Project Biocultures Talk (Ato Quayson)

On Monday I attended with several of my students from English 240 the Project Biocultures talk by Ato Quayson, Professor of English at the University of Toronto and founding Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies.

Professor Quayson began by describing his approach to Disability Studies, much of which came from his book Aesthetic Nervousness.  The moderator for the talk, Leonard Davis, rightly noted that Quayson’s approach to disability was broad but in a theoretically enabling way. This observation was born out in the second portion of the talk where Quayson applied his theoretical approach to disability to Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938).

Professor Quayson contended that any coherent theory of disability had to acknowledge not simply its presence in literature and culture but also the “effect” of that disability in a given society.  Aesthetic nervousness, as Quayson described it, was where representational practices at a particular cultural space and time stumble on disability as something that does not fit within the field of reference.  A disabled figure may thus be present in the narrative but their very presence causes us to question the logic of the fictional universe they inhabit.

The benefit of this approach to disability, Professor Quayson suggested, was that it reminded critics and students alike that Disability Studies is not simply a matter of interpretation but also social justice.  One might ignore religious difference in Milton, he asserted, and still find a way to comprehend and evaluate his work. The same cannot be done, in his view, with a work closely associated with Disability Studies.

As someone not well versed in the canon of Disability Studies criticism and theory, I found Quayson’s talk engaging and insightful.  He addressed a concern that I had often held.  Namely, that Disability Studies scholarship might simply be a hide and seek for disabled characters in published fiction.  Quayson presented me with a way of understanding what to do with traces of disability in the text once they are found.  His method suggests an interesting parallel between the fields of Semiotics and Disability Studies.  There is also a potential link between his idea of aesthetic nervousness and the Marxist conception of “contradiction.”  Disability in a narrative is often a factor contradicting the type of world the author is attempting to create.  This opens a space to consider alternatives to the context created by the author and the world in which he/she was writing.

I also found the chess playing scene Professor Quayson described with Murphy and a patient at the mental hospital where he works particularly striking.   I was strongly reminded of the failure of connection often exhibited by trauma patients who share a similar disability but are trapped within their own visions.  This is a pattern that I noticed while writing a chapter for my book on Civil War veterans and war memoirs.  Even though veterans shared many of the same sufferings and battles, they suffered in silence.  They were, to borrow a phrase from Sherry Turkle, “alone together.”

An excellent talk.  There is a lot still to process.  I’m also looking forward to reading Professor Quayson’s book.


About johnacaseyjr

A PhD graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. My research focuses on how the experiences of veterans shaped American culture in the Gilded Age. Currently I am a Lecturer and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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