Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Sandahl C. & Auslander P., (Eds.). (2005). Bodies in Commotion: Disability & Performance. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 339 pages, $26.95, Paperback 0-472-06891-1.

Reviewed by Debra Levine, New York University

"All life is motion; and in life, comotion is the extremest point of life" (p. 279). This quote from Lord Byron's 1822 dramatic text is revisited by Sharon L.Snyder in her essay, "Unfixing Disability in Lord Byron's The Deformed Transformed." Snyder offers an historical example that presages a disability studies perspective; in his play, Byron loosens the culturally constructed links between physical representation of bodies in performance and fixed assumptions of normativity. Byron dramatizes, and by extension contemporary disability theorists have exposed, the metaphors and concepts which permit the abled-bodied to maintain an illusion of imperviousness to the chaos and interdependence of human experience, a privilege dependent on and denied to the bodies characterized as "disabled" because of "suffering, weakness or devolution" (p. 279).

Bodies in Commotion: Disability & Performance, the important new anthology of essays edited by Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, explores the performative affects and effects of staging disability, in theatre, in everyday life, and in contemporary and historical dramatic texts. Employing the trope of commotion as an acting out and away from the social restrictions placed on impaired bodies, the authors in this volume frame the spectacle of disability not just through the actions of the impaired body but through the co-motion of spectatorship. This dance between performer and spectator within the performance context allows a space to re-iterate disability with a difference. Framed as a performance of, not as an essential fact about, a body, disability performance opens up a ludic space for differently abled bodies to shift social narratives and scripts away from able-bodied authorship. Seizing control of performance opportunities, deciding to perform or not to perform in a given situation, calling attention to the performance as such and demanding acknowledgement of how spectators are implicated through their diagnostic gaze, the disabled "performer" remakes meaning and creatively revises previously stigmatizing encounters into those which acknowledge and respect the alterity of extra ordinary bodies.

Rejecting the medical establishment's primary focus on art and performance as a method of rehabilitation, this anthology focuses on performances of and about disability as interventions that speak to and of the minority culture organized through disabled identification. Art no longer serves as a technology to "cure" an impairment. Instead disabled bodies onstage and in everyday life challenge the stable terrain of ableness and break long-held cultural assumptions of what kinds of bodies can display beauty and mastery. Without this cultural paradigm shift, achieved only through a disability studies perspective, abled bodied spectators are permitted to maintain their comfortable aesthetic difference as discussed by Jim Ferris in his essay "Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability." This critical distance guards against the transformative potential of commotion. As Shannon Bradford observes, in her nuanced account of The National Theatre of the Deaf's (NTD) production of Italian Straw Hat, the primary audience for this and other NTD productions is a hearing audience. Many of the d/Deaf audience attending had left the performance at intermission because the lighting, intended to convey atmosphere and visual contrast was too dim to clearly read the hands signing the play, and the highly patterned costumes both obscured the signer's hands and fatigued the eyes of the d/Deaf audience.

Deepening the inquiry into the relationship between representations of intersubjectivity and accessibility, a disability studies perspective challenges arts practitioners to conceptualize the performance encounter to reflect a worldview that all bodies are at best temporarily abled. Rather than choosing between the legibility of signing hands or atmospheric lighting effects, theatrical practitioners could look to the innovative uses of media technology pioneered by disabled dancer/choreographer Cathy Weis, described by Jennifer Parker in "Shifting Strengths: The Cyborg Theatre of Cathy Weis."

In a clear and insightful manner, each author explicates the performative value of a disability studies perspective. Conceptualizing disability as a social performance expands the margins of representation, it gestures toward the both/and for both performer and spectator, averting the ableist dependency on either/or. Rather than just inserting a d/Deaf body into a play and supporting it with peripherally located spoken translation to perform deafness for a hearing audience, performances conceived from a disability perspective rethink how to do things with words, signs, movement, bodies and technologies to foreground the encounter between differently abled bodies both on and off stage. Emerging from an ethics of disability activism, the performances and encounters described in this text stage previously under-represented, marginal and invisible bodies and demand that their specifically embodied differences be valued. Rethinking performance from inside a disability perspective pioneers agentic, not objectifying, modes of representation for all bodies.

Far from performing a crippling critique of what exists, this group of essays offers cogent strategies of how to enact a dis-modern future. Dis-modernism, the term coined by Lennard Davis, advanced by Peggy Phelan in her afterward as an ethical organizing principle, "makes the rights of the disabled the model for all human rights" (p. 323). The notion of a bodily-based ethics coincides with what Phelan calls a "performance-based world view...one that takes touch as axiomatic, emotional attachment as a value and interconnection as a constant" (p. 323). This anthology initiates the productive co-motion between the interdisciplinary fields of performance and disability studies. The commotion it engenders is a liberating response to the call of long-held cultural scripts relieved of their burden of misrepresentation.