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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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Colonialist discourse voices a demand for order and disorder, producing a disruptive other in order to assert the superiority of the colonizer. Yet the production is itself evidence of the struggle to restrict the other’s disruptiveness to that role. Colonialist discourse does not simply announce a triumph for civility, it must continually produce it and this work involves struggle and risk. (Brown 58)

The anxiety about what constitutes a language and who has the right to a language of their own continued to increase well into the latter half of the 1800s (and continues, of course, even today). By that time there is a move from the Enlightenment agenda of marking what constitutes a human, and therefore the ideal citizen, to the nationalist project of marking what constitutes a member of the specific nation-state. The individual’s rights to an autonomous self became less important than the ways in which he or she performed metonymically in part of a nation-state drama.

In this series of events, as the presumably normal hearing and speech activities became aligned with the building of the nation-state, the early theaters of the third ear eventually became curtailed. Subjected to surveillance and codification, deafness became a category of difference to be managed—or, alternatively, it demanded a type of hearing/seeing that exceeded the hierarchical demarcations of modernity in the latter 1800s.

Shifting the Sensorium: Managing the Bodies of Deafness

The staging of “writing in the air” in The Orphan that necessitated a simultaneous seeing-hearing pointed to new, but preliminary, movements toward a more inclusive social space for people who are deaf, but this lesson was not easily incorporated into the social fabric. By the late 1800s the aural sensorium fractured along multiple axes, and it depicted a profound ambivalence toward hearing and deafness. At the same time that the earlier technology of the hearing trumpet and its progeny, the stethoscope, was being furthered, deaf people were being relegated to second-class citizenship. Technological invention was used to conjure up the possibility of instruments that enabled one to hear beyond all imagination; some of the same technology, however, was also used to devise methods for eradicating signs of linguistic difference in people who were deaf by training them to speak. The ghettoization of the deaf population as a group meant that the cultural imaginary based on a notion of normal hearing required the expulsion of its sonic double—deafness—at all costs.[7] Yet, these notions of hearing and deafness are so fraught with all kinds of ambiguities and confusions that we see that deafness never retained its status as simply a measure of biological difference.

Hearing beyond, hearing at the edge, was explored technologically through drug-induced deliriums, through the belief in methods for gaining access to the voices of the dead, and through the burgeoning interest in altered states of mind. What starts with Diderot, as he appropriated the notion of a theoretical deaf individual to traverse the images of his imaginary, but mute, states of mind, began to emerge in the second half of the 1800s just as the notion of the unconscious began to take hold of the cultural imaginary and as technologies became more sophisticated and culturally embedded in everyday life. Networks of aural practices began to multiply during this time—extending the reach of hearing at the same time that it also attempted to normalize it.

One of the ways in which technology developed during this time period is through what Jonathan Sterne has called tympanic technologies, instruments that worked at the intersection of sight and sound. Sterne notes that there is a shift over the course of the 1800s from understanding the tympanum (the ear drum) as a location in relation to the ear, then as an operation, and finally as a function at the turn of the century, when tympanum is used to describe the way that the telephone’s diaphragm works. In 1874, Leon Scotts invented the phonoautograph, which “imitated the process of the human ear” and “transformed sound into writing” (Sterne 35–36). This work was a descendent of a number of earlier experiments that attempted to find ways to transpose sound into writing, but Scott’s innovation lay in modeling his device after the way that the middle ear worked.


7. Cultural imaginary is a term used by numerous critical theorists that builds on the work of Jacques Lacan and accounts for the ways in which the cultural fabric had a force that is both imagined and real.
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