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Narrative 15.1 (2007) 113-123

Shape Structures Story:
Fresh and Feisty Stories about Disability1
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

In her deeply wise meditation on the question of continuity in human identity, the medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum offers us the elegant concept that "shape carries story."2 Her inquiry arose from her own personal experience of observing her father's shift in identity over 10 years of living with progressive dementia. Bynum acknowledges three aspects of identity: individual personality, ascribed or achieved group affiliation, and spatio-temporal integrity, which is the sense of identity upon which she focuses. Her fundamental question is, "How can I be the same person I was a moment ago?" In other words, she asks how we can maintain a continuous sense of self as our bodies change over time. Being an historian, Bynum frames this issue as a historical one; being a literary critic, I am going to frame this question as a narrative one. That different framing leads me to adapt Bynum's phrase and refer to shape "structuring" rather than "carrying" story. Narrative is a way of constructing continuity over time; it is a coherent knitting of one moment to the next. Bynum's wisdom is to understand the narrative link between time and space, more precisely perhaps, between time and human materiality. A clunkier explication of this formulation is that the configuration and function of our human body determines our narrative identity, the sense of who we are to ourselves and others. In Bynum's words, "Story spreads out through time the behaviors or bodies—the shapes—a self has been or will be, each replacing the one before. Hence story has before and after, gain and loss. It goes somewhere….Moreover, shape or body is crucial, not incidental, [End Page 113] to story. It carries story; it makes story visible; in a sense it is story. Shape (or visible body) is in space what story is in time….Identity is finally shape carrying story." In a sense, I want to extend Bynum's claim by suggesting that shape not only carries story but also leads to certain structures for stories about the connection between disability and identity. Indeed, I would like to suggest that shape structures story is the informing principle of disability identity.

One of our most tenacious cultural fantasies is a belief in bodily stability, more precisely the belief that bodily transformation is predictable and tractable. Our cultural story of proper human development dares not admit to the vagaries, variations, and vulnerabilities that we think of as disability. This refusal to recognize the contingency of human bodies has its benefits and its liabilities, a point I have discussed at length elsewhere. One of its disadvantages is the social bias it creates toward people whose way of being and appearing in the world offer evidence against the myth of certainty and compliancy in regard to human bodies. Another way of talking about this larger cultural imagining is to say that we would prefer to believe that story is independent from shape, perhaps we would even prefer to go so far as to claim that story structures shape. Indeed, one of the fundamental propositions of what I call Cultural Disability Studies is that the modern impulse to standardize the body through medical technology enacts our conviction that story structures shape. Another way of saying this is that both our bodies and the stories we tell about them are shaped to conform to a standard model of human form and function that is called normal in medical-scientific discourses, average in consumer capitalism, and ordinary in colloquial parlance. The measure of all things human, normal is the central concept governing the status and value of people in late modernity. It is the abstract principle toward which we are all herded by a myriad of institutional and ideological forces. According to Ian Hacking, it is "the centre from which deviation departs" (164).3 Normalcy, as Lennard Davis tells us, is "enforced." It is the destination to which...


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