- Introduction: Blood Bound
Blood is obviously an integral component of the human body, but it is also a complex bridge between the material fluid and its social and cultural meanings. Blood will out, so to speak, not just in moments of injury, but also in discussions of identity, race, nationality, and community. As both metaphor and material, blood is the most familiar and yet, as Umberto Eco suggests in the idea of being strangers to blood, the most alien of substances. Blood signifies in an extensive discursive web that extends from ancient proscriptions against circumcision to modern prohibitions against blood-mixing, from symbolism associated with the Holy Grail to contemporary debates about genomic citizenship. The tension between the two dimensions of sanguinity—physiological and socio-cultural—has been central to disability studies in its distinction between a medical and social definition of what it means to be disabled. Blood has not featured significantly in this conversation, but with this special issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies we hope to confront this complex relationship between a vital fluid and a fluid semiotic.
Why blood? Once noticed, blood seems to flow, trickle, and ooze everywhere, its presence filling works on history, theology, politics, medicine, social criticism, and creative texts. Before William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system in his 1660 De Motu Cordis, blood was usually understood according to Aristotelian and Galenic cosmologies as one of four bodily humors.1 As historical anthropologist Piero Camporesi points out, blood was to some extent an ordinary part of daily life. Its theological dimension aside, blood was an unchanged and stable part of nature until physicians, authors, [End Page 261] and the public at large identified its presumed transgression of the bodily envelope. Especially during the late nineteenth century, western physicians and social reformers increasingly interpreted blood as a potential threat to health, whether social or biological. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, and syphilis infected both the idealized personal body as well as the social body. In the mid-nineteenth century, blood was often seen as the carrier of inherited family traits such as “feeble-mindedness,” drunkenness, and sexual “inversion.” The rise of eugenics contributed to this impulse by focusing on the dangers of blood-mixing between disabled or deaf, non-Anglo, Jewish, and poor persons. The boundaries of blood were delineated in racist legal codices like the one-drop rule and blood quantum laws.2 In these contexts, blood and social ostracizing go hand in hand. Blood was no longer a corruptible matter, but itself a contagious pollutant on the way to a dysgenic future.
Currently, developments in genetic forensics, reproductive technologies, and gene screening have raised the specter of a revived eugenic imperative. Blood seems once again to be the ultimate predictor of aptitude and ability, indicating values outside the lab test. Parents may opt for abortions of unborn children whose blood indicates certain gene markers associated with physical, sensory, or cognitive disorders. Tensions have arisen between reproductive and disability rights over issues of abortion and genetic testing. A current Ohio Bill, HB 135, being pushed by anti-abortion advocates, would prohibit a doctor from performing an abortion if a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy to avoid having a child with Down syndrome. Disability Rights advocates have criticized the bill for its assumption that, as the bill’s advocates declare, “we all want to be born perfect” and for what that says about the non-traditional child.3
Disability studies has much to offer in bringing issues of accountability and ethics to bear on blood discourse. Those who take seriously the long-neglected relation between blood and disability are reconstructing this history even as they deconstruct the power relations embedded within our understanding of blood. For example, my co-editor Michael Davidson, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, writes of a “culture of blood” that functions through the tension between the bonds of “shared bodily fluids, tissues, and genetic codes” and the bonds of “family, racial, or even national characteristics” (38). Those bonds come into conflict at moments when blood transmission links disparate populations into a...