In the film version of Mark Medoff’s play, Children of a Lesser
God, James (William Hurt) is a speech instructor at a deaf school
who believes that his students must be educated into oral culture by
being taught to lip-read and speak. He falls in love with Sarah (Marlee
Maitlin) who is deaf but who refuses to participate in his pedagogical
project. She signs throughout the film, insisting on her right to remain
silent, until one climactic scene when, under James’s badgering,
she suddenly screeches out a stream of speech. It is a powerful scene
because it is the first time the hearing audience has experienced her
voice and realizes that she can speak but prefers not to. It is also
powerful because instead of achieving the desired result, Sarah’s
vocalizing illustrates the coercive force of an educational system based
around speech rather than manual signing. What James witnesses is a
kind of deaf performative--a form of speech that enacts or performs
rather than describes--its meaning contained not in the content of Sarah’s
words (most of which are unrecognizable) but in the results the performance
achieves in shaking his oralist bias. In Henry Louis Gates’s terms,
it signifies on speech as much as by means of it (44-88). For the hearing
educator, speech is the key to normalization in hearing-based culture;
for the Deaf signer, speech is the sign of an alienating process that
only performing can make evident.
I want to extend the concept of a Deaf performative to describe the
work of Deaf language-artists for whom the use of speech and vocalization
is a kind of scandal and who utilize that scandal to critical ends.
By scandal, I mean that the eruption of speech (or, as we shall see,
text) in Deaf performance challenges the conventional opposition of
signing and speech and allows for more complex, hybrid combinations.
In the wake of the Deaf President Now protests (DPN) of 1988 at Gallaudet
University and the launching of a powerful political movement for the
empowering of Deaf persons, the use of speech-based pedagogies represents
the continuing authority of hearing culture. The attempt to reinforce
oralist values by audiologists, psychologists, educators and legislators
has been combated by an increasingly politicized social movement of
the Deaf who regard themselves not as a handicapped population but as
a linguistic minority with distinct cultural and historical traditions.
As Dirksen Bauman, Harlan Lane, Douglas Baynton, Carol Padden, Tom Humphreys
and others have observed, audism--the ideological replication of humans
as hearing subjects--has influenced treatment of Deaf persons from the
outset. The incarceration of the deaf in institutions, the denial of
ASL as a language, the imposition of medical aids (cochlear implants,
hearing aids), mainstreaming in education, punishment of children for
manual signing--all constitute what Harlan Lane has called a “colonial”
subjugation of the Deaf (31-8). A postcolonial regime is very much underway,
and performance is one of its key venues.
Humphreys and Padden refer to the portmanteau ASL sign for “think-hearing”
which transfers the sign for “hearing” (a finger rotating
near the mouth) to the region of the head in order to describe someone
who “thinks and acts like a hearing person” or who uncritically
embraces the ideology of others (53). ASL poets like Clayton Valli,
Ella Mae Lentz, Debbie Rennie and others have made “think-hearing”
a subject of aesthetic critique while using ASL as a powerful counter-discourse
to phonocentric models for literature. In their work, “performing
the text” means utilizing ASL signing to establish community (the
Deaf audience understands a sign’s multiple meanings) and politicize
the occasion (the hearing audience cannot rely on acoustic prosodic
models). Thus a key meaning in every Deaf performance is a set of shared
cultural values implicit in the use of ASL. One might say that in addition
to the four categories foregrounded in deaf performance--space, body,
time, language--a fifth must be added: that of Deaf culture itself.
But to speak of “Deaf Culture” as a single entity is to
generalize a rather broad continuum of persons variously positioned
with respect to deafness. The phrase would include children who are
deaf but whose family is hearing or hearing children of deaf parents
(CODA) as well as persons who have become deaf later in life or who
still retain some hearing. And in descriptions of Deaf performance such
differences often become obscured in a more general celebration of an
authentic (eg. soundless, textless, ASL-based) poetry. The decision
by Ella Mae Lentz and others not to have their ASL works voice-interpreted
is an understandable refusal of hearing culture, but it has limited
the venues in which they may participate and audiences they might reach.
I would like to look at three deaf artists, Peter Cook, Aaron Williamson,
and Joseph Grigley who violate such authenticity and in doing so comment
suggestively on issues of language and communication in general, insofar
as they are based on a phonocentric model. In my conclusion I will suggest
some of the implications that such performers pose for the intersections
between performance, disabilities and multiculturalism.
Peter Cook is the deaf half of Flying Words, a collaborative performance
group, the other half of which is Kenny Lerner, who hears but also signs.
The two create performances that draw on several vernacular Deaf traditions
including mime, deaf ventriloquism, and storytelling. Where Flying Words
differs from Deaf poets like Clayton Valli and Ella Mae Lentz is in
their use of sound and collaboration. Not only does Lerner occasionally
vocalize (speak over) Cook’s signs, Cook sometimes vocalizes while
he signs. For Deaf nationalists, such collaboration with the hearing
world is problematic, to say the least, but for the two of them, it
is a way of extending the gestural potentiality of ASL into what we
might call an immanent critique of audist ideology. Furthermore, Lerner’s
vocalization is seldom used to translate or interpret Cook’s signing.
Often, Lerner is silent while Cook punctuates his signing with words
or parts of words.
Such is the case in “I Am Ordered Now to Speak,” a performance
that dramatizes pedagogical tensions between oralist and manualist learning.
The two performers, standing on either side of a stage, render a poem
recounting Cook’s oralist education at the Clarke School. Cook
speaks the poem while Lerner signs, thus reversing the usual interpreter/
interpreted role. Cook’s voice is, as Brenda Brueggeman points
out, “loud, monotone, wooden, ‘unnatural,’ nearly
unintelligible,” while Lerner’s signs are “a bit stiff
and exaggerated as well” (205). The unsettling nature of oral
delivery is reinforced by the poem’s violent denunciation of oral
education, compared at one point to a kind of lobotomy, “for the
sake of ma bell.” Cook’s repeated version of the speech
instructor’s refrain, “you / must / now / talk,” becomes
increasingly agitated as the poem moves to its conclusion. At one point,
the two performers come together, Lerner standing behind Cook, posing
as the “speech freako” who, in demanding vocal articulation
from his deaf student, imitates a brain surgeon. Cook, as patient, warns
don’t stare at me
I was on that cold metal table
that speech freako wants me
as example for the society
rip my brains with
peanuts buttered spoon
scream with blackboard trick:
B IS NOT P
D IS NOT T
S IS NOT Z (Brueggeman, 206)
As with James in Children of a Lesser God, the oral instructor
wants to make an example of the deaf student by asking him to pronounce
phrases like “peanuts buttered spoon.” Such phrases are
replete with phonemes that, for a lip reader, are difficult to distinguish.
The oralist teacher’s corrections, “B IS NOT P/ D IS NOT
T / S IS NOT Z,” are counterpoised to Lerner’s signing in
which the verbal distinctions among phonemes become spatial and readable
distinctions among manual signs. Cook’s unintelligible speech
suggests the limits of oralist education, while Lerner’s signing,
however tentative, provides a corrective. Both performers utilize a
language “foreign” to their usual cultural milieu, and as
such embody the very alienation thematized in the poem. The deaf student
is forced to signify under orders; the hearing person “translates”
into readable signs a speech that is all but incomprehensible.
Before beginning their performance, Lerner announces that Cook will
sign briefly--without vocal interpretation--to the deaf audience. Lerner
points out that Cook “will be focusing on hearing people. So,
please, feel paranoid” (205). Such framing of multiple constituencies
creates a certain edginess that reverberates throughout the performance.
It also foregrounds the audio in audience, because for most performers
audience implies a homogeneous (hearing) entity. For Peter Cook to speak
the poem is to show the ideology of think hearing at its most flagrant.
But by collaborating with Lerner, who remains silent, he does something
more. He illustrates a fruitful co-mixture of sound and sign contributing
to a critical as well as aesthetic performance.
The links between hearing and Deaf culture are established in the collaborative
nature of performance, yet by occasionally placing the hearing Lerner
behind in a mask, Cook stresses the ghostly presence of hearing culture--assisting
but invisible. In this sense, Flying Words redirects the paternalist
hierarchy of hearing to non-hearing persons by placing the deaf performer
in front, reversing the spatial (and audiological) proximity. The spatial
positioning of hearing and deaf, English and ASL, interpreter and interpreted
within Flying Words performances maps an indeterminate space between
and within audist culture. Lerner and Cook utilize their bodies and
their bi-cultural experiences to define and critique a world that must
be spoken to be known. What would a world look like in which sound follows,
rather than precedes, signs created by the body. A contrasting view
might, in Owen Wrigley’s terms, “see a world built around
the valence of visual rather than aural channels” (3). This is
the subject of work by Aaron Williamson, a British performance artist
who began to lose his hearing at a young age and who was profoundly
deaf by his mid-twenties. Although he has been deaf for most of his
adult life, he retains a strong connection to hearing culture and makes
his bi-cultural condition a major theme in his performances. Like Peter
Cook, he often collaborates with other performers, including musicians
and drummers (he has appeared in punk bands since the mid 1970s). But
unlike many Deaf performers--including Flying Words--signing is not
a prominent feature of his work. Rather, it is among the arsenal of
gestures which he uses to confront the limnal situation of the late
deafened: those with one foot in Deaf and the other in Hearing communities.
A good introduction to Williamson’s work is his 1999 performance,
“Phantom Shifts,” a series of lyrical reflections on the
authority of the ear. In one sequence, the ear, in the form of a large
plaster sculpture, is carried on the performer’s back. Williamson
has said that the inspiration for this image came less from an attempt
to represent the burden of hearing than from an attempt to impede routinized
movement. To some extent all of his work involves the imposition of
limits to normalized action, constructing a “law of diminishing
referentiality” that he shares with a wide range of contemporary
performers. The title of this segment, “Breath,” refers
to the soundtrack that features Williamson’s labored breathing
as he bears his physical (the plaster ear, is, in fact, quite heavy)
and ideological burdens. But the soundtrack often cuts out, leaving
silences that impose their own acoustic burden on the hearing viewer
who expects some continuity between image and sound.
The second segment, “Wave,” takes the metaphor of breathing
another step by introducing vocalization in the form of a single syllable.
Thus “Phantom Shifts” shifts from breath to the beginnings
of significant sound. Williamson stands facing us at the end of a long
room, wearing a white shift. Before him and extending towards the camera
position is a long piece of translucent white material. In the foreground
the plaster ear is faintly outlined beneath the material. It is, in
British slang, covered by cloth or “cloth-eared,” meaning
mute or stupid. Williamson takes a series of deep breaths, approaches
the white sheet, raises it and suddenly lowers it, creating a wave that
rolls from him to the ear. The material is flexible enough to create
a continuous unfolding wave or ripple the full length of the room until
it reaches the ear. On one level, the wave seems to emanate from Williamson’s
breath, exhaled at the moment the material is lowered. On another level,
the wave is a dramatization of soundwaves travelling through space to
strike the tympanum. For the Deaf performer, however, Williamson’s
gesture is about the separation of breath from sound, of sound from
sense. The ear is less an extension of the body than a prosthesis towards
which the body aspires. Williamson’s breathing exercises resemble
a kind of ritual gesture made towards the fetish at the opposite end
of the room, but instead of animating the fetish with significant speech,
Williamson’s breath simply creates a wave.
In the final seconds of the brief performance, Williamson comes to speech,
uttering a loud “ha” before lowering the sheet. This time,
the ensuing wave uncovers the ear, permitting the performer to leave
the space. In a discussion of “Phantom Shifts” Williamson
has said that he uses this open-throated “ha” because it
is the most expressive and primal of sounds, deployed equally in laughter
and crying. Thus the sound that lays bear the device of the ear is one
that defies the purely semantic features of speech and calls attention
to the body’s expressive functions. If he cannot hear his own
voice, Williamson can represent the scene of its emergence, the agon
of its production. Moreover, by cutting the soundtrack off and on, he
may embody for the viewer the discontinuity of images detached from
their animating sounds.
What animates this and other performances by Aaron Williamson is a
recognition of the constitutive force of speech and hearing in the production
of knowledge. In western theology and philosophy, the Logos or reason
is represented as a voice, the spirit as breath. Such metaphors have
been active in constructing much postwar poetics, from Charles Olson’s
projective verse and Beat testimony to the anthropological oralism of
Gary Snyder or Jerome Rothenberg, to sound poetry and spoken word performance.
For Williamson, the Logos is figured not as a voice but as an ear, the
agent of reception in a Saussurean communicational diagram. The poet
shortcircuits the Judaeo-Christian model of the Logos as Voice by treating
the ear as a fetish, a stony recipientof cryptic messages that wash
up on its shore.
This same deconstruction of a logo-and phono-centric tradition can be
seen in Williamson’s recent work, “Hearing Things”
(1999). This performance is a kind of cybernetic meditation on the oracle
at Delphi. According to the story, the oracle purportedly delivered
cryptic messages which were then decoded by her acolytes. Williamson’s
Artaudian version utilizes a technological interface to turn himself
into a cyborg creature, half oracle, half scribe, part technology, part
human. In order to effect this synthesis, Williamson utilizes voice
recognition software to generate a text which becomes the focal point
for the performance. In its most recent manifestation, “Hearing
Things” uses software that picks up the sounds of audience members
who are encouraged to speak into a microphone placed in the gallery
space. In an earlier version, upon which I will focus here, the sounds
are produced by Williamson himself, converted by the software into a
text of recognizable English words. That text is then projected from
the ceiling onto the floor and reflected in two transparent auto-cuing
glasses behind the performer. Williamson moves around the text, gazing
at the words and making a variety of whoops, cries, chatters and moans--the
indecipherable words of the oracle.
Although he cannot hear his own voice, he may see its representation
in words generated by it, the computer acting as an interpreter of the
deaf speaker’s sounds. Thus by a curious inversion of agency,
Williamson may encounter his own words as alien--which for the deaf
person living in an audist world is precisely the case. Moreover, he
performs on and within the text, the words occasionally projected onto
his white shift, making him both the reflector and creator of the text
to which he gives birth, his status as poet confirmed by the laurel
wreath he wears on his head. And since he is wearing a dress, gender
confusion reinforces the mixed nature of this originary word, half female
oracle, half male amenuensis. Against the Judeo-Christian model of a
male Jehovah, speaking from the whirlwind, we have a female oracle whose
signs have yet to be learned by a patriarchal scribe.
The title, “Hearing Things,” is elaborately unpacked in
this performance. On one level it refers to language as unreality--”I
must be hearing things”--a phrase that refers to the phantasmal
quality of words when encountered as alien forms. For a late-deafened
person, words have become wraithes of their former semiotic bodies.
Willamson literalizes this aspect by seeing them projected on his body
from some outside source. But at an epistemological level, “hearing
things” refers to the binary opposition by which humans are measured
in hearing culture--in which an originary Logos (the Oracle) must be
heard in order to be incarnated in flesh. As Derrida has pointed out,
via Rousseau, hearing subjects are granted human status by their ability
to hear, but as such, they become merely things that hear, objects whose
only claim to identity is their possession of an intact auditory nerve.
The title fuses persons and/as things, made palpable by Williamson’s
use of a series of objects--a large plaster of paris ear, a navel stone
and a metal tripod (as used by the Delphian Pythia)--which he attempts
to animate. At three points in his performance he moves off stage to
bring these objects into view, moving them around, attempting to animate
them much as Beckett’s characters interrogate stones, bicycles
and biscuits. The objects become similar to the projected words themselves,
inert, contextless and foreign. Yet in Williamson’s interrogation,
they gain new life and function.
Williamson poses a number of problems for any consideration of Deaf
literature, beyond the fact that he utilizes voice in his performances.
The recursive manner by which text and body, computer and script, interact
frustrates the idea of creativity as something that gives “voice”
to some prior meaning. As an allegory of deafness, such recursiveness
embodies the ways that deafness is inscribed in what Foucault, in another
context, has called “technologies of the self.” For Williamson,
speaking of his use of technology, ...the biological becomes fused with
the digital as normal relations between cause and effect--between human
and computer--are broken down...As the digital and biological circulate
with each other the boundaries of linguistic agency and textual authority
erode as both components--computer and performer--desperately try to
interpret, respond to and prompt each other’s cracked, inauspicious
This “cracked” or fractured relation between human and machine
suggests a fissure in the edifice of postmodern performance based, as
it often is, on the authenticity of the body and gesture in an increasingly
technologized world. One dream of modernism was to return the text to
its materiality, to make the text speak authentically by removing it
from the instrumental purposes to which speech is linked. For postmodern
D/deaf performers, this materiality can no longer sustain its purely
aesthetic focus. In this sense, Flying Words and Aaron Williamson could
be aligned with Chicano/a interlingualists such as Gloria Anzaldua or
Lorna Dee Cervantes, feminist performance artists such as Laurie Anderson
or Eleanor Antin for whom performing or materializing the text always
implicates the word as a problem, not a conduit, in which cultural identity
is hybrid, not unitary.
Thus far, I have treated speech as the presumed antithesis of manual
signing, “scandalous” within Deaf culture because complicit
with audist or oral theories of communication. But as Derrida has made
abundantly clear, speech defines less a phenomenon than an ideology
of presence, a reification of signification within a phonocentric model.
As such, the intrusion of textuality into deaf performance would pose
the same threat, not unlike the use of vocalization to translate or
interpret the deaf poet’s signing. The use of printed English
text to interpret the deaf person’s intentions would once again
co-opt manual signs by linking them to English syntax and grammar. Since
there is no written representation of signs, communication among the
deaf must be performed, as it were, in situ. For this reason, philosophers
of language since Rousseau have seen manual signing as primitive or
The intervention of textual communication into deafness is central
to the work of Joseph Grigely, a literary scholar and visual artist
who has written extensively on textual matters. He has been deaf since
childhood and is fluent in ASL, although in his art installations, his
focus is written English. Grigely diverges rather sharply from Peter
Cook and Aaron Williamson by stressing writing over sign or gesture,
yet like both performers, he is interested in the strangeness of writing
when encountered through a deaf optic. My oxymoron--a deaf optic--describes
a bi-cultural approach to communication in which hearing viewer must
communicate with deaf interlocutor by non-acoustic means. Since 1994,
Grigley has created installations out of the written notes passed between
hearing interlocutors and himself. These bits of discursive flotsam--post-its,
bar napkins, gallery programs, sheets of notebook paper--contain partial
communications between deaf and hearing worlds. As such, they are metonymies
of whole conversations rendered telegraphically through a few words:
“Although it was no whiskey in it”; “Squid? oh my”;
“What’s your second best ideal”. Not unlike most oral
conversations, the content of such remarks is less important than their
furtherance of communicational intentions. But since they are written,
they gain a materiality that spoken words do not. By displaying them
on the walls of a gallery, Grigley refers to a lost site of communication,
one which the viewer must complete by conjecture. And because the slips
are placed next to each other, they create their own internal dialogues.
Unlike visual artists from the Dadaists to Cy Twombly or Robert Indiana,
for whom writing and calligraphic elements are design features, Grigely’s
words are drawn from actual conversations. His scribbled messages are
not invented but rather collected by him, displayed like archaeological
finds whose genetic origins are obscure. Occasionally he adds descriptive
plaques--what he calls “story lines”-- to explain circumstances
of various meetings, creating a mock docent quality to his survey of
ephemeral pieces of paper. As a collector he is interested in the materiality
of ephemerality, the textures and color of paper, pen and handwriting,
as they instantiate a moment of sociality. That such moments are often
about Grigely’s deafness is never far from their materiality:
“Do you read lips?” one slip says, followed in the same
hand by “Do you prefer written words?” Another reads, “I
guess it’s an Economy of Words that I’d like.” Such
meta-textual remarks remind us that however immediate the exchange of
conversation papers might be, the fact of one interlocutor’s difference
from the other can never be dissevered from the conversation.
Grigely titles his earlier exhibitions “Conversations with the
Hearing,” reversing the ethnographic stereotype of the medical
scientist who studies the deaf native. As an ethnologist Grigely collects
the “rescued” written slips from various conversations and
makes them the subject of his archive. His occasional descriptive plates
provide a deadpan narration of a given meeting:
I met Tamara G quite by chance in New York, where she was spending
a few months working on a project. She’s from Frankfurt. During
the time she was in New York we got to know each other a bit. Occasionally
we would go out together to have coffee or to go to exhibition openings--anything
that would give us the opportunity to talk about art and work in an
informal context. Tamara has a very nice and distinctive accent when
she writes, and I often wonder if her voice sounds like it looks (Rubenstein,
Surrounding this card are the collected conversation papers between
Grigley and Tamara G, placed within an installation entitled “Lo
Studio / The Study” which appeared at the Venice Biennale in 1995.
The painterly trope of the “Artist’s Studio” has been
retrofitted to include not only the table on which the artist works
but the written detritus of actual meetings, conversations and relationships.
Instead of paints, models and prints, Grigely’s studio features
wastebaskets, piles of paper and scotch tape--an allegory, to paraphrase
Courbet, of the artist’s “real life” among hearing
people. As Raphael Rubenstein writes of this exhibition, “Grigely’s
messy desk installations, which he carefully orchestrates, are not simply
replays of scatter art but his fullest attempt to render the complexities
of human conversation” (133).
At the core of this complexity is an exploration of metonymy, the way
that fragments of conversations point to larger utterances and social
occasions. In the absence of a descriptive narrative or full sentence,
the viewer must supply contexts. And as an allegory of deaf relations
to hearing world, every written mark instantiates a thwarted relationship
to the world that takes speech for granted. The phrase, “because
you can’t,” printed on a slip of orange paper, could be
a response to a challenge (“why can’t I do such and such?”)
or a truncation of a larger sentence (“because you can’t
do such and such, threfore you must do such and such”). By taking
these partial utterances from their communicational conduit and placing
them on walls in public spaces, Grigely calls attention to the partial
and attenuated nature of deaf / hearing communication when part of the
utterance may be completed by lip-reading, body-language or other gestures.
And since many of these utterances were written on ready-to-hand documents--museum
brochures, menus, matchbook covers--they point outward at a larger social
nexus where private conversation meets institutional space.
The metonymic character of Grigely’s art has an important bearing
on what I take to be the artist’s larger critique of audism. Aaron
Williamson, speaking of this aspect of Grigely’s work, notes that
the “writing in the presence of the reader produces a wide variety
of reactions which may in themselves abbreviate the communication (for
example, a realisation by the speaker that the lack of thought in a
casual remark is about to become graphically apparent)...” (Art
Monthly, 35). At another level, this metonymic aspect of communication
refers to the construction of deafness itself, the marginalization of
a population through medical, pedagogical or eugenics discourses. While
there is no direct correlation between marginal texts and marginal identities,
there is always the sense that what is left out of a given remark (“is
storytelling dying out?” one slip says) is the full presence guaranteed
by spoken language--a speech that would, ironically, render such conversation
This critical aspect of Grigley’s textual work can be seen in
a pamphlet called Deaf & Dumb: A Tale which consists of pages from
various books and treatises from the late Renaissance to the present,
all of which deal with deafness. Like his conversation papers, these
pages have been separated from their original codex books, yet there
is enough information in each page to indicate what the original book
concerns. The pages themselves are facsimiles of actual pages, their
antique fonts registering varying periods of print technology, and so
have the same rhetorical status as his conversation slips--fragments
of actual documents or conversations whose origins have been effaced.
The “tale” of the pamphlet’s subtitle concerns the
ways that deaf persons have been infantalized, pathologized or demonized
throughout history. The cautionary aspect of the pamphlet is illustrated
by its homely epigraph: “This little volume, although originally
prepared for the Deaf and Dumb, will be found to be equally adapted
to the instruction of other children in families, infant schools, common
schools, and Sunday schools” (2).
Grigely’s mock serious pamphlet is indeed instructional, but
to ends entirely different from the originals. Like Walter Benjamin’s
Arcades project, Grigely’s pamphlet takes historical objects (books
and pamphlets) and rubs them the wrong way, exposing racialist and ableist
agendas in works with missionary intentions. Several pages are taken
from primers in oralist education, including guides for pronunciation
and proper elocution. Another text is apparently from an eugenics treatise
that warns against the dangers of deaf/hearing intermarriage:
While there is still some doubt as to how large a part heredity plays
in deafness, the indications of its influence are clear enough to make
a person with a family history of deafness take all possible care to
avoid conditions that favor hearing impairment...(24)
Many pages offer consoling accounts of deaf people who have been “converted”
or “brought over” to the hearing world, through oral exercise.
Other accounts suggest (wrongly) that deafness coincides with dumbness
or muteness and is therefore a sign of insanity or feeble-mindedness.
Perhaps the most telling page is drawn from Rousseau who defines in
brief, the linguistic basis for many subsequent attacks on manual signing:
Still, the speech of beavers and ants is apparently by gesture; i.e.,
it is only visual. If so, such languages are natural, not acquired.
The animals that speak them possess them a-borning: they all have
them, and they are everywhere the same. They are entirely unchanging
and make not the slightest progress. Conventional language is characteristic
of man alone. That is why man makes progress...and animals do not.
A last example testifies to the economic marginalization by showing
plausible trades which the deaf have entered at various “institutions
for the deaf and dumb”: cabinet-making, shoemaking, book-binding,
gardening and printing. In most cases, the page ends mid-sentence, leaving
the fuller context empty. Although Deaf & Dumb: A Tale is technically
a work of book-art, it should be included in Grigely’s art installations
as a subtle interrogation of the links between textuality and marginalization,
what he, in his critical work calls “textual eugenics.”
It may seem that in describing Joseph Grigely’s textual art I
have swerved rather far from my initial concerns with deaf performance.
Aaron Williamson may eschew both English and ASL but there is little
doubt that he is “performing” at some level. Grigely’s
rather quiet installations hardly invite the same scrutiny of gesture
and orality that are the hallmark of traditional performance artists,
but they allow us to return to my use of Henry Louis Gates’s idea
of “signifyin(g)” as a vernacular act that creates meaning
by gesturing at certain received traditions and canons of meaning-making.
For Grigely to create a textual space based on truncated conversations
is to comment on a broken relationship with hearing culture while making
art out of that brokenness. By enlisting the hearing viewer in the difficulty
of that conversation, Grigely may point to historical fissures that
have kept the d/Deaf individual outside, as it were, of the gallery
and museum--and outside of the epistemological discourse of art as a
specific kind of knowledge.
As Grigely’s art or Aaron Williamson’s Hearing Things
makes evident, alienation from the text--and textuality--is literal--words
appear on the ground or museum wall like exotic flora and fauna in some
new, cybernetic Eden. Williamson may step on them, point at them and
give them meaning, but he is removed from their production. His non-semantic
roaring, like that of Sarah in Children of a Lesser God, is a speech
act that challenges the ordinariness of ordinary language, making strange
not only sounds but the discursive arena in which speech “makes
sense.” Similarly The Flying Words Project, by treating the sign
as a process of community-building, reinforces the collective qualities
of meaning-production on a global scale. Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner’s
complex use of sound and sign, far from uniting the two in a gesture
of multi-cultural unity, illustrates the continuing divide between speech-based
and Deaf pedagogies. Their metatextual references to both hearing and
deaf audiences challenge the idea that ASL is an invented or iconic
language, ancillary to English. Rather, in their hands, it becomes a
rich, polyvalent structure, capable of containing the container. The
“scandal of speech” in Deaf performance is not that it appears
in concert with signing, but that its use calls into question the self-evident
nature of speech-based communicational models. At the very minimum,
such performers make “think-hearing” a phrase that once
seen can never be heard the same way twice.
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