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Fantasies of Identification

Disability, Gender, Race

Ellen Samuels

Publication Year: 2014

In the mid-nineteenth-century United States, as it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between bodies understood as black, white, or Indian; able-bodied or disabled; and male or female, intense efforts emerged to define these identities as biologically distinct and scientifically verifiable in a literally marked body. Combining literary analysis, legal history, and visual culture, Ellen Samuels traces the evolution of the “fantasy of identification”—the powerful belief that embodied social identities are fixed, verifiable, and visible through modern science. From birthmarks and fingerprints to blood quantum and DNA, she examines how this fantasy has circulated between cultural representations, law, science, and policy to become one of the most powerfully institutionalized ideologies of modern society.

Yet, as Samuels demonstrates, in every case, the fantasy distorts its claimed scientific basis, substituting subjective language for claimed objective fact.From its early emergence in discourses about disability fakery and fugitive slaves in the nineteenth century to its most recent manifestation in the question of sex testing at the 2012 Olympic Games, Fantasies of Identification explores the roots of modern understandings of bodily identity.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

A room of her own is a marvelous sanctuary for a writer, but even more necessary is the companionship and solidarity of other people. So many friends and colleagues have supported me through the many years of completing this project that no words I can write here can fully recognize...

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Introduction: The Crisis of Identification

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pp. 1-24

In the mid-nineteenth century a crisis began to emerge within modern nations regarding the identifiability and governability of the individual bodies making up their bodies politic. This crisis of identification was driven by a multiplicity of factors, including greater geographic and class...

Part I: Fantasies of Fakery

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1. Ellen Craft’s Masquerade

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pp. 27-49

The crisis of identification that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States was fundamentally driven by the anxieties of “a culture that worried that a full knowledge of a person’s racial origins could become obscured” (Otten 231). In the antebellum period these anxieties...

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2. Confidence in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 50-65

From the entanglements and potent implications of Ellen Craft’s masquerade, we now move to consideration of the disability con writ large, in its peculiarly prominent cultural emergence in the middle of the nineteenth century. Just four years after the Crafts’ escape, on July...

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3. The Disability Con Onscreen

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pp. 66-80

With the advent of the new medium of film, portrayals of the disability con in American and British film became swiftly popular, perhaps due to the suitability of the medium for dramatically “unmasking” the perpetrator. The wheelchair-user walking, the blind beggar reading a newspaper...

Part II: Fantasies of Marking

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4. The Trials of Salomé Müller

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pp. 83-97

The wistful jurist voices here the inadequacy of personal recognition in an increasingly diverse and urban British society, particularly in the colonial context.1 This problem was even greater in the United States, due to rapid immigration, geographic expansion, and the lack of a centralized...

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5. Of Fiction and Fingerprints

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pp. 98-118

In the introduction to this book, the case of Will West richly demonstrated the fantastical status of fingerprinting in modern culture, exposing its material effects as well as its mythical origins. In this chapter I argue that the power of fingerprinting to realize the fantasy of identification...

Part III: Fantasies of Measurement

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6. Proving Disability

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pp. 121-140

The overmastering fantasy of modern disability identification is that disability is a knowable, obvious, and unchanging category. Such a fantasy permeates all levels of discourse regarding disabled bodies and minds, even as it is repeatedly and routinely disproved by the actual realities of...

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7. Revising Blood Quantum

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pp. 141-160

Like the fantasies of marking discussed in part II, fantasies of measurement also rely on a merging of expert and lay assessment of bodies; however, even more than in the case of marking, identifications based on measurement produce vast bureaucracies and systems of biocertification...

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8. Realms of Biocertification

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pp. 161-184

We have seen how blood quantum constitutes a powerful historical and current fantasy of identification, as well as the resistant counter- and dis-identifications realized through artistic revisions of blood quantum discourse. Yet this discussion remains incomplete without a consideration...

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9. DNA and the Readable Self

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pp. 185-212

In her 1989 poem, “The Weakness,” Toi Derricotte describes being dragged out of a Saks department store by her grandmother as the eyes of a hostile white crowd bore into them, seeing “through / her clothes, under / her skin, all the way down / to the transparent / genes confessing...

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Conclusion: Future Identifications

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pp. 213-214

Fantasies of identification inevitably fail to accomplish their primary claim of neatly categorizing all bodies and identities. Yet, as we have seen, merely the insistent attempt to fulfill that claim has material and often devastating effects on lives and communities. The question we are left...


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pp. 215-236


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pp. 237-258


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pp. 259-264

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781479855049
E-ISBN-10: 1479855049
Print-ISBN-13: 9781479812981
Print-ISBN-10: 1479812986

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2014