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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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

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Sign language and hieroglyphs are as types of image-writing that are only partially understandable to conceptual rationality. The hieroglyph, which originally entered the English language as the specific denomination of the ancient Egyptian pictographs, was assumed to be part of a nonalphabetic language that was, therefore, of a more primitive type than the Romance languages that were based on sound. As a term that articulated the space of the indeterminate image, the not-yet translated or not even translatable, the hieroglyph took on the power to stand for that which “speaks” but which may not be completely understood. It “speaks” in such a way that the person who hears must be “deaf” in order to hear with one’s eyes.

Diderot used his device of theoretical deafness to inform his theatrical aesthetics. He writes:

I used to frequent the theatre, and I knew by heart most of our best plays. On the days when I meant to examine the actions and gestures I would climb to the gallery, for the further I was from the actors the better. As soon as the curtain was raised […] I put my fingers in my ears, much to the astonishment of my neighbors […] But I coolly answered that “everyone has their way of listening, and mine was to shut my ears to hear better”. (173–74)

As Kenneth Calhoon notes, few performances survived Diderot’s criticism, as he was critical of the stilted posturing and overly stylized use of gesture. Diderot’s interest in image both in terms of painting and on the stage, nevertheless, infused theater with a new aesthetics (one that we see echoed in the work of Antonin Artaud).

There were certainly earlier examples of the use of image and gesture in the theater—there could be no theater without such elements—such as commedia dell’arte, court masques, and ballet. Diderot was among the first to consider how the perspective of deafness as a mode of experiencing might link with understanding the plastic dimensions of the stage as well as the interiority of the landscape of the mind. Interest in the ways that this crossing of the senses, seeing in order to hear, activated the interior landscape of the mind, or its hieroglyphs, and it led to the exploration of the tableau, a technique that Diderot also developed. In this approach, the final action of the play became frozen in a “pregnant moment” in a kinesthetic painting that was seen to speak in ways that continuing the action could not.

Likewise, a favorite pastime of the French aristocracy was the tableauvivant, or living picture. In this activity the members of the court would disappear behind a curtain and take on positions of a well-known painting. When ready, the curtain would rise on this frozen moment for the pleasure of the audience. In this case, painting is transposed into theater. Both of these examples illustrate an interest in the transposition of image between visuality and embodiment.[2]

In the case of Diderot, we can see how his theorization of deafness created new possibilities for a theatrical aesthetics against the backdrop of the persistent claim of the intellectual inferiority of deaf people themselves. This brief consideration of Diderot’s work on art begins to open up the sense of how the interplay between body and mind is fluid, not fixed. Additionally, it points to the aesthetic field of play emerging among the visual, bodily, and linguistic registers, as well as the significance of the hieroglyph for art’s practices—an interest that emerges again with the Symbolists.

Additionally, Diderot knew of and visited the Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée’s Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets de Paris, the first one of its kind. There, the increasing public interest in the evolution of deaf education led to public lectures in which deaf students displayed their newly acquired skills at communicating and answering complex questions. The skill relied on techniques for seeing voices, rather than hearing them, through a complex system of interlacing signing and writing—a process that marked the interchangeability of reading signs through both text and body. This practice, which led to the creation of the “deaf” reader of writing and signing, gave rise to the three-dimensional corollary of writing


2. This pattern of exploring still images that speak has a tradition in eighteenth-century aesthetics of considering how painting is silent poetry. This motif was adopted by deaf painters in the late eighteenth century as a way of staging their aesthetic positioning—and inserting themselves into the cultural imaginary speaking through their silent poetry. For more of this phenomenon, see Nicholas Mirzhoeff’s Silent Poetry.
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