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NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002) 201-204

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Disability Discourse: Disability, Human Rights and Society edited by Mairian Corker and Sally French. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999, 209 pp., $85.00 hardcover, $30.95 paper.
Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000, 178 pp., $49.50 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Over the past several decades, women whose voices have historically been marginalized within the feminist movement have called attention to the need for feminist theory to acknowledge the ways in which constructions of gender are inflected by ideologies of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. As these women have pointed out, gender is simply one of what Susan Bordo has called multiple "axes of identity," and subjectivity is formulated within a matrix of intersecting axes along which power is distributed unequally (1990, 139).

Recognition of the interpenetration of these identity markers now underlies much of feminist identity politics. But feminist scholars have been slower to acknowledge an equally important axis of identity, that which involves constructions of disability and normalcy. Although the works under consideration here do not deal exclusively with women's issues, they do point to the need for feminists to consider ways in which our self-definitions as women are informed by our beliefs regarding the normal body. In her essay on autism in Disability Discourse, for example, Judy Singer argues for a politics of "neurodiversity," asserting that "[t]he 'neurologically different' represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race" (64). Works such as these are central to a rethinking of feminist identity politics in terms that include disabled women.

Although the two works present different approaches to understanding the ways in which discourse shapes our thinking about disability, what both have in common is a commitment to the idea that disability is socially and discursively constructed. They also share the belief, stated by Len Barton in the preface to Disability Discourse, that "the fundamental issue [facing people with disabilities] is not one of an individual's inabilities or limitations, but rather, a hostile and unadaptive society" (xi).

Narrative Prosthesis is primarily a work of literary criticism. It does, however, touch on issues of interest to scholars in all disciplines, since one of its main arguments is that identity is formed within discourse that partially derives its power from the stories we tell. The central [End Page 201] thesis deals with disability as an occasion for narrative. Authors, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, argue that historically, disability has been seen as a mystery in need of an explanation and, thus, as the inspiration for narrative invention; literature "approaches disability as a wound in need of healing" (164). Drawing on David Wills's definition of prosthesis, they assert that story serves the prosthetic function of assigning disability a place within hegemonic thought.

The majority of the book consists of readings of "key moments" in literary history, which includes essays by Montaigne and Nietzsche, Melville's Moby Dick, and a variety of twentieth-century works, such as Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (163). This compelling literary history is limited, however, by its exclusive focus on Western literature. Although they acknowledge that there can be no totalizing theory of disability representation, Mitchell and Snyder do make some generalizations that should be more thoroughly historicized in light of this Western bias. For example, the introduction states that disability is "the master trope of human disqualification," in comparison to other identity markers such as race and gender (3).

One of Mitchell and Snyder's main points is that disability scholars should bring a variety of interpretative strategies to bear on literary works and not dismiss literature as hopelessly mired in stereotypical imagery. This way of working with texts is seen most clearly in chapter four, in which they trace the history of the interpretation and reception of Shakespeare's Richard III. This chapter stands out—because it emphasizes the continual renegotiations involved in...


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