Sam Haigh – Beyond the ‘Narrative of Overcoming’: Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Culture

Event Date: 21 March 2013

Centre for Creative Collaboration (c4cc)

16 Acton Street

London WC1X 9NG

Part of Royal Holloway’s Trauma, Fiction, History Series, jointly sponsored by the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures and the Humanities and Arts Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London:

Disability and Culture: Whose Tragedy?

As part of Dr Hannah Thompson‘s research on representations of disability, this series of workshops are developing an interdisciplinary and collaborative research project called ‘Disability and Culture’. The first event in this project is a study day to explore how the ‘personal non-tragedy’ approach to disability can encourage us to see disability differently.

Dr Sam Haigh (University of Warwick) – Beyond the ‘Narrative of Overcoming’: Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Culture

Recent changes in disability legislation in France – changes spearheaded, over the last decade, by the work of Julia Kristeva – have been seen as a sign that France is finally moving from a medical model of disability towards the social model that has predominated in an Anglo-American context since the 1980s. At the same time, within Anglophone disability theory, there has begun to be an interrogation both of the social model itself (for example in the work of Tom Shakespeare, Lennard Davis and Tobin Siebers), and of what many (such as David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder and Thomas Couser) now see as a normative, ‘narrative demand’ for representations of disability to be about the heroic ‘overcoming’ of personal tragedy. It is within this complex and shifting context that the paper proposed here will examine three contemporary French representations of disability: Alexandre Jollien’s philosophical text, Eloge de la faiblesse (1999); Delphine Censier’s photographic work and accompanying memoir, Je, Elle, Une Autre (2005); Luc Leprêtre’s popular novel, Club VIP: Very Invalid Person (2009). These are very different pieces of work, but what they have in common is a refusal to comply with the ‘personal tragedy’ model demanded by ‘mainstream’ culture, and a desire, instead, to represent disability in complex, nuanced and resolutely non-normative ways. What all of them suggest is that disability is far from being a personal tragedy to be overcome, but is a ‘normal’ – as in ordinary – facet of human experience, and one that, like all forms of human experience, can be simultaneously negative and positive; painful and pleasurable, desirable and non-desirable.

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