It has been a difficult year. But for some, this year’s seeming upsurge of violence represents only the now-visible crest over a lifetime of submerged struggle and frustration against systemic abuse. History tells a different tale. We are not experiencing a new and dangerous age; No, for there remains a long record of racism, lynch mobs, violence against women, and murder of people professing different faith or gender orientation than those with power and motivation to silence them. In the face of terror–in light of Orlando, of Dallas, of Nice, of Syria, of Turkey, and of tragedies in our own towns and cities–we are apt to feel helpless and overwhelmed. We may be tempted to silence, to the feeling that nothing we say will matter. This is true of victims, who feel their words go no where. This is also true of allies and of those whose race or gender keeps them safe (or safer) from the abuses they witness. What could I possibly have to say? We may think, in shame, or in anger, that silence is all we have…
In The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2016), Elizabeth Barnes (associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia) offers an insightful philosophical analysis of disability. Her work calls into question pervasive intuitions and assumptions that mark disability as inherently bad or problematic, and instead advances (quite compellingly) a theory of disability that is in fact neutral with respect to well-being. Utilizing the tools of analytic feminist philosophical analysis, Barnes’ examines the concept of “disability” (what it is and what we mean by it), the social implications of disability, and how disability interacts with other features of one’s life to affect one’s well-being. Along the way, she affords a significant degree of deference to the testimonies of disabled folks themselves, a unique strength of her examination. Barnes, a disabled woman herself, draws both on her personal experiences with disability, as well as her technical expertise as a feminist philosopher working in the areas of social philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics, to inform her analysis.
Barnes opens her work by articulating many ways in which philosophical engagement with disability theory has been flawed, with particular attention to the ways in which philosophical analysis with respect to disability has marginalized, obscured, or silenced the viewpoints and narratives of the disabled themselves. She hopes to correct for this both by theorizing in a deeply personal way—she herself is disabled—as well as defending the reliability and credibility of positive testimonies of the disabled. At the outset, Barnes clarifies that in the interest of simplicity, she is restricting the scope of her analysis to physical disabilities, though she is not foreclosing the possibility that what she has to say could be extended to other types of disabilities (5). She also categorizes her philosophical aims as falling within the domain of social philosophy, as opposed to applied ethics or bioethics (2). She sees her work as addressing more fundamental and foundational questions—those which ought to be clarified prior to considering applied concerns (2). Continue reading “Book Review: The Minority Body”
Although I could no longer save Adriaen, perhaps I could give his body form in the painting, give his death some kind of reality, restoring, at the very least, a sense that he was a human man and not just a corpse. (194)
In Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel (Anchor Books, 2014), the story behind one of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s earliest successes comes to life in homage to the great artist’s ability to make the macabre positively luminous. In order to write this novel, Siegal, an American journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, clearly did a great deal of research, and her book both informs and delights the modern reader interested in the artistic and scientific world of the Dutch Golden Age.
Siegal earned a BA in English at Cornell, completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and earned several fellowships towards researching and writing this novel. The Anatomy Lesson takes a decidedly different direction from the genre and tone of her first novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008). This debut work featured a young and ambitious New York journalist investigating the mysterious death of a famed graffiti artist and was acclaimed for cleverly revamping the noir detective genre by wedding it to chick lit. The thread that connects her first novel to The Anatomy Lesson is art, clearly an area of expertise and a fascination for Siegal whose journalistic writing also focuses primarily on the art world of today and the past. This affection for art characterizes each page of The Anatomy Lesson. Readers who love art and enjoy imagining the worlds out of which famous artworks emerged will delight in this novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson”
Alien Landscapes?: Interpreting Disordered Minds (Harvard University Press, 2014) reflects author Jonathan Glover’s longstanding interest in the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry. As his most recent monograph, Alien Landscapes represents the culmination of over forty years of research and interest in the issues surrounding mental illness and human interpretation, identity, values, and responsibility. Glover holds an academic appointment in the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College in London and should be considered an expert philosopher and ethicist in matters related to disordered minds.
From the titular question mark used to signal his inquiry, Glover adopts a probing stance towards his intellectual pursuits. Combining qualitative information derived from patients incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital, expressive portrayals of mental illness, and classical Greek philosophy, Glover foregrounds the importance of going to the source of his investigation. He continually uses the descriptions (whether autobiographical, literary, or artistic) provided by people who have actually suffered from mental illnesses to focus and expand his study. This “view from inside” thus constitutes the central theme and methodology in Glover’s work and supports his primary argument that we must disregard the notion of people suffering from major mental illnesses as being “impenetrably alien” (1). Continue reading “Book Review: Alien Landscapes?”
This Monday we are pleased to offer a piece on “affluenza” from L. Kerr Dunn. a writer, health humanities scholar, and editor of the collection Mysterious Medicine: The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe. You can find her online on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.
In a 2015 Washington Post article, columnist Ruth Marcus labeled Donald Trump the “affluenza candidate,” comparing him to Ethan Couch, the teenager who killed four people in Texas while driving drunk in 2013. Couch’s defense psychologist argued that he’d been brought up with so much privilege he couldn’t understand the consequences of his actions. This defense strategy relied upon the pretense that affluenza was a legitimate medical diagnosis. It isn’t. It’s worth noting, however, that the term, a hybrid of “affluence” and “influenza,” is rooted in the idea of viral sickness. And it does seem to have “gone viral.” Twenty-first century Americans aren’t the first to conceive of bad behavior as a sickness—or to consider how affluenza sits at the intersection of politics and health. Around 100 years before the term “affluenza” was coined, Nathaniel Hawthorne handled these themes in his tale “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle.”
Set in pre-revolutionary America, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” is both a political allegory and a cautionary tale of disease. The title character is a British aristocrat who bears striking similarities to 21st century affluenza “sufferers.” She’s reckless and self-involved, and she treads—quite literally— on others. “When men seek to be trampled upon,” she reasons scornfully, “it were a pity to deny them a favor so easily granted—and so well deserved!” Her lack of empathy is so apparent that “right-minded” individuals have doubts about her “seriousness and sanity.” In fact, her “haughty consciousness of her hereditary and personal advantages” has made her “almost incapable of control.”
Of course, Lady Eleanore represents the British aristocrat’s attitudes toward American colonists, but doesn’t this description of her character sound familiar? Trump has been accused of being unable to hold his tongue—to the point that some have questioned his sanity. Ethan Couch’s defense team essentially argued that he didn’t have the emotional tools to be a productive—or at least not a destructive—member of society. A Ryan Lochte defender called him a “kid,” as if to suggest he should be forgiven because his crime was one of youthful carelessness and not the irresponsible action of a 32-year-old man.
Much like the judges in the case of Couch, however, a British Officer, Captain Langford, believes Lady Eleanore is above punishment because of her ancestry. Isn’t this what Couch’s lawyer was arguing with the affluenza defense? Isn’t this the implicit message sent by judges like Aaron Persky who fail to give just punishments to men like Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault?
In the case of Lady Eleanore, a physician, Doctor Clarke, predicts that justice will ultimately be served: “See, if that nature do not assert its claim over her in some mode that shall bring her level with the lowest!” he proclaims. A cosmic justice does come in the form of epidemic disease. For Lady Eleanore has brought small-pox with her from Britain in the beautiful mantle she wears, a mantle that by her own admission represents her overweening pride. Unfortunately, when justice arrives, it affects not only Lady Eleanore but members of all social classes, indicating that Lady Eleanore’s type of sickness—both literal and figurative—has the potential to ravage entire populations.
Hawthorne’s allegorical tale demonstrates that “affluenza” and all its trappings are nothing new. The metaphor of contagion is appropriate in the 21st century when individuals from across social classes are drawn to and defend the carelessness, bigotry, and even criminal behavior of those who’ve been given every advantage to know and do better. Has affluenza become contagious? If so, how rapidly is it spreading and through what routes of transmission? By providing us a text that touches upon these questions in a broader sense, Hawthorne’s tale invites speculation about the intersections of American politics, privilege, and health. Hopefully, discussions of this tale will include conversations about the importance of empathy, compassion, and social justice, forces for good that may contribute to the affluenza “cure.”
Dooley, Sean and Alexa Valiente. “How an ‘Affluenza’ Label Was Used in DUI Manslaughter Case Involving Drunk Teen.” ABC News Website. (October 14, 2015).
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle: Legends of the Province House III.” Twice Told Tales, vol. 2. http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/lem.html
Marcus, Ruth. “Donald Trump is the Affluenza Candidate.” The Washington Post (December 31, 2015).
Mosbergen, Dominique. “Brock Turner Juror Skewers ‘Lenient’ Judge Aaron Persky in Letter: ‘Shame On You.’” Huffington Post (June 14, 2016).