- Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation
Aesthetic Nervousness is a noteworthy book. Given the prominence of disability representation in anglophone literature, it is conspicuous how little critical commentary there has been on this aspect of the canon. Disability, or its representation, however, is no easy thing to pin down, and Ato Quasyon, by way of a preamble to his close readings of representative texts, offers us a typology of nine categories, which also frequently overlap or coincide in any literary work.
In a highly useful introduction, Quayson discusses ways in which disability can be conceptualized, from congenital conditions to those non-congenital impairments that, since they often originate in the workplace, 'derive directly from the relations of production within capitalism.' Disability is produced by 'the interaction of impairment and a spectrum of social discourses on normality that serve to stipulate what counts as disability in the first place.' Quayson proceeds to offer a useful overview of disability representation in literature and the arts, arguing that what produces 'aesthetic nervousness' is the breakdown of a text's dominant representational paradigms upon its encounter with disability. Aesthetic nervousness emerges as a realization of our radical contingency, as a near-subliminal fear of the loss of bodily control. In Quayson's reading, disability is akin to the sublime in eliciting and simultaneously defying representation, which 'turns it into a marker of the aesthetic field as such.' As he is careful to point out, however, disability is inseparable from forms of social hierachization; for Quayson, literary criticism cannot be separated from ethical questions.
Quayson focuses in particular on the work of Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka and J.M. Coetzee, but he also makes frequent and insightful references to an impressive range of literature and storytelling, from Greek myth and medieval texts to Shakespeare, Donne, and African mythology. Quayson's close readings are engaging and offer useful angles on the function of disability representation in literature. The structuralist approach he has chosen, however, seems at times limiting, especially as a number of the works discussed would seem to fall into several of the categories his typology offers. A case in point is the work of Samuel Beckett, which Quayson sees as 'leaning towards' two categories: 'disability as enigmatic insight and disability as hermeneutical impasse.' [End Page 372] Given the ubiquity of disabled characters in Beckett's work, his writing would also seem to fit into a third of Quayson's categories: '[d]isability as normality.'
Quayson's reading of Beckett, at times impressive in its insight, itself suffers from a tendency towards generalization. In Quayson's analysis, pain is never properly accounted for in Beckett's writing, which ultimately renders it a philosophical category or a cipher of 'the frailty of the human condition.' However, in the radio play All That Fall, written in 1956, for instance, one could argue that pain functions precisely as the site of what Quayson calls 'intersubjective recognition and identity.' Pain, unlike hunger, desire, or even fear, lacks the directionality or orientedness of intentional acts, which complicates its rendering within the symbolic structures of language. However, pain constitutes the play's storyline, plot, formal structure (sound of dragging feet, huffing, moans and groans, etc.), and thematic concerns; this gives it at least some phenomenological referentiality. Quayson usefully demonstrates that pain may not be the privileged site for which it has sometimes been taken in Beckett's writing and elsewhere, but nor is it unequivocally a philosophical category or a trope for 'the human condition.' For Quayson, disability in Beckett's writing ultimately becomes a type of ghosting: something that permeates his work while simultaneously being absent from it.
Aesthetic Nervousness is an ambitious and impressive book, but it suffers slightly from the attempt to be universal and overarching - which, in a paradoxical way, might be seen to go against the very notion of uniqueness and singularity evoked by the representation of disability.
Ulrika Maude, Department of English Studies, University of Durham