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Ability Underneath: Bodies in the Literary Imagination

  • Author(s): Bednarska, Dominika
  • Advisor(s): Schweik, Susan
  • et al.

My dissertation explores conceptions of ability and ableization--a term I coin to describe the way in which ability norms can inform and influence and underlie conceptions of aesthetics--in trans-Atlantic twentieth-century literature. I contend that ability not only underlies fundamental understandings of aesthetics, but also of gender and sexuality as well as temporality. By ability, I mean the way that bodies are conceived or perceived as able. Constructions of ability can be relatively narrow, privileging those with specific kinds of bodies and limiting or discounting those without them. But they can also include a broad construction of ability that makes space for a variety of bodies: different ways of functioning and of using the body to perceive the world. I view ability (and its concomitant, disability) as a broad-reaching term which functions as a unifier for a range of practices, attitudes, and discourses around bodily and psychological variations in function or perceptions of those variations. My project is one of the few to explore multiple conceptions of ability and their impact on textual representation as well as on issues in queer and gender studies. Robert McRuer's work in Crip Theory applies queer theory to concepts of disability, but focuses on how these ideologies are formed within and against neo-liberal capitalism. While I utilize queer theory, my work seeks to get at a more nuanced understanding of how disability and sexuality interact as well as how considering disability can reformulate our understandings of temporality.

1. A Cripped Erotic: Gender and Disability in James Joyce's "Nausicaa"

I argue that "Nausicaa" in James Joyce's Ulysses produces what I call a "cripped erotic" through its counter-narrative to disabled sexuality, and also challenges ocularcentric constructions of desire and heternonormative constructions of sex itself. Past critical interpretations have focused on Gerty's disempowerment and Bloom's objectification of her, in a scene which describes, from both characters' perspectives, Bloom watching Gerty on a swing while fantasizing about her. Moving beyond the view of Gerty as a passive victim, more recent critics have highlighted her agency in the scene. My reading looks at these most recent interpretations and examines how considering Gerty's limp complicates the ways in which her objectification functions. When it is considered in relation to assumptions about the asexuality and undesirability of people with disabilities, Gerty's objectification and seemingly narcissistic tendencies take on a very different meaning. Both Bloom's and Gerty's oscillations about disability's relationship to desirability reveal that norms of gender are built upon norms of ability. The performative nature of both of these sets of norms allows for a gendered disabled subjectivity.

2. Cripping Time: From Woolf to Haraway

I use Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and On Being Ill to examine how disability and queerness function in conjunction with one another to critique (hetero)normative temporal modes. I also consider how disability fails to conform entirely to queer time, perhaps suggesting that the embodiment of illness and disability reconfigures these theories. Mrs. Dalloway and On Being Ill lay the groundwork for theorizing disability and temporality. I argue for both the inextricability of gender and ability norms and how Woolf's writing can be brought into conversation with contemporary theories on queer temporality and futurity. Woolf's work suggests that illness constructs an alternate sense of temporality that contradicts masculine norms of public time. Here, I build on and critique Judith Halberstam's work on queer time and also draw on Donna Haraway's work to theorize a disability or "crip" temporality.

3. Playing with Difference: Disability in Toni Morrison's Novels

Toni Morrison's novels The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Sula, and Tar Baby demonstrate a narrow conception of ability that stems from an appropriation of disability. As Morrison explores how racialization functions in texts by white authors, I examine how ableization functions in her own texts. Disability functions as a stand-in for other identities, specifically race and class. I apply Morrison's writing on the under-acknowledgement and appropriation of race within white-authored canonical American literature to her own writing with regard to disability, arguing that her use of disability as a metaphor mimics the same kind of ideological strategies that she is critical of in relation to white-authored canonical texts. My extensive critique of Morrison differs dramatically from the celebratory way her novels have been read by major disability studies scholars, Ato Quayson and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. I argue that she uses disabled characters to enable the plot and highlight nondisabled protagonists, and that when Morrison de-emphasizes disability her characters are more fully developed.

4. Written on Several Bodies: Examining Ideologies of Gender, Sexuality and Ability in Jeanette Winterson

My final chapter, on Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, complicates the neat division between broad and narrow constructions of ability. In placing the novel alongside Winterson's editorial about deaf lesbians attempting to have a deaf child, we can see the ways in which heteronormativity and ableism are linked as oppressive structures. The novel makes an extensive critique of the medicalization of the body and connects this critique to heteronormative logics and structures of reproduction. In contrast, Winterson's public objection works by affirming rather than criticizing these same connections. Part of the reason for this reversal is seen in Winterson's own writings about the nature of art and her perception that modernist writing relies upon an able body in order to be appreciated. Ironically, the authors that Winterson uses to support her claims include both Woolf and Joyce. Deaf poetics, I show, provides an alternative to Winterson's conception of the aesthetic and helps to further theorize what possibilities a broader conception of ability might bring to our understandings of art.

This project not only asks what kinds of bodies are imagined within a text, but what kind of bodies we imagine reading the text. This dissertation takes familiar concepts such as theorizations of queer temporality, and expands them to include disability as an experience which not only broadens the scope of these ideas but challenges them. It is one of the first projects in literary representation to examine disability beyond character depiction and examine a text's sensory schema as a commentary on ability itself.

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