Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Seeing, Seeing, Seeing": Deafness, Knowledge, and Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Seeing, Seeing, Seeing": Deafness, Knowledge, and Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen

Article excerpt

In What is Posthumanism?, Cary Wolfe enlists Temple Grandin's account of her autism to critique reductive ideas of subjectivity. He quotes Oliver Sacks's comment that Grandin's first book was "unthinkable because it had been medical dogma for forty years or more that there was no 'inside,' no inner life, in the autistic, or that if there was it would be forever denied access or expression" (129). As Wolfe sees it,

   that dogma is founded in no small part on the too-rapid
   assimilation of the questions of subjectivity, consciousness, and
   cognition to the question of language ability--a dogma that is
   perhaps even more entrenched in the humanities and social sciences
   than in areas such as medicine. Indeed, as many scholars have
   argued, the shibboleth "where there is reason, there is a subject"
   morphs, in the twentieth century, into "where there is language,
   there is a subject."

Wolfe's work on the non-verbal aspects of autistic subjectivity is germane also to assumptions about the subjectivity of others who do not speak, or do not speak fluently, including people who are prelingually deaf. The idea that language is the sine qua non of subjectivity, an inadequate idea in itself, becomes even more reductive in the common slippage--in both everyday and philosophical discourse--from language to speech.

For the western philosophical tradition, language entails speech. As Lennard Davis points out, even "the act of writing is falsely given the qualities of sonic duration.... So many of our assumptions about writing, about language, about communication are based on the premise that language is in fact sonic, audible, vocalized" (100). In his critique of phonocentrism in Of Grammatology, Derrida has shown that western culture's privileging of speech over writing stems from a concomitant privileging of presence over absence. This critique does not analyze deafness or signed languages, but as H-Dirksen Bauman has suggested, Derridas analysis enables

   the theoretical significance of "deafness" ... [to take] on new
   historical and metaphysical importance.... Deafness exiles the
   voice from the body, from meaning, from being; it sabotages its
   interiority from within, corrupting the system which has produced
   the "hearing" idea of the world. Deafness, then, occupies a
   consummate moment in the deconstruction of Western ontology....
   There is always a trace of nonpresence in the system of signing.

This "trace of nonpresence" disturbs notions of self-presence, identity, interiority, and understanding that have traditionally depended on assumptions about the voice and speech. (1) Such an equation of language and speech leads many to question or dismiss the subjectivity of those who do not use spoken languages, and shapes both fictional representations and real-life understandings of the deaf.

One result of this equation is that signed languages are dismissed as inferior modes of communication or not acknowledged as languages at all. (2) A recent critic of Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for example, collapses language into speech by describing John Singer--who signs fluently with his deaf friend Antonapoulos, reads the lips of English speakers, and writes grammatical English notes--as being without language. "Mick Kelly, Doctor Benedict Copeland, and Jake Blount each construct a Self-Other relationship," Charles Bradshaw writes, "with someone incapable of language--the deaf-mute, John Singer" (119). That this assertion was maintained after peer review and copy-editing suggests that such identification of language with speech is widespread. (3) Similarly, Michael Merva ties Singers lack of speech and hearing to a purported lack of understanding, often putting the word "understanding" in quotation marks. In his 2006 article, Merva writes that "Singers 'eyes' always 'understand'; of course they do; he is reading lips, 'understanding' with his eyes the words people are saying, although not necessarily their meanings" (13). …

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