Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body
The ground-breaking Corporealities series has become essential reading forscholars of disability and culture, and this latest volume lives up to the highstandard set by its predecessors. Michael Davidson’s Concerto for the Left Handis an exceptionally wide-ranging collection of essays on disability, culture, andaesthetics. The key concerns of the volume are illustrated by the two strikingimages Davidson uses to open the text: the cover photograph of the Austrianpianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War I, and the descriptionof a community swimming pool. For Davidson, the pool is a place where a widerange of people, with diverse bodies, come together; a place where “No one isdisabled. Everyone is disabled” (xiii). The pool indicates Davidson’s commitmentto issues of social justice, while acknowledging the variation inherent in‘disability.’ The depiction of Wittgenstein (and the volume’s title) signals theinterplay of disability and aesthetics which is at the heart of the book. Davidsonoffers detailed discussions of disability arts, and of disability representationwithin cultural forms, but also moves beyond these to consider whata disability perspective offers to conversations about aesthetics more generally.His discussion of the repertoire of music for one-handed pianists, for example,explores how such works might “resituate both music and disabled performer”(xvi). This book, then, will be useful to scholars at all points on the spectrum of approaches to disability and culture.
The first chapter considers changing discourses around haemophilia duringand after the 1980s AIDS pandemic, placing this in the context of ideas aboutthe ‘bleeder’ through history. In chapter 2, Davidson explores the links betweendisabled and queer bodies in film noir. Deaf poetry is the subject of the nexttwo chapters, which examine the role of sound and speech in Deaf (and deaf)performance and ASL poetry respectively. Chapter 5 continues the focus onpoetry with a discussion of the work of Larry Eigner. Davidson explores howconsideration of a poet’s corporeality (Eigner had cerebral palsy) can offer alternativeperspectives on his or her work. Chapter 6 analyses the work of blind [End Page 105] photographers and film-makers, while chapter 7 considers disability globally,focusing on film. The final chapter also takes a global perspective, examiningthe international trade in body parts, and its representation in a variety of literaryand filmic texts. These two chapters will be particularly useful for scholarsseeking to move beyond the primarily western focus of much humanities-basedwork on disability.
This type of brief summary inevitably slights the text described, but this isparticularly so for Concerto for the Left Hand. For example, chapter 6, one of theshorter chapters, opens with a brief discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses and modernistocularcentrism. Davidson then considers attempts to rethink the museumin relation to blindness, discusses performance art reflecting upon sight andocularcentrism, and examines two films, Derek Jarman’s film Blue and Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof. He then offers an in-depth discussion of the workof Slovenian photographer Evgen Bavcar, before finally returning to Jarman’swork. Other chapters have a similar or greater breadth of reference, bringingtogether a diverse range of topics and cultural forms. This might have resultedin a book that was disjointed, or one that, in attempting to speak to manyaudiences, pleases none. However, Davidson’s consistency of approach andability to develop productive connections means that these pitfalls are avoided,though there is a tendency to leap between topics and texts, particularly in thelater chapters. This is a book that demands close attention and, in some parts,multiple re-readings, but offers significant rewards to the attentive reader.
Who, then, is this book for? Despite a pleasingly clear and engaging writing style and largely jargon-free prose, this is not a book suitable for undergraduates, though certain excerpts—such as Davidson’s discussion of the Theresa Schiavocase or his reading of Million Dollar Baby—could be used as adjuncts to classdiscussion. Those teaching in the area of disability and culture will find muchhere to stimulate the imagination, as will scholars of disability and disability aesthetics.Taken as a whole, the book is an exemplary illustration of the possibilitiesopened up by a cultural approach to disability—and a disability influencedapproach to culture. In fact, the only slight reservation I have in recommendingthis volume is that several chapters, or sections of them, have already appeared(albeit sometimes in different forms) in works researchers in this area are alreadylikely to own: the second edition of Lennard J. Davis’s The Disability Studies Reader, Sharon L. Snyder et al.’s Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, andthe PMLA special section on ‘Disability Studies and the University’, amongstothers. Even so, this volume will be a valuable addition to the library of anyscholar working on disability and culture, inspiring the reader to make productive connections across time periods, disciplines, nations, and cultural forms. [End Page 106]
Ria Cheyne is a sessional lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University(email@example.com). Her main research interests are popular and genrefiction, particularly science fiction, and representations of disability in literature. She haspublished articles in Science Fiction Studies and Extrapolation, and teaches topics includingcyberculture, science fiction, and the intersections of disability, technology, and identity.She is currently working on a monograph on genre conventions and disability representationin contemporary popular fiction.