Benjamin BahanBenjamin J. Bahan is a professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. He is known for his works in American Sign Language literature as a storyteller and writer covering Deaf Cultural Studies. He is known for his works on the stories "The Ball Story" and "Birds of a Different Feather", book - A Journey into the Deaf-World (1996) with Robert J. Hoffmeister and Harlan Lane. Bahan also co-wrote and co-directed the film Audism Unveiled (2008) with his colleague Dirksen Bauman. After graduating from New Jersey School for the Deaf, Bahan attended Gallaudet University and received bachelor's degree in Biology in 1978. Afterwards, he worked at The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California where he researched American Sign Language linguistics and acquisition.
Benjamin LewisBenjamin Lewis, the first Deaf lecturer to work on the ASL program at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is passionate about flying hands. Fluent in not only ASL, but also Japanese Sign Language (JSL) and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), he is fascinated by watching not only Deaf people, but humans in general who also use their hands to communicate with others, incorporating not only signs but gestures and visual movements being but a few examples.
Beth BenedictBeth Benedict is a professor at the Department of Communication Studies at Gallaudet University, and is also the coordinator of Gallaudet's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Infants, Toddlers, and Families: Collaboration and Leadership Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate Program. She has published numerous articles and is a widely sought after lecturer on diverse topics including early intervention, early language acquisition, and family involvement. Dr. Benedict is the president of the American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC) from 2007 to 2011, and 2013 - present. ASDC is the oldest organization of, by, and for parents of deaf and hard of hearing children (www.deafchildren.org). Dr. Benedict holds a Ph.D. degree in education from Gallaudet University, a master's degree in education counseling from New York University, and a bachelor's degree from Gallaudet in psychology.
Corinna HillCorinna Hill is currently a senior undergraduate student at Gallaudet University with the plan to turn her tassel this May. Corinna is a History major and Criminology minor. She is originally from Texas and moved to Maryland when she was twelve. After graduating from Maryland School for the Deaf, she entered Gallaudet University. During her time here at Gallaudet, Corinna has been a part of several organizations such as The Buff and Blue student newspaper. She is going to now shamelessly plug information here, please go check out thebuffandblue.net if you haven't! She would like to take the time to thank her friends and family for listening to her ramble and putting up with her constant pacing. Corinna is very passionate about her topic and cannot thank her loved ones enough for all their support. Oh and in her free time, Corinna enjoys writing about herself in the third person.
Damien SpillaneMy name is Damien Spillane. I am Deaf and fluent in American Sign Language. At the moment, I am currently a first year graduate student, pursuing a MA in Cultural Studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. I am originally from Fremont, California. I have two bachelor degrees: Communication Studies from Gallaudet University in 2010, and Deaf Studies from California State University of Northridge in 2013. After pursuing my master's degree in Cultural Studies, I want to be a professor in any higher education setting. I want to teach a diverse range of topics including the dynamics of oppression, "-isms", and Deaf culture, all with a focus on making a difference in society, changing and challenging ideologies, and improving partnerships between communities.
Dirksen BaumanDirksen Bauman is Professor of Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University where he serves as Department Chair, Coordinator for the MA program in Deaf Studies and Coordinator for the Office of Bilingual Teaching and Learning. He is the co-editor of the book/DVD project, Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language (University of California Press, 2006), editor of Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and co-editor of Deaf-Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming). Dirksen Bauman is also a producer and co-director of the film Audism Unveiled (2008). He currently serves as Co-Executive Editor of the Deaf Studies Digital Journal (dsdj.gallaudet.edu), the world's first peer reviewed academic and cultural arts journal to feature scholarship and creative work in both signed and written languages.
Elizabeth Stone NirenbergLiz Stone Nirenberg is a Major Gifts Development Officer at Gallaudet University and is the current Board Chair of DAWN, a Washington, D.C.-based domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving deaf survivors. Liz has more than fifteen years of expertise in non-profit organizational sustainability and development. Prior to her current position, she was Project Manager at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center and an Assistant Director for Individual Giving and Foundation Relations at Gallaudet, where her work supported the establishment of the James L. Sorenson Language and Communication Center. Her community development work includes founding DAWN's annual signature fundraising event, BOOTS. Before moving to Washington, D.C. in 2003, she served as Educational Coordinator at the pioneering Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services (ADWAS) agency in Seattle, Washington.
Fred WeinerFred Weiner is a native New Yorker, attending New York City public schools and spending much of his free time in the city's playgrounds and streets. It was during those years that he was exposed to an amazing array of people from all walks of life which profoundly shaped his views of the world. Fred left NYC to attend Gallaudet University, but it's fair to say that NYC has never left Fred. He has worked in many different settings including the Federal government, the United States Congress, a Fortune 500 corporation and of course, Gallaudet University. Fred has been working at Gallaudet for nearly fifteen years and currently serves as Assistant Vice President for Administration. One of his projects is the development of Gallaudet's properties on 6th Street which aims to turn the area into an exciting part of the neighborhood where members of the Gallaudet community, neighborhood residents and visitors will live, work, dine and spend their leisure hours.
Hansel BaumanHansel Bauman is an architect currently serving as the Gallaudet University Campus Architect and is the founding partner of Hansel Bauman architect + planner (hb a+p). His work also includes urban and campus planning projects in the United States and China. In collaboration with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University Mr. Bauman founded the DeafSpace Project in 2006-a research and campus design project leading to the development of the "DeafSpace Design Guide". Since 2006 he has served as a design consultant on a range of projects serving the deaf community including the Rocky Mountain Deaf School, DeafHope, a transitional housing community for abused deaf women and Deaf Village, Ireland. While at Gallaudet University he has overseen the development of the 2022 Campus Plan, the design and construction of the university's newest student residence hall and consulted on the design vision for the redevelopment of the 6th Street corridor adjacent the Gallaudet campus.
John CollinsHaving read over 500 articles related to productivity, psychology and Getting Things Done, John M. Collins has been fascinated with productivity since 2007. As a 20-year veteran of the Lexington School for the Deaf and collegiate educator, he is in a unique position to integrate the fields of productivity, psychology and education. His wide variety of teaching experiences includes deaf middle school, high school, and recent immigrant students as well as undergraduate deaf and hearing students. He holds a Master's Degree in Deaf Education from Gallaudet University and a Bachelor's Degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from the University of California, San Diego. John currently serves as the Coordinator for the Deaf Studies Program at LaGuardia Community College where he has been teaching American Sign Language and Deaf Sociology since 2009.
Joseph SantiniJoseph R. Santini II is a teacher, writer, blogger, and artist. As a certified English teacher he has worked in public schools for six years. He is currently performing ethnographic research for his Ph.D. in Critical Studies in the Education of Deaf Learners at Gallaudet University after earning his MSc in Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol, UK, and a Master's in secondary education from the City College of New York. He has been a contributing author for Deaf American Prose, the Lesson Plans blogging group of the New York Times, and currently is a contributing writer for Noodle, and earned the Best Emerging Artist Award for his short film "...let us spell it out for you" at the Superfest film festival in 2007. In addition to his current research on the experience of bilingualism, Santini is also interested in exploring the power of expectations in Deaf education, bilingual development for children and school leadership in bilingual institutions.
Marlon KuntzeMarlon Kuntze is an associate professor in education at Gallaudet University with research interests in language and literacy development especially as they concern learning American Sign Language and written English among deaf children who are raised bilingually. He is interested in the typological characteristics of ASL and how ASL in spite of being typologically different from English is able to support the acquisition of English in the written form. It gives him an important angle for formulating a theory of how deaf children are able to learn to read and write without knowing spoken English.
Melissa MalzkuhnAs Digital Innovation & Media Strategies Manager, Melissa Malzkuhn leads and develops creative projects translating research findings into educational resources at the National Science Foundation's Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet University. Released in early 2013, The Baobab is the first of planned ASL/English bilingual storybook apps for young children. She also serves as a Co-Executive Editor of Deaf Studies Digital Journal, having previously being the Managing Editor, where she oversaw the launch of the journal. With a passion for interactive and immersive storytelling, Melissa Malzkuhn leads Motion Lab, where creative literature meets digital technology. Melissa Malzkuhn is currently pursuing her MFA in Visual Narrative at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City. Connect with her @mezmalz and www.mezmalz.com.
Peter HauserPeter C. Hauser, Ph.D. is the Director of the Deaf Studies Laboratory (DSL) in the Department of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. At DSL, he studies the cognitive, language, and psychosocial aspects of the Deaf experience. DSL is also where Dr. Hauser directs the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Rochester Bridges to Doctorate program, which recruits and trains the nation's top Deaf scholars for biomedical and behavioral science careers. He is also the National Science Mentorship Leader for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University. He has co-authored several books, published in over 40 peer review journal articles, and presented his work nationally and internationally.
Robert SirvageRobert T. Sirvage, DeafSpace Design Researcher. Venturing outside the pasture of Connaught, just north of the St. Lawrence Seaway, to chase the butterfly of the immeasurable. Along the way, Sirvage amassed experiences and honed his investigative skills within the following fields - History, Social Work, and Deaf Studies. His Master's in Deaf Studies thesis, "Investigating the Navigational Proxemics," led him to work for the Gallaudet University Office of Campus Design and Planning as a design researcher, specializing in DeafSpace. Sirvage travels across the country to promote DeafSpace as a design philosophy by giving presentations and participating in architectural projects, such as the Rocky Mountain Deaf School in Colorado and the Living and Learning Residence Hall 6, a new residential hall at the heart of Kendall Green at Gallaudet.
Wanda RiddleFrom a deaf family, Wanda Riddle was raised in the South. A faculty member at Gallaudet University since 2009, she has taught General Studies, Advanced ASL and ASL major courses. Instructor Riddle coordinated the ASL Immersion Program 2011 - 2013, a program for emerging signers to enhance their sign language skills. Since 2011, she is the coordinator of ASL Placement Test, a test designed for the placement of incoming students in ASL classes. She enjoys gardening, outdoor activities and ASL storytelling. Specializations: ASL Depiction, Sign Language Acquisition, Language Assessment, ASL Elocution, Sociolinguistics in Sign Language Communities, Deaf Studies, and History of Sign Languages.
The focus and concerns establishing Deaf Studies in the 1970s have rigidified into a reactive stance toward changing historical conditions and the variety of deaf lives today. This critique analyzes the theoretical foundation of this stance: a tendency to downplay established research in the field of Deaf Studies and linguistics, the employment of outdated examples of discrimination, an uncritical acceptance of Derrida's phonocentrism, flawed uses of Saussure's linguistic theory, and reliance on the limiting metaphor of colonialism. The purpose of the critique ultimately is to point Deaf Studies in a new direction. Issues with conceptualizing an expanded Deaf Studies are the focus of a companion article (this issue), “Inclusive Deaf Studies: Barriers and Pathways.”
Deaf Studies in the United States was born out of a movement in the 1960s and 1970s when linguistic scholars were struggling to prove that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language and that Deaf1 people have a culture, history, and educational practices that are important to learn about.2 Building on this linguistic research, scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds and artists contributed to what has become Deaf Studies. These first-generation scholars accomplished much, particularly in gathering and analyzing the history and arts of those who use ASL and live according to Deaf norms and values (Bahan & Marbury, 1992; Baker & Padden, 1978; Batson & Bergman, 1976; Baynton, 1996; Bragg & Bergman, 1981, 1989; Fischer & Lane, 1993; Lane, 1976, 1984a, 1984b, 1992; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996; Lucas & Valli, 1992; Padden & Humphries, 1988; Valli & Lucas, 1996; Van Cleve & Baker-Shenk, 1987; Van Cleve & Crouch, 1992; Wilcox, 1989).3 And the advocacy and vigilance that attended the birth of ASL and Deaf Studies are still needed. However, because of changing historical conditions and new awareness about the variety of deaf lives, Deaf Studies as an academic field needs to evolve and expand. Close scrutiny of the foundations of Deaf Studies is warranted to assure that changes are made to allow scholars in this field to reflect both a strong academic approach as well as an awareness of the complexity of deaf communities and their languages. As a first step in addressing the possibility of a new theoretical foundation for the field of Deaf Studies, this article critiques the currently predominant, reactive theoretical stance of the field built around audism and related concepts of phonocentrism and colonialism: Phonocentrism explains the origin of audism, and audism explains the rationale for the sociopolitical manifestation or institutionalization of audism in hearing colonization of deaf people.
Most fully expressing this reactive stance is Bauman's “Audism: Exploring the metaphysics of oppression,” published in 2004 in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.4 Bauman uses Derrida (1998) as a particularly compelling philosopher because Derrida critiques Western metaphysical understanding of the nature of reality in a way that puts phonocentrism, the privileging of speech, at the very center of Western culture. Adopting this critique elevates the importance of Deaf Studies insofar as people in the field focus on native ASL Deaf signers as the authentic core of deaf life. Phonocentrism, at first glance, seems appropriate as a concept to explain audism and thereby build a theoretical foundation for Deaf Studies because it can be used to signify reasons why signed languages were not recognized as languages or have been marginalized throughout the course of history.
Another idea Bauman explores may best be described as the metaphor of colonialism. Other scholars have also analyzed deaf history in these terms: Lane (1992), Mirzoeff (1995), Wrigley (1996), Ladd (2003), and Ladd (2008). Topics of discussion revolve around the medicalization or pathologizing of deafness that result in medical, educational, and social practices or institutions that oppress deaf people. Within this emerging foundation for Deaf Studies, a metaphorical use of colonialism purportedly describes how phonocentrism becomes the ideological grounding of a political and institutional relationship between hearing oppressor and deaf oppressed.
Bauman's work, just one brief treatise, deserves scrutiny because it comes out of the Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University is the flagship educational institution for U.S. Deaf people and, indeed, many deaf people throughout the world. It is also where a critical mass of deaf people enables the concentrated development of ideas about how deaf people ought to live versus how they do live. As an institution, Gallaudet serves to establish boundaries between deaf and hearing people enabling deaf people to imagine and advocate for a world uniquely designed to fit their visual, gestural, and tactile strengths. Gallaudet's Deaf Studies Department, with a majority of Deaf faculty, is one of a very few institutions offering a Deaf Studies Masters degree as an academic specialization in its own right. Thus, the theoretical orientation of this department is immensely important for the evolution of Deaf Studies as an academic discipline.
Although Bauman has articulated a theory of audism in written English, Deaf faculty and Deaf master's students have translated his articulation into ASL, using the same foundation and philosophers—Derrida (1998), Saussure (1959), and Foucault (1984): As stated in an Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) based blog about Deaf Culture called Orange Brown Coalition (2008), Bienvenu's (2008) presentation at National Technical Institute for the Deaf/RIT included discussion of phonocentrism; at a faculty development presentation on bilingualism, Bahan (2009) illustrated academic ASL with a clip of a graduate student focusing on the same problem Bauman does with Saussure's identification of speech with language; and Commerson's (2008) master's film in ASL mentions Saussure and Foucault in the same terms Bauman does. In print, at least two scholars (Mitchell, 2006; Nelson, 2006) discuss or borrow Derridean ideas about phonocentrism. Other uses of phonocentrism include those by Lapiak (2001–2005) and Mprah (2008). Insofar as much of the scholarship coming out of the ASL and Deaf Studies Department is based on the same premises outlined in Bauman's article, we argue for discernment of the misapplications of Derrida, Foucault, and Saussure.
The Phenomenon of Audism
Discussing the phenomenon of audism both at Gallaudet University and in the greater society beyond Gallaudet's gates, Bauman outlines personal, institutional, and metaphysical constructs of audism. He cites Humphries’ (1975) definition of audism at the personal level as “the notion that one is superior based on one's ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears” (Bauman, 2004, p. 240). Humphries also points to institutional manifestations of audism. Building on Humphries’ work, Lane (1992) expounds on the institutional manifestations of audism, defining it as “‘the hearing way of dominating, restructuring, and exercising authority over the deaf community’ (p. 43)” (as cited in Bauman, p. 241). Bauman's essay credits Lane's contribution and then turns to the Western philosophical sources of audism, defined as metaphysical principles of reality.
Metaphysical audism means “the orientation that links human identity and being with language defined as speech” (Bauman, 2004, p. 242). This linkage is identified as the root cause of audism and the denigration of Deaf people who sign and do not use speech. The critique of the link between human identity and speech draws support from Derrida’s (1998)Of grammatology. Following Derrida, the essay seeks to provide the underpinnings of a Deaf Studies that will expose the ancient origins of this linkage, a linkage that has persisted in the exclusion of sign and, thus, results in continually frustrating and damaging the lives of deaf people.
In this Derridean context, Bauman (2004) provides examples of discrimination and denigration as surface phenomena with deep roots in phonocentrism or metaphysical audism. After a nod to founding scholarship on ASL, Bauman proposes that spoken language had (or has) status over signed language because of phonocentrism. Given this focus on signed versus spoken language, it is not surprising that a particularly helpful part of Derrida's writing is his critique of Saussure, widely regarded as the progenitor of modern linguistics. Derrida identifies phonocentrism in Saussure's conception of structuralist linguistics, a privileging of sound that thereby explains the failure to recognize the linguistic status of signed languages. Bauman further uses Saussure's conception of the linearity of language to explain why visual–manual–kinesthetic-based languages were not recognized as languages. The last major point is that phonocentrism has not only infected Saussure's perception about language; hearing people generally have imposed in colonialist fashion their phonocentric practices on institutions for deaf people. Although not explicitly referenced, a discussion of ethnocentrism implicitly rationalizing colonialist oppression also appears in Derrida's critique of ethnocentrism in the work of Structural Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. (Instead of referencing that example of colonialism to support the assertion of hearing control of language in deaf-based institutions, Bauman provides a different historical example of colonialist control of language in Mesoamerica.) Listing “oralism, Total Communication, and mainstreaming” (p. 245) as examples of phonocentric impositions on deaf people, Bauman suggests that hearing people have perpetuated institutional or systemic hearing privilege associated with privileging speech. To tackle such privilege, Bauman mentions the Derridean deconstruction of the privileging of speech over writing. Derrida redefines writing in such a way, Bauman maintains, that sign can be aligned with writing in opposition to speech. Furthermore, this understanding of audism may help us transform institutions serving deaf people. For example, with educational institutions, Bauman asks us to imagine schools that are “ocularcentric” rather than phonocentric.
Overview of Problems With Bauman's Argument
Five problems make Bauman's overall argument ineffective: (a) a tendency to downplay established research in the field of Deaf Studies and linguistics in order to highlight the novelty of Derrida's ideas, (b) an inclination to minimize the historical nature of certain examples of discrimination, (c) an uncritical acceptance of Derrida's overall characterization of the history of Western metaphysics as phonocentric—speech being dominant over writing, (d) introduction of a “deaf lens” that leads to flawed uses of Saussure and an ill-considered substitution of signing for an expanded idea of writing formulated by Derrida, and (e) the polarizing suggestion of a fixed “colonialist” relation between hearing and deaf people (also between speech and sign). Continuing this colonialist metaphor and seeking to build a philosophical foundation for it through metaphysical audism only takes Deaf Studies further afield by turning its origins into a quasi-mythology. Ironically, this route circles back to the conditions of Deaf Studies’ origin and ends there, resulting in an ahistorical view of deaf people which measures everyone against a single standard. Instead, the ahistorical view needs to be brought current in order to generate fuller, multiple understandings of the reality of deaf people and their complex lives.
Downplaying Established Deaf Studies and Linguistics Research
The way Bauman's case for metaphysical audism handles research about signing demonstrates a tendency to underplay the significance of work in the field of Deaf Studies and linguistics. For example, it is acknowledged that “[s]ince the 1970s, we have discovered that all humans (whether hearing or deaf) are born with the equal capacity to receive and produce manual as well as spoken language.” (That is, deaf and hearing people have the same cognitive capacities although not the same sensory capacities.) And, as Bauman (2004, p. 243) notes, this research had already recognized that speech was not to be regarded as the only proper vehicle of human language but merely one of several modalities (Bellugi, 1972; Bellugi & Fischer, 1972; Fischer, 1973, 1974, 1975; Klima & Bellugi, 1972, 1979; Stokoe, 1960, 1965; Woodward, 1973a, 1973b,1973c, 1974, 1975a, 1975b; Bellugi & Klima, 1975). Derrida's work began appearing in English in the 1970s (1974 for Of grammatology) when Deaf Studies already had its foundation started. Yet the essay proceeds at once to celebrate Derrida for bringing this admittedly superseded notion of the privileging of speech to “the forefront of postmodern contemporary thought” (Bauman, 2004, p. 243). It is certainly true that Derrida gave this old idea a catchy new name, “phonocentrism,” but it is also obvious that he, along with his “postmodern contemporary” colleagues, lacked knowledge of the work in Deaf Studies which had anticipated one of his major philosophical conclusions. Bauman seems to privilege Derrida's ideas over this research that helped found the field of Deaf Studies.5
Training the spotlight on Derrida has the side effect of crowding into the shadows work that had struck a blow at audism before the word had even been coined. No one would disagree, for instance, that prior to Stokoe's (1960, 1965) seminal work in the 1960s showing that ASL exists as a language on a par with the world's other languages, many false assumptions and much erroneous information prevailed regarding deaf people and their communities. Although some eighteenth and nineteenth century writers romanticized signing deaf people as closer to innocent nature and, therefore, to God (Baynton, 1996, p. 9; Lewis, 2007, pp. 75–76), others such as Johann Conrad Amman and the Abbe Roch-Ambrose Sicard (as cited in Bauman , p. 243) believed that humans without speech were, thus, brought closer to base nature and made akin to beasts. Early twentieth century linguists believed that speech was necessary to language as well, and therefore, deaf people without speech were without language. As such, deaf people were looked upon as defective and subhuman, a situation Stokoe, psycholinguists, neurolinguists, and others—through labors that were more than mere “insight” (p. 243)—corrected permanently. Moreover, the work establishing ASL as a language clarified that deaf people are neither more nor less human than any other person—not brutish and not angelic, but human.
In the light of almost 50 years of research expanding on Stokoe's founding scholarship of a manual modality of language, Bauman's relying on an example of linguistic research published as far back as 1949 (Mario Pei's The story of language) apparently in order to bolster the feeling that linguists still think of manual languages as “nonlinguistic” simply underscores a general tendency to treat the past as contemporary when it is convenient. In the authoritative Cambridge encyclopedia of language, Crystal (1987) exemplifies the general acceptance of signing already by the 1980s, by classifying it as “… a third means of linguistic communication” (p. 219). Thus, the linguistic research and this general acceptance of it in English-speaking countries indicate that both before and during the years of Derrida's work, the “Herculean task” (Bauman, 2004, p. 243) of distinguishing speech from language was already getting accomplished. Except as the idea lingers in some corners of popular (and uninformed) consciousness, speech no longer is taken to be identical with language.6
Certainly, a need to educate others about this knowledge continues. Humphries (2008) makes this point when he acknowledges that deaf people are still (“probably forever” he speculates) bound up with the “other” of uneducated or biased hearing people (p. 40). But, he contends, “that should not prevent us from seeking to be more than just reactionary,” that is, by relying solely on making the case to the public ‘in “‘liberation’ art”—literature and art about having a culture or about experiencing pain from oppression. Instead, Humphries declares, “We are at a point where exhibiting ourselves does not have to be all-consuming; we can afford to let culture talk about something other than ourselves and transcend our relationship with the other” (p. 40).7 Part of this talk might concern portraying the complexities and varieties of deaf people, individually and wholly, especially in dynamic interaction. Undoubtedly, the expansive contemporary view we recommend takes in this full variety of deaf people. Building on the work of artists as well as on Stokoe and a good number of researchers, our expansive view, it seems to us, provides the most life- and knowledge-enhancing focus for Deaf Studies.
Using Outdated Discrimination Examples
The presentation of outmoded examples as current threats has the effect of seeming to justify the wheeling in of heavy Derridean artillery. However, we need only remember that these examples—denial of rights to own property, have children, or drive a car—typically belong to the past.8 Although some senior citizens may remember the time when deaf people suffered these or similar wrongs, the status quo for deaf people today reflects a reality where they are known as safe drivers who get insurance from companies other than their own National Fraternal Society of the Deaf—now dissolved because of this progress. Deaf people also own property and have children. And they have moved up into all types of professions including the law, dentistry, and medicine. Deaf people's rights to live with full citizenship are widely acknowledged and guaranteed by law. ASL courses are taught in many school systems and universities. In a recent report from the Modern Language Association (Furman, Goldberg, and Lusin, 2006), enrollments in ASL courses rose nearly 30% from 2002, making it the fourth most studied language on college campuses, slightly ahead of Italian. Moreover, many ASL courses are taught by Deaf individuals so that these courses are a valuable way to bring Deaf people into desirable and rewarding employment. Frequently, ASL courses satisfy foreign language requirements, a hard-won acknowledgment from traditional liberal arts faculty that, indeed, ASL is a language and deaf people are fully human.9 Evidence of such growing acceptance joins established knowledge to make the task of eradicating the last vestiges of ignorance or skepticism easier.
What intellectual benefit can be gained by Deaf Studies’ continuing to perpetuate the notion that its mission is to counter this almost vanished view of deaf people as “sub-human”? For the historical perspective that speech is tied to language and, therefore, deaf people who are without speech are sub-human, Groce (1985) provides a thorough review of the history that confirms we have centuries of misunderstandings and derogatory beliefs about deaf people that tie lack of speech to lack of intelligence. Because research establishing sign language as a language is relatively recent, it is understandable that deaf people still feel a need to fight these old battles. It is equally disconcerting that today we sometimes see the flip side of derogation, that is, hearing people who romanticize deaf people and sign language as exotic or noble.10 Instead of reacting to such mischaracterizations, however, we are more concerned with seizing the present historical moment that interrupts the long chronicle of hearing people's defining deaf people and replaces it with deaf people's defining all of themselves in all their rich complexity. As part of an academic endeavor, Deaf Studies scholars should focus on creating knowledge. In this regard, Deaf Studies is uniquely positioned to document and study deaf communities as well as deaf individuals and their relationships with hearing people in all the ways they actually exist in the world today.
These criticisms are not meant to imply that audism does not exist. It most certainly does. They are only to say that an ahistorical approach to perceptions, research, and discrimination does not show us where scholars of ASL and Deaf Studies need to inquire in order to reflect the contemporary complexity of deaf communities and their languages as well as the myriad of issues they face today at the intersection of technology, science, language, and culture. For different reasons, neither does the argument based on Derrida. We will now discuss this argument and its difficulties in order to clarify further the direction we believe Deaf Studies must take in the future.
Uncritical Acceptance of Derrida's Phonocentrism and Related Assertions
Derrida is intentionally not easy to summarize. A fair number of important contemporary philosophers and other intellectuals have criticized Derrida for willful obfuscation (Chomsky, 1995; Rorty, 1991, pp. 104–106; Searle, 1986; Smith et al., 1992).11 Using Derrida's notion of phonocentrism to understand audism is tricky because Derrida's phonocentrism is itself a dubious and difficult theory in that he bases it on the questionable assertion of the primacy of the ear and speech over the eye and writing. Furthermore, the theory involves an idiosyncratic idea about writing that does not oppose speech as Bauman thinks it does and, thus, is not interchangeable with signing. Even so, Bauman's paper argues that Derrida's ideas are useful in uncovering the metaphysics of audism, the source of denigrating images of deaf people and of deleterious institutional practices. It identifies these images and practices as the product of the metaphysical privileging of speech over writing—Derrida's “phonocentrism.” Conceding that Derrida “does not directly discuss sign and the repression of deaf individuals,” Bauman (2004, p. 244) proposes nevertheless that “one can read Derrida through a deaf lens: This lens would often substitute Derrida's use of writing with signed languages or, more succinctly, sign.” The leap from the relationship between speech and writing, as explained by Derrida, to that between speech and sign, as put forward above, simply substitutes sign for writing with no apparent basis.12 This substitution partly perpetuates some of Derrida's more questionable assertions and partly misconstrues his analysis of the differences between speech and writing.
Derrida aimed part of his argument about the phonocentrism of Western metaphysics at correcting structuralism—a theory that had earned particular prestige in France after World War II and still held center stage among Parisian intellectuals when Derrida began to write. (The linguist Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, two of the four main writers Derrida analyzes, were among the founders of this school of thought.) Structuralists posit “binary opposition” as the fundamental structure of meaning. That is, anything gains meaning only by its contrast with something else. Derrida points out that such binary oppositions cannot be neutral because their terms are never equal. One term of any opposition is always privileged. To privilege something in binary relationships means to disadvantage something else, which, thus, becomes the repressed, marginal, or ignored Other. Male/female, spirit/matter, mind/body, rational/irrational, White/of color, hearing/deaf, and speech/writing exemplify a few of many binary oppositions wherein the first term is privileged. According to Derrida, to deconstruct these binary structures is to unmask and decenter privilege, hierarchy, or repression. His deconstruction of the binary opposition speech/writing is his prime example of how structuralism operates as a privileging agent that simultaneously denies its own metaphysical investment in hierarchy. But structuralism is only one strand of what Derrida claims is a whole metaphysical tradition in the West that privileges speech over writing.13
Derrida's discussion of Saussure exposes what Derrida seems to view as a fundamental contradiction in Saussure's structural linguistics. Saussure states that the relationship between a signifier (whatever represents a meaning or concept, like a spoken word or a manual sign) and a signified (meaning or concept) is arbitrary, that is, a conventional relationship that has no “intrinsic” (e.g., iconic) value (Saussure, 1959, p. 68).14 But Derrida (1998, pp. 52–53) thinks Saussure undercuts his own principle of arbitrariness when he also insists on a natural (intrinsic) bond between sound or vocative (Mitchell, 2006) signifiers (speech) and signifieds; spoken words are natural, for example, in comparison to the more removed and abstract written word. This bias toward speech leads to his privileging sound signifiers at the expense of written ones.
Although critical of this bias toward speech, Derrida (1998, pp. 7–8) is not surprised by it. He declares that the “privilege of the phonè”—by which he means spoken sounds or phonemes, not signed phonemes—was an unavoidable choice given that the “system of ‘hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak’ through the phonic substance” carries with it a sense of immediacy or “interiority” that intimates a natural or intrinsic bond. It is this bias toward the ear and speech that results in phonocentrism. Bauman (2004, p. 243) asserts that this privilege entailed “the historical assumption that speech is the most fully human form of language.” If we follow this train of thought through to its conclusion, speech is what makes us human, and writing, like signing, is one step removed from the immediacy of speech. Both the assumption of the primacy of the ear/speech and the comparison of sign with writing are flawed.
Not everyone agrees that the Western tradition has privileged speech. Even Saussure (1959, pp. 23–25) himself thought that it was writing that had been privileged. Basing his analysis on only four writers, Derrida may have unduly limited his view. Wood (1977) acknowledges his own and others’ sensation of the immediacy of speech as more natural than writing, but he also emphasizes that this experience has not translated into a privileging of speech. Quite the contrary, Wood argues incisively that
… it seems possible that Derrida has got the whole argument upside down. Writing is not repressed in the West, but on the contrary incessantly celebrated, not least in the work of Derrida himself, and the examples of logocentrism [of which phonocentrism is a manifestation] he uses—Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss—make clear, by their sparseness and dispersion, that they don't represent the main stream of metaphysics, but are rather sporadic protests against a clearly felt supremacy of writing. Where Derrida sees repression, Saussure saw an alarming prestige, and there is no reason for us to think Saussure simply wrong. (p. 27)
In fact, Chandler (1994) persuasively summarizes a counter argument to phonocentrism and its bias toward the ear in favor of writing and its bias toward the eye:
The bias in which writing is privileged over speech has been called graphocentrism or scriptism. In many literate cultures, text has a higher status than speech: written language is often seen as the standard. Until the early twentieth century, linguists tended to accord priority to written language over speech: grammatical rules were based on written language and everyday speech was largely ignored; the prescriptive tradition was based on the written word. Marshall McLuhan, using James Joyce's coinage, referred to ‘ABCEDmindedness'—an unconscious bias which he regarded as ‘the psychological effect of literacy’ (in McNamara[,] 1970, p. 8) .... It reflects a scriptist bias to refer, as many scholars do, to ‘oral literature', or to any semiotic systems, written or not, as a ‘text'.