Sep 16

Dis/ability Thoughts, with Hermione Granger as Guest Start

Sometimes, my orals readings synthesize as I’m reading them, where they sort of blend together — in a generative sense — and I find myself writing about a hodgepodge of readings all tied together.

Other times, like this time, when an exceedingly strange yet gorgeous mix of Brandi Carlile and Beyoncé is seeping out of my computer and into my brain, into my body, my notes might come out almost in list form, taking on the kind of discipline that my lip syncing, fan fictioning body is lacking at the moment.

So: some meditations on readings from my dis/ability list and what great crossover potential they have with my other lists (on affective whiteness in composition classrooms and trauma in children’s/YA literature) —

The Elizabeth Donaldson article on “The Corpus of the Madwoman” discusses at length the trope of the ‘madwoman,’ which has cross-list importance for me: there are a lot of YA novels with protagonists whose mothers are somehow mentally dis/abled that I’m also reading for this list (The Hunger Games is perhaps the most popular contemporary example of this, and The Golden Compass also comes to mind. My MA thesis focuses on trauma in The Hunger Games, and contains some discussion of the problematics of the representation of Katniss’s mother.)
Donaldson critiques Gubar and Gilbert for using “madness” as a metaphor instead of discussing mental illness. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of slippage in the discourse between ‘madness’ as a metaphor and ‘madness’ as a reference to mental dis/ability: this slippage often leads directly to the conflation between violence and mental dis/ability; between abstract metaphor and lived experiences of immense pain, immense joy. Donaldson argues that feminist theory has often hijacked “madness” as a sign of feminist rebellion, when actually, there are a lot of dis/ability-related specifics that feminist theorizations often ignore through their uncritical use of metaphor.
This is very important to me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that many YA novels and TV shows metaphorize trauma with the way that they make trauma responses an almost canned, highly gendered response to violence. Grey’s Anatomy comes to mind, as do Quantico and The 100. (The Hunger Games constantly comes to my mind, so I almost feel like it goes without saying.)
Regarding the use of “madness” as a sign of feminist rebellion, however, I actually wonder if there are potential uses of that: if dis/ability is taken seriously and the rhetorical agency of people with mental dis/abilities is actually valued, then why must the two (feminist rebellion and mental dis/ability) be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they must be, somehow (even though I very much love Donaldson’s points here).
To have fun with this for a moment, I want to pause on Hermione Granger: the only spell she ever has on-page difficulty with is the Patronus, which requires you to conjure up and hold onto your happiness like a shield against a cold, solid cloud of impending, ever-lasting depression. My headcanon has long been that Hermione experiences depression. How might this depression interact with her positioning as the reason Harry ever can accomplish… well, anything? How might we restructure our thinking about Hermione’s “madness” — she is even called mad (mostly by Ron) throughout the series — as both metaphor and lived reality? What dimension might our labeling of Hermione as “mad” — or, perhaps, Hermione’s labeling of herself as mad — take on if we use the term to grapple both with mental dis/ability and her (proto)feminist positioning in the text? If she does indeed live with depression, what do Harry’s ability to conjure a Patronus and Hermione’s struggles to do so imply about the gendered nature of trauma, of mental dis/ability, of structural reinforcement of confidence and healing? What of Hermione’s desperation to prove herself and her terrible fear of failure in the face of a society that scorns both women and Muggle-borns, especially when Hermione is hailing from an upper-middle class  background (and if we read Hermione as a woman of color, how does this further play out)? What of Ginny and Luna’s Patronuses and traumas and mental dis/abilities (I’ve always wondered about Ginny and depression and, quite frankly, about Ginny and bipolar: not in the context of diagnosis, but in the context of identification with a character…)?
I feel an article coming on…
Amy Vidali’s article on “Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show” for college admissions tugs on a lot of things that are also on my comp-rhet list: instead of only viewing the colleges’ invitations to self-disclose dis/ability in college admissions essays as a form of fetishizing disempowerment (which it is!), Vidali reads these essays against the grain to argue that dis/abled students wield self-disclosure to advance their own goals, as well.
This re-orients rhetorical agency into the writing arsenal of dis/abled students, while still critiquing the way that colleges pressure students to subsume themselves into their various marginalized identities in essays.
What might this simultaneous understanding of individual agency and structural power do in our composition classrooms? I’m thinking of this particularly in terms of white teachers assigning personal narratives to classrooms full of students of color. What might students expect white teachers to expect? How might the power of this affective whiteness eat into the intellectual stimulation available for students of color? Yet how might students be able to subvert expected expectations through their writing, even in contexts where their writing seems to conform to what white teachers desire?

Stephanie Kerschbaum examines similar phenomena, but in academic writing, in her piece “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” She reiterates much of the same logics as Vidali, applying them to the pressure to self-disclose in academic articles (while somehow managing to not make one’s writing ‘unacademic’). Her most generative point for me is when she advocates for a temporal understanding of self-disclosure:

“disability self-disclosures can be understood as the culmination of recurring processes in which past experiences are brought to bear on a present moment as individuals recognize opportune moments for action. This understanding of disclosure is facilitated by recent theorizing on agency focused not on intentional choices but on immersion in and involvement with social contexts.” (63)

This immersion of self-disclosure of dis/ability in recurring processes moves attention away from the kind of liberalized romanticization of personal choice and toward something more akin to the social model of dis/ability, which intimately and inextricably relates the individual to their external context.

Following up on this temporal emphasis, Jenny Slater, in “Youth for Sale”, discusses the fetishization of youth and how that relates to dis/ability politics. She figures youth as a fantasy of adulthood, an aspiration of adulthood, thereby disrupting linear temporal narratives of time and aging. Most crucially, here, she writes that

“Aging is interwoven with ideas of bodily capability and normality: as well as learning that time has a ‘value’ in the classroom, children also get taught that a ‘good’ body” is controlled and controllable.” (203)

In this way, idealizing youth is inextricable from idealizing “controlled and controllable” able-bodymindedness! This is hugely important for me when thinking both about teaching writing to teenagers and in my studies of young adult and children’s literature, for perhaps obvious reasons: the very discussions of age that permeate most of my work are also, inherently, about fantasies about ability.

Works Cited

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness.” NWSA Journal 14.3 (2003): 99-119.

Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” Rhetoric Review 33.1 (2014): 55-71.

Vidali, Amy. “Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show: Disability, Student Writing, and College Admissions.” College English (2007): 615-641.

Mar 16

The Verbal as Proof of Humanity

Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson’s “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities” offers important insight into the pervasive ways that assumptions of rhetorical/communication norms fundamentally impact who is considered fully human in dominant discourses. Her article attempts to work through the question:

“[h]ow can people who have psychiatric and cognitive disabilities that interfere with communication exercise rhetorical agency?” (157).

The question of how this rhetorical agency — and ableist assumptions about who can exercise it and who cannot — has huge implications both for people with dis/abilities and for rhetoric.

Reminding her readers that language is at once material-physical and culturally produced, Lewiecki-Wilson argues that,

“we need… a broadened concept of rhetoric to include collaborative and mediated rhetorics that work with the performative rhetoric of bodies that “speak” with/out language” (157).

She goes on to position facilitated communication as an example of such a redefinition of rhetoricity (and also, perhaps, of literacy). Though negative thoughts and feelings about the efficacy and ethics of facilitated communication abound in popularized debates, the potential power of Lewiecki-Wilson’s argument is that it has the potential to reframe anxieties about facilitated communication by questioning the root of non-autistic people’s anxiety about it.

Lewiecki-Wilson argues that whenever marginalized people enter public debates, the pressures of liberalism push such voices toward using the rhetoric of ‘we are just like you and want to be treated just like you.’ This obliteration of difference from the norm neutralizes the potential power of multiple rhetoricities; this liberalized ‘we are the same’ discourse also delegitimizes any claim to rhetorical agency that is not ‘just like [the norm].’ It validates the norm, situating people with “severe mental dis/abilities” as perpetually striving toward producing normate forms of communication. In this way, Lewiecki-Wilson’s praise of facilitated communication might serve to question the un-question-able: why might people with normate bodyminds be so dead-set against forms like facilitated communication if not because it poses such a threat to the supremacy of the verbal?

Regarding claims of facilitated communication’s relationship with exploitation and appropriation, Lewiecki-Wilson might suggest a reorientation of how we think about exploitation (though I worry that this might be too dismissive of the concern). Because the logics of ‘we are the same’ liberalism also (ironically) claims that we must be fully autonomous individual actors (aside from the fact that this is an impossible aspiration), Lewiecki-Wilson suggests that we define exploitation with the underlying assumption that all people have access to autonomous, individualized, speech-oriented rhetorical patterns. She elaborates, arguing that:

“by insisting on such a sharp demarcation line between individual rhetorical agency and lack, we don’t solve these problems as much as silence them. We may also be revealing our general anxiety to hold back the undifferentiated physical and social flow of language, and our unwillingness to enter into caring and committed intersubjective dependency with others and with the material world” (162).

This discomfort with “intersubjective dependency with others and with the material world” directly feeds in to a cultural refusal to recognize as human people with primarily non-normate rhetorical practices. She argues, crucially, that “we often demand some verbal response from an Other as proof of their humanness” (157, emphasis added).

To me, this work links up importantly with that of Sylvia Wynter, who argues that the very concept of humanity is inextricably tied with race. Her attentiveness to the material histories of race and the violences of racism she argues persuasively that there are several “genres” of lower case-h humanity, which is to be distinguished from upper case-H Humanity. While Humanity is inextricable from western whiteness, those human beings that occupy lower case-h humanity populate rich genres dictated by the power dynamics and cultural interplays of various moments in time and history.

Crucially, here, those who cannot sufficiently perform western whiteness – quite possibly an impossible performative status – are actively barred from achieving Humanity and gaining the basic privileges that accompany this classification.

This denial of capital-H Humanity to people of color is intimately intertwined with the kinds of dehumanizing agency-stripping that Lewiecki-Wilson is observing. Indeed, the history of interpreting non-normate communications and embodiments as less than human has a rich history of conflating racialized people with dis/abled people, through violent histories of dually racist and ableist eugenics practices; racialized reproduction ‘experiments’; and the disproportionate representation of students of color who are labeled as having mental dis/abilities in public schools, just to name a few.

Attentiveness to these interconnections could surely enrich the ways that we understand the relationship between rhetorical agency, interdependency, and the performative rhetorics of non-normate bodies.


Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. “Rethinking Rhetoric through Mental Disabilities.” Rhetoric Review (2003): 156-167.

Wynter, Sylvia. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Desêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” A Companion to African-American Studies (2006): 107-118.

Feb 16

A Web Spot for Reflection

Throughout my period of Orals exam incubation, I will be immersed in composition/rhetoric scholarship, dis/ability studies, and children’s/YA literature. To help keep my thoughts (somewhat) organized, I will use this Annotated Bibliography mini-blog to post my responses to texts that I find particularly generative for my thinking.

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