Mona Baie reports from the conference ‘Literary and Cultural Disability Studies: British and Continental Perspectives’ (University of Fribourg, Switzerland).
From 2nd to 4th November 2023 Johannes Görbert, Klaus Birnstiel and Martina King organised the three-day hybrid conference ‘Literary and Cultural Disability Studies: British and Continental Perspectives’ at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). The conference was part of a series of conferences from the network ‘Inclusive Philology: Literary Disability Studies in the German-Speaking Realm’ and was funded by the German Research Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Centenary Fund of the University of Fribourg. The event aimed to foster international and interdisciplinary dialogue, emphasising the potential of literary and cultural disability studies to transcend linguistic, cultural and disciplinary boundaries.
Cultures and Histories of Disability
The conference commenced with David Bolt’s keynote lecture on ‘ocularnormativism’, a term he coined to describe “the mass or institutionalised endorsement of visual necessity” (Bolt 2013, p. 5). Bolt considered the manifestations of this endorsement in contemporary British cultural practices, particularly in relation to children’s games like ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ and ‘Leap Frog’. His exploration of visual impairment and disability set the stage for a day of diverse discussions, spanning philosophical, historical and literary perspectives.
David Feeney, drawing on literary renderings of blindness by Irish and American authors, examined the philosophical debates surrounding aesthetic testimony and argued in favour of a more pragmatic approach to these testimonies when it comes to museum and art access for people with visual impairments. Evelyn Dueck focused on the representation of eyesight in early to late 18th-century German and French medical treatises, revealing a shift over time in the content and style of these treatises that moves from presenting sight as a medical ‘problem’ to be solved by physicians to a medical ‘scandal’ attributed to individual misbehaviour. Moving to the 20th century and a singularly horrendous episode in the treatment of people with disabilities, Martina King presented on eugenic propaganda in German National Socialist (NS) medical fiction. King demonstrated how the inhumane ideas of the 1920 treatise Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life published by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche that framed disabled people’s lives as ‘unworthy of living’ were incorporated in highly popular NS medical novels such as Bettina Ewerbeck’s Angela Koldewey: Roman einer jungen Ärztin (Story of a young female doctor,1939). With a black-and-white rhetoric that depicts characters with bodily or mental disabilities as hopelessly miserable, suffering creatures in need of ‘saving’ by heroic doctors, the texts served to obfuscate and embellish biomedical totalitarianism, and can in part be considered what King termed ‘murderous literature’.
The second and third day continued with papers on the (literary) representation of disability in different cultural contexts and periods. A recurring topic were the challenges and prospects of research in and across diverse linguistic communities.
In her keynote lecture, sociologist Anne Waldschmidt offered a theoretical perspective on the understanding of disability as a cultural phenomenon. Her ‘cultural model of dis/ability’ (Waldschmidt 2018), which she developed as an extension of the social model, understands disability as inextricably intertwined with cultural practices and norms; disability thus becomes a lens through which we can understand a culture’s assumptions and prescriptions about ‘ability’ as much as its perceived deviations. As part of her methodological concerns, Waldschmidt noted the challenge of finding a common language for her work in different linguistic contexts, highlighting, for example, her preference for the English term ‘disability’ over the German term ‘Behinderung’ (literal translation: ‘hindrance’) – even in German-speaking publications.
The literal movement of a disabled person between different sociocultural realms was then the concern of Johannes Görbert’s talk on the travel writings of the German vaudeville artist Carl Herrmann Unthan. Unthan, who was born without arms, travelled across Europe and the Americas at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and became a well-known figure in the artistic and wider cultural scene. In Görbert’s analysis of the travelogues, Unthan emerged as a highly paradoxical figure – he is both a ‘crip’ and an avidly travelling ‘supercrip’, whose adventures exceed those of ‘normal’ people, both a vaudeville artist and a man of the bourgeoise, both a cosmopolitan world-traveller and a struggling artist deeply attached to the German musical scene.
Three further talks on disability in German- and English-language literature, given by Linda Leskau, Swaantje Otto, and Mona Baie, underscored the challenges of translating and comparing disability narratives between languages. Leskau analysed the children’s novel Heidi (1880) by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri from an intersectional perspective to show how the text, in contrast to dominant readings, in fact offers insights into the interdependencies of disability with categories such as age, religion, class and gender. Leskau noted subtle differences in the German and English versions of the novel, highlighting how translation contributes to nuanced shifts in the meaning of narratives of disability. Otto in her presentation on the novella Der Schimmelreiter (Rider on the White Horse, 1888) by the German author Theodor Storm touched on similar issues. The focus of her talk was the novella’s perspectivisation of the character of Wienke, the protagonist’s intellectually disabled child; like Leskau, Otto observed several differences in the English translations compared to the German original and hypothesised how these might allow varied interpretations of Wienke’s impairment. In my own presentation on clinical spaces and the politics of disability in Hilary Mantel’s English-language memoir Giving up the Ghost (2003), translation played less of a role – though I did mention language and the issue of Anglocentrism in relation to the genre of ‘illness narratives’, suggesting that a perspective of Comparative Literature can contribute to our understanding of the term and the texts it encompasses. In the conference paper, I analysed the depiction of various clinical spaces in Giving Up the Ghost – from GP’s offices to psychiatric facilities to London’s St George’s Hospital – to show how the text effectively conveys a sense of a life disabled by the absence of adequate care through different forms of spatial narration.
Unfortunately, Tom Shakespeare could not deliver his keynote lecture live for health reasons. In his presentation, which was made available to participants shortly after the conference via a video file, he spoke about the complexities of representing disabled people’s lives from his perspective as both a person with a disability himself and a sociologist with an expertise in qualitative research. Shakespeare noted, above all, the missing representation of complex disabled characters in fictional literary works – and argued that those works could best be produced by disabled writers as experts by experience. As a case in point: Tom Shakespeare’s first novel The Ha-Ha, which features a disabled protagonist, will be published by Duckworth Books in March 2024.
New Perspectives and Provocations
Throughout the conference, speakers critically engaged with current or future directions of literary and cultural disability studies. Several presentations were explicitly framed as ‘provocations’ to the field.
Michael Schillmeier examined current experiences of crises – from the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis to housing and the climate crises – to show how these are underpinned and perpetuated by neoliberal logics of adaptation and self-management that disproportionately disadvantage disabled people’s lives. In his talk he proposed a ‘culture of interstices’ as an alternative framework that understands crises not as events ‘to be managed’ but as opportunities to hesitate and reflect on how we might think and live differently. Schillmeier’s presentation was followed by Klaus Birnstiel’s talk on the history of disability research in German Literary Studies. Birnstiel traced the evolution of the discipline’s engagement with disability as a shift from a ‘history of motifs’, concerned with content analysis, to more sophisticated literary analyses adopting methods and terminology from (Anglo-American) cultural studies, and he argued for yet more theoretical nuance and a focus on form rather than content.
In other illuminating presentations, Jenny Bergenmar, incorporating Scandinavian and Anglo-American theories of neurodivergence and queerness, considered the possibility of a neurodivergent literary studies and suggested methodologies for conducting neurodivergent textual analyses. Interestingly, the prospects of multilingual thinking came to the fore when Bergenmar discussed her adaptation of the Nordic concept ‘skev’ (in Swedish) or ‘skeiv’ (in Norwegian) – roughly aligning with the English term ‘weird’ – to develop notions of (neuro)divergence. Ria Cheyne offered a provocation to both literary disability studies and science fiction studies in her presentation on ‘Neuroqueering and/as Science Fiction’. Moving from the notion of ‘neurodiversity’ to ‘neuroqueering’, the latter deliberately used as a verb to emphasise the idea of an active process rather than a stable concept, Cheyne presented several starting points for exploring the potential of neuroqueer readings of SF, as well as ‘science fictional’ readings of neuroqueer theory. Harriet Cooper, too, gave a paper intended as a provocation to recent Anglo-American literary disability studies. Drawing on literary disability scholars’ theoretical works and elucidating her discussion with excerpts from a memoir written by the parent of a disabled child (Raising Henry by Rachel Adams, 2013), she traced a shift in disability studies’ focus that moves from Mitchell and Synder’s idea that “disability inaugurates the act of interpretation” (Mitchell and Synder 2000, p. 6) to the sharing and telling of disability stories. The provocativeness of Cooper’s talk lay in her open question to the audience of how literary disability studies can remain attuned to the nuances of disability’s meaning in a current cultural moment of self-representation and constant (digital) sharing.
Stuart Murray’s keynote then offered a provocation that in some ways summarised and gave a name to many of the thoughts and ideas put forward earlier. Presenting some lines of argument from his recent book on the relationship between medical humanities and disability studies (Murray 2023), Murray utilised the notion of the ‘in/disciplined’ to offer a working method for critical scholarly work at the intersections of health and illness that moves between and beyond disciplinary formations. As Murray suggests, researchers working in one or both fields of medical humanities and disability studies should not commit to taken-for-granted models or terms – such as, for example, the medical vs. the social model of disability – but instead remain “agile” (Murray 2023, p. 123) in their intellectual stances and practices. How such in/disciplined, perhaps even ‘unruly’ wanderings in the realms of health, illness and disability might translate to practice was illustrated by Murray with critical readings of both his own experience with epilepsy as well as contemporary memoirs that tell of the absence of any fixed truth in experiences of illness – such as Lying (2000) by Lauren Slater.
In the closing roundtable discussion, chaired by Neil Vickers, participants took their cues from Murray’s and others’ provocations to consider the current state and the possible future directions of international literary and cultural disability studies. A consensus among the participants, which can also serve as the concluding appraisal of this conference review, was that there is a need for more research in diverse linguistic contexts, aligning with the aims of the ‘Inclusive Philology’ network for the German-speaking field. More broadly, this conference raised the exciting future possibilities and distinct opportunities that multilingual, cross-disciplinary approaches in literary and cultural disability studies represent, and eagerly anticipated their full exploration in the coming years.
Bolt, David. 2013. Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing. Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press.
Mitchell, David T., and Synder, Sharon L. 2000. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Murray, Stuart. 2023. Medical Humanities and Disability Studies: In/Disciplines. London: Bloomsbury.
Waldschmidt, Anne. 2018. ‘Disability–Culture–Society: Strengths and weaknesses of a cultural model of dis/ability’. ALTER, European Journal of Disability Research 12 (2): 65-78.
About the Author
Mona Baie is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and research associate in the SNSF-funded project ‘Medical Spaces in Literary Prose of the Long Twentieth Century’ at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). She has studied medicine, health humanities and literature in Heidelberg, London and Fribourg. Mona can be found on Twitter/X and on BlueSky (monabaie.bsky.social) and can be contacted via email at email@example.com.