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FANTASY RESEARCH TOPICS

[Note: this feature is the first of what I hope will be regular suggestions for graduate students and others shopping for new short- or long-term topics. We all come across that wonderful snippet of something that if we lived to be a thousand and had a 0-0 teaching load, no personal, financial, or contractual obligations, and a sense of limitless possibilities, we’d write up. Here’s a place you can share those ideas or come to look for inspiration.]

In preparing for a lecture in early-modern European women’s history, I had occasion to think more carefully about John Knox’s 1558 rant, “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”  Well-known as a text against Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scotts who had wronged the Puritan zealot, Trumpet has more recently been recovered as a particularly vitriolic work of misogyny:  how dare anyone stoop so low as to associate women with monsters?  It seems that similar forces that Doug Baynton found (“Disability and the Justification for Inequality in American History” in Longmore and Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives  (NYU Press 2001) provided fodder for sixteenth-century Protestants just as they still do for today’s “politically-progressive” thinkers who decry the actions of the Bush administration as “lame,” “insane,” “retarded,” “blind,” etc.

Disability metaphors, it seems, provide wonderful fodder for everyone, regardless of their politics or history, at least in the West:

“And first, where I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature, I mean not only that God, by the order of his creation, has spoiled [deprived] woman of authority and dominion, but also that man has seen, proved, and pronounced just causes why it should be. Man, I say, in many other cases, does in this behalf see very clearly. For the causes are so manifest, that they cannot be hid. For who can deny but it is repugnant to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to lead and conduct such as do see? That the weak, the sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the whole and strong? And finally, that the foolish, mad, and frenetic shall govern the discreet, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all women, compared unto man in bearing of authority. For their sight in civil regiment is but blindness; their strength, weakness; their counsel, foolishness; and judgment, frenzy, if it be rightly considered.
http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/firblast.htm (accessed 3/7/2007)

Where is the historian or theorist who will take on the task of exploring the complex role of disability in early-modern European political rhetoric? Who will do for Knox what Hannah Pitkin did in Fortune Is a Woman : Gender and Politics in the Thought of Nicollo Machiavelli (California, 1984; reprint Chicago, 1998)? M. Miles, the avid explorer of disability in other times and climes, offers inspiration in his poorly-titled but fascinating article: “Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany: What did he write? What did he say?” (2005): http://www.independentliving.org/docs7/miles2005b.html (accessed 3/7/2007).

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be great to have a systematic rereading of the canonic literature of western political thought through the lens of disability studies? Do similar metaphors appear in nonwestern cultures, and are they used in the same ways?

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