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Review by Tiffany-Ashton Gatsby, Email: tagatsby@gmail.com

Michael D. Snediker masterfully dives deep into the “ontological hinterlands” (11) of chronic pain while examining the complexities of queer embodiment by poetically weaving storytelling and critical literary analysis together in Contingent Figure. Through an exceptionally detailed investigation of texts by Herman Melville, Henry James, Emily Dickenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and others, juxtaposed against the critique of scholars like queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Snediker explores literature’s lexical history and ongoing contributions to how both disability and chronic pain are seen and unseen. Tackling the complexities of the phenomenology of chronic pain, Snediker’s use of autobiographical narrative clearly exhibits how the tangible presence of chronic pain is only known through the lived experience of the individual to which the pain embodies. 

Contingent Figure takes an in-depth look at Melville’s well-known character, Captain Ahab, and examines how Ahab’s “madness” colors the reader’s perception of disability, chronic pain, and the assumption of suffering. Snediker compares the vivid aesthetics of Ahab’s experience with chronic pain to Butler’s concept of performativity, wherein Melville’s protagonist is performing his pain as part of his identity. Snediker also spends significant time focusing on the etymology of Melville’s words, even digging into the root of the word “about” — the original Old English meaning “on the outside of” (40) — and how one must grasp the entirety of a story from the outside, beginning to end, to know what it is about. Correlating that to chronic pain, Snediker emphasizes that he is never outside of the experience of chronic pain, and with no recollection of its beginning and no end in sight, it is almost impossible to describe. Snediker posits that the figuration of pain distorts what makes the self and what prevents one from becoming themselves.      

Of particular interest was Snediker’s critique of queer themes in the visual arts. Snediker examines Leo Bersani’s 1987 essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”, written in the height of the AIDS pandemic: scrutinizing Bersani’s fascination with the paintings of artist Mark Rothko, and probing the association of Rothko’s blurred rectangles with the “erotics of abstracted expressionism to which the literalism of sex so often gives way” (33). While Snediker may have ascribed meaning far beyond the artist’s intent, he examines the geometric objects in Rothko’s paintings and the relation to their positioning of top and bottom, foreground and background, to that of the abstract expressionism of sex and the potential health implications of homosexual top-bottom relationships. Snediker inquires how the implication of relational geometry expresses spaces that need filling, through the risky jouissance of male homosexuality and the fear of the loss of self. 

Snediker also addresses the homoerotic fantasy of the subject-object relationship expressed through Caravaggio’s “compulsive insertion of himself” (180) in many of his paintings, dancing in the liminal spaces between and exuberant life and gruesome death. However valid Snediker’s argument, one must remember that Caravaggio’s insertion of himself in his paintings was a common form of self-portraiture during the period which also acted as a way to promote oneself. Additionally, his appearance was a primary side effect of his then-controversial technique of painting directly from a live model without any preliminary sketching, where the convenience of using a mirror was sometimes more preferable, and always more affordable, than hiring models. Readers unfamiliar with the work of Caravaggio and Rothko would benefit from visually examining the paintings referred to in the text. While Snediker’s elucidation of Caravaggio’s gruesome decapitations alongside the blurred lines of Rothko’s non mimetic art evoke tangible visions for the reader to explore, viewing the artist’s works first hand would further complement Snediker’s interpretations. 
Snediker’s arguments focus on issues critical to disability studies and queer theory, however, Contingent Figure focuses significantly more attention on intense and detailed literary analysis and literary theory as it relates to chronic pain and queer embodiment. While Snediker’s content is an important contribution to scholarly work in both disability studies and queer theory, this may be a barrier to some readers who prefer more approachable content that focuses on broader themes. Contingent Figure is a high context book meant for close reading. The years of dedication and research represented in the text require detailed examination and a high aptitude for complex analysis. Readers of Contingent Figure should prepare to take time with the book, allowing for complete immersion into the complexities of linguistic processes and lexical investigations Snediker undertakes, as the work is not accessible for casual readers. The book is well suited for advanced readers familiar with the arts, classic literature, and poetry as well as intermediate knowledge of queer theory, disability studies, and literary theory. While some shorter excerpts and chapter subsections are appropriate for advanced undergraduate students, this work is more geared towards a graduate and post-graduate level audience.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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