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«Elizabeth Cherniak Abstract Fears of monstrous difference are echoed by scholars such as literary and cultural theorist Marianne Torgovnick and ...»

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Discourse with the Monstrous: Able-bodied and Disabled Encounters

with Primitive Other in Africa

Elizabeth Cherniak


Fears of monstrous difference are echoed by scholars such as literary and cultural theorist

Marianne Torgovnick and feminist bell hooks who, in seeking to unpack Western fascination

with the “primitive other”, identify dichotomous representations of racialized subjects in binary

terms such as “noble savages”/”violent cannibals”. Much like critical analysis of racialized representation, critical disability scholarship seeks to interrogate the constructed nature of constructs such as “normalcy” and the disturbance or sense of dis-ease that disability creates in those who consider themselves “normal”.

While “monstrous” subjects, such as those marked as different due to disability, may be better equipped to tolerate fear of the monstrous in other, neither the able-bodied nor the disabled are immune to the monstrousness inherent in the cultural imaginary. The encounter with “primitive other” will be examined by comparing and contrasting the experiences of two white Westerners in Africa: Swiss German Corinne Hofmann’s account of her life in Kenya as chronicled in her autobiography (The White Masai: My Exotic Tale of Love and Adventure, 1998); and deafened American Josh Swiller’s story as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia as told in his memoir (The Unheard, 2007).

Both Hofmann and Swiller were driven to seek racialized encounters in post-colonial Africa by the terrorizing force of a status quo that demands fixed identity and sameness. An examination of their attraction/repulsion responses to sexual and cultural taboos, and issues of gender, power and violence, will help elucidate how the commodification of otherness is perpetuated through the mediums of Western commodity and mass culture. Self is linked to other and these encounters are shown to be both transformative and conflicted for the foreigners and their adopted communities.

Cherniak 1 Elizabeth Cherniak Brock University, Canada ec78oi@brocku.ca 15 Aug 2010 Discourse with the Monstrous: Able-bodied and Disabled Encounters with Primitive Other in Africa This examination of two contemporary travel adventure narratives by white Westerners who sought racialized encounters in post-colonial Africa reveals how the commodification of otherness is perpetuated in Western mass culture, facilitated by socio-cultural habits that contribute to the construction of alterity in globalized Western-influenced societies. Two works of popular fiction, one by a non-disabled subject and the other by a disabled subaltern subject, describe encounters between the authors’ existing cultural paradigms and those of others they encountered in Africa: Swiss German Corinne Hofmann’s account of her life in Kenya as chronicled in her autobiography (The White Masai: My Exotic Tale of Love and Adventure, 1998); and deafened American Josh Swiller’s story as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia as told in his memoir (The Unheard, 2007). As stories, these narratives have the power to generate what Paul Ricoeur calls a “refiguration of the lived world” (Valdés 49). However, as we shall see in this study, when we attempt to deny our authentic experience by “passing” as hearing or white, effectively living someone else’s story, or when we deny the authentic experience of others by misappropriating their voices, we risk losing key narratives that may revitalize our collective memory.

Instead of the erasure of individual memory brought on by the enforced normalcy of societies that insist upon identity as sameness, works of popular culture and mass media may challenge and inform the reader to engage in productive re-construction of our collective identity (Valdés 50), as evidenced in the memoir The Unheard. By comparing narratives written by ablebodied and disabled subjects, I consider how this memoir by a subaltern subject who is disabled provides an alternative perspective that helps to elucidate the ways in which constructed societal norms work to impede authentic relationships. While subaltern subjects, such as those marked as different due to disability, may be better equipped to tolerate fear of difference in others, we shall see that persons with disabilities are not immune to the socio-cultural habits of their dominant social reference groups. Despite the intentions of Westerners like Swiller and Hofmann, who seek out racialized encounters in postcolonial Africa, the globalized encounter with primitive Other will be seen to be more conflicted than transformative for both foreigners and their adopted communities.

Cherniak 2 In describing modern encounters with ‘primitive’1 Other in Africa, these autobiographically inspired narratives reveal the ways in which American and European societies operate under a dominant status quo that feminist bell hooks describes as a “terrorizing force” (hooks 22), one that demands fixed identity and sameness and denies authenticity of Self and Other. When a white Westerner represents herself as a “definitive human being”2 in postcolonial Africa, by virtue of the cultural capital and economic power that she assumes, we shall see that she is driven by fear of and attraction to embodied difference in the form of hypersexualized black bodies. Fears of embodied difference are echoed by scholars such as literary and cultural theorist Marianne Torgovnick and feminist bell hooks, who seek to unpack the West’s ongoing fascination with the primitive or racialized Other.

This paper seeks to explore the spaces where the constructions of disability and race intersect in the sense of the disturbance that bodily difference creates in the non-disabled or white observer, resulting in dichotomous representations of subjects and responses of attraction or repulsion toward those marked as alien, monstrous, or primitive Other. Western constructions of primitiveness and disability are notions that speak more to the reception and construction of difference by the observer than they do to the objects of the disabling or primitivizing gaze.3 As I hope to demonstrate in this brief summary of my research, when considered through a subaltern lens, the postcolonial encounter between white observers and black Africans has the potential to reveal how authentic relationships are impeded both at home and in an alien environment, where difference is marked as monstrous or alien Other. In this way, alternative works such as The Unheard challenge and inform readers in a way that more mainstream popular fiction like the romantic travel adventure, The White Masai, does not.

To begin, I will provide a brief overview of the historical basis for the Western pressure to conform to standardized norms, which resulted in both the typing of disabilities, and the development of fears of interracial mixing and sexualized anxiety toward people with black skin.

Then I will consider the effects of these limiting attitudes on contemporary subjects who are subordinate to white Westerners or persons who are non-disabled. How does the denial of an individual’s authenticity or misappropriation of the authentic voice of another, lead to commodification of otherness? Finally I will analyze the authors’ responses of attraction and/or repulsion when confronted with sexual and cultural taboos, issues of gender, power and violence encountered in Africa.

I use quotation marks around the words primitive and disability in order to denote the constructed nature of the terms. In subsequent uses, I drop the quotation marks for functional purposes only. As noted by Marianne Torgovnick, “Funny things begin to happen when primitive goes into quotation marks. The first thing is that all other constructed terms – especially terms like the West and Western – seem to require quotation marks as well, a technique that...ultimately relieves writers of responsibility for the words they use... In the absence of such ubiquitous marks, treating primitive differently from abstractions such as Western implies that the societies traditionally so designated do not, and perhaps, never did exist – are simply a figment of the Euro-American imagination” (20).

“The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. Normate, then, is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them”(Garland-Thomson 8).

In Bending Over Backwards, Davis traces a change in the reception of disability in the second half of the eighteenth century, identifying the move from notions of deformed bodies to those that are defined as abnormal and disabled. His analysis of disability may be usefully applied to a discussion of the primitivizing or racializing of Other: “Disability is not so much the lack of a sense or the presence of a physical or mental impairment as it is the reception and construction of that difference... For the sake of this argument, I define physical disability as a disruption in the sensory field of the observer. Disability, in this sense, is located in the observer, not the observed...” (Davis, 50).

Cherniak 3 As has been identified by a number of scholars of critical disability, new feminism, postcolonial and cultural studies4, the pressure to conform to a status quo took its modern “monstrous” form in the late nineteenth century, with the rise of the science of eugenics with its goal of selective breeding (to eliminate certain genetic traits) in order to improve the human species.5 The invention of the notion of normalcy in the early twentieth-century resulted in a change in understanding of the construct of disability as well, when physical and mental differences were no longer considered the result of individual events but rather genetic or group defects based on ethnicity, race, nationality or class (Davis 57). Eugenics led also to forms of racialized and sexualized typing, with increased fears of interracial mixing and the sexualizing of white people’s anxiety toward “primitive” black people, associated with alleged uninhibited sexuality and promiscuity (Young 48). In her recent study of blackness and sexuality in the twenty-first century, German scholar Antje Schuhmann identifies how dominant German culture continues to perpetuate colonial ideas that reinforce a position of white ethnocentrism where blackness is commodified, as Schuhmann points out, as a “vehicle for negotiating whiteness” (110).

The tendency to commodify the encounter with primitive Other as a “conversion experience” is noted by hooks, who describes the seductive power of significantly altering lives and, by extension, one’s “place and participation in contemporary cultural politics” (22).

Hofmann’s narrative of her experience living in Kenya for three years with a Samburu Masai tribesman and his family, provides an example of a racialized encounter that serves as a “vehicle” to negotiate white identity. For Hofmann, a twenty-seven year old Swiss German tourist who first travels to Kenya on holiday with her Swiss boyfriend, the conversion experience becomes an exchange of her customary life for the fantasy of another more exotic. On the last day of her holiday, when she encounters the Masai warrior named Lketinga dressed in full tribal regalia, she describes how she swoons and immediately begins to fetishize over a sexual encounter with this primitive African, who does not seem to even notice her. On the basis of this experience, her feelings for her live-in boyfriend disappear and she decides to end their relationship so that she can return to Kenya to be with “this mesmerizing Masai” (8) – an immediate decision that alters her life. When she returns to Kenya to look for Lketinga and insinuate herself into his life, she maintains her status as a privileged white Westerner, using the money she has raised in Switzerland selling off her property to purchase a Jeep and start a supplies store in a neighbouring village (40).

Swiller, on the other hand, comes to Africa seeking an alternative to his own disabling culture and the monstrous pressure he feels to maintain identity as sameness. He is conscious of and questions his liminal status as a late-deafened person in a hearing world, neither part of the culturally-signing Deaf community, nor part of the non-disabled hearing world. At twenty-three he joins the Peace Corps and goes to Zambia, as he describes, to “find a place past deafness” – a place, initially, where his deafness is accepted, where it is not considered alien or stigmatizing.

Born with a moderate hearing loss, he was legally deaf by the time he was four, when he was See, for example, Lennard J. Davis; Cora Kaplan, “Afterward: Liberalism, Feminism and Defect” in Defects, Engendering the Modern Body; Antje Schuhmann, “Exoticizing the Erotic: White on White via the Black Body: Collecting Artefacts within German Dominant Culture” in Blackness and Sexualities; Lola Young, ‘Notes on the discourse of race” in Fear of the Dark: ‘Race’, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema.

The taxonomic approach of biologists such as American Charles Davenport (1866-1944), who established the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Record Office in 1910, led to the development of research programs into human heredity and genetics.

Davenport’s research into the crossing of races in Jamaica was developed by Nazi German scientists into a racial hygiene program which began with involuntary sterilization and ended with the genocide of “undesirable” groups including the Jews, the Romani and the mentally and physically disabled (Milmoe McCarrick and Carrington Coutts).

Cherniak 4 fitted with his first hearing aids (20). After a life of mainstreaming in hearing schools, speech therapy classes to reduce his deaf accent and exhaustive attention to lip reading, he is able to “pass” as hearing. And yet, he is disturbed by the lie he lives: pretending that he is able to hear to appease the dominant hearing social groups, including his family, at the expense of his authentic experience as a deafened person. In reality, he strains to hear, even with use of hearing aids, must get by reading the 20% of the English syllables that are visible on the lips, and suffers from a profound sense of isolation (24).

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