“’A Philosophy of Handicap’: The Origins of Randolph Bourne’s Radicalism” Paul K. Longmore and Paul Steven Miller

In this article, Longmore and Miller revise contemporary interpretations of Randolph Bourne’s radicalism and situate it in firmly within not only his own philosophy on disability but also the moment of the Progressive Era. Longmore and Miller claim that scholars often do not see the sociological, cultural, and political elements of disability, which they imply is one reason why scholars in the past have missed the connection between Bourne’s radicalism and his identity as handicapped. Longmore and Miller explain that “social category” as a term and concept was just coming into use in the Progressive era (59). Bourne, they claim, took up the social category of “the handicapped” and demonstrated how it is something other than a physical, biological condition; it is a sociocultural and political construct employed to preserve and perpetuate the modern social order.

Longmore and Miller rhetorically analyzing Bourne’s writing and comparing his original essay “The Handicapped” to its revision “A Philosophy of Handicap,” which was published in Youth and Life, to demonstrate that Bourne’s radical philosophy articulated therein indeed originates in his identity as “handicapped.” Longmore and Miller admit that handicap as the foundation of radical ideas is ignored, perhaps, in part because Bourne never spoke of his handicap in any other of his writings on immigration, class, education and diversity, yet rhetorical analysis of his work demonstrates that the source of his philosophy in indeed embedded in his experience of handicap.

In Bourne’s first book called YOUTH AND LIFE, he published an article he wrote originally titled “The Handicapped” as “A Philosophy of Handicap.” This alteration of the title alone, the authors argue, signals a conscious effort to declare disability as a social category and condition (64). In this book, Bourne also refused to use popular, prejudicial terms such as “deformed” and embraced terms such as “disabled” and “handicapped,” a rhetorical move aimed to “represent the physicality and social totality of handicap, realistically and without shame, accurately, not prejudicially” (64). Bourne also employs omission as a rhetorical strategy in his revision of “The Handicapped.” In “A Philosophy,” Bourne omits physical descriptions of himself, which prevents reader from dwelling on his physical condition so reader can instead focus on the social condition of “the handicapped man” (64). In the same vain, Bourne omits use of personal pronouns in favor of “the handicapped man.” He provides a social psychology of “the handicapped man” in order to explain “the handicapped man’s relation to the how the world views him, and how he, in turn, reacts to both the world and himself” (qtd. on 65).

Longmore and Miller point out that in “A Philosophy,” Bourne explains that while “the handicapped man” does feel the need to strive for success in light of his disability and discrimination, the discrimination also makes him feel powerless-a double message, which constantly hangs over “the handicapped man’s” head (65). Essentially, what made his work so profound, they argue, is that, “Bourne extrapolated from his experience of the oppressive ideology of handicap to fashion some of his most profound criticisms of modern life: the preoccupation with externals, the corresponding disregard of the interior person, the stifling of individual personalities” (65). The recurrent imag of confinement is a rhetorical strategy used to signal this oppression.

The authors make clear that in YOUTH AND LIFE, Bourne does rely on his personal, painful experiences to achieve his rhetorical purpose. For instance, he analyzes the difficulties of the handicapped boy and adolescent by relating his own encounters with discrimination, he reactions to those discriminations, and the long-term psychological implications that result from years of oppression. In doing so, the authors claim, Bourne “questions inherited pieties and moralisms, spurns conformity to the modern herd mentality, calls for grounding values in real-life experiences, and seeks a community that supports individuals in realizing and expressing heir own personalities” (66). He also identifies the rhetorical strategies of irony, charm, and control of conversation he used in face-to-face conversations to make sure he was heard. Bourne’s intention here is not to simply layout a means of escape from the oppression for handicapped youth. Bourne offers a “social analysis that explains the experience of the handicap and locates it with larger patterns and structure of the unjust modern social order. He shows how that experience can furnish materials for a radical social philosophy and a transformative engagement with the world” (71).

Also, in “A Philosophy,” Longmore and Miller claim that Bourne points out that the dichotomy between normal and abnormal was a “socially invented ‘signifier for relations of power.’ [Thus,] Bourne’s understanding of handicap has broad implications beyond the experience of people with ‘disabilities'” (72). These implications have everything to do with class-based judgments about social status and worth since whole classes of people are discriminated against due to an unjust social order (72-3). Modern order then is to blame for the unjust treatment of people with disabilities as well as those that do not “belong” to the elite social class. Bourne does not just concern himself with social critique, however. He also, Longmore and Miller point out, advocates for social transformation; therefore, he also provides a means of resistance.

Overall then, Longmore and Miller demonstrate that in “A Philosophy,” Bourne both looks critically outward at disability as a social construct and offers a possibility of resistance and reform and looks inward to lay out individualistic modes of coping (75). Bourne was also a champion of progressive education, which included the establishment of special education in public schools, as well as foreign immigration reform. Although Bourne did not link modern conceptions of handicap with discriminatory immigration policies, he did advocated for what he called a “Trans-National America,” which encompassed a vision of American diversity (77).

Longmore and Miller move toward their conclusion with wonderings about why Bourne did not write more about handicap. Was it his fear to marginalize himself further through his writing? Did he not want to be labeled as an author who was the advocate for “the handicapped”? Longmore and Miller express disappointment that Bourne did not publish more on the role the ideology of handicap played in making of modern American; nonetheless, they challenge other scholars to revisit Bourne’s work and recover his radical ideas pertaining to class and transnational American, education and feminism, and the modern industrial state.

Thoughts and Questions:

Thinking back on our discussion from Thursday, I am still wondering about and contemplating the ethics of comparative and contrastive rhetorics. I wonder what ya’ll think about appropriating Vizenor’s concept of socioacupuncture to interpret Longmore and Miller’s social history of Bourne’s rhetoric as a form of socioacupuncture. And/or think of both Bourne and Longmore and Miller enacting a Trickster hermeneutic of sorts? Is it not appropriate to try to appropriate the concepts of socioacupuncture and Trickster hermeneutic and apply it to “Other” forms of scholarship? If not, why not? And if not, what concepts might we use to describe the “invasive technique of reinterpretation” of past scholarship or the “self-conscious teasing that allows access to presence” of hidden identities to describe the work that both Bourne and Longmore and Miller do? Do the terms social history of rhetoric, revisionary, and recovery constitute these actions already?

I also wonder about the ethics of comparing and contrasting the social and political construction of “Handicap” to the social and political construction of the “Indian”? What do we risk/benefit/lose in asking such a question?

Finally, what about comparing and contrasting the rhetorical strategies Bourne employs to the American Indian, African American, and feminist rhetors we have read about in this course? Should we avoid or attempt conducting comparative and contrastive rhetorics employed by minority groups? What is danger/benefit??



Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

4 responses to ““’A Philosophy of Handicap’: The Origins of Randolph Bourne’s Radicalism” Paul K. Longmore and Paul Steven Miller

  1. zstuckey

    In the essay, can you see how an over-emphasis on social constructivism privileges social and cultural aspects over physical and material aspects? L & M are responding to the idea that cultures have too often over-emphasized the phsyical in relation to disability but then pomo scholars and feminist scholars come back and say–hey wait–the physical is part of the cultural. From this emerges one distinction and one way of defining concepts in disability studies between impairment (physical) and disability (social and political oppression). the social model of disability has at least helped move us away from the medical model which pathologizes and medicalizes disability.

    what model might account for the physical and the socio-cultural.

  2. Hmm… I’m intrigued by your collective questions, L and Z! Way to inquire it up!
    I was thinking about the same value/meaning/construction vs physical/material kind of (false) binary that might be extracted from Cobb’s article… Cobb doesn’t reify the binary, but does recognize difference in a way that it seems that you are, too, Z. When you ask about a model that might account for the physical and the socio-cultural aspects synthetically, I’m reminded of Brueggerman’s 5th chapter… Is she getting at such a holistic discussion there? Does it “work”?
    I’m also thinking about L’s question about comparing and contrasting… and I’m thinking about how there is value, for me, as I strain to process what feels familiar in this article, for example, and Powell’s article from last week. The strategies of the work seem similar in the rhetorically analysis of work that allows the reader to recognize some elements/values/habits of a culture while literally reading the work of one of its rhetors. Might a kind of embodied rhetorical analysis/historiography be the commonality? And, to echo Laurie’s questions, what are the consequences of such an observation? And, another question that often occurs to me, what is the role of comparative/contrastive work in recovery and revision? What kind of rhetorical role does it play? What generative principals might it facilitate?

  3. Eileen E. Schell

    Might the connection across the rhetorics coming from American Indian rhetorics and disability rhetorics be the ways the ways in which:
    -the nature of rhetoric is interrogated and repositioned
    –the questioning of historical narratives and the writing of histories that elide particular realities. Think of the ways in which Brueggemann critiques the ways in which Greco-Roman rhetoric positions the “good man speaking well” and elides other modes of communication that are used in d/Deaf culture. Think of the ways in which Lyons and Powell point to the idea that is perpetuated about Indian peoples being in the past rather than in the contemporary world (the “death of the Indian”). Both areas–American Indian Rhetorics and Disability rhetorics– are questioning how rhetorical histories get told and constructed (the C/R ranch as Lyons put it). Instead of the C/R ranch in Disability studies, we have the h/Hearing Ranch.

    So there is a revisionist and critical stance toward constructions of rhetoric and rhetorical history that cuts across the texts. We’ll see a similar tendency in Latino/a Rhetorics next week.

  4. bjbailie


    I’m thinking that comparative rhetoric may not be a good thing to apply here. Granted, I’m not well versed in comparative rhetoric, but I do think this type of approach means creating an order of things where one of these rhetorics becomes the model which all others are judged against–meaning those rhetorics not considered the superordinate of the grouping will all be found “lacking” or “deficient” in some way. If my understanding of comparative rhetoric is correct, I’d recommend avoiding such a project.

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