BMCR 2022.02.09

Disability studies and the classical body: the forgotten other

, Disability studies and the classical body: the forgotten other. Routledge studies in ancient disabilities. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 294. ISBN 9780367221959 $160.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited collection, which originated in a two-day conference in 2018, aims to demonstrate the value of awareness of disability studies in research into the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and classical reception, as well as how it can help us confront ableism in modern academic scholarship. With its exploratory approach and chapters addressing a wide range of different topics and methods, this collection represents an admirable contribution to a growing appreciation for a disability-informed approach to Humanities research generally.

Before delving into a discussion of the book and its chapters, it is useful to identify whom, in my opinion, the collection will benefit most. First, this book will be productive for scholars who have achieved a high degree of specialization on topics like (but not limited to) architecture, ancient medicine, museum studies, sensory studies, myth and tragedy, social history, philosophy, and classical reception and who are interested in case studies or examples of how a disability-informed approach can improve and enrich their work. Second, the book will benefit disability studies scholars who are interested in how disability can be applied to diverse contexts. These scholars may also be able to identify new avenues for productively engaging their colleagues and students in this kind of work. This does not seem, to me, to be a book appropriate for students or non-specialists, although some individual chapters would be valuable additions to graduate syllabi, where they can be read and discussed with guidance from specialists.

The collection begins with a provocative foreword by Davis, a disability studies scholar, who encourages readers to consider the volume’s title critically, to ask whether disabled people in the ancient Mediterranean perhaps represent not so much a ‘forgotten other’ as a “self that was only later othered as disability became less common?” (p. xvii). Importantly, Davis reminds us that disability is not just ancient but modern, and that it is no longer acceptable to ignore disability in the past nor to privilege the work of nondisabled scholars telling stories about an ‘unknown other.’ Ideally, he says, “the story of disability in the past will be told and remembered by those who remembered not to forget in the first place” (xviii). He does not imply, of course, that nondisabled scholars cannot do this work, just that such work should be self-consciously informed by a disability perspective: after all, “nothing about us without us” is a kind of motto for those in the disability community.

In the volume’s introduction, Adams begins by clarifying the force behind the ‘classical body’ of the title, a phrase that comprises three ideas: the body’s lived experience; the ideal classical form; and the large corpus of scholarship and sources that have shaped modern Western thought and culture. After a brief framework for readers unfamiliar with sociological models developed in disability studies, Adams argues that disability deserves the same intellectual energy as other aspects of identity, such as gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. The dialogue between past and present, she says, can help us confront the ableism of our scholarly work, comparing it to tensions laid bare in the dialogue between modern feminist views and sexism in ancient Greece and Rome. She presents not just a moral case for embracing a disability approach, but an intellectual one, too. Adams addresses questions that readers new to the study of disability may have, including how to define ‘disability,’ the polysemous nature of the disability community, the applicability of modern understandings of disability to the past, the difference between the lived experience of being disabled and a society’s reaction to disability, and the pitfalls of retrospective diagnosis.

The rest of the volume is divided into four sections, each with an introduction written by Adams. It is not possible to discuss all contributions in-depth but given the diversity in topics and approach, it is useful, I think, to provide a (brief) summary of each chapter.

The first section, entitled ‘Communicating and controlling impairment, illness, and pain,” includes two papers that consider the role of the patient in contexts of clinical consultations. Flexer and Hurwitz (Ch. 2) confront the intersection of the clinical encounter, the construction of the medical case, and the publication of medical case reports. Variously discussing Aristotle’s Poetics, Attic dramatic tragedy (especially Sophocles), the Homeric epics, the Hippocratic Epidemics, and the cult of Asclepius, as well as a corpus of 500 medical case reports published between 1945 and 2019, the authors maintain that ancient Greek tragedy “established a lineage of influence on clinical practice and case formation that endures to the present” (p. 44-45) and that the spatial and temporal requirements of the Greek tragic genre can lead to the silencing of patients’ voices. Moving beyond such genre dictates, they argue, can improve cooperation and collaboration between clinicians and patients. Petridou (Ch. 3) discusses chronic pain as a disability in both modern and ancient contexts. Chronic pain defies articulation, she says, but pain communication is necessary for both timely diagnosis and effective treatment, and Petridou uses the figures of Emily Dickinson, a 20th-century police lieutenant named Howard Harris, and Roman author Aelius Aristides to argue that narrative-based medicine can enable communication between patient and physician.

The three chapters in the second section address the theme of “Using, creating, and showcasing disability supports and services.” Draycott (Ch. 4) establishes a taxonomy for ancient Greek and Roman prostheses and presents case studies to demonstrate how prostheses, or stories about them, can provide insights into the lives of ancient prosthesis users. Goggins (Ch. 5) brings the discussion of prostheses to the modern world. She critiques how museum exhibits on prostheses privilege the perspective of the creator over the user and provides an example of how one museum was able to incorporate interviews with prosthesis users to a positive effect. Adams (Ch. 6) looks at how audio description can improve museum displays, focusing specifically on the British Museum’s Tiresias Project and its integration into the Parthenon galleries. While audio description makes museum exhibits accessible to blind and partially sighted people, it also benefits sighted people in its communication of multisensory narratives (emphasizing that sight does not operate in isolation from the other senses).

The third section, entitled “Real bodies and retrieving senses: Disability in the ritual record,” opens with Graham (Ch. 7) confronting the failure of sensory archaeologies to engage productively with disability, despite their ambition to offer more inclusive perspectives on the ancient world. Sensory studies, she says, investigate sight, sound, and movement, but presume that everyone saw, heard, and moved in the same way. Studies of disability in the ancient world, on the other hand, often ignore embodiment in favor of the social and legal consequences of disability. To understand the lived complexities of embodiment in the ancient world, Graham argues, “disability studies must be brought quite literally to its senses, and sensory archaeologies must be prepared to disable themselves” (p. 166). Graham proposes that interactional theory, which seeks to reveal the lived experiences of physical disability, can bridge the gap between the two. She presents a case study in the Roman Republican Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste and addresses the diverse ways that people would have experienced the sanctuary and its spaces, focusing especially on visitors with visual and mobility impairments. Baker and Francis (Ch. 8) look at two burials of adult men from ancient Athens who may have had mental illness. These men were both buried in wells, atypically for adults at the time, and the authors argue that situating these in the context of deviancy is unnecessarily derogatory. The evidence, they propose, instead supports a conclusion that these men—and, as a corollary, people with mental illnesses—may have been deemed children or had the same status as children, making their burials less unusual than they seem. This chapter is exciting in its application of a disability analysis to ancient mortuary contexts, but I encourage the authors to reconsider the (negative) connotations that accompany the infantilization of adults with mental illness.

Two chapters in the fourth and final section look at “Classical reception as a gateway between Classics and disability studies”. Hall (Ch. 9) discusses Poussin’s painting Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658), which shows three disabled figures from ancient myth (Orion, Cedalion, and Hephaestus), alongside the literary passage it is based on, an ecphrasis in Lucian’s On the Hall. After discussing the representations of these figures in ancient myth, Hall argues that Poussin’s painting furnishes an imaginary instance of a “divine disabled mutual support group” (p. 231). She does not claim that Lucian intended to provide a positive representation of mutual self-help among disabled people but asserts that classical material has always been and must always be open to new readings. King (Ch. 10) asks how disability histories use the ancient world to claim a historicity for various diagnoses, as well as how a classical legacy can help construct modern responses to disability. She discusses how genealogies, often heavily reliant on the Hippocratic corpus, have been created for conditions like asthma, endometriosis, and deafness and that these disability histories often skew or selectively draw from ancient evidence to give the impression of a continuity of experience to provide modern disabled people with a “special connection” to the past. King offers a different model for constructing such a history in the fictional figure of Nydia, a blind flower girl of Pompeii in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Nydia has been a prominent figure within classical reception, despite the fact that she is a product of the 19th century, but King presents ways in which even a fictionalized biography of an ancient disabled person can provide a way for us to consider the experiences of disabled people, ancient and modern.

A particular strength of this volume is in its demonstration of just how many different avenues exist for engaging with disability and impairment, the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and disability studies as a discipline. Some chapters work better than others as case studies in this sense, especially Graham’s discussion (Ch. 7) of how interactional theory can bridge the gap between ancient disability studies and ancient sensory archaeologies. This chapter is one of the most effective presentations of the volume’s goals and would make an excellent addition to syllabi for many courses. Other chapters demonstrate meaningful engagement with disabled people in the development of solutions to disability erasure in the past and present. Adams (Ch. 6), for example, shows just how active participation by disabled people in the process of exhibit design improves everyone’s engagement with ancient material culture in modern museum spaces. Draycott (Ch. 4) presents a corpus of material (ancient prostheses) that many readers will be unfamiliar with, and her chapter should be read alongside Goggins’ discussion of the display of prostheses in modern museums (Ch. 5) for an excellent presentation of how a disability analysis of even the same evidence can take many different forms.

One of the challenges of this type of volume is ensuring that all authors are engaged equally with disability studies and its theories and methods. The unevenness in the application of disability studies among the chapters included here may leave some readers confused about what disability studies is and how it can be effectively applied to their research; some chapters may even give the impression that a cursory understanding of disability studies, with no engagement in the ethics of its application, is sufficient. What is more, some authors’ attempts to address the ableism in modern scholarship almost themselves perpetuate it, if in different ways. So, for example, some authors self-consciously address their positionality, while others do not seem to recognize that their own identities are relevant to their analyses. Importantly, while the editor and many of its authors want to break free from the medical model versus social model dichotomy, the volume seems to depend on it for its structure. From the other side, some chapters require readers to accept certain readings of evidence in ways that may undermine the goals of the volume, if readers leave with the impression that a disability analysis requires a less rigorous approach to the ancient source material to be successful. Overall, these shortcomings are unlikely to trouble specialists, who are often capable of seeing past such things to glean the volume’s underlying strengths, but they may present a misleading picture to less experienced researchers and students.

In general, I am grateful to the volume’s editor and authors for a volume that has the potential to provoke readers into considering how disability can inform their own work and teaching.

Table of Contents

Foreword / Lennard J. Davis
1. Disability studies and the classical body: the forgotten other. Introduction / Ellen Adams
Part 1: Communicating and controlling impairment, illness and pain / Ellen Adams
2. Two troubles: The dramatic tragedy of Western medicine / Michael J. Flexler and Brian Hurwitz
3. ‘There is a pain – so utter – ‘: Narrating chronic pain and disability in antiquity and modernity / Georgia Petridou
Part 2: Using, creating and showcasing disability supports and services / Ellen Adams
4. Prostheses in classical antiquity: A taxonomy / Jane Draycott
5. Displaying the forgotten other in museums: Prostheses at National Museums Scotland / Sophie Goggins
6. New light on ‘the viewer’: Sensing the Parthenon galleries in the British Museum / Ellen Adams
Part 3: Real bodies and retrieving messages: Disability in the ritual record / Ellen Adams
7. Interactional sensibilities: Bringing ancient disability studies to its archaeological senses / Emma-Jayne Graham
8. Rational capacity and incomplete adults: The mentally impaired in classical antiquity / Patricia Baker and Sarah Francis
Part 4: Classical reception as the gateway between Classics and disability studies / Ellen Adams
9. The immortal forgotten other gang: Dwarf Cedalion, Lame Hephaestus, and Blind Orion / Edith Hall
10. A history of our own? Using Classics in disability histories / Helen King