Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. (2006). Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 245 pgs. Paper 0-226-76732-9, $19.

Reviewed by Peter L. Waldman, The Graduate School and University Center (CUNY)

Cultural locations of disability refer to "...sites of violence, restriction, confinement, and absence of liberty for people with disabilities" (p. x). In a compelling three-part study, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell trace the histories and representations of these sites through the wide-ranging cultural model of disability studies.

Part I outlines the history of the eugenics movement in America beginning with an analysis of Melville's novel, The Confidence-Man (1857), which reveals itself as a structural critique of nineteenth century U.S. capitalism and the charity systems that kept disabled populations locked in positions of social and economic inequality. Chapter Two explores the mechanisms with which American eugenicists (such as Goddard, Fernald, and Anderson) pathologized deviant bodily aesthetics as signifiers of a biologically determined "feeblemindedness," a diagnosis that came to mark all "social ills" (p. 88) and resulted ultimately in the passage of compulsory sterilization laws in fifteen states and marriage laws in forty (p. 98). Part II begins with a study concerning the parallels between the methods of documenting disabled bodies in the work of Foucault and the documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Chapter Five classifies Hollywood's history of impairment-based representations of disability using Linda Williams's rubric of "body genres" (p. 165); these representations are countered by the "new disability documentary cinema's" treatment of its disabled subjects as individuals possessed of independence and agency. The book concludes (Part III) with suggestions for university-based disability studies scholars working alongside health professionals whose impairment-based human subject research they are often at odds with.

The nineteenth century witnessed a radical shift in the public's perception of disability from earlier notions of "exotic monstrosity or divine punishment" to "investments in normalization" (p. 64), which proscribed unemployment and begging. A nascent eugenics movement motivated by the social and economic forces of Jacksonian America's moneyed classes relegated beggars, alcoholics, and the physically disabled to institutions of lifetime custodianship. Newly named and pathologized disabled populations found themselves the victims of legislation criminalizing street begging, which was designed to make invisible any public display of bodily deviance.

Decades after what Snyder and Mitchell term the "Eugenic Atlantic," a period of trans-Atlantic (American, British, French, and German) trafficking of human subject research and experimentation, which found its most heinous expression in Nazi psychiatric institutions where disabled people were systematically murdered ("euthanized") on the grounds that they lived "lives unworthy of life" (p. 121), the authors hear "Echoes of Eugenics": cane taps, perhaps, against the cinder-blocked walls of Alabama's Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind. These "blind travelers at training school" (p. 147), pictured from Wiseman's Work and Adjustment (1986) are, according to Snyder and Mitchell, "learning to be blind" (p. 145), or are "Conditioned to being watched as the primary experience of visual impairment..." (p. 146). The authors argue that it is Wiseman's utilization of Foucault's "analytical methods" that reveal his "metastructural critique of institutional operations" (p. 144). Both his editing and his camera's unblinking gaze "expose the underpinnings of coercion as the subtle and pervasive maneuvers of power..." (p. 138).

The Hollywood cinema, in contrast, perpetuates the reification of bodily aesthetics as a marker of deviance through what Linda Williams terms its "body genres." The narrative structures, visual codes, and mise en scène of these genres lack "esthetic distance" (p. 160) and provoke "extreme sensation" (p. 162) in audience members. Body genres continually return to such codes as the horror film's villain whose "inborn monstrosity" provokes "disgust"; to the "maimed" female of the melodrama who engages our "pity"; and to the comedy's "con artist" whose "faked impairment" appeals to our collective sense of "superiority" (p. 165).

Cultural Locations of Disability is, at its core, a structural critique of modern forms of institutionalized power in the so-called "humane" treatment and research practices of health professionals on disabled populations (such as those documented in Wiseman's Multi-handicapped Series). Like Foucault before them, Snyder and Mitchell are deeply critical of "...excessive diagnosis and the evaluation of bodies within categories of pathology..." which "...proved to be the characteristic form of oppression in the modern period" (p. 193).

But Foucault expands his critique of medical institutions to the academy itself "...that would deliver a tangible, even politicized, knowledge of bodies and their attendant pathologies to the 'light' of academic disciplines" (p. 194). For their own part, Snyder and Mitchell would have less "participatory research, client-based research, or community consultation" in the academy, as such research "run[s] the risk of reproducing aspects of an oppressive structure that disability studies was expected to correct or, at least, avoid." In fact, the authors conclude with "a heretical claim" that "textually based analysis is the only absolute remedy to the exhaustion of people-based research practices" (p. 201).

Perhaps what is most jarring about Cultural Locations of Disability—its episodic nature—is also its strength. Snyder and Mitchell traverse the expansive terrain of (cultural model) disability studies leaving seed in fertile ground for further research.

Copyright (c) 2006 Peter L. Waldman

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