September 12 (Week 4): The Spectacle of the Disabled “Other”

This week we will focus on the ways in which disability has historically been used to construct hierarchies and “the other.”  Our discussions will focus on three examples: slavery, debates over women’s reproduction and civilization, and the spectacle of  freak shows.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



Slavery & Disability

1)     Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History, pp. 33-57 (MavSpace)

2)      “‘Refuse Slaves’ and the Slave Trade,” in Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States, pp. 41-47 (MavSpace)

3)     Dea Boster, “‘I Made Up My Mind to Act Both Deaf and Dumb: Displays of Disability and Slave Resistance in the Antebellum American South,” in Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity, ed. Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 71-98 (MavSpace)

Gender, Monsters, and Savages

1)     Laura Briggs, “The Race of Hysteria: ‘Overcivilization’ and the ‘Savage’ woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology,” American Quarterly 52, no. 5 (June 2000): 246-273 (MavSpace)

2)     Philip K. Wilson, “Eighteenth-Century ‘Monsters’ and Nineteenth-Century ‘Freaks’:  Reading the Maternally Marked Child,” Literature and Medicine 21, no. 1 (Spring 2002):  1-25 (MavSpace)

Freak Shows & the Gaze

1)     Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Why Do We Stare?” in Staring: How We Look (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 3-11 (MavSpace)

2)     “Introduction: Exhibiting Freaks” in Nadja Durbach, Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture (University of California Press, 2010), pp. 1-32 (MavSpace)

3)     Choose one case study to read

  • Holly E. Martin, “Cheng and Eng Bunker, ‘The Original Siamese Twins’: Living, Dying, and Continuing under the the Spectator’s Gaze,” The Journal of American Culture 34, no. 4 (December 2011): 372-388 (MavSpace)
  • Filip Herza, “‘Tiny Artists from the Big World’: The Rhetoric of Representing Extraordinary Bodies during the Singer Midgets’ 1928 Tour in Prague,” in Exploring the Cultural History of Continental European Freak Shows & ‘Enfreakment’, ed. Anna Kérchy and Andrea Zittlau (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), pp. 193-210 (MavSpace)

9 Responses to “September 12 (Week 4): The Spectacle of the Disabled “Other””

  1. Lydia Towns says:

    1. One of the things that stood out to me in the readings this week is the idea that women, white women in particular, were weaker and that this weakness is most often depicted by their tendency to fall into hysterics. Hysteria was one of the things that proved their weakness and served as an argument against educating women. In Brigg’s article it is pointed out in several places that hysteria was said to be caused by “overcivilization” and that it threatened the reproductive ability of white women and thus threatened the white race. Yet, so called “savage women,” women who were not “overcivilized” and thus not prone to hysterics, were said to have easy labor and very healthy reproductive organs. My thought is, if the doctors truly believed this, and truly believed that those women who worked hard and were less civilized had more children, then why not encourage white women to work a little harder and become “hardier.” Why encourage the idea of pampering white women when it “overcivilized” them and caused them to not want, or to be unable to have, very many children?
    2. In the articles on slavery and disability the main theme that continued to stand out was that slaves were viewed as less than human. In many instances it was even argued that they needed to be slaves; that if they were free they would not know what to do with themselves and would not be able to provide for themselves. Slavery was simply the natural order of things. In the same way, it was argued that women should not be educated, as it would prove harmful to them. Women should remain at home under the authority of their husband or father. It was simply the natural order of things. The same is true of many ethnic groups who were targeted by immigration laws as they were perceived to be prone to being a burden on society. These groups were viewed as less civilized and often excluded on the basis of disability. So if they were considered unable to care for themselves on their own, if they were seen as being less than human on some level at that time, were they considered disabled? And if so, should historians treat them as such when dealing with this time period?
    3. Muddiest point: The article on epilepsy was a fascinating piece for me. I can remember growing up and hearing my great-grandmother tell us not to do something or we would have a “fit,” but I never really understood what she meant. I always assumed she was referring to a tantrum. I had never realized that epilepsy was such a common occurrence and of such concern in society for so long. I am very surprised that I have never heard about this before.

  2. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: In Laura Briggs’s The Race of Hysteria, Briggs discussed how eugenicists claimed that “overcivilized” white women were less sexualized, suffered from nervousness, and were less fertile than the “uncivilized,” “hypersexual,” and “hardy” women of the minority groups and of lower economic classes. Eugenicists, at the time, stated that this nervousness, or hysteria, was caused by white middle and upper-class women who could not handle “unfeminine” like tasks, such as higher education but not hard labor, or from sitting around and just worrying. In addition, eugenicists have always dreamed of creating a perfect society and civilization by manipulating the genes of the middle and upper-class Anglo-American people stand in charge of other races, which is explained in historical literature like Lennard Davis’s article Constructing Normalcy. If this is the case, then how can eugenicists see these “hysterical” women as weak, and a problem, when they were a product of being a part of the “genetically perfect” civilization eugenicists wished to create and they should naturally adapt to any challenge that they faced? Also was this fear of “hysteria” really just a way for men to control women or was it a real concern that white women were developing a new “disability” that “endangered” white people from being overrun by “inferior” people?
    Question 2: Nadja Durbach pointed out that “cripples” were seen by both “normal” people and “freaks” as being different. As a result, “cripples” were not used in shows and some were dependent on begging to be able to eat. So why did “freaks” see cripples as being different? Was it because they saw themselves as being less “disabled” than “cripples” or was it because “freaks” did not want to be categorized as being “crippled” or “disabled,” much like how Deaf people do not connect themselves to those considered as “disabled.” In addition, why were “cripples” not part of freak shows? Was it because they were so numerous and thus not as entertaining or was it because people saw “cripples” with pity and not wonder?
    Most interesting connection: As pointed out by Garland-Thomson, humans stare at people and objects because it fulfills our internal need of curiosity and wonderment. As a result, people who are born different, “freaks” or the “disabled,” were used as a method to draw in crowds throughout the world, as pointed out by Durbach and Herza, to different forms of entertainment. These shows and performances allowed “freaks” to earn some money and to satisfy the human need to fulfill our curiosity and need to look at the “wonders” and “strangeness” that surrounds us.

  3. Cory Wells says:

    In the first section of the reading we see the relationship between slavery and disability, and it seems there s a hierarchy implied. While slaves are already seen as inherently disabled by their race in Baynton’s article, Nielsen demonstrates how slaves with what we would call disabilities today were seen as worthless compared to able bodied slaves. Boster looks at how some slaves may have malingered, or faked a disability to get out of working, thus lowering themselves to the bottom rung of the “value” ladder to (sometimes) improve their own lived experiences. Does this model make sense, and can it be applied to other categories of analysis? That is, can someone with an identity (like race or gender) imposed by the larger group often push that identity to the forefront to find creative ways around obstacles, or does it only work for certain identities?

    The second section of the readings raises interesting questions on the relationship between gender, race, and disability. Laura Briggs’ article shows how racism and misogyny converged in the creation of a medical diagnosis and influenced the development of an important modern medical procedure, while Philip Wilson locates sexism in the responsibility placed upon mothers of deformed children. Can we still see evidence of the attitudes studies in these pieces in our culture today, even in the medical field?

    My muddiest point concerns the place of agency in the writings of disability historians. Garland-Thompson’s article seems to make an attempt at tackling this question more so than some previous readings, and Boster’s previously mentioned article does quite a good job of it. I am still a little unsure of the dichotomy (perhaps one I have falsely created) between examining the social barriers and attitudes put in place of a given society and the lived experiences of those who we discuss as disabled. It does not seem that they should be mutually exclusive, but many authors we have read so far veer toward one or the other.

  4. Jacob Jones says:

    1. A common theme concerning the “other” in these readings is the generalization of disability across lines of race and gender, as seen in Boster with malingering slaves and Briggs with neurasthenia. Primitive medical ideology was used to classify entire sections of the population and to marginalize them. To what extent did post-Enlightenment medicine contribute to the separation of human beings into hierarchical categories? How much of the medical ideology that separated humans from one another was merely pre-Enlightenment ideals given a pseudo-scientific(phrenology, physiognomy, etc.) rationale?

    2. The creation of the “other” is often along economic and political lines of rhetoric. These are explored throughout Baynton and Nielson. These attacks sought to marginalize women, various races and nationalities, and people with disabilities. Baynton points out that these other marginalized groups have invoked similar rhetorical devices, further marginalizing people with disabilities, in order to gain their own civil rights. Did the women’s rights and civil rights movements help solidify disability as the true “other”? Has this marginalization and identification with spectacle discouraged group unity in the disability rights movement?

    Most Interesting Connection: The classification of the “other”, specifically that of physical difference at birth, begins with scientific classification itself(Homo monstrous, p. 7 of Wilson). After this perceived difference is classified, the field of medicine assigned causality that rarely was based in objective observation. Essentially, medicine followed along old scholastic principles of proving what we already know to be true. This was especially striking in Wilson’s accounts of late 19th century medical debates that still attributed physical impairments to moral failings of individuals other than the person afflicted.

  5. Christopher Malmberg says:

    Christopher Malmberg

    1) In “Why Do We Stare” Rosalie Garland-Thomson changes the focus away from the starer and instead takes apart the role of the staree. According to Thomson this changes the act of staring from a one way act to a social interaction that aids in the creation of identity. Thomson argues further that by looking at the act of staring as a two-way process, the staree no longer remains an object of the starer’s gaze, but becomes a subject. In Spectacles of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Nadja Durbach attempts to give agency to the actors in freak shows by showing their acceptance of their roles as freaks in questioning ideas of normalcy. In the freak shows of Durbach’s narrative, the freaks are actors playing a role for members of society considered “normal”. The freaks are often categorized as savage and animal like, which is in contrast to the normal humans coming to view them. In light of Thomson’s article, could it be that the freaks in Durbach’s narrative are using their roles as the starees in order to claim a subjectivity denied to them by the rest of society?

    Muddiest Point: Durbach also argues that historians have not been able to move past the idea of freaks as victims due to scholars insistence of making freaks disabled. Durbach argues against this giving numerous reasons why; however, for all the reasons she gives, her argument comes down to the idea that freaks were not disabled because they could earn income and were therefore “able-bodied”. I find this line of reasoning extremely confusing. Isn’t this way of approaching the subject of freaks (separate from disability based on societies acceptance of them as gimmicks that can earn money) exactly what Douglas Baynton claims is wrong with many studies? It seams Durbach would argue that the freaks are not disabled because they have an income earning potential that makes them relatively independent and therefore higher up on the social hierarchy than those classified as “disabled”.

    2) Dea H. Boster tells an excellent narrative about the use of malingering by slaves in order to gain freedom. Boster makes the argument that slaves used societies habit of hiding away the disabled as a way to be relieved from work and/or to be put in the background, which could result in a moment of neglect wherein the slave could escape. In doing so, the slave would act the role of a disabled person in order to bring to full view a disability of some sort. The act of relocating the disability into the public eye would result in the slaves removal from watchful eyes. Boster provides numerous excellent examples of slaves performing disabilities that would impede their ability to work. These examples are mainly physical injuries or fits of madness; however, Boster begins his article with an example of a slave pretending to be deaf and dumb in order to avoid answering questions that would result in the return to his slave master. The example of being deaf and dumb does not seem to fit with the rest of the examples of performed disabilities. At the most obvious level, unlike the physical disabilities performed by some of the slaves, being deaf and dumb cannot necessarily be seen; furthermore, being deaf and dumb would not impede a slave from working in a field. Clearly, however, acting the role of being deaf and dumb resulted in the same way as other physical disabilities. When and how did deafness and physical disabilities become equated as the same? What does it say about societies view of disability that a slave that cannot walk, which is an obvious obstacle to working in a field, and a slave that cannot hear are equal in their worthlessness? On a different not, Kim E. Nielsen discusses the fate of the “refuse” slave. According to Nielsen, slaves with disabilities aboard a slave ship could be thrown overboard. If not thrown overboard, their eventual fate must have been death as a captain of a slave ship has no economic incentive to keep slaves aboard that he must feed. While Nielsen’s examples are of slaves with actual disabilities, not slaves that are malingering, the slaves, once they had been sold, had to have learned the benefit of malingering from somewhere.

  6. Bryan Garrett says:

    Garland-Thomson suggests circumventing the gaze by challenging internalized bourgeois sensibilities. Stated differently, social conventions constantly haunt the act of staring as impolite, rude, or even unwarranted. The author also suggests that “starer” and “staree” should upend the power dynamics of staring to get beyond these sensibilities. However, Martin, while analyzing how these power relations shift through the development of self-subjectivity for Chang and Eng (or what the author describes as the notion of the “third eye”) which seems similar to Garland-Thomson’s understanding of staring. Yet Martin also notes the “violence of spectacle” at the conclusion of her essay. Can these two views be reconciled? Is the change in self-recognition a violent act? And if so, from whose perspective?

    I am agreeing with Cory’s post in that the authors we have read to date seem to fall on one side or the other when it comes to the relationship between identity and agency. This is also a muddy for me. Could these tendencies be in relation to author reflexivity (or lack thereof) as Dr. Rose mentioned during our first meeting? Or even the date of publication in relation to the “mainstream” historiography?

    Relating back to a theme common in my work and the readings to date, uncovering the cultural concepts of natural/monstrous, normal/abnormal and mainstream/margin struck me as the overarching themes of the readings. Can these be seen as a mere chronological change in terminology, reflecting the boundaries of social conventions at the time? Or is the adoption of mainstream/margin merely masking the same fundamental specification of categories of normality – the acceptable and functional of the modern west versus the other in their midst? I realize this relates back to the question I had two weeks ago, but it is one I do not think has such a clean answer.

  7. Jacque Tinkler says:

    1. Several of this week’s readings explore the role of the “other” as seen in freak shows, in art work and photography, in entertainment venues, and in public places. Various articles investigate the dynamics of the relationship which develops between the viewer and the subject being observed. In a reciprocal process, each becomes involved in identity formation due, in part, to the participation of the other. Discuss how various readings offer the idea that each benefited from this process.
    2. As we have seen in several previous articles, the concept of disability is context dependent and has changed with evolving cultures and time periods. Within their particular environment, various groups have accepted the identity of disabled which was assigned to them, some have rejected being identified as disabled and distanced themselves from that demographic, and still others have independently created or took on the identity of disabled. Discuss how, in various settings, some used the label of disabled to their advantage.
    Muddiest Point: I feel that Laura Briggs’ thesis, that “hysterics signaled the specifically reproductive and sexual failing of white women” (266), thus making this a racial issue, unconvincing. She repeatedly states that the women most likely to suffer from hysteria were from the middle to upper class and were weak and delicate due to “overcivilization.” The group she refers to as “savage” women and who, unaffected by hysteria were strong and able to give birth to many children, was composed of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, immigrants, and the poor. Is she suggesting there were no white women among immigrants and the poor? Or is she suggesting white women delegated to those categories were “savages”? At one point she suggests that the diagnostic category hysteria was a reaction to the cultural changes taking place, including women entering the work force. I question whether the upper class women most inclined to manifest hysteria would have been in the work force. She also seems to blur what she means by “race” versus “civilized.”

  8. Robert Caldwell says:

    Baynton’s essay “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” does a great job of tying many concepts together. Like other articles in The New Disability History, the article applies Joan Scotts arguments to disability, arguing that disability is an important category worthy of analysis, and that the lens of disability allows historians to deconstruct many other categories and tropes. The article offers a new concept, outlining the relationship between disability and the justification of inequality (arguments legitimizing hierarchies) within American (U.S.) history. In the concluding paragraph Baynton offers his boldest assertions, claiming that “disability is everywhere,” and that “it may well be that all social hierarchies have drawn on culturally constructed and social sanctioned notions of disability.” Yet, Baynton seems to agree with Lennard Davis’ arguments regarding the historical construction of the normative as a product of the scientific enlightenment, even offering “the natural” as an immediate antecedent to “the normal.” Social hierarchies existed much prior to the Enlightenment. Is there a contradiction between these two lines of argumentation? Why/ why not?

    Boster’s “I made up my mind to act deaf and dumb” and “An ‘Epeleptick’ Bondswoman” reveal a slaves passing for disabled as a complex form of slave resistance that involved trickery and malingering. The articles also consider the intersectionality of race, gender, and disability and their collective relationship to bondage. In this narrative, slaves who were, or feigned disabled were worth less. “Refuge slaves” clarifies that disabilities might allow a slave to circumvent labor or sale, or even prevent one from being taken captive, but would certainly not prevent violence. Market exigencies on the slave ship and the slave coast rendered those with many disabilities not worth less, but worthless, “valueless,” and therefore horrifyingly expendable, even prior to the modernist era. These articles which examine the slave as simultaneously human labor and capital, evoke a new question: What is the relationship between the development of capitalism and meanings and values placed on disability as well as the formation of the category of disability itself?

    Muddiest Point: The short introduction “Why we stare” to Staring: How We Look offers some psycho-social insights on staring, but I was unsure as to its relevance to a class on the history of disability. The piece seemed to suggest that staring is an innate response to seeing something one does not expect. However, it’s clear that expectations are culturally and historically constructed, and exist solidly within power relations. Was the purpose to better understand spectacle, and therefore pieces like Durbach, Martin, Herza in a less-contemporary-moralistic way? To understand ‘the gaze’? To begin to re-examine ‘the spectacle’? …I was left puzzled.

  9. Michael Deliz says:

    In Laura Briggs’ article “The Race of Hysteria,” hysteria is deconstructed through the discourses of race and gender, but it does not reach a transnational analytical framework. To what extent was hysteria contructed in Europe through the similar racial lens? I assume it was not or at least not as severely marked by race as the american development. However given the mid and late nineteenth century intellectual exchanges, I have to wonder what the transnational conversation within the obstetricss field was. Certainly “whiteness” within a european context would require some rethinking, but perhaps the charge of “overcivilization” would remain. Nationalism, which Briggs places as a secondary or even irrelevant component, in europe possibly had a greater role. The differences and similarities between the European and American discourses on hysteria could perhaps show not just the benefits of studying ender through race as Briggs endeavors, but it would also show its limitations.
    Philip K. Wilson demonstrated how “maternal imprint” was thought to explain deformity and disability among children. The nature of this “imprint” notwithstading, its use was a moralisic judgement against the mother and I woud argue, one that still exists today, perhaps people are less vocal in that judgement, but more certain in its scientific grounding. Thus, though it is clear that such judgements are based on rampant ignorance, I find it interesting that advancements in science have not moderated the moral judgement today. Congenital disability in this manner comes to reflect the mother more than the individual.

    Muddiest point: If we consider hysteria as a disability, one restricted to white women who are of a certain class, brought on by overcivilization imposed upon the inferior mind and body of these women, could we be in danger of conflating depression ( postpartum, or otherwise) into very same narrative of gendered control?

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