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Overview

"A testament to the synergy of two evolving fields. From the study of staged performances to examinations of the performing body in everyday life, this book demonstrates the enormous profitability of moving beyond disability as metaphor. . . . It's a lesson that many of our cultural institutions desperately need to learn."
-Martin F. Norden, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

This groundbreaking collection imagines disabled bodies as "bodies in commotion"-bodies that dance across artistic and discursive boundaries, challenging our understanding of both disability and performance. In the book's essays, leading critics and artists explore topics that range from theater and dance to multi-media performance art, agit-prop, American Sign Language theater, and wheelchair sports. Bodies in Commotion is the first collection to consider the mutually interpretive qualities of these two emerging fields, producing a dynamic new resource for artists, activists, and scholars.

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Product Details

Read an Excerpt

Bodies in Commotion
Disability and Performance

THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-472-09891-0



Chapter One PART I Taxonomies

Disability & Deaf Performances in the Process of Self-Definition

This first part provides a wide sampling of performance strategies that artists with disabilities have deployed to construct disability and Deaf cultures. Historian and activist Paul Longmore explains that the disability culture movements reflect and feed the disability civil rights movement. Longmore argues that both movements have critiqued "hyperindividualistic" American cultural values and coalesced around a set of alternative values derived from the experiences of disabled and Deaf people: "They declare that they prize not self-sufficiency but self-determination, not independence but interdependence, not functional separateness but personal connection, not physical autonomy but human community." The contributors to this section demonstrate that disabled artists have been key to communicating this critique of hegemonic values and to embodying alternative values through performance. All of the artists under consideration in this part consciously attempt to articulate an alternative cultural identity for those on the inside of that experience as well as for those on the outside.

In her essay "Delivering Disability, Willing Speech," Brenda Jo Brueggemann argues that performers with disabilities primarily challenge notions of autonomy and what Longmore calls "functional separateness." Brueggemann contends that these artists challenge the "rhetorical triangle," which consists of three separate entities: the speaker, the audience, and the subject. The performers she considers-Neil Marcus, the Flying Words Project, and sign language interpreters-confuse the traditional rhetorical triangle by using cooperative communication tactics that muddle boundaries between individual performers and between actors and audience. Brueggemann ultimately argues that the field of rhetoric must adapt to take these alternative communication dynamics into account.

Rosemarie Garland Thomson analyzes performances by three artists-Cheryl Marie Wade, Mary Duffy, and Carrie Sandahl-whose work simultaneously tackles feminist and disability issues. In "Dares to Stares: Disabled Women Performance Artists and the Dynamics of Staring," Thomson argues that these artists must negotiate both the "male gaze" and what she calls "the stare" to claim a space for disabled feminine subjectivity. She explores how these artists confront the medicalization of both female and disabled bodies, take pride in their bodily difference, and turn "stigma management" into art. All three performances make apparent how identity is formulated through highly ritualized social exchanges.

The way in which identity is formed in communities is taken up by Jessica Berson in "Performing Deaf Identity: Toward a Continuum of Deaf Performance." Berson analyzes three performances: Shakespeare Theater's King Lear, Bruce Hlibok and Norman Frisch's signed performance art, and the Amaryllis Theater Company's Twelfth Night. She examines the role that language plays in defining Deaf cultural identity in practices ranging from "outside" performances, which explain Deaf culture to hearing audiences, to "inside" performances by and for the Deaf.

Finally, Jim Ferris's "Aesthetic Distance and the Fiction of Disability" describes how a group of college students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale found community through the exploration of their disability experiences in a collaborative performance piece called Do You Sleep in That Thing? Ferris, who directed the project, describes how this group of performers experimented with calibrating various degrees of aesthetic distance to claim both affinity with, and difference from, their mainly nondisabled audience. Aesthetic distance also allowed the performers to explore disability as a "fiction" whose meaning is context dependent, a move that allowed them to rewrite the meaning of disability for themselves.

Declaring disability a "fiction"-or a social construction-is a significant thread running through all four of these essays. This declaration, however, is not meant to minimize or deny the very real experiences of disability and impairment. Instead, it allows people with disabilities to intercede in the meaning-making process by writing (and performing) their own fictions, fictions they find more truthful.

Delivering Disability, Willing Speech BRENDA JO BRUEGGEMANN

We might start with Demosthenes, who, despite a stutter and "short breath," was the most celebrated of the ancient Greek orators. He was said to have worked to overcome his speech idiosyncrasies (they would now almost certainly be called "speech defects") and to have practiced, pebble-mouthed, projecting his voice over the roaring ocean. From Demosthenes, we can fast-forward two and a half millennia to Christopher Reeve's first major oration as a disabled citizen, stopping the track at his speech before the 1996 Democratic National Convention-delivered between the pulses of his respirator-regulated breaths (roaring, perhaps oceanically, in his own ears) and powerfully performed, yet gestureless and expressionless as it was, from his quadriplegic body. We can pause again at Reeve's speech delivered before thirty-eight thousand faculty, administrators, and graduating students with their family and friends at Ohio State University in 2003. From the center of the football field within the modern coliseum of one of America's largest stadiums, Reeve spoke in his characteristic measured tones and breaths on the subject of "integrity," while his newly shaved head reminded some of us of Patrick Stewart's portrayal as the mutants' center of integrity and master mind-melder, Professor X, in the X-Men films. In these instances and infinitely more, disability delivers rhetoric.

I will be concerned in this essay with how a disabled body, often existing and performing outside the typically narrowly prescribed boundaries of rhetorical "standards," performs successful political and persuasive discourse. I intend to expose the ancient rhetorical canon of delivery (variously known as pronunciatio and actio) as it has historically both prescribed and described "normalcy," delivering the norms of a rhetorical body-and therein, too, delivering the "norms of a rhetorical culture" (Farrell 1993). While I might locate my argument alongside Lennard Davis's own critique of "normalcy," both constructed and enforced (Enforcing Normalcy; "Constructing Normalcy"), I also want to push back disability's rhetorical "coming of age"-beyond his originary point of "the bell curve, the novel, and the invention of the disabled body in the 19th century"-to the development of the art of rhetoric from the ancient Greeks, and the historical march of rhetoric's descriptions and prescriptions for the canon of delivery, the performance of a speaker, and the normalization of speaker's bodies.

In pushing backward, I come to rhetoric as a practice, if not also a theory, of habilitation and rehabilitation. Through its more than twenty-five-hundred-year history, rhetoric has never been particularly friendly to "disabled," "deformed," "deaf," or "mute" people, the "less than perfect" in voice, expression, or stance. As Davis Houck and Amos Kiewe note in their introduction to FDR's Body Politics, "the relationship between rhetoric and disability, of course, did not begin with Franklin Roosevelt" (4). They cite, as an example, the way that Homer "effectively disabled Thersites and his speech of dissent" against Agamemnon and the siege at Troy. In fact, without much injustice, one could define rhetoric as the cultivation and perfection of performative, expressive control over oneself and others. Though rhetorical theory has always devoted much, perhaps most, of its attention to the purely conceptual activities of inventing and arranging the "available means of persuasion" (Aristotle), it can never lose sight of the oral, performative communication of these means.

Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, for example, begin their second edition of The Rhetorical Tradition (2001) with a bow to the complex and "overlapping meanings" of rhetoric, including, among its performative aspects,

the practice of oratory; the study of the strategies of effective oratory; the use of language, written or spoken, to inform or persuade; the study of the persuasive effects of language; the study of the relation between language and knowledge; the classification and use of tropes and figures; and, of course, the use of empty promises and half-truths as a form of propaganda. (1)

I will work from essentially all of these definitions in this essay. For braiding together theory, practice, and analysis-as these definitions all do-is the pair of (rhetorical) hands that, on the one hand, require the cultivation and perfection of one's own performative, expressive self even as, on the other hand, they entail the similar cultivation and perfection of one's real, imagined, and potential audience.

Yet rhetoric has always been heavy-handed toward one of these two "hands," placing the responsibility for cultivating the speaking voice and performing body on the speaker-performer him- or herself, rather than looking to the audience to adapt in order to meet the ability of the speaker. I will argue, however, that when we put a disabled body/speaker into this rhetorical practice, then rhetoric-as the art of performing persuasion-must now play the "other" hand just as heavily. That is, when disability delivers rhetoric, the audience really matters.

While ancient rhetoricians almost never afforded the canon of delivery (actio) the same attention as they did inventio (invention), many orators-those who spoke in the assembly, the courts, or for ceremonial occasions-admitted that the performance was the most important aspect of persuasive speaking. In the second edition of The Rhetorical Tradition, Bizzell and Herzberg begin by sketching the five canons of rhetoric-invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Notably, while invention receives seven paragraphs and nearly two pages of attention, arrangement and style get three paragraphs and almost a full page. Even memory, often presumed gone from our rhetorical tradition, gets two thick paragraphs. Delivery tags along at the end with a seven-line single paragraph that, despite its puniness, packs a good punch:

For Aristotle, delivery is an art akin to acting, which he despises. Like memory, delivery has often received rather perfunctory treatment, even by Quintilian and others who take a brighter view than Aristotle and acknowledge its importance. The Roman rhetoricians understand that voice, gestures, and facial expressions materially affect the impact of all that has gone into a speech. Delivery is a system of nonverbal signs that has enormous power, a power recognized by eighteenth-century elocutionists and by twentieth-century electronic media analysts, among others. (7; emphasis added)

This "system of nonverbal signs that has enormous power" is exactly the delivery that disabled performers-speakers-writers (rhetors)-and disability studies-can reinvent in the twenty-first century. For even Demosthenes called delivery the first, second, and third most important components of eloquence-a pronouncement upheld by the rhetorician, public statesmen, and consummate orator Cicero.

While the principles, rules, and proscriptions that make up the art of rhetoric vary from one age to the next, rhetoricians and orators have always taken for granted that those who hoped to control the will of an audience had first to control their own voice and body. Most important to the delivery of a speech was the energy and propriety of the orator's performance: it must convey the force of the speaker's passionate conviction without transgressing cultural codes of conduct and deportment. It must, that is, perform "normalcy" even as it incites and inspires some difference (otherwise, we would not be moved by, or remember, it). But disability can critique-can revise and reinvigorate and rehabilitate-the system of "normalcy." I will offer three examples.

Performing a Storm, Challenging Speech

Witness Neil Marcus, performer-actor and creator of an eighty-minute performance piece, Storm Reading. It opens with the challenge of-and a challenge to-speech. As the spotlight comes up on center stage, Marcus, sitting in his wheelchair, begins a monologue. His spastic muscles make his sitting barely ever that. His voice, punctuated by the same spasms, is difficult to understand-stuttering and heavy with hesitation as we wait for him to articulate tones, syllables, whole words, and to move us toward phrases, sentences, and fuller comprehension. For a full (very full) forty seconds, Marcus struggles to speak, and his audience struggles to comprehend. Then a female interpreter appears from side stage, gracious and flowing in a soft violet ballet dress. Her name is Kathryn Voice, though she doesn't voice. She signs. Voice works-acts-performs to deliver Marcus's speech, though she does not get its meaning through to those in the audience who do not know ASL (American Sign Language). An additional forty seconds goes by, and just as Marcus utters the final word, "h-h-h-human," a male interpreter, Matt Ingersoll, appears from the audience. As he approaches the stage, Ingersoll pronounces in a clear and mellifluous voice what Marcus has stammered out in two minutes: "People are always watching me ... they're watching to see how well I do this thing called human."

I show a recorded performance of Storm Reading, especially this opening clip, often in classes I teach. I have always used it to open courses on representations of disability in language, literature, and culture. I use it first because Marcus begins with the central issue for disabled people: their position in relation to "human." In his opening line, Marcus articulates, "disability" as an antistrophe, a counterweight, to "normalcy"-much as Aristotle designated the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic. Occupying a place of opposition, designated as outside the limits of "normal," disability highlights the boundaries of the "human condition." Thus, disability is multifariously represented in our culture as supernormal, subnormal, and abnormal. It is portrayed as essentially human; yet it is also portrayed as essentially not human.

I also like to show this opening clip from Storm Reading in my rhetoric-related classes because of these essential and yet antithetical qualities of disability, and because of its performance on the stage usually reserved for the "normal" subject. In such a class, we might focus on Marcus's delivery: the dissonance of a body whose gestures and expressions escape the prescriptions by elocutionists like seventeenth-century educator and rhetorician John Bulwer and eighteenth-century actor and orator Gilbert Austin. Marcus's voice transgresses the boundaries of rhetorical propriety (and rhetoric is always concerned with propriety, with "taste," with prescription); it is a voice trained well beyond the rehabilitation most of us are likely to have experienced, and far beyond Demosthenes' own rehabilitation with pebbles and waves-and yet it is a voice still barely intelligible, hardly rhetorically rehabilitated. Yet Marcus's voice is somehow commanding, compelling, forceful-traits often ascribed to great orators in the rhetorical tradition.

In rhetoric classes, we turn to this paradox to examine delivery as located, not in the rhetor, but in us, the audience. In this audience-centered space disability can illuminate rhetoric, since audience, from Aristotle's Rhetoric forward, sits at the center of rhetorical theory and practice. I have never had a class-from Ohio freshmen to the most sophisticated of graduate students from places around the globe-that does not confess how enormously uncomfortable they felt in witnessing the opening of Storm Reading. A common descriptor of their emotional engagement at this point is embarrassed: they are embarrassed for Marcus as a spectacle on the stage; sheepishly but honestly, they also admit that they are embarrassed for themselves in feeling so embarrassed for Marcus.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Bodies in Commotion
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : disability studies in commotion with performance studies 1
Pt. I Taxonomies : disability & deaf performances in the process of self-definition 13
Delivering disability, willing speech 17
Dares to stares : disabled women performance artists & the dynamics of staring 30
Performing deaf identity : toward a continuum of deaf performance 42
Aesthetic distance & the fiction of disability 56
Pt. II Disability/deaf aesthetics, audiences, & the public sphere 69
Shifting Apollo's frame : challenging the body aesthetic in theater dance 73
The national theatre of the deaf : artistic freedom and cultural responsibility in the use of American sign language 86
Shifting strengths : the cyborg theater of Cathy Weis 95
Theater without a hero : the making of P. H. *reaks : the hidden history of people with disabilities 109
Pt. III Rehabilitating the medical model 129
Performing disability, problematizing cure 135
Bodies, hysteria, pain : staging the invisible 147
Performance as therapy : Spalding Gray's autopathographic monologues 163
The facilitation of learning-disabled arts : a cultural perspective 175
Beyond therapy : "performance" work with people who have profound & multiple disabilities 190
Dementia and the performance of self 202
Pt. IV Performing disability in daily life 215
Looking blind : a revelation of culture's eye 219
Men in motion : disability and the performance of masculinity 230
Disrupting a disembodied status quo : invisible theater as subversive pedagogy 243
The tyranny of neutral : disability and actor training 255
Pt. V Reading disability in dramatic literature 269
Unfixing disability in Lord Byron's The Deformed Transformed 271
On Medea, bad mother of the Greek drama (disability, character, genopolitics) 284
Disability's invisibility in Joan Schenkar's Signs of Life and Heather McDonald's An Almost Holy Picture 302
Reconsidering identity politics, essentialism, and dismodernism : an afterword 319
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