The on-going discussion about a new empiricism in the study of the humanities has led to a misapprehension about the problems attendant to the nature and politics of representation. If, through a case of what Marjorie Garber has called "discipline envy," you now believe that any new science (genetics, evolutionary biology or psychology, cognitive science, or the use of computer-generated text databases) provides a basic "truth," then the humanities becomes "merely" a means of applying that truth to cultural objects, such as representations. The difficulty in understanding the concomitant politics of representation in the age of this new aesthetics seems to demand a rethinking of the traditional humanistic enterprise in the 21st century. Yet disability studies can provide a model for the importance of these representations and their analysis in this moment now given to the empirical, the material, the "real" in the study of the history and culture of medicine. To disqualify the study of representations as "merely" the interest of a subjective and therefore not transcendental (read "scientific") history is impossible in disability studies.

As disability studies has moved in the past decades from purely a social service / rehabilitative field to one which is broadly interdisciplinary and integrative (including its social service aspect), the notion that studying the cultural readings of the images of disability are "merely" the application of "real" (read in this context: medical or social service) truths to humanistic objects seems retrograde. In this sense disability studies is moving in the opposite direction of many of the humanistic sub-specialties which now seek out brain scans, mirror neurons, evolutionary patterns, or even massive textual databases as the source of those objective truths which will provide "true and valid" explanations of cultural objects, rather than relying on the readings provided by hermeneutic approaches to complex texts and their social echoes that stress the context of the interpreter as well as the object interpreted. (As if the scientific texts themselves were not in need of constant re-interpretation because of their changing meanings over time. Indeed, that seems to be the real task of science.) Thus, two new volumes—Re-Presenting Disability, edited by Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, as well as The Problem Body, edited by Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić—provide what might be considered retrograde scholarship: no attention is given to any biological model of interpretation. The "pathological," as has been the case in disability studies, is constantly drawn into question.

Re-Presenting Disability examines the question of display and its rules: taking its key from both critical art history as well as museumology, it asks what cultural and social norms are implicit in seeing objects that represent disability in specific spaces and traditions. In every case, this reflects the interests and specificity of the interpreter. Thus the Manchester historian Ana Carden-Coyne looks at the representation of disability (defined in terms of time and place) within Western war museums. As an Australian-trained academic in Britain, she examines British, Australian and American examples. Carden-Coyne was the curator of the brilliant "War and Medicine" exhibit at the Wellcome Institute in London, which problematized the idea of disability (in arenas such as facial wounds) and reflected on the temper and the technology of the times for a British audience. One of the co-editors of this volume, my Emory colleague Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, devotes her essay to the question of models of classical portraiture that are echoed in recent portraits (including sculptures) of the disabled by disabled artists and others. This tradition, which has its roots in early modern art, has become re-codified in contemporary art by artists such as the disabled Chicago portraitist Riva Lehrer. Garland-Thomson too used this approach to further a travelling exhibit of a selection of these portraits at Davidson College.

These essays clearly define the limits of their objects and their approach to the interpretation of these objects. Thus there is no examination by Carden-Coyne of the function of non-Western sites such as the Yasukuni Shrine (a Shinto shrine in Tokyo dedicated to soldiers) as war museums, though that is certainly what they are, nor of the impact of Western portraiture in the 18th century by artists such Lam Qua on the traditional Asian understanding of the portrait of the disabled in China in the essay by Garland-Thomson. The boundaries of time and space are real for the authors—they define the impact and effectiveness of images.

The essays in Re-Presenting Disability cover the broader scope of what it means to examine and therefore define images of disability in the public sphere, both from the standpoint of the artist (disabled or not) and the viewer (disabled or not). For example, Hanna Mellemsether examines the history and the function of the Norwegian Museum of the Deaf as a space for the production and presentation of a Scandinavian "deaf culture." The reach of these articles is impressive, extending from North America through Europe and Asia, including an excellent essay by Chia-Li Chen on the Losheng Story Museum, which focuses on the history of Hansen's disease as seen through the Japanese colonial experience and the post-war history of Taiwan.

The Problem Body has a similarly extensive geographic reach. One essay, by Eunjung Kim, focuses on recent South Korean and American films and their use of gender in depicting disability. While one can certainly speak of a new globalized cinema, with Nolly- and Bollywood competing in world markets with Hollywood, there are substantial nuances in each of the local film traditions, no matter how impacted they are by the global marketplace, which places into sharp relief the various understandings of disability. This is true of British and American films as well as the more "exotic" world of regional and local cinema. Thus Michael Davidson's essay on film noir as being a comment on the very nature of disability as well as representing specific disabilities looks at this tradition as a Hollywood one, even though many of the major directors and scriptwriters came out of the Weimar (Wilder) or British (Hitchcock) cinema and were reprising elements of film noir in their new American setting. Indeed, the work that Anton Kaes did in Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (2009) shows clearly the European antecedents and/or parallels to this sense of the "phantom limb" in cinema.

The Problem Body also reprints a chapter from Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell's Cultural Locations of Disability (2006) as a sort of summary (in a rather structuralist manner) overview of cinematic representations of disability. The difficulty of charting the varieties of disability and their tones and modalities in comedy, horror and melodrama, however, is that it is precisely the interstices of these models of representation that defy easy classification. Indeed, if we do return to a sort of structuralist poetics to understand the representation of disability in cinema, we work against what Snyder and Mitchell have always advocated—the inherent ambiguity of each and every representation. And, given that structuralism claimed for itself a scientific validity, we fall into exactly the same claims about transcendental truths that the new empiricism makes for itself.

With the shift in claims of recent literary interpretation, with its discovery of the supposed objectivity of brain imaging and the neurosciences or evolutionary biology or psychology, as the single pathway to a true understanding of the process of literary creation or reception, there is a risk of a false empiricism in the study of representations of disability denying its subjective nature. A new social history of disability representations seems to have become a means of speaking about the reality that is "merely" mirrored in representations, while the real questions to be asked by such studies are the function of such categories in shaping both societal understanding of human variety and the self-understanding of individuals whose reality is shaped by such images. How complex this can be can be seen in the example of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915). In this book, the protagonist's club foot serves as a surrogate for the author's stuttering and allows both a complex representation of the author's internal life (as a gay man living a heterosexual life) and as an author belonging to a marginal social class in Victorian and Edwardian Britain at the beginning of World War I (WWI). Maugham's story (filmed in 1934, 1946, and 1964 with radically different readings of the meaning of bodily difference and sexual identity) is a tale of disability, pathology, psychology, and self-overcoming—well reflected in the contradictions which Maugham incorporates in the shifts and levels of his tale. Readers and viewers see and understand the novel and the films differently, depending on their historical and social positions. We need little biological empiricism concerning the claimed origins of stuttering as explained by the new brain science to understand the complex nature of such representations within the classic form of the Bildungsroman (evoked by Maugham in the novel) and the conventions of reading and representing in the world of WWI Britain and its rethinking in the cinema post-WWI, post-WWII and in the "liberated" 1960s. A close reading of this novel can set up a more nuanced reading of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) and the meaning of heteronormativity and sexuality disability in the resultant films and television versions after WWII.

Re-Presenting Disability and The Problem Body, dedicated to representations of disability in the museum and the cinema (respectively), provide a healthy rethinking of what it means to work as a humanist. They also demonstrate how such work provides real opportunity for such representations, through both form and function, to alter our understanding of others and ourselves.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Sander L. Gilman

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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