Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Sympathy as cognitive impairment in Robin Jenkins's The Cone-Gatherers: the limits of homo sacer

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2008), 2, (1), 22–31.

Abstract

The Scottish author Robin Jenkins's 1955 novel, The Cone Gatherers, is an allegory of the Nazis' persecution of the disabled that lends itself well to reading in terms of Giorgi Agamben's account of homo sacer. The gamekeeper, Duror, who persecutes the mentally and physically disabled cone-gatherer, Calum McPhie, is analogous to Agamben's medicalised sovereign, who issues biopolitical judgements on who has a life worthy of being lived, and who is a "subhuman" homo sacer. Agamben's suspicion of sacrificial narratives of loss and restitution also resonates with The Cone-Gatherers, a text which subverts the idea that death, disability, and stoic endurance are inevitably redeemed. Jenkins's novel, however, diverges from Agamben's theories by offering a detailed representation of sympathy as a faculty that is regarded in contemporary Western culture as a variety of cognitive impairment (and, indeed, as a form of unmanliness). For Jenkins, the social construction of sympathy as a form of disgusting mental disability is the means by which the political and juristic logic outlined by Agamben can overcome our capacity for universalistic moral relations.

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Miller, Gavin