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  • Response to Section I:Dis-ability
  • Thomas W. Laqueur (bio)

These essays move from the particular to the cosmic with vertiginous speed. Tobin Siebers's essay is the most leisurely and, so I thought at first, least threatening; it begins by announcing its subject as passing and moves to an engagement with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on the epistemology of the closet—the ways in which the disability closet is, and is not, like that of homosexuality. Almost halfway through we are still more or less securely on well-trod academic ground: What are we to make, Siebers asks, of Joan Riviere's analysis of the intellectually competent woman who puts on a masquerade of feminine flirtation to gain acceptance among her male colleagues? Riviere interprets this behavior as the result of a psychopathology—sadism, rivalry, and desire for supremacy. Siebers, quite rightly, rejects this turn to medicine instead of to politics and finds it particularly offensive in light of the role medicine has played in subjecting women, queers, disabled people, and others. We seem to be in for an analysis of the politics of disability masquerade—of exaggerating, minimizing, displaying, or not displaying some mental or physical feature or some prosthesis associated with them. The narratives that he offers show, he says, how people "manage the stigma of social difference." Fair enough. "Manage" is a general way of including the overtly political along with less-structured negotiations.

But then comes a claim to be reckoned with: disability narratives are urgently important because "they posit a different experience that clashes with how social existence is usually constructed and recorded." They are the basis of identity politics and allow people with different disabilities to tell a story about their common cause. Now here are very big claims—about creating the general from the particular, about the possibility of transcendence—that one could quarrel with for some time.

The other papers move more quickly. In "Meditation, Disability, and Identity," Susan Squier proposes that the new identity shaped by [End Page 61] the encounter of disability and meditation can decenter Western medical practice from its exclusively positivist role. This seems a modest claim. One combatant in the struggle for disability civil rights whom Squier quotes argues that just as gay people "automatically understand that gender roles are mostly arbitrary constructions," so "disabled people . . . understand about the illusory nature of our attachment to the body." Another of her narrators seems less sanguine: "[G]reat bravery . . . [the] acceptance of fate, the splendid triumph of spirit over physical self—these were all put-up jobs." Here, the relationship between body and mind (for want of a better word) is up for grabs as urgently as it was in the theology of resurrection and eternal life which so absorbed theologians and poets. Donne worried his whole life about just how arbitrary his particular body was to what he hoped would be his resurrected self.

Finally, Sander Gilman's learned account of the putative relationship between fat and Jewishness over the ages and his reading of a novel with a thin protagonist and his fat friend—the Don Quixote buddy narrative—is situated in the effort to understand what counts as healthy and what as ill and provides an entrée into a "wide range of interlocking questions about the cultural construction of the body." It is even more about how we read the bodies around us to make sense of the social world; it is about a physiognomy writ large.

I say this by way of emphasizing the huge ambitions of disability studies and the consequent impossibility of my addressing the larger claims—or even the many smaller ones—of these three essays with the seriousness they deserve. Almost any paragraph demands pages. That being impossible under the circumstances, I will offer instead two short narratives with a message, representative anecdotes with a point if not an argument. My moral comes at the end and not at the beginning where Siebers places his.

Disability, Medicine, and the State

I was at a conference once in the Netherlands where one of my fellow speakers was a Dutch physician whose job it was to define ugliness for the purpose of...


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