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  • A Variable Account of Blindness in the Eighteenth Century
  • D. Christopher Gabbard
Chris Mounsey. Sight Correction: Vision and Blindness in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia, 2019). Pp. 340. $79.50 cloth. $39.50 paper

This book is the debut publication in a new series, "Peculiar Bodies: Stories and Histories," of which Mounsey is a series editor. Sight Correction represents an outstanding inaugural effort. If the volumes to follow are as compelling, painstakingly researched, and thought provoking as this one, scholars are in store for major contributions to body studies, an increasingly popular field. Mounsey, a professor of eighteenth-century literature at the University of Winchester, comes with an impressive record. He coedited Queer People: Negotiations and Expressions of Homosexuality, 1700-1800 (2007); edited two other volumes, one of which is Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century (2014); and authored one book, Being the Body of Christ: Towards a Twenty-First Century Homosexual Theology for the Anglican Church (2014).

Sight Corrections takes a place beside Kate Tunstall's 2011 Blindness and Enlightenment as one of the two definitive studies of blindness in the eighteenth century. Writing in clear, accessible language, Mounsey undertakes—as the title implies—a new view, and this new view also constitutes a significant [End Page 74] contribution to the field: a movement away from the study of blindness as a metaphor (or blindness understood in the abstract) and toward blindness as an actual experience of blind people. It is tightly organized in three interrelated sections: a philosophical discourse invoking vision as a metaphor, the development of medicine in the area of eye treatment, and the poetry and lives of three blind poets. Mounsey also has a deeper purpose, that of questioning the accuracy and necessity of grand unifying concepts explaining eighteenth-century social and cultural phenomenon. He resists what he claims cultural theorists often do: start working from a theory, which entails circular and self-reinforcing argumentation, then imposing that theory's presumptions onto the evidence, and then generating a conclusive finding that validates the theory.

A chief target of Mounsey's is disability studies. He challenges its penchant for producing what he calls "institutionalized representations of disabled people." Mounsey's main critique is that the field engages in binary logic through "the cultural model of 'disability,'" which suggests that people with impairments are "disabled" by the obstacles society places in their paths. Disability studies scholars, he believes, are locked in a notion of difference that is fundamentally binary, defining disability against its absence in terms such as "compulsory able-bodiedness." This is to say, someone with an impairment is always evaluating him- or herself against the expectation that everybody be "normal." Lennard Davis, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder are three scholars he challenges, with the latter two coming particularly under fire on account of their book Narrative Prosthesis (2001). This book, Mounsey asserts, has "led to an understanding of 'disability studies' as a binary ableist/nonableist discourse of compulsory able-bodiedness." This binarism has led to an "us-versus-them" attitude that pervades the field, and he states that he is not interested in "seeking power relations between groups who define themselves against an 'other.'" He is also dissatisfied with disability studies scholars for not having devoted more attention to "impaired bodies before 1840." While there is some validity to this charge, it would also come as news to the scholars who have been doing this very work, scholars such as Helen Deutsch, David Turner, and C. F. Goodey, none of whom Mounsey cites.

Mounsey himself is blind, but he does not conceive of himself as a disability studies scholar. Impatient with the binarism of disabled and nondisabled, he proposes in its place a methodology and way of thinking he calls "variability," a portmanteau word combining "variable" and "disability." Variability, Mounsey claims, "begins from the expectation of sameness and difference between individuals in the phrase 'the same only different.' If I am 'the same only different' from you, then you are not wholly 'other' from me." In other words, "Variability would expect that every 'normal' person was as different [End Page 75] (variable) as every other 'normal' person." Mounsey extends this interpersonal philosophy...


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