Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Eugenic Monsters: A Seminar on Race and Disability

"Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is 
that we give our children what we wanted, 
whether they want it or not. 
We heal our wounds with the love we wish we’d received,
 but are often blind to the wounds we inflict."

Andrew Solomon
Far from the Tree

Course Overview

Why are monsters so ubiquitous in literature and art? How do they, and other literary villains and anti-heroes, reinforce cultural values and anxieties? Who or what are the monsters of our own cultural moment? In this seminar, we will explore the history and representation of monsters in western culture. Using Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, well as other texts from disability, critical race, and post-colonial studies, we will examine monsters not merely as otherworldly creatures, but as figures that stand in for a wide range of "undesirables" and "others." This semester, we will concentrate on the themes of race and disability as they have been constructed by the philosophies and practices of eugenics, slavery, colonialism and freak shows. The very invention of race theory in the modern age hinges around eugenic beliefs in fundamental differences marked by skin color, facial and skull shapes, bloodlines, and aptitude. These theories created the concept of a “white race” and marked non-white races as inherently disabled, thus excusing and even endorsing the institutions of sterilization, extermination, captivity, colonialism, and exploitation. 

The first section of the course will concentrate on the wider concepts of eugenics as it came into being in the modern era. The benefits of technologies which offer power over your body will be connected to the racist and ableist philosophies which generated them. The genetic framework will then be interrogated throughout the rest of the semester through the film and book, Far From the Tree, which considers the relationship between parents and children, specifically those ways in which the fantasies of reproduction (preserving the purity of parentage) breaks down in the mutation, evolution, and divergent identities which arise among children who are born with Down's Syndrome, Autism, Dwarfism, and other conditions. This section ends with a science-fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, which imagines the eugenic and colonialist project in the context of space exploration in order to test the desire for genetic control against the joy of discovering the beauty of difference. The second section turns towards the way in which captivity in its various forms makes monsters out of the captors and captives, beginning with the animated film, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The film Beloved follows up on the ways that slavery in the United States created trauma and monstrosity in the lives of formerly enslaved people, who experience this captivity still through the ghosts and isolation of a haunted house, representing the specters of slavery which live on across generations. The Green Mile follows the way in which slavery reinvented itself through the rise of the prison industrial complex which routinely caught men of color and people with disabilities in their cages, embodied by the film's central figure. Good Kings, Bad Kings explores how nursing homes adapt models of captivity from prisons and slavery, forcing people of color, poor populations, and people with disabilities into lives of abused isolation.

The third section the seminar concentrates further on the systems of colonialism which were already figured in the first two sections, carrying institutions of eugenics and captivity into Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Beginning with Animal's People, the book follows up on the ecological and human environmental consequences of global industries which introduce dangerous chemicals into the land and bodies of impoverished foreign countries. The film, Eclipse, from the Twilight series, considers the ongoing effects and consequences of colonization in the Americas through the monstrous figures and fighting of werewolves and vampires, each representing the native peoples of the Americas and the colonizers (at least one of whom fought on the side of Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War). Then the seminar turns to the world of Marvel super-heroes to contrast the film Black Panther -- which imagines an isolated nation in Africa that is free from colonization but also (seemingly) free of disability -- and the comic of the street-level hero Echo -- a native American woman with deafness who explores her place in the United States as a disabled colonized body at odds with the figure of Daredevil, a white American lawyer with blindness who literally represents the law of the colonizer. The final section of the seminar explores the history and legacy of the Freak Show. The film The Greatest Showman will be viewed alongside the book Bunk which tells the true histories of the scams and hoaxes which exploited and contributed to American racism and ableism in order to turn ethnic minorities and people with disabilities into profitable freaks. The racist, ableist, and transphobic effects of the Freak Show will then be considered in the way trans women of color are still exploited by sex work and conversion therapy which displays these pathologized, racialized, and queer bodies for a paying public. At the end of this section and the semester, we will watch the film Ray in order to interrogate the ways the blind man of color fought for personal liberation in an entertainment industry which sought to exploit him.

Course Objectives

By the end of the seminar you will be able to TEACH the course material:

  • Think critically across multiple perspectives
  • Engage with thinkers who passionately disagree with you
  • Argue according to the dialectic method
  • Compose your thoughts in clear and engaging writing
  • Honor differences as important to propelling your thinking forward



Selections from the Reading List

The Monsters of Eugenics
Genetics, Mutations, and Diversity

  • Michelle Ferrari (dir.), American Experience: The Eugenics Crusade: What’s Wrong with Perfect?, PBS Distributions (2018), B07F83JZYF
  • Rachel Dretzin (dir.), Far From the Tree, MPI Home Video (2019), B07J356J56
  • Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Scribner (2013), 978-0743236720
    • Including chapters: "Son," "Down's Syndome," "Dwarf," "[Intellectual] Disability," "Prodigy," "Crime," "Schizophrenia," "Deaf," and "Transgender."
  • James Tynion IV, Eugenic, BOOM! Studios (2018), 978-1684152063
  • C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, Book 1), Scribner (2003), 978-0743234900

The Monsters of Captivity
Pariahs, Slaves, Prisoners, and Patients

  • J. Demme (dir.), Beloved (1998) (AW)
  • Frank Darabont (dir.), The Green Mile, Warner Home Video, B01GWCBR24
  • Trousdale and Wise (dir.), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Walt Disney Animation (2002), B00005TN8K 
  • Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings, Algonquin Books (2013), 978-1616203252
  • R. Garland-Thompson, Staring: How We Look
    • Including chapters: “Social Relationships” and "Beholding"
  • J.B. Bouson, “The Dirtied and Traumatized Self of Slavery in Beloved” (PDF) (2000)

The Monsters of Colonialism
Asia, Americas, Africa

  • Ryan Coogler (dir.), Black Panther, Marvel Studios (2018), B079FLYB41
  • Indra Sinha, Animal’s People, Simon and Schuster (2009), 978-1416578796
  • David Mack, Daredevil: Vision Quest, Marvel (2015), B016P0QCQE
  • David Slade (dir.), The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Summit Inc./Lionsgate (2010), B0042MEQVG 
    • Twilight & Psychology, “Bella’s Motivations for Risky Behavior” (PDF)         
    • Twilight & History, “Alice and the Asylum” (PDF)      
    • Twilight & History, “Jasper Hale, the Oldest Living Confederate Veteran”        
    • Twilight & Psychology, “Prejudice in Twilight” (PDF)
    • Twilight & Philosophy, “The Moral Hazards of Being Edward” (PDF)
    • Twilight & History, “Why Team Jacob Is Doomed to Lose” (PDF)       

    The Monsters of the Freak Show
    Differences, Hoaxes, and Exploitations

    • Taylor Hackford (dir.), Ray, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (2006), B000FVQLRU
    • Michael Gracey (dir.), The Greatest Showman, 20th Century Fox (2018), B077R2WHSB 
    • The Transformation (1994)
    • Eli Clare, Exile & Pride: “The Mountain, Freaks & Queers”
    • Janet Mock, Redefining Realness, “Ch. 15-17"
    • Kevin Young, Bunk: the Rise of Hoaxes (AW)


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