The experience and representation of the disabled body in literature and the arts

deadline for submissions: 
May 15, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Université Jean Monnet, Saint Etienne / Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3, France

The experience and representation of the disabled body in literature and the arts

20 – 21 October 2017

A two-day interdisciplinary conference

Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Etienne (CELEC) & Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3 (IETT)

300-word abstracts should be sent to Pierre-Antoine Pellerin ( and Sophie Chapuis ( by May 15th, 2017.


This international conference will explore the experience and representation of disability in literature and the arts. Whether we think of paralyzed or amputated limbs, visual or mental impairments, war cripples or traffic accident victims, the disabled body has always been an object of fascination in the arts and in the popular imagination. Since it is outside the norm and literally extraordinary, it seems to resist both representation and interpretation. Consequently, what is stake in the disabled body has often been ignored, for it has been perceived as a diminished or dysfunctional version of the “normal body”. Besides, since the ideal of a “sound mind in a sound body” has long prevailed, the disabled body has often been presented as a symptom of a moral wrong or the physical manifestation of an ontological failure, an approach which has confined it to a metaphorical or allegorical reading.

It is only with the emergence of disability studies as an autonomous disciplinary field in the 1980s, essentially in North America, that the question experienced a renewed interest. In France, it has gained momentum only recently. Intersecting with notions of gender, race and class, disability studies became fully engaged in an interdisciplinary dialogue on identity. This newly acquired visibility has led artists and critics to change our perception of the impaired body as they stopped considering it only in terms of deficiency, incapacity or lack.

Disability studies have indeed put the disabled body at the center and helped it discard the stigma it had long been bearing. The relationship between normalcy and pathology was thus radically challenged as some other ways of relating to the world and the self were exposed. Focus has particularly been put on the enabling strategies allowing the disabled subject to transcend the limitations imposed by his/her afflicted body, whether in daily life or artistic practice. In that perspective, the conference invites contributors to reflect on this recent shift and welcomes papers that explore the disabled body in literary productions, movies and the arts. 

First, disability is an experience which is intimately connected to storytelling and the narrative forms it adopts and adapts should be carefully examined. Disability demands a story: a missing limb, a paralyzed body or a cognitive impairment must be accounted for.  This implies the repeated production of a narrative that is constantly refashioned over one’s life and depends upon context. Reciprocally, the self is reshaped by the performative potential of the narrative and liberated from clinical or institutionalized discourses. Through its repetition, the narrative produced allows the disabled subject to go beyond the experience of trauma and forge his/her own identity. 

The experience and representation of disability have initiated a new reflection on genres (from comedy to tragedy) and narrative forms. Consequently, the narrative role of disabled characters must be examined as well as the strategies and structures at stake in such literary productions. Indeed, disability poses a challenge to space (limits, immobility, confinement), time (duration, repetition, projection), the self (acceptation, rejection) and others (dependence, perception), as well as language and the creative process.

Besides, the experience of disability implies a renewal of artistic practices that explore the potentialities of hesitant gestures, faltering speech and vulnerable bodies Disability is not only inducing a wide range of strategies that are meant to address the failures of the disabled body. Prosthesis, for instance, may not just be considered as some substitution/imitation of the missing limb or organ: the use of technology can lead to fruitful cognitive adaptation, unexpected deterritorializing of the human body and enhanced performance. The disabled body can thus channel unprecedented practices and forms of expression.

If a poetics of disability cannot merely feed on the dysfunctions and failures of the impaired body, can it escape the persistent dialectics of lack and excess, powerlessness and superpower? Similarly, can it offer any alternative to the binary opposition between exhibition and concealment, repulsion and sublimation, stigmatization and idealization? Since the disabled body does not conform to aesthetic canons, how do poets, artists, photographers, filmmakers and novelists who work with/on disability transform aesthetic codes and reconfigure notions like beauty and ugliness, attraction and repulsion? We wish to pay particular attention to the disruptive potential of disability, the singular affects it implies, and the irreducible difference that disability represents. The cognitive potentials of disability inaugurate a whole series of uncharted aesthetic experiences and the power of fiction helps the construction of an identity that is often built on a different relationship to time, space and the body. Mapping those forms and potentialities may prove crucial in understanding and transforming collective representations of disability.


We welcome papers focused on any region or period and will privilege contributions addressing the following topics:

- the disabled body and technology

- motor / mental disability and the limitations of perception

- disability and tragedy / comedy

- narratives of disability and (re)construction of identity

- the disabled character as a hero or minor character

- disability and artistic practices

- disability in body arts / visual arts

- the reception of disability studies and the question of terminology

- the relationship between the abled body and the disabled body

- disability and old age

- disability and sexual/gender/queer identities


 Selected bibliography

Couser, Thomas G. and Thomas Griffith, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Davis, Lennard J., Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions, New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Eco, Umberto (dir.), Histoire de la laideur, Flammarion, 2007. 

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie, Extraordinary Bodies, Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Hall, Alice, Literature and Disability, London: Routledge, 2016.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourses, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Sandhal, Carrie and Philip Auslander (ed.), Bodies in Commotion, Disability and Performance, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.