Davis, Lennard

Assigned: Davis, Lennard J. From Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, from Chapter 6. “Visualizing the Disabled Body: The Classical Nude and the Fragmented Torso” (2173-91). Also read the editors’ introduction (2171-73).

From Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (1995)

From Chapter 6. Visualizing the Disabled Body: The Classical Nude and the Fragmented Torso

1. On 2173-74 (“She has no arms or hands…”), Lennard Davis offers word-paintings of the famous Venus de Milo sculpture and a living woman named Pam Herbert who is a quadriplegic and has muscular dystrophy. What question arises, in his view, from this gesture of comparing the bodies of these two figures?

2. On 2174-75 (“In asking this question, I…”), Davis suggests that with regard to how the non-disabled perceive people with disabilities, the question is “more […] about the nature of the subject than about the qualities of the object…” (2175). How does he address the concept of “normalcy” that leads to so much misconstruction on the part of the non-disabled directed against people with disabilities? How does Davis’s recounting of an imaginary encounter between Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci (both of whom had disabilities) help to illustrate the process whereby “abled” people subject people with disabilities to insulting and humiliating treatment? (2175)

3. On 2176-77 (“In the most general sense…”), Davis analyzes the binary way people tend to treat the abled and the disabled in terms of Sigmund Freud’s concept of “splitting” (Spaltung). How does Davis explain this term in relation to the treatment of people with disabilities? (2176) How does he supplement this psychological emphasis with a more materialist explanation? What “complex social forces” (2176), that is, does he suggest must be considered when people make damaging and limiting determinations about some disabilities and not about others? Finally, how does “splitting” also help us grasp the “absolute” quality bestowed upon disability—“One is either disabled or not” (2177)?

4. On 2177-78 (“The ideology of the assigning…”), Davis suggests that “[t]he ideology of the assigning of value to the body” (2177) is quite ancient, and he therefore offers a comparison between the Venus myth and the Medusa myth from classical times. Who is Medusa, and what happens to her in Greek mythology? How does she function in relation to the beautiful Venus or, as the Greeks called her, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love? (2178) How does Davis extrapolate from this myth to explain how non-disabled people react to the sight of a disabled person? What is the basis of the fear that strikes the former when they are forced to confront a disabled person?

5. On 2178-79 (“In order to understand better…”), according to Davis, how does the female “nude” painting or portrait embody a need to idealize the human body, and in particular the female body? (2178) What irony does he derive from the way art historians ignore or otherwise rationalize the almost always fragmented state of the Greek and Roman statues they view and write about? What underlying motivations or anxieties does Davis attribute to this habit of overlooking the “disabilities” of the statues? How does he connect the Venus and Medusa traditions in a way the helps reveal this underlying basis? (2179)

6. On 2179-81 (“In thinking about disability, one…”), how does Davis extend the argument he has been making about nudes in Western art as a means of organizing and systematizing the human body in ways that are deemed acceptable by abled people? How does he illustrate the protective “control” (2180) exercised over the representation of the body by artists and art historians? In what way, according to Davis, are Kenneth Clark’s comments about the very ancient Willendorf fertility goddess statue symptomatic of this need to control bodily representation? (2180-81)

7. On 2181-82 (“A cautionary word must be said…”), Davis considers how the many defaced classical statues now in existence came to appear as they do. What happened to them? While it is seldom possible to know for certain how these statues lost heads, limbs, and so forth, what fundamental difference does Davis assert between possible acts of violence against male statues and possible violence done to female statues? (2181) According to Davis, what is the usual reaction on the part of art historians to these disfigured female statues? What can we learn from accounts of them by commenters such as Edward Wright, who, based on his European travels in 1720-22, advised other observers of the Venus de’ Medici on how to judge that statue’s beauty? (2182)

8. On 2182-84 (“One might also want to recall…”), how does Davis connect the attitude of art historians with that of the original worshipers of classical female statues as divinities? (2182-83) Why, in his view, do critics feel the need to move beyond the flawed materiality of the artworks they behold? How does Davis explain this need in terms of Jacques Lacan’s theory about early childhood “experience of the body” (2183) as fragmented rather than unified? What process is involved in the child’s (mis)recognition of itself as materially unified in the “mirror phase” of identity formation? (see Leitch 1111-17 for Lacan’s theory of “the mirror stage” in early childhood development) What reflection does Davis offer with regard to “the disabled body” (2183) in relation to this Lacanian process? In what sense is the disabled body a threat to the self-protective identity of abled individuals?

9. On 2184-86 (“If we follow these terms…”), Davis draws out the insights to be gained from the Lacanian framework he has been applying to disability. In what sense, then, is it true that “the ‘disabled body’ belongs to no one…” (2184)? How is the fragmented body the “real” one, and the “normal” body a kind of imaginary production, even a dreamlike production or hallucination? (2185) Finally, in what way, according to Davis, is the disabled body unheimlich or Uncanny in specifically Freudian terms (see Leitch 799-816), and how does Davis revise Freud’s notions about “the ground of the body” (2186) as being whole rather than fragmented?

10. On 2186 (“I have been concentrating on the…”), how does Davis address the issue of mental illness in relation to physical disability? What medical and social concepts, according to him, are often applied to mental illness in ways that highlight the connection between them? What metaphor generally governs discussions involving mental illness in the context of treatment, asylums, and so forth?

11. On 2186-89 (“If people with disabilities are…”), what use does Davis make of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in connection with disability theory? In what sense is Victor Frankenstein’s “creature” (generally called a “monster,” even though that is hardly fair) similar to a disabled person? Why does Doctor Frankenstein himself loathe the living person he has created—what is it about the creature’s appearance that he finds so repulsive? (2187) Beyond appearance, in Davis’s view, what is it about the creature that underlies this repulsion on the part of Victor Frankenstein and others who behold what he has created? (2187-88) Finally, how is tactility, or the sense of touch, involved in the special loathing that “normal” people have for Frankenstein’s creature? (2188-89)

12. On 2189-91 (“In no area is this set of cultural…”), Davis analyzes the way disability is usually represented in film. What does he say surprised him about the relative importance of such representations in American cinema? (2190) How does he move beyond the tired old argument between liberals and conservatives about whether violence or sexuality is the more lamentable problem with film? In other words, in Davis’s view, what is really the point of commercial cinema—what kind of images does it deliver to paying viewers? (2190) Furthermore, Davis writes that “Films enforce the normal body, but through a rather strange process” (2191). How does he describe this process and its significance?

13. On 2191 (“Throughout this chapter, I have…”), how does Davis sum up the analysis he has made of the way many abled people perceive, treat, and represent people with disabilities? According to him, what is the only way for genuine progress to occur—what must abled and disabled people alike come to see about how disability is represented in the service of what he calls “a hegemonic process” that greatly disadvantages people with disabilities?

14. General question: In our selection from Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, Lennard Davis develops a strong line of argument as to why non-disabled people (and the cultural, social and political institutions that serve them best) so often fail to recognize the value, or even the humanity, of people with disabilities. It has been more than two decades since Davis published the text we are now reading. Arguably, the United States has made considerable progress in the treatment and representation of certain marginalized and maltreated groups. Do you believe people with disabilities are among those groups—in other words, that progress has been made by and for them, too? Why or why not? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake