Deaf people are mentioned even in early recorded history, including in Babylonian records, the Mosaic Code of Holiness from the sixth century B.C., and both Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The majority of these references, however, either concern the status of legal rights for property inheritance by deaf people, an enduring issue for the noble families, or are appropriations of "the deaf-mute" to demonstrate moral truths. The latter category includes John Bulwer, who in 1648 suggested deaf children were the result of their parents' sinfulness and little better than "Dumbe Animals." A similar perspective and appropriation emerges from the U.S. Federal Census, which, from 1830 to 1900, included "the deaf" in the odd category of "defectives."
Deafness could well be about a sensory "deprivation," life in a world marked by an absence. Yet, a contrasting view might see a world built around the valence of visual rather than aural channels for processing languages--not just semiotic signs, but languages of a visual modality. As we shall see, in a political framing this shift rejects the site of the body and relocates meaning and its production onto the social. This re-valence of a visual modality means not a loss but an entry into a richly textured visual world of languages not dependent upon sound. Rather than a bifurcated world of meaning production, which searches for visual signs while relying on organizations of meaning around arbitrary serial sequences of acoustical phenomena to convey explanatory narratives, a visual world both perceives and produces signification through visual channels of a spatial linguistics. It is a world not necessarily better or worse, just distinct and different.
The "meanings" available to such distinctions and differences are an explicit focus of this work. This is not an ethnography that attempts the artifice of an "authentic voice" for "the deaf," or the artifice of empirical analysis of "objective data." Such unities, either of voice or frame, are contested here. Rather, this work is an ethnography of the appropriations, colonizations, constraints, and constructions by which "we," the dominant Hearing, have come to "know" and "make use of " those who are Deaf.
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