Narrative and the (Physical/Textual/Social) Body
This seminar is inspired by the shared use of the word “body” in the common phrases “physical body,” “body politic,” and the “body of a text.” Rather than merely a neat coincidence of language, this overlapping phrasing signals a foundational interdependence in the way we make sense of physical, social, and textual bodies. Our discussion will focus on stories of encounter between physical disability and a curious and sometimes hostile public, foregrounding the narrative forms used to make these encounters legible. From conjoined twins entering small town Missouri to sentimental fictions surrounding children seeking kidney donation, a close reading of these moments reveals our reliance on storytelling to domesticate the strange. These encounters call for the public to construct new narratives to manage disability, but they also prompt an imaginative reconsideration of the body politic itself. In 1875, for example, those same conjoined twins serve Mark Twain as a metaphor for a more proper union of states following the Civil War. Holding in mind the conceptual interdependence of physical, social, and textual bodies can produce readings that complicate and enrich not only our understanding of disability and illness, but of narrative form and social affiliation as well.
Emily Russell, PhD is Associate Professor of English at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her teaching and research focuses on the medical humanities, disability, embodiment theory, and funeral culture. She is the author of Transplant Fictions: A Cultural Study of Organ Exchange (2019) and Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic (2011), as well as articles on embodied identities in American fiction.