A Report on Disability & the Victorians: Confronting Legacies Conference

From July 30 to August 1, 2012, I had the pleasure to participate in the Disability & the Victorians: Confronting LegaciesConference, hosted at the Leeds Center for Victorian Studies at Leeds-Trinity University College. Over the course of three days, the conference brought together delegates from Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Uganda, Belgium, Australia, and many more, in hopes of integrating the disciplines of Victorian Studies and Disabilities Studies together. With three keynotes and sixteen sessions, as well as a visit to the Thackray Museum, the conference presented an abundance of energetic discourse on the topic of disability—as many of you already know from my Tweets on the conference!

As disability studies has emerged as a significant aspect for revealing key histories in Victorian culture (see: Martha Stoddard-Holmes, Fictions of Affliction (2006), Julia Miele Rodas, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture 36.1 (2006), and the Special issue on “Victorian Disability” in the Victorian Review (2009)), one of the agenda of the conference was to uncover new avenues for a revisionist approach to disability studies, outside of the social construction model. Various speakers at the conference challenged traditional histories of disability that pinpointed the Industrial Revolution and nineteenth century social reforms as a period in which disability was conceptualized, classified, and marginalized; rather, as some of the presentations have revealed, disability has a rich history, and new creative disability narratives are revealed by seeking out non-traditional sources (e.g. police reports). In particular, the Plenary Roundtable session held on the last day and led by Iain Hutchison (University of Glasgow), Fred Reid and Nancy Hansen, focused on how to offer new directions for scholarly discourse on disability studies, especially directions addressing the testimonies of the disabled themselves. Hutchison acknowledged the fact disability is important for understanding the landscape of nineteenth social history, for it overlaps important historical areas—economics, medicine, politics, society, etc—and a focus on cultural approaches can possibly challenge the (perhaps outdated?) social model of disability.

A key issue discussed during the Roundtable, which sought to integrate the dominant themes of the conference, was how to create an interdisciplinary perspective from multiple sources, an issue reflected in the three keynote presentations, which stressed the importance of looking at sensitive and neglected histories. Martha Stoddard-Holmes (California State University), the first keynote, presented “Desiring Cognitive Difference in the Victorian Novel: The Case of Anne Catherick,” discussing the eroticization of madness as presented in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White (1860). Can intellectual deficiency be sexually desirable? Stoddard-Holmes made a strong case for confronting critical discomfort, pushing towards challenging approaches for conceptualizing disability in relation to the history of mentality and moral management—particularly in the Victorian novel.

David Wright (McGill University), also spoke of Victorians and mental disability, in his keynote “Did the Victorians Invent Disability? A Case Study of ‘Mongolism.’” Examining the emergence of “Mongolism” (taxonomy of mental illness grouping individuals with Down’s Syndrome), Wright argues that the Victorian preoccupation of taxonomy was not about the perseverance of the dominant cultural motif, but rather a devotion to the Enlightenment ideals of betterment of mankind. As certification of “idiots” were largely undertaken by non-medical persons, the presentation challenged the “invention” of disability by medical experts in the nineteenth century—showing that disability in fact, needs to be historically re-evaluated for its roots are far more diffusive and complex.

The third keynote was presented by Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield) , founder & director of National Fairground Archives, Sheffield, which holds over 6000 images relating to the history of the freak show—records, as Toulmin contends, that can be either “interpreted as both a history of exploitation, or a record of performance genres.” In the keynote, “’To Show or Not to Show’ the Victorian Freak Show: Issues of Contextualization, Cataloguing and Interpreting for Modern Researchers,” which contained controversial material that was actually approved by an ethics committee, Toulmin discussed how forms of illegitimate entertainment actually became institutionalized over time—including exhibitions, museums, circuses, world fairs, and side-show traditions. The display of disability as entertainment was actually quite widespread, and far from being displayed in the margins of society, it was actually assimilated into culture and society. As suggested in the keynote, we can clearly draw parallels between the culture of curiosities that emerged in the 16-17th centuries, and the “freaks of nature” exhibits; moreover, Toulmin argues that these entertainment environments forces us to rethink traditional histories about the “freak show,” in light of histories of performance and display—as evident with Toulmin’s narrative about learning lessons about curating and displaying these exhibitions following media controversy and outraged response. Modern media representation is something that needs to be considered when dealing with sensitive materials, for media misrepresentation actually can undo careful historical contextualization.

Even though there were some amazing papers being presented at the conference, due to my own research interests, I stuck to the sessions on d/Deafness. Traditional histories on the deaf argue that until the 1860s, deafness was often described as an affliction that isolated the individual from the Christian community, the tragedy being that the affliction denied the deaf the reach of the gospel. After the 1860s, deafness was redefined as a condition that isolated the deaf from the national community; being cut off from communicating with others was a tragedy. The papers in the first session argued that contextualization and deaf narratives actually revise this history; different perceptions on deaf history concentrating on race/ethnicity, policies, or religion, speak towards a performance of disability, emphasizing the cultural construction of disability? Esme Cleall (University of Liverpool) spoke of disability as defined within cultural contexts of colonialism of nineteenth century British empire, as narrated through John Kitto, the “Deaf Traveller,” whose privileged status as a white, British male contradicted with his marginalized position as a deaf man. Martin Atherton (University of Central Lancashire) discussed how the 1834 Poor Law categorized the deaf as part of the “deserving poor,” allowing them to be seen, for the first time, as disabled; and yet, these restrictions also gave the deaf, for the first time, something to rebel against. Toni Morgan (Leeds-Trinity University College) finished off the session by questioning n whether the deaf had “true personhood” as defined by religion, focusing on William Sleight’s voice from the Dumb (1849): promotion of sympathy and benevolence as an aspect of Christianizing deaf to hear the world of god, at the same time, deafness also portrayed as innocence or as messiahs.

The second session on deafness continued with recurring themes of charitable benevolence humanitarianism, and performance all wrapped with social controls and institutionalization. Mike Mantin (Swansea University) presented on the letters children at the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea sent home; these letters were printed in the annual reports of the institution to showcase its success as well as to solicit donations from subscribers. However, the letters are also another instance of display and performance, praising the marvels of education, while at the same time, speaking volumes about the perceptions of deaf children, who are usually silenced in history sources. Mantin also raised an important point about being wary of the kinds of motives behind these letters. Sofie de Veriman (University of Ghent) also spoke of motives, criticizing the “golden age” of deaf employment that coincided with education, with an economical case study of deaf employment in eighteenth and nineteenth century Flanders. Literacy and education may have helped the deaf obtain jobs before 1830, but after that, education did not guarantee employment. Nicola Gauld also discussed charity and institutions with an exploration to the archives of the Birmingham Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

The last session on d/Deafness (other than my own) carried multiple themes relating to my own work: assistance and technology. Jennifer Esmail (Wilfred Laurier University) presented on the prosthetic companion of the blind man: companionship raising issues of dividing line of human and non-human animals—obviously ties to Aristotelianism—speaking on how perspectives on companion dogs as bodily extensions further enhances dividing barrier of human/non human beings. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) and Karen Sayer (Leeds-Trinity University College) presented on the “(dis)appearing hearing aid,” covering themes of the invisibility of hearing loss, stigmatization and conflicting authorities—the “culturally hearing”. Oralism, telephony, national efficiency concerns, and advertising all played a role in constructing the hearing aid. As Sayer explained, “When people think of hearing loss, they may or may not be resisting the kinds of visual association of technology.” Their presentation posed important questions of social history of technology and disability, questions which in part overlap identity narratives and taxonomies. Caroline Lieffers’(University of Alberta) paper on the making and marketing of B.F. Palmer’s artificial leg nicely rounded up the session, with discussions on authenticity and authority, and display and performance. This session raised questions of how versatile technology aimed to normalized disabilities, but yet contributed to stigmatization (e.g. concealing devises to hide disability and increase social participation), which suggests that the problem of disability is not so much about infirmity per se, but about ready access to technology.

Delegates were also invited to visit the Thackray Museum, which was one of my favourite parts of the conference. Below are some photos I managed to take with my iPad (with absolutely poor resolution!):

Thackray Museum
19th Century Auricles
Various Hearing Aid Instruments & Devices
Various hearing aid devices
Delegates inspecting various artifacts

This conference was simply wonderful. I truly enjoyed the many conversations with a wonderful group of scholars—particularly Graeme Gooday, John Hay, and Jill Jones, who offered me indispensable advise for my own work. I look forward to hearing more from the delegates as we take away some of the lessons of the conference. I would like to finish off my report with gratitude. Thank you to the organizers of Disability and the Victorians, especially Karen Sayer, for all their hard work in putting together a fantastic event, and for inviting me to participate. Thank you to the Review Committee and the Board of Disability History Association for selecting me for the 2012 DHA Graduate Student Award and to the Institution for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at University of Toronto, for funding that made this trip possible.

My presentation, all set up!

Deaf World/Hearing World

As some of you may have gathered from my Tweets, my paper has been selected for the Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History Conference to take place on December 10-11 in Berlin. The conference is sponsored by the Max Planck Institute and Project Biocultures at the University of Chicago.

The history of deafness presents an exemplary model of a community’s mobilization for the recognition of a cultural identity. It is also an unequaled history of divisions across a broad range of pedagogy, techniques, and scientific inventions. Across the last four centuries at least, constructions of deafness as a cultural identity and/or as a disability have lead to opposite claims. Deafness became a focal point for arguments over citizenship, eugenics, language, theories of the mind, and the like. A different set of categories was produced to give voice to these claims and the dialogue between their supporters has been extremely difficult for lack of a common stake. Depending on the approach, one can say such a heated debate has given the question of deafness a very specific place among human variations. Sign language, in particular, has lead many to question the relationship between mind, body, and language. Topics include the use of objects and techniques for creating a space of encounter, conceptions of the relationship between humans and language, language and thought, or language and society across time and space. We are seeking explorations of the dialectic between hearing and silence, deaf and hearing as well as the technologies and ideologies that intervene between the deaf world and the hearing world, the deaf person and the hearing person.

My paper abstract:

Institutional Boundaries: The Early Years of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est.1816)

The issue of medicalizing the deaf has been a primary source of conflict between the D/deaf community who regard medical treatments as an infringement to their culture, and medical practitioners who impose their paternalistic authority through medical and surgical treatments. The source of the tensions, however, goes beyond technological cures and is embodied in the historical role and conflict between medical and social efforts to cultivate “isolated” deaf individuals for social integration. This paper establishes roots in this historical picture by illustrating the early history of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (RDDE), founded in 1816 by the aurist-surgeon John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) as the first nationally-recognized institution in Britain providing specialized care for deafness. In particular, this paper will demonstrate that the RDDE occupies a central place within the history of nineteenth century aural surgery, for it provides an interesting historical insight into the dialectic of spaces for deafness and hearing, as the objectives of the institution blur the boundaries between duty and philanthropy, as well as medicine and technology.

Founded at 38 Carlisle Street, London, near Soho Square, the RDDE was founded upon two main objectives: to expand on benevolent charity for a class of sufferers often neglected by society and medicine, and to provide a base whereby aural surgery could establish itself as a specialty, provide proper training to interested practitioners, and experiment with less invasive procedures for treating deafness. It was thus a space where the deaf population could go for medical advice, receive free or inexpensive hearing devices (e.g. trumpets, ear cornets), and even participate in a community conditioned largely by charity. In the first year of its establishment, 364 patients were admitted, 89 of which were cured, and 75 “relieved” of their maladies. By the end of 1820, the RDDE admitted 1,863 patients. As London society congratulated Curtis for rescuing a neglected class of diseases from ignorance and empiricism, the institution’s reputation grew more prominent; Royal patronage secured the reputation of the institution and it relocated to larger grounds at 10 Dean St., Soho, where it remained until 1876. By examining the discrepancies between the two objectives, a close history of the RDDE reveals the extent to which deafness was taken seriously as a medical and social ill and to which a cure was desperately sought within institutional boundaries.

Super excited!

Off to Leeds!

I’m headed out to Leeds, UK for the Disability & the Victorians: Confronting Legacies Conference to be held at Leeds-Trinity University College. This should be an interesting conference for me, for it’s the first time I’m presenting a paper to an audience composed of historians and other scholars of deaf and disability studies. I’m really looking forward to engaging in an extremely diverse and unique dialogue on the history of the deaf and Deaf communities. The conference’s mandate:

The nineteenth century was the period during which disability was conceptualised, classified, and defined. The industrial revolution, advances in medicine, emerging taxonomies and categories of disability, all played their part in creating what today’s society describes as the medical model of disability. Disability can betraced through many forms: in material culture; literary genres; scientific, medical and official inquiries; art; architecture; the history of philanthropy and disabled charities; disabled people’s experiences and testimonies; the types created withinphrenology and physiognomy; events and legislation.

This conference will explore conceptualisations of disability in the Victorian period,and their (real-world) legacies down to the present day. Those with an involvement in disability, through work, research, teaching or direct experience, and papers that adopt a comparative frame, shifting across the disciplinary boundaries of history, literary studies, the history of medicine, the history and philosophy of science, art history, etc. are especially sought.

The full conference programme can be viewed here. Here’s my paper abstract:

“Not to Become a Breeding Ground for Medical Experimentation:”
Examining the Tensions between Aurists and Educators for the Deaf, 1815-1830

The dramatic rise of institutions for the deaf in Britain during the early nineteenth century were largely driven by charitable concerns and founded on the basis of private benevolence and public donation. These institutions, which emerged first in France and then Britain in the late eighteenth century, situated deafness in the realm of language and communication; from this standpoint, educators resisted the attempt to integrate deafness into the medical world. Educators and social reformers such as Charles Baker (1803 1874) claimed medicine’s long history of ineffective cures and treatments undermined the efforts of sign-language instructors, by distracting them from the language-oriented goals of the asylum. Moreover, they argued that aurists—medical practitioners providing specialized treatment for ear diseases— practiced in a “field of quackery” and were ill-disposed for dealing with the complicated pathology of the ear. Several aurists, however, believed an alliance with educational institutions for the deaf was necessary for reforming the “miserable” state of the deaf in society. This paper examines the interrelationship between two aurists—John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) and William Wright (1773-1860)—and the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1809) and evaluates how institutional policies commingled with the production of medical authority. By tracing the interplay between Curtis, Wright, and the Asylum, this paper argues the tensions between education and medicine emphasized the necessity and responsibility for treating the deaf, and raised questions as to who had the authority to care for this marginalized section of the population.

Wi-Fi permitting, I’ll be tweeting the conference and will follow up with a blog post. Hope to see you there!

7th Annual HAPSAT Conference

I’m pleased to announce that the preliminary program for my department’s graduate conference is now ready. The conference,“The Regimen of Bodily Health: Nutrition and Natural Knowledge” will be held at Victoria University at the University of Toronto on Friday March 18, 2011.

The description of the conference is as follows:

“The body” as both a material object and metaphor, provides a rich source of inspiration for both philosophical and historical studies of the production and transmission of knowledge. Lawrence and Shapin’s influential anthology, Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (1998) broke new ground in this area with discussions of bodies as tools for philosophical inquiry, what it means for knowledge to be “embodied” in physical artifacts, and how bodily self-presentation can generate disembodied knowledge. The body also presents an arena for interplay of ideas about proper management of health and diseases and the application of scientific and medical expertise. Seventeenth century physicians, for instance, recommended a mixture of medicine and dietetics for consumptive patients; proper dietary regimes were often based on theoretical ideas about nourishment and health. Moreover, the body and our ideas of the body have been a political battleground: within the “culture of dissection” and public executions; as displays of ecclesiastical value and status; as technologically manipulable aspects of the self; as and as subjects of experimental philosophy.

This year’s distinguished keynote is Steven Shapin (History of Science, Harvard University): “The Long History of Dietetics: Thinking about Food, Expertise, and the Self.” The keynote is jointly hosted by HAPSAT and the IHPST Colloquium Series.

Here’s the preliminary program:

The Body as Rhetorical Text

Kathleen Gibbons (University of Toronto): Porphyry’s Cosmopolitanism

Paul Greenham (University of Toronto): The Lutheran Body and Scriptural Rhetoric: Philip Melanchthon’s Understanding of the Body as Rhetorical Text

Badr El Fekkak (King’s College London): The Body and City in Al-Farabi’s Civil Science: The Heart as Philosopher King

Gender and Body Knowledge

Jenna Healey (Yale University): Rejuvenating American Manhood: Theories of the Male Body and the Reception of Brown-Séquard’s “Elixir of Life” in Late 19th Century America

Denna Day (University of Pennsylvania): Data Taking and Body Making: How Domestic Thermometry Created Quantified Bodies

Emma O’Toole (National College of Art & Design): Recording Remedies & Recipes: Women’s Role in Maintaining Family Health in the British Isles during the Late Early Modern Period

Health, Food, and COlelctive Identities

Jaya Dixit (University of Calgary): Critical Mastication: A Photo Elicitation Study of Food Aesthetics and Morality

Rachel Louise Moran (Pennsylvania State University): Lazy and Crazy: Physical Fitness Meets Psychology in Cold War America

Amy Lasater-WIlle (New York University): Indigenous Potatoes and Indigenous Bodies in Peru`s National Cuisine

Public Safety & Epistemic Authority

Karen Agnus (York University): Timed Bodies and Self Control

Gregory Ferguson-Cradler (Columbia University): Disembodied Knowledge and Endangered Bodies: Health, Security and Science on Russian Imperial Expeditions

Eric Boyle (National Institutes of Health): Patent Medicines and Regimens of Bodily Health

Angie Boyce (Cornell University): Peanut Butter as Risk Object, Consumer as At-Risk Subject, Standards as Solution, 1966-2009


Registration will be open by the first week of February. I’ll post more details to follow. Please email me or comment below if you have any questions.

DIY Citizenship: Critical Making & Social Media Schedule

So pleased to announce that the DIY Citizenship conference–which is one of the conference I’m working for–has just posted the preliminary schedule.

The line-up looks fantastic and I’m looking forward to hearing many of the presentations. There is a conference registration fee, but you can attend the free event on Thursday November 11, “Supporting the DIY Citizen: social and legal challenges of participatory politics and culture,” by Henry Jenkins (USC Annenberg) and Corynne McSherry (Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco).