Prof. Lennard J. Davis

University of Illinois Chicago

What's At Stake in the Contemporary Call for Representation?: The Justification of Diversity and the Problematics of Adulating Signs

At the current moment, calls for representation in the arts and elsewhere seem not only logical but justified given a history of the oppression and exclusion of minoritized groups around the world. The legacy of colonialism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, slavery, genocide, and other oppressive regimes needs to be reversed throiugh inclusion and the requirement that minoritized groups be represented. 

But representation is a somewhat more complex idea than the elegant and simple call for the redress of past wrongs.  Built into the idea of representation is, in fact, a powerful paradox involving the substitution of an actual thing for a constructed thing.  From the earliest human attempts to represent using cave art and primitive sculpture to the most sophisticated forms of reproduction, from aniconic religions like Islam and Judaism that reject the representation of gods and humans to abstract and expressionist art that eschew representation, an ongoing contention is occurring between those who believe in the power of re-presenting humans and those who see that reproduction as dangerous and misleading. 


Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago in the departments of English, Medical Education, and Disability and Human Development. He is the author and editor of over 25 books and the author of numerous scholarly and popular essays.  Among his best known works are Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body, and Obsession: A History. He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow, and the recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies fellowship.  His work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Award, and was awarded the Gustavus Meyer Center Award for the best scholarship on intolerance.  One of the founders of disability studies in the humanities, Davis is a CODA [Child of Deaf Adults] who has written and lectured widely on disability and Deafness.  He has also authored two memoirs and a novel.  His newest book is Poornography or How Those With Money Write About Those Without It:Transclass, Exo/Endo-Writers, and Representational Inequality to be published by Duke University Press in 2023. 

Prof. Davis received his PhD from Columbia University where he worked with Edward Said who supervised his dissertation.  He studied with Roland Barthes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and attended lectures by Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Gerard Genette, and Claude Levi-Strauss. A public intellectual, he has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune and other major publications as well as being a commentator on National Public Radio. Of Jewish origins, his family had lived in Poland since at least the 1700's until his grandfather emigrated in the late 1800's while other family remained. 

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