by Austin Kocher
Why are we devoting three sessions at the AAG to Deaf Geography?

With brevity, I want to answer that question not only for those who stumble across our work with curiosity, but for those of us who are already involved. I’ll begin with an example. In the past week, a video of a woman receiving a cochlear implant (CI) has circulated on the internet and on primetime television. The video, filmed by her husband, shows her CI being turned on for the first time. She is understandably emotional, communicating in clear, spoken English to the therapist that she can hear. The title of the video describes the woman as “Deaf from birth”, though no other information about her background is available. The video has prompted the most gushing comments on YouTube and Facebook, while also drawing heartfelt comments from Anderson Cooper, who showed the video on CNN.

There is no doubting that such a CI would be an authentically emotional experience for someone who desired one and could use it. But let’s  separate for a moment the personal experience of the young lady in the video and the way the video has functioned in public circulation. First there appears to be no question at all as to how a person who has never heard a sound could immediately, upon receiving a CI, begin to speak in crystal clear English even though she cannot see the therapist speaking to her. The ear is a brilliant organ, but it’s a trained organ. The ears are mere microphones – brilliant ones at that – attached to the head, while the brain is the motherboard that does all the work of processing sound into language and producing spoken or signed communication from thought. This unacknowledged aspect of the video in its symbolic absence produces symbolic meaning for the video: a woman trapped in silence finds subjective wholeness by hearing her own voice through the use of technology! The symbolic efficacy of the video is demonstrated in the number of comments online of readers who express their own weeping. 

The problem here is that what allows the video to function are two features which are absent: first, the absence of the woman’s history makes it appear that we are witnessing a miracle moment, when in all likelihood, the lady has trained for years to use her voice and likely her residual hearing, a project which is expensive, time-consuming, and marginally successful for the majority of completely (clinically) deaf individuals; second, the figure of the tainted deaf subject – who is symbolically incomplete through their lack of access to sound – forms the background which allows viewers to read the video emotionally as the restoration not just of physical hearing, but the restoration of a subject.

This view of deafness is prevalent in society, no less so within academia. When I mention that in addition to being a PhD student, I am also an ASL-English interpreter, I often receive that condescending yet appreciative smile saved for someone who performs an entirely marginal but undoubtably generous moral act of helping people less fortunate. That sign language or deaf studies (deaf/Deaf/deafness/deafhood/…the list grows) could prompt legitimate research questions is viewed with some skepticism. Yet by bringing together geography and Deaf studies, I believe there is a way to enrich both while also developing new ways of discussing and analyzing public misunderstanding such as the video above.

I should say up front, my research is not in deaf studies. Why then do I find these sessions worth even the modicum of time to organize? Like much academic work, it’s about creating a space where we can share our academic research and where these often marginalized conversations can flourish and spread throughout the discipline.
Cynthia Benoit
10/18/2011 11:29:11 am

:-) Very well said, Austin! Just LOVED it!

10/21/2011 01:12:46 am

Wow! d/Deaf society issues of great interest...?!

6/23/2012 08:49:26 pm

Thanks for a great read.

9/18/2012 06:43:44 am

Anyone know where I can find more information?


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    Austin Kocher
    Deaf Geography
    Deaf Space


    March 2012
    October 2011
    September 2011
    May 2011