What’s in a name?


It’s been more than a month now since my last blog post. I usually put this neglect down to my packed schedule: the demands of part-time study and a full-time job rarely yield much headspace to write anything other than the obligatory essay. Reading Dr Nadine Muller’s blog post on social media and academia this weekend, however, I realised that was – in part – an excuse. For me, blogging is also governed by a sense of trepidation;  a sense that I’m putting my emerging (often unpolished) thoughts out there for the virtual world to see.

Dr Muller’s blog post helped me to start to confront this fear by emphasising not only the way in which blogging can help us work through new ideas, but also the fact that all our research – whether it be on or off the blogosphere – is, in effect, work in progress. How often have we returned to a submitted essay and wished we could make amendments, revisions, or even turn the whole conclusion on its head? It may represent our views at one point in time, but rarely does it remain our final word on the subject.

This idea that all research is provisional, all our thoughts in flux, really resonated with me, given this was also the weekend that I was penning my dissertation proposal. Anyone who knows me will be aware that for the last few months (let’s face it, year) I’ve been oscillating between writing about puerperal fever or learning disability in sensation fiction.  And while I’ve finally committed to one of these options (plumping for the latter), defining, designating and delineating said topic for my potential supervisor was an altogether different issue.

Immediately I had to ask myself, was I really studying learning disabilities in sensation fiction? After all, that wasn’t a term that would have been familiar, or even accessible to, the likes of Wilkie Collins. What was I studying, then? Portrayals of ‘imbecility’ and ‘idiocy’? Settling on any of these terms seemed wholly problematic.

The name game – the troubling task of affixing certain terminologies and taxonomies to a project – may always be in the back of our minds when we embark upon a paper, but it doesn’t always push its way to the fore. When I was writing on the history of syphilis, for example, I had no problem talking about ‘venereal disease’ or ‘contagious disease’, even though I was much more familiar with the term ‘sexually transmitted disease’.

Yet the problem clearly dogs disciplines other than disability studies. For instance, whenever we talk about sexuality in relation to the Victorians (or any of our forebears) we’re immediately aware of the need to navigate discourse. We have to decide whether to use relatively modern-day monikers like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. Few of us seem to plump for nineteenth-century classifications such as ‘invert’ or ‘onanist’. Many critics instead opt for the space in-between, and write about the ‘homosocial’, or the ‘queer’ – terms that have come to be the preserve of critical theorists. Yet even if we make a determined effort not to use anachronistic terminology, we’re all too often (perhaps even inevitably) thinking through this lens.

There are numerous reasons why we’re wedded to modern-day taxonomies in our thinking. Not only have we been conditioned to negotiate society and culture in specific ways, but we usually consider our own terms more liberated, less offensive and more politically correct than their predecessors. Almost every time I’ve floated my project to someone, I’ve spoken about it in the context of learning disability; whenever I’m mentioned words such as “idiocy” or “imbecility”, I’ve done so with air quotes, as if to disassociate myself from these terms and attribute them to anyone but me.

Yet my refusal to talk confidently in these terms now seems problematic. Not only is my persistence in talking about ‘learning disability’ anachronistic, but it also seems overly prescriptive. Labelling a character in a Victorian novel a person with learning disabilities seems to imply that I am asserting the right to somehow diagnose them. And can we even be certain that such a diagnosis is apt? Would the same person designated an idiot or imbecile in a nineteenth-century context necessarily be labelled learning disabled in the twenty-first?  In Idiocy: A Cultural History, Patrick McDonagh warns against assuming that idiocy and learning disabilities are equivalent terms, refuting the idea that there is an objective, ahistorical reference point, and therefore challenging the notion that we can talk about the same phenomenon across time. He says that, in his text, he does not “replace ‘idiocy’ and its historical brethren with terms more harmonious to contemporary sensibilities” precisely because “they are not the same thing, even if they are conceptually related”. For McDonagh, these are all slippery, socially constructed concepts. I have begun to realise that I need to step away from seeing use of the term ‘idiot’ as an offence on my part, and instead see it as a reference to a historically and culturally specific idea or construct.

Of course, McDonagh’s theory is predicated on the assumption that learning disability is as historically contingent a term as idiot, or imbecile. As intimated earlier, this is inevitably difficult when we’re so wedded to using the term. As the ‘Key Principles’ section of the History of Learning Disability blog points out, “the very possibility that such an apparently unproblematic concept may be fully a product of history rather than an objective, empirically definable diagnostic category still makes people nervous”, even the more forward-thinking among us. One reason for this might be because we desire to create what Heather Love has called a “community across time”. While Love is talking about (and critiquing) some queer theorists’ tendencies to “build an imagined community of the marginal and the excluded”, it seems equally applicable to the study of learning disabilities. We want to trace a history of people with learning disabilities, identify characters or people in the past who correspond with people in the present, and disavowing even basic terms seems (as the aforementioned blog acknowledges) to “suggest that critical inquiry into the history of learning disability destabilises the concept itself”.

Yet the blog insists that this in fact makes for a particularly fruitful area of study, as we’re forced to question our own allegiances. My tendency to align myself to modern terms has made me recognise how I actively privilege them. This is perhaps understandable, given considerable scientific (and, we might like to think, moral/ social) advances. But should we wed ourselves to terms which may still be in flux? Should we assume that our own understandings and ideas are ideology-free? Questioning the validity of our own terminology forces us to confront the complexities of our own discursive strategies.  Just like the Victorians, we have myriad categories and taxonomies. So while I was entertaining my inclination to speak in modern-day parlance, I was still flitting between whether to use learning difficulty, learning disability or developmental disability. I knew these signified different things, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what. And the more I started thinking about our modern-day language, the less comfortable I was with it. The idea of ‘limited mental capacity’, for instance, seemed condescending, even though it arises from legal discourse, which we try to see as somehow objective.

The trouble with all taxonomies and terminologies, of course, is that they fail to adequately represent a diverse range of experiences. They coop narratives and ensure that the recipient of the label is automatically seen as Other. As McDonagh has argued, terms such as idiot and learning disability (and everything in between) seem to function metonymically; by designating someone as such, we seem to be assuming that that in some way defines them. Yet we cannot disavow all terms; we must speak of something. The best we can do this then is to exercise caution, add caveats. Explain why we might use certain terms, what we hope to convey by them, and what they never can quite convey. We can still gesture towards links between the past and present by arguing, as McDonagh does, that historically specific concepts are related, even while claiming that they are not quite the same.  We overcome the linguistic impasse by constructing as we deconstruct, and disassembling as we assemble.  As Muller suggested, we shouldn’t fear putting pen to paper purely because we are anxious that an idea is provisional or a work in progress; for all ideas remain in flux.

Picture courtesy of Lucas The Experience (Flickr handle). Reproduced under Creative Commons. 


Love, Heather, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2009)

McDonagh, Patrick, Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008)

Muller, Nadine, “Academia & Social Media: Practices, Politics, Problems”, http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/musings/academia-and-social-media/  [accessed 19/01/2014]

History of Learning Disability Blog: http://www.historyoflearningdisability.com/key-principles  [accessed 19/01/2014]



One thought on “What’s in a name?

  1. Very good post!

    I’ve been going over my own chapter draft on physical disability and sensation fiction today as it happens. In my introduction I’m using air quotes around words such as ‘crippled’ and ‘deformed’, because I’m aware that those are the ways in which Victorians perceived these disabilities. If you separate the language from the subject, as it were, you end up discussing things in a manner that airbrushes over Victorian vocabulary and, perversely, someone will always point that out so it becomes a focal point anyway!

    I’ve got a paragraph in my chapter where I briefly explain that I’m following Martha Stoddard Holmes and her use of language in her book Fictions of Affliction. She utilises Victorian terminology when referring to an explicitly Victorian perspective. However, then you enter a whole new conundrum – what comes into that category? It’s a never-ending merry-go-round and I’m not sure any of us can get it ‘right’ to everybody’s satisfaction.

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