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21.09.07 Godden/Mittman (eds.), Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World

21.09.07 Godden/Mittman (eds.), Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World

Richard H. Godden and Asa Simon Mittman's Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World departs, in some aspects, from standard academic collections. In her foreword, Tory V. Pearman calls the collection a chimera because of how it "combines and recombines disability, monstrosity, and the posthuman in multiple ways" (x). In other words, it is an academic monster. A very welcome monster, indeed.

The volume's common denominator is non-normate bodies, be they real, fictional, or metaphorical. These bodies are "defiers of easy or fixed categorization" (19) and cross "both somatic and ontological borders" by interrogating "notions of normalcy/deviancy, self/Other, and human/inhuman" (v). The collection explores the extraordinary bodies of angels, animals, humans, giants, cynocephali, troglodytes, werewolves, and cannibals as semiotically-fraught sites of categorical crossing.

The essays themselves, too, defy easy categorization. Beyond the main section divisions, which as the editors themselves point out are largely artificial, one of the strengths of the volume is that neither the chapters, nor the approaches, fit neatly into silos. Its breadth is impressive: contributors elucidate productive intersections with gender studies (Long, Cock and Skinner, Rajendran, Loftis, Geil, and Montroso), queer theory (Garrison and Montroso), critical race theory (Rajendran and Lewis), animal studies (Swenson, Weinreich, and Steel), and ecocriticism (Montroso). The collection also takes the invaluable approach of working across the largely false medieval / early modern English divide, with examinations spanning Old English texts to Milton (though it should be noted that, with the exception of a few Continental texts, every work discussed is British). Chimera-like, the volume not only joins theoretical fields but also undoes them, equally exploring the "possibilities latent in the (de)coupling of the disabled and the monstrous" (x). Pearman notes that the volume's scholarship "must consider how we can make use of monstrosity and disability as a critical tool without compressing or silencing the experience of those with disabilities" (vii). Godden and Mittman echo this sentiment by observing that the volume seeks to "interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period" rather than "simply collapse these two categories" (18). They find the two categories "[o]verlapping, but not coterminous" (11), and the spaces amid and between create generative room for expansion and interrogation, complication and differentiation across disability studies, monster studies, and posthumanism.

That generative space fosters impressive nuance and diversity among the essay's topics and approaches. Far from a uniform picture of disability or monstrosity or humanity, each of the collection's fifteen essays speaks to a wide-reaching and complex cultural landscape. Some authors explore disability and monstrosity as sites of marginalization and oppression, such as Eliza Buhrer's example of "a monster" killed without any legal repercussions or Emily Cock and Patricia Skinner's examinations of facial impairment and social stigma in medieval and early modern Europe. Others analyze how multi-layered, rather than unilateral, dominant power structures can be. For instance, the dialogue between the two chapters on The King of Tars demonstrates how, as Molly Lewis argues, "the ways in which disability and race are often employed within the same system of normativity to both shore up able-bodied white identities and to take power away from figures that are viewed as scary or potentially threatening to the normate systemic authority" (161-2), while Shyama Rajendran finds the romance a site for "multiple, shifting, and co-constitutive structures of power" (144). Rajendran's insightful reading concludes that, "[o]n the surface, the text sends the message that the only way to be a part of these narrative futures is to convert, and to resist conversion means being eliminated; yet a deeper examination reveals that to be part of the future, one must be 'cured' of disability and blackness (as in The King of Tars), but the inability of women to be cured of their gender means that they must be eliminated once they have played their part in ensuring the continuity of the future" (142).

As some authors interrogate how non-normate bodies are marginalized, both culturally and textually, other contributors find that the categories of disability and monstrosity perform more multivalent cultural work. For instance, Buhrer's thirteenth-century case study of a "fool" who killed a "monster" demonstrates how medieval English law "did not collapse the categories of disability and monstrosity" (65) but rather distinguished and protected individuals with disabilities, unlike the lack of protections offered to "monsters." Melissa Hull Geil's work on "monstrous births" in midwifery manuals shows how the monstrous was simultaneously defined as both abnormal and yet natural and frequently occurring: "[m]onstrous birth narratives both reify the normate and push back on it" (266). Perhaps the volume's most compelling deconstruction of categories comes in Kathleen Perry Long's analysis of how early modern categories of biological sex, including intersex, ultimately created "a system that seems to explode itself" (57). She finds that the more taxonomists tried to organize the totality of things, the more "[c]ategories thus g[a]ve way to subcategories that seem to merely repeat them, resulting in the paradox of the 'normal abnormal'...[and] raising the question of what these concepts mean, if anything at all" (57).

Some of the volume's arguments even find that the categories of "disabled" and "monstrous" can not just marginalize but simultaneously affirm those that are heralded as such. Leah Pope Parker's fascinating close reading of the cannibals in the Old English Andreas demonstrates that in order for cannibals to be monsters, they must be human; their monstrosity (eating their own kind) in fact confirms their humanity--and in the case of this saint's life, their ability to be redeemed. Their work connects to Spencer J. Weinreich's intriguing chapter on the Christopher Cynocephalus tradition (St. Christopher as depicted with a dog-head): the monstrous, the disabled, and the non-human can be--and was--a saint. Several contributors explore similar impulses in literary narratives. For instance, Haylie Swenson's chapter argues that Gower's casting of the revolting populace as "beasts irrational" in his Visio Anglie simultaneously marginalizes them while also holding space for audiences to empathize with their plight. John S. Garrison's argument on how blindness in Paradise Lost can inform queer sexuality treads similar territory. He finds that disability becomes an avenue for gender and sexuality inclusivity because the poem casts "blindness as inherent to the desired form of bodily and sexual expression among angels, who in turn represent the desired futurity for humans" (271). Alan S. Montroso reads The Book of John Mandeville similarly, where "the act of cave-dwelling at once confirms social anxieties about a woman living outside the reproductive economy but also grants the dragon-maiden [Hippocrates' daughter] a futurity that is often omitted from stories that treat the disabled body as something to be corrected" (290). These chapters present nuanced, layered intersections not only between disability and monstrosity but also between those designated as such and the communities that designated them thus.

The impressive breadth and yet nuance of the collection demonstrates a key takeaway. As Long observes in her essay, "One could say that the intellectual systems we devise to better understand the natural world are both crippling and crippled, as are many of the systems we have constructed to organize our lives and govern our world" (61). She finds these systems not only disabling but monstrous, arguing that "the obsessive need for categories isthe monster" (45, emphasis original). Categories are, after all, fantasies, for as Mittman and Godden quote Patricia MacCormack, "we are all, and must be, monsters because nothing is ever like another thing, nor like itself from one moment to the next" (26). An unwieldy world needs unwieldy approaches, and such postnormality reminds us how scholarship desperately needs interdisciplinary, intertheoretical modes like the ones employed in this academic monster.