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American Annals of the Deaf

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

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has been to “experience” this type of extraordinary hearing and then revert back to the positionality of normal hearing as the ultimate reference point—without understanding that “normal” hearing is also a construction. As a consequence, that pattern continually reinscribes a binary of hearing and deafness. Furthermore, it also attempts to collapse the category of deafness into the biological frame of deafness and simultaneously renders deafness, as a condition, obsolete. Yet, the very failure to claim an inclusive space for deafness by the mainstream culture during the past two hundred years has also led to creating the conditions for fostering new understandings of a hybrid hearing, conditions through which the third ear and its theaters become both possible and necessary.

What follows, therefore, is not a definitive history—as if such a thing could even exist—but, rather, an analysis of representative examples of the tensions of the interplay across the spheres of the cross-sensorial, in order to create a performance contact zone. Those contact zones crafted hybrid spaces of hearing, deafness, and sensory experimentation. As a result, new ways of speaking through a hybrid voice emerged, and “hearing” through the third ear helps us to make some sense of modernity’s unfinished echo.[1]

The Deaf Citizen and Writing in the Air

In the eighteenth century, a growing interest in the category of deafness, the Deaf citizen, and the possibilities of sign language as a viable method for communicating led to the implementation of more than one hundred schools for the Deaf population across Europe. Many early Deaf educators framed their interest around the hope that people who are deaf could be readied to hear the voice of God when it “spoke” to them. This endeavor, although inscribing this motif of “hearing” into the Deaf perspective, indicates a preliminary attempt to open up the tensions between biological and metaphysical conditions of hearing and deafness. In other words, this maneuver indicates consideration of the fact that there may be “other” ways to hear—that the biological condition of hearing is not the sine qua non for knowing, or apprehending, something.

These tensions involved questions about the links between sensorial and possible cognitive limits of people who are deaf. Could deaf individuals understand complex ideas without having access to the spoken language? Thinkers and educators entertained ways in which language and meaning could and could not be transmitted through the sound of the speaking voice or the silence of the gesturing body. There was such an interest in testing applicable communication practices that public displays were held at the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets de Paris starting in 1771. The success of public displays precipitated a period when people who are deaf came to be considered icons of the ideal citizen. In addition to the philosophical, scientific, and legal questions of the status of the deaf citizen, the movement of the deaf into the public space also had consequences for the promulgation of new ways of thinking about the senses and alternative modes of knowing.

In the Lettre sur les sourds et muets of 1751, for example, Denis Diderot considers the need for the notion of the “theoretical deaf” in order to delineate a “history of hieroglyphic practice and its relationship to the arts of painting and sculpture, music, and poetry as emblematic of language” (Berri 75). He links his consideration of deafness to his efforts to understand the origins of language and the way that art works. For Diderot, this position is that of the “theoretical mute, a man who can forego the use of articulate sounds and try to make himself understood by gestures alone” (Calhoon 395). In relationship to the question of language, Diderot considered this positioning crucial in order to work backward to grasp the “prehistoric stages of human cognition.” This process enabled one to use gestures as a way of imagining how ideas could be communicated without using words. Although this essay points to the interest in gesture, it also signals the valorization of spoken language over gestural language. Nevertheless, that interest in gesture, as a type of hieroglyph, became a foundational condition for his reinvigoration of French theater.


1. I am indebted to the work of Jonathan Rée, Lennard Davis, Douglas Baynton, and Harlan Lane for their work on Deaf history. I am indebted to Jonathan Sterne for his work on the history of sound technology and his inclusion of the intersection of sound technology with deafness.
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