A Historical Sociology of Disability
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A Historical Sociology of Disability

Human Validity and Invalidity from Antiquity to Early Modernity

Bill Hughes

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eBook - ePub

A Historical Sociology of Disability

Human Validity and Invalidity from Antiquity to Early Modernity

Bill Hughes

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About This Book

Covering the period from Antiquity to Early Modernity, A Historical Sociology of Disability argues that disabled people have been treated in Western society as good to mistreat and – with the rise of Christianity – good to be good to. It examines the place and role of disabled people in the moral economy of the successive cultures that have constituted 'Western civilisation'.

This book is the story of disability as it is imagined and re-imagined through the cultural lens of ableism. It is a story of invalidation; of the material habituations of culture and moral sentiment that paint pictures of disability as 'what not to be'. The author examines the forces of moral regulation that fall violently in behind the dehumanising, ontological fait accompli of disability invalidation, and explores the ways in which the normate community conceived of, narrated and acted in relation to disability.

A Historical Sociology of Disability will be of interest to all scholars, students and activists working in the field of Disability Studies, as well as sociology, education, philosophy, theology and history. It will appeal to anyone who is interested in the past, present and future of the 'last civil rights movement'.

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Method and theory


Thinking through disability history


This is a study of changing forms of corporeal and intellectual validity and the cultural validations and invalidations that accompany them; of how impairment, the cultural raw material of disability, is communicated, represented and evaluated across time. Schillmeier (2010) argues that: ‘Disability turns our attention to the different ways’ in which ‘the bifurcation of nature is practiced’. Distinctions between natural and unnatural, normal and abnormal follow dominant and subordinate groups across time (Ernst 2007). The former benefit from positive social representations, the latter from negative equivalents derived from the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ embedded in binaries that are simultaneously descriptive and prescriptive.
In different historical periods and cultural contexts, people with impaired bodies and minds have been segregated from their hegemonic, non-disabled counterparts and subjected to patterns of social and moral regulation that invalidate their social value and human worth what I call their propriety. The twins – disability and non-disability – are separated at birth and go on to live lives vastly different in experience; the former in impropriety, the latter in dignity. There has been no pot-boiler reconciliation in which the two encounter one another in the full flush of knowledge about who is who and how they are related. Such a poignant moment of reconciliation is yet to be delivered. We can live in hope!
Disability history is an infant project on the margins of historical inquiry compared to the ‘older’ sibling social divisions of class, race, gender and sexuality. A great deal more ink has been spilt over these fellows in historiographical acts of recovery. ‘Present by absence’, like the body in Sociology (Shilling 2003; Turner 1996), disability history has emerged recently as ‘a vibrant field of intellectual enquiry’ (Borsay 2012: 324). Those who search for disability in ­history and cultural artefact have been surprised by its ubiquity:
(Baynton 2001: 52)
In the burgeoning field of literary and cultural Disability Studies, the discovery of the omnipresence of disability in text, across time (Baker and Murray 2018) has produced a rich seam of analysis that is growing exponentially year on year, be it in relation to disability as a generic category (Hall 2016) or to sensory impairments, including blindness (Bolt 2013) or deafness (Sanchez 2015) or in relation to specific impairments like epilepsy (Stirling 2010) or literary movements like, for example, modernism (Hall 2012; Johnston 2016) and romanticism (Bradshaw 2016). Byron’s deformed right foot is no longer unspoken. Disability has reclaimed the meaning of manliness in mid-Victorian Britain (Bourrier 2015). The ‘absent presence’ of impairment is losing its liminality. A place in ‘cultural poetics’ (Greenblatt 2007) has been secured. Narratives and representations of disability flow like the rivulets of a delta through Western time, and yet appear as parched soil. It is as if non-disability has walked forever purblind across its sovereign terrain. Disability consciousness is beginning to undo this arid depiction of the historical landscape.
The emergence of disability as a vibrant, dynamic and morally negative construct in the history of cultural narrative makes it the latest recruit to historical revisionism. There is no sense, no justice, in treating impairment as an ahistorical, pre-social, natural category or as some curiosity to be mulled over by natural historians or philosophers, and no merit in reducing it to pathology to be prodded and poked by medical professionals. These conceptions of disability have drained the history from it (Anderson and Cardin Coyne 2007). Reclaiming the parched soil of disability history requires an approach to impairment and disability that is social and cultural. Mitchell and Snyder are impressed by the extraordinary frequency in the literary canon with which disability is used as a ‘narrative prosthesis’. It excels as a metaphor for something that has ‘gone wrong’:
(Mitchell and Snyder 2000: 205)
The enabled, in dominating the telling of Western history, have promulgated evaluations of flesh and mind that reveal the vital moral forces behind the shape of human validity and propriety. Negative, problematic ‘nature’ forms in the egregious shadow cast by virtue, raising questions about the extent to which outsiders possess social, cultural or even ontological capital. When respect, esteem and dignity are concentrated in palaces of privileged credentials, the boundaries of tolerance are tested. Punitive moral ‘taxes’ on difference abound. Disrespect, cruelty, barbarity are practiced by the offices of ‘civility’. Injustices – the narratives that tell of it – are available in the ‘historical embeddedness’ (Greenblatt 2007: 7) of literary texts and practices. Invalidations of disabled people are evident in the language of abomination that impairment attracts. For the enabled, impairment has been representationally plastic. It has been used, for example, to portray the ‘barbarian’; the socio-geographical other of Western civilisation.
The ‘barbarian’ hails from an expansionist, militaristic ‘homeland’ where empire is aspiration and supremacism has taken root. The category mobilises outsider–insider binary evaluations of human worth and virtue. It implies a distinction between the repugnant and the righteous. It constructs a wall of aversive affects that identifies those who are eligible to be mistreated. On the ‘right’ side of the wall, we find ‘all those who belong to the locus of enunciation’ (Mignolo 2005: 8). Property and propriety command the circuit of the civilised and look to widen its dominion. Barbarity is gross, offensive, evil and violent. Civilisation licenses itself to restrain, to subdue the barbarity that has attracted its animus.
As Walter Benjamin (1969: 253) noted in his Ten Theses on the Philosophy of History, ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. The relationship between positive and negative that folds one into the other in Benjamin’s notion of history is an important starting point for a historical sociology of disability. The human subject is divided against itself in disavowing its corporeal vulnerability and abjection. These traits belong to the other, projected onto the mythical figure as blemish and stigma. Disability and non-disability are constituted in the non-disabled imaginary in ways that idealise the latter and contort the former. Imaginary idealisation sculpts the doxic form of the insider. Imaginary contortion chisels the toxic figure of the barbarous stranger. Behind both idealisation – civilised citizen – and contortion – barbarous outsider – sits the brooding figure of power and the consorts of beauty, truth, reason, order and justice that attend to the moralising business of normative evaluation and moral regulation.
The citizen insider is a full and proud member of the polity who, in marked contrast to the barbarian, is strange and suspect, and may only belong by coming under the spell of Western propriety. The stranger is, however, crucial to the citizen whose self-worth is based on the worthlessness of the outsider. The axiological dialectic of outsider–insider is reproduced by other binaries that have impacted negatively on disabled people’s lives. For example, in modernity, normal and abnormal exist in mutual contradiction. The power of the first is intertwined with the invalidity of the second. As Rosemary Garland-Thomson (1997: 20) put it: ‘without the pathological to give form to the normal, the taxonomies of bodily value that underlie political, social and economic arrangements would collapse’. The anomalous figure, troublesome, detestable and transgressive, clarifies acceptability, civility, propriety. The other helps to evidence the right stuff of being, the contours of virtue, the character of ‘nobility’, the ‘nature’ of cultural propriety. ‘The unruly, uncivil, disabled body’ writes Fiona Kumari Campbell (2008: 7) ‘is necessary for the reiteration of the “truth” of the “real/essential” human self’. The eugenic logic of Western civilisation demeans, degrades. In extremis, it exterminates those who defile the essential human self. Disability history is made in this wrestling match between self and other. It is a dialectic of the same subject synchronically reversed by its own journey from insider to outsider, non-disability to disability. The ‘master-partner’ fails to recognise ‘his’ destiny in the despised other. The history of disability is a struggle between the aspirational and the empirical self; a pointless civil war, born in able, mortal fear, in which the idealised self violently oppresses and deforms the alterity it has estranged.
In the history of relations between disabled and non-disabled people, or the history of invalidation of the latter by the former, it takes two to tango in time. In claiming that invalidation, despite the varied forms that it takes in time, is a concept that can offer some supra-historical traction, I run some risks. The accusation of operating with an essentialist conception of historical process is a critique waiting in the wings, but it is important to contest this by indicating what I want to avoid. Edward Wheatley (2010) argues, for example, for a singular conceptual point of access to the complexities of the Medieval period, suggesting that it requires, for its understanding, a religious model of disability. Stiker (1999: 91) argues that, with the transition to what he calls the ‘Classical Centuries’; ‘the priest, monk or friar is no longer our means of access to the new cultural era’. Stiker is right, but how do we leap the gulf between the old and the new, if the old is accessed by a code that makes no sense with the dawning of the new. Wheatley, as a historian of a particular time, may be less interested in the leap. It is important to recognise the profundity of the claim that disability is ‘always already a problem’ (Titchkosky and Michalko 2012: 113). I hope to demonstrate by the end of the book that this is not an essentialist position.
I propose the concept of invalidation as the idea that helps to smooth the passage between one epoch and the next. It allows time travel that is buttressed by some meaningful continuity. This may displease some disability historians influenced strongly by Foucault, like Pieter Verstraete (2012), for whom chronological historiography is dated. However, I think that both linear and ‘fitful’ methods recognise the importance of ‘improvisational borrowing in the face of new and pressing demands’ (Youdell 2006: 35). Disability history is full of ‘improvisational borrowing’. Phoenix-like properties of pejorative ­representation (of disability) wing their way across time, and touch down, now and then, in ‘the face of new and pressing demands’ (Youdell 2006: 35).
The methodology that I am proposing for this historical sociology of disability pulls one towards a consideration of the ethical relations that will best suit the next steps in the human jo...

Table of contents

Citation styles for A Historical Sociology of Disability
APA 6 Citation
Hughes, B. (2019). A Historical Sociology of Disability (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1509657/a-historical-sociology-of-disability-human-validity-and-invalidity-from-antiquity-to-early-modernity-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Hughes, Bill. (2019) 2019. A Historical Sociology of Disability. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1509657/a-historical-sociology-of-disability-human-validity-and-invalidity-from-antiquity-to-early-modernity-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Hughes, B. (2019) A Historical Sociology of Disability. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1509657/a-historical-sociology-of-disability-human-validity-and-invalidity-from-antiquity-to-early-modernity-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Hughes, Bill. A Historical Sociology of Disability. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.