Identity Politics, Disability, and Culture

Lennard J Davis. Handbook of Disability Studies. Editor: Gary L Albrecht, Katherine Seelman, Michael Bury. Sage Publications. 2001.

In recent years, disability activists and scholars have fought hard to get disability included in the race-class-gender triad. This chapter questions the relative wisdom of that approach since identity, while a useful category, might well turn out to be a confusing if, not itself, oppressive category. Thinking through this issue by concentrating on culture—particularly the novel as a form—might help to clarify how the issue of identity fits into a disability critique. One might begin to understand the current primacy of identity, particularly in the United States, as a function of the postmodern moment by historicizing it as a set of interests. Wendy Brown (1995) postulates that identity politics arose in coordination with the late-twentieth-century liberal state:

On the one side, the state loses even its guise of universality as it becomes ever more transparently invested in particular economic interests, political ends, and social formations…. On the other side, the liberal subject is increasingly disinterred from substantive nation-state identification, not only by the individuating effects of liberal discourse itself but through the social effects of late-twentieth-century economic and political life: deterritorializing demographic flows; the disintegration from within and invasion from without of family and community as (relatively) autonomous sites of social production and identification; consumer capitalism’s marketing discourse in which individual (and sub-individual) desires are produced, commodified, and mobilized as identities. (P. 58)

While identity politics is generally subsumed to a more material analysis in England and Europe, in the United States, identity politics is linked to a larger array of political movements, sometimes referred to as the Rainbow Coalition, to use Jesse Jackson’s term for the coalition that supported his presidential bid. However, in reality, that coalition in the United States has been one in name only with the different identity groups clashing on tactics and agendas, offering a fantasy of cohesion without actually creating one. The one thing these groups have in common is the wish to have the full rights of any citizen. Indeed, in a bourgeois democracy, the issue of rights is often regarded as paramount. Yet a rights-based approach, connected with empowerment, will necessarily lead to quite a limited and conservative goal of making sure that each disenfranchised group has the rights of white middle-class males. This goal, according to Brown (1995), “only preserves capitalism from critique … [and] sustains the invisibility and inarticulateness of class” (p. 61). Although a truly just government should establish a parity of interests for all identity groups, the larger goal would be to place the bar rather higher than set for the projected fantasy of the “middle class” in bourgeois democracies. Indeed, one can argue  that, historically, the emphasis on rights, as opposed to economic inequalities, was ideologically coterminous with the foundation of Western democracy.

I do not wish to convey the idea that I am against identity politics, nor do I think the issues raised by such in regard to the novel are invalid. However, I think we need to recognize that identity politics is a stage through which we are going and only a stage. I think that an analysis of disability can help us interrogate the stage of identity and help point toward a future politics. Indeed, my own work for the past few years has involved the identity of disability. I have been an active proponent of the notion that the tribunal bench needs to be redesigned so that people using wheelchairs as well as the deaf, the blind, and other people with disabilities can be accommodated. My concern is that the model we have of identity politics has some fundamental problems, and my work with people with disabilities has shown me the shortcomings of such a praxis. One must ask the following question: Is identity analysis the sharpest instrument with which to allow analysis and understanding of various cultural phenomena?

To focus, let us pay attention to the demand that disability should be included in the roster of the disenfranchised. The tendency is to see disability as “another” identity to be added to a welter of identities. Thus, one simply adds to a list of outrages committed by a dominant majority. By this standard, if I want disability to be recognized as part of a general outrage against the excluded and marginalized, I must develop a body of knowledge elucidating those injuries. While one perspective might be to turn to social policy, it is my intention in this chapter to focus on some cultural form—in this case, the novel—and show how historically people with disabilities are constructed and, by and large, negatively depicted by the dominant culture. Looking at many characters in novels who are depicted as having disabilities, I intend to show that often they are seen as villains, bitter and warped, or as innocent victims, good and kindly, although desexualized and devitalized. They range from Quilp to Tiny Tim, from Ahab to Esther Summerson, from Quasimodo to Clifford Chatterly.

Yet disability is somewhat different from other identities, and it subjects people to a kind of scrutiny. Disability is an identity that, while it may intersect with other identity categories, is still mainly divorced from rubrics such as family, nation, ethnicity, or gender. I do not mean that disability has nothing to do with these other identities, but rather that it is generally perceived as being independent of one’s identity as a citizen, a woman, or a parent, for example. In other words, disability is perceived by the majority as a nonpolitical identity. Disability activists and theorists have worked hard to make people understand that there is a political history to the body and to the formation of concepts of normalcy.

However, disability confounds the neat borders of identity in that it is not a discrete but rather a porous category. Anyone can become disabled, and it is also possible for a person with disabilities to be “cured” and become “normal.” Linked to this porosity, race, nationality, and ethnicity have been considered biological disabilities in a eugenic culture. Because the category of disability is a shifting one, its contingent nature is all the more challenging to other identities that seem fixed. In some sense, disability is more like class, which is constructed but is not biologically determined. It is also like sexual preference, which, while there may be genetic factors involved, is generally regarded as separated from biological determinants. We might say that disabilityis a very postmodern identity because although one can somatize disability, it is impossible to essentialize it the way one can with the categories of gender or ethnicity. Add to this the fact that there is no unanimity on which impairment is a disability. Furthermore, although disability is “of” the body, it is much more “of” the environment, which can create barriers to access and communication. Also, the category of disability casts quite a wide net. In consulting definitions provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, we find in the same grouping obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, AIDS, deafness, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, and many other diverse conditions. Given this continuum, it is hard to imagine that any one person can be a representative for this group or be a representative character in a novel. Moreover, this very fact leads to a deconstructive potential against any individual claiming to represent the totality of an identity.

More tellingly and to my point, the identity community, if one can call it that, in the United States has been slow to recognize disability as a legitimate member. Perhaps because of the ambiguities I just related, disability is seen in some sense as “spoiling” the neatness of categories of oppression, or victim and victimizer. Anyone working in the field of disability studies will know that disability, despite its legislative accomplishments, is seen generally as having a less legitimate minority status than other more high-profile identities. Indeed, in multicultural curriculum discussions, disability is often struck from the list of required alterities because it is seen as degrading or watering down the integrity of identities. While most faculty would vote for a requirement that African American, Latin American, or Asian American novels should be read in the university, few would, at this point in history, mandate the reading of novels about people with disabilities. A cursory glance at books on diversity and identity shows that disability issues are rarely addressed. The extent to which people with disabilities are excluded from the progressive academic agenda is sobering. In addition, the use of ableist language on the part of critics and scholars who routinely turn a “deaf ear” or find a point “lame” or a political act “crippling” is shocking to anyone who is even vaguely aware of the way language is implicated in discrimination and exclusion.

These acts of omission and commission are all the more scandalous when one realizes that people with disabilities makeup 12 to 15 percent of the population—a greater proportion than that of any other minority. This statistic can be increased for people in poorer countries. Likewise, about 15 percent of the population has a hearing loss and another 15 percent has impaired vision. With an aging baby boom population, the number of people with disabilities will only increase. In the Third World, poor nutrition, land mines, war, and disease increase the numbers of people with disabilities. Indeed, it is probably true that there is no one more oppressed in the world than a Third World disabled woman of color. Also, let us not forget children, particularly those of the Third World, who are the primary victims of discrimination, with 90 percent dying before they reach age 20, and 90 percent of children with mental disabilities die before they reach age 5. In the United States, 66 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, while half the people with disabilities live on or near the poverty line. A recent Modern Language of America survey showed that there were twice as many members with disabilities as there were African American members. Yet, by and large, there is scant attention paid to disability in the identity political market, particularly in regard to novel studies. Certainly, this trend is beginning to reverse with the rise of disability studies, but the latter is about as recognized, at this point, as African American studies was in the early 1960s.

The lack of attention paid to disability by those in the forefront of identity and multicultural studies dramatically shows that the Occam’s razor, used to evaluate critical works (“Does it focus on race, gender, or sexual orientation?”) is a dull razor indeed. Rather, one can say that identity politics, as a method of literary analysis, will necessarily reflect the biases of its own time. While our consciousness of some selected and canonized identities has certainly been raised, the biases of those within the confines of the canon remain confirmed by their invisibility. Identity studies is no more perfect, value free, and objective than hermeneutics, structuralism, or any other applied discourse. Perhaps people of the future will be astounded, puzzled, and disturbed that works by scholars such as Eve Sedgewick, Judith Butler, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, and others man aged to steer so completely away from any discussion of disability.

I should make clear that my solution to the problem of identity is not inclusion of disability to the roster of favored identities. Rather, the point is that identity studies itself is limited in our time by the necessarily taxonomic peculiarity of its endeavor. Inclusiveness will not solve the problem. The list of identities will only grow larger, tied to an ever-expanding idea of inclusiveness. After all, when all identities are finally included in the roster, how can there be this particular kind of identity? If alterity is subsumed under the rubric of identity, then what can identity mean, particularly if this kind of cultural identity is somehow actually based on a binary opposition between self and other? Identity becomes so broad a category that it cannot contain identity. In other words, identity politics, while useful during the latter part of the twentieth century in securing civil rights for some disenfranchised groups, has by the twenty-first century reached a paradoxical resolution to a problem that started as a logical extension of a discussion about rights. It is Wendy Brown’s (1995) point, citing Foucault, that “the universal juridical ideal of liberalism,” combined with “the normalizing principle of disciplinary regimes and taken up within the discourse of politicized identity,” yields a new kind of subject “reiterative of regulatory, disciplinary society,” which “ceaselessly characterizes, classifies, and specializes,” working through “surveillance, continuous registration, perpetual assessment, and classification” and through a social machinery “that is both immense and minute” (p. 65). In other words, the classificatory and judgmental system inherent in an identity critique of novels will necessarily end up surveilling texts through an ever-expanding and therefore increasingly imprecise grid. This framework will therefore yield less and less information about more and more works and will become a system that explains everything, thus ultimately explaining nothing.

For example, if the function of identity criticism has been to point out the sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and so on in canonical texts, then this policing action will eventually turn in on itself. In this case, the ever-increasing trolling for missed identities or stereotypical characters will have to, by its own logic, begin to critique itself. Critics will then point to other critics who have failed to notice incidents of particular “isms.” And so on. Likewise, identity critics can point favorably at other texts that exhibit positive images of oppressed identities. Finally, thereis also the possibility of locating “resistant” texts that appeared in more oppressive periods but that managed to tactically and strategically pass muster of the dominant culture while offering transgressive and elusive readings that allowed certain collusive readers to find resistance to that dominant paradigm. That seems to be the extent of identity critique, and this kind of work seems to have a built-in half-life. How long can any particular critic perform this particular activity? What will be perpetually needed are new identities on the block to keep the process going, although methodologically not much new will be happening in that street game.

To complicate this already complicated critique further, I want to point to the inability of identity politics to include disability under its tent in some way other than with second-class status. My point is to question the following: How effective is an antidiscriminatory stance, based on identity politics, when the watchman always needs to be watched? Another way of putting this point is that no coalition of identity-based activists or scholars will ever be able to avoid marginalizing and minoritizing some group. Bosnian mothers, East Timorese Christians, or Ethiopian Jews will always be out of favor and, if not them, then tribal peoples of northern India or indigenous rebels in Sri Lanka. The point is that an inherent limitation of permitted or favored identities is precisely built into the definition of the project. Furthermore, the contradiction becomes more acute when we realize that much of identity politics in the United States is a reaction to a rights-based model rather than an economically egalitarian, political one, as it is in the United Kingdom. In the former case, then, the necessity for identity is actually a compromise formation in theory tailored to a largely middle-class—precisely, First World—audience seeking reassurance about the parameters of liberal thought and politics. Likewise, the interest in identity in novel criticism is a ratification of this reassurance. If one can say, for example, that women are depicted ina binary wayin novels to be either the madwoman or the angel, an alternative to either of these roles is held out as a norm. What is that alternative but some superscription of the ideal of white middle-class men with full rights? Likewise, the benchmark for people of color is the depiction of the middle class or gentry as full-fledged members of society. As Brown (1995) writes, “Without recourse to the white masculine middle-class idea, politicized identities would forfeit a good deal of their claims to injury and exclusion, their claims to the political significance of their difference” (p. 61).

What, then, could the relevance of this discussion have to a cultural form such as the novel? I now wish to perform a paradoxical proof of the points I have been making by attempting to develop a theory of the novel that is solely based on the concept of disability. In other words, I want to prove that I can justify a disability-centered identity politics the way that others have done, for example, in establishing feminist-, ethnic-, or class-based models. In doing so, my aim is twofold: I want to show that disability is a viable identity, and, paradoxically, I want to demonstrate the limitation of an identity-based explanation for the novel. In other words, I want to show that disability can and should sit on the tribunal of identity politics, but I also want to show that including disability will not solve the problems inherent in the tribunal in the first place.

What are the possibilities for a disability-centered discussion of the novel? Initially, one would want to rethink the nature of the novel. An early definition of the novel, by Clara Reeve in 1785, states that

the novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written…. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we reading) that all is real. (Reeve 1930:111)

Some 40 years later, John Dunlop (1845) defined novels as

agreeable and fictitious productions, whose province it is to bring about natural events by natural means, and which preserve curiosity alive without the help of wonder—in which human life is exhibited in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world. (P. 362)

According to these relatively contemporary accounts, a new literary form with links to previous fictions, such as the romance, tales, the epic, and so on, had appeared on the scene in England and France. What characterizes this form is some notion that it treats “real” life in a “familiar” way that appears to be “true” without the intrusion of the elements that do not appear “natural.” This technique, most familiarly called “realism,” is so much a part of our critical vocabulary that perhaps we have reified it somewhat. What is realism, in fact? If novelists tried to create a real effect, does that mean that writers before them did not attempt to portray the real? The implication is that earlier writers of the romance and epic wrote imaginary tales or at least tales involving the supernatural—the realm of gods, witches, monsters, and so on. However, is realism any more “real” than other types of narrative? Is a representation of the real any more real than “the real”? Is the concept of what is real absolute? Why should realism have arisen in this particular period? Did novelists and readers just decide to get real?

Ian Watt (1967), as one of the early exponents of the origin-of-the-novel paradigm, explains rather glibly that “modern realism, of course, begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses: it has its origins in Descartes and Locke” (p. 12). Watt further explains realism as part of the middle-class interest in the individual and his or her perceptions of reality. His notion of “formal realism” is defined as such “because the term realism does not here refer to any special literary doctrine or purpose, but only to a set of narrative procedures which are commonly found together in the novel” (p. 32). This definition owes much to the time Watt’s book was written, and his debt to formalism and new criticism is obvious. So for Watt, realism is not about the subject matter of the novel but more about the way the story is told and the consciousness that apprehends the story. Yet why does interest in the individual have to take the form of realism? Why couldn’t the same interest take the form of rampant egocentric fantasy or one-sided, biased memoir (which seems to be the form realism takes in our own time)? Indeed, individual perception should lead more to individualist, sensory-based texts, more like twentieth-century literature, and not necessarily toward narratives about groups, social classes, and communities.

Instead of looking toward this explanation of realism, why not look elsewhere? The growing body of literature on disability indicates to us that part of the formation of the modern subject was tied up with the creation of the disabled object. Characteristic of the split between the “normal” and the “abnormal,” which arose during the formative period of the novel (as we know it), is a distinction between normal bodies and abnormal bodies, between normal minds and abnormal minds, between normal environments and abnormal environments, and so on. The normal-abnormal dichotomy displaced an earlier paradigm based on a notion of the ideal. This notion of the ideal seems to have been the general rule in Western society and was linked ideologically to structures of kingship and feudal society. In this paradigm, an ideal (ruler, form, palace, god) occupied the pinnacle of a social-cultural triangle, and all other instantiations were by definition below the ideal. The transition to ideological forms of government that would legitimate the change from feudalism and mercantilism to capitalism required new forms of subjectivity and symbolic production. Since the fundamental paradox of bourgeois society, as it evolved, was one between the concentration of power and money in the hands of a relatively few and the ideological notion that all “men” were created equal, forms of symbolic production that glorified the ideal and placed all citizens below that ideal person would no longer be appropriate. Yet, at the same time, a truly equal, in the economic sense, citizenry depicted in literature would be equally prohibited. To bridge the gap between the obvious social and economic inequality in bourgeois democracies and the notion that all citizens are equal, one had to create that most perfect of subjects—the average citizen, l’homme moyen, performed by Adolphe Quetelet, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Quetelet took physical measures of bodily dimensions to come up with the proportions of the average man, of whom Quetelet writes, “If one seeks to establish, in some way, the basis of a social physics, it is he whom one should consider” (Porter 1986:24).

The necessity for the average citizen in social thought was paralleled by the need for the average citizen in ideological thought. How do we think this average citizen? The answer would be symbolically. Thus, symbolic production on the ideological level should aim at the creation of average—that is, nonheroic, middle-class, “real”—citizens. In this sense, real means average. It is no coincidence that for the next hundred years or more, bourgeois society spent much of its culturally productive time trying to find what exactly average meant. This attempt was done largely with the aid of the new science of statistics, initiated by Quetelet and others, and in conjunction with the new science of eugenics. This was when the word and concept of normal entered the English and French languages. Novels were novel precisely because they were a form engaged in depicting this average or normal life, as Reeve and Dunlop noted in their own time. Indeed, the project of creating “realistic” heroes and heroines was the aim of novel writing from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.

The word used repeatedly and regularly in conjunction with character in eighteenth-century discussions of the novel was virtue. Novels were judged to be good depending on the extent to which the story inspired virtue and the extent to which the protagonists were virtuous. Virtue implied that there was a specific and knowable moral path and stance that a character could and should take. In other words, a normative set of behaviors was demanded of characters in novels. Characters had to be “exemplary” (Reeve 1930:139). We can see in works such as The Progress of Romance that novels are judged mainly on two criteria—their realism or probability and their attitude toward virtue, which “should always be represented in the most beautiful and amiable light” (Reeve 1930:27). Both of these criteria, as we can see, are really discussions about normativity. If readers disagreed about the worth of a novel during this period, the argument revolved around whether an author depicted “human nature as it is, rather than as it ought to be” (Reeve 1930:141), and it revolved around whether the events of the story were “probable” or “improbable.” Thus, the question for the eighteenth century was the extent to which the novelist conformed to a cultural norm and not, as Watt suggested, the formal aspects of writing or the perception of truth on an individual. In fact, it is virtually impossible to find a discussion about the “formal” aspects of novel writing in this period.

Furthermore, the main characters of novels, in their virtuous incarnations, were national types. The requirements for their being realistic and virtuous was in effect a requirement for them to be typical. There are few novels from 1720 to 1870 whose main characters, the ones with whom we identify and sympathize, are not national stereotypes. Moreover, as such, these characters also have bodies and minds that signify this a verageness. Protagonists of British novels are British, look typical, and embody the virtues that England values. Love stories may offer a cross-national or class liaison but usually end up ratifying the norm.

This project of cultural typicality has to be seen for what it is—the incipient impulse of a tendency that would later be called eugenics. It is instructive that one of the founders of eugenics was Sir Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin. Galton embarked on a project similar to that of the novel when he began photographing different racial and ethnic peoples to create composite photographs of the physiognomies of each type. So, for example, he photographed Jewish citizens of England and overlaid the photographic images to create the composite or, in some sense, typical Jew. He also photographed mental and tubercular patients to see if he could arrive at the physiognomies of the diseased (Booth, Phillips, and Squires 1998). This attempt to create typical images of racial and disabled “others” in photography must be seen as linked to the novelistic attempt to do likewise. The investigations of race and nationality in nineteenth-century novels demonstrate this linked interest.

There is virtually no major protagonist in a novel created during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who is in some way physically marked with a disability. Indeed, realism, with its emphasis on probability, is linked to presenting normative characters and situations. This is so much the case that E. M. Forster (1968), in the course of Aspects of the Novel, sees the inclusion in a novel of a character with disability as unrealistic when he says that readers will protest deviations from a norm. “One knows a book isn’t real, they say, still one does it expect it to be natural, and this angel or midget or ghost … no, it is too much” (Forster 1968:114). The midget is “too much” because midgets do not walk into one’s bourgeois house any more than do Africans or angels.

So, on some profound level, the novel emerges as an ideological form of symbolic production whose central binary is normal-abnormal. This dialectic works in a fundamental way to produce plots. Often, a “normal” character is made “abnormal” by circumstance. The most familiar of these has to do with depriving that character of social class, social milieu, family lineage, or money. So, the very normal Robinson Crusoe is made abnormal by unusual circumstance. The very normal Tom Jones is made abnormal by a ruse that deprives him of his noble birth. The very normal Pamela or Clarissa is made abnormal by abduction and the threat or act rape. Ironically, these rather unusual abnormalities in the life of a character are seen as “probable,” given the novel’s own rules of realism, when, in fact, it is rather unlikely that very many bourgeois people will lose all their money, social status, or personal freedom. Indeed, social class is defined by its persistence and interlocking guarantees. Another variation on this theme is that the protagonist is made “abnormal” by a certain trait or habit that, while not a disability, acts as a disability in contrast to the expectations of readers concerning the conventions of character in the novel. So, Jane Eyre is plain, which is quite normal, but it is rendered abnormal by the convention of novels, which insists that heroes and heroines be physically attractive, presumably since the national type is projected to be well proportioned in face and limb. Someone such as Evelina is made abnormal by her lack of proper parenting, which renders her socially maladroit.

In the realm of social class, the norm is typically not the mean but the ideological fantasy of a mean. This fantasy was an ideological necessity on the part of bourgeois capitalism to project a positive vision of its operative world as free, prosperous, and coherent. Not so strangely, the “average” novel hero of the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century more often than not moves through the world not of the bourgeoisie but of the upper gentry and lower nobility. This netherworld of upper gentry and lower nobility elevated the tone and vision of bourgeois existence much in the way that contemporary television shows present upper-middle-class interiors as the norm, while most viewers are much less privileged. Thus, the a deprivation of this fantasy norm is considered a disabling event for someone such as Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, or Gwendolyn Harleth. Even for someone such as Jude Fawley, the realistic norm of rural peasantry becomes a disabling situation, although, unlike many of the earlier heroes, he will never achieve the desired state of comfort.

So for the national norm to be consolidated, the major characters in novels must confront the disabling of their character in some way. For the norm to be created, the abnormal must also appear. The abnormal appears in all kinds of ways, from the social and financial, as I have indicated, to the unvirtuous, the mentally ill, the racial “other,” and the appearance of characters with physical disabilities. In the eighteenth century, for the most part, normal characters with virtues are set off by abnormal characters with vices. Most often, the vice is sexual license in the form of a debauched, upper-class libertine or seductress or, in rarer cases, greedy and unprincipled parvenus. A simple Manichean battle ensues, and ultimately either the virtuous character triumphs or, in some cases, dies. Later, as a culture of the norm becomes fully operative in the nineteenth century, the immoral or negative is often depicted as having a physical disability. Here begins the novel with a recognizable villain who is often one-eyed, one-legged, walks with difficulty, stutters, manifests compulsive tics, and so on. The flip side of this character is the utterly innocent character with a disability, most often a child, a childlike person, a woman, or an aged character. Interestingly, this dichotomy can work in many other multicultural analyses because race, gender, and class were also integral parts of the eugenic analysis. In other words, moral characteristics become increasingly somatized, particularly as eugenics begins to codify physical, mental, and ethnic traits. Under this imperative, Zola and the neorealists are able to formulate a theory of the novel in which inheritable family traits determine character and behavior, thus institutionalizing the “scientific” work of eugenics in the very fabric of novel making.

Plot, in the novel, is really more a device to turn what is perceived as the average, ordinary milieu into an abnormal one. Plot functions in the novel, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by temporarily deforming or disabling the fantasy of nation, social class, and gender behaviors that are constructed as norms. The telos of plot aims then to return the protagonists to this norm by the end of the novel. The end of the novel represents a cure, a fixing of the disability, a nostalgic return to a preexisting normal time. René Girard (1965) points to Stepan Trofimovitch’s quotation of the New Testament at the end of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed: “But the sick man will be healed and will sit at the feet of Jesus,’ and all will look upon him with astonishment.” Girard says Stepan “is this sick man who is healed in death and whom death heals” (p. 290). This notion of cure as closure is the rule in novels in which the end represents the plot as strategic abnormality overcome or, as Girard puts it, “an obsession that has been transcended” (p. 300).

In this sense, the identity of the novel, if we can see the novel as having an identity, revolves around as imple plot. The situation had been normal, it became abnormal, and by the end of the novel, the normality, or some variant on it, was restored. We can put this simplistic paradigm into the language that Wendy Brown (1995) uses and say that the identity of the novel is therefore a “wounded identity.” Like Philoctetes, the novel must have a wound. And like that of Philoctetes, the wound is necessary because without it, the novel would not be able to perform its function. Yet, also like that of the mythical character, the wound must be healed or cured.

I return to the notion of identity because I want to tie the novel, disability, and identity politics together around the issue of cure. The novel as a form relies on cure as a narrative technique. Protagonists must “change,” we are told, for their character to be believable. Interestingly, this aspect of believability flies in the face of probability since most “real” people do not change easily, if at all. When characters change, they undergo a kind of moral or perceptual transformation that cures them of their problem. So, Emma is cured of her self-centered-ness or Darcy is cured of his pride. Likewise, the plot is cured of its abnormal initiating events. The narrative, at its end, is no longer disabled by its lack of conformity to imagined social norms. The process of narrative, then, serves to wound identity—whether individual, bourgeois, national, gendered, racialized, or cultural. Readers read so that they can experience this wound vicariously, so they can imagine the dissolution of the norms under which they are expected to labor. As a temporarily wounded person, the reader can see the way that society oppresses various categories of being. At the same time, the reader can rejoice in the inevitable return to the comfort of bourgeois norms, despite the onus that these norms place on its beneficiaries as well as those excluded from the benefits of bourgeois identity.

Yet the desire for a cure is also the desire for a quick fix. The alterity presented by disability is shocking to the liberal, ableist sensibility, and so narratives involving disability always yearn toward the cure, the neutralizing of the disability. This desire to neutralize is ironic because in a dialectic sense, the fantasy of normality needs the abjection of disability to maintain a homeostatic system of binaries. However, since this desire is premised on the denigration of disability, it will of course be invisible to the normate readers who prefer the kindly notion of cure to the more dramatic notion of eradication. Likewise, the quick fix presented by issues concerning race, class, and gender is equally characteristic of the bourgeois imagination. The conflict between classes can be nicely reconciled in novels, so that in North and South, a kind of utopian factory emerges that bypasses labor unions and is achieved by rerouting surplus value through the benevolence of a female captain of industry in the form of Margaret Hale, or, in Hard Times, the working class struggle is seen as a “muddle” only soluble by Christian charity toward the poor who “will always be with you.”

All of these cures are placebos for the basic problem presented to capitalism and its ideological productions in the form of modern subjectivity, which dons the form of the normal, average, citizen protagonist—that bell curvegenerated fantastic being who reconciles the promise of equal rights with the reality of unequal distribution of wealth. However, the quick fix, the cure, has to be repeated endlessly, like a patent medicine, because it cures nothing. Novels have to tell the story over and over again, as do films and television, because the patient never stays cured, and the disabled, cured individually, refuse to stop reappearing as a group. Indeed, modern subjectivity is a wounded identity that cannot cure itself without recourse to cure narratives, which means that it cannot cure itself at all since the disability of modern subjectivity is inherent in the environment, not in the subject.

The problem with the notion of wounded identities, as Brown (1995) postulates, is that the ontology of their coming into being is best characterized by Nietzsche’s notion of resentment as an “effect of domination [that] reiterates impotence, a substitute for action, for power, for self-affirmation that reinscribes incapacity, powerlessness, and rejection” (Brown 1995:69). Thus, identity is dependent for its motivation and existence on remembering and reinvoking the pain caused by oppression. Politicized identity “installs its pain … in the very foundation of its political claim, in its demand for recognition as identity … by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics” (Brown 1995:74). Like the novel, identity is rooted in its wounds, and plot is a form of pain control. Thus, its solution must be to heal the wound and end the pain. However, like the novel that offers a cure to the oppressions of modernity, the cure offered to wounded identity spells the end of identity because identity is created by the initializing wound, just as the cure offered in novels spells closure for that novel. The answer to novels is more novels, not a cure offered to the actual ills of society. Likewise, the proliferation of politicized identities is symptomatic of the problem, and the addition of more identities will no more solve the problem of oppression than the proliferation of novels will solve the same problem. I want to add that we have needed the idea of identity to help combat racism, sexism, ageism, and so on. However, the limits of this kind of politics are now becoming increasingly evident. The solution is not to do without identity or to denigrate the identities involved. Rather, a reconsideration of oppression based around other parameters that can, at this point, create solidarity while maintaining difference is essential.

I have tried to make the case briefly that disability, as an identity, can legitimately be seen as the foundational model on which to argue the origin and theory of the novel. As a foundational origin, I can then say that all other identities—class, race, gender, sexual preference—should be subsumed under the hegemonic identity category of disability. In other words, I contend that the novel belongs to a history of ableist domination (while it has also tried to resist that domination). If I do that, I place myself in a line of critics who have argued for the centrality of their identity as foundational for the creation of modern subjectivity. By doing so, I can now make two observations. First, I clearly have not solved the problem of identity politics. Second, by adding my identity to the roster and even by claiming the greater adequacy of my identity (which can be seen as including and therefore superceding other identities), I have only rearranged the chessboard without creating a strategy for winning the battle. Neither will scholarship, like this chapter, propel disability into the forefront of identity politics for the simple reason that the other identity groups will not cede their place of priority. The reason for this reluctance is also relatively simple—to acknowledge truly that the existence of another identity dilutes the general category of identity, as well as to create a priority of identities, places some identities further down the line as significant. As an amplification of this point, disability will have difficulty being seen as having a primary place in identity politics because most academics are deeply implicated in ableism without, of course, realizing it. Disability is still routinely ignored, marginalized, or patronized by the very people most active in identity politics.

The answer is not to keep creating newer and newer categories of identity or to claim that cultural institutions are uniquely created by the oppression of one or other identity. The advantage that disability studies gives us in this regard is that it is an identity that interrogates and can help transform the very idea of identity. Disability, by the unstable nature of its category, asks us to redefine the very nature of identity and of “belonging” to an identity group. Only when identity is stripped of its exclusive nature and becomes part of the larger reformation of oppression can we all safely feel that we have truly regained our identity.

In this sense, culture will have to change as well. We need cultural forms that will promote a concept of the subject, of character and personality, that derives its strength from knowledge of where identity has been but more where it is going. The challenge for future novelists, filmmakers, and others involved in narrative is to find a way of describing subjectivity, the human body, and the social body that will not rely on the old stereotypes. It is not simply a question of rewriting the old formulas, plugging in plucky characters using wheelchairs or deaf characters who triumph over their condition. Rather, the whole way we think of the normal-abnormal paradigm will have to shift. It is hard to say what this kind of art will be like because in culture things cannot be formulated proscriptively, but it will signal a wide range of changes across the arts. In this sense, disability is not another plug-in. It becomes the way the whole system operates. In the ways that major reconceptualizations have created paradigm shifts, it seems inevitable that disability will force such a change.