Monday, 04 July 2005

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The Theory's Empire Event Pre-Game Show, Part I: Deaf Culture As loyal readers already know, my social skills suffer from my inability to ever really hear what people say. That said, the world's more amusing when, for example, one's advisor inquires about the success of one's "current tree search." In the tumble of words I often hear such damnably unparsable phrases. Many of them are far more amusing that "current tree search." The only reason that one's stuck around is because of my advisor's reaction to my sudden paralysis. Frozen I stared, and mute, wondering how he'd learned of my plans to purchase a potted lemon tree for the porch. "I'm thinking about lemons," I blundered. Now it was his turn to stare, bewildered by my admission that I'd been considering lemons a valid object of literary study. He asked why I'd been thinking about lemons, to which I sensibly replied "because there's not that much room on the porch." "For your work?" "What?" "What?" "What are you talking about?" "What are you talking about?" "Planting a lemon tree on the back porch." "Why would I care about that?" "Then why did you ask?" "Then why did I ask what?" "About my current..." As is often the case, I trailed off exactly when my mouth, prepping to repeat the absurd statement, clues my brain in to the nature of the misunderstanding. But I've digressed. What I intended to write about is Todd Gitlin's brief discussion of "the Deaf movement, barely one generation old, [but] representative of the strengths of post-1960s 'ethinicization'" (408). Gitlin continues: The practice of capitalizing Deaf signifies more than a new respect for those who cannot hear: it has become a sign of activism, with a popular base, with heroes and histories. It includes a commitment to American Sign Language, an active bilingualism, a call for representation (marked in 1988 by the successful demand that the incoming president of Gallaudet University in Washington be a deaf person). It extends as far as the rejection of cochlear implants that are intended to restore a certain degree of hearing. The claim to a Deaf culture is, today, no laughing matter. (ibid.) The serious question that the Deaf movement asks of identitarian thinkers concerns the essentialist stakes of identity politics. To obscenely oversimplify: on the one hand, some schools of identity politics presuppose a strong social constructivist position in which normative identity is nothing but historical contingency and people are who they are by accident of birth; on the other, other schools of identity politics presuppose that some people possess essential qualities that normative identities have denied expression. Either female identity has been constructed in the Western world such that women are more cooperative or women are more cooperative in the Western world because women are naturally more cooperative. The idea of Deaf culture literalizes this problem: either you've complete/partial loss of hearing or you don't. As concerns other identity enclaves, a perfectly reasonable (though not often invoked) compromise exists: culture could exaggerate/suppress essential qualities. But not with Deaf culture....

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