Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Not Deaf Enough

From the last three paragraphs of "Deafness and the Riddle of Identity," by Lennard Davis, in The Chronicle Review. Interesting piece, and worth reading the whole thing (oh, go on -- it's short). Hat tip to Arts & Letters Daily, which is itself worth regular visits.

Deaf people aren't the only ones struggling to define themselves in this new age of post-identity. They don't have to go it alone. What brings together all the social injustices of the past 200 years is the idea that people with various bodily traits have been discriminated against because of those traits. Rather than defining people according to those traits, a newer, more-inclusive concept of identity holds that you can't base your full and complex identity on those putative bodily traits because you can't justify their existence as markers anymore. The grand categories of race, gender, and so on are no longer valid because they no longer contain rigid fire walls. Who is black and who is white, who is a man and who is a woman are questions whose answers are murkier than ever. Likewise, deafness as a category can exist only if you rely on comparably rigid fire walls. If you let go of the idea of rigid boundaries, then you have to face a more continuous line of possibilities, including the hearing-impaired, hard of hearing, partially deaf, profoundly deaf, and so on. You also have to deal with people with varying degrees of both oral and ASL abilities, including a range of ASL usage among children of deaf adults. So the concept of deafness can get very messy, unless you perform a kind of "common sense" purifying of the category -- which might work, but has the same pitfalls as "common sense" racial categories, for example. Common sense in this context is really just socially constructed truisms that are never really common at all.

I am arguing that defining the deaf or any other social group in terms of ethnicity, minority status, and nationhood (including "deaf world" and "deaf culture") is outdated, outmoded, imprecise, and strategically risky. We would be better off expanding our current notions of identity by being less Procrustean and more flexible. Rather than trying to force the foot into a glass slipper, why not make a variety of new shoes that actually fit?

In that scenario, for example, people who are "one generation thick" could find commonality. So people with disabilities, deaf people, gay people, and children of deaf adults could say: We represent one potential way out of the dead end of identity politics. We are social groups that are not defined solely by bodily characteristics, genetic qualities, or inherited traits. We are not defined by a single linguistic practice. We need not be defined in advance by an oppressor. We choose to unite ourselves for new purposes. We are not an ethnic or minority group, but something new and different, emerging from the smoke of identity politics and rising like a phoenix of the postmodern age.

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