The Politics of Deafness

Owen Wrigley


I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the commonfolk are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.

-The Scarecrow of Oz, in L. Frank Baum,
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The common leaves referred to by the Scarecrow of Oz (1) are never so passive as the literal leaves of a tree. Human leaves are a dynamic aspect of the trees that produce and are products of the social forest. They further define what is usual and unusual. By so doing, the common also dominate. In the reactions of the common to the unusual, and in the practices by which the common dominate the unusual, ironic insights into the politics of identities are best illustrated. In particular, the uses of the unacceptable, either of body or image, to reproduce and enforce naturalized categories serve to clarify both those identities that are allowable and the interests that are served.

Deafness is less about audiology than it is about epistemology. This work is about belonging to and among those the Scarecrow might call the unusual, and it belongs to a genre concerned with what is currently known as otherness and difference. This genre explores techniques of inclusion and exclusions in identity formation. It is not ethnography in the usual sense.

The classic view of ethnography presumes an explorer who enters into a foreign culture or space and who then returns with authentic stories, stories that authenticate both the authority of the storyteller and the positions of the "original we" (the empire, community, or academy, who are the audience) to validate empirical truths. The economy is one of recognitions of the tales told as evidence of truth, a self-referencing authenticity. To complete that metaphorical frame: this story is more about a return of the explorer with stories to tell of how the "original we" talk about those we presume available to be explored. It is an ethnography of the dominant gaze, particularly as applied to those deaf to its textual order.

The traditional counterthemes of appropriation, domination, exploitation, colonization, and oppression remain useful narrative embellishments by which both structural and ultimately personal relationships with otherness and difference might be better understood--possibly a more honest goal for an ethnography in any event. An ironic or oppositional ethnography seeks to explore the presumptions behind such relationships with knowledge.

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