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Book Review - Narrative Prosthesis
Narrative Prosthesis
by David T. Mitchell & Sharon L. Snyder
The University of Michigan Press, 2000
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Jan 7th 2004

Narrative prosthesis? What should that mean? Does it mean that people with disabilities use narratives to comfort themselves? OK, that might be the case oftentimes, and this book is then devoted to the analysis of these "prosthetic narratives." It must be that the book reviews the typical among these narratives and gives some practical advice afterwards. But, then, why "... of Discourse?" Shouldn't it be "... on Discourse?" Does it mean that discourse depends on disabilities? And whose discourse? If persons with disabilities need discourse that depends on disabilities, this might be an unclear title, but I can somehow follow the author's discourse. Still, what if this should be understood to say that everyone's discourse depends on disabilities? Is mine included as well? Being a decent clinical psychologist, with complete respect for any patient of mine, I find this almost offensive. And I hope the rest of the book will not challenge my command of English as much as the title.

And then, one page after another, the authors will claim just what I did not like to hear. Their basic ideas are in full contrast to what we are used to learn and teach. On the first level, it is still not very dangerous when they write that their "central thesis situated itself around a belief that our stories come replete with images of disability and yet we lack a coherent methodology for recognizing and reckoning with that fact" (p. 163). Several books have already been written about that (see my review of Otto F. Wahl's Media Madness Public Images of Mental Illness in Metapsychology), and several organizations are trying to change scientific approaches and public attitudes. Still, there's more to come.

Mitchell & Snyder's book becomes important on the next level, when they discuss the notion of enforcing normalcy. According to this idea, as Foucault's mentor George Canguilhem was among first to notice, "medicine surrendered its professional ideal of diagnostic objectivity by applying a generalized and theoretically abstract model of the body to evaluate organisms that are inherently adaptive, fluctuating, and idiosyncratic" (p. 121). So, it is not only that people need to talk about disabilities, it is that culture and sciences need disabilities in order to be able to make foundations for their discourses. Therefore, " ... disability is the product of an interaction between individual differences and social environments (architectural, legislative, familial, attitudinal, etc.) ... " (p. 43) and it "acts as a metaphor and fleshy example of the body's unruly resistance to the cultural desire to 'enforce normalcy'" (p. 48).

The case of physical disability is somewhat different from the case of cognitive one, since it "provides the 'visible' and fixed evidence of a violated bodily wholeness while calling to mind the failure of our bodies to attain the ideal of completeness" (p. 125). The book provides a very good review of both implicit and expert theories that have tried to prove an equation between external shape and internal disposition (most notably, physiognomy and phrenology).

And it was only at this point the title could have been clarified. It was now acceptable that "narrative prosthesis is meant to indicate that disability has been used throughout history as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (p. 49). In the core of our efforts to discuss race, gender, sexuality, etc., we are in need of minorities in order to be able to describe and define our position. It is not true that all happy families are the same. It is only that there is nothing to be said about them, no interesting stories. Storytellers - both fictional and scientific - need unhappy families before they can reflect on their own one's. Therefore, "in part, this book is about the literary accomplishment of a faulty, or at least imperfect, prosthetic function. The effort is to make the prosthesis show, to flaunt its imperfect supplementation as an illusion. The prosthetic relation of body to word is exposed as an artificial contrivance" (p. 8, italics in the original).

No matter how radical this might be, I find Mitchell and Snyder's book very stimulating. Its theoretical freshness makes it easy for me to recommend it to anyone in the field. But it contains another part, almost another half. In four chapters, the authors present "... a series of analyses of key moments in a literary tradition of disability narrative" (p. 163). So, the reader can find innovative analyses of Montaigne's and Nietzsche's attitudes toward disabilities, Shakespeare's Richard III, Melville's Moby Dick, and a review of differences in portraying disabilities between modern and postmodern American novels. The best among these, to my mind, is the chapter on Shakespeare. It is more comprehensive and its subject is more thoroughly researched. Philosophical works are, on the other hand, reviewed without a proper context and quoted in translation only, and there are even more problems with the authors' attempt to interpret Oedipus (p. 61ff).

Finally, I would like to stress that Mitchell and Snyder have presented an important discussion of the language as prosthesis, for which we can only hope that they will further elaborate it in their future work. They have given us an opportunity to learn a lot in their synthesis of the methodological components within disability studies: (1. negative imagery; 2. social realism; 3. new historicism; 4. biographical criticism; 5. transgressive reappropriation; pp. 17-40). And their attitude is something anyone can take as a model: "... the query about disabled people's integration is not enough - we must press instead for the recognition of disability as integral to cultural understanding" (p. 178; italics in the original). I hope we shall hear more from them.


2004 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic


Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.