Best Books of 2021: Disability and Embodiment

In today’s installment of Eric’s Favorite Books of 2021, we move into nonfiction. Stop 1: readings on disability and the body. Check out yesterday’s fiction picks and the full list if you haven’t already!

Front cover of Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

 

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It is no understatement to say that this book transformed my thinking on disability and embodiment. Garland-Thomson brilliantly disentangles, names, and examines physical, biopolitical, and socio-cultural aspects of living with a body in societies that do not view all bodies as equal.

For Garland-Thomson, the discourse of disability has little to do with the physical parameters of our bodies per se, and everything to do with “cultural rules about what bodies should be and do” (p. 6). Human bodies come in a dizzying diversity of forms, differing in myriad ways across a  variety of spectra. This alone cannot explain the concept of disability or its function in the differential allocation of status, power, and material resources in society. The discourse of disability, rather, does the work of collapsing that manifold diversity into manageable binaries—bodies that are essentially “normal” in contrast to those that are not. In short, it is “the attribution of corporeal deviance” (p. 6).

By beginning her analysis with the deviant, Garland-Thomson silhouettes the phantom majority against which this deviance is defined. She coins the concept of the “normate” body, one that bears no marked or stigmatizing characteristics within a given cultural frame. The normate presents itself as the universal subject, the unqualified and definitive human being. In reality, the normate creates the normalcy it claims to reflect, as only a small minority of people in any given society actually inhabit such bodies.

The first third of the book lays out her theory: disability and the normate identity, its connection with stigma and social limitation, and its interactions with gender and race. The remainder then explores the theory in relation to American culture (e.g., the phenomenon of freak shows) and literature (the writings of Harriet beecher Stowe and Audrey Lord). This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write about or just understand disability better.

Front Covers of the two Disability Visibility anthologies—one for adults and a second adapted for younger readers

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong

This remarkable collection is composed entirely of first-person narratives describing the experience of living as a disabled person in the early 21st century. Alice Wong, a powerful advocate and activist for disability justice and the volume’s editor, has done an extraordinary job ensuring representation of contributors with many diverse identities, living  in a broad variety of situations with many different disabilities. The essays cover many topics, including personal experiences of joy and struggle, discrimination and institutionalization, and disability activism and mutual aid. Struggle runs throughout, but it is often combine with strength, defiance, connection, and collective action—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “wild dreams of disability justice at the end of the world.” Read it yourself and buy it for all of your friends!

Front Cover of Their Plant Eyes

 

Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin

This fits broadly within the genre of “blind memoir,” as Godin tells the story of her progressive vision loss and life with blindness, but she interweaves it with stories and biographies of blind people at different points in history to very enjoyable effect. Come for the salacious story of how Athenian Tyreseus was blinded and given prophecy by the gods; stay for Helen Keller’s often-glossed-over Vaudeville years, and meet a host of fascinating blind people in between. My one small critique? Like everyone, she starts her history of blindness with the Greeks, those late-comers to history who somehow get first credit for everything. Guess I’d better get working on that book on blindness in the ancient Middle East!

Front cover of Down, Girl!

Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate manne

I wasn’t quite sure which category to put this book into, but since it deals broadly with the ways we police people based on the bodies they inhabit, I thought it might as well go here. I first heard of this book in connection with its coinage “himpathy,” which denotes the excessive sympathy given to men who are accused or convicted of gendered or sexual violence against women. The term struck me as a little too cute and didn’t motivate me to read the book right away, but I’m glad I did.

Now I use Manne’s model of misogyny all the time. It is so clear and powerfully explanatory that once you have read it you see the pattern at work everywhere. Misogyny and its manifestations in gendered violence are not illogical, incomprehensible, or inexplicable, as news outlets tend to conclude when gendered atrocities take place. Rather, misogyny in its various forms serves, in Manne’s words, as “the enforcement wing of patriarchy.” Misogyny is not the same thing as patriarchy, then, and it must also be differentiated from sexism. Patriarchy specifically describes any system in which roles and possibilities are determined by gender, with greater authority and autonomy going to men and submission and subservience allotted to women. Patriarchal systems are justified by sexism—that is, beliefs regarding the different natures of men and women and their relative social positions and value. Within a patriarchal system, gender roles are policed on both sides for deviance. Improper manhood and womanhood can both be stigmatized and sanctioned. Here, Manne focuses primarily on misogyny—acts of aggression and violence intended to control women who venture outside the prescribed boundaries of their gender’s assigned role(s). As such, it appears most predictably when women seek to resist or escape the control of men. With detailed argumentation and plentiful examples, Manne develops the intricacies of this broad thesis and its manifestations in different areas of life. As a work of academic philosophy it can get pretty dense, but the payoff is 100% worth it.

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