Lucid, compelling, passionate -- Garland-Thomson's book is both a brilliant example of what I wish all academic cultural studies would do and a pretty sharp exemplar of how disability studies works.
By the former, I mean: in crisp, precise, fluid, accessible prose, Garland-Thomson tries to unravel how the way we see shapes our knowledge, our behavior toward and beliefs about others -- and how such situations, (the starer gazing at the staree) might also disrupt such certainties, might invite a confusion and a curiosity that can reframe the dynamics of difference, power, and meaning. With great precision, she sifts through the long (long, long, long) debates about how seeing shapes our world, and engages directly with some of the recent presumptions: that staring at another (an Other) can reinforce the starer's control, a medical gaze pinning the "subject" to some clinical assessment, the stark voyeuristic spectacle allowing rubberneckers to enjoy the titillating exoticism of the Freak, the staree robbed of privacy and personal agency. She sees with a more complex lens, persuasively arguing that staring is a much blurrier social exchange -- when we stare, we reveal our own shame; when stared at, we wrest a certain possibility for defining and shaping the exchange from the rapt starer.
She's rarely this abstract -- yet these heady concepts are the kind of stuff I LOVE about great cultural studies. It seems like X is happening, but with a patient, persuasive eye, the everyday is carefully revealed to be Y and Q and S and.... But what makes such persuasive is detail, detail, detail: rather than sweeping claims in obscure gobbledycontinental philosophizin', G-T sees wonders and questions where others had seen only Power and fixed social relations.
See, theory isn't bad, nor is it necessarily pretentious, or vague. Good theory--good pomo cultural studies academicizing--really digs into and expansively rebuilds how we make sense.
And in the best disability studies, the goal is not simply to pay attention to an ostracized social difference. It's to rewire, reframe how we think we see normalcy and difference -- not just how we look AT "them" but how WE all look and get looked at.
It's a really damn good book.