Reflection by Travis Lau

I want to pose a question guided by my own work and Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind: what might the conceptual payoffs of Morgan’s model of the “outward turn” be for disability studies?  The “outward turn’s” reconfiguration of “seemingly interior or private states” into those “acquiring material existence as interactions among bodies, nervous systems, and things” resonates powerfully with the long-standing resistance in disability activism and scholarship to the enduring Cartesian division between mind and body. To counteract the flattening of the complex lived experience of disability to either bodies or minds, disability thinkers like Eli Clare and Margaret Price have employed the compound term, bodyminds. In a recent crip theory roundtable, Price meditates on this key term, which she draws from the work of trauma specialist and mental health writer, Babette Rothschild:

…it tells more truth than a Cartesian (or sometimes crip) separation of the two. Yet its conjoined structure indicates that those entities, body and mind, still exist separately in our understanding. What metaphor or sign would figure the bodymind more truthfully still? A braid, a fractal, a soup?
What would happen if we did not add mind to body, but rather grounded our theories in bodymind?[1]

I want to suggest that Morgan’s “outward turn” offers such historical grounding in its provocative möbiusing of inner and outer (might this be like Price’s “fractal”?). Methodologically, he avoids the common pitfall in disability scholarship of hastily devaluing or dismissing scientific thinking for its complicity with the “medical model,”[2] but instead underscores the interdependence and co-constituency of the labile “rhetorics” of Victorian “physicalist models of the mind in science, philosophy, and literature” and their openness to neuroatypicality and cognitive difference.[3] Just as science and literature were imbricated, so too were Victorian bodyminds. In a disability context, Arendt and Dewey’s call for a community based on “shared biological materiality” seems like a timely ethical reminder of our interdependencies, of the shared precarity of our intersubjective “bodyminds” ever at risk of dissolution into the world and its objects.

Returning to the central concerns of Morgan’s work, I want to connect his arguments about aesthetics to a potential interlocutor in disability aesthetic theory more specifically. I immediately think of the late Tobin Siebers, who in Disability Aesthetics (2010), decried the tradition in Western aesthetic theories of disavowing the material in favor of an idealist, disembodied conception of art despite how disability is the fleshly remainder that underpins and challenges aesthetic norms of healthiness, harmony, integrity, and beauty. If Siebers defines aesthetics as that which “tracks the sensations that some bodies feel in the presence of other bodies,”[4] is this the same kind of affective and “sensuous” relations Morgan explores in Victorian materialist aesthetics? How might Morris, Lee, or Anstruther-Thomson theorize disability aesthetics?

[1] McRuer, Robert, Johnson, Merri Lisa. “Proliferating Cripistemologies: A Virtual Roundtable.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 149-169.

[2] The medical model typically refers to disability’s figuration by the medical establishment and medical professionals as pathological and in need of cure or even elimination. Disabled subjects, within such framework, are typically reduced to their disabilities alone. See Sayantani DasGupta’s concise overview in Keywords for Disability Studies (NYU Press, 2015).

[3] Morgan 19.

[4] Siebers 1.



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