Re-engaging the body: Disability studies and the resistance to embodiment

  • Snyder S
  • Mitchell D
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: Public Culture 13.3 (2001) 367-389 [Figures] Disabled Romantic poet Lord Byron's last, unfinished play, The Deformed Transformed (1822), tells the story of Arnold, who endures social derision for his multiple disabilities. The social context of Arnold's oppression is the primary subject matter of the drama. Arnold's initial critiques of social intolerance quickly give way to his own sense of his disabled body as grotesque. Byron's hero opts for suicide in order to escape his torment. Just as Arnold is about to impale himself, a "dark" Stranger arrives with an offer: the exchange of his disabled body for the apparently ideal -- but actually flawed -- body of the Greek war hero, Achilles. Arnold jumps at the opportunity, even though he believes that he must barter away his soul in exchange; he is, after all, like Byron, a student of Goethe's Faust. After transforming the "deformed" Arnold's body into the shape of Achilles, the Stranger announces that he plans to accompany the protagonist while taking the form of his rejected body. The "deformed" body thus shadows the "ideal" body's pursuit of an unrestricted physical life. In this way, The Deformed Transformed illustrates the dependence of epistemological operations (and heroic traditions) on disabled bodies: the able body cannot solidify its own abilities in the absence of its binary Other. In the end, Arnold's acquisition of an "ideal" body gains him little more than an insufferable ego and an obliviousness to the existence of diverse bodily forms across human populations. We begin with Byron's The Deformed Transformed as an allegory for the efforts of U.S. disability studies first to disengage from, and then to re-engage with, disabled bodies. In the drama, rejection of the apparently visceral life of disability for the evidently social ideal of a "classical" and "able" body encapsulates the double bind that confronts those who inhabit disabled bodies: one must either endure the cultural slander heaped upon bodily difference or seek to evade the object of derision. Such erasures of disabled people have historically been achieved through such cultural "solutions" as institutionalization, isolation, genocide, cure, concealment, segregation, exile, quarantine, and prosthetic masking, among others. As a theatrical effort to destigmatize the disabled body, Byron's play -- much like research in disability studies over the past twenty years -- aims to debunk the fictions of desirability that invest the "able" body.

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  • disability
  • fiction

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  • Sharon L Snyder

  • David T Mitchell

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