” Because the physically unsightly are cordoned off from the stultifying clichés of mainstream thought, Nietzsche (1969, 1990) reasoned, their value would find ironic location in their originality and lack of conformity. His work on Socrates’ well-known deformities claims that the philosopher’s body disrupted the Athenian faith in the correlation between bodily beauty and moral goodness. Yet, despite Socrates’ physical nonconformity, Nietzsche criticizes him for championing the supremacy of rationality and ignoring the power of his own aberrant corporeality. According to Nietzsche, much of the Greek philosopher’s appeal for the ancient Athenians was based on a freak showlike spectacle of a thinker who champions rationality as beauty despite the physical evidence to the contrary. While arguing that Socrates’ visible presence introduced the destabilizing power of physical difference into philosophical discourse, Nietzsche nonetheless berates Socrates and his followers for sacrificing the power of “the ugliest man” to the more banal superiority of abstract reason.
Just as disability scholars in the humanities now search the archive for evidence of a counter tradition of disability representation, so have researchers and writers before them searched in a similar vein. This championing or critique of one disabled writer by another demonstrates that a disability consciousness has been available during prior ages. If one is cut off or isolated from a community of like-minded individuals, the archive can operate not only as a repository of dehumanizing values but also as an imaginative refuge for alternative ways of seeing. Disability, like other devalued social groupings, is first imposed from the outside as a source of stigma and then navigated from the inside as a mode of social redress. The inversionary tactics at work in Nietzsche and Oe involve an open embrace—even a stalwart declaration—of those who are most debased by cultures of the normal.
Future work will continue to review literary archives to counterpose artistic lives and the literary corpus. These textual studies inevitably complicate a socially progressive model of disability history, if only because many disabled people have made names for themselves as literary artists. This notoriety has often occurred despite an open grappling with the meaning of disability. Rather than negativity, disability has provided the spur that allowed writers to unveil new landscapes of contemplation. Much work is currently under way in this new and fruitful line of inquiry—one that dovetails with efforts to show the foundational nature of disability to social and aesthetic work.
Whereas much disability studies work in the humanities has focused on interpretations of disability as a social process or a minority experience, Nietzsche’s embrace of outsiderness (those whom he ironically termed “the higher men”) points to the possibility of a transgressive narrative space for disability. Rather than rail against or bemoan the unjust social exclusion of cripples, scholars have begun to attend to the subversive potential of the hyperbolic meanings invested in disabled figures. Much of the early work in disability studies centered on the extreme emotions, such as fascination and repulsion, that disability conjures up in the cultural imaginary. The potency of these visceral reactions suggests that there is something significant at stake in the suppression of disability from public view. In a recent introduction to a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, we argue that while other minority identities have been allowed a space in liberal discourse for reclaiming their cultural meanings as a form of empowerment, disability has been viewed as revealing the ludicrous extremes of identity politics (Mitchell and Snyder 1997b). Whereas “Black is beautiful” or “Gay Pride” will redress the social derision heaped on one minority community by a dominant culture, disabilities have been precluded from access to a similar political status. The category of disability, according to many of the most “liberal” advocates, represents an undesirable state of being that no political triage can repair. Disability has been portrayed within many circles as the straw that breaks the camel’s back of identity politics.
Yet, like these other social movements, disability rights advocates, artists, and scholars have recognized the power available in resignifying formerly demeaning terms such as cripple and gimp. Rather than trying to simply substitute more palatable terms for previously slanderous ones, the ironic embrace of derogatory terminology has provided the leverage of force that belongs to openly transgressive displays. The power of transgression always originates at the moment when the derided object uncharacteristically embraces its deviance as a value. In perversely championing the terms of their own stigmatization, marginal peoples alarm the dominant culture with a seeming canniness over the terms of their own subjugation. The embrace of denigrating terminology by the minority forces the dominant culture to face its own violence head-on because the authority of devaluation has been openly claimed in an ironic fashion. Thus, the minority culture effectively deflects the stigmatizing definition back to the offenders by openly advertising them in public discourse. The effect shames the dominant culture into recognition of its own dehumanizing precepts. What was most devalued is now discovered to have been stood on its head by an act of self-naming that detracts from the original power of the condescending terms.
In a parallel fashion, disability scholars have also attempted to identify and reclaim the power of formerly stigmatized representations in literature. Influential literary critic Leslie Fiedler’s (1981) early essay, “Pity and Fear: Myths and Images of the Disabled in Literature and the Popular Arts,” explains the potential power of literary transgression most pointedly:
We will have to exorcize our ambivalences toward the afflicted … by turning not to ersatz paeans of the heroism of the crippled, but to disturbing mythic literature; including Richard III, over which (let me confess in closing) I still shudder, and A Christmas Carol, over which I have wept more than once—and will, I suspect, weep again. (P. 13)
For Fiedler, the literature of disability poses the problem of feeling drawn to that which seems most reprehensible (fear) or sentimental (pity). Yet, in doing so, he does not bemoan or celebrate literary portraits but rather situates them within the realm of human psychology. For Fiedler, literary representations of disability do not resolve as much as tap into visceral emotions.
Fiedler’s (1981) argument rests on a complication of the idea of unsatisfactory imagery by framing the question of literary representation within a psychoanalytical framework. The ambivalence sensed by readers in literary presentations of disabled characters is akin to a vicarious experience of a culture’s uncertainty about their disabled populations. While literature does not pose an antidote to this ambivalence, it does provide a window into the complex nature of attitudes and their origins. Rather than explain away the visceral nature of responses to physical and cognitive differences, Fiedler seizes the experience of ambivalence as a universal response to the mystery of human variation. The upshot of this position is not that negative imagery reveals dehumanizing attitudes but rather that disability representation explicitly evokes powerful sentiments within the safe space of textual interactions. These “powerful sentiments” can be designated as emanating from the transgressive power signified by physical and cognitive difference. Readers are seduced into an encounter with their most extreme reactions as a way of facing up to the imagined threat that they pose.
It is this visceral potential in the disruption caused by the disabled body that makes it both a primary tool of disruption for writers and an important vein to tap for scholarly investigation. In Fiedler’s (1978) book-length study, titled Freaks, he explains that the viewer of the freak show spectacle involves an encounter between the self and the other:
The true Freak, however, stirs both supernatural terror and natural sympathy, since, unlike the fabulous monsters, he is one of us, the human child of human parents, however altered by forces we do not quite understand into something mythic and mysterious, as no mere cripple ever is…. Only the true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth. (P. 24)
There are two issues of importance in Fiedler’s (1978) effort to define the power of the freak’s physical spectacle. First, the terror of the self’s boundaries being challenged, boundaries that are believed to be more or less absolute, suggests that the spectacle of extraordinary bodily difference upsets the viewer’s faith in his or her own biological integrity. The viewer of the freakish spectacle does not experience a feeling of superiority in his or her proximity to the normal ideal but rather senses his or her own body to be at risk. The power is in the challenge of the self’s stability rather than in its security. Second, the division that Fiedler attempts to maintain between the ordinary “cripple” and the spectacular freak is less absolute than he claims. While freak show displays, as Robert Bogdan (1990) has shown, artificially exaggerated physical differences to enhance the encounter with difference, there is a continuum from the freak to the routine encounter with disability. The display of disability discomforts the viewer’s identification with bodily ability or normalcy by destabilizing (albeit in a less spectacular manner) that which she or he takes to be biologically “typical.” The freak show enhances rather than singularly produces a reaction that already exists within the viewer.
Whereas Fiedler would argue for a lack of correspondence between the freak and the disabled person, disability scholars such as Rosemarie Garland Thomson have argued for the identification of a continuum between two constructed social positions. In her anthology, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, Thomson (1996) designates the arrival of freak shows in the United States as anything but a fleeting historical anomaly. Tethered to a period of rapid industrialization in America’s “golden age” that “put bodies on arbitrary schedules instead of allowing natural rhythms to govern activity” (p. 11), the freak show promised the spectacle of a glimpse into the taboo underworld of human oddity. The appeal of such an amusement was to “assuage viewers’ uneasiness either by functioning as a touchstone of anxious identification or as an assurance of their [own] regularized normalcy” (Thomson 1996:11). Such an approach to the “distasteful” freak of negative imagery or social realism not only helps to investigate the overwrought symbolism of physical differences but also identifies the transgressive power invested in the social encounter with aberrancy.
Rather than view the freak as a rarified deviation, the essays in Freakery supply portraits of a widespread cultural phenomenon that speaks to the cultural fascination with spectacles of difference. As Thomson (1996) argues, the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century phenomenon of the freak show did not end but rather dispersed into “the entertainment discourses of vaudeville, circuses, beauty pageants, zoos, horror films, rock celebrity culture, and Epcot Center” (p. 13). In charting out this proliferation of discourses around figures of human difference, Freakery identifies the political undercurrents of disability as a centerpiece of contemporary American popular culture. Yet what these studies also demonstrate is a model of political power available to those who tap into the transgressive reservoirs of fascination and repulsion. Even the scholarship of its discomforting borders breaks down the assumed distance between spectator and object by violating the cultural dictum of silence that surrounds bodily deviation.
As a corollary to Thomson’s (1996) overall critical project, which seeks to explore “a critical gap between disabled figures as fashioned corporeal others whose bodies carry social meaning and actual people with atypical bodies in real-world social relations” (p. 15), Felicity Nussbaum and Helen Deutsch (2000) pursue a related project in their book on eighteenth-century disability, titled DEFECT! Engendering the Modern Body. Tracing out the implications of a host of objectifying social and medical categories from “monstrosity” to “aesthetic ugliness” to the “exotic deformed,” the collection focuses on the dovetailing of physical differences with categories of otherness such as femininity and impoverishment. As many of the essayists in the collection demonstrate, the eighteenth century became one of the most active centuries for carrying on open public discussions about what “marks the boundaries between the increasingly significant categories of the typical and atypical human being, the normal and the abnormal’” (Nussbaum and Deutsch 2000:5). In the process of conversing about these issues, nonetheless, many eighteenth-century writers (including some with disabilities) seized the opportunity to harness the transgressive power of physical otherness and shake the foundations of aesthetic and cultural value:
Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver in his giant incarnation and as a pigmy exhibited for money is among the most obvious examples [of the physical and mentally “defective”] from literature. The lesser-known Memoirs of Martin Scribblerus includes discussions of Siamese twins joined at the back, the little Black Prince, and the “Man-mimicking Manteger.” Alexander Pope’s own diminished height, humpback, and general frailty made himacuri-osity, and his Dunciad (1728) teems with monstrosities. In addition, the deaf-mute Duncan Campbell attracted Eliza Haywood’s attention and that of several other commentators because of his second sight and his ability to use sign language. Sarah Scott’s colony of the maimed served the women of Millenium Hall (1762), and she linked ugliness to virtue in her midcentury translation of a French novel, Agreeable Ugliness: Or, the Triumph of the Graces (1766)…. Damaged literary heroines include Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751) who met with an accident that injured her nose, and the learned but lame and pock-marked Eugenia in Frances Burney’s Camilla (1796). (Nussbaum and Deutsch 2000:5)
Importantly, these examples evidence not only the centrality of disability to the period but also an emerging recognition of ways in which difference can be harnessed to the alternative ends of minority and literary cultures. The critical connection between disability and femininity as monstrous deviances allows the editors to create a representational continuum between two surveyed and devalued biologies. Each emphasizes not the parallel category’s alien qualities but rather that the body itself contests restrictive social ideals and controls. As both Fiedler and Thomson point out, the literary encounter with deviance at first heightens alienation and then ultimately seeks to collapse the distance between disability and the inherently social processes that mark bodies as falling outside acceptable norms.
While most of the work in the humanities to date has centered on physical disability as its grounding object of study, one of the major new areas of research in disability studies will need to be that of cognitive disabilities. Although cognitive disabilities have surfaced in the current research, only a few studies privilege the representation of psychological difference as their primary concern. For instance, Otto F. Wahls’s (1995)Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness begins by pointing out that images of madness pervade popular discourses such as mainstream television and film. Yet, while Wahls’s study largely pursues the negative connotations of these images via the social realist school by arguing that “harmful images” exert a divisive pull on audiences, other scholarship has begun to share an interest in the transgressive potential of “madness” as a shared fascination for literature and medicine alike. For instance, Allen Thiher’s (1999) monumental study, Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature, seeks to analyze a surprising history of concordance between these two seemingly disparate (even antithetical) fields of study. According to Thiher, literature has historically provided the “applied” basis for “articulating the ways that madness can be experienced, lived as it were, in its alterity … [for b]oth medicine and literature have had constant recourse to theater and to theatrical metaphors to describe, in various ways, the dynamics of madness” (p. 24). The import of this approach has been to place literature and medicine (particularly psychology and psychiatry) as much more intimate bedfellows than has been previously recognized.
Beginning with ancient Greece, Thiher’s (1999) study demonstrates in great detail how literary stories of mental discordance have provided the foundation for scientific explanations of cognitive deviance. Rather than view this historical material as superficial and primitive, Thiher argues for a historical vision of madness as that which could productively give voice to the existence of disparate and even antithetical “realities.” For instance, the autobiographies of the French Romantic, Rousseau, sought to validate “madness” as essential to the acquisition of insight, for “the power of madness to effect disclosure and bring about vision” brought writers “beyond the collectivity to anunmediated relation with the Word” (Thiher 1999:216–17). This exclusive access of those designated mad in their own time to a direct encounter with truth proved both a longstanding association of madness with divine revelation and also an example of the transgressive possibilities offered by an individual’s claim to various kinds of insanity. For Thiher, the power to claim the transgressive alterity of madness proved so alluring that even during periods that openly sought to eradicate people with mental disabilities, such as the Salem witch trials, individuals would don the mantle of insanity to articulate their experience of an alternative cognitive reality. Within this perspective, individuals (artistic and otherwise) have openly claimed psychological difference rather than dissimulate its power over their own lives. This disruption of a reader’s identification with fictional ideals of normalcy through encounters with “transgressive disabilities” provides an unusual opportunity to rechart a period’s fashioning of the meaning of disability. Disability interrogation of received beliefs and values situates the power of stigmatized bodies and minds as profoundly disconcerting rejoinders to biological absolutism. Since literature so often imagines its project as one of social questioning and radical critique, an important continuity can begin to be formulated between contemporary disability politics and artistic production. While disability humanities scholars have been careful to avoid romanticizing the possibilities implicit in disability’s transgressive “outings” of a culturally closeted phenomenon, disability studies has begun to revise more simplistic assumptions about disability characterization. If the display of radical physical and cognitive deviance in narrative proves ultimately ambiguous to the values of our own disability movement, it nonetheless reveals that even the most “derisive” portrait harbors within it the antithesis of its own disruptive potential. At the least, disability studies scholars have provided a means for contemplating the ways in which earlier periods may have recognized and deployed the transgressive possibilities that aberrancy proffered.
Conclusion: The Necessity of Representation (and its Discontents)
Representation inevitably spawns discontent. All acts of portrayal (artistic or documentary) prove potentially allegorical in the sense that the act of characterization encourages readers and viewers to search for a larger concept, experience, or population. Thus, the effort to represent is an inevitably fraught and inherently political activity. Like the exchange between Longmore and Stiker, with which we began, the question of disability’s service to “negative” portrayals is profoundly complex. Any response proves riddled with difficulty because the question is, first and foremost, social in its making. What one generation of interpreters view as “humane” can be challenged by the next, and so on and so forth. This is particularly true of the representation of disability because even “well-meaning” representations so often result in violent justifications.
Let us provide just a brief example to underscore this point. Recently, we were contacted by a journalist who wanted to write a story about a new wave of children’s books that place characters with disabilities in the central role of protagonist. His hypothesis was that these were new identity-affirming portraits (this was spoken with a tinge of sarcasm for political correctness) that sought to instruct readers that “people with disabilities were just like everyone else.” He wanted to know if previous stories about children with disabilities usually represented disability as a cautionary tale about bad things that can happen to you. We offered examples of disability studies research that argued medieval stories about children with disabilities as visitors from fairy kingdoms who sought to explain the appearance of congenital disabilities to premedical cultures. Or that early twentieth-century children’s stories tended to use disabilities as evidence that one had entered a fantastical world of imagination where the impossible could come true. Our point was that other generations in history had produced ways of thinking about disability that were not solely in the form of warnings. Then we added that, of course, such stories also provided a rationale for many parents to leave their disabled children to die on beaches because the fairies would be returning them to their fantastical place of origin.
The issue of representation and what it produces in readers proves exceedingly complex. The ironic championing of the segregation of disabled people in the writings of Nietzsche was later used by the Nazis as an ideological manual to support the murder of disabled people, gypsies, and Jews during the Holocaust. The first Shinto myth records the birth of a “deformed” child to First Man and First Woman, who then ship their offspring out into the ocean in a makeshift boat to erase the evidence of their failure. Disability is both origin and end—its desired eradication in each generation is countered only with the ferocity of an ultimate recalcitrance to such violent “utopian” programs.
This is the very real and dangerous terrain of representation that humanities scholarship attempts to navigate. It is the heart of our own politics that cannot be strictly channeled into straightforward catalogues of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” representations. Because the seemingly abstract and textual world affects the psychology of individuals (and thus the cultural imaginary), the interpretation of these figures and their reception prove paramount to the contribution of the humanities to disability studies. One cannot assess the merits or demerits of a literary portrait, for example, without understanding the historical context within which it was constructed and imbibed. Nor can one ignore the often-disastrous consequences of even the most inspired tales.
What has proven most striking in the humanities study of disability is the way in which literary and filmic archives provide an overview of the prevalence of disability throughout history and across cultures. While one can charge discrimination and the lack of civil rights for people with disabilities in our own moment, the contention cannot be adequately demonstrated as systemic until a historical record of treatment has been reconstructed. In addition, disabled people inevitably navigate the representational types of an era as coordinates operative in their own psyches. Imaginative works are integral to the alternatives produced for imagining disability by those “contained” within the rubric itself. Readers and viewers find their own personal interpretations of disability inevitably influenced by their imaginative encounters with disabled people in the fictional works they encounter. For instance, Martha Stoddard Holmes’s (forthcoming) work, Fictions of Affliction, argues that while Victorian culture produced two predominating definitions of disability—that of the innocent afflicted child and that of the disabled beggar as an enemy of the state—writers with disabilities and authors who wrote about disability necessarily navigated these polar oppositions. In turn, the repetitious referencing of these discursive tropes provided a field of options for interpreting disability in the Victorian period, which profoundly influenced the subjective experience of disability and the evolution of disabled subjectivity. Because literary archives provide a repository for historical reactions along these lines, the humanities have begun the important task of bequeathing a more in-depth and sophisticated history of disability to disability studies and people with disabilities as a whole.
Whereas the survey of policies, incarcerating institutions, legislation, and so on helps to provide an overview of state-authored responses to quandaries posed by disabled populations, fictive representations provide access to less legalistic or “official” contexts for understanding disability. Whereas the ancient Athenians’ belief in the perfectability of the physical body produced a mythology that proffered only one disabled god (Hephaistos), disability scholar Lois Bragg (1997) has argued that the pantheon of gods with disabilities in ancient Norse myths demonstrates a popular emphasis on the value of personal sacrifice for one’s community. In this sense, the analysis of imaginative works allows humanities scholars to record a history of people with disabilities that comes closer to recapturing the “popular” values of everyday lives. If disability is the product of an interaction between individual differences and social environments (architectural, legislative, familial, attitudinal, etc.), then the contrast of perspectives between discourses of disability places art and literature as necessary to further complicate and reconstruct the dynamics of this interaction in history.
This history is by no means complete, but recent work has proven that attitudes and programs toward disabled people prove less static or exclusively detrimental than most humanities scholars originally anticipated. The history of disability, like the history of any socially produced constituency, proves surprisingly uneven and multifaceted. Our work is to understand this multiplicity in its richness. After all, how do we adequately assess our own era’s reactions and representations without a thorough knowledge of other cultures and generations? What does it say about our own culture’s penchant for designating disability if previous cultures did not see the need for doing so? How do we address the significant differences that exist between disability and other minority methodologies without the linguistic and identity-based interpretative methodologies that have been largely pioneered in the humanities?
As a linguistic “signifier,” disability also incites discontent, for the rubric proves as slippery as any minority category imposed from without. Singular designations attempting to contain a diverse people with widely variable histories represented by categories—such as “demoniacs,” “the halt and lame,” “cripples,” “the handicapped,” or even our own contemporary rubric of “disabled people”—inevitably result in those who are labeled chaffing against the imprecision and monolithic representational characteristics assigned to the category.
Yet importantly, this inevitable discontent that representation incites serves as one of the primary catalysts to culture formation. Many of us have wondered if disability cultures exist; if so, in what forms? Because cultural groupings always occur in reaction to prior exclusionary definitions that obscure the human multiplicity of the designated population, the critique of representation consolidates a process of identification itself among those who forward the critique. In our video, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back (Mitchell and Snyder 1996), we platform the political critiques of artists and academics with disabilities to identify that disability culture exists within the space of shared critique. This does not suggest that the critique is monolithically formulated across the community but rather that the necessity of talking back to an uncomprehending and ablist parent culture proved to be the shared component of a bona fide, even impudent, minority culture. As one identifies the voices that seek to redress the inadequacy of dominant representations of experiences, one also delineates the contours of a rapidly consolidating community.
Thus, the productivity of discontent is more than purely academic or negative in nature. The humanities study of disability, even through its various repudiations of representational models, serves to construct a more formidable disability “identity.” This identity proves to be most resilient because it does not consist of a “positive” content. It does not simply replace a poorer or less acceptable representation with another equally fictive but alluring one. Rather, disability culture remains largely reactionary because no adequate representational antidote exists. As John Frow (1995) has argued,
The diversity of language games is a prerequisite for the openness of the social system; conversely, the achievement of a “concensus”—and therefore of an end to discussion—would represent a form of violence (or “terror”) done to the dynamic of social argument. (P. 139)
Instead, disability culture continues to levy its critiques of contemporary and historical representations while playing the trickster’s game of being everywhere and nowhere at once.
However, even a communal identity cannot spring up wholesale and unprecedented without being accompanied by the work of historical retrieval. If one of the main projects of disability studies is to assert, once and for all, that disability is an integral part of the human condition, then there is great advantage in demonstrating the persistence of disabled people and their contributions in history. Henri-Jacques Stiker (1999) makes a similar point in A History of Disability when he argues that integration will prove inadequate if it must be on the terms of the dominant culture’s “normalizing” criteria. Instead, one must argue for the integral nature of disability as a category of human difference that cannot be usurped into a more homogenizing scheme of a people’s shared attributes. If one seeks to argue that the current predicament of and social attitudes toward people with disabilities are inadequate, then demonstrating the kaleidoscopic nature of historical responses to disability can prove an important tool for interrogating the “naturalized” ideology hiding behind current beliefs.
Yet how do we make the historical presence of disabled people visible when they were so often erased from the human record? One answer to this perplexing social questionis through the analysis of preserved discursive and visual mediums such as literature, art, and film. Rather than merely privileging the representational modes of texts that come under the purview of humanities scholars, our scholarship seeks to recognize a more complex constellation of relationships made available in these domains. Writers, painters, historians, and filmmakers, like all of us, are subject to the limiting beliefs of their own historical moments, but whereas people with disabilities are often peripheral to other domains outside of medicine, art persists in returning to portrayals of disability as a sustained preoccupation. Thus, while these representational portraits often prove unsatisfactory, they allow us viscerally to encounter disability in a way that we could not otherwise. The very discontent produced by representation provides a fulcrum for identifying the culture that should be rather than that which is.