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by James C Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (Editors)
Southern Illinois University Press, 2001
Review by Jackie Scully on Jan 10th 2003

Embodied Rhetorics

It’s only fair to say at the outset that I don’t know much about rhetoric.  I do know a bit about disability though, from both theoretical and experiential viewpoints, and I am professionally interested in how people make moral sense of the experience of being (in) a particular kind of body.  So I was interested to see what the authors collected in this volume thought that the discourse technique we call rhetoric has to do with bodies, and especially deviant bodies.

The book’s three sections deal sequentially with identity, education, and the cultural and spatial rhetorics of disability.  In the very first paragraph of their introductory chapter Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson pose the question that the rest of the book will circle around: “[W]hen Americans think, talk and write about disability, they usually consider it as a tragedy, illness or defect than an individual body ‘has’ – that is, as personal and accidental, before or without sociopolitical significance....Why is disability still strongly ‘imbued’ with a meaning that not only points to the personal but actually restricts thinking about disability in any other way?” (my italics). They go on to suggest that “this ‘natural’ view of disability is tied to the dominant views of language and the body”. From this argue that the field of rhetoric can therefore be an ally of disability studies as an analytic and emancipatory movement.

As is usually the case with collections like these, contributions range widely in topic, style and (it has to be said) quality. Some are innovative, others less so. Most chapters are accessible, although Nirmala Erevelles’ (“In search of the disabled subject”) in particular requires a familiarity with the rhetorical conventions of post-structuralism: it repays the effort, though, as she provides a fascinating analysis of the limitations of poststructuralist feminist theory to contribute to disability studies, comparing it with the approach of historical materialism. Some pieces are more overtly political than others (for example, Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky, “Putting disability in its place: it’s not a joking matter”). Some readers will be more drawn to the chapters that take a historical view (Martha Stoddard Holmes, on “Working (with) the rhetoric of affliction: autobiographical narratives of Victorians with physical disabilities”; Hannah Joyner, on “Signs of resistance: deaf perspectives on linguistic conflict in a nineteenth century Southern family”), others to the personal accounts that link experience with discursive concerns (Miriamne Ara Krummel, “Am I MS?”; Deshae E Lott, “Going to class with (going to clash with?) the disabled person: educators, students, and their spoken and unspoken negotiations”) or that examine the genre of disability memoir (G Thomas Couser; “Conflicting paradigms: the rhetorics of disability memoir”).  I was most drawn to the unpacking of rhetorical modes in particular contexts (Ellen L Barton, “Textual practices of erasure: representations of disability and the founding of the United Way”; Brenda Jo Brueggemann, “Deafness, literacy, rhetoric: legacies of language and communication”).

While I would argue that most disciplines would benefit from a greater understanding of disability, there are two aspects of disability studies that are particularly relevant to the psychologically inclined.  One, of course, is the place of mental health in disability rhetoric. Catherine Prendergast’s chapter “On the rhetorics of mental disability,” touches on this.  (The title incidentally raises one of the issues that is not considered by the predominantly American, predominantly geisteswissenschaftliche authorship of this collection: that different countries, cultures and readerships have different ‘rules’ about how to talk about disability.  I flinched a bit at seeing schizophrenia described as a mental disability rather than a mental illness here.)  Although most of the chapter is about the truth claims of people with schizophrenia, their families, and the adherents and critics of DSM-IV, Prendergast also usefully indicates one of the current tensions between the worlds of physical disability and mental health. She finds herself in a quandary, she says, because “the literature on disability would seem a natural place to turn to find [language with which to understand mental illness], yet it seems that disability studies, with its emphasis on the body and not the mind, creates fissures through which attention the mentally disabled easily falls.  One might ask if there are any discourses in which people with severe mental illness might comfortably reside.” (p. 46) I suspect that disability studies’ emphasis on the body may not be the whole story: another reason might be the differential attribution of responsibility and blame in physical and mental conditions, the different moral worlds, if you like, that physical disability and mental illness occupy.   Many disabled people have found a social constructionist model of ‘the disabling society’ more helpful to understanding disability and guiding political agency, than the medical model, which sees disability as straightforwardly a pathology located in an unfortunate individual.  If nothing else, the social model shifts the stigma of disability away from the individual and his or her deviance. But for those who have experienced conditions like depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders and so on, the medical model (and increasingly that is equivalent to the genetic model) has been a liberation.  Where mental illness once carried the stigma of defective personality or moral calibre, responsibility can now be dumped in the more neutral explanatory territory of disorderly neurotransmitters or aberrant genes.

The second psychological interest is in understanding the mental mechanisms brought into play, at individual and collective levels, to deal with human vulnerability.  Disability is generally counted as one of the many nasty ways the body has of letting us down, and most of the time we’d really rather not think about it.  We so much don’t want to think about it, at least in terms of its possible relevance to our own lives, that ironically we spend an inordinate amount of effort constructing ways of keeping the whole idea manageable. Two examples given in this collection are the role of disabled people in fairy tales (Beth Franks, “Gutting the golden goose: disability in Grimms’ fairy tales”, in which she found that disability was present as a theme in an extraordinarily high proportion – nearly half – of the 85 tales she examined), or by generating rhetorical strategies that make sure AIDS is something those other people get (Emily F Nye, “The rhetoric of AIDS: a new taxonomy”). One of Franks’ most striking points is that, after having given a presentation to her students in which she emphasised that disability in fairy tales “was primarily a feature of characters who played positive roles and that it was used as a punishment in only one tale”, what three quarters of them actually remembered was that disability was a marker for negative characters.  In other words, “we remember messages that conform to our expectations and dismiss evidence to the contrary” – but this still leaves unanswered the question of why the expectation that it’s the bad guys who are disabled, should be so strong.  Something else is going on here in the relationship between normal and abnormal that reaches beyond embarrassment, unfamiliarity or resentment at paying taxes to support disabled people, and my feeling is it would repay deeper investigation.

An underlying (unanswered, and possibly unanswerable) question running through this book is, where do we draw the line between disability and something else? As Nye says in her chapter, “Perhaps it is a stretch to compare AIDS with a more ‘conventional’ disability, but I argue that people with AIDS undergo a similar perception of being disabled – they live with a physical and emotional stigma because of their ‘impairment.” (p.229) The same query can be raised about mental illness, or indeed about deafness, bearing in mind that some members of the Deaf community would be adamant that hearing impairment is not a disability. I found it revealing that deafness is disproportionately represented in this collection.  It is an obvious disability to turn to in the context of rhetoric, because of the convoluted connections between deafness and language, and the historical struggle between signers and oralists. But although the significance of communication styles to D/deaf identities is clear, I wonder whether the very fact that speech and language are the key issues in deafness, makes it much too comfortable an example to pick. 

And I think this reveals the reason why, in the end, I found the book less interesting than I’d hoped.  Although its title is “Embodied rhetorics”, most of the authors are actually concerned with rhetoric about (variant) embodiment.  They look at the nondisabled majority representing disability to themselves, from the outside, and find it inadequate. As Ellen L Barton notes in her chapter on changing advertising images of disability, even today’s apparently less patronising ‘supercrip’ representations of disabled individuals “ultimately erase the complex experience of living with a disability in American [or any other] society.” But although interesting it is not exactly a new area. (Indeed many of the chapters could have been in any book on disability that was critical of the hardline medical model, and in one or two cases the references to rhetoric looked suspiciously as if they had been put there to suit the title.) What would have been more innovative – but much harder to do – is to consider how disability affects rhetoric from the inside: how disabled people think, talk and write about it, and whether variant embodiment produces a distinctively different rhetoric.

But I realise I’m in danger of committing the cardinal sin of book reviewers, and criticising it for not being the book I want it to be, rather than whether or not it achieved its stated aim.  The editors write that “Transforming disability will require transforming economic, social, ethical, and educational practices, reimagining social spaces, and rethinking ordinary habits...Our own experience has taught us that difference can produce delight and curiosity, as well as fear and isolation.  Difference teaches us to grow, to become other than ourselves, to push beyond old identities and ways of thinking.” (p.18)  Supplemented by other, standard works on the social model of disability – especially from the British school of disability studies, which tends to emphasise historical materialism over discourse -- this book will be of use to anyone interested in how we use language both to construct and to reflect our realities, and who realises that moving forward into new ways of thinking requires a clear understanding of where we are going wrong with the old. 


© 2003 Jackie Scully


Jackie Scully lives and teaches in Switzerland.  She is author of Quaker Approaches to Moral Issues in Genetics (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002).