The Body and Physical Difference

Discourses of Disability
David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Editors
Foreword by James I. Porter
Groundbreaking perspectives on disability in culture and the arts that shed light on notions of identity and social marginality


For years the subject of human disability has engaged those in the biological, social and cognitive sciences, while at the same time, it has been curiously neglected within the humanities. The Body and Physical Difference seeks to introduce the field of disability studies into the humanities by exploring the fantasies and fictions that have crystallized around conceptions of physical and cognitive difference. Based on the premise that the significance of disabilities in culture and the arts has been culturally vexed as well as historically erased, the collection probes our society's pathological investment in human variability and "aberrancy." The contributors demonstrate how definitions of disability underpin fundamental concepts such as normalcy, health, bodily integrity, individuality, citizenship, and morality—all terms that define the very essence of what it means to be human.

The book provides a provocative range of topics and perspectives: the absence of physical "otherness" in Ancient Greece, the depiction of the female invalid in Victorian literature, the production of tragic innocence in British and American telethons, the reconstruction of Civil War amputees, and disability as the aesthetic basis for definitions of expendable life within the modern eugenics movement. With this new, secure anchoring in the humanities, disability studies now emerges as a significant strain in contemporary theories of identity and social marginality.

Moving beyond the oversimplication that disabled people are marginalized and made invisible by able-ist assumptions and practices, the contributors demonstrate that representation is founded upon the perpetual exhibition of human anomalies. In this sense, all art can be said to migrate toward the "freakish" and the "grotesque." Such a project paradoxically makes disability the exception and the rule of the desire to represent that which has been traditionally out-of-bounds in polite discourse.

The Body and Physical Difference has relevance across a wide range of academic specialties such as cultural studies, the sociology of medicine, history, literature and medicine, the allied health professions, rehabilitation, aesthetics, philosophical discourses of the body, literary and film studies, and narrative theory.

David T. Mitchell is Associate Professor of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Sharon L. Snyder is Assistant Professor of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Praise / Awards

  • "The Body and Physical Difference is a pathbreaking, germinal work, bringing together essays that are consistently illuminating, incisive, and important. Each forces us to rethink the intellectual stranglehold of an unspoken, unacknowledged 'ableist' ideology in the humanities. Each illuminates that, as Kenzaburo Oe has observed, we can only truly understand a culture when we know how its disabled members see it, read it, understand it, critique it. This work marks the coming of age of a movement that will, ultimately, mark as significant a change in our understanding of our profession—and human interaction—as the movements against the oppression of racism, homophobia, and sexism."
    —Louise DeSalvo, Hunter College
  • "Disability studies is becoming a major arena for cultural studies. The Western image of disabilities and its representation in mass and high art has the potential to be one of the keys to our ability to understand how society defines the 'normal.' Mitchell and Snyder's anthology presents the widest spectrum of 'disability studies' and will serve in the future as the benchmark against which such studies are measured."
    —Sander L. Gilman, The University of Chicago
  • "The Body and Physical Difference both offers compelling and varied individual essays and stimulates further work in this increasingly important field."
    South Central Review

Look Inside

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction : disability studies and the double bind of representation / David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder
  • Constructions of physical disability in the ancient Greek world : the community concept / Martha L. Edwards
  • Nude venuses, Medusa's body, and phantom limbs : disability and visuality / Lennard J. Davis
  • Disfigurement and reconstruction in Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The human wheel, its spokes and felloes" / David D. Yuan
  • Defining the defective : eugenics, aesthetics, and mass culture in early-twentieth-century America / Martin S. Pernick
  • In search of Al Schmid : war hero, blinded veteran, everyman / David A. Gerber
  • Conspicuous contribution and American cultural dilemmas : telethon rituals of cleansing and renewal / Paul K Longmore
  • Feminotopias : the pleasures of "deformity" in mid-eighteenth-century England / Felicity A. Nussbaum
  • "A prisoner to the couch" : Harriet Martineau, invalidism, and self-representation / Maria Frawley - "It is more than lame" : female disability, sexuality, and the maternal in the nineteenth-century novel / Cindy LaCom
  • The "talking cure" (again) : gossip and the paralyzed patriarchy / Jan Gordon
  • From social welfare to civil rights : the representation of disability in twentieth-century German literature / Elizabeth C. Hamilton
  • Disabled women as powerful women in Petry, Morrison, and Lorde : revising black female subjectivity / Rosemarie Garland Thomson
  • Muteness and mutilation : the aesthetics of disability in Jane Campion's The piano / Caroline Molina
  • "Making up the stories as we go along" : men, women, and narratives of disability / Madonne Miner.

Product Details

  • 6.125 x 9.25.
  • 320pp.
  • 3 drawings, 7 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1997
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-09659-6

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  • $89.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 1997
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06659-9

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  • $36.95 U.S.