The Culture Bargain (excerpt)

[The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of a presentation I gave at last year’s OCRID conference called the “Culture Bargain”. The guiding question for my talk was, “Did we (interpreters) get the idea of culture right?”. The conclusion is: well, sort of, but not really.]

I want to make two big picture conclusions. First, what we call culture is really just one particular idea of culture, and one that causes some problems for us. We should be willing to look for other approaches to understanding culture. There are some real examples, but I don’t have time to go into it now. Second, these views of culture overlook the crucial role of power in understanding social differences. It’s not just that deaf and hearing people are culturally different, but that the difference are very often formed through economic inequality, marginalization, and privilege.

I just want to show you how scholars who are studying colonialism and race talk about culture and identity. I’m doing this just so you can see that there really are some alternatives. I also admit that these quotes are a little dense. But I will just summarize why they are important.

“The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation.” – Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Bhabha is Indian and writes about British colonialism in India. He is saying, to paraphrase, “you might think that culture is just something that makes Indians different than the British. But if you do that, you will ignore the fact that those differences were formed through a violent history between British and Indians.” Don’t think about culture as something you have or don’t have. Culture is ongoing negotiation, a constant power-struggle. If you think culture is just simple differences between hearing and deaf, you are actually helping to mask that actual history.

The next quote is on identify from the race scholar Stuart Hall.

“…the ‘unities’ which identities proclaim are, in fact, constructed within the play of power and exclusion, and are the result, not the natural and inevitable or primordial totality but of the naturalized, over-determined process of ‘closure’.” – Stuart Hall, Who Needs Identity?

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Hall is saying, “if you think that identity is just one thing” – like being black, being deaf – “you are missing the fact that your identity is not just a natural part of you. Identity is always formed through power and exclusion.” In the U.S., for instance, white identity has been formed through the exclusion of blackness, and Black identity has been formed through the exclusion of whiteness.

The process of identity formation is not an innocent process. Our job is to understand how each of us, at any given moment, is in the process of negotiating and re-negotiating our identity.


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