Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Otherwise Undisclosed: Blood, Species, and Benjy Compson's Idiocy

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Otherwise Undisclosed: Blood, Species, and Benjy Compson's Idiocy

Article excerpt

Introduction

In January of 2014, the Food and Drug Administration cleared CytoScan Dx Assay for the US market. Produced by Affymetrix Inc., CytoScan is a post-natal test that professes to detect the causes of intellectual disability at the chromosomal level with a mere blood sample.1 The Huffington Post, a popular online news aggregator, subsequently reported the test's arrival with the headline "FDA Approves First-Of-A-Kind Intellectual Disability Blood Test For Infants." Reading like an enthusiastic snake oil pitch, this headline implies that intellectual disability is something dangerous that gets carried in the veins, that is, some hidden, heritable thing, that CytoScan can now help locate.

For starters, disability studies scholars, ranging from social model adherents like Mark Rapley to cultural model proponents like Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell, have established that this is not the case. A common contention unites them: intellectual disability cannot be apprehended (or hypostatized) so simply as a defect polluting the body's tissues or fluids. The rich heterogeneity of lived experiences of intellectual disability constitutes an embodied knowledge that accrues within various contexts, and this cannot be accounted for or calculated in advance by taking blood from a baby. Under their influence, I understand the term "intellectual disability" to describe effects, neither fully material nor fully social, triggered by an agent within any number of specific, situated contexts.2 It does not prescribe an inherited identity.

The Huffington Post 's headline, by contrast, reinscribes an "old" eugenics-inflected fantasy that blood can function as a natural sign for intellectual disability's otherwise undisclosed biological origin. At the same time, it reinforces a typological way of thinking that links cognitive difference to blood purity, breeding, genealogy, sex, gender, race, and even species. For, as I elaborate, "intellectual disability" continues to connote a state of biological inferiority because it is conflated, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly, with an atavistic animality deemed abject and beyond the pale of ethical responsibility. What at first seems to be a benign introduction to CytoScan starts to appear like a pernicious promotion of identity policing and biological determinism.

In a moment I shift from troubling the promise of a blood test capable of disclosing the chromosomal reality of intellectual disability as a type of human-or, more precisely, a category of subhumanity-to probing the anxious admixture of blood and species within Benjy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929). Benjy is, perhaps, "the classic literary attempt to represent an idiot" (Halliwell 19). Undertaking readings of this character's blood, physical appearance, and animalization, I examine his aesthetic effects; this answers a disability studies challenge first levied by Maria Truchan-Tataryn, and recently reiterated by Taylor Hagood, "to take another look at Faulkner's famous 'idiot'" (Hagood 93). Truchan-Tataryn argues that critics regularly fail to challenge Benjy's construction as an idiot type. She charges them with sustaining "a naturalized correlation between subhuman existence and intellectual disability" (165) and perpetuating "idiot myths" by persistently failing to address how he reflects "imaginings projected upon a population denied agency and voice by authors of public policy as well as narrative texts" (163). Yet, as Hagood puts it, Truchan-Tataryn does not "roll up her sleeves and undertake [the] messy textual exploration" she claims is lacking (93). Hagood returns to Benjy's narration to make good on her challenge. While this is a commendable start, the reinvigorated criticism that Benjy requires should not be limited to the novel's first section alone. I set out to illustrate how Faulkner renders intellectual disability as a biological type by supplementing tropes of blood and breeding with a generic animality emblazoned by the figure of the dog. …

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