- Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability by Elizabeth Bearden
Elizabeth Bearden's Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability is a timely and learned study of "how people with disabilities defined and were defined by early modern representations of bodies, spaces, and narratives" (4), and serves as another outstanding chapter in Bearden's ongoing project of unearthing genealogies of disability. We gain immensely from understandings of disability (across the globe and the centuries) that can constructively inform current aesthetic, cultural, and policy-level responses to disability. With its interdisciplinary and meticulous investigation of the nature and manner of premodern constructions of and responses to disability, Monstrous Kinds plays a crucial role toward the goal of grasping—and valuing—the lived realities and contributions of disability.
A key concept that occupies Bearden is monstrosity. As she shows, the methods and modes by which we understand disability today have counterparts in premodern understandings of monstrosity—perhaps most cogently, in the insistence with which the monstrous demands a demonstration, an extrapolation of meaning, and a narrative. Through her interdisciplinary and richly comparative consideration of a variety of texts from across geographies and languages, Bearden shows how monstrous bodies have been central to the early modern imagination of humanity itself. [End Page 434]
The book also contributes to a "theorization of disability in the global Renaissance" (4), where the adjective "global" refers to the pan- and extra-European systems of exchange and interaction that produced Renaissance European art and culture. Although a single volume could only supply a part of that vast project, Bearden's volume is impressive for how much it delivers—from a consideration of Italian conduct books to travel narratives about Aztec and Ottoman courts, from a study of premodern sign language to that of Renaissance wonder books—and for setting a precedent for future work that can connect dots on a large scale. As such, Monstrous Kinds is no less than a volume in the library of ideas in the Western world.
In Chapter One, which examines conduct texts from Renaissance Italy, Bearden takes on the concept of the ideal and demonstrates the norming effects it enables. She shows how the ideal, instead of being a relatively benign concept (because it denotes the unreachable), helps produce disability in pre-nineteenth-century Western thought. In Baldessare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, for instance, the ideal courtier's successful mediocritá or way of moderation is defined by their awareness of and deliberate distancing from physical, cognitive, or emotional extremes, and their sprezzatura is a function of "overcoming" physical and behavioral impairments. Bearden points out that the business of making something difficult look easy—the definition of sprezzatura—is something that people living with impairments know well, likening sprezzatura to a program of passing (of seeming what is not) and a prosthetic technology (a standing-in for what is not). She thus hits a nerve for our time.
Chapter Two is a superlative look at the multifaceted—and generatively disrupted—norming effects put into play by the concept of the natural. Identifying and excluding unnatural bodies have long been part of the construction of disability. But Bearden's case study here speaks to inclusivity and hope. She examines early modern English physician John Bulwer's work with deafness (which Bulwer views as natural variation of the human form) and sign language (which Bulwer considers a means of communication that can aspire to universal language) to posit a premodern inclination toward what we call biolinguistic diversity. Bulwer's reluctance to disable the Deaf speaks to both the cultural disabling of deaf individuals in this period and to an unusual but possible inclusivity that makes nature an ally for difference.
Chapters Three and Four engage, in an eclectic sprawl, with European imagination of disability in spatial terms: specifically, with [End Page 435] Renaissance European consideration of individuals with impairments in Aztec and Ottoman courts. Using Brendan Gleeson's theory of "geographies of disability," Bearden demonstrates how these monstrous—in...