The Disarticulate

Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity

320 pages

May, 2014

ISBN: 9780814725306



Also available in


American Studies

Part of the Cultural Front series


James Berger is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and English at Yale University. He is author of After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (1999) and a book of poetry, Prior (2013). He is the editor of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life: The Restored Edition (2003).

All books by James Berger

Language is integral to our social being. But what is the status of those who stand outside of language? The mentally disabled, “wild” children, people with autism and other neurological disorders, as well as animals, infants, angels, and artificial intelligences, have all engaged with language from a position at its borders. In the intricate verbal constructions of modern literature, the ‘disarticulate’—those at the edges of language—have, paradoxically, played essential, defining roles.

Drawing on the disarticulate figures in modern fictional works such as Billy Budd, The Sound and the Fury, Nightwood, White Noise, and The Echo Maker, among others, James Berger shows in this intellectually bracing study how these characters mark sites at which aesthetic, philosophical, ethical, political, medical, and scientific discourses converge. It is also the place of the greatest ethical tension, as society confronts the needs and desires of “the least of its brothers.” Berger argues that the disarticulate is that which is unaccountable in the discourses of modernity and thus stands as an alternative to the prevailing social order. Using literary history and theory, as well as disability and trauma theory, he examines how these disarticulate figures reveal modernity’s anxieties in terms of how it constructs its others.


  • "[T]he book is a valuable contribution to disability studies both for its speculations and specific readings.  It is a very thoughtful and thought-filled work, nuanced and wide-ranging, which should have an effect on the field.”

    Critical Inquiry

  • “[…] The Disarticulate represents a wide-ranging, provocative, and often compelling attempt to create dialogue that is bound to have an impact on future work in each field.”

    American Literature

  • “With this book Berger has made a unique, durable contribution to disability studies, American studies, and literary scholarship in general. His multidisciplinary scope is impressive, especially in terms of his wide-ranging subject matter, his ability to synthesize seemingly disparate scholarly enterprises and subjects, and his treatment and integration of disability theory and literary theory. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


  • The Disarticulate is an important intervention in the field of disability studies, providing a solid historicization of the ways 'cognitive impairment' is at the very center of modernity. As the field turns decisively towards such questions, James Berger's work will be an invaluable guide, moving the conversation decisively forward.”

    —Robert McRuer, author of Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability

  • “In Hölderlin's famous hymn, ‘Celebration of Peace,’ the poet warns of a return to stillness—the condition of the cessation of language. There has to be some guarantee of language leaking in during the greatest moment of muteness. Berger offers such an opening with bright, eloquent, yet cautious terms that bravely confront the threat of linguistic foreclosure. At times close to Nietzsche’s subterranean howl, he philosophizes with a stammer, passing the mic to those who speak otherwise, according to untapped locutions.”

    —Avital Ronell, author of Loser Sons: Politics and Authority