‘Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature’ reviewed by Dr Michelle S. Hite.

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (Columbia University Press, 2017: Twentieth Anniversary Edition).

Extraordinary Bodies, the Medical Humanities, and Civic Inclusion


Rosemarie Garland Thomson begins the twentieth anniversary edition of Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature with a poignant Preface that reflects on the book’s cover — Frida Kahlo’s (1951) Self Portrait with Portrait of Doctor Farill. Thomson notes how power, perspective, distance, difference, and creation characterise the relationship between Kahlo and her surgeon, as well as the interplay of art and medicine in conceptualisations of disability in general. For Thomson, art and medicine prove essential arenas for producing and hosting ‘the cultural work of disability in humanities studies’ (p. VII). As such, the book explores disability through an interpretive lens that inaugurates an awareness of the practice of making or manufacturing culture through language. Using American literature alongside key ideas from feminist, literary, and political theory, Thomson unsettles overarching presumptions of congenital deficiency as the master narrative of bodily difference from an imagined norm. To this end, Extraordinary Bodies puts forward a theory of disability challenging the ascendance of medicine in framing the terms for interpreting people with disabilities.

The book’s first two chapters establish the foundation for recognising the disabled body as a social construction. Central to this emergence is Thomson’s reading of Aristotle for ‘initiat[ing] the discursive practice of marking what is deemed aberrant while conceding what is privileged behind an assertion of normalcy’ (p. 20). Feminist theory emerges as a ‘related discourse of otherness that can be transferred to analyses of disability’ (p. 16) given Aristotle’s reading of female bodies as constitutive markers of monstrous difference. Thomson then weds this to the social theories of Mary Douglas, Erving Goffman, and Michel Foucault so as to consider how the design and organization of the social, political, and the built environment shapes disability. As Thomson notes in discussing the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,’ ‘the sociopolitical meanings and consequences’ of bodily difference ‘are entirely culturally determined’ (p. 7) and yet people subsequently confront a physical world moulded in accordance with the manufactured norms culture creates. To this end, culture presumes bodies equipped to ascend stairs and in doing so creates a barrier for those using a wheelchair. Greater cultural emphasis on access, however, would suggest building ramps (see p. 7).

The third chapter in Extraordinary Bodies takes freak shows as an historical example of a cultural text of bodily difference that has responded to anxiety brought on by significant economic, political, and social change. The book’s title takes its name from the varieties of physical differences that were circulated and packaged as sources of wonder through freak shows during the early nineteenth century. Exploiting the sense of awe and fascination that had become attached to bodily difference since at least antiquity, the American freak show ‘acted out a relationship in which exoticized disabled people and people of colour functioned as physical opposites of the idealized American’ (pp. 64–65). Though the “extraordinary” served as a marker of distance and difference, it also allowed for the possibility that bodily distinction was powerful and capable. As a response to “disability,” the term “extraordinary” seeks to recapture the audacious potential of prodigious bodies to have full and meaningful lives beyond the diminished judgements that adhere to the language of “disability” as it became established as medical terminology by the 1940s.

Extraordinary Bodies poses a direct challenge to medicine’s narrative authority and thus its role in authoring disability as a bodily tale of woe. Medicine mediates the body as it emerged through history as a site for exposing and negotiating social anxieties arising in a contest of changing technological modes of production, political arrangements, and economic organization. In doing so, medicine helped define, ‘the person with a disability as a figure excluded from economic opportunities and therefore without free agency, self-determinism, and self-possession [that were] the ennobling attributes of the liberal American individual’ (p. 50). The category of “the disabled” came to encapsulate unruly bodies under the authority of medicine and science as sites of “correction.” With this corrective authority, medicine plays a significant role in authoring the “normate” — defined by Thomson as ‘the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them’ (p. 8). Chapter Four sets in relief the ways that the unchallenged “normate” sustains systems of domination given authorial failure to examine how disability functions for identity. As Thomson’s example of sentimental fiction shows, ‘disability is a free-floating signifier for evil and woe that envelopes and diminishes the figures so that they tend to become gestures of human wretchedness rather than characters with whom readers might identify’ (p. 84). Instead, recognizing the category of disability within discourses of power helps to destabilize these dynamics.

Given the consequences of these discourses of power, Extraordinary Bodies strives ‘to move disability from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities, to recast it from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity’ (p.6). As such, “disability” designates a political group with a specific history and relationship to rights. Through its engagement with black women’s liberation novels, Chapter Five demonstrates how disability, as a category of ethnicity, performs as a viable source of its own authority. Unlike the ‘gestures of human wretchedness’ signalled in sentimental fiction, the fiction of Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde not only ‘affirms the human ability to survive pain, loss, and the denial of both self and culture without abridging experiences of passion, beauty, attachment, and joy,’ but the disabled body functions as extraordinary and thus ‘as a collective conscience testifying to the power and dignity inherent’ in it (p. 116).

In sum, Extraordinary Bodies invites the medical humanities to imagine narratives of embodiment beyond pathology; to explore the intersection between art and science in support of transforming the world for the sake of greater civic inclusion.

Reviewed by Dr Michelle S. Hite, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Spelman College where she serves as the department’s liaison to the Student Access Center.

Correspondence to Dr Michelle S. Hite.

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