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Not Until I Stand Up: Framing a Disability Theory of Value for Contemporary Narrative

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
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This dissertation investigates the ways in which representations of disability in fiction, film, performance and media from the modernist period to the present reflect and resist dominant histories of ability, creating surplus moments of disabled agency and value. I employ disability theory, close reading and sociocultural analysis to address inequitable representations of disability across a range of high and pop cultural narratives, from an early novel of Samuel Beckett's to films that use CGI prosthetics. I use the term “sociotextual inequity” to identify moments when disability’s employment and representation (as metaphor or aesthetic signifier) in cultural texts is disproportionate to the materiality of its lived histories and experiences. I then rematerialize such representations in order to generate more equitable understandings of disability in narrative and the larger social world from which they emerge, challenging the oppressive treatment and consumption of the disabled subject. My first chapter uses a critique of normative narratives of the institutionalization of the disabled subject to offer a paradigm shift on canonical readings of Beckett’s Murphy (1938), valuing its material and metaphorical engagements with experiences of disability rather than romanticizing Beckett as author-genius. My second chapter considers two films, The Station Agent (2003) and Freaks (1932), contextualizing their representations of disability amidst past and present socioeconomic inequities in an industry that polices normalcy in ways that are then taken up by the dominant cultural imaginary. In chapter three I place in dialogue and dialectical tension Peter Handke’s language play Kaspar (1967), the historical autistic figure Kaspar Hauser, and disabled playwright John Belluso’s Voice Properties (2002) to reveal dominant stereotypes of disabled experience, and to reflect on alternate ways of communicating embodiment. My final chapter reconsiders theories, histories and materialities of prosthetics to interrogate their use in such pop-culture films as The Machine Girl (2008) and Planet Terror (2007). Examining these works alongside Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “Good Country People” (1955), I questionoverdetermined meanings of the prosthesis in culture, and call for an ontological shift inthe terms by which we read disabled embodiment and what it means to be whole.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Dickinson, Peter
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