by David T. Mitchell & Sharon L. Snyder
The University of Michigan Press, 2000
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic on Jan 7th 2004
Narrative prosthesis? What should that mean? Does it
mean that people with disabilities use narratives to comfort themselves? OK,
that might be the case oftentimes, and this book is then devoted to the
analysis of these "prosthetic narratives." It must be that the book
reviews the typical among these narratives and gives some practical advice
afterwards. But, then, why "... of Discourse?" Shouldn't it be
"... on Discourse?" Does it mean that discourse depends on
disabilities? And whose discourse? If persons with disabilities need discourse
that depends on disabilities, this might be an unclear title, but I can somehow
follow the author's discourse. Still, what if this should be understood to say
that everyone's discourse depends on disabilities? Is mine included as well?
Being a decent clinical psychologist, with complete respect for any patient of
mine, I find this almost offensive. And I hope the rest of the book will not
challenge my command of English as much as the title.
And then, one page after another, the authors will
claim just what I did not like to hear. Their basic ideas are in full contrast
to what we are used to learn and teach. On the first level, it is still not
very dangerous when they write that their "central thesis situated itself
around a belief that our stories come replete with images of disability and yet
we lack a coherent methodology for recognizing and reckoning with that
fact" (p. 163). Several books have already been written about that (see my
review of Otto F. Wahl's Media Madness Public Images of Mental Illness
in Metapsychology), and several organizations are trying to change
scientific approaches and public attitudes. Still, there's more to come.
Mitchell & Snyder's book becomes important on the
next level, when they discuss the notion of enforcing normalcy.
According to this idea, as Foucault's mentor George Canguilhem was among first
to notice, "medicine surrendered its professional ideal of diagnostic
objectivity by applying a generalized and theoretically abstract model of the
body to evaluate organisms that are inherently adaptive, fluctuating, and
idiosyncratic" (p. 121). So, it is not only that people need to talk about
disabilities, it is that culture and sciences need disabilities in order to be
able to make foundations for their discourses. Therefore, " ... disability
is the product of an interaction between individual differences and social
environments (architectural, legislative, familial, attitudinal, etc.) ...
" (p. 43) and it "acts as a metaphor and fleshy example of the body's
unruly resistance to the cultural desire to 'enforce normalcy'" (p. 48).
case of physical disability is somewhat different from the case of cognitive
one, since it "provides the 'visible' and fixed evidence of a violated
bodily wholeness while calling to mind the failure of our bodies to attain the
ideal of completeness" (p. 125). The book provides a very good review of
both implicit and expert theories that have tried to prove an equation between
external shape and internal disposition (most notably, physiognomy and
And it was only at this point the title could have
been clarified. It was now acceptable that "narrative prosthesis is
meant to indicate that disability has been used throughout history as a crutch
upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power,
disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (p. 49). In the core of
our efforts to discuss race, gender, sexuality, etc., we are in need of
minorities in order to be able to describe and define our position. It is not
true that all happy families are the same. It is only that there is nothing to
be said about them, no interesting stories. Storytellers - both fictional and
scientific - need unhappy families before they can reflect on their own one's.
Therefore, "in part, this book is about the literary accomplishment
of a faulty, or at least imperfect, prosthetic function. The effort is to
make the prosthesis show, to flaunt its imperfect supplementation as an
illusion. The prosthetic relation of body to word is exposed as an
artificial contrivance" (p. 8, italics in the original).
No matter how radical this might be, I find Mitchell
and Snyder's book very stimulating. Its theoretical freshness makes it easy for
me to recommend it to anyone in the field. But it contains another part, almost
another half. In four chapters, the authors present "... a series of
analyses of key moments in a literary tradition of disability narrative"
(p. 163). So, the reader can find innovative analyses of Montaigne's and Nietzsche's
attitudes toward disabilities, Shakespeare's Richard III, Melville's Moby
Dick, and a review of differences in portraying disabilities between modern
and postmodern American novels. The best among these, to my mind, is the
chapter on Shakespeare. It is more comprehensive and its subject is more
thoroughly researched. Philosophical works are, on the other hand, reviewed
without a proper context and quoted in translation only, and there are even
more problems with the authors' attempt to interpret Oedipus (p. 61ff).
I would like to stress that Mitchell and Snyder have presented an important
discussion of the language as prosthesis, for which we can only hope that they
will further elaborate it in their future work. They have given us an
opportunity to learn a lot in their synthesis of the methodological components
within disability studies: (1. negative imagery; 2. social realism; 3. new
historicism; 4. biographical criticism; 5. transgressive reappropriation; pp.
17-40). And their attitude is something anyone can take as a model: "...
the query about disabled people's integration is not enough - we must
press instead for the recognition of disability as integral to cultural
understanding" (p. 178; italics in the original). I hope we shall hear
more from them.
© 2004 Aleksandar
Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of
Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.