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American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater

Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren

from Chapter Two
History of the Theater of the Third Ear

But how is it possible that one who is deaf and dumb,
should comprehend and express—
                      Abbé de l’Epée, or the Orphan (1801)

In this chapter, I chart a genealogy of the theater of the third ear and articulate links among sound, silence, the body, and synaesthesia in relationship to hearing and deafness. Early versions of these theaters emerge in the eighteenth century and find their exemplar in popular plays such as Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s 1799 production of Abbé de l’Epée, or the Orphan, a story about a dispossessed young deaf-mute count and the reclamation of his inheritance. Through the use of cross-sensorial techniques, such performances orient audiences to the changing practices of hearing and make possible new relationships with deafness. The third ear, as an improvisational engagement with this shifting sensorium of the past, allows us to track the simultaneous fragmentation and reordering of the senses. Additionally, this approach helps us understand the cultural constructions of both hearing and deafness, particularly in contact zones where the two spheres intersect. An evolving history of the “staging” of these contact zones points to the cultural desire to have opened up new aesthetic possibilities even as it has sought to contain the unfamiliar other of the sensorially different.

From the second half of the 1800s to the 1960s—in examples ranging from the Symbolists, the Dadaists, Antonin Artaud, and others—new practices in the theater continued to recast the sonic sensorium. These endeavors explored the interplay of sight and sound, and its concomitant ambiguous relation to the moving body. Nevertheless, very little analysis of traditional theater, or even sound performance, incorporates a sufficient account of the Deaf perspective. It is important, therefore, to make visible the emergence of a Deaf aesthetic that begins in the eighteenth century and takes on a fuller form by the 1960s.

There is no simple way of looking at this performance history, which cannot be thought of other than as an always already network of active fragments. These fragments track various interplays of the individual’s relation to prevailing cultural mores, questions of the body and technology, and the ways in which artistic practice allows for the charting of new sensorial paradigms. Although vision is usually considered the overriding sense used to organize meaning in order to instantiate a unitary modern self, this claim can miss the ways in which the effort to frame what is and is not hearing also underscores the creation of the myth of the modern unitary self.

Historically speaking, the praxis of managing “bodies of deafness” has had diverging outcomes. What began as a process of opening an “inclusive” space for Deaf citizens shifted by the late 1800s into numerous efforts to suppress the Deaf population as a linguistic minority. Nevertheless, the development of sound technologies that could amplify hearing beyond the edge of “normal” hearing led, as well, to a fascination with hearing that could not literally be heard, such as dreams, the unconscious, the voices of the dead, and that which is “unsaid.” Although these explorations of hearing challenge the boundaries of the body and reconstitute it, the tendency

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