Re-engaging the Body: Disability Studies and the Resistance to Embodiment
Disabled Romantic poet Lord Byron’s last, unfinished play, The Deformed Transformed (1822), tells the story of Arnold, who endures social derision for his multiple disabilities.1 The social context of Arnold’s oppression is the primary subject matter of the drama. Arnold’s initial critiques of social intolerance quickly give way to his own sense of his disabled body as grotesque. Byron’s hero opts for suicide in order to escape his torment. Just as Arnold is about to impale himself, a “dark” Stranger arrives with an offer: the exchange of his disabled body for the apparently ideal—but actually flawed—body of the Greek war hero, Achilles. Arnold jumps at the opportunity, even though he believes that he must barter away his soul in exchange; he is, after all, like Byron, a student of Goethe’s Faust.
After transforming the “deformed” Arnold’s body into the shape of Achilles, the Stranger announces that he plans to accompany the protagonist while taking the form of his rejected body. The “deformed” body thus shadows the “ideal” body’s pursuit of an unrestricted physical life. In this way, The Deformed Transformed illustrates the dependence of epistemological operations (and heroic traditions) on disabled bodies: the able body cannot solidify its own abilities in the absence of its binary Other. In the end, Arnold’s acquisition of an “ideal” body gains him little more than an insufferable ego and an obliviousness to the existence of diverse bodily forms across human populations.2
We begin with Byron’s The Deformed Transformed as an allegory for the efforts of U.S. disability studies first to disengage from, and then to re-engage with, disabled bodies. In the drama, rejection of the apparently visceral life of disability for the evidently social ideal of a “classical” and “able” body encapsulates the double bind that confronts those who inhabit disabled bodies: one must either endure the cultural slander heaped upon bodily difference or seek to evade the object of derision. Such erasures of disabled people have historically been achieved through such cultural “solutions” as institutionalization, isolation, genocide, cure, concealment, segregation, exile, quarantine, and prosthetic masking, among others. As a theatrical effort to destigmatize the disabled body, Byron’s play—much like research in disability studies over the past twenty years—aims to debunk the fictions of desirability that invest the “able” body. In critiquing the presumed desirability invested in able bodies, disability studies has sought to destigmatize disabled bodies only by default. In the mid-1990s, U.S. disability studies returned to encounter the sloughed-off disabled body after the “perfectible,” able body had been rethought as a matter of epistemology, as opposed to biology.
We argue that disability studies has strategically neglected the question of the experience of disabled embodiment in order to disassociate disability from its mooring in medical cultures and institutions. Although recently disability criticism has been calling for a return to a phenomenology of the disabled body,3 this return has been slow in coming. Like feminized, raced, and queered bodies, the disabled body became situated in definitive contrast to the articulation of what amounted to a hegemonic aesthetic premised on biology. Within this cultural belief system, the “normal” body provided the baseline for determinations of desirability and human value.
The section that follows, “Abstracting the Body,” begins with a discussion of the advent of the normative body in medicine through an analysis of the theories of Michel Foucault and Georges Canguilhem and the documentary films of Frederick Wiseman. Leading documentarians of institutions, these three have produced work critical of sterile ideals of the body based on statistical averages and on an investment in the diagnosis of biological differences as deviance. Such critiques have provided the fundamental premise of disability studies: the able body emerges as a narrow measure for the creation of discriminatory, human-made environments that elide the existence of biological and cognitive variations. Next, in “The Cultural Arena of Disability,” we examine the ways in which disability studies has expanded the analysis of the pathologization of disabled bodies beyond the walls of the medical institution and into an engagement with intrinsically social questions of human value and belonging. One result of this expansion has been to direct scholarly attention to the use of disability as a metaphor for social conflict in various artistic traditions. In the segment “Theaters of Repression,” we argue that as medical science strains to rein in the disabled body’s deviance, movies unleash nightmarish images of disability as a threat to social stability. In posing such an opposition, we analyze portrayals of disability in Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic, Freaks, and Werner Herzog’s misguided political satire, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1971). Finally, in “Body Poetics,” we conclude with a discussion of the re-engagement with disabled embodiment in the poetics of disability performance artists.
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We are particularly indebted to those artists, activists, and scholars who participated in the making of our documentary video, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back. We thank William Elison for his invaluable copyediting and Carol A. Breckenridge for providing forums for scholarship on disability studies. Finally, we thank the students in our graduate seminar on “Disability in the Movies” at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the intellectual stimulus they provided during our composition of this essay, and our friend Riva Lehrer for her devotion to disability art.
- In most biographies, Byron is described as having a clubfoot, a rather amorphous nineteenthcentury medical classification. However, contemporary descriptions of the poet’s condition indicate that it was a more serious disability than this archaic diagnosis might suggest. In Byron’s Memoirs, Samuel Taylor Coleridge quotes Mary Shelley’s observations about his physical demeanor: “A malformation of one of his feet, and other indications of a rickety constitution, served as a plea for suffering him to range the hills and to wander about at his pleasure on the seashore, that his frame might be invigorated by air and exercise” (Watkins 1822: 46). More recently, Phyllis Grosskurth, following the work of Denis Browne, has laid the groundwork for a more specific diagnosis that is, we would argue, similar to some forms of what is now labeled cerebral palsy. Byron walked with a “sliding gait,” and his “congenital deformity” was confined to his right leg, which “curved inwards, and was so stiff that it impeded the movement of the ankle” (Grosskurth 1997: 25).
- Byron’s play is analyzed at length in our essay “Unfixing Disability,” which will be published in a forthcoming volume on disability and performance art in the Corporealities: Discourses of Disability series by the University of Michigan Press.
- As Kevin Paterson and Bill Hughes (1999: 598) argue, to surrender a discussion of impairment is tantamount to relegating disability to the status of nothing more concrete than an ideological remainder: “[While] disability studies had recognised the social nature of impairment. . . . it lacks the conceptual tools to trace the patterns of embodiment as they are lived through the mutually incorporated experiences of impairment and disability.” In her book Claiming Disability, Simi Linton (1998) makes a similar point, calling for a return to a phenomenology of disabled bodies that can more accurately mine the experience of disability through meaningful, visceral language.