My current research develops a theoretical framework, disability ecology, that takes part in the broader re-discovery of the “body” as site, critical lens, and sensuous experience that is occurring across the social sciences and humanities. While post-identity discourses about disability aspire to eliminate the misrecognitions of pathology that categorization often entails, my dissertation offers a new materialist conception of disability that re-entwines embodiment with dominant social construction perspectives. I then use this framework to interrogate the semantic, syntactic, and symbolic textual networks that produce literary disability and imbue it with meaning. My work examines how disability operates in nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. literary fiction as a thematic trope that shores up forms of normative subjectivity always threatening collapse. It also examines how disability functions as a mode of critique that positions an always emergent disability ecology—meaning a network of embodiments, beliefs, and institutions that structures disability—against the autonomous liberal subject and the socio-political actors, including aesthetic judgment and taste, on which it uneasily rests.
My dissertation, Disability Ecology: Re-Materializing U.S. Fiction 1880-1940, pursues two interrelated trajectories that address central questions in contemporary literary disability studies. First, it offers an ecological model of disability that posits nonnormative embodiment as a valid site of knowledge production, and second, it uses this model to theorize the uses of disability in late-nineteenth and twentieth century American literary fiction as a trope of characterization and as a formal structuring device. The literary archive in Disability Ecology includes novels, novellas, and short stories from the American realist period in the late 19th century, a literary period commonly associated with an aesthetic practice committed to the accurate representation of quotidian experience, to the early postmodern period after World War II. Disability ecology breaks from the dominant theories in contemporary disability studies that situate disability as either predominantly embodied or socially constructed by advancing a new materialist conception of disability. Instead of presuming that disability subjectivity is determined either by bodies themselves or by social actors that exist separately from bodies, disability ecology claims that disability subjectivity is a material-semiotic practice that is structured by a network of social relationships that bodies themselves help structure. Instead of simply folding disability into normalcy, viewing U.S. fiction through the optic of disability ecology generates new strategies of reading that “crip” explication itself.
The first three chapters in the dissertation set in motion the dialectic of disability themes and disability forms that unfolds throughout the study. The first chapter, “Disability, Subjects, Ecology,” claims that disability materializes in social interactions and literary narrative not as an object but as a material-semiotic practice. Through a reading of Richard Powers’s novel Gain (1999), I situate disability ecology as a new materialist model for conceptualizing disability subjectivities, and I establish affinities between this theory and contemporary critical disability studies work by Mel Y. Chen, Alison Kafer, and David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. I put these arguments in conversation with Actor-Network Theory (ANT), a theory and practice that extends agency to nonhuman actors as it maps and describes the relationships between things (material) and concepts (semiotics) in transient, heterogeneous networks. Disability ecology serves as the primary tool that allows me in the following chapters to interrogate a range of institutions that help structure disability subjectivities and to describe literary problems specific to their representation.
Chapters two and three introduce two textual features revealed by this ecological approach. The second chapter, “The Spectacular Banality of Literary Disability,” theorizes the methods by which disability is made to appear in literary texts. Drawing upon Stephanie Kerschbaum’s concept of “markers of difference” (72), this chapter elaborates “disabling details,” meaning those signifiers that render a character as having an impairment and that produce “disability effects” through acts of interpretation. In a reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), I argue that disability details appear as if they were pieces of the Real, creating a sense that literary representations self-reference their own extraliterary material truth. Because genre, as an aesthetic and ideological apparatus, possesses the agential power to animate some textual objects more than others, I theorize the ambiguous, pluripotent functions of disabling details in comparative readings of texts typically understood as exemplary of American literary realism, including William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901).
The third chapter, “Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Crip Gesture of Naturalism,” examines the reinscription of disability thematics under an aesthetic regime that often turns to contemporary natural philosophy to justify the depiction of the human animal as structured by innate drives, always as risk of disability, and prone to atavistic regression. Disability haunts these texts as a potential state for all people, not just those whose congenital physical or neurological difference mark them as impaired, but its manifestation always announces a failed state of being that requires cure or justifies elimination. Works of fiction such as Edith Wharton’s Sanctuary (1903) and Frank Norris’s Vandover and the Brute (1914, written 1894-5) link aesthetic taste, often understood as a correlation of exceptional physiology and normative training, to physical fitness and its absence to disability. To possess refined taste is at the same time to announce one’s superior physical and neurological development, while to lack taste or aesthetic sensibility is to foreshadow one’s own genetic regression and impending disablement. By often tying taste, or lack thereof, to monolithic state institutions like courts of law or art schools, such texts often suggest that the potential for widespread social or cultural degeneration lurks dangerously below the most benign social surfaces. Ultimately, the articulation of disability with bad taste provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of aesthetics in the disqualification of some people from full socio-economic participation.
The fourth chapter, “Disability Kitsch, Literary Inclusionism, and the Crip Art of Aesthetic Failure,” considers the aesthetic uses of disability as a trope of characterization and as a thematic element in Modernist texts that approach mimesis through representation and form. This chapter argues that disabled characters, when defined solely through disabling details that are figured as static and self-evident, appear as kitsch objects that often seem to produce aesthetic experience but in fact reproduce normative assumptions about disability as a fixed, knowable, and known identity. Willa Cather’s “The Profile” (1907) demonstrates how thematic uses of disability in so-called high art exhibit uncanny similarities, fulfill stock narrative functions, and evoke a closed set of pathetic responses without actually depicting the lived experience of disability. To examine this crip art of failed aesthetics, I turn to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1927), a narrative that largely avoids disability kitsch while offering an example of a disability aesthetics that depends on literary form, not representation. Unlike Cather’s short story, Hemingway’s treatment of disability pays particular attention to Harry Morgan’s negotiation of impairment and the impact of disability on his sense of self, while the form of the novel—written in three sections that incorporate at least four distinct points-of-view—makes a strong argument for the expressive capacity of disability subjectivities as distributed ecological systems without depending on representation.
Altogether, these chapters demonstrate the uses of disability ecology as an analytic model for investigating disability subjectivities and as an interpretive framework for reading American fiction. In each case, disability appears as the product of a material-semiotic assemblage of actors that manifests as readily in representational art as it does in social interactions. As a theoretical model, disability ecology intervenes in the dialectic that preoccupies contemporary critical disability theories of subjectivity by aligning issues of embodiment (which are always already social) with issues of social practice (which always already occur in material spaces between material objects). Disability ecology affirms that disability itself is produced interactionally when particular bodies encounter other bodies, human or non-human, that orientate them towards or away from certain objects, possibilities of becoming, and futures. Although these ecologies are difficult to perceive during daily life because they are always emergent, literary representations can arrest particular sets of reciprocal relationships, thus making them available to analysis and critique. Such analyses reveal the constitutive force disability exerts across a range of discourses such as formations of identity based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality; economic practices and forms of labor; and, not least, narrative.
The next step in my research plan is to convert my dissertation into a book manuscript. This will entail additional research to write an entirely new chapter on composite novels that further extends my concept of a crip art of failed aesthetics, meaning an aesthetic experience in which disability invigorates narrative art through antinormative representation as well as experimental form. This crip art contends that the formal relationship between disability and textual elements that foreground a given text’s constructedness. While much critical work on contemporary composite novels and short story sequences sees these forms as sites for the negotiation of non-dominant, multiethnic identities, I see early twentieth century textual examples—such as the composite forms of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), for example—as offering the presumptively partial, fragmentary, and broken as instances of unexpected beauty within a disability aesthetic.
Articles in Preparation
I am currently preparing one essay for an anthology and two articles based on my dissertation research. An essay drawn from my dissertation, “Disability Ecology and the Limits of Representation,” is forthcoming in the anthology The Matter of Disability, eds. Susan Antebi and David T. Mitchell, University of Michigan Press. One article drawn from my dissertation, “Edith Wharton and the Biopolitical Aesthetics of Human Disqualification,” examines Wharton’s use of bad taste—or inferior aesthetic sensibility—as an index of embodied pathology or disability symptomatic of American modernity. A new article, “‘Optimistic, Scrabbling, Indebted’: Disability Ecology and the ‘Second Elevation’ in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999),” explores the articulation of disability and race in Whitehead’s critique of uplift ideology and the social construction of technological artifacts.
I look forward to investigating in the near future new thematic interests that leverage my increasing investment in disability aesthetics, visual culture, and graphic narrative. I plan to investigate the role that disability plays in graphic narrative and film, particularly in the context of zombie embodiments. If the body is a primary site where popular cultural productions elaborate apocalyptic imaginaries, then the first modern zombie to lurch through a cemetery in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) arrived as the undead Other, the illegible pathogenic vector who not only imperils individual living human characters but also threatens the human species itself. The zombie body portends a return for the living to bare life through the dispersal of contagion, the disruption of infrastructural networks, the inauguration of diaspora, and the inversion of the Cartesian hierarchy of animate and inanimate matter that grounds the autonomous Western subject. In this capacity, the zombie has often been interpreted through the lenses of critical race and feminist theories as a threat to hegemonic white male heteronormativity that at the same time allows for its reproduction through survivalist fantasy. Viewed through the lens of critical disability theory, however, the zombie body appears as a disabled subject, the undead citizen of an emergent criptopolis who is not only an embodied metaphor of the neoliberal subject under geopolitical siege, but also its supplement, surrogate, and twin. As such, the zombie body is a social location for the production of radical crip futurities.