In attempting to narrow down my dissertation topic, which broadly deals with listening, sound, bodies, affect, and digital media, I have become more and more fascinated by deaf studies--not exactly the first thing that pops into one's mind when thinking about sound and listening, I know. But since I am heavily invested in the bodily, affective aspects of listening, deaf communication practices seem like an obvious jumping off point.
As I have argued before, listening is a corporeally distributed practice that deserves to be considered beyond solely discursive contexts. In order to denaturalize common notions of listening, which often only emphasize the role of the ear and brain in the reception and interpretation of sound, I think it is necessary to examine the listening practices of those individuals who do not have a functioning auditory system. In other words, I am interested in what happens to our understanding of listening when we cannot rely on the use of our ears. And I am particularly interested in how deaf students and musicians are taught to listen. For instance, what aspects of deaf listening pedagogy might be applicable to listening bodies at large? How might deaf listeners change, enhance, and/or trouble ideas about reception? Though I view bodies as a crucial part of all expression and communication, the body as an expressive tool takes on a more blatant significance and exigency when deafness is a factor. Studying deaf listening practices, then, will illuminate the bodily aspects of listening that have been largely ignored among hearing populations.
In Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, Oliver Sacks writes,
"One has only to watch two people signing to see that signing has a playful quality, a style, quite different from that of speech. Signers tend to improvise, to play with signs, to bring all of their humor, their imaginativeness, their personality, into their signing, so that signing is not just the manipulation of symbols according to grammatical rules, but, irreducibly, the voice of the signera voice given a special force, because it utters itself, so immediately, with the body. One can have or imagine disembodied speech, but one cannot have disembodied sign." (119, my emphasis)
The intricate, geometrically precise movement that one must learn to succeed as a signing rhetor is almost athletic. Fluency is only achieved through habitual embodied practice. But as Sacks states, this kind of communication involves more than just understanding grammar. American Sign Language (ASL) requires one's body to act as a voice, with all of the expressive tone and weight that vocality conveys. Grammatical knowledge goes hand in hand with situated, creative, kairotic responses. Because ASL is inextricably entwined with the body--with affect, movement, gesture, expression--I believe this area of study will illuminate what kinds of habits (hearing and nonhearing) listeners need to develop in order to understand and interpret nondiscursive rhetoric.
Though I find ASL and deaf communication practices genuinely interesting and relevant to communication writ large, I've been experiencing a lot of anxiety about studying deafness as a hearing individual. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about Deaf (with a capital D) culture and pedagogy, and this brief post only contains some initial ideas about the direction of my project. As my work progresses, I intend to develop my examination of deafness more fully (particularly in relation to Deaf culture). Talking about bodies of any sort without any personal, cultural, or political context can be problematic, and contextualizing the bodies I discuss will certainly be a part of my future work. But in this early stage, my primary focus is on the purely physical, material aspects of (deaf and hearing) bodies. My intention is not to objectify, but merely to deepen my understanding of corporeal listening practices. If anyone out there has recommendations for resources (especially on the role of digital media in deaf pedagogy), or general comments/concerns about my research, I'd love to hear from you.