How do people with disabilities imagine, visualize, and represent the body politic of the nation-state? This is an ambitious question, invoking at once physical bodies and corporate structures of belonging, clinical and cultural approaches to disability, legal and impressionistic definitions of citizenship. Therefore, this question causes friction in the fields of disability, narrative studies, and U.S. political culture. In Reading Embodied Citizenship, Emily Russell teases out a persuasive answer through the concept of "embodied citizenship," defined as the paradox by which "the anomalous characteristics that exclude individuals from full access to the political imaginary become the same features that structure their participation" (15).

Briefly put, nation-states marginalize people with disabilities. But, as Russell contends, marginal does not mean invisible. On the contrary, the conspicuousness of many disabled citizens and non-citizens determines their involvement with the nation-state. In this sense, "embodied citizenship" labels a simultaneous process of exclusion and inclusion. The very corporeal substance that brands disabled "others" also registers the nature of their political participation and their contribution to a collective that can no longer be allegorized through stable, normative bodies. Russell aims her analysis at those figures of disability that debunk the myth of the body politic: a corporeal allegory of the nation whose standard shape, size, and powers of limb replicate the assumed able-bodiedness of its citizens. Whereas upholders of nationalism, heteronormativity, and racism correlate with a pure, healthy, and infallible body politic, Russell foregrounds texts in which disabled characters embody the U.S. These "defective" embodiments often stop to rethink their national identity: how is it defined and on what grounds are they included or left out. Thus, the disabled body politic of the "embodied citizen" ushers audiences into the overlapping crises of liberal individualism, corporative culture, mass-oriented capitalism, industrial farming, and reproductive rights.

In chapter four, for example, Russell neatly relates the nineteenth-century freak show (along with contemporary reformulations like Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love) with the category of Americana, a stylized mode of presentation that entwines "the representative and the extraordinary" (136). Here, her analysis shines best, situating anatomical impairment at the heart of nationalist meaning-making rituals. These rituals of national affiliation generate narratives of the body politic, which impel Russell to tackle the relationship between impaired bodies (disability), bodies politic (citizenship), and what is popularly known as the "body of the text" (narrative) (3). Narrative techniques allow writers and activists to disable textual bodies and, by extension, to dislodge citizenship from the logic of liberal individualism (viz., one person equals one citizen). Russell scrutinizes works by Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, David Foster Wallace, and Ron Kovic, among others. These writers complicate the ready-made legibility of the disabled body in the public contexts of the military parade, the circus exhibit, or the courtroom trial, divesting disabled bodies of their hyper-symbolic aura and capitalizing instead on sentience, creativity, and repressed subjectivity.

At its most successful, Russell's method suggests a third way between the "social constructionism" and the "new realism of the body" theorized by Tobin Siebers. In Disability Theory, Siebers regretted the study of disability as a mere social construction because this approach neglects the excruciating and urgent realities of people with disabilities. Against "social constructionism," he endorsed a "new realism of the body," a narrative mode that would highlight the immediate concerns of pain and dependency through an unpolished, first-person delivery (65-68). Even if Russell shares Siebers's apprehension over how to write (and read) more accurate renderings of disability, she amends some of his conclusions by noting that the disabled body is often already "conceived as more real," and that Siebers's demand for crude explicitness risks reinforcing this misconception (73). Rather than adhering to Siebers's disregard for the figurative uses of disability, Russell charts the signifying process through which disability comes to symbolize many things other than the disabled body and self. Her methodology follows the intricate association of a material referent (impaired body) and a symbolic register (the figurative social body or body politic). As an alternative to "the new realism" and the "social constructionism of the body," the "embodied citizen" enables authors and readers to redeploy disability's symbolic valences in ways that would ultimately call attention to the non-symbolic experience of living with a disability.

Russell's theoretical disquisitions might dissuade first-timers in disability studies; yet, they are worth the effort for graduate students, body-theory practitioners, and political scientists. That said, her terms are not always crystal clear. In her introduction, Russell justifies her selection of case studies as follows: "Each text under examination stages an encounter between a disabled individual and the body politic and explores a series of narrative strategies for making sense of this destabilizing moment of contact" (20). Although she makes a compelling case for the body politic as a fluid, evasive entity, she also tends to take it for granted in key nodal passages like this one. After all, what does Russell mean here by an "encounter with the body politic"? Is this an encounter with the metaphor of the body politic—let's say a visit to the Statue of Liberty—or does the phrase invoke the negotiations of identity that unfold between the individual and the state? Even though Russell understands the dangers of invoking the body politic too lightly—she has a section titled "The Trouble with Metaphor"—this indistinct use crops up throughout the volume, obscuring the distinction between "the material and the metaphoric" (9). Unfortunately, such distinction proves crucial in order to unravel the dramatic effects that metaphoric bodies have on the lives of actual bodies.

But, all in all, Russell puts us to task in ways that will increase interdisciplinary attention to disability. Reading Embodied Citizenship cautions scholars against approaching the intersection of disability and citizenship only from the angle of legislative debates and civil-rights struggles. The history of disability's narrative representation also yields some generous fruits, like exposing U.S. audiences' persistent yearning to invest the body with unequivocal truths. In Russell's pages, audiences gaze at the incomplete, deformed, or prosthetic individual seeking truths about the nature and extent of their larger political communities. If we take into account that language is an ideological construction not exempt from bias, the representation of disability would always prove a misrepresentation; however, Russell shows that disabled and non-disabled authors alike can manipulate language in order to unsettle the conventional legibility of disabled bodies. In result, "embodied citizens" take advantage of their centrality in the national imaginary and unmask a U.S. body politic often idealized as unalterable and omnipotent, like the national agenda it was meant to materialize in the first place.

In Who Sings the Nation-State?, Judith Butler wonders, "what does it mean to be at once contained and dispossessed by the state?" (5). Whereas the road from this query leads to "states of exception" such as Gaza or Guantanamo, Russell argues that this path of inquiry also directs to the plea of the "embodied citizen." "Contained" as symbols and "dispossessed" as volitional subjects, "embodied citizens" deserve closer attention from political theorists. Conversely, Russell encourages disability-studies scholars to investigate the crisscrosses between U.S. nationalism, imperialism, and racism, on the one hand, and the social construction of disability, on the other.

Works Cited

  • Butler, Judith and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull, 2007.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Manuel Herrero-Puertas



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