- Disability and Modern Fiction: Faulkner, Morrison, Coetzee and the Nobel Prize for Literature by Alice Hall, and: Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic by Emily Russell
The two books reviewed here, Disability and Modern Fiction and Reading Embodied Citizenship, are landmarks in the development of disability studies for the interpretation of literature. Together, they provide an accurate image of the state of the field and give strong indications about where the new directions lie for disability as an area of literary investigation. Building from the foundational work of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, both of these studies productively shift emphasis away from a deconstructive approach to the relationship between the body and the text. In this, they are leaving behind a conceptual deadlock that largely characterized the 1990s: the assumption that there is an irresoluble tension between the ontological reality of physical experience and the metaphorical or linguistic free-play of literary representation. Rather than cycling through this problem yet again, Alice Hall and Emily Russell [End Page 141] demonstrate in their respective studies the capacity of disability studies to integrate the metaphorical and the physical into a single cultural problematic.
Hall’s Disability and Modern Fiction is a marvelous work, clear and concise in style and useful in its specific insights into the three authors under consideration: William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and J. M. Coetzee. Her approach demonstrates one of the richest dimensions of a disabilities studies approach to literature—namely, that it offers new ways of imagining the chronology and points of connection among authors who are otherwise cordoned off by genre, categories of identity, or a linear timeline. If the field of literary studies has recently entered a period of uncertainty with the waning of the dominance of these traditional approaches (that is, genre, identity, and historical timeline), Hall’s work points the way to reimagining these approaches without abandoning their central insights. Rather than claiming to reinvent the perennial problems of literary interpretation, she uses disability studies as a fulcrum for opening literary studies up to broader questions about the relationship between aesthetics and politics: “What does it mean, both ethically and politically, to bring marginalized bodies to the center of debate and to open up these aesthetic representations for critical analysis and public scrutiny?” (pp. 1–2). Her study thus revisits the interest in the body that reached its peak in the 1990s under the aegis of mid-twentieth-century theoretical approaches, such as ideological interpolation and Foucauldian biopower. As both Hall and Russell note in their books, these approaches were largely unsuccessful because of their tendency to float at a level of generalization that often failed to connect with concrete experience. The most exciting and important element of a disability studies approach is its insistence on the specificity of experience that situates the broad strokes of theory in a micropolitics of everyday life.
Hall’s investigation of moments, such as Morrison’s work as curator of the Louvre special exhibit Foreign Bodies (2006) and the history of Alfred Noble and the Nobel Prize (which each of these three authors won), is a powerful indication of historical and social detail that a disabilities studies approach invests in the problem of embodiment. Rather than the often circuitous route taken in studies that attempt to move among aesthetic representation, politics, and lived experience, Hall demonstrates that the complexities and ambiguities of embodiment are fully activated by a disabilities studies approach at all of these levels. The relationship between moments like Morrison’s curatorial work and Nobel’s philosophy is not an arbitrary interlude in a discussion about literature; the relationship takes on a direct relevance to the process of aesthetic representation of embodiment precisely because these moments are interlocking modes of perceiving the normative and nonnormative body in social and historical contexts. The politics of Hall’s investigation thus comes out...