Report-back from “Reorienting Disability” Seminar at NCS 2014 (#ncs14 #7d)

Disability and labor, disability and political representation, disability and animals. Disability and textuality, and collectivity, and resurrection, and naming. Disability and allegory, genre, sex, scholarly evidence, ethics, rhetoric, form. Disability today and in the medieval past. These were some of the connections that we tested, contested, and otherwise explored at last month’s “Reorienting Disability” seminar at the NCS Congress in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Because the two-hour seminar format was a new one for the conference, Jonathan Hsy and I, the session organizers, weren’t sure what to expect. So, it was a thrill to have an energetic crowd of about forty people filling the classroom at the University of Iceland on the rainy Friday morning. During the first hour, this crowd played the part of audience, hearing introductory remarks from Jonathan and myself and then listening to five smart, engaging presentations from the seminar participants (described briefly below). The speakers concluded their respective remarks with a question for discussion, and in the second hour, the audience became collaborators in the project of reorienting the study of medieval disability. We also benefited from lively documentation on twitter. See, for instance, this selection of tweets curated by M Bychowski.

The seminar’s original call for participants was as follows:

Since the category of “disability” was not in circulation in the Middle Ages, what exactly does a medievalist disability studies investigate? The scholarship of the last decade suggests that such research begins with acts of translation: by moving between disability in the present and its analogues and precursors in the past; by crossing from disability’s recent contexts to distinctly medieval configurations of care, sensory experience, constructed environments, physical impairment, and notions of embodied difference; and by marking both the similitudes and the disjunctions between, say, blindness then and blindness now, between literal blindness and spiritual, between blindness as a narrative device and as a lived experience. Building on insightful recent work, this seminar brings together participants engaged in “re-orienting” the study of disability in the Middle Ages. What questions and methodologies, we ask, promise to open up new lines of theoretical, historical, or literary-critical inquiry? How do disability approaches (re)constitute and (re)configure social relations and modes of analysis?

The seminar speakers addressed these queries with precision and originality. They also placed their remarks within the broader conversations of medieval studies and disability studies. Read their abstracts here, and see the seminar’s archive of recommended readings here, to find out more about the thinking that went into our discussion in Iceland.

The seminar’s first speaker was Leah Pope, a PhD student in medieval English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leah outlined the concept of “spiritual prosthesis” to describe how aberrant bodies “enabled” medieval hagiography and the institutional Church more broadly. Leah drew attention to martyrdom’s combination of disability and superability in saintly bodies. Playing on David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s now familiar idea of “narrative prosthesis,” she suggested how medieval disability studies might develop tools to analyze not just fiction and literature, but the various genres of lived experience that medieval Christianity helped to organize.

Haylie Swenson spoke next, addressing issues at the intersection of disability studies and critical animal studies. Haylie, a PhD student in English at George Washington University, illustrated how advocacy for disability rights has tended to sharpen the distinction between humans and animals. Yet the limitations of this distinction emerge whenever it is defined: it tends to leave out certain kinds of disabled lives as well as animal lives. Haylie cited disability-studies scholarship concerning nonlinguistic rhetorics (by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson) as a pivot to move to John Gower’s Vox Clamantis and the poem’s bestial portrayal of rebellious peasants. Haylie drew out new implications from Gower’s description in light of disability, animality, labor, class conflict, and allegory.

John Sexton, associate professor of English at Bridgewater State University, then turned our attention to how contextually specific were the meanings and values attached to bodily difference in the Middle Ages. His corpus of evidence was rich and suggestive: the record of nicknames in the Anglo-Scandinavian world. These names mediated between identity and embodiment and between individual and collective judgment. In a number of brief case-studies, John showed that bodily form, nickname, and social identity implicated one another but not in a straightforward manner. Context mattered. The historical specificity of medieval disability, John suggested, has a contribution to make to modern disability studies. The Middle Ages reveals the historical contingency of concepts in use in disability studies.

Brantley Bryant, associate professor in the English Department at Sonoma State University, focused on the fifteenth-century Middle English poem Mum and the Sothsegger. What are the implications, Brantley asked, of considering the sothsegger, or political “truth-teller,” to be a disabled figure? The poem shows the character unable and incapable of keeping his disruptive judgments to himself. The project of fixing, or healing, the soothsayer and the project of fixing, or healing, the body politic together raise questions of political representation: who gets to be part of the common voice? Brantley’s remarks reflected on political poetry, allegorical figuration, and the late-medieval resources for imagining collectivity.

M Bychowski was the final speaker in the seminar. M played upon the double meaning of the Middle English word “mad” to discuss the fifteenth-century English laywoman and visionary Margery Kempe. “Mad” had the senses of the Modern English words “mad” and “made.” Margery plays a part within the long genealogy of madness, hysteria, mental disability, and so-called sexual deviance. M drew attention to the cross-temporal reach of this genealogy by sounding a rhetorical echo between Margery and a condemned twentieth-century woman. Margery, however, can also be thought of as someone “made” – made by God as a fallen but beloved “creature” and also made through others’ interpretations and desires.

I cannot do justice to the hour of discussion that followed these excellent presentations. However, several themes stand out in my memory.

  • LABOR: medieval definitions of disability in relation to one’s inability to work; the erasure of certain persons’ labor-value; the social, cultural, and religious “work” performed by exceptional bodies in the Middle Ages
  • TEXTUALITY & LANGUAGE: If our sources are textual, how does this influence the evidence-base for medieval disability? Are there alternative rhetorics, apart from language? Is rhetorical training, or writing, already a prosthesis? What sources and scholarly tactics might supplement textual ones?
  • RELIGION: works of mercy and the medieval ethics of care; the universality of bodily imperfection, theologically assumed rather than exceptional; eschatology and teleology of the body, including eventual resurrection; ecstasy of martyrdom as a way of thinking the pleasures of disability?
  • POLITICS: relation between body politic and disabled bodies; social meaning and effects of disabled personifications; natural law; collective judgment; being “incorporated’ and regularized in common representation; embodied individuals vis-à-vis groups
  • MIDDLE AGES AND TODAY: How do we understand the study of medieval disability in relation to current conversations and debates?

I was moderating the session and doing so with the aim of inclusion – that is, giving lots of different speakers the floor and getting as many ideas as possible in the mix. Such an aim sometimes has the effect of scattering the flow of discourse: more people speak, but they speak in different directions. At one point, I nervously interrupted a disagreement between Eileen Joy and John Sexton, about just how different the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century are from one another. Happily, we returned to the question toward the end of the session – and the difficult but important connection between past and present emerged as the most persistent concern of the seminar. Eileen Joy articulated the question that, we hope, will receive a range of thoughtful answers in emerging scholarship on sickness, impairment, and bodily difference in the Middle Ages: what do we want the interdisciplinary study of medieval disability to contribute to how we grapple with disability in the present?

— Julie Orlemanski

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Announcement: Details for “Re-Orienting Disability” Seminar at NCS

The New Chaucer Society Congress in Reykjavík is approaching! Here are details for the upcoming seminar.

NCS 2014 Seminar 7D: Re-orienting Disability

Friday, 18 July 11:00-1:00 (L102)

Here are recommended readings for the NCS Seminar “Re-orienting Disability.” These readings are published essays and book chapters gathered by the seminar’s organizers and seminar participants. We hope that NCS attendees will use these readings to help prepare for the session or consult them afterwards. We also hope that NCS members who are unable to attend the conference can participate “virtually” by accessing these readings, reading participants’ abstracts, and interacting with the seminar blog.

Hard copies of participant abstracts and bibliography of recommended readings will be available at the seminar. The seminar will begin with brief remarks by the organizers and participants, who will each pose a question (or more) that has arisen from the readings and participants’ position papers. We hope to open up exciting discussions among seminar participants and people in attendance!


Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University): jhsy at gwu dot edu
Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago): julieorlemanski at uchicago dot edu

Readings listed below can be accessed on the seminar blog:

Abstracts by participants are also on the seminar blog:

Recommended Readings:

Hobgood, Allison P., and David Houston Wood. “Ethical Staring: Disabling the English Renaissance.” Introduction to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Eds. Hobgood and Wood. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. 1-22. [suggested by Jonathan Hsy]

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities.” Rhetoric Review 22.2 (2003): 156-67. [suggested by Haylie Swenson]

Mitchell, David T. “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 15-30. [suggested by Leah Pope, University of Wisconsin-Madison]

Siewers, Alfred Kentigern, ed. Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics. Lanham, MD: Bucknell University Press, 2014. 91-106. [suggested by Haylie Swenson]

Singer, Julie. “Metaphor as Experimental Medicine.” In Julie Singer, Blindness and Therapy in Late Medieval French and Italian Poetry. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. 113-46. [suggested by Catherine Willitis, University of Pittsburgh]

Snyder, Sharon L., and David T. Mitchell. Introduction to Snyder and Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 3-36. [suggested by Josh Eyler, Rice University; although he is not attending NCS we include his abstract and suggested reading here as his contributions have been such an important part of our discussions]

St. Pierre, Joshua. “The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies.” In Literature, Speech Disorders, and Disability: Talking Normal. Ed. Chris Eagle. New York: Routledge, 2014. 9-23. [suggested by Brantley Bryant, Sonoma State University]

Teskey, Gordon. “Personification and Capture: Francesca da Rimini.” Chapter One in Teskey, Allegory and Violence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. 1-31. [suggested by Julie Orlemanski]

Wolfe, Cary. “Learning from Temple Grandin, or, Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject.” In Cary Wolfe, What is PosthumanismMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 127-44. ALSO IN Alfred Siewers, Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics. Lanham, MD: Bucknell University  Press, 2014. 91-106. [suggested by Haylie Swenson, George Washington University]

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Abstract: Attending to “Beasts Irrational” in Gower’s Vox Clamantis

Hi everyone! I sincerely apologize that this is so late, and I’m really looking forward to our discussions both here and in Iceland (!!!). Best, Haylie

In this paper I examine a point of tension between disability theory and critical animal studies, as well as how John Gower’s Vox Clamantis might provides an instructive meeting ground for these two fields. All too often, disability theorists and activists unintentionally set up binaries between human and animal life in their attempts to secure rights—specifically human rights—for people with disabilities. By thus excluding certain bodies from the realm of the valuable, such rhetoric reinforces the same flawed binaries it attempts to undo. And while Gower, too, intends to establish divisions between bodies, I argue that his text ultimately provides a useful counterpoint to this tendency. Gower’s allegorical Vox recounts the events of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt from the perspective of the targeted nobility, recasting the rebellious peasants as farm animals who have turned on their masters. Because they are not fully either human or animal, Gower’s peasants/animals cannot be mobilized to establish clear binaries between human and animal bodies. Rather, I argue that Gower’s rhetorical strategy opens up a space for alternative understandings of embodiment. Through his careful attention to the trials of animal life, Gower unintentionally allows his animal/humans to escape the meaning he imposes on them. In these passages, and in spite of himself, I see Gower performing a version of what Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson calls “mediated rhetoricity,” a kind of facilitated communication that attends to a non-normate body’s “sounds, habits, moods, gestures, likes, and dislikes” (161). Even as he strives to deny peasants a voice by putting them into animal forms, Gower instead has shown us a vision of remarkable potential, of what can happen when we attend to the experiences not of humans or nonhumans or quasi-humans, not of lingual or prelingual or extralingual beings, but of living, uniquely embodied creatures divorced from category.

Recommended Reading

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities.” Rhetoric Review 22. 2 (2003): 156-67.

EDIT 6/9/14: While Lewiecki-Wilson’s article is a touchstone for my essay, and I do recommend it, if you only have time to read one thing from me I’d suggest Cary Wolfe’s “Learning from Temple Grandin, or Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject” instead. It’s included (in the same version, as far as I can tell) as a pdf here and as a chapter in these two books:

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 127-44

Siewers, Alfred Kentigern, ed. Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics. Lanham, MD: Bucknell University Press, 2014. 91-106.

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Abstract: Naming Difference in Medieval Disability Studies

Hi, everyone! My apologies for being a bit late to the party. I’m very much looking forward to being a part of this ongoing discussion. Here’s my abstract:

Medieval disability studies grapples with the complexities of acculturated meaning that marks all identity-formation theory, but it must do so within the limitations of historicist inquiry. A key issue is the place of naming in identifying difference and, more importantly, imbuing difference with meaning. The relative malleability of name-formation in medieval cultures allowed identity to be negotiated through naming—nicknames, hypocorisms, patronymics, and other agnomina combined with name substitutions to create evolving evaluations of an individual’s societal worth. The widely-attested use of name-formation as a means of accounting for difference offers tremendous (and nearly unstudied) insight into contemporary constructions of “disability” as a measure of an individual’s worth, essence, and, yes, character. Saga narratives, for example, signal communal moral indices through figural representations of disability and disfigurement, insisting on an interpretive framework that must be endlessly redeployed in response to each figure and each marker of difference. Nicknaming, in this context, signals communal judgment passed by the correct understanding of individual, rather than typological, difference. Medieval texts thus regularly invert the assertion that, “in stories about characters with disabilities, an underlying issue is always whether the disability is the foundation of character itself”[1] by accessing character as a means to understand disability.

Because of the relative plasticity of naming practices in the period under examination, medieval disability studies has only limited commonalities with modern and post-modern critical models such as those which distinguish “impairment” from “disability.” Its focus must instead be toward the nuances of socially-inscribed meaning in which difference is understood through societal judgment of the differentiated figure’s character rather than forming the foundation of that character. I hope to invite conversation on this topic by making some preliminary observations about Anglo-Scandinavian representations of disfigurement and disability through name-formation and presenting some initial thoughts in this direction by presenting specific cases of naming that inscribe difference in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature.

[1] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 6.

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Abstract: Wild Words, Disability and Truth-Telling in Late Medieval England

Hello all. I’m very glad to be working with you. Here’s my (slightly edited for the blog) abstract:

I want to explore how late-medieval British high politics might provide new insights for a medieval disability studies, even though the topic might not at first seem suited to such an approach. Re-orienting approaches to late-medieval political discourse, my contribution will suggest that discussions of  “disability” can be found in the period’s urgent debates about political representation, dissenting speech, identity, and community.  As its central example, I take a new look at the figure of the political “truth-teller.”

Medieval texts explore questions of proper political speech through the character of the “truth-teller,” an individual daring enough to give sound advice to hot-headed monarchs. Insights from ethics, political theory, and literary history have been applied to the truth-teller by scholars, but this figure also invites a reading informed by disability studies, especially in the oddly cantankerous early-fifteenth century alliterative poem Mum and the Sothsegger (or “Mum [Hush, Say-nothing] and the Truth-teller”; “soothsayer” here having no prophetic connotations).  

As its editorial title suggests, Mum and the Sothsegger explores the difference between political truth-telling, exemplified by the figure of the Sothsegger, and the self-serving silence of the bad counselor Mum, a medieval “yes man.” The poem’s depiction of truth-telling resonates in surprising ways with modern discourses of disability. The “sothsegger” of this witty and learned text is no confidently utopian authority,  but rather a non-normative figure who spouts “wild words” that lead to punishment and marginalization (l. 251). Not possessing the power to strategically manipulate speech, this poem’s truth-teller is in fact not able to tell a lie, not gifted with a supposedly normal facility with language. The truth-teller “can not speke in termes ne in tyme nother, / But bablith fourth bustusely as a barn un-ylerid” (l. 49-50). The truth-teller’s tic-like, unregulated speech and his disregard for hierarchy and social cues both resemble 21st-century stereotypes of the “unusual” speech of neurodiverse individuals. The poem’s depiction is especially fascinating since it resists sublimation into allegory and abstraction; instead, the text focuses on the social, physical, and institutional consequences of the truth-teller’s “wild” behavior.

Truth-telling in Mum, I want to suggest, provides us with an example of a medieval “disability” that disrupts and refigures categories of body and voice, individual and polity, center and margin. In this seminar, I’d be interested in exploring the following questions: What is at stake in the poem’s presentation of truth-telling as simultaneously an uncontrollable departure from speech norms but also a morally exalted position, and how does this  paradox resemble the conflicting discourses of modern disability? How do notions of lack and distinctiveness mark both our own discourses of disability and late medieval discussions of truth-tellers? What connections might be made between the truth-teller of the poem and our society’s conceptions of speech disorders (and, of course, what are the uses, and limits, of such analogies)?  I hope that these questions might help us generate some bigger ideas on how disability studies might help explode and expand our understanding of the seemingly familiar historical narratives of late-medieval affinity politics, counsel, parliament, and kingship, and how the texts of medieval politics can help inform a medieval disability studies.

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Starting the Conversation: Schizophrenia and Angels (Disability, Deafness, Fake Mandela Signer)

Hi everyone! Hope you are all doing well. Now that we have a critical mass of abstracts posted, I wanted to try and jump start our conversations using a contemporary story as the starting point. Julie and I have been having some discussions about this story over Facebook since this story first “broke” and we thought it might be good to bring this conversation to the blog–so I’m doing that here with some direct reference to issues in some of your abstracts (as well as some of the recommendations for further reading that we’ve been gathering). FYI, I’ve also cross-posted a version of the prompt (without reference to your abstracts) on “In the Middle” in case you want to see how the conversation unfolds there. – Jonathan

In this posting, I’d like to respond to an increasingly complex story about the “fake sign language interpreter” at a highly publicized memorial for Nelson Mandela. As reported by the Associated Press:

[Thamsanqa] Jantjie told the AP last week he has schizophrenia and hallucinated, seeing angels while gesturing incoherently just 3 feet away from President Barack Obama and other world leaders during the Tuesday ceremony at a Soweto stadium. Signing experts said his arm and hand movements were mere gibberish. (16 Dec 2013)

Deaf communities in South Africa and worldwide have justifiably perceived Jantje’s faux-signing as an insult or affront (see HERE and HERE for instance), but Slavoj Žižek claims in his remarks in the Guardian (read the whole piece HERE) that hearing people can find the mere bodily presence of the sign interpreter at an event like this in self-congratulatory terms, regardless of whether the signing is meaningful or not:

Now we can see why Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good. (Guardian, 12 Dec 2013)

While this overstated critique—which seems to reflect more upon Žižek’s view of the government than the issue at hand— is perceptive in some ways, this discourse (however it is intended) still has the effect of speaking for a “‘public’ or ‘us’ [that] does not seem to include the deaf or disabled,” Rick Godden has stated (in the Facebook discussion that precipitated this blog posting). Indeed, Žižek doesn’t use the term “disabled” in this piece, as if to avoid directly invoking or including them as such (he uses the terms “underprivileged and hindered” and later “marginalised and handicapped”). Žižek—in order to score irony-laden political points—rhetorically “[renders] deaf people unimaginable and unencounterable” (as Chris Piuma nicely pointed out). And the signifying force of the interpreter is reduced, as Julie stated (again, via Facebook conversation): “his interpretation dissolves the ‘signifier’ of deaf people to get to the ‘signified’ of ‘poor, black South Africans’ as explosive ‘collective political agent’ (i.e., the ‘aliens’).”

This story is complex and a wider entanglement of other sociopolitical issues remain to be explored where disability is concerned: what emerges here is that a story seemingly “about” one kind of disability perceptible via outer actions (deafness) is implicated in another: the much more difficult-to-discern external manifestations of schizophrenia and mental illness. I should state here that I align deafness and schizophrenia under the umbrella of “disability” here only provisionally. There are vigorous debates within the disability community about the implications of drawing varied kinds of physical impairment and mental illness into the same interpretive and political category. Does mental illness or a chronic condition qualify as disability? Are the deaf even disabled or a linguistic minority within a hearing majority?[i]

What interests me is how such misperceptions about the meaning of this “fake signing” arise. This is not about “hearing vs. deaf communities” per se but a dynamic relation between them: two simultaneous modes of perception and meaning-making that only sometimes overlap with one another. An interpreter—in order to be an interpreter—does not stand squarely in the world of the hearing or the world of the deaf; she or he must necessarily inhabit both worlds concurrently. Rather than embodied lingua franca, two worlds (is it just two?) encounter a disconcerting lingua incognita and register a sequence of alien signs in divergent ways. Deaf viewers perceive the gibberish as mockery; hearing people (at least those unaccustomed to sign language) see the “exotic” hand movements no differently than they see other signed languages—and project whatever misconceptions or fantasies they might have upon it.

So why am I writing about here on the “Reorienting Disability” blog? I am thinking about Žižek’s strange discourse of miracle and wonder that emerges halfway through the piece: “What lurked behind these concerns was the feeling that Thamsanqa Jantjie’s appearance was a kind of miracle—as if he had popped up from nowhere, or from another dimension of reality.” This sense of encountering alien embodiment as miracle makes me consider how wonder in contemporary disability studies and premodern culture operates as an ethically charged force. While Žižek is attempting some sort of social critique, I’m more sympathetic to criticism that more earnestly expresses its investment in the lives of people with disabilities or whose bodes otherwise read as unfathomable. In a foundational essay on ethical beholding, feminist and disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson shifts attention from the “starer” in any encounter to the “staree” who is perceived as “different” in her embodiment. Garland-Thomson observes that the “stareable body” can act not as a mere object (of wonder, marvel, or disgust) but as a transformative agent, a catalyst for meaningful social change.[ii]

This notion of an ethical beholding of an extraordinary body yielding transformative effects resonates so well with medieval hagiography and its host of angelic and otherworldly messengers. I’m thinking of Josh’s abstract about the poetics of mental disability (and why disability studies is to reticent to discuss it). Leah’s thoughts on narrative prosthesis and saints’ lives also comes to mind, as does M’s abstract on crip Christianity and how it is expressed. In interviews Jantje reports hallucinating and communicating with angels, and Žižek briefly amplifies the effects of these statements to apparently dismiss them and move on discuss other things. However perceptive his points might be (in general), I can’t help but feel that Žižek risks romanticizing lived schizophrenia—not to mention deafness—as a set of mysteriously unknowable experiences that ultimately serve no other purpose than to signify for “us” (the so-called “normative” majority). This still leads back to wonder: the question of what—or how—disability signifies.

[Ruth Evans posted this great response to this story on Facebook: Note that the guy purported to be having a “schizophrenic” episode, which Zizek does not follow up on (his purpose had nothing to do with Jantjie’s mental state), but there are interesting things to say about this. According to Darian Leader (What is Madness?), the paranoiac often presents themselves as “the sole interpreter” of a law or knowledge, but the schizophrenic wants to communicate that “there has been a change,”, so the choice of a meaningless sign language seems especially apposite: Jantjie was not interpreting a truth but registering change (his own; South Africa’s) and allowing himself, through this weird performance, to structure his world. To see this as an affront to deaf people is to assume that he was there as an official interpreter (was he?) and to ignore the need that schizophrenics have to make sense of their world.]

I realize this is more than an issue of linguistic misperception and this story’s entanglement with mental illness is very complex (various reports suggest he was institutionalized at some point and had other gigs as sign interpreter)—but these unexamined discourses of wonder in Žižek’s response strike me as requiring closer consideration.

I’ll end here with some thoughts on what this whole story might say for those of us interested in disability studies and/or scholarship on premodern culture and theory. I might venture to say that medievalists and others working on historically distant cultures try to cultivate a generous understanding of the perceived alterity of minds and experiences in the distant past. As Julie has stated in a great article on leper-kissing in postmedieval, putting premodern culture and contemporary theory in conversation enacts a complex “interface” between worldviews (see HERE), and Alison Hobgood and Houston Wood (in their intro to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England) urge a mode of scholarship in which premodern culture and contemporary disability studies “generously behold the other” (10) (see HERE). If we actually restore deafness and schizophrenia into this discussion perhaps a more ethically transformative understanding can emerge. This story serves as a reminder to be attentive to the communicative and transformative potential of all minds and embodied experiences—even if (or particularly if) they are perceived as alien.

This is a lot of stuff I’m throwing out here, I realize! I’ll be curious to find out how this posting might speak to some of the things you’ve all been thinking about in your abstracts. Look forward to seeing where this conversation takes us!

[i] For instance these varied perspectives in the Disability Studies Reader, 4th Edn, ed. Lennard Davis (Routledge 2013): Margaret Price on defining mental disability, Bradley Lewis on the “Mad Pride” movement, Catherine Prendergast on the “unexceptional schizophrenic,” and Susan Wendell on chronic illness.

[ii] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194.

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Crip Christianity

Crip Christianity
M Bychowski
George Washington University

“Jhesu havyng pety and compassyon of hys handwerke and hys creatur
turnyd helth into sekenesse, prosperyté into adversyté, worshep into
repref, and love into hatered. Thus alle this thyngys turnyng up so
down, this creatur whych many yerys had gon wyl and evyr ben unstable
was parfythly drawen and steryd to entren the wey of hy perfeccyon…”
(Kempe 42-3)

Rather than straightening, rationalizing or fixing either her body,
ministry or Book, Margery Kempe’s Christ appears to continually turns
the normate into the broken, the constant into the unstable, and
locates perfection in the broken, the poor and the marginalized.
Rather than drawing her to reasonable authorities, those who employ
walls and institutionalization, Christ invites Kempe to become further
broken like him, turning to those disabled bodies out in the cold and
on the side of the road. In this paper I seek to look at how writers
with disabilities, such as Margery Kempe, evidence that a medieval
orientation towards Christ compounded as well as affirmed their
critically “crip” relation to embodiment and society, disturbing and
proliferating rather than homogenizing forms. In the seminar I would
like to draw us into conversation about how Christians “cripped” their
theology, art and iconography, religious practices and communities at
the same time as they disoriented them; opening up to include thinkers
such as St Francis, Teresa de Cartagena, Chaucer’s Second Nun’s
Tale, and many more.

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