Claire Barber, "A Dearth of Disability…Studies"

Friday, November 11, 2011

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Tiresias, from a production of Oedipus Rex
[Claire Barber, a Unit Affiliate and PhD Candidate in English, critiques the Modernist Studies Association Conference she attended last month. To her surprise, she found a dearth of disability studies scholarship and suggests that the field of modernist studies could easily include such studies.]

"A Dearth of Disability...Studies"

Written by Claire Barber (English)

Three years ago, I attended my first Modernist Studies Association (MSA) conference as a starry-eyed second-year graduate student. I was thrilled that I had found a community like the MSA, one interested in British and American literatures of modernism, their social and political contexts, and critical theory.

Fast-forward to the present day.

A month ago, I presented a paper entitled “Polychromatic Chaos: An Autistic Poetics in Modernism” at this year’s MSA conference in Buffalo. As a Ph.D. student currently working on her dissertation, I was excited to enter into dialogue with scholars working in my two primary fields (British modernism and disability studies). While perusing the conference program, however, I was surprised at the lack of attention to disability studies at the level of the panel titles. Many panels could have incorporated disability topics under their broad titles, although very few appeared to do so. Only one panel, “Modernism & Disability,” explicitly addressed questions of disability at the level of the panel title.

In the first paper, “‘Keep my mind off’: Knowledge and Deafness in ‘Sirens’,” Maren Linett focused primarily on the relationship between deafness and knowledge in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (She also looked briefly at texts by Elizabeth Bowen, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers.) In the “Sirens” episode, Linett investigated connections between Leopold Bloom and the deaf waiter, Pat. Both men wait upon others and appear not to know what they know, existing in a suspended state of knowledge. In Linett’s argument, deaf characters are perceived as having access to different orders of knowledge because they use a different language. In communities that priviledge spoken language, the deaf occupy a position similar to that of foreigners. This connection between deafness and foreignness opens exciting possibilities for the question with which Linett ended her presentation: “Is Pat ‘deaf’ in the way that Bloom is ‘Jewish’?” I will be interested to see how Linett relates the argument developing here to those from her recent book Modernism, Feminism, and Jewishness.

Michael Thurston, formerly a student at Illinois, presented the second paper: “Grabbing Vision by the Balls.” In it, he forgrounds T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the context of recent disability scholarship to revalue knowledge held by disabled individuals. His primary focus was Tiresias, a blind prophet who figures importantly in the poem. Using Freud’s essay “On the Uncanny,” Thurston pointed out the link between blindness and castration to show how blindness has been read as emasculating. However, people in this poem have insight despite—or because of—their inability to see in conventional ways; Tiresias’s blindness and female form facilitate his particular way of seeing. Thus, blindness—and disability, more generally—need not deprive an individual of her voice. In the context of the poem, Thurston’s argument emphasizes the breakdown of metonymy by which the sacrifice of a part can no longer rejuvenate the whole (e.g., a tradition, culture, or poem). I look forward to seeing him further develop this argument in relation to the access that a disabled individual has to different forms of knowledge after the “sacrifice” of a body part, such as the eyes.

Fiona Shaw as Winnie in a performance of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days from Beckett on Film
Plenary speaker Michael Davidson presented the third paper, “Every Man His Specialty.” (A longer version of this paper is available in the Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry [Fall 2010].) Davidson explored what he called “the dialectics of dependency” within several works by Samuel Beckett, concentrating on Happy Days. In this context, one of the larger questions he addressed was whether we are truly as free as we assume ourselves to be. In an able-bodied society, individuals exercise power through their ability to independently control and satisfy their needs; thus, codependence gains a negative cultural connotation. According to Davidson’s argument, Beckett’s texts normalize disability and present codependent relationships that are contractual and beneficial to both parties. Davidson focused particularly on the relationship between Winnie and Willie in which Winnie depends on Willie to affirm her existence. While she becomes more and more immobile, Winnie maintains the ability to speak, a power that Willie does not seem to have. Thus, mobility and the appearance of autonomy do not necessarily convey power. With this paper, Davidson contributes to growing scholarship on disability in Beckett’s oeuvre, and I look forward to the possibility that he may expand this analysis in an upcoming book.

All three panel participants—and also the panel chair, Janet Lyon—indicated that they were working on books about disability studies and modernism, which makes the dearth of disability at the conference that much more surprising. Given the MSA’s promotion of interdisciplinarity and interest in alternative modernities, this conference would seem like an ideal forum in which to explore the modern conditions of disability. For example, Maud Ellman’s plenary address, “The Body in Parts,” contained the possibility for a critique and expansion of disability-studies approaches to literature. While engaging and interesting, the presentation did not pursue this direction. I do not mean to criticize the conference organizers or its participants for this lack of attention; rather, I wish to bring what I perceive as a surprising gap to the attention of the larger scholarly community. The current job listings distributed by the Modern Language Association reflect this similarly minimal presence: only one position (at Wisconsin-LaCrosse) includes disability studies as a desirable professional background. I am left wondering why disability studies is so slow to catch on in literary studies?

Many of the texts that we study depict disabled characters (Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Bowen’s Eva Trout, among many others), while many authors are or may have been disabled (e.g., Milton, Nietzsche, and Woolf). These texts also reflect cultures, histories, societies, and nations with varying attitudes to disability. In Enforcing Normalcy, a canonical text for disability studies, Lennard Davis argues that the object of disability studies is not necessarily those labeled disabled but instead “the social, historical, economic, and cultural processes that regulate and control the way we think about and think through the body” (11). Thus, disability studies has much in common with other theoretical discourses of embodiment, such as phenomenology, critical race theory, and queer and feminist studies. All three papers summarized above linked their examinations of disability to concepts from these discourses. As these scholars demonstrated, embodiment affects our ways of knowing and the knowledge available to us, which consequently affects the texts that we form. Both Thurston and Linett argued that disabled individuals have access to epistemological orders that differ from those available to able-bodied individuals—what Thurston and others refer to as “cripistemologies.” These cripistemologies introduce normates or neurotypicals to unfamiliar ways of perceiving and engaging with an environment, which, in turn, affect their attitudes toward disabled individuals, the concept of disability, and their own forms of embodiment.

As this response hopes to show, disability studies has made great strides since the 1995 publication of Davis’s book. In March of 2005, PMLA presented a series of conference reports on disability (introduced by Michael Davidson) that surveyed the state of the field. The papers above show how it has progressed since that time. However, disability studies still deserves greater recognition within the academy. The title for this post points to the paradoxical position of disability studies: while disability is a constant presence and influence in our lives, disability studies has yet to become a prevalent critical discourse. I look forward to seeing an interest in scholarship of disabled writers and the conditions of disability continue to increase within fields such as modernist studies. It will happen—quite soon, I believe—just as almost all of us will find ourselves confronted with the reality of disability at one time or another.


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