Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Introduction: Thinking about Cognitive Impairment

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Introduction: Thinking about Cognitive Impairment

Article excerpt

The call for papers for this special issue was circulated under the title The Representation of Cognitive Impairment. Having come up with this fairly awkward combination of words, I was immediately struck-and continue to be struck-by the title's inadequacy. A potential contributor pointed out both the dangers implicit in the concept of representation and the problematic implications of the notion of cognitive impairment. I absolutely agree with both criticisms. I guess I took it as read that any talk of representation within contemporary literary and cultural studies is circumscribed by an implicit recognition of the powers and dangers of so-called descriptive language. Certainly, the field of cultural disability studies is founded upon a constitutive critical suspicion about the uses and abuses of language and the ways in which particular models and tropes articulate the boundaries between typicality and atypicality, health and illness, normalcy and disability. As for the concept of cognitive impairment, I agree that it is inadequate in many respects. In terms of my own work on dementia, a sample of which will conclude this issue, to speak of impairment is a satisfactory way of describing a progressive condition that impacts upon cognition, attention, behaviour, language, and memory. But I am not at all convinced that the term is appropriate in any discussion of the autistic spectrum, or of schizophrenia (the conditions about which we received the majority of submissions, as the essays of Stuart Murray, Irene Rose, and Catherine Prendergast will testify). Both of these conditions encompass a range of personal and political identifications that the notion of impairment fails to express. In retrospect, I wonder whether cognitive difference, or cognitive disabilities would have been better terms. Perhaps the key point is that we have a political and ethical obligation to recognize the very fact that this kind of terminology is never adequate.

My intention was to find a fairly broad term that would generate as wide a response as possible, the aim being to establish some of the ways in which current research in the literary and cultural domain thinks about cognitive disability. Accordingly, in addition to autistic spectrum conditions, Alzheimer's disease, and schizophrenia, this issue will apply the term cognitive impairment to learning disabilities, sympathy, and the inability to speak in essays by Chris Gabbard, Gavin Miller, and Heidi Krumland respectively. That said, in part the project is an attempt to address the fact that forms of cognitive disability have received comparatively little critical attention in the field. This claim is made with the notable exception of a rapidly expanding body of work on cultural representations of autistic spectrum disorders, more about which can be found in Mark Osteen's Autism and Representation (2008) and Stuart Murray's Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (2008), the book heralded by the first essay in this issue. Cultural disability studies has made a significant contribution both politically and intellectually to current critical and theoretical debates around the body and the concept of embodiment. This work encompasses the interrogation of a cultural tradition in which the disabled body is evoked metaphorically at the expense of the disabled subject (see, for example, Mitchell and Snyder, 2000) and the ways in which disability is mobilised in the articulation of the socially and psychically damaging and exclusionary concept of normalcy (Davis, 1995; Garland-Thomson, 1996). It also involves a complex engagement with the ways in which we conceptualise the relationships between mind, body, subjectivity and social identity. This question in itself has generated significant debate within disability studies as a whole, principally in relation to the capacity of particular models of disablement to speak to the diversity of responses to disability as a social, personal, and cultural experience and set of positive and negative identifications. …

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