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Aesthetic Nervousness

Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation

Ato Quayson
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Aesthetic Nervousness
    Book Description:

    Focusing primarily on the work of Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and J. M. Coetzee, Ato Quayson launches a thoroughly cross-cultural, interdisciplinary study of the representation of physical disability. Quayson suggests that the subliminal unease and moral panic invoked by the disabled is refracted within the structures of literature and literary discourse itself, a crisis he terms "aesthetic nervousness." The disabled reminds the able-bodied that the body is provisional and temporary and that normality is wrapped up in certain social frameworks. Quayson expands his argument by turning to Greek and Yoruba writings, African American and postcolonial literature, depictions of deformed characters in early modern England and the plays of Shakespeare, and children's films, among other texts. He considers how disability affects interpersonal relationships and forces the character and the reader to take an ethical standpoint, much like representations of violence, pain, and the sacred. The disabled are also used to represent social suffering, inadvertently obscuring their true hardships.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51117-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 INTRODUCTION: Aesthetic Nervousness
    (pp. 1-31)

    In 2004, scope, a British organization focusing on people with cerebral palsy, launched a campaign called “Time to Get Equal,” in which they highlighted the various forms of discrimination that people with cerebral palsy were exposed to by care professionals, the various care institutions, and the general public. A Web site,, provided personal accounts of some of the ways in which such people had been negotiating their day-to-day lives. One of the supporting images (figure 1) used to launch the campaign is fascinating in its suggestive use of literary echoes. To the right hand side of the frame, we...

    (pp. 32-53)

    In a little-known work published in 1971 titled The Limping Hero: Grotesques in Literature, Peter L. Hays attempts the highly ambitious project of accounting for all representations of limping heroes in Western literature from classical times to the early twentieth century. His argument is at once simple and complex. Focusing exclusively on male characters, and drawing out implications from the Bible, the Torah, Homer, and other sacred and classical texts, Hays maintains that limping heroes may all be taken as emblematic variants of infertility. From this premise, it is a short step to suggesting that such limping figures be seen...

  7. 3 SAMUEL BECKETT: Disability as Hermeneutical Impasse
    (pp. 54-85)

    In this chapter, I pose a simple but quite provocative question, namely: what happens to our interpretation when we examine the status of disability within a representational system in which the discomfort of disability is not accounted for? “Discomfort,” as I use it here, is a euphemism for a broad range of perturbations that afflict the character with disability, from embarrassment to physical discomfiture to pain, both mental and physical. As we shall see, pain is particularly relevant to a discussion of disability in Beckett because it is the one element that we do not find properly accounted for in...

  8. 4 TONI MORRISON: Disability, Ambiguity, and Perspectival Modulations
    (pp. 86-114)

    Morrison’s work telescopes a variety of corporeal differences onto the foreground of representation: black, female, and disabled. Even in Playing in the Dark (1992), her book of interlinked essays in which she excavates the repeated tendency in white American writing of aligning internal crises to socially governed relationships with race, it is interesting to note that at least half of the texts to which she pays close attention have to do with disability.¹ There is not a single one of her novels published thus far that does not have at least one disabled figure. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997, 115–...

  9. 5 WOLE SOYINKA: Disability, Maimed Rites, and the Systemic Uncanny
    (pp. 115-146)

    From Mary Douglas’s discussion in Purity and Danger (1966) we get a sense of the main ways in which ritual pollution, uncleanliness, and contagion are demarcated in various societies. As she shows, in the early historical stages of anthropological studies religions, and indeed entire cultures, were divided between those that attributed pollution to material circumstances (the proximity to dirt, blood, spittle, and other excrescences) and those that, irrespective of such material circumstances, saw pollution in terms of intentionalities and psychological motivations. Such social demarcations are still in different degrees as pertinent to modern societies as they are to so-called primitive...

  10. 6 J. M. COETZEE: Speech, Silence, Autism and Dialogism
    (pp. 147-173)

    So far, the interest of the previous chapters has been mainly on physical disability. Whenever I have turned to a discussion of mental and psychological states, as was the case with Molloy and Consolata, it was to re-situate their physical impairments within the parameters provided by their highly elaborated states of consciousness. I want to turn now to cognitive as opposed to physical disability, with a special focus on the representation of the autistic spectrum in literary writing. But in turning in this direction I will also be raising certain theoretical questions regarding narrative itself. Whereas in chapter 1 I...

  11. 7 THE REPEATING ISLAND: Race, Difference, Disability, and the Heterogeneities of Robben Island’s History
    (pp. 174-204)

    In The Repeating Island, Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s magnificent book on the Caribbean, he argues persuasively for seeing the Caribbean as not having a center.¹ In his words, it is “not a common archipelago, but a meta-archipelago and as meta-archipelago it has the virtue of having neither a boundary nor a center” (Benitez-Rojo 1992, 4). By enumerating an elaborate cultural and geographical inventory for the Caribbean that takes in various times and places, Benitez-Rojo illustrates the degree of the Caribbean’s decenteredness and also supplies us with a way of thinking about islands as crossroads. The point to take from his reflections is...

    (pp. 205-212)

    On July 6, 2006, the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) in Accra organized a public lecture as part of events to celebrate the passing of Ghana’s Persons with Disability Act. It had taken twelve years of active work by various disability advocacy groups and the CDD to get the relevant parliamentary committee to consider the bill. It had been a long struggle full of unanticipated twists and turns. Chaired by renowned Ghanaian Professor of Linguistics Kwesi Yankah and arranged under the general rubric of “Language and Attitudinal Change: Beyond Disability Legislation,” the event gave me the opportunity to share some...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 213-230)
    (pp. 231-242)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 243-246)