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63 Rhetorical Histories of Disability The disabled body changes the process of representation itself. Different bodies require and create new modes of representation. —Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory Normate Antiquity To begin t h is c h a pt er , I will offer a compressed overview of disability in antiquity. This overview is important historically and for the “narrative” of this book. But my hope is not just to start telling a story here, but instead to establish, through this quick scan of the role of the body in antiquity, a lexicon and a critical repertoire that is much more far-reaching. This compression is intended to simplify, to make a vast expanse of time accessible, but also to create density and force. My hope is to explain and illustrate the ubiquity and impact of normativity as the orbit around which all embodied rhetoric swivels and the foundation upon which any body becomes intelligible. In this rhetorical version of antiquity, you will recognize many disability myths operating, but I also hope to begin telling the story of a rhetorical history in which disability signals much more than stigma and disqualification. Homer, the mythical seer Tiresias, Oedipus, the great orator Demosthenes , Paris’s killer Philoctetes, Croesus’s deaf son, and others form our view of disability in antiquity. These men overcome their disabilities , or compensate for them with poetic genius, or bear them as punishment ; therefore, they both adhere to and perhaps provide archetypes for some of the most prevalent modern myths about disability. Further, Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, the Hippocratic Corpus, and even the plays of Aristophanes act as catalogs of disability, functioning much as 64 • Disa bil it y Rh et or ic the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual does today, delineating a range of abnormal bodies. Robert Garland, the author of The Eye of the Beholder, one of only three book-length studies of disability in the classical period (see also M. Rose 2003; and Haj 1970), suggests that “disability would have been familiar to many” in ancient Greece—either through the birth of a “defective infant” or through aging (1985, 11, 21). Bad plumbing, malnutrition, young mothers , war, and even violent sports would have been factors that led to injury or disease and then to disability. In Garland’s view, the roles available to the disabled, rhetorically and otherwise, were severely limited. That his book is entitled The Eye of the Beholder is ironic, but also symbolic. He is the “beholder,” and his biases are readily apparent. Garland’s eye looks for the “compensation” the disabled make (ibid., 42), or for the “natural kinship” between people with disabilities (ibid., 63), or for the “rich empathy ” that they inspire in others (preface). He gives his chapters titles like “Survival of the Weakest,” “Half-Lives,” and “Deriding the Disabled.” His history canonizes the view that, as disability theorist Harlan Hahn writes (and as Hahn also disproves), disability has always symbolized “loss, repugnance and personal tragedy” (1988, 31). Yet Garland’s research suggests that in the ancient world, the question of “normalcy” was central. Garland notices that, even in ancient Greece, the exclusion and isolation of different bodies were ways to “re-affirm the unity” of the hegemonic group (1985, 82). Rhetoric provided an arena for this reaffirmation and its troubling. As mentioned, in Homer himself, we are to recognize a blind man who is a “gifted” poet and seer, his great memory and his story-weaving capabilities making up for his defect. Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man provides a modern analogue: Raymond is autistic, but is capable of remarkable mathematical calculations and feats of memory.1 Homer was blind, but he had an amazing memory. The connection between the disability and the compensatory ability is 1. His gift is then used by his brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise’s character), for Charlie’s personal gain. MētisRhetorical Histories of Disability 65 intentional, and this perpetuates the idea that a person with a disability will always have some remarkable skill or talent. In the field of disability studies, much work has been done to reveal the ways that such depictions of disability work to manage the fears and projections of the supposedly nondisabled audience. The effect is that the general public does not have to focus on the disability, or challenge the stigma that this disability entails, but instead refocuses attention toward the “gift.” In Greek myth, Tiresias is also given a gift from the...


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