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  • Stillness Is a Move:Helen Keller and the Kinaesthetics of Autobiography
  • Erica Fretwell (bio)


Can touch have a genre? A combination of pressure, texture, and temperature, touch is one of the most difficult senses to study because "it is composed of so many interacting dimensions of sensitivity, involving a number of different functions," explains Elizabeth Grosz (98). Touch has long perplexed philosophic and scientific traditions, neither of which can decide on how to categorize it: as an individual sense or the basis of all sensation. From antiquity to the present, writers and thinkers tend to equate touch with unexamined knowledge. In 1905, British psychologist Havelock Ellis called it "the least intellectual and least aesthetic" of the senses (6). In American letters, to place tactile and aesthetic together constitutes a kind of oxymoron; the sublime ought to be an affective, not a physical, feeling. Yet critical studies of the sensorium—from media theorist Walter Ong to anthropologist Michael Taussig to philosopher Erin Manning—have contested denigrations of touch as solely corporeal.1 These and other scholars have argued that the senses are a "medium for the expression, experience and contestation of social values" (Classen 1). Humanistic inquiry now approaches touch as a culturally specific sense that arranges individual expectations and collective interactions. This essay posits that tactility is a social construct and a literary category: a structure that promises discursive order. To suggest that touch can have a genre is to redefine sense impressions as formal expressions that organize and mediate social life. [End Page 563]

Many scholars have suggested that touch's genre is autobiography. Located on the borders of the body, the sense of touch dovetails with autobiography, a genre "located on the borders of the literary," according to G. Thomas Couser (Recovering 4). Indeed, Sidonie Smith posits that autobiography merges "skins and skeins of meaning" (267). This alliterative wordplay registers the centrality of touch to the yarn autobiography spins, the fiction of the "stable, autonomous individual" (Smith and Watson 218). Couser affirms: "Typographically identical with the Roman numeral I and phonemically identical with the word eye," the autobiographical I "puns on the notion of a single point of view. These fortuitous features of our linguistic system . . . encourage us to conceive of the first person as unique, integral, and independent—like the pronoun that represents it" (Altered Egos 13). Given autobiography's association with interiority, it might seem strange for Smith to ask, "What might skin have to do with autobiographical writing, and autobiographical writing with skin?" (266). After all, to theorize skin is to theorize boundaries and surfaces. By now it is nearly axiomatic that there is no unified self, that autobiography is "a narrative discourse in which 'I' is both subject and object" (Starobinski 78). Like the genre's split discourse, skin is a double organ that "mediates the world by mingling with it" (Connor 29). In this way, it materializes the "idea of the [autobiographical] self as other" (Folkenflik 234). Autobiography splits the I into self and other; this split I is a skin, a multi-layered body with an interior and exterior, a surface and depth.

Especially accessible to marginalized individuals, life writing models the "self-determination that the disability rights movement has fought for, even or especially when the text is collaboratively produced," according to Couser ("Disability" 401). This helps to explain why disability is a "discourse . . . largely defined by the genre of autobiography" (Mitchell and Snyder 9).2 Unlike fictional narratives that reduce disability to a trope or "narrative prosthesis," autobiography attends directly to the embodied experience of disability.3 In part because much, though not all, life writing requires collaborative production, there is a doubleness to stories authored by the disabled. What does skin have to do with autobiography, and autobiography with skin? One answer is disability. Although it escapes any fixed definition, Tobin Siebers usefully describes disability as "an elastic social category both subject to social control and capable of effecting social change" (4). An "elastic" sensation of reciprocity, touch structures the autobiographical self as doubled, as disabled— as another other.4

A writer of nine autobiographies, Helen Keller is often at the center of discussions about disability and life...


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