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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Identities in the Making: Local Lives, Transnational Connections

Jan-Kåre Breivik

Chapter One
Being, Becoming, and Longing

While deaf people hold experiences in common and Deaf identity is marked by the physical register of sign language, the sense of “citizenship” inheres in a process, in social relations. This citizenship is not a static commodity of deafness or of sign language as a modality: It lies in the social exchange of recognition produced through signing. It is the immersion in the exchange that produces this sense of citizenship that needs no place. The desire of the deaf for immersion in the communication grid as a means of “becoming” resonates with the postmodern experience of information more generally. This communicative “citizenry” may soon represent the only experience of community.
                                                                                                              (Wrigley 1996, 104)

The experiential difference of deafness installs an initial sense of isolation, strangeness, and loneliness in most deaf people—leading to the tremendous challenge of social identification and existential self-awareness. The fact that many deaf life stories take the narrative format of a travelogue is connected to this and to the early, embodied metaphors of “spatial proximity as difference.” Later, this may lead to an embodied realization of “spatial distance as sameness” and an urge to move ahead for communication opportunities that certainly have few fixed or permanent places.

To state that deaf citizenship “needs no place,” as Wrigley does in this chapter’s epigraph, may be a bit exaggerated. Deaf citizenship, beyond territorial nationalism, will probably be in precarious need of space both in its territorial and social meanings, but not in any resemblance to concepts like “hometown.” However, the translocal and transnational features of Deaf communities are striking to the extent that a signing community might be seen as extremely peripheral within a national framework of understanding. However, in the reverse, the same national communities may, each and every one, be rendered peripheral to the transnational community of signers. This is an observation that sheds further light on the tricky center/periphery binary. Fernandez (2000) explores aspects of this relationship, and he points out the comparative force of peripheral vision/wisdom as heightened reflexivity:

The question may also arise as to whether there is any such a thing as peripheral wisdom, since wisdom is customarily granted to the great centres of human affairs which are the generators of information and knowledge. It also might be argued in just the opposite vein that all wisdom, being perspectival, is peripheral. Objectivity, one might say, presumes peripherality. It might be argued even that the real wisdom, the most percipient and sensitive, like peripheral vision, is peripheral since, unlike central vision, it is necessarily comparative. It can hardly avoid comparing itself to the centre, whereas the centres can and often do ignore the peripheries. (118)

This addresses a theme that becomes obvious in the life narratives of Hilde and Anita, whom we meet in this chapter, and also in the stories in the following chapters. Deaf people, as other minority members, live on the edge of traditional society and employ peripheral vision/wisdom to function in the worlds in which they live. As such they have arrived at a highly comparative outlook on life and their self-identities, which are emerging and less than settled. They thus exemplify the late modern outlook that takes no fixed position for granted, and they engage in a pervasive self-reflection. Deaf identities are thus very much in the making and in the process of “becoming.”

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