The Poetics of Disability (syllabus)

The Poetics of Disability

“We have not yet determined what a body can do.”—Baruch Spinoza

“My body is the problem.”—Amber DiPietra

Course Description The 17th Century Dutch Philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, wrote that “we have not yet determined what a body can do,” thus foreshadowing many of the problems of modern scientific and medical discourse. I would like to take his comment in an affirmative sense, in the spirit of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari whom often quoted this very phrase—that specific bodies contain capacities unbeknownst to us which may advance our knowledge about the world, but that they may also challenge definitions of “the human” which have worked against a more inclusive and just society. In the first weeks of this course we will consider how modernist aesthetics are forged through thinking about disability. Particularly important will be Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of “enstrangement,” which he recognizes in his essay “Art as Device” as a defining effect of poetic language, and Martin Heidegger’s idea of “conspicuousness,” which facilitates knowledge of a thing’s essence. To what extent may these texts allow us to explore disability as an aesthetic problematic echoing modernist preoccupations with a discourse of the senses, formal innovation, difficulty, estrangement, and constraint? Do the tropes of alienation and sensual derangement so fundamental to modernist aesthetic practices anticipate a generative principal embodied by certain disabilities? To what extent, perhaps most importantly, do the bodies of specific modernist practitioners necessitate innovation as a result of their embodiment? Following this we will encounter a series of texts that may help us to problematize “ableism”—any thinking or practice that essentializes human capability, often in the service of the oppression of a particular group—and explore how discourse about disability undergirds our most fundamental social, political, ethical, and aesthetic practices. From these theoretical premises, we will move to a robust discourse from the past 60 years regarding poetics and disability, and encompassing a range of practices, communities, and cultures. Beauty is a Verb, a recently published anthology edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern, will help us to historicize how discourse of and about disability has evolved, from early practitioners such as Larry Eigner and Josephine Miles, to contemporary poets identified as disabled, including Bartlett, Jordan Scott, David Wolach, Denise Leto, Amber DiPietra, and others. To what extent does disability radicalize poetry as a field, especially claims for innovation traditionally made by an “avant-garde” and its critical proponents? To what extent, as well, may a poetics of disability help us to interrogate the ableist unconscious of modernity?

Required Texts

Beauty is a Verb 

Hannah Weiner’s Open House

Jennifer Bartlett’s Autobiography/Anti-autobiography 

Amber DiPietra’s and Denise Leto’s Waveform

Jordan Scott’s Blert

Highly Recommended:

Michael Davidson’s Concerto for the Left Hand

Alison Kafer’s Feminist Queer Crip

Petra Kuppers’ The Scar of Visibility

Tobin Siebers’ Disability Theory

Signing the Body Poetic

The Disability Studies Reader (4th Edition)