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Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic

reviewed by Joanne Woiak - August 15, 2011

coverTitle: Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic
Author(s): Emily Russell
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813549396, Pages: 264, Year: 2011
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Emily Russell’s Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic is an ambitious study of the complex meanings of physical disability in literary works by American writers ranging from Mark Twain to David Foster Wallace. Encounters with disability involve acts of story-telling and reading: the appearance of physical anomaly is associated with the desire to know “what happened,” to make the body “legible.” Russell’s interest in the intersections between disability, society, and narrative is encapsulated in her phrase “embodied citizenship.” Since Locke, the construction of citizenship has been based on the concept of “property in one’s person.” But although all citizens are implicitly “read” as embodied, people with disabilities have additional “ideological weight attached to bodily difference” (p. 4). They are read as excessively embodied and on that basis excluded from full social and political participation, in contrast to the ideal citizen who has both “mastery of and freedom from the body” (p. 14). Russell premises her study on an expansive definition of citizenship that encompasses not only legal and political status within the state, but also “a more flexible sense of national identity” as well as all forms of social collectives (p. 16). The project of her book is to explore “the mutually constitutive relationship between the physical, political, and textual body to reveal the imaginative constructions that emerge through the productive tension among these terms” (p. 14).

Russell excavates an impressive range and depth of imaginative constructions of embodied citizenship in her close readings of nine texts from a broad spectrum of genres, analyzing familiar themes from literary, American, and cultural studies through the lens of disability. Her work contributes to raising awareness of disability as a category of analysis within those fields, and she situates her interpretations in the context of seminal disability studies scholarship on culture, metaphor, corporeality, and normalcy. Reading Embodied Citizenship focuses on how and why literature depicts and troubles the search for meaning in the disabled body. How does society manage difference, and how do people marked as different manage social exclusion? Russell examines the texts’ critiques of ideologies that frame disability, such as individualism and the naturalness of identity categories, and she identifies narrative reconfigurations of these dominant assumptions that work productively to “reinscribe the conditions of citizenship” (p. 22).

In the first three chapters, Russell considers fiction and non-fiction texts from the Gilded Age to the Vietnam War era that “both reflect and enact crisis moments in the enduring connection between physical, textual, and national bodies” (p. 18). Mark Twain’s “conjoined” stories Those Extraordinary Twins and Pudd’nhead Wilson employ differences marked by disability and race in order to critique American individualism. Liberal democracy presumes the uniformity of citizens’ bodies (and minds), but the arrival of conjoined twins into the small Missouri community calls into question the “fantasy of equality” based on sameness of capacities (p. 21). When one of them commits a crime, their anomalous embodiment challenges the legal system’s definitions of self-determination and responsibility (pp. 31-32). The townspeople perform acts of interpretation that “domesticate” the twins’ strangeness, seeing them only in terms of conventional anatomy and domestic activities (p. 53). Twain’s parallel story of black and white infants switched at birth likewise illustrates that identity is discursive and performative. Society engages in “fictions and deceptions” that make difference appear simply “natural,” in order to reinforce strict binaries (p. 43). However, as Russell notes, Twain’s text could also be read as offering readers a “secure footing” for racial identities, since we know the characters’ “real” birth origins (pp. 44-45).

Russell next re-reads the mid-century literary grotesque to show that characters with disabilities can be more than just metaphors for modern alienation. She contends that through a disability lens, these characters can also be read as serving “progressive ends” in novels such as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (p. 22). Both authors were politically motivated to imagine “more real” grotesque figures as a counterpoint to narratives and ideologies “that are profoundly false or repressive to those that lie outside the norm” (p. 96). Their disabled characters are described as uncorrupted by modernity, and hence able to create more meaningful, though ephemeral, communities through personal connections that are “dependent on physical difference,” in contrast to the alienation associated with the standardized, interchangeable bodies of the urban crowd (pp. 88-89). Disability in these novels thus provides an “enviable model of social participation” (p. 65). As Russell notes, however, this model is the “fantasy” of the nondisabled majority, as are the uses of disability to symbolize wisdom (the characters of the mute sage and the “wise blood”). It seems doubtful that these seeming stereotypes could serve “progressive ends” for oppressed citizens as well (p. 60).

The chapter entitled “The Uniform Body: Spectacles of Disability and the Vietnam War” interprets Ron Kovic’s popular memoir Born on the Fourth of July and Larry Heinemann’s novel Paco’s Love Story as narratives in which the disabled body confronts the national body at a moment of disintegrating unity for both. In the memoir, contrasting scenes that take place in two “patriotic spheres” best exemplify Russell’s interlocking realms of body, society and text. Kovic’s visible disability communicated very different messages when he participated in a military parade versus an antiwar protest: in one context he was the inspiration for America to continue the war, in the other he became the reason it was time to end the failed war. Yet these contradictory symbols were not completely unambiguous or distinct: spectators at parades were already skeptical of the war and its justifications, while at the antiwar protest Kovic himself appealed to his “protected status” as a veteran (pp. 99-100). Because of their perceived “moral worth,” disabled veterans have always been considered full citizens by the state, as evidenced by their historical role as the first group to receive disability benefits. Disability narratives examine the returning veteran’s alienation from the public, which in Paco’s Love Story is scripted in terms of failed erotic encounters and an “emergent homosocial collective” (p. 118). The two texts that Russell chooses further deploy the veteran’s body to address the nature of the body politic itself. The disabled veteran as public spectacle becomes a “signifying catalyst” for national unity (p. 105). But these spectacles can never communicate a “uniform” message. For example, attempts to align the experiences of other war vets with those of the protagonists help to create a “redemptive community,” but fail to historicize and politicize the lessons of Vietnam (p. 105). Likewise, displays of bodies broken in battle and subjected to rehabilitation with machines tend to shift attention away from critiques of militarism and towards enthusiasm over technological prowess. Kovic’s body may never be completely rehabilitated, but at least his therapist can show off the “really great machine” he’s using (p. 112).

In her final two chapters, Russell considers late-twentieth-century anxieties about the social collective and disability justice. Her interpretations of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love focus on their depictions of reproduction as ways to “produce revised conceptions of the embodied citizen” (p. 133). My Year of Meats is ostensibly a straightforward critique of the modern agricultural industry, in which birth defects are tragic outcomes of interventions in biology and corporate greed. In Russell’s more nuanced reading, however, the novel also argues that people “suffering” infertility or impairments might be cured by those same kinds of interventionist and corporate practices (p. 156). In Geek Love, the Binewski family of sideshow performers uses toxic chemicals to reproduce “born freaks” for profit. The text thus simultaneously critiques the “ideological burdens attached to physical difference” that gave rise to the exploitative freak show, and reinscribes them as empowering the Binewski family, which “takes its success from the normal population’s fantasies of anomalous bodies as sexy, scary, and exciting” (p. 165). In the next iteration of this technology of disabled reproduction, the son Arty, who has flippers for hands and feet, creates a cult in which members are surgically made into his image. Whereas his parents had rejected mainstream society’s ideal of homogeneous normalcy, Arty creates an alternative and “inclusive” social body whose components are “assembly-line items” (p. 167). Locke’s equality of capacities as the basis for citizenship has thus come full circle. Russell concludes that Dunn is clearly parodying the ideology of the norm, “but [is also] conceding that…this trend towards homogeneity is central to the creation of the social body” (p. 168).

Russell’s goal in Reading Embodied Citizenship is not simply to illustrate ambiguity in works of literature, but rather to consider both the “perils and possibilities” of the critiques and reimaginations that she uncovers (p. 180). Her critical method is perhaps most effective in her interpretations of the complex disability politics in Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s dystopia consists of fragmented individual and social bodies: the “assemblage” of their disparate parts functions as a critique of dominant ideologies of naturalness and individualism, of the fantasy of equality and the trend towards homogeneity that Russell identifies with embodied citizenship. The text likewise rejects origin and cure stories of disability, forcing readers into new practices for “reading” disability (which Russell compares to Wallace’s postmodernist strategies for writing and reading fiction) (p. 188). In the future state of North America, a “new ideal of citizenship” has supplanted the ethics of autonomy: a model of “interdependence” between all parts of society, inspired by disability philosophy and politics (p. 179). However, each of these potentially liberatory elements is ultimately undermined, especially through the tendencies of commercial enterprise to promote “idealized norms” through consumerism, and of national interests to use proto-fascist techniques to denounce individualism and implement interdependence as a political system (pp. 178, 182).

As in the mid-century novels of the grotesque, in Infinite Jest people with disabilities bear the burden of being seen as “more real,” more embodied, “more object than subject” (p. 195). If disability is a different kind of category than other aspects of human identity, then the heterogeneous assemblage of Wallace’s re-imagined social body still “contains the potential for unevenness among its parts” (p. 197). In her conclusion, Russell addresses this crucial tension in disability studies and activism between treating disability as an add-on to the list of marginalized social identities (race, gender, etc.), and recognizing the ways that the complexity of disability generates unique perspectives that “can shake up conventionally held notions of U.S. citizenship” (p. 201). Russell’s study should be brought into conversation with scholarship in disability history, philosophy, and political science that further analyzes and deploys this tension.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16512, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 10:02:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Joanne Woiak
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    JOANNE WOIAK is a lecturer in the Disability Studies Program at the University of Washington. Her research and teaching interests encompass history of science and medicine, disability studies, and science and popular culture. She is currently working on projects exploring the history of forced sterilization in Washington, disability in science fiction, and disability pedagogy. Her publications include: "Disability and Society: An Inclusive Pedagogy for Introducing Disability Studies to Diverse Students," in Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren (ed.), Disability Pedagogy In and Outside the Classroom (University of Washington Press, forthcoming) and “Designing a Brave New World: Eugenics, Politics, and Fiction,” The Public Historian 29 (2007): 105-129. Reprinted in Harold Bloom (ed.), Aldous Huxley, new edition (Bloom’s Literary Criticism, Infobase Publishing, 2010), 163-190.
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