This special session explores the convergence of disability studies and modernism, two fields that have become tightly intertwined in the years after Lennard Davis’s brief discussion of Joseph Conrad in Enforcing Normalcy (1995). Since then, modernist scholars like Michael Davidson, Ato Quayson, and Maren Linett have produced significant contributions to this conversation. The papers presented here raise awareness about the diverse theoretical approaches available within disability studies while providing several answers to the question with which Janet Lyon opened her 2011 Modernism/modernity article: “What can disability theory bring to modernist studies?”
On the flip side, this session also considers the ways in which modernist literature speaks back to disability studies by focusing on three assumedly stable and prescriptive sets of norms: the trajectory of human development, the hierarchy of the senses, and the concept of liberal subjectivity. Because of research by scholars like Tobin Siebers and Robert McRuer, it is now understood that disability studies strives to de-naturalize conventionally accepted ways of understanding, valuing, and regulating human bodies. The false rigidity of the norms under analysis here—along with their use in pathologizing certain individuals—becomes particularly visible in the context of literature by authors like Elizabeth Bowen, D. H. Lawrence, and Samuel Beckett. As a movement, modernism is organized around the transgression of established social and aesthetic conventions; consequently, modernist literature provides many examples in which it is the social and political environments that must be modified to meet the needs of modern individuals, not vice versa.
Janet Lyon opens the discussion by taking on the traditional western hierarchy of the senses in which the “higher” senses of vision and hearing are linked to intellect and reason, while the “lower” senses of smell, touch, and taste threaten to swamp the operations of reason with localized contact. This restrictive template for sensory experience has heavily influenced the quantification and qualification of disability; yet, many modernist writers persistently endeavored to breach not only the delimitations but also the hierarchical ordering of that conventional template. To support this proposal, Lyon first examines D. H. Lawrence’s treatment of blindness as a mode of liberation from ocularcentric modernity. In “The Blind Man,” Lawrence links blindness both to the machinations of modernity and a profound corporeal experience of pre-modern bodily integrity as blindness frees Pervin from the compulsory rationality associated with vision. The work of another writer, Leonora Carrington, goes further that that of Lawrence, dissolving not only the order but also the categories of the sensorium. Instead, she offers an antihumanist sensory engagement with the material world that simultaneously undoes the categories of gender, heteronormative sexuality, and disability. Therefore, these texts stage larger questions about the construction of disability within what might be called the “sensorium of modernity.”
The next presentation, by Claire Barber, considers the norms that determine typical human development and with which medical practitioners diagnose individuals as developmentally delayed or disordered. These norms are relevant for literary study because they are assimilated and broadcasted by the canonical genre of development, the bildungsroman. Building on recent research by Jed Esty and Gregory Castle, Barber examines how modernist texts—specifically, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) and Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (1968)—diverge from the conventional bildungsroman structure by presenting protagonists whose development is not just arrested but disordered enough that it requires the re-alignment of social expectations. Such novels stretch the boundaries that restrict our ideas of what bodies and texts can become and how they do so. In this context, Barber invokes Hugh Kenner’s concept of an “aesthetic of delay” to argue that literary techniques common in modernism, such as parallax, place the text itself in a state of developmental delay, if not disorder. As such, modernist texts like those discussed here (sometimes ambivalently) reject negative evaluations of developmental delay with their depiction of developmentally disordered protagonists and their modifications of traditional genres and literary aesthetics.
While Barber addresses developmental disorder generally, Joseph Valente takes a more specific approach by examining the contemporary construction of the autist in relation to characters in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (1938) and Bowen’s Eva Trout, two texts written after autism emerged as a diagnosis. These two texts represent their protagonists as “exceptional” subjects—outstanding yet marginal, socially disabled yet aspirational. Though Murphy and Eva are less fully sequestered from their respective communities than a Benjy or a Stevie, their sequestration is in some measure self-induced. For each protagonist, the phenomenological divergence of autism from the experiential norm translates as a marked social abstraction, aversion, and/or awkwardness, the kind that has long been identified, widely if erroneously, as the very essence of the autistic condition. Coextensive with the protagonists’ stunted “people skills,” however, are traits integral to an idealized liberal subjectivity: willfulness, non-conformism, dispassionateness, and self-containment, among others. Therefore, Valente criticizes the contemporary pathologization of autistic sociality while proposing that in these texts autism acts—to paraphrase Oscar Wilde—as a “cracked mirror” of the sovereign subject, revealing in this social ideal of personhood a latent anti-social valence.
Based on the approaches taken here, this special session also relates to the Presidential Theme suggested by Marianne Hirsch, “Vulnerable Times.” Modernist texts demonstrate that the first half of the twentieth century was just such a historical period, one in which many conventions governing behavior, perception, and aesthetics became vulnerable to scrutiny and dismissal. Modernist artists, such as those presented above, also acknowledged the possibilities inherent in confronting their own vulnerabilities. Such a position can allow bodies to become more flexible; however, it also requires confronting the fear that goes along with a disabled position. As this special session suggests, such concerns are central to both disability studies and modernist literature, and they deserve our attention.