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Reviewed by:
  • Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge
  • Olivia Whitmer
Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. By Petra Kuppers. New York: Routledge, 2004; pp. 134. $45.65 paper.

Petra Kuppers presents a dense theoretical analysis of cultural perspectives on disability and artistic practice. Throughout the text Kuppers makes apparent the constructed nature of disability as an identity marker and how disabled performers choose to reclaim or challenge stereotypes through their work. In her introduction, Kuppers provides clear definitions of the key terms in her study in order to delineate her work from the variety of contested and historical meanings associated with performance as it relates to conceptions of disability. Similar to much of the current literature written by disability scholars, Disability and Performance uses Foucaultian principles in combination with feminist theory and phenomenological perspectives about the body / experience to trouble the idea of normality, thereby redefining disabled subjectivity as a position of potential power.

The term "disability," as Kuppers frames it, is not easily pinned down. Is it a thing that happens to someone? Is it a culture? Or is it a way of being in the world? Rather than view disability as "being fixed: in time, in a condition, by specific symptoms" (8–9), Kuppers suggests that performance has the capacity to create meaningful interventions in the flow of time and space. To be seen as actively becoming, rather than as a stagnant metaphor for illness or brokenness, is to make visible the instability of the experience of the body and selfhood regardless of a performer's ability.

The book offers six chapters and an epilogue that use a variety of examples (some historical but most contemporary) in conjunction with a number of theoretical writings, in order to analyze how disability might be read based on the representation of the body in space. In chapter one, Kuppers presents a model for reading difference through the lens of Foucault's panopticon and a variety of other theoretical sources aligned with the social gaze on disability. She uses the character of Augustus from the television series Oz and a particularly rich photograph of photographer Jo Spence titled Exiled as the examples to elucidate her model. The second chapter offers a discussion of the oppressive nature of the historical beginnings of disability performance: sideshows and medical theatres. UK performance artist Mat Fraser, who modeled his onstage persona Sealboy on sideshow performer Stanley Berent (the original Sealo the Sealboy), acts as the centerpiece for Kuppers's discussion of the static image of the freak.

The next two chapters discuss the intersection of movement-based presentations of disability with two theatrical techniques: Brechtian alienation strategies and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. In a discussion of mixed-ability modern dance, Kuppers states, "to be disabled thus means to be profoundly excluded from self-representation. It means that new strategies need to be found to perform one's own image" (54). Not all people with physical impairments identify as disabled. Calling on Gramsci's concept of "hailing," Kuppers explains that one must be called disabled and respond according to that name in order to be a disabled subject. The alienation effect makes it possible for the stability of the disabled image as the tragic other to be questioned, making visible the constructed nature of all images. Kuppers discusses the work of CandoCo, Bilderwerfer, Joint Forces Dance Company, and Bill Shannon to explicate how disabled dancers might denaturalize disability in a productive way.

Chapters five and six work through disability as an interruptive force in narrative-based works and explore the use of the Internet to create new forms of embodiment. Poststructuralism and phenomenology are the driving forces behind these two chapters. From the esoteric world of cyberspace, Kuppers returns to material bodies in a discussion of community-based performance in her epilogue:

For the performer, the one who put herself forward as object to be witnessed, this conception of our moving in time would mean that her being becomes the point at which the 'given' (social reality) transforms into 'becoming' (the opening toward potential change).


This is not to say that the categories of normality and abnormality or difference should be erased. It...


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pp. 378-379
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