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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 334-338

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Staring Back:
Self-Representations of Disabled Performance Artists

Rosemarie Garland Thomson

A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation

The meaning of the body, thus the meaning of the self, emerges through social relations. 1 We learn who we are by the responses we elicit from others. In social relations, disabled bodies prompt the question, "What happened to you?" The disabled body demands a narrative, requires an apologia that accounts for its difference from unexceptional bodies. In this sense, disability identity is constituted by the story of why my body is different from your body. Disability autobiography is a recently burgeoning form of textual self-representation that centers on answering the urgent question "What happened to you?" through narrative. 2 All forms of self-representation are inherently relational in that they presume that the representation one creates will be apprehended by someone else.

Disability performance art is a genre of self-representation, a form of autobiography, that merges the visual with the narrative. As a fusion of both seeing and telling, disability performance art foregrounds the body as an object both to be viewed and to be explained. The disabled body is not only the medium but the content of performance. The disabled body on view is the performance. Rather than only telling the required disability story, then, disability performance acts out that story. In addition to always addressing the question of "What happened to you?" that textual autobiography answers, disability performance at the same time reenacts the primal scene of disability in which the normative viewer encounters the disabled body and demands an explanation. Simply the presence of the visibly disabled performer on stage engenders this dynamic between the performer and her audience. [End Page 334]

By presenting her body before a viewer, the visibly disabled performance artist generates the dynamic of staring, the arrested attentiveness that registers difference on the part of the viewer. In the social context of an ablist society, the disabled body summons the stare, and the stare mandates the story. The stare, in other words, evokes the question, "What happened to you?" This stare-and-tell ritual constitutes disability identity in the social realm. This exchange between starer and object registers both the anonymity that confers agency on the starer and the singularity that stigmatizes the one who is stared at. Staring is thus the ritual social enactment of exclusion from an imagined community of the fully human. This relational model suggests that disability is not simply a natural state of bodily inferiority and inadequacy. Rather, disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender. 3

Why would a person with a visible disability, someone with a body that disrupts the expectations of the complacently normal, deliberately invite the stare-and-tell dynamic that constitutes her otherness? A survey of disability performance art suggests that such performances are platforms for profoundly liberating assertions and representations of the self in which the artist controls the terms of the encounter. 4 In addition to allowing individual expression, this artistic engagement with self-display also provides a medium for positive identity politics and an opportunity to protest cultural images of disabled people. Disabled performance artists manipulate the stare-and-tell dynamic. I would argue, in fact, that disability performance art is a genre of autobiography particularly appropriate to representing the social experience of disability precisely because it allows for creating both visual and narrative self-representations simultaneously and because it traffics in the two realms of representation fundamental to the social construction of disability identity.

One of the most compelling examples of the liberatory potential of disability performance is Mary Duffy, an Irishwoman who appears extensively before U.S. viewers. Duffy, who is armless, with a delicate hand attached directly to one shoulder, always presents herself nude in performances. A "severely disabled" woman by the standards of what disability historian Paul Longmore calls with great irony the "severely able-bodied," Duffy boldly exposes the body that has always been hidden...