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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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Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, had begun to work with deaf people and used his father’s technique of visible speech to try to train them to speak out loud. The underlying assumption of visible speech was that if students simply followed directions properly, they would be able to make the proper sounds and speak correctly. The visible speech method only articulated the positions of the mouth. The difference in the phonoautograph for Bell, and thus the reason for his interest in it, was that the machine wrote sound as it was formed in waves—a more accurate rendition of the actual production of sound. The phonoautograph, which works according to synesthetic principles, was considered a “machine [that] hears for them” (Sterne 38). Nevertheless, Bell, a eugenicist, wanted to find ways to normalize people who were deaf, and he believed that the technology he furthered would provide the intervention necessary to train them to hear and to speak.[8]

Bell’s effort failed, but it is important to note the way in which sound reproduction arose in part to deal with the cultural problem of deafness. The successors of the phonoautograph—all of what Sterne has named “auditory surrogates”—include the telephone, phonograph, and radio. Frenchman Charles Cros, who came up with a design for the phonograph, worked in a school in Paris for the deaf and mute. Thomas Edison, who is credited with the invention of the phonograph, was hard of hearing. On some of his earlier models, there are teeth marks where he had to test his work through touch to ascertain the status of the instrument. Samuel Morse, who invented the telegraph, was married to a deaf woman. Deaf and heard of hearing people are everywhere present in the technological production of the new sonic terrain.

The oscillations between hearing and deafness—between noise and silence, comprehensible and incomprehensible sound, the articulations of the sounding voice and the gesturing body, the possibilities of seeing sound—induced great anxiety and profound questions about what it is possible to hear. Nevertheless, Sterne writes: “To paraphrase Kittler, deafness was at the beginning of sound reproduction” (41). The development of these sound-reproduction technologies both expanded the material sensorium and sought ways to contain it.

In addition to the use of technology to manage bodies of deafness, a related pattern emerged in deaf educational settings. As a part of the normalizing strategies for hearing and speaking as a set of practices that revolved around the valorization of the speaking voice, deaf educators pushed for oralism rather manualism. Douglas Baynton, who has written extensively on the parallels between deaf history and immigrant history in the United States, notes that by the late 1800s the tenets of deaf education had shifted in support of an oralist model of education—one that sought to do away with the use of sign language and demanded that deaf individuals learn to speak. Influenced by Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species, educators accepted the popular belief that sign language was a more primitive form of language—which placed those who used it lower on the evolutionary ladder. As a consequence, the responsibility of the enlightened educators was to help people who were deaf move toward progress. Argued on scientific grounds of verifiability regarding the presumed links between biology and language formation, the oralist agenda also was a colonialist attempt to strip deaf people of their language and culture. Despite these efforts—often with quite violent outcomes—the move toward oralism only succeeded in pushing the use of sign language underground.[9]

The emphasis on speaking rather than signing also had its root in the nation-state building projects in France, England, and the United States. Benedict Anderson has articulated the ways in which “imagined communities” were fostered within and across national lines through the use of print media and the maintenance of a language that helps build cultural and social identification. To maintain nation-states that revolved around a univocality of purpose and identity, all signs of multilingualism had to be eradicated.

Additionally, the use of sign language troubles the modern standardization of hearing. Signing, as a way of speaking through the body, counters the emphasis on sound in the cultural mainstream. Signing is also about the moving field of visuality. Rather than reinforce the visual practices of perspectivism and panopticism, which attempt to locate everything in a visual field in relation to a central focal point, the use of sign language is a communicative approach that decenters the logocentric model of communication. The field of attention is not fixed in space but is always shifting. As we discuss in the subsequent sections, political and cultural efforts to control the emerging, although uneven, manifestations of the theaters of a third ear were never successful for long.


8. For more on the invention of audiology, see “Diagnosing Deafness” in Brenda Brueggemann’s Lend Me Your Ear: Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness (1999).

9. It was another century before linguistics established that the many sign languages are languages in their own right, and, more recently, that the language instinct is such that it develops as sonic or visible gesture, but there is not inherent hierachization of one over the other.


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