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  • The Rage of Caliban: Disabling Bodies in Modernist Aesthetics
  • Michael Davidson (bio)

My objections to the music of Wagner are physiological.

Friedrich Nietzsche1

Among the recent “turns” in cultural theory (linguistic, spatial, narrative, transnational, affective), the recent turn toward the aesthetic may seem more of a retreat than an advance. What could be more antithetical to critique than the pursuit of universalizing standards of beauty, detachment, and autonomy?2 The difference in what Michael Kelly calls the recent “hunger for aesthetics” is an outgrowth of these other turns such that criteria of aesthetic appreciation must now be situated as a discourse, within specific communities, produced in geo-political spaces, against the backdrop of institutional purposes and validation.3 Disability studies, as one such cultural turn, occupies a particularly important role in this context, since it makes visible the various and variable bodies around which aesthetic discourse revolves.4 Yet classical aesthetics is often seen as a rejection of embodied response, a “flight from corporeal existence,” as Terry Eagleton says.5 What begins as sensory pleasure derived from and lodged within the body ends in a triumph over bodily contingency. How might the body be reinstated to the aesthetic, not as that reflected in the mirror of art, but as the constitutive fact of the aesthetic itself?

The claim of disinterestedness central to autonomous art presents a problem for disability studies, since it attempts to legitimate judgments of taste by removing the body that makes such responses possible, or more precisely, by diverting bodily [End Page 609] responses onto objective forms. Eagleton describes this diversion in terms of Lacan’s mirror stage. Just as the infant discovers a “plenitude lacking in its own body” in his mirror image, so the observer faced with a beautiful form “discovers in it a unity and harmony which are in fact the effect of the free play of its own faculties.”6 The mirror-stage of recognition occurs when the viewer projects onto the object subjective potentialities heretofore invisible or repressed. Judgments of taste are always framed by social attitudes and cultural contexts that become the mirror into which the subject looks. Such values create forms of cultural capital in the reinforcement of class privilege—and ability—and thus restrict competing views of beauty, sensory satisfaction, and human variety. An aesthetic of disinterestedness is never far from a formalist desire to project the work of art as a cordon sanitaire against bodily difference and corporeal mutability.

What happens when the aesthetic object stages its own act of mirroring—when a painting represents the absent body as its principle subject? This is what happens in Velázquez’s 1656 painting, Las Meninas (see figure 1). In this work, as I will develop it later, the artist’s subject is missing. The artist looks out from his canvas not at the King and Queen of Spain, his putative subjects, but at us, the present viewers of the canvas upon which he works and whose surface is hidden from us. The centerpiece of this canvas—the one upon which we gaze—is the Spanish Infanta who occupies the central position, flanked by two court dwarfs to her left, a contrast, perhaps, to her youthful perfection. As I will point out with reference to several modernist works inspired by this painting, the figures at the margins of classical representation are often foundational for those at the center.

I want to extend Velázquez’s canvas into later works that reframe its problematics of representation around problematic identities. My examples include Oscar Wilde’s, “The Birthday of the Infanta” (1891) and Alexander Zemlinsky’s opera, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) (1922), works that condense several strands of modernism around the representation of non-traditional bodies. Wilde’s story has been read as an attack on aestheticism’s cultivation of surface beauty; the “ugly dwarf” belies a noble soul, while the beautiful Infanta reveals a superficial glamor. Zemlinsky’s opera, based on Wilde’s story, foregrounds the short-statured body as the site of sight, the protagonist discovering his otherness in a mirror, a moment of recognition that frames both his embodied and (perhaps) sexual difference. As a musical composition that...


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