Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

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Review by D. Christopher Gabbard, Univ. of North Florida, cgabbard@unf.edu
Keywords: Britain; literature; disability

Physical Disability in British Romantic Literature is Essaka Joshua’s third book. Earlier versions of its chapters appeared in Michael Bradshaw’s 2016 Disabling Romanticism and Clare Barker’s and Stuart Murray’s 2018 Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. As its title indicates, Joshua confines her interrogations to cultural analysis of physical impairments in Romantic literature and steers clear of mental health issues (“madness”). 

The book opens with an introduction that is a “must read” for anyone entering into or already working in cultural/historical disability studies focusing on the eighteenth century and/or the Romantic period. Following it are six chapters divided into two parts. Each of the six chapters, along with the introduction and conclusion, is painstakingly researched and closely reasoned, and each displays a lucidity worthy of emulation.

The first part, titled “Politics of Ability,” is made up of three chapters. In the first, Joshua examines the work of William Godwin (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and various of his fictional texts) with an eye on his ableist presumption that physical capacity determines one’s social worth. Anyone interested in the roots of transhumanism should read this chapter. In the next, she looks at Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication and other texts) in terms of the way the renowned feminist, in her advocacy for women, often resorted to exclusionary rhetoric. In the section’s final chapter, she lays out how William Wordsworth in his poem “The Discharged Soldier” upends readerly expectation with regard to evoking sympathy for a wounded soldier by adopting a rhetorical strategy running counter to the more direct, empathic approaches found in the era’s writing on impaired veterans.

 In the book’s second part, “Aesthetics of Deformity,” she explores a distinction between the aesthetic and functional components of deformity. The first chapter takes up the aesthetics of the picturesque vis-à-vis deformity, scrutinizing works by William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight. The next, on Frances Burney’s Camilla, is exquisite. Joshua contends that the relational quality of the standard of beauty the novel presents foreshadows the social constructionist model of current Disability Studies. And in the concluding chapter, centered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Joshua argues that “Shelley’s interest [is] in how looking constructs monstrosity/deformity, and, in particular, her interest [is] in the creature’s quest to find a sympathetic viewer” (178). This is a stunningly innovative reading.

Each of the six chapters is a groundbreaking piece of scholarship, and, if matters were left at that, its level of discernment and scholarly contribution would be enough to raise this book to the top rank of importance. However, things don’t end there, and herein lies the rub. To appreciate the provocative intervention this book makes, one would do well to first consider the way Disability Studies in the last few decades has theorized and historicized disability in the periods prior to 1900. The disability rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s spurred rigorous scholarly investigations of twentieth century areas of disability interest, and research efforts subsequently trickled down to the nineteenth century, and eventually to the eighteenth. Some of the scholars focusing on the earlier eras were Henri-Jacques Stiker, Lennard Davis, Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, and David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder. 
Their scholarship was intended to support disability activism by providing disabled people with a history of their own, thereby buttressing their claims for justice and contributing to the formation of disability identity as a legitimate political subject position. These scholars sought to identify paradigms governing how disability was perceived in earlier times and explain in what way current conceptions of disability developed. Their work was politically engaged, and Joshua concurs that it was when she writes in the penultimate sentence of her book, “We have perhaps held on to the modern disability concept for so long in our historical literary critical work because it firmly unites our scholarship to where it rightly belongs, as part of the history of disabled people” (184). Joshua acknowledges here that supplying a “history of disabled people” provides both an impetus and motivation for the endeavors of the cultural/historical wing of Disability Studies, but she also implies that a tension exists between political intentions and rigorous scholarship.  
This tension becomes most salient with the word disability. It is one of the incongruities of Disability Studies that, when its practitioners go back into history to retrieve the cultural history of disabled people, the word disability either becomes inoperative or vanishes. Joshua correctly explains that the scope of meanings associated with the word has expanded considerably since the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries while at the same time it has shed the significations it once carried. For this reason, she questions Disability Studies scholars who use the term to describe the social and cultural settings of those living with anomalous bodies in earlier times. She writes, “I … set out to challenge, here, the ‘first wave’ theories or metanarratives of the evolution or history of disability that persist in disability studies. These theories are dependent on the anachronistic term” (2-3). 
Her statement, that the word disability is problematic when applied to the study of periods preceding the twentieth century, is far from novel; it has been made before by such scholars as C. F. Goodey, David Turner, and Chris Mounsey. Or course, this is not to deny that other scholars have used the word rather loosely and seem untroubled when doing so. To drive the point home about its inappropriate application in earlier settings, she includes a thirteen-page appendix detailing how lexicographers over time have defined disability and its surrounding terms. She makes a compelling case for using native terminologies such as “deformity” in lieu of disability, and if she is going to use the word at all in the context of Romanticism, she will only do so by speaking of “pre-disability.” This word choice makes sense and provides an important corrective.
While this book is, in her words, “a revisionist approach to Romantic studies” (5), what Disability Studies scholars engaged in theorizing and historicizing disability in the eighteenth century and the Romantic period will find unsettling is her critique of four claims made by experienced practitioners in the field. This is the aspect of the book that should make those pursuing this line of inquiry take notice because her assessment pretty much “throws under the bus,” if you will, a number of assumptions that have held sway in various quarters. 
Joshua maps the four claims or “metanarratives,” saying that they “continue to be made in historically based theoretical work” (181, 5). The first is the prodigy-to-pathology thesis, which, she maintains, can ultimately be traced back to the writing of Auguste Comte. This is the idea that disability from the medieval period to the nineteenth century transitions from being perceived as a supernatural sign to being understood as a scientific phenomenon. It is one that has been utilized by Rosemarie Garland Thomas as well as by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder. The second, the recirculation thesis, was developed to oppose the supposed oversimplification of the prodigy-to-pathology thesis; it consists of the notion that multiple concepts of disability circulate simultaneously. This thesis has been employed by Stephen Pender and Margrit Shildrick as well as by Larraine Daston and Katharine Park.
The third, the administration thesis, is the concept that disability emerged in the nineteenth century as an invention of governmental bureaucracies developing the welfare state. Associated with this thesis are Deborah Stone, Michael Oliver, and Colin Barnes. And the fourth, which is related to the third, is the normalcy thesis. This is the theory that the development of the discipline of statistics in the first half of the nineteenth century greatly contributed to disability being identified in a way that we would recognize today. Lennard Davis first laid out the normalcy thesis in his 1995 book Enforcing Normalcy
Joshua doesn’t hold any of the four claims in high regard. In fact, the four, she asserts, are “refutable on principle,” and she contends that they should be set aside because they “are dependent on anachronistic concepts of ‘disability’ that leave unacknowledged the multiple definitions that apply to disability concepts” (181). 

Joshua’s analysis of the four claims is cogent, but her conclusion about them is overstated. The four claims are hardly based on “anachronistic concepts of ‘disability.’” In most cases, they grew out of careful research that was cognizant of and accounted for the fact that disability is not ahistorical. Moreover, the four claims hardly rise to the level of being dubbed “metanarratives.” Rather, they are suppositions that thoughtful researchers are surveying the best available data produced. 

Joshua is not alone in voicing discontent with what she calls cultural disability studies’ “metanarratives”; in his 2019 Sight Correction: Vision and Blindness in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Chris Mounsey likewise states strong dissatisfaction with them. He too eschews what he considers to be sweeping claims and favors instead allowing the archival material to speak for itself. Joshua’s critique, and Mounsey’s too, is reminiscent of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s rejection of the totalizing grand narratives or metadiscourses of modernity; he favored instead “little narratives,” none of which would have any claim to universal truth status. But the four claims Joshua identifies in no way resemble grand narratives. Perhaps, this is where we are today in cultural disability studies focusing on eighteenth-century and Romantic literature. The explanations assembled by the so-called “first wave” scholars such as Lennard Davis, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder and others must be re-evaluated in light of the new data coming to light in recent years. And that’s the way it ought to be.

This review is ultimately not the place to settle whether Joshua’s criticisms of the four claims are justified. Her commentary on them no doubt will shake things up and alter the direction of the discussion going forward. Anyone engaging in this area of cultural historical disability studies should read this book both for the insights it brings and the questions it raises.

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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