At the moment, I’m working through the canonical Disability Studies texts–if there can be such a thing for a discipline so young–and there are few works more iconic or influential than Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies. Arguing that literary and cultural critics have neglected serious study of disability identity and representation, Extraordinary Bodies establishes a critical methodology for naming, theorizing, and critiquing the connections between cultural representation of disability and the modern American self.
Garland Thomson argues that although literary critics have not payed much attention so far, representations of disability are actually pervasive throughout literature. These “disabled figures” (like Tiny Tim or Ahab) represent disabled people as metaphorical devices, stereotyped to the point of caricature. As these representations have become commonplace in culture, they come to set the terms for how actual disabled people are treated and how they see themselves. Garland Thomson, taking a cue from other cultural studies arguments in African American Studies and Women’s Studies, draws our attention to the functions these caricatures serve for the able-bodied authors and culture that perpetuate them. (I am reminded of Tony Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which examines Africanist representations in the imagination of white American authors, like the good an honorable Jim in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.) She draws a range of exampled of disability representation, especially from the American freak show stage, sentimental women’s novels, and black feminist literature.
In order to make her argument, Garland Thomson, coins a particularly useful term, “the normate.” The normate is the composite identity position held by those unmarked by stigmatized identifiers of disability (or race or gender for that matter). The normate is the imagined everyman whose self-determination, independence, rational thinking ability, and physical sturdiness makes American democracy philosophically possible. The disabled figure–the cripple, the invalid, the idiot–comes to represent everything that the normate is not. While Garland Thomson identifies this dynamic as the driving constitutive force of disability identity in American culture, she acknowledges that ability/disability distinctions have meant different things within different times and cultural contexts; in theory, this assertion opens the possibility that by resisting oppressive representations of disability, the culture of abelism might be changed.
Ultimately, Garland Thomson’s work provides an invaluable model of literary disability criticism, elucidating the rhetorical forces pervasive of both art and popular culture that cause some bodies to signify meanings that constrain both what we know about disabled people and how disabled people experience the world.
My next stop will take me a decade forward in disability theory and criticism, to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory. Onward!