Book Review

Lennard J. Davis. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions.

New York: New York University Press, 2002. 224 pp. Clothbound, $55. Paperback, $19.

The week I read Lennard Davis's Bending Over Backwards, the New Yorker published Gahan Wilson's cartoon, "Gifts for the Cloned Baby." 1 Prompted by the Raëlians's claim, in December 2002, to have cloned a child, the cartoon pictures a plush sheep "Dolly doll," a copy of the beloved children's book Goodnight Moon, a disposable diaper with "double-helix twist ties," and a "crib mobile playing Rick James's 'Superfreak.'" Because I had Davis's book on my mind, the cartoon spoke to me about more than the controversy over reproductive cloning. Morphing the icons of normal babyhood—dolls and stuffed animals, children's books, diapers, and mobiles—into a nursery for the alien baby, it illustrated why Lennard Davis's Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body is crucial, if at times uncomfortable, reading for medical professionals and scholars in the medical humanities alike.

Why should a cartoon in response to a controversy about cloning persuade me of the importance of a study of the cultural significance of disability? Lest this seem a wild claim, let me elaborate. Responding to the Raëlian cloning story, journalists distinguished between so-called therapeutic cloning, with its medically significant potential to induce stem cells that have the potential to differentiate into a variety of cell types, and reproductive cloning , with its troubling potential to produce children with genetic abnormalities. Dr. Stephen L. Teitelbaum, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, warned that reproductive cloning is irresponsible, because children born as a result of the technique may be at great risk for genetic problems, and expressed "the concern that . . . because of the moral and ethical implications, the emotion will spill over into areas [such as therapeutic cloning] which have great potential to help patients with diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis." 2 And Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts, lamented that the cloning story could make therapeutic cloning impossible: "What a sad day for science. . . . The backlash could [End Page 116] cripple an area of medical research that could cure millions of people, and it would be tragic if this announcement results in a ban on all forms of cloning." 2 The desire of Lanza and Teitelbaum to help people suffering from genetically linked illnesses is of course commendable. But the wording both of Lanza's worry and Wilson's cartoon hints at a troubling subtext to the cloning story, what we might call an ableist bias. 3 If a cloned child, with its high risk of genetic problems, would be a superfreak , is the child who will inherit genetically based Parkinson's disease or diabetes, as the result of "old-fashioned" heterosexual reproduction, merely a garden-variety freak ? Wilson's cartoon, like the force of Lanza's lament, relies on our assumption that medically normal infancy has its inherently undesirable opposite: the state of injury of being crippled, freakish, disabled (p. 19).

Davis challenges this us-them logic that opposes the normal and the disabled , beginning with an introduction titled, "People with Disability: They are You." Pointing out that "today's baby boomer generation is fast heading toward disability," he harnesses its protest politics to introduce the notion that disability itself should be "a civil right for all—the right to be ill, to be infirm, to be impaired without suffering discrimination or oppression" (pp. 4, 1). The chapters that follow provide a potent challenge to "the politics of disavowal," demonstrated, as Michael Bérubé has pointed out, by those who put psychological distance between themselves and people with a disability (p. 35).

As psychoanalysts know, the assault on disavowal often requires indirection, and this is a remarkably indirect book. Indeed, it seems to contort itself, to lean backwards, beginning with its most ardently argued and challenging chapter, which it suggests should "be read contrapuntally with the other essays in this collection" (pp. 5-6). "As with any collection of essays," Davis explains in the introduction, "there is coherence and there is incoherence" (p. 5). An attentive and engaged reader may be slowed a bit by such occasional moments, wondering. How do we reconcile the Borghesian postmodern pleasures of Chapter Four (beginning as it does with a mysterious large envelope falling through a mail slot) with urgent portraits of sexual and colonialist injuries that the chapter explores, if in a highly crafted narrative fashion? Doesn't Tobin Siebers's discussion of the relations of disability and narcissism critique the psychoanalytic notion that the disabled display narcissism, rather than advancing it, as Davis seems to be suggesting (p. 124)?

Yet occasional contradictions notwithstanding, in the nine chapters of Bending Over Backwards , Davis repeatedly breaks through our disavowal [End Page 117] to persuade us that disability matters. He does so in Chapter Six when he draws on Canguilhem's discussion of the changed definitions of the normal and the pathological to demonstrate that medicine and democracy are both created within, and are expressions of, a theory of a norm. He does so in Chapter Five when he demonstrates that literature and medicine are mutually implicated, finding the origins of the novel in the impulse to narrate the disruption of a "normal" life. He does so in Chapter Three, when he locates the rise of disability studies in the awareness that the historical emergence of the categories of sex, race, and class followed in the wake of earlier eugenic proscriptions against the disabled. And he does so most of all in Chapter One, when he juxtaposes his commitment to disability studies and his postmodern suspicion of identity politics, concluding that "the ideal is not a hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject, but aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence, but dependency and interdependence" (p. 30). There is a politics to this perspective, which Davis calls "dismodernist," and it harmonizes well with Donna Haraway's call for: simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own "semiotic technologies" for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a "real" world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness. 4

I said earlier that the Davis book challenges the politics of disavowal demonstrated so often in our response to disability. How would the politics of disavowal play out for readers of Literature and Medicine ? Perhaps in the sense that disability isn't really an appropriate topic for those who teach the medical humanities. After all, our commitments are to text, cure, and care; to the role of literary studies in enhancing medical treatment, not to the role of history, society, politics in shaping the way we negotiate our lives in bodies whose impairments are unavoidable. Yet in this important and audacious book, Lennard Davis probes the philosophical, political, aesthetic, and social implications of that division of the world into the well and the disabled. Along the way, he demonstrates that a reconsideration of disability challenges not only our understanding of society and the law but also [End Page 118] of medicine's foundational role in rendering both institutions unfriendly to the non-normative, inhospitable to the disabled. Davis's book is important to the medical humanities community not only because it challenges the distinction between normalcy and the abnormal but also because it dares its readers to connect realms that we generally keep far apart. Daring to mix the literary and the medical, the symbolic and the instrumental, the interpretive and the interventionist, Davis demonstrates what disability can teach us about the life that awaits any human baby.

Susan Squier
Pennsylvania State University

Susan Squier is editor, most recently, of Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, and Fictions of Assisted Reproduction (with E. Ann Kaplan). She is Brill Professor of Women's Studies and English at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, where she teaches cultural studies of science and medicine, feminist theory, and modernism. In the summer of 2002, she and Anne Hunsaker Hawkins co-directed a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on "Medicine, Literature, and Culture" at Penn State University College of Medicine, Hershey Medical Center.


1 . Gahan Wilson, "Gifts for the Cloned Baby!" The New Yorker , January 13, 2003, 29.

2 . Denise Grady with Robert Pear, "Claim of Human Cloning Provokes Harsh Criticism: Many Fear Backlash on Stem Cell Research," New YorkTimes , December 29, 2002, 18. Italics mine. Authors are paraphrasing rather than quoting Dr. Teitelbaum.

3 . As Davis observes, "the use of ableist language on the part of critics and scholars [and, we might add, physicians] who routinely turn 'a deaf ear' or find a point 'lame' or a political act 'crippling' is shocking to anyone who is even vaguely aware of the way language is implicated in discrimination and exclusion" (p. 87).

4 . Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 187.