Lennard J. Davis, Nude Venuses, Medusa’s Body, and Phantom Limbs: Disability and Visuality

This essay opens with a description of a woman:

“She has no arms or hands, although the stump of her upper right arm extends just to her breast. Her left arm has been severed and her face badly scarred, with her nose torn at the tip and her lower lip gouged out. Fortunately, her facial mutilations have been treated and are barely visible, except for minor scarring visible only up close. The big toe of her right foot has been cut off, and her torso is also covered with scars, a particularly large one between her shoulder blades, one that covers her shoulder, and one covering the tip of her breast where her left nipple was torn out.

Yet, she is considered one of the most beautiful female figures in the world.” (Davis 2004, p 51)

Davis is describing the Venus de Milo:

He compares this with quadriplegic Pam Herbert’s description of herself:

I weigh about 130 pounds; I’m about four feet tall. It’s pretty hard to get an accurate measurement on me because both of my knees are permanently bent. And my spine is curved, so 4′ is an estimate. I wear size two tennis shoes and strong glasses; my hair is dishwater blonde and shoulder length” (ibid, 51). The passage then goes on to describe the intimate details of the difficulties encountered by her and her husband trying to consummate their marriage on their wedding night. The message is clear; regarding the statue we ignore the physical mutilations and impairments (do we fill in the blanks?) and elevate the woman to the status of ideal beauty and eroticism, while the living woman inspires revulsion and is ‘deeroticised’. Davis asks: “why does the impairment of the Venus de Milo in no way prevent “normal” people from considering her beautiful, while Pam Herbert’s disability becomes the focal point for horror and pity?” (ibid, p 52).

Davis speaks of the uneven encounter between the normal and the disabled body, citing a passage by disabled writer Anne Finger which describes an imaginary meeting between the Marxists Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci, where Luxemburg is temporarily ’empowered’ since she is the ‘less disabled’ of the two (Luxemburg was bedridden with a hip ailment at the age of 5 and suffered a lifelong limp, Gramsci had a deformity of the spine that stunted his growth and made him hunchbacked): “…Rosa’s startled reaction as she glimpses him, the misshapen dwarf, limping towards her her eye immediately drawn to this disruption in the visual field; the unconscious flinch; the realization that she is staring at him, and the too-rapid turning away of the head. And then, the moment after, the consciousness that the quick aversion of the gaze was as much of an insult as the stare, so she turns her head back but tries to make her focus general, not a sharp gape.” How many of us have experienced this situation, found ourselves staring, and then tried to turn away out of politeness but a little too quickly! What is emphasised here is a kind of hierarchy of disability – Luxemburg is considered the less disabled of the two since she merely has a gammy leg, while Gramsci was hunchbacked as well as suffering from stunted growth, probably as a result of childhood tuberculosis of the spine or Potts disease (Crehan 2002, p 14).

This imaginary encounter illustrates the social construction of disability. Davis argues that the splitting of the world into binary categories is a primitive thought process, both personal and collective. In the contemporary, capitalist world, the body of the worker is the measure of production and standardisation: “It is fair to say, in general, that disabilities would be most dysfunctional in postindustrial countries where the ability to perambulate or manipulate is so concretely tied to productivity, which in itself is tied to production” (ibid, p 54). This means that the disabled body is the undesired, and also accounts for why certain disabilities have less negative connotations than others – so for example, there is more stigma attached to wearing hearing aids than there is to wearing glasses.

Value is tied to the ability to earn money. If one’s body is productive, it is not disabled. People with disabilities continue to earn less than “normal” people, and, even after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 69 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed. Women and men with disabilities are seen as less attractive and less able to marry and be involved in domestic production” (ibid, p 54).

Davis also looks at the idea of Medusa as the antithesis of the ideal of beauty embodied in Venus. Medusa stands for what is ugly, deformed – what Davis interprets as disabled: “The “normal” person sees the disabled person and is turned to stone, in some sense, by the visual interaction. In this moment, the normal person suddenly feels self-conscious, rigid, unable to look but equally drawn to look. The visual field becomes problematic, dangerous, treacherous” (ibid, p 55). This is the power of disability, the monstrosity, which needs to be decapitated to remove its terrorising power. In some ways Davis may be right, but the analogy is a little stretched.

Considering the idea of beautiful nudes, Davis notes that the only biological functions permitted to classical nudes are lactation and lachrimation, and a pregnant Venus would be considered ‘temporarily disabled’, which is in stark comparison to the pagan symbols of pregnant women representing fertility.

Davis also uses Lacan’s ideas of the fragmented body, the imagos of fragmentary bodily experience, prior to the donning of the armour of a unified identity at the “mirror phase” of a child’s development, to explain the horror experienced when presented with the disabled body – an imago of the repressed fragmented body. “This repressed truth of self-perception revolves around a prohibited central, specular moment – of seeing the disabled body – in which the “normal” person views the Medusa image,” This undoing of the self-as-whole similar to the undoing of the body through the process of ageing or death: “Thus the specular moment between the armored, unified self and its repressed double – the fragmented body – is characterized by a kind of death work, repetition compulsion in which the unified self continuously sees itself undone – castrated, mutilated, perforated, made partial” (p 61). Davis also quotes Freud as saying that the uncanny is in fact nothing new, but something familiar and established in the mind, estranged merely by the process of repression, and this process begins for Davis with the repressive act of defragmenting the body and recreating it as a whole. As such, the disabled body is a body that is common to all humans from early childhood and is in the realm of the real (since it precedes the ruse of identity and wholeness); the normal body is a construction, a Gestalt, and is in the realm of the imaginary. The disabled body thus appears as a threat to the imaginary completeness that we have constructed in order to differentiate ourselves from the world and make sense of our separateness and individuality. If the normal body is already a fragmented body, held together by an act of will, the disabled body is an unwanted reminder of this voluntary hallucination, and thus threatens to destroy it. The disabled body, just like the whole body or the phallus, doesn’t belong to anyone, but needs to be put on, assumed, and identified with.

Davis observes that grotesque characters are often used as devices in art and literature, rarely are we presented with an examination of the world from the point of view of the grotesque subject: “The grotesque, as with disability in general, is used as a metaphor for otherness, solitude, tragedy, bitterness, alterity. The grotesque is defined in this sense as a disturbance in the normal visual field, not as a set of characteristics through which a fully constituted subject views the world” (ibid, p 64).

Davis asserts that the problem of using the term disability is that it disempowers the object of observation: “The body is seen through a set of cultural default settings arrived at by the wholesale adoption of ableist cultural values” (ibid, p 64). And these cultural values are based on appearance, on the visual. When the body is mentioned in literature or film, it is by default thought of as whole, ‘normal’. If a disability is introduced, it is seen as a problem, as something to be overcome – either by normal characters becoming romantically involved, thereby proving that disability is no obstacle to attractiveness, or with the disability being removed in the finale.

Davis once again paraphrases the idea of the social construction of the ‘normal’ body, which necessitates the creation of a diametrically opposed Other: “…disability defines the negative space the body must not occupy; it is the Manichaean binary in contention with normality” (ibid, p 68). This perception is one that is enforced by a system of ableist conditioning, and is in no way natural. “Only when disability is made visible as a compulsory term in a hegemonic process, only when the binary is exposed and the continuum acknowledged, only when the body is seen apart from its existence as an object of production or consumption – only then will normalcy cease being a term of enforcement in a somatic judicial system” (ibid, p 68). The way to promote normalising of the disabled body is therefore to include the disabled body in works of art and mass media for what they are, and without a subplot or separate background narrative to explain the impairment. How easy it sounds, but difficult for an already socially-conditioned public to swallow, methinks. Meanwhile the debate continues…

Looking up some of the disabled artists that Davis mentioned:


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