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The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity.

The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity, by James Berger. New York University Press, 2014. 320 pages.

James Berger's second book has been published in New York University Press's Cultural Front series, which, rather than having a thematic focus, develops "new ways of thinking about--and promoting--open and egalitarian societies." As such, his title represents something of a misnomer. "The Disarticulate," as Berger explains in the book's helpful introduction, was originally "The Dys-/Disarticulate," before an editorial decision to erase the slash so as to avoid confusion. The erasure and subsequent reintroduction of this slash, this confusion, this stutter acts as a fitting reenactment of the ethical challenges presented by this book, which concerns itself with the relationship between the symbolically apprehensible and the not-linguistic, the speaking and the non-speaking. For Berger, the figure of the dys-/disarticulate resides, or at least is imagined to reside, at the boundary of the social-symbolic, a liminal place where there is no adequate terminology. As disarticulate, this figure is "forcibly severed from the social fabric, stigmatized, silenced, possibly physically dismembered" (2). As dysarticulate, this figure is "blocked from language, standing at the convergence of all of language's impasses: those of injury, trauma, neurological variation, socio-political silencing, and the workings of language itself as language plots its own aporias." Figured linguistically as the "outside of language" and perceived as the "other," the dys-/ disarticulate foregrounds and problematizes representational strategies and ethical considerations. Berger brings a wealth of both professional and personal experience to bear on such matters. His first book, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (1999), engaged with the limits of language by considering what would be the symbolic remainder after trauma, after "apocalypse." His relationship with his two developmentally disabled sisters, Susan and Claudia, led him, meanwhile, to reflect on experiences of separation, questions of home and institution, feelings of sibling responsibility, and, ultimately, the issue of care as it relates to those with linguistic and cognitive impairments. Issues of metaphor, trauma, and care animate this important work, which has much to offer the fields of disability theory, literary studies (particularly the study of modernist and postmodern literature), and neuroscience.

Today, all of us live among the ruins of Babel. The first, Adamic, language purported to be a perfect language, a language that named things truly, unambiguously, perfectly. Each term was precisely a proper term. With the fall of Babel came the fall into languages, "into ambiguity, duplicity, multiplicity, jokes, puns, lies, translations, fictions, and truths in the plural" (16). If language was once indexical, truly naming the thing, after this second fall it became merely conventional, always dependent on a third term. According to Berger, if language is tropic, lacking proper terms, then "catachresis" should be understood as the general condition of language. Catachresis is, for him, the very foundation of language. As such, an account of its workings constitutes a great deal of this book. Berger defines catachresis, or kata-chresis (kata: against; chresis: use), as "an abuse of language," that is, as "the use of the wrong word or of a word with a standard usage in one context dragged into a use against usage in another" (28). A good example of this would be the statement "I see a voice." Understood in this way, catachresis takes the common understanding of metaphor to its extreme. Where metaphor commonly means to make an implicit comparison between two different things, summoning a term from one context to another, catachresis means "to 'bear across' . . . from the inexhaustible, and inexhaustibly desired, realm of not-language into language" (29). It means to gesture toward the outside of language. Accordingly, it is, Berger suggests, catachresis that facilitates the emergence of language out of nonlanguage.

Such an understanding of metaphor as catachresis serves to highlight, for Berger, a central problem of a particularly influential strain of thought in disability studies--the rendering of all metaphorical use of disability as problematic. Although Berger also takes issue with the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Tobin Siebers, his critique emphasizes the work of David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, particularly Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000). Drawing on the prevalence of metaphorical uses of disability in literary and filmic narratives, they suggest that narrative, rather than highlighting the social and political dimensions of disability, often employs disability as a metaphor, as a "narrative prosthesis," that is, as a "crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representative power, disruptive potential, and analytical insight" (49). According to Berger, such a critique of metaphor relies on an Aristotelian view of metaphor in which the metaphorical substitutes for the actual, true term. According to such a view, if metaphor were to represent "something other than itself," then, the portrayal of disability would contain no residue of meaning, no ambiguity, and therefore could be definitively known "as it really is," as it is lived, materially.

Berger posits, however, that metaphor does not work by means of simple substitution but instead by the mechanism of catachresis, in which "a word is recognized to denote some entity that has not yet been adequately conceptualized and that has, at present, no word that signifies it" (149). Only by understanding metaphor as catachresis can the emergence of new perspectives and new knowledge be accounted for. While the critique of new perspectives and knowledge in the form of bad or unfair aesthetic representations is, for Berger, within the purview of disability theory, it does not, for him, dictate a broader critique of metaphor. Such a distinction is no small matter as the compatibility of disability studies and literary studies is at stake. (1) The position of disability theorists like Mitchell and Snyder understands narrative as affirming dominant ideologies through the marginalization or even negation of disabled characters. Berger argues, by contrast, that the portrayals of dys-/disarticulate characters are "far more multivalent than straightforward disability analyses would seem to allow" (152). Understanding all language as figural, as catachresis, allows Berger in this book to explicate how modern narratives use the concept of the dys-/disarticulate as a means to critique the powerful aesthetic, scientific, and political discourses that construct the "degenerate," "wild child," and "ideology" of neuroscience.

In chapter 1, "The Bearing Across of Language: Care, Catachresis, and Political Failure," Berger clearly and forcefully lays out the primary conflict that will enliven the readings of dys-/disarticulate figures throughout this book: the ways in which the representational tensions that construct dys-/disarticulate figures, which are overdetermined by discourses from religion to aesthetics to science, problematize their roles as objects of care, particularly in relation to sexuality. While this chapter features illuminating readings of Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Herman Melville's Billy Budd, it is William Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy" that serves as the ur-text of modern depictions of the linguistically and cognitively impaired. For Berger, the boundary of language in this literary text is uncrossable by conventional means. It is only through the poem's "idiot" protagonist Johnny, who provides a new poetic form, that a "meta-pherein," or carrying across, from the nonlinguistic can take place. Existing in tension with Johnny is the doctor, who, as the agent of aspiring rationality, pursues the elimination of alterity. This text seeks, in other words, to "maintain and elaborate a catachretic relation with otherness, and not allow it to be absorbed into philosophical, scientific, or political languages of rationality" (33). Berger writes that it is familial and communal care that makes Johnny's aesthetics possible. Although relationships of care are presented in this story as threatened by the disarticulating forces of modernization, such forces are, Berger argues, directed back toward language itself by the dys-/disarticulation of language, which produces an avant-garde poetics grounded in traditional, Christian ethics. Care is also threatened by the erotic, which must be suppressed for the ethical to function in this and the other texts examined in this book. Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy" thereby exemplifies a number of features that are made more explicit in Berger's analyses of modernist and postmodern literature: the impaired figure's (1) marginalization, (2) availability to both projected fantasies by the other characters and textual overdetermination, (3) language functioning as an avant-garde poetics, (4) vulnerability and opposition to the discourses and institutions of modernity, and (5) role as an object of care (37).

The following two chapters, entitled "Linguistic Impairment and the Default of Modernism: Totality and Otherness: Dys-/Disarticulate Modernity" and "Post-Modern Wild Children, Falling Towers, and the Counter-Linguistic Turn," consider how an exit from the systemic and pervasive forces of modernity can be found. In chapter 2, Berger considers characters diagnosed as degenerate who serve as the objects of genuine forms of care outside the totalizing social-symbolic system. Yet, as Berger shows by reading effectively at the level of form, these attempts at care fail, with these characters ultimately being removed from the social-symbolic order. Stevie from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, for instance, espouses a Christian ethics of care that represents "a genuine alternative to the totalizing, self-interested ideologies of modernity" (75). Such an ethics has no place in the novel, however, as Conrad's trademark irony renders a closed system lacking the possibility of any alterity. Care in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury consists in Caddy's "efforts to re-articulate [Benjy] into family and social life" (86).The novel ends, however, with Caddy, and her burgeoning sexuality, banished and Benjy's radical otherness annulled by the omniscient narration of part IV. Berger then reads Robin from Djuna Barnes's Nigh two of in relation to Stevie and Benjy, a pairing he admits is not particularly convincing given that these latter characters clearly suffer from developmental disabilities while she can use language but seems "unable or unwilling to give an account of herself" (1961, 49). What a consideration of this novel allows for is a complication of the notion of care, as Robin, unlike Stevie and Benjy, is an object of care and desire. The consequences of this mingling of care and desire are gestured toward during Robin's concluding transaction with the dog: whereas the rest of the novel employs analogy to emphasize the gap between bios and logos, the end eliminates this gap through an absence of analogy. If, as this ending signifies, Robin is a way out of the totalizing modern social-symbolic order, it is not at all clear to Berger whether what she has liberated herself into is a fascist or utopic future.

Chapter 3 interrogates such a desire for escape from the totalizing modern social-symbolic order. Specifically, it considers the responses to a period, postmodernity, characterized by a damaged linguistic-social order, as represented by the fall of Babel. Not unlike the modern degenerate, it is the wild child during this period that embodies a radical alterity in relation to such a linguistic-social order. While the Enlightenment wild child occupied the liminal space between nature and culture, what Berger terms the "post-modern wild child" emerges from within the social-symbolic as a hybrid of the natural (the "state of nature") and the biological (genetic and neurological). For instance, Chance in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There is read as being both outside the symbolic and mediated by it as a result of growing up both in the garden and in front of the television. Postmodern wild children differ from modern degenerates, according to Berger, in that they are more explicitly sites of projection, products of the fantasies and wishes placed upon them. The role that desire plays in this construction is elucidated by contrasting the works of Oliver Sacks and Don DeLillo: where Sacks "ignores the role of desire in the relations between cognitive and linguistic impairment and culture," DeLillo emphasizes "the desire to imagine wild children with the power to redeem us and pull us with them outside the symbolic order" (133). DeLillo, through his portrayals of Wilder from White Noise and Tap from The Names, emphasizes, according to Berger, that the desire to escape from the traumatic burden of a damaged linguistic-social order can take the form not only of transcendence and redemption but also terror and violence.

What is implied in this previous chapter is made more explicit in chapter 4, "Dys-/Disarticulation and Disability": that the study of the dys-/disarticulate is to a great degree the study of trauma. In seeking to identify points of contact between the fields of disability studies and trauma studies, fields that rose to prominence during roughly the same period of time, (2) Berger makes perhaps his most timely and important intervention in this book (3) when he suggests that such a lack of contact arises due to differences concerning (1) the status of the event and (2) the politics of representation. Trauma theory emphasizes the event of trauma, as a thing that happens with symptomatic consequences; for disability theory, however, trauma is not an actual historical event but rather "an ongoing or structural presence in the norm itself--a rupture in its self-perception" (165). In refusing to theorize the traumatic event, disability theory thereby continues to neglect critical issues of vulnerability, healing, and mortality that follow from an event experienced as traumatic. As described earlier, Berger questions disability theory's suspicion of metaphor, which, for him, only allows for the most literal, iconoclastic representations of persons with disability. Discussions of trauma, by contrast, necessarily rely on metaphor, specifically catachresis, since there exists no language adequate to signifying the traumatic event. As Berger writes, "The post-traumatic world is an emergence of something from nothing" (166). Berger identifies such limitations inherent to the disability studies approach in the work of Mitchell and Snyder, arguing that, in their reading of Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Mohy-Dick, they suggest that "people with disabilities can be reduced to the physical evidence of their bodily difference" (2000, 123), such that "physical disability becomes synonymous in the text with the tragedy of a deterministic fate" (138). Such an analysis focused on Ahab's physical condition prevents a thoughtful consideration of the trauma that causes this condition. According to Berger, Melville's novel depicts Ahab's traumatic moment as generating a new symbolic system in the form of Ahab's politics, which allows him to rely on a crew in his post-traumatic world. Thus, at those points of contact between the fields of disability studies and trauma studies resides the dys-/disarticulate, which captains the journey across this divide.

After this brief interlude, chapter 5, "Alterity Is Relative: Impairment, Narrative, and Care in an Age of Neuroscience," returns to the questions posed in the previous chapters, namely the imagining of radical alterity in relation to the totalizing ideologies of modernity. What Berger terms the "ideology" of neuroscience continues the work of earlier totalizing ideologies: he describes this ideology as an act of disavowal because even though neuroscientists concur that total knowledge of brain/mind is not possible, they still make such totalizing claims. (4) The ascendance of this ideology gives rise to the "model," which is "the static representation of a fluid state [that] claims to provide a picture of the reality of the state and to be able to predict future states" (186). Berger contrasts the model with "narrative," which attempts to understand events in time, articulate the subjective experience of time in language, and provide knowledge of contingency and ambiguity (188). In response to the powerful claims of this ideology, contemporary novels, including Mark Haddon's A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, and Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, act as defenses of the novel, of narrative. (5) In analyzing the neurological disabilities presented in these novels--Christophers autism, Lionel's Tourette's, and Mark's Capgras Syndrome, respectively--Berger too often relies on a deficit-based model. Specifically, his understanding of autism draws on the problematic idea that the autistic subject lacks a "theory of mind" and, therefore, empathy. Yet Berger does affirmatively assert that alterity is relative, that these characters fall on a neurological spectrum comprising all people. Arriving at the conclusion that contemporary fictions revise the notion of radical alterity found in modernist and postmodern literature, this book situates degenerates and wild children outside the totalizing social-symbolic system. Indeed, Berger suggests that these defenses of narrative, in opposing the ideology of neuroscience, revise our very sense of otherness. He ends by making the bold claim that narrative "in neuroscientific terms is in fact a truer form of knowledge than the model and ... the ideology of neuroscience would allow," since narrative accords with the science of neuroscience in characterizing life as indeterminate, open to change, and vulnerable (230). In this way, narrative revises otherness, figuring the self as other to itself as well as figuring the other as other to itself.

Such a revised understanding of otherness and alterity presents "social-ethical challenges to re-articulate [the dys-/disarticulate], to articulate and practice new forms of care" (230). In the epilogue, '"Language in Dissolution' and 'A World without Words,"' Berger identifies David Goode's A World without Words: The Social Construction of Children Born Deaf and Blind (1994) as an important influence on his thinking. For

Goode, the relationship between the speaking and non-speaking is the ultimate testing ground for an ethics. Throughout his book, Berger emphasizes the insufficiency or even failure of care within a seemingly unchangeable unjust social order, arguing, for instance, that in Haddon's Curious Incident all people demonstrate Christopher's "failure of empathy" (206). Significant recent work in critical autism studies has, conversely, questioned "the autism/empathy dichotomy" (McDonagh 2013, 32) and even proposed that the autistic subject embodies a different "ethics of relation" predicated on an "empathy not explicitly for or toward the human, but with the world in its emergence" (Manning 2013, 152). By hoping for better care in the future, after a social reformation, Berger avoids the challenge of actually articulating new, radical modes of caring in the present. Alyson Bardsley, in her analysis of Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, takes up this challenge, and in doing so offers an alternative approach. While admitting that Smiley's "creation of an ideal healing circuit of feeling between a horse and her girl" is limited due to being an individual solution to a social set of problems, Bardsley still finds this "fantasy of healing" to be "a place from which to offer a critique" (2015, 265). Even with such perceived shortcomings, Berger's The Disarticulate stands as a significant and relevant book in its embrace of our shared responsibility to recognize those uncanny bodies, babbles, and echoes that demand care.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-3616612

Ajitpaul Mangat is a doctoral candidate in the English department at SUNY Buffalo. His research interests include British and American modernism, disability studies, and the mind-sciences, and his dissertation considers how the modernist novel reshapes understandings of the sensory and social experience of neuropsychiatric disability.


(1.) Berger draws here upon the work of Michael Berube who, in "Disability and Narrative" (2005), argues that disability studies' suggestion to not read the representation of disability as figural threatens to make it "incompatible with the enterprise of professional literary studies, dedicated as so much of it is to the interpretation of the figural" (2005, 570). As Berger shows, Berube ultimately reintegrates the two, concluding that "rereading narrative from the perspective of disability studies ... is to try and learn what makes all reading and self-representation possible" (576).

(2.) Berger points out that two of the defining books in these fields, Cathy Caruth's Unclaimed Experience (1996) and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies (1997), were released just a year apart.

(3.) For a useful summary of Berger's position, see his entry on "Trauma" in Keywords for Disability Studies (2015).

(4.) In "Freud and the Matter of the Brain: On the Rearrangements of Neuropsychoanalysis" (2013), Nima Bassiri finds that the adage "you are your brain" (108) underlies much neuroscientific research today.

(5.) For recent readings of modern narratives in terms of neuroscience, see the special edition of Modern Fiction Studies entitled "Neuroscience and Modern Fiction" (2015).

Works cited

Bardsley, Alyson. 2015. "Interspecies Limbic Love: Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven." MFS Special Edition: Neuroscience and Modern Fiction 61, no. 2: 251-70.

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. 1961. New York: New Directions.

Bassiri, Nima. 2013. "Freud and the Matter of the Brain: On the

Rearrangements of Neuropsychoanalysis." Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1: 83-108.

Berube, Michael. 2005. "Disability and Narrative." PMLA 120, no. 2: 568-76.

Manning, Erin. 2013. Always More Than One: Individuation's Dance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McDonagh, Patrick. 2013. "Autism in an Age of Empathy: A Cautionary

Critique." Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, edited by J. Davidson and M. Orsini, 31-52. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. 2000. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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Author:Mangat, Ajitpaul
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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