Anderson on Mounsey, 'The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century'

Chris Mounsey, ed.
Susan Anderson

Chris Mounsey, ed. The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. Transits: Literature, Thought & Culture, 1650-1850 Series. New York: Bucknell University Press, 2014. 280 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61148-559-2; $39.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61148-739-8.

Reviewed by Susan Anderson (Leeds Trinity University College)
Published on H-Disability (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

This wide-ranging collection of essays covers a variety of both well-known and less familiar eighteenth-century philosophers, poets, and commentators. The selection of texts and contexts illuminates not only the principle of “variability” as it might be applied in our own understanding of disability but also the varied ways in which people in the historical period understood and described the experience and conceptualization of disability.

In the introduction, Chris Mounsey outlines his notion of “variability” as a way of going beyond a binary opposition between disability and ability. Pointing out the inevitability of human variation and the uniqueness of experience, Mounsey suggests concentrating on the “immediacy of individual lived experience” of specific people, and the details he gives of some of his own life experiences demonstrate this approach very clearly (p. 18). He tries to get beyond a Foucauldian approach, which, in its concentration on unequal power relations, automatically assigns an abject subject position to anyone not conforming to an arbitrary notion of “normal.” Although Mounsey recognizes the value of Foucauldian analysis in motivating social progress, and acknowledges that the work of political activism is still ongoing, he suggests that disability history can now move from the general “toward the specific, local, and personal” (p. 5).

Each of the three sections of the book extends this way of reading disability to a particular discursive context. The first four essays come under the rubric of the “methodological,” by considering philosophical perspectives on disability and the work that concepts of disability did in eighteenth-century philosophy. In chapter 1, Holly Faith Nelson and Sharon Alker explore the implications of what they describe as Margaret Cavendish’s (1623-73) “hermeneutic of similitude,” that is, Cavendish’s sense that everything is essentially created from the same material (p. 43). Their discussion shows how Cavendish’s extrapolation from this premise worked against stigmatization because she recognized variety within types as legitimately part of them, rather than constituting exclusionary difference. Cavendish thus incorporated variation into a complex understanding of organisms and their ontology.

Jess Keiser turns to John Locke (1632-1704) in chapter 2 to examine an apparent contradiction between Locke’s stated disavowal of physiological explanations of the mind’s workings and his etiology of madness. Keiser establishes Locke’s view that only the empirical experience of understanding itself is available to us, and thus only this can be the subject of human enquiry. Locke resisted conjecturing about how matter gives rise to mind, since it is unobservable. Despite this, Locke’s account of madness does address its origins in corporeal terms by suggesting that chance associations or trauma make connections between parts of the brain, which, once established, become physically entrenched: “Thus, education, custom, and habit literally carve certain ways of thinking into the body” (p. 61). The fact that the brain itself creates these misassociations means they cannot be identified as such by reason, which simply carries on working as usual, perpetuating and confounding the original error. Thus, the apparent contradiction in Locke’s work comes from this concern: we cannot appreciate the mechanisms of our own understanding, and the unrecognizability of madness is a case in point.

In chapter 3, Paul Kelleher explores the importance of the notion of deformity in moral philosophy, which constantly posits “a strong analogy between the moral and the corporeal” (p. 72). He focuses on Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), by examining the third Earl of Shaftesbury’s elision of aesthetic appreciation and “moral sense,” based on the idea that both responses are premised on automatic recognition of resemblance to natural categories of good or ill. Despite attempts in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699) to allow for acquired physical imperfections, Shaftesbury’s rhetoric thus consistently made outward deformity a sign of moral failing. But Kelleher ends by examining Shaftesbury’s anguish over his own physical and moral deformities expressed in his notebooks, and argues for respecting the inherent ambiguities—not to say contradictions—of Shaftesbury’s approach, or indeed “of any body of thought” (p. 88).

The section ends with Emile Bojesen’s exploration of the concept of power in Thomas Reid’s (1710-96) philosophy. Reid defined power as potential capacity for action, rather than the execution of an act itself. This is further differentiated from the will. To be morally culpable, then, an actor must have both the capability to act and the will to do so. Accident or necessity decouple actions from both vice and virtue, because Reid insisted “on the absolute difference between necessity and power” (p. 100). We can only exercise the will within the bounds of what we have power to do, but Bojesen suggests that Reid saw power not as a fixed level of ability, but as a quality that can be developed in the right context.

The second section comprises two chapters on the “conceptual” sphere. In chapter 5, Anna K. Sagal examines the portrayal in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) of Tristram’s uncle Toby and his obsession with recreating battle scenes with models and a hobbyhorse. By carefully situating Toby’s narrative within trauma theory, Sagal shows that his use of models and recreations are a substitute for language’s failures to encompass his experience. Sagal raises the possibility that, through recognizing that the incompatibility between disabled experience and “conventional modes of communication” is a failure of the text rather than the disabled body, “critics can move beyond reading disability in literature as an oppositional binary of dis/ability” (p. 127).

In chapter 6, Dana Gliserman Kopans discusses eighteenth-century concern over the legibility of madness and the specter of wrongful confinement. Kopans suggests that the trope stands in for broader concerns about the regulation of domestic spaces, and the ways that both women and madness have the potential to disrupt the smooth functioning of the transmission of property in patriarchy. The prevalence of stories about wrongful confinement produces a counter-rhetoric about the efficacy of confinement as a therapeutic intervention, and Kopans neatly shows how, through a promotion of paternalism, and the concomitant argument for the professional regulation of madhouses, “the medical establishment parlays a cultural anxiety about confinement into an economic opportunity” (p. 152).

The final section focuses on the “experiential” dimension of eighteenth-century disability, beginning with Jamie Kinsley’s discussion of Susanna Harrison’s (1752-84) devotional writings. Harrison’s hymns in particular articulate the predicament of someone with a debilitating chronic illness when faced with the body’s centrality to participation in worship (through such practices as taking communion and standing with other worshippers in a place of worship). Harrison’s hymns thus engage with the pain of exclusion, but in doing so find a connection between the inherently collective nature of the hymn form itself and the desire for collectivity expressed within it. Through communal reading and singing of her hymns at her house, Harrison’s use of the first person can stage “a return of the individual body to the collective body” (p. 174).

In chapter 8, Jason S. Farr explores contrasting views of the extent to which people considered to have physical deformities could and should be segregated. Farr traces the emergence of “Ugly Clubs,” whose terms of membership initially seem to celebrate the kinds of difference their members embody, but ultimately entrench division and strongly imply that those considered “deformed” should only fraternize with, and marry, each other. This is countered by a view of deformity as desirable found in the writings of William Hay (1695-1755) and Sarah Scott (1723-95). Indeed, in Scott’s novel, Agreeable Ugliness (1754), deformity motivates the heroine to improve herself, acquire a masculine education, and ultimately become the object of male desire to a greater extent than her outwardly beautiful sister. Both Scott and Hay “imagine empowerment, and not sympathy, as the true objective” for those experiencing stigma (p. 198).

In chapter 9, Jess Domanico presents Priscilla Poynton (ca. 1740-1801) as an unjustly neglected poet whose marginalization stems from contemporary and critical assumptions about her blindness. Given that this is the case, the essay’s reluctance to quote much of Poynton’s poetry is puzzling, and it would have been helpful to have had a greater selection reproduced here. Domanico argues that “to represent Poynton as a blind eighteenth-century woman poet is accurate, but it categorizes her as an anomaly rather than a poet, and encourages the reader to center their understanding of Poynton around her blindness” (p. 210). As in the case of Harrison in chapter 7, the modern reader must therefore avoid being misled by the kind of editorial framing that delegitimizes the writer’s own voice and experience.

In the final chapter, Mounsey examines the writings of Thomas Gills (d. 1716) in the context of his precarious social and financial situation. Gills’s catechism, the 1707 Instructions for Children, presents itself to the reader as a double act of charity: once for the children who will learn from it and once to help provide a livelihood for the writer. Mounsey quotes plenty of charming examples from Gills’s catechism, establishing the sense that, unlike other contemporary examples, Gills really did create a text accessible to a child’s understanding. Mounsey argues that this volume met financial success for a period, but could only partially contribute to Gills’s livelihood, which, by necessity, combined a range of methods of generating income, including requests for poor relief. This is juxtaposed with a reading of Gills’s poetry on his repeated sight loss and recovery in terms of Steven King and Alana Tompkins’s “rhetoric of powerlessness” (p. 226). In these terms, Gills demonstrates the obligation to establish “his condition in the face of charges that he might have feigned his blindness” to qualify for state assistance (p. 204). Mounsey establishes the impact of these economic conditions on Gills’s poetry, and also that Gills presents us with an example of these factors in the complexities of literary self-presentation.

This eclectic collection testifies to the variety of experience and understanding of eighteenth-century disability, and presents an exciting starting point for the further development of disability history. Cumulatively, the collection establishes the potential that the notion of “variability” offers disability studies through its insistence on the simultaneous sameness and difference of voices from the past. By prioritizing these voices, the collection allows them to speak and offers interpretive angles that contribute to a richer understanding of variation and identity in our own context.

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Citation: Susan Anderson. Review of Mounsey, Chris, ed., The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. March, 2016.

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