Disability—whether physical, mental, or sensory—is widely represented in Early Modern literature, and as such it has been attracting attention from 21st-century literary scholars, who apply the theoretical and critical tools of disability studies to Renaissance narratives and literary characters. Literary disability in its various forms can be analyzed in the light of various models of disability, including medical, social, moral, or cultural. This helps in understanding early modern representations and experiences of disability in culture and history and making sense of reactions to disability in the period: including stigma, mockery, proud identification with the disabled identity, or also a desire for it. Physical disabilities in the Renaissance encompass anything from deformity to bodily mutilation to dwarfism or monstrosity, and they are especially prone to be emphasized, explained, or scrutinized in search of their meaning. Sensory disabilities, including blindness, deafness, and mutism, prompt interpretations that connect physical impairment with the character’s inability or surprising ability to understand reality—whether in a pragmatic or spiritual sense. Intellectual and mental disabilities have many ramifications in early modern literature, some of which, such as fools and madmen, are staple types of drama. Intellectual and mental disabilities are often described in medical terms, but literary texts tend to differentiate between them, whether in technical or narrative terms. Foolishness normally turns into comedy, whereas madness is often connected with tragic characters undergoing mental breakdowns. Renaissance disability studies are also concerned with less obvious types of disability: disabilities that were disabilities in the past but not in the 21st century, concealed disabilities, and disabilities that are not actually disabilities but do foster a conversation that excludes the character who does not embody what society regarded as the ideal physical shape. Finally, instances of counterfeited disability and disability attached to concepts rather than people help understand how Renaissance culture often viewed the nonstandard body not only as something to beware of or reject but also as an image of empowerment.
Twenty-first-century understandings of how disability figures in Asian American literature and the representation of Asian American individuals have greatly evolved. Earlier, highly pejorative characterizations associated with the 19th-century “Oriental” or “yellow peril” as a carrier of disease whose body needed to be quarantined and excluded. Later, the model minority myth typecast Asian Americans as having extreme intellectual abilities to the point of freakishness. Disability studies asserts that having an “imperfect” disabled body is nothing to hide and questions beliefs in norms of behavior and experience. Focusing on disability in Asian American literature opens a new path to reflect on Asian American identity and experience in ways that break away from the racial types and narrative trajectories of immigrant success that have often been seen as defining what it is to be Asian American. Integrating a disability studies perspective into Asian American studies provides a compelling and necessary means of critiquing stereotypes such as the model minority myth, as well as to reread many classic texts of Asian American literature with attentiveness to difference, impairment, and loss.
Disability studies is an interdisciplinary mode of inquiry that flourished beginning in the late 20th century. Disability studies challenges the singularity of dominant models of disability, particularly the medical model that would reduce disability to diagnosis, loss, or lack, and that would insist on cure as the only viable approach to apprehending disability. Disability studies pluralizes ways of thinking about disability, and bodily, mental, or behavioral atypicality in general; it simultaneously questions the ways in which able-bodiedness has been made to appear natural and universal. Disability studies is an analytic that attends to how disability and ability are represented in language and in a wide range of cultural texts, and it is particularly attuned to the ways in which power relations in a culture of normalization have generally subordinated disabled people, particularly in capitalist systems that demand productive and efficient laborers. Disability studies is actively intersectional, drawing on feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory, and other analytics to consider how gender, race, sexuality, and disability are co-constitutive, always implicated in each other. Crip theory has emerged as a particular mode of doing disability studies that draws on the pride and defiance of crip culture, art, and activism, with crip itself marking both a reclamation of a term designed to wound or demean and as a marker of the fact that bodies and minds do not fit neatly within or beneath a historical able-bodied/disabled binary. “To crip,” as a critical process, entails recognizing how certain bodily and mental experiences have been made pathological, deviant, or perverse and how such experiences have subsequently been marginalized or invisibilized. Queer of color critique, which is arguably at the absolute center of the project of queer theory, shares a great deal with crip theory, as it consistently points outward to the relations of power that constitute and reconstitute the social. Queer of color critique focuses on processes of racialization and gendering that make certain groups perverse or pathological. Although the ways in which this queer of color project overlaps significantly with disability studies and crip theory have not always been acknowledged, vibrant modes of crip of color critique have emerged in the 21st century, making explicit the connections.
James Kyung-Jin Lee
Alongside readings of Asian American literature that foreground the racial, gender, class, and transnational constitution of the community and the writers that produced literary work, one may consider how ill, disabled, and wounded embodiment work their way into the literature as well. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these differential modes of embodiment are constitutive of the corpus of Asian American literature itself, for illness and disability are often, though not always, the somatic expression of the kinds of racial and other forms of violence that Asian American authors take up as central themes. To explore the world of illness and disability and to pay attention to the ways that wounded embodiment figures in the literary provide a critical index of how Asian Americans have been and are valued. Moreover, to take the Asian American ill and disabled body in literature seriously as producing specific narratives themselves, rather than merely more deficient versions of those produced by their able-bodied counterparts, is to read Asian American literature as a site through which new ideas of sociality, intersubjectivity, and care might be possible, which then may trigger new political imaginations. Whether reading in Asian American literature’s most historical and canonical works traces of illness, disability, and wounded embodiment’s marks or the early-21st-century “boom” in nonfiction that attends to questions of illness and disability, death and dying, a generative, even capacious, understanding of Asian America emerges from the shadows of what was previously known and knowable as a social identity.
Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.