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Lennard Davis reviews James Berger’s The Disarticulate

James Berger. The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 320 pp. Paperback $26.00. 

Reviewed by Lennard Davis

James Berger’s The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity manages to walk a line very nicely between disability studies and continental philosophy.  Neither one gets subsumed by the other.  You don’t need to know about disability to understand the main points of most of the book.  You probably do need some familiarity with philosophy to understand the argument in terms of disability.

The central argument of the book hinges on a distinction Berger makes between the disarticulate and the dysarticulate (he originally wanted the title to contain both terms but a sales-savvy editor discouraged him).  That distinction made is between dysarticulate as an interruption in language (ambiguously defined as either or both the inarticulate character in a literary work and the problematics of language itself in the postmodern world) and disarticulate as the interruption in a system of meaning and control.  To make this specific, the former might be considered Benjy in The Sound and the Fury (dysarticulate) and postmodernist complications of Enlightenment thought or critiques of neoliberalism and globalism (disarticulate). 

That linguistically based distinction is then further complicated by Berger’s rebranding of the rhetorical term “catachresis.” He takes the usual meaning of a misuse of language and broadens it so that almost any instance of language will contain misuse.  Berger posits that any language after the Adamic one in which each thing has a specific name will be in the post-Babel chaos in which “no term can be precisely proper.” (p. 28)  Given a world of language in which catachresis is the rule, and given that literature is a linguistic phenomenon, the linguistically or cognitively impaired figure will be central (and a figure of alterity at the same time).  While helpful, the expanded notion of catachresis is so broad it loses any specificity as a critical tool.  It becomes more a shorthand for the postmodern condition.

With specific readings of Greek drama, the Hebrew Bible and Gilgamesh, and works of Melville, Faulkner, Conrad, Djuna Barnes, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Mark Haddon, Jonathan Lethem and a familiar palette of continental philosophers, Berger takes us through the passages where linguistically or cognitively disabled characters call into question much larger structures than themselves (or that are so large as to encompass and define those characters).  These close readings are useful counters to the usual readings concerning cognitive disability in literary works.

Two final chapters critique disability studies for being against the use of disability as a metaphor (rather than a lived experience) and for ignoring the insights of neuroscience (which fits into the forbidden “medical model.)  In the former chapter, Berger seems somewhat out of touch with more contemporary writings and critiques of disability studies so he is often complaining about things that have been addressed in the past ten years (and his bibliography suffers from this same focus on “classic” disability writing rather than newer work).  In the latter chapter, Berger seems euphoric about neuroscience as the place where all questions about cognitively disabled people will be worked out.  As a non-scientist, he has that kind of awe that kids in the 60’s had for NASA launches.  Those more in the know will realize that the promise of neuroscience (and its own self-promoting rhetoric) may exceed its grasp.  It’s healthy to remember that all scientific paradigms ultimately are displaced by the newest paradigm on the block, and that the tools of neuroscience—PET and fMRI scans—are very crude tools at best.

Berger’s work is wide-ranging and ambitious. As such, it suffers from the problems of the wide-ranging and ambitious work.  Generalized statements stand in for more nuanced and labored proofs.  Berger has a lot of theories, and reading him can be like attending the lecture of a very talented but unstoppable professor.  There is a reflex in his work that when one authority can be cited six or seven more are thrown in for good measure.  The same is true for examples: 

The older theological-political functions of the prophet and sacred fool are  often retained, but joined now with the workings of the sublime, the  primitive, the unconscious, the body, the traumatic, the abject, the ethically  infinite other (e.g. of Levinas), entities that have “neither word nor concept”  (Derrida, “Difference,” 3; i.e. Heidegger’s Being and appropriation, Derrida’s  differance, cendres, and shibboleth), Lacan’s “real,” as well as a variety of  socio-politcal others: the woman, the racial other, the colonized, the  proletarian, the Jew, the homosexual.” (p. 55)

This doesn’t make for easy reading or for disciplined writing.  Sometimes pages simply contain lists or cascades of isolated quotes making us feel they are notes toward an essay rather than a finished work.

The book itself really feels like two books. One on the idea of the disarticulate and the second part on what’s wrong (and less frequently right) with disability studies.  The former has more of the problems I’m mentioning, while the latter is a valid and often nuanced challenge to foundational work in disability studies (mostly in the US).

On the whole, the book is a valuable contribution to disability studies both for its speculations and specific readings.  It is a very thoughtful and thought-filled work, nuanced and wide-ranging, which should have an effect on the field.