Rehabilitating Analogy
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Rehabilitating Analogy

In an essay published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, Oliver Wendell Holmes argues that advances in the manufacturing of prostheses should inspire optimism about national life after the Civil War. An artificial limb in motion, he notes, can no longer be distinguished from the human leg. What was once clanking evidence of injury or lack now promises to speed the work of individual and collective recovery. Initially, Holmes's enthusiasm for the Palmer leg seems meant to reassure an anxious public and to comfort readers whose wounded loved ones would soon be returning from the battlefields [End Page 431] by the thousands. And yet his confident analogy pivots even more emphatically on the prospect of black emancipation. Giving poetic license free reign, Holmes goes on to describe legs as the "slaves in the republic of the body" and prostheses as the "Garrison of these oppressed members."1 Shifting from melancholic consolation to jubilant declaration, he equates freedom with rehabilitation into mobility and imagines a future in which race is no longer a barrier to progress. Like disability, Holmes suggests, race can be overcome.

Holmes's strained conceit gives pause, and not only because disability studies has taught us to be wary of the rhetoric of "overcoming." Holmes's essay also points up what Ellen Samuels has called "the vexed issue of analogy" in cultural critique more generally.2 Scholars in disability, critical race, and gender and sexuality studies have variously argued that analogies between different social identities, while at times crucial, risk a range of distortions and elisions. For Janet Jakobsen, the problem lies in the formal structure of analogy itself, which brings two terms into a relation of equivalence but requires that the first be less known in some respect than the second. To suggest that "queers are like Jews," Jakobsen notes, implies that anti-Semitism needs less explication than heterosexism. Our understanding of the first term (queers) changes in light of what we already know and presume to be unchanging about the second (Jews).3 The turn to intersectionality, of course, sought to sidestep this imbalance by replacing the equivalence of analogy with systemic relations and structural causality. In intersectional analyses, race and disability are not similar; they are mutually constructed and unevenly imbricated social categories produced by capital, Enlightenment rationality, or (neo)liberal systems of classification and management. Groundbreaking contributions by Lennard Davis on "normalcy" and by Douglas Baynton on immigration and eugenics set the pace here for disability studies, establishing the field as both interdisciplinary and intersectional from its earliest beginnings.4

It has thus become a commonplace, in disability studies as in literary and cultural analysis more broadly, to prioritize intersection over analogy. And yet I wonder whether analogy might nonetheless prove useful to Americanist scholars of race and disability—not as a mode of identitarian argument but as a method of formalist inquiry. After all, when one claims that "race is like disability" or that "disability is like race" emphasis need not fall on the verb is. If we instead stress the descriptor like, our focus shifts from social identity to the discursive forms that [End Page 432] shape social identity. We begin to compare the cultural grammars of race and disability, the syntactical patterns and structural contours by which each is made socially legible, whether in literature, law, medicine, economics, or public policy. Perhaps more properly analog(ic), what I have in mind is a practice of reading that listens for the hiss and crackle of resemblance rather than the digital on/off, either/or of sameness. Not a tendentious relation of equivalence, in other words, analogy as method attunes us to the discursive noisiness of race and disability and to the formal exchanges and reciprocities that echo across ostensibly discrete cultural registers and social histories. As such, analogy gestures beyond the ineluctability of social construction and what Susan Schweik calls the "certainty of pathos and prosthesis" in literary studies of disability. So understood, analogy might help us to engage "what has been unassimilable, what has been confounding, what has been messy, what has been disabling, in disability" and its discursive relations to race.5

In my...