Disability Studies · Rhetoric

Disability Rhetoric

I realized today that I have lots of notes from the annotated bibliography component of my comprehensive exams that I never posted here, so I thought I’d post some this week. I try to offer a general sense of any text I read in these posts (argument, methodology), but I also pay particular attention to how these texts relate to my dissertation project and rhetorics of overcoming. Because it’s such an excellent text and I’m a huge fan of Jay and his work, I thought I’d start with Disability Rhetoric. 

If you missed it when the book came out, Jay gave a rad interview for Critical Margins. And thought it’s all good, this is my favorite quote: “I don’t just ‘accommodate’ disability and diversity but I expect it, make it an asset, welcome it. If there is anything that needs to be overcome in education, it is normativity.”

If you’d like a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book, check out this review Elizabeth Brewer wrote for Disability Studies Quarterly

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Image of Disability Rhetoric
Disability Rhetoric by Jay Dolmage

Disability Rhetoric is the first book-length theoretical treatment of rhetorical history through a disability studies lens, blending rhetorical analysis with historiography in order to demonstrate not only how communication has historically been embodied but also to illustrate how bodily difference is deeply rhetorical. In the book, Dolmage defines rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3), arguing that the body’s role in shaping rhetoric has never been wholly or accurately understood. To create a fuller understanding of embodiment’s role in rhetorical history, then, Dolmage argues for a “critical alliance” between rhetoric and disability studies, claiming, “Rhetoric needs disability studies as a reminder to pay critical and careful attention to the body. Disability studies needs rhetoric to better understand and negotiate the ways that discourse represents and impacts the experience of disability” (3).

Disability is used rhetorically to describe and devalue non-normative bodies, and Dolmage’s goal is to focus attention to the many ways the body has been rhetorically contested, has contributed to meaning-making, and has been both denied and denigrated. To centralize the rhetoric’s ties to embodiment, he adds “the circulation of discourse through the body” to his definition of rhetoric as the circulation of power through communication, and highlights métis—“the rhetorical concept of cunning and adaptive intelligence” (5)—as a method for recognizing the embodied, divergent nature of rhetoric. Characterized by backward and sideways, rather than forward, movement, métis becomes a framework for rhetorical history and the historian, who Dolmage argues is responsible for layering meaning, highlighting contested narratives, and offering multiple and divergent meanings (6). That is, he argues for a métis historiography that, like the extraordinary body, is divergent, flawed, in need of others for assistance and perspectives (8).

His book, in fact, is an attempt to enact such a retelling—not to smooth and perfect history but rather to preserve its gaps and inconsistencies because, ultimately, “Disability historiography cannot be a normative mission; disability history should move like disability itself, understandable and unique because of its imperfections, suspect of any normative impulse” (11). Dolmage notes that rhetorical history has often been shaped like the idealized human body. He aims to create a rhetorical history that more fairly and fully represents bodily differences by deconstructing the function of norms and ideals as categories that structure our rhetorical understandings of the body, exploring some of the cultural myths and stereotypes that inform our understandings of disability, and critically examining social constructions of disability.

For my own interests in how we privilege particular types of writing (and writing bodies) and the different myths we circulate that represent disability, I’m interested in the discussion of normativity. In Chapter One, “Disability Studies of Rhetoric,” Dolmage explores the rhetorical history of normativity, which combines the logics of both disablism and ableism. Disablism is comprised of assumptions and practices that negatively construct the value and material realities of the disabled, while ableism is comprised of systemic assumptions and practices that positively value compulsory able-bodiedness (22). Normate—a phrase coined by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson that has gained currency in disability studies—is then used to reference “the privileged subject position of the supposedly (or temporarily) able-bodied individual and the culture that valorizes this position” (22). The normate is the normative body, and Dolmage extends this body and normative value to rhetorical history. He writes, “[T]he bodily ideal is the foundational metaphor for proper speech and writing. … Ideal bodies produce ideal communication, and rhetoric polices nonideal bodies, or else betrays them” (24). This argument is crucial for considering who has historically been positioned as able to speak to and claim rhetorical agency.

Later in the book, Dolmage asks, “Who owns and what constructs—what owns and who constructs—the disabled body?” (93). And although he is introducing a critique of social constructionism here, this question has important connections to the classroom and how our school systems and curricula control and construct disability.

In his conclusion, Dolmage reinforces métis as a model for change and critique, recursivity and invention and asks, “What if these were our central educational values (instead of accumulation, retention, comprehension, compliance reproduction)?” (289). There are echoes here of McRuer’s critique of the corporate university and standardized (i.e., compulsory heterosexual and able-bodied) composition. Specifically, Dolmage insists that taking a disability rhetoric seriously in our composition classrooms involves creating a space where we value embodied knowledge and meaning making, respect differences, and even desire bodily differences in order to engage students in ways that don’t reinforce the norm (290).

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Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013. Print.

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