There's a thing first-time readers like to point out about Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor. Technically, this manifesto about the pitfalls of using metaphor to describe illness starts with—well, some metaphors. “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” Sontag (2001: 3) writes. “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Why begin by establishing the subject so vividly through figuration if the “point” we are to learn is that “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (3)? Sontag is playing, ventriloquizing the normative dependency, some say. (Is this camp?) It is simpler to read between the lines: we cannot really get by without metaphor—the key is not to deprive ourselves of figures of speech per se, but to take care to avoid euphemisms that mislead. It's a semisatisfactory answer temporarily. But doesn't this measured reply sabotage the whole enterprise?
Michael Snediker has been paying attention to our equivocations on this subject in the medical humanities and disability theory. His latest book, Contingent Figure: Chronic Pain and Queer Embodiment (2021), beckons readers to revisit the presumption that we can do without figuration in scholarship concerned with embodiment. In this respect, he also models deviant orientations for navigating the enigma we encounter in Sontag and analogous polemics and, I want to argue, helps us read some of these foundational texts anew. The crux of Snediker's theoretical turn is not merely that figures of speech genuinely assist us in the representation of pain. For Snediker, the experience of pain itself is inclined toward figurative incarnations. In his words, “Chronic pain is substantively, even accretively, figurative in both its movement and work” (2). That is, pain assumes figurative leanings—toward, around, within. One is tempted to paraphrase: the most authentic figure for pain is therefore figuration itself. But even this falls short of the essence of Snediker's recalcitrance. The more forceful thrust of Contingent Figure is that figuration is really a kind of physicality, and that chronic pain partakes of its myriad physical, relational forms.
One of the most electrifying Modern Language Association conference papers I have had the privilege of listening to was a prior version of Snediker's second chapter in Contingent Figure. This chapter is also a helpful place to begin for habituating oneself to the stakes of Snediker's precise intervention. Broadly, the chapter offers a queer philology focused on the word “like” as a variable catalyst of figuration. Snediker inspects the way this tiny word occupies so much speech—a “nugatory ubiquity” (68)—yet tends to be relegated to the allegedly meaning-impoverished territory of the hesitation filler (Like, seriously?), the colloquial “quotative” (I was like, Oh my God), or the “half-litotic” (This avocado toast is like kind of terrible) (65–66).1 All the while, like regularly solidifies into a “disorienting density,” as when Sally Field ejaculates, “I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” (65).2 For Snediker, this quality of like, its aptitude for “pulsat[ing]” between the transitory-banal and conspicuous certitude, gives it an affinity with the “inexorable everydayness of chronic pain” (62). This idea deserves elucidation. Like is not just a metaphor for the spectrum of intensity pain encompasses, in this reading, but also a substantive orientation the body may make use of as it endures pain. That is, the two implications coincide. Like is valuable in the role of analogy for the way its lexical role oscillates like pain can. Yet, as I understand the gravitational pull of Contingent Figure, this oscillation matters especially because it is also inherent to like's status as a rhetorical agent of attraction and resemblance. As such, like registers a mode of figuration that is equally a physical relationality to which pain may cathect. In a book devoted to the physicality of figuration, this is the viscous substance saturating the second chapter: a phenomenology of pain becomes the occasion for and draws us into the libidinal expanse of Snediker's queer method of liking and likening.
Contingent Figure provides an opportunity to grow better acquainted with some of the formative departures of disability theory. It is instructive, after all, to consider how widely the critique of metaphor has resonated. Snediker proposes that what scholars have often meant by their suspicion is a warranted aversion to the cliché (12). There is truth to this. The broad appeal of a text like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's “The Politics of Staring: Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” is due, in part, to how meticulously it disabuses its reader of stereotypical tropes. And yet, it would be inadequate to limit scholarly skepticism to clichés. Snediker is most persuasive when he observes that disconcerting failures of figuration take shape as “project[ion],” an “external operation” that “distorts” the image of the disabled from the outside (9). In dialogue with Samuel Otter, Snediker affirms the skepticism prompted by these impositions. At the same time, in Snediker's view, a spurious slippage occurs when the problem of exterior projection is treated as tantamount to the function of the figural as such.
As Sontag's subliminal permission to incorporate the figural (in moderation) would indicate, the caveat disentangling projection from genuine affinity can be traced across diverse works of disability theory. In Narrative Prosthesis, David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder (2001: 47–48) examine what they call the “materiality of metaphor” to account for a logic pervasive in literature by which “physical and cognitive anomalies promise to lend a ‘tangible’ body to textual abstractions.” For Mitchell and Snyder, this dependency of literature on disability cannot be reduced either to visibility or exploitation alone. Figurative representations of disability yield contradictory results: they sometimes garble or attempt to conceal, but they can also “flaunt” disruption (8). Across these disparate uses, the omnipresence of disability in literature attests to the way its “representation . . . has both allowed an interrogation of static beliefs about the body and also erupted as the unseemly matter of narrative that cannot be textually undone” (49). In a related argument, Sami Schalk (2018: 45) contends in Bodyminds Reimagined that attunement to the enmeshment of metaphor and literality has enabled “black women's speculative fiction” to “change the rules of interpretation and analysis.” Contingent Figure takes up these strands of disability theory and, equipped with its author's astounding vocabulary, gives them unprecedented occasions to flourish.
Snediker makes his starkest break with previous scholarship through his account of the advantage of figuration's capacity to obscure. The tendency of certain figures of speech to obscure their referent has, indeed, been a consistent source of distrust in disability theory. It is also one of the central points of contention in scholarship on the competing purposes of discrepant figural modes. The crux of Paul de Man's distinction between symbol and allegory inheres in this matter of referentiality. The symbol, an object taken from one's world, derives its allure from the familiarity of a proximate affinity. By contrast, allegory circumscribes a time and place apart, radically discrete from the ostensibly signified. The import of this distinction for de Man resides in the relative diaphaneity of allegory in contrast to symbol. Whereas the symbolic relation, by virtue of an alleged equivalence, takes the form of a “veil thrown over a light one no longer wishes to perceive,” allegory prioritizes lucidity, casting light on the incommensurable differences between referent and sign (self and “non-self”) that structure its transmission of meaning (de Man 1983: 208, 207). The interest de Man takes in translucence as a potential property of figuration, predisposed to highlight the immanent void separating sign and subject, resembles a number of pioneering texts in disability theory, including Mitchell and Snyder's determination to locate moments where normative discourse cracks open, making manifest its intrinsic dependence on the deviant presence of disability.
In one of his most compelling turns, Snediker pursues figures that cloak and shade. Recuperating obscurity as a “poetics of phenomenology,” Snediker's fourth chapter presents a stunningly elaborate close reading of Henry James's fleeting autobiographical account of “an obscure hurt” in reference to his personal experience of chronic back pain (135). Snediker argues that obscurity, in this context, refers not to connotations of withholding or a “shirking of empirical fidelity” but instead to the way chronic pain preempts fantasies of purified clarity (135). Obscurity allows us the space to contemplate how efforts to represent pain may seize the affordances of imprecision. “Obscurity and language share an edge, ‘deep-felt,’ just touching,” Snediker writes. “Pain dwells in this rift between dark and speech; we dwell on it there” (135). This, we learn, is also what Snediker means by the “contingency” named in his title. Here we have not the familiar meaning of contextual scaffolding for change over time. Rather, “contingent says what touches me, what reaches me and therefore arrives to me” (136). Pain and its relation to the figural occupy this nexus. I consider this a great gift of Contingent Figure. It restores to us the license of laying claim to the validity of obscurity as embodied experience.
One is reminded of J. Hillis Miller's reading of prosopopoeia in Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil.” When the Puritan Reverend Mr. Hooper dons a black veil over his face with no explanation of its meaning, his congregants are baffled by the obscurity of his intent. Miller (1988: 18) proposes that this is because Hooper has broken an immediacy of prosopopoeia, the trope by which we ascribe interiority to surfaces: “substituting a veil for his face,” Hooper “suspends” a prior mechanism of “personification.” And yet the veil cannot halt prosopopoeia as a device of subjective extrapolation. The mask absorbs meaning as a feature of Hooper's face, activating an ever-spinning whirl of interpretive efforts from his community (29). Nor does this transpire as mere replacement, the “two folds of crape” a substitute for the face; rather, the face has amassed new relations. Miller's interpretation parallels what Snediker means when he writes that “obscurity as a poetics of phenomenology” constitutes an “expansion of a sharper, stranger experiential field” (135).
Criticism on the function of the figural in literature has a tradition of prompting journeys into ever more refined specificity. The figural activates a desire for florid embellishment. As de Man and Miller accentuate, this is because the figural structures nothing less than our conditions for kinship and distinctness between self and world. Within this genealogy, Snediker's voyage is incomparable. His prose is extraordinary for the way it models the liberatory potential of a method predicated on definitional inexhaustibility. Reading Contingent Figure is like following its author as he unravels Ariadne's thread in the form of a labyrinth without walls, so that the deeper one goes the more expansive and intricate the possibilities become.
Quotations are Snediker's; italicized examples in this sentence are mine.
This example is Snediker's.