Beyond the Visible: Disability and Performing Bodies

McHenry, Lalita (2007). Beyond the Visible: Disability and Performing Bodies PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History , University of Queensland.

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Author McHenry, Lalita
Thesis Title Beyond the Visible: Disability and Performing Bodies
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2007
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Associate Professor Joanne Tompkins
Abstract/Summary This thesis emerges from my work in the disability field and engagement in disability arts. After attending the first High Beam Festival in Adelaide in 1998, I became interested in the ways that disabled bodies were reclaiming identity and performing issues about disability as a challenge to those offered through dominant cultural representations. Work in the disability field over the past 50 years that has been dominated by medical and social frameworks, but disability studies and creative works by people with disabilities are shifting the focus and insisting on the centrality, rather than marginality, of the disabled body—arguing for a new cultural space. These cultural practices are witness to the reconstruction, transformation and subversion of the discourses that historically circumscribe disability. Common to much disability arts practice is a desire to make visible a repressed and ‘othered’ body, rewrite the scripts of disability by drawing on the real experience of people with disabilities and, perhaps most importantly, to provoke a rethinking of disability (primarily in the able-bodied majority) by reversing the gaze. Despite these efforts, disability continues to exist in an untenable binary with the able-bodied. In addition, questions of subjectivity and embodiment beyond the purview of physical and visible disability remain under-explored. This has led to a broader interest in a politics of the image and an analysis of the normative gaze, issues this thesis places under considerable scrutiny. As the title of this thesis indicates, I ask questions that go beyond the visible by exploring disability and performing bodies. At the forefront of this enquiry is a concern with the relations of looking, the nature of Otherness and questions of the gaze. The research is conducted through observation of live performance, in-depth interviews with disabled performers, theatre producers and artists, and a detailed analysis of the processes involved. Questions of the body are at the heart of numerous disciplines including feminism, disability studies, cultural studies, postcolonial and performance studies. The body can be said to be under a radical deconstructive agenda. The thought that theatre reflects an unproblematic reality no longer holds true because the performer’s self is not just a question of assuming a character or playing a role. What then of work that relies on these tropes as important markers of cultural resistance? I introduce the important developments in the field of disability and performance and address a series of research questions: In what ways can the cultural sphere of the arts work as a site of intervention able to respond to the problems of extant constructions of disability? How might disability be performed in ways that address issues of exclusion and abjection and at the same time avoid perpetuating the very oppressive spaces that are under challenge? What are the limitations of a pure visibility politics? What are the ideological interpellations and emotional and political effects of performing in a disability arts context? What might be gained from problematising the disabled body itself? In this thesis, I bring together a number of divergent cultural sites through which to challenge the concept of disability and the performing disabled body. These cultural sites include disability arts theory and practice, live performance, contemporary freak shows and the practices of self-demand amputation and extreme body modification. These sites provoke an examination of subjectivity and a rethinking of how disability and the disabled subject are presently understood. It is necessary to deconstruct the disabled subject and rethink notions of the Other in order to provoke any real challenge to the discourses of perfection and wholeness that dominate the cultural imaginary. The term Other is generally used in disability theory in ways that inevitably resort to a binary relationship and a problematic understanding of the operations of the gaze. In the work of both Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Lacan, the term Other dramatically shifts in meaning and offers a profound rethinking of the premises of much disability theory and arts practice. Levinas’s work offers the possibility for an alternative ethics of performance for an audience and a different way of thinking about the relations between self and other and disability. Lacan’s work on the Other and the gaze assists in unpacking the binary distinctions often constructed in the visual field between notions of the normal observer and the disabled subject. I endeavour to move beyond visibility, to highlight the limitations of a politics steeped in mobilising a disabled subject and identity without eclipsing the significance of the visual in the formation of subjectivity. By engaging with a few select performances and other cultural projects not currently read through the lens of disability, yet corporeally linked to questions about body image, the Other and desire my hope is that a more critical perspective on the concept of disability can be adopted. This provides the conditions to further the development of a critical disability studies.

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Created: Fri, 21 Nov 2008, 16:21:41 EST