Modern Languages and Disability Studies

Thursday of last week I was very pleased to be able to participate in the Whose Tragedy? workshop at the Centre for Creative Collaboration (c4cc), an event organized by Hannah Thompson, author of the excellent Blind Spot blog. Liverpool University Press has recently published a book by Benjamin Fraser on Disability Studies and Spanish Culture, and one of the key innovations of last week’s event was its bringing together a group of scholars similarly working at the interface of Modern Languages and Disability Studies. Papers covered a range of topics, forms of representation and historico-cultural contexts:

Whose Disability? Challenging Stereotypical Representations of Epilepsy

Maria Vaccarella (Centre for the Humanities and Health and Comparative Literature Department, King’s College London)

Sur mes lèvres, Deafness, Embodiment: Towards a Film Phenomenology of a Differently Ordered Sensorium

Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, University of London)

Beyond the ‘Narrative of Overcoming’: Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Culture.

Sam Haigh (University of Warwick)

Ana García-Siñeriz, Esas mujeres rubias (2010): disability, gender, and the medical establishment

Abigail Lee Six (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The pain of itching

Prof Naomi Segal (Birkbeck College, London)

‘Raw data’: autistic aloneness and the category of insight in Elle s’appelle Sabine

Vivienne Orchard (University of Southampton)

Telling, not seeing: blindness and travel writing

Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool)

On not being deaf to the blind

Kate Tunstall (Worcester College, Oxford)

Disability and Sexuality: the poetry of Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595-1670)

Nick Hammond (University of Cambridge)

My own paper gave me a chance to present some of my own recent research on travel writing and blindness, part of a larger project on travel and the senses that has emerged from a longstanding interest in the sensory humanities (dating back to my doctoral research on Victor Segalen) as well as from the AHRB-funded project on ‘New Approaches to Twentieth-Century Travel Literature in French’ on which I worked in Glasgow and then Liverpool with Feroza Basu and Siobhán Shilton between 2000 and 2003. Feroza introduced me then to a substantial sub-genre of French travel writing by disabled authors, many of whom deployed questions relating to the impact of motor impairments on the practices of the journey in order to rethink many normative assumptions about travel and its textualization. Inspired in part by A Travel Without Visual Experience (2008), a piece by Pak Sheung Chuen included recently in the Liverpool Tate ‘Thresholds’ exhibition about which I have already written in this blog, I drew in my paper on the Hong Kong artist’s reflections on sightless travel  to explore a range of texts published by blind travellers between the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first. Pak’s project is a serious reflection on travel and the senses, leading us to deconstruct the privileged relationship between vision and memory, to reflect on the role of non-visual sensation in mobility, and to ask a series of questions that inform my own current research on blind travellers regarding the forms travel narratives might take were they to rely not on vision, but on soundscapes and smellscapes, on taste and touch. 

The aim outlined in my paper was that of developing, from a small but significant sub-generic corpus of narratives by visually impaired travellers, an understanding of (i) the norms and assumptions relating to able-bodied-ness that structure and regulate travel and regulate its textualization, (ii) the ways in which differing configurations of sensory engagement lead to differing constructions of space and place in the journey narrative, and finally (iii), the extent to which the travelogues of the blind and visually impaired often reveal sensory dimensions of the travel experience, and provide reflections on alternative modes of engagement with other places and their inhabitants, that are absent from narratives that privilege the visual.

The event confirmed my longstanding view that Modern Languages always has the potential to serve a catalytic role in emerging disciplinary fields, not only by revealing the risks of monolingual or monocultural emphases, but also by assisting in progressive internationalization—and in the processes of comparatism or ‘becoming-transnational’ to which this relates. This tendency was certainly evident a decade or so ago in postcolonial studies, an area in which the introduction of study of literatures and histories associated with languages other than English prevented the self-referential over-anthologization increasingly apparent in the 1990s. Whilst Disability Studies has not necessarily faced such an impasse, it is striking nevertheless to acknowledge its engagement with what—in Disability Studies and Spanish Culture—Benjamin Fraser has called the ‘global turn’, i.e., ‘an explicit commitment to the goal of pursuing a global or transnational vision for the field’ (p.xv). Citing two recent issues of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies—devoted to ‘Disabling Postcolonialism’ and the ‘Geo-Politics of Disability’—Fraser reveals the genuinely enabling possibilities of working at the juncture of Modern Languages and Disability Studies, on the one hand understanding what is specific about the social, cultural and political practices relating to disability in differing national and sub-national contexts, whilst on the other ensuring that we have the necessary knowledge to presents comparisons and contrasts between different experiences constructions and representations of disability around the world and across history. I was particularly grateful for the opportunity at the event last week to hear about some of the ways in which these debates are emerging in Modern Languages. At the same time, with these new emphases on transnational contrasts and connections to which Fraser alludes, I would suggest additionally that travel writing, with its inherent interest in border crossing and intercultural as well as intracultural contact, provides a privileged arena in which to ask questions about the historico-social construction of disability in national and transnational contexts.

With several notable exceptions, Modern Languages has been slow to engage with questions of disability; the same is true in studies in travel writing, where this significant cross-disciplinary rendez-vous manqué is perhaps all the more surprising given both fields’ emphases on corporality, the body and identity formation. The study of travel and blindness has wide implications for the reading of travelogues more generally, and encourages an understanding that at once identifies and challenges a discursive normativity associated with sight, whilst at the same time encourages an approach to a poetics of travel writing that reveals the multisensory as opposed to the mono-sensory, and—in the terms of the title of my own paper last week—privileges telling as opposed to seeing.


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