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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon

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modern ASL narratives and poetry are offered for sale. And we must not forget the profusion of mime, farcical skits, magic acts, and general clowning. In this setting, decorous, disembodied print collides with very much embodied, visual ASL performances that hark back to the physicality and spectacle of the medieval fair. Again, as in festivals of the Middle Ages, popular forms of expressions and rituals abound and official forms and rituals are adapted, parodied, or burlesqued.

Deaf Americans come from far and near not simply to watch but to participate in all this literary and not-so-literary outpouring. As Bakhtin points out, in medieval carnivals, too, no one was only a spectator:

Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle.…But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life.…In fact, carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators.…Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.

Every Deaf American participates in carnival, in vernacular storytelling at the bar, in ASL art at the fraternity or sorority function, in viewing and critiquing modern ASL literature on videotape during a workshop session, in laughing at and with the strolling mimes and clowns during the Deaf Way banquet. For their part, ASL performers of various kinds often make a distinct effort to include their viewers in decidedly interactive productions.

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