Is Culture the Solution or the Problem?

Just the other week, I wrote a post (here) on the importance of recognizing the problems with using the concept of culture to understand Deaf social relations. I just came across a great article about immigrant sociology that makes the same point called “Herder’s Heritage” for short. I will quote from it at length because the argument is much better than the one I made. The final paragraph is the most important one, and it corresponds to points #1–4 on my earlier post What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish? In other words, I think the framework that interpreters use to understand “Deaf culture”, and indeed the framework that has been taught to many in the Deaf community, needs massive revision. Andreas Wimmer explains why:

“In the eyes of 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the social world was populated by distinct peoples, analogous to the species of the natural world. Rather than dividing humanity into “races” depending on physical appearance and innate character (Herder 1968:179) or ranking peoples on the basis of their civiliza- tional achievements (Herder 1968:207, 227), as was common in French and British writings of the time, Herder insisted that each people represented one distinctive manifestation of a shared human capacity for cultivation (or Bildung) (e.g. 1968:226; but see Berg 1990 for Herder’s ambiguities regarding the equality of peoples).

Herder’s account of world history, conveyed in his sprawling and encyclopedic Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, tells of the emergence and dis- appearance of different peoples, their cultural flourishing and decline, their migra- tions and adaptations to local habitat, and their mutual displacement, conquest, and subjugation. Each of these peoples was defined by three characteristics. First, each forms a community held together by close ties among its members (cf. 1968:407), or, in the words of the founder of romantic political theory Adam Mu ̈ller, a “Volksge- meinschaft.” Secondly, each people has a consciousness of itself, an identity based on a sense of shared destiny and historical continuity (1968:325). And finally, each people is endowed with its own culture and language that define a unique worldview, the “Genius eines Volkes” in Herderian language (cf. 1968:234).  …

But I should first discuss Herder’s heritage, which has left its mark not only on his direct descendants in folklore studies and cultural anthropology (Berg 1990; Wimmer 1996), but also on sociology and history.

In the following review, I will limit the discussion—for better or for worse—to North American intellectual currents, which are a source of inspiration to many discussions in other national contexts, and to three sets of approaches: various strands of assimilation theory, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies. As we will see, these paradigms rely on Herderian ontology to different degrees and emphasize different elements of the Herderian trinity of ethnic community, culture, and identity. They all concur, however, in taking ethnic groups as self-evident units of analysis and observation, assuming that dividing an immigrant society along ethnic lines—rather than class, religion, and so forth—is the most adequate way of advancing empirical understanding of immigrant incorporation. …

In conclusion, we can gain considerable analytical leverage if we conceive of immigrant incorporation [or Deaf social relations] as the outcome of a struggle over the boundaries of inclusion in which all members of a society are involved, including institutional actors such as civil society organizations, various state agencies, and so on. By focusing on these struggles, the ethnic group formation paradigm helps to avoid the Herderian ontology, in which ethnic communities appear as the given building blocks of society, rather than as the outcome of specific social processes in need of comparative explanation.”

Wimmer, A. (2009). Herder’s Heritage and the Boundary‐Making Approach: Studying Ethnicity in Immigrant Societies. Sociological Theory, 27(3), 244–270.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be required reading at all interpreter training programs. (I just added it to the Interpreter’s Library.) The thesis is quite simple. The idea that you and I belong to a community called a “nation” is an enormous stretch of reason, given that we can’t possibly be in daily relationship with the other people in this “national community”. Yet, this is precisely the ideology of nationalism, which seeks to collectively represents people on the “inside” against people on the “outside”. Anderson never says that imagined communities aren’t real simply because they are imagined. On the contrary, imagined communities have even more power because they are imagined. If this seems trivial, take a quick glance at the news coming out of Crimea this morning.


Politics of Language

Language is central to Anderson’s argument. The bulk of Imagined Communities is about how nationalism took off and where nationalism got its start (spoiler alert: its not just about Europe). One of the major players here is language, because language became such an important element of nationalism. Even in the U.S., where the dominant language of English is hardly owned by U.S. citizens, English-only policies have been regularly introduced for well over a century to distinguish so-called “assimilated” immigrants and foreigners from “native” residents. Yet, Anderson reminds us that what is truly at stake in the politics of language is its ability to create a strategic boundary around a political community.

“It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them — as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much The most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building effective particular solidarities. (133)

Why should interpreters care?

Here’s why I think this is important for interpreters to think about.

First, we know that Deaf communities have always experienced social oppression in various forms. What hasn’t been sufficiently explored is why much of this has taken place within the field of language. In my view, the literature in Deaf studies and interpreting studies has over-emphasized the direct anti-Deaf discourse by people like A.G. Bell, but hasn’t sufficiently challenged the nationalist ideas that makes language discrimination possible in the first place. When the English language is used as a “national bond” for U.S. citizens, it justifies the exclusion of non-English speakers (Deaf individuals included). In other words, the U.S. as a “nation” is an imagined community – it is not simply “real” in any everyday empirical sense. (As a side note, it is fascinating to me how many Deaf and hearing ASL users have made anti-immigrant comments to me, always failing to recognize that every argument against immigrants in the U.S. – true or not – has been used to discriminate against Deaf people, too.)

Second, the politics of language isn’t just about hearing English-speakers. As I said in my previous post, Deaf consciousness in the U.S. emerged alongside ideas of culture and nationalism in the 1880s. Sign language in the U.S. (even before it became “ASL”) became a signature feature of the U.S. Deaf community, and for very good reasons which my readers probably do not need explained to them. But the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. If we want to take Anderson seriously, we should recognize that language identity is always a political strategy, not just an empirical reality. And like all strategies, it includes some things and excludes others. ASL research — again, for very good reason — has tended towards ASL purism in the confines of a media room with Deaf-of-Deaf participants. No significant research exists on the everyday diversity of language use in mixed Deaf-hearing workspaces, for instance. So I wonder how this imagined community that Anderson talks about also applies (as he says it does) to minority social groups like the Deaf community. It’s not just about dominant groups; it’s about the conditions of political recognition for minority groups, too.

Third, this starts to provide a more interesting context for understanding Deaf advocacy. The value of the strategy of rigid Deaf cultural distinction (see Mindess 1999) and ASL purism is that makes it possible to advocate for recognition of ASL as a real language at a time when many people are still ignorantly skeptical that ASL should count. ASL has justifiably been seen as probably the marker of the Deaf community, or as Anderson says, an “effective particular solidarity”.  But in doing so, we should always be cautious about believing in the idea of linguistic or cultural purism itself, an idea that is tied to the conditions of Deaf oppression in the first place.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Calling the Deaf community an “imagined community” sounds risky. Many people have lobbed misplaced and ignorant criticisms at the Deaf community for not being a “real” culture, a “real” social group, not using a “real” language. The reaction has been to dig our heels in to the slippery soil of the “real”. And we respond. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” culture. Yes, Deaf people use a “real” language. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” oppressed social group. Indeed, much of the research on ASL, interpreting, and the Deaf experience has defended this position. This is somewhat unfortunate, in my opinion, but entirely understandable. But the side effect is that we are less and less capable of challenging oppression on its own conceptual grounds. We end up playing a game in which the rules are already set against us. Suggesting that we understand the Deaf community as an imagined community (per Anderson) doesn’t compromise the credibility of Deaf advocacy. Instead, it advances advocacy a step further by suggesting that not only do Deaf individuals not need to justify themselves to hearing individuals, hearing critics themselves don’t have a foundation for judging what a “real” language, culture or social group is in the first place. But it may also mean that as interpreters, we need to let go of simplistic divisions between what we think of as “Deaf” and “hearing”, what we view as “pure” ASL, and to challenge the ideas (such as some versions of nationalism) that make Deaf oppression possible.

Why is ASL so important to Deaf culture?



This post cannot answer the title question thoroughly. Nor is this a “study” of Deaf individuals’ narrative frameworks for understanding ASL and culture. (Interestingly, no such research exists.) Rather, this is an attempt to understand how ASL and Deaf culture have been conceptually linked, and how this particular link between language and culture is a double-edged sword.

In his 2005 article on “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World”, Harlan Lane provides a well-argued critique of applying the term disability to Deaf individuals. Lane suggests that hearing people should view the Deaf community as an ethnicity, and he provides long list of properties which are intended to demonstrate that Deaf people are an “ethnicity”: language, kinship, “the arts”, social structure, values, knowledge, customs, etc. In the short paragraph describing language, Lane quotes well-known linguist, Joshua Fishman, in defense of language as a primary ethnic marker. I’ll quote the entire paragraph:

“‘The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a people. It is their achievement par excellence. Language is the surest way for individuals to safeguard or recover the authenticity they inherited from their ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet unborn’ (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United States and some other parts of North America. A language not based on sound is the primary element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World from the engulfing hearing society.” (Lane 2005)

Anyone with a week of experience in the Deaf community will grasp the common sense of this statement. As Mindess quotes in an epigraph on page 110 (a quote from Schein 1989) of Reading Between the Signs, “For many members of the Deaf community, they and ASL are indistinguishable. Their self-concept is based on being Deaf and being Deaf to them means using ASL.” Interpreting students learn this simple fact from Stewart, Schein, and Cartwright (1998), too: “ASL is the language of the Deaf community.” (134) Minor quibbles aside, these are rather incontestable observations as far as I can tell. And they are – or should be – foundational knowledge of sign language interpreters.

But there is something missing for me.

Something is Missing

What’s missing for me is a history of the ideas that make the Deaf community a community – or ethnicity, or culture, or linguistic minority – and which therefore make interpreting a profession in the first place. I hope the following illustration explains what I think is missing from our current literature and creates an opening for further discussion within interpreting in the future. (See post What Do Interpreters Need to Accomplish?)

If we could summarize the above quotes in a brief assertion that sounds like anthropology 101, it would go something like this: “Language is one of the primary markers of distinct social groups.” This has been true for as far back as the historical record shows. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that language took on a particularly powerful role in defining social groups in the sense that we think of it today.

What is language and culture?

The main figure in this evolution is Johann Gottfried von Herder (according to Peter Watson in The German Genius). Locke claimed that language was a natural phenomenon, not a divine gift – a transformation in thought that interpreters should certainly revisit. But it was Herder who gave language a new power it didn’t have before. It’s worth quoting from Watson’s book at length:

“Language identifies a Volk or nationality, and this, the historico-psychological entity of the common language, is for him ‘the most natural and organic basis for political organisation… Without its own language a Volk is an absurdity (Unding). … A Volk, on this theory, is the natural division of the human race, endowed with its own language, which it must preserve as its most distinctive and sacred possession.”

Herder should also be known for his advocacy a rather new idea at the time: culture. For Herder, “whatever the ‘collective consciousness’ of a Volk was at any particular time, was its culture.” (The term Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – was Herder’s neologism.) For Herder, these concepts of Volk, language, culture, and nation are all intertwined. Ultimately, all of these features reach their height in the establishment of a nation-state, a political organization which has the authority to represent the political will of the people – in fact, the state itself is the political will of the people.

Why does this matter?

First, I think Herder’s original writings are more philosophically robust than most of what we find in interpreting literature today. This is not a criticism of books about interpreting, but it suggests that there is much to be gained from reading the original texts of thinkers who we often think of as old and irrelevant. This may not interest most working interpreters. But working interpreters deserve to know that it hasn’t interested scholars in Deaf studies and interpreting either. In other words, despite about 50 years of scholarship in our field, we still don’t know where our ideas came from. This is no small matter. And it would be a great topic for a MA thesis is anyone out there is thinking of going back to school. (See post All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

Second, I think we can detect in these excerpts the double-edged sword that is about to fall on Western civilization. This is a bit more complex, but it is very important. When Herder argues that language is the most natural, authentic characteristic of social groups, he is lending support to the idea that “natural divisions of the human race” exist, and therefore can’t be challenged. This is known today as essentialism. And he is lending support for the newly-formed nation-states of Europe. By 1945, these European states and their many counterparts in the Third World will have experienced a century of nearly unending conflict and war precisely on the basis of these “natural” human divisions. Horkheimer and Adorno will later call this the “triumphant calamity” of the enlightenment. (See The Culture Bargain post.)

Third, this is the time (late 1700s, early 1800s) that what we now call the Deaf community was beginning to take its modern form in Europe and the U.S. Notably, early texts written by Deaf individuals refer to themselves as a “nation”, not as a culture. Culture didn’t take on its modern meaning in English until the 1860s, and didn’t fall into common use until the 20th century. Interestingly, when it did enter English in the 1860s, it was introduced by German-trained anthropologists who were trying to identify and categorize Herder’s “natural divisions of the human race”. In other words, the term culture has a particularly colonial ring to it. Culture, like Herder’s theory of language, is going to but both ways against the emerging Deaf community. The Deaf community will see itself as a “nation” during the 1800s, and by the late 1960s, see itself as a “culture” (with the aid of hearing academics, no small matter, indeed). But culture and language are also going to be the tools of oppression. Deaf people do not have Herder’s nation-state to back them up. Quite the contrary, it will be the ASL users themselves who will later be seen as deviating from the national cultural model. (See Anthropology’s Culture Problem post.)

Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas

Lane was right: ASL matters to Deaf culture. But when we claim, as we often do, that language and culture are inseparable, it can make it seem as if this is how it has always been since the beginning of time. Or it seems that this way of thinking is “natural”. In fact, this idea is relatively recent. And this idea has cut both ways, sometimes hurting the Deaf community, sometimes empowering the Deaf community. Without attention to where these ideas came from, I can’t help but think that we are captive to these ideas. When we are captive to our ideas, it becomes hard to imagine a different world and our options for advocacy are stunted, hampered, restricted. Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas. It is worth our time to excavate these ideas and enrich our ability to be excellent interpreters and strong advocates.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, “Why Does ASL Matter to the Deaf community?”. But it is an often-overlooked part of a larger answer.

List of references:

  • Lane, H. L. (2005). Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10(3), 291–310. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni030
  • Mindess, A. (1999). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Intercultural Press.
  • Stewart, D. A., Schein, J. D., & Cartwright, B. E. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science.
  • Watson, P. (2011). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. HarperCollins.

Apache ASL Trails and the Problem of Deaf Space


Apache ASL Trails* is an independent living center in Arizona, one of the few places for sign language users to retire with others who speak the same language. Apache was built in part with stimulus money and opened in 2011 with 75 apartments and a suite of amenities. Early last year (2013), the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to investigate Apache (a story also covered by Limping Chicken) claiming that the complex violated what seems to be fair housing law by specializing in a single “disability”. Here’s what I think this means: if you take federal money for disability-related residential construction you can’t make those homes specifically for individuals who are deaf, autistic, of any other federal category of disability. Just  last week, HUD exercised discretion and dropped their investigation and it looks like Apache will be free – for now – to run the living center as intended. In my view, this is definitely the right choice for HUD and for Apache, although no one should consider the legal problems resolved. An aggressive (or bored) HUD director could cause more trouble for Apache in the future.

While the storm seems to have blown over, I though this an opportune time to reflect on the relationship between Deaf space and the state. Deaf space was probably first solidified as a term at Gallaudet University when architects, professors, and students began to ask the question, “What would a distinctively Deaf space look like?” One of the central conclusions of this question was the recognition that architectural spaces are designed with the assumption that the users of those spaces are hearing, speaking individuals for whom sound is a fundamental element of social experience.

Now, Deaf folks are not, as many presume, unaware of the physics of sound, nor are individuals in the Deaf community ignorant of sound as a social phenomenon. Sound and speech are much more complicated than their physics suggest. The result of this study was the development of architectural principles that have been used to construct buildings that are more photo-centric (I just made up that term, I think). A similar discussion happened in Columbus, Ohio where I live during the design and construction of the new parts of the Ohio School for the Deaf. This is all kind-of mainstream in the Deaf community at this point.

But this is not entirely new. Social space has been central to the identity of the Deaf community as long back as we have record. In fact, Mike Gulliver wrote his MA thesis and PhD dissertation on this topic. Such spaces include, famously, Deaf clubs, Deaf residential schools, Deaf sports teams, (a) Deaf university (Gallaudet, of course), and so on.

The challenge that Apache ASL Trails faced from HUD illustrates an important, often overlooked element of Deaf space: the state. There is a strange tension between the state and the Deaf community. On the one hand, states such as various levels of the U.S. government have cruelly targeted members of the Deaf community for sterilization, forbade immigration of individuals with hearing loss or who used sign language, and wrongfully imprisoned individuals within what used to be called “insane asylums” for their signing. Yet federal and state administrations have also funded Deaf residential schools, provided funding for places like Apache ASL Trails, provides the disability classification that enables many Deaf individuals to receive social assistance, and passed laws requiring interpreters in public  school and college. None if this is as neat as I’m presenting it, but you get the point: the Deaf community and the state have a love-hate relationship to say the least.

Yet this complicated relationship with state goes almost entirely unmentioned in Deaf studies literature. I think it’s important to remember that communities don’t just “exist”, but that they are formed, in part, through their relationship with the state. This is certainly true for the Deaf community, as is evident in the recent Apache ASL Trails situation. And that’s all I want to point out.

*”Apache” seems to be a strange term to use for the facility. It feels like one oppressed group is appropriating a term of identity from another. Imagine a residential center for Native Americans called “Deaf Apache Dorm”. Just saying.

Interpreter’s Library: Reading Between the Signs

Anna Mindess’ Reading Between the Signs (1999) is probably the single best known book about interpreting on the market. While I have never met Anna Mindess, her reputation and website (here) suggest that she is as interesting and enthusiastic as they come. And the fact that she has even published a book about interpreting puts her in the very small company of six or seven interpreters alive today with published manuscripts.


So what about this book? The subtitle to the book tells the story: intercultural communication for sign language interpreters. Mindess introduces interpreters to the field of intercultural communication, itself an overlap of anthropology and communication. The book accurately claims that linguistic knowledge is only part of the skill set that interpreters need to do their job. Interpreters are also cultural mediators, and therefore need to be familiar with Deaf and hearing cultures. She gives concrete examples of interpreting conundrums that have more to do with cultural mismatch than technical linguistic differences. And she provides strategies of how to negotiate and mediate these conundrums with sensitivity and professionalism. The presentation is thorough, cited, and well-written for an audience of working interpreters. In my view, every working interpreter should own this book and have read it.

The book is not without its problems, however. The concept of culture is central to the entire book. Yet the definition Mindess uses for culture comes from Edward B. Tylor’s 1871 book Primitive Culture. Here it is:

Culture or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society

His definition of culture is straightforward enough. But in my reading, there are three problems with using Tylor.

  1. Using Tylor ignores a century and a half of extremely useful work on theories of culture. I’m thinking of the Burmingham school of cultural theory, the Frankfurt School in Germany (and the US), postcolonial studies, and the critical turn in anthropology itself. See Raymond Williams’ Keywords, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. These texts refine, critique, and extent the 19th Century’s notion of culture/Kultur.
  2. Tylor’s definition is overly broad. Culture seems to be a bucket that you can fill with whatever you want, an “empty signifier” by virtue of its nearly unrestricted flexibility. Williams says as much in Keywords.
  3. Anthropological research in the 19th Century was largely a colonial affair, and Tylor is no exception. It seems awkward to return to the colonial era to find our language for talking about our work with the Deaf community.

The other main figure of the book is Edward T. Hall, whose research on intercultural communication can be seen as a solution to the problem of U.S. hegemony in the Third World following World War II. This can be seen in the opening montage, which illustrates a major interpreting error during the Vietnam War. A critical reader might ask, “and what is the U.S. doing in Vietnam in the first place, where they need interpreters?” This is not necessarily Mindess’ fault. But it raises the troubling history early on that professional interpreting has some of its roots in the modern military apparatus, from the courtrooms in Nuremberg to the fields of Vietnam. Mindess isn’t responsible for investigating this, but it might behoove some of us to think about it. (As a political and legal geographer, this is my area of study, so I can’t help but think about these things.)

Hall’s other writing on intercultural communication, while excellent and widely cited, sometimes depend on awkward stereotypes, such as between “Arabs” and “Westerners” (bringing to mind Edward Said’s critique of such distinctions in Orientalism). Mindess inherits some of these problems through Tylor and Hall, and the reader might sometimes feel that the differences between Deaf and hearing are overemphasized in order to keep Tylor’s and Hall’s ideas functional. For instance, even though Mindess brings critical awareness of hearing, North American culture, her examples of culture tend towards other-ness, including “igloos” and “ASL”, but not spoken English or the suburban housing developments. There is much more to the book than this, so don’t see the book narrowly through these comments.

None of these issues compromise the value of the book, nor should they undermine Mindess’ expertise. Quite the contrary. Her book, like all books, are a product of a specific historical moment. It is not just a book about Mindess or about interpreting; the book itself tells us something about the field of interpreting. Groundbreaking books require authors to step bravely into unexplored territory. Mindess has done this. Those who come after Mindess must engage with her work – we have no choice. We should neither ignore it nor passively yield to it. We must honor her work by working through her ideas, building on them, and moving her spirit forward. Nor do we have to either tacitly accept her definition of culture or jettison the term altogether. Instead, we should be inspired by Mindess (as I have been) to make our mark on the field by adding depth and breadth to the concepts we use.

Deafness in Film: How Not to Do It

The British website Limping Chicken has a great post on how not to represent Deaf people on TV. Or more specifically, how not to represent interpreters. If you read the post, you’ll find that a TV show portrayed a Deaf character whose 9-year old daughter interpreted for the character’s serious hospital visit. Major ethical problem, and it perpetuates the idea that childhood CODAs should be interpreters. (Yes, we all know they do it, but don’t you think it would be better not to give hospitals the idea that it’s okay?) The Chief Executive of Gloucestershire Deaf Association, Jenny Hopkins, wrote an outstanding letter to the BBC respectfully confronting them about their fumble. Hopefully they’ll take it to heart. After writing a post a few days ago about There Will Be Blood (which just published today), this story stuck out to me. Go Jenny!

Read Limping Chicken article here

All Interpreters are Philosophers

Interpreters deal with language everyday, and are therefore in an exceptional position to analyze how people think about the world. This is why I love interpreting. And since we are translating and interpreting between two languages, we can’t help but create meanings that reflect our own worldview.

Take gender, for instance. Many forms ask the applicant to fill in gender. Speakers may often say gender. How do we interpret this? In ASL, there is no superordinate word for gender. I suspect that is true for many other languages. The textbook way of signing this is probably to sign: “MALE FEMALE WHICH?” But there’s the problem. Is gender really a question of male or female? From a normative perspective, yes, most people probably think that gender is about male or female. So the interpretation does meet a general dynamic equivalence. But on the other hand, if you recognize that gender is a social category (not a biological one) you may also recognize that the male-female choice is reductive and incomplete. To sign MALE FEMALE WHICH? is a way of perpetuating the heteronormative myth, a myth that gains validity each time we repeat it through language as if it were objectively reality. What a lot to think about!

Interpreters, therefore, can’t help but make language choices that have philosophical baggage. Is there any way to theorize the role of interpreters as philosophers? Enter Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist who was imprisoned and later died for his protest of the Italian fascist regime. Here’s an often-circulated picture of him.


In his best-known work, the prison notebooks (literally a bunch of notebooks he wrote in prison), he says this about philosophy:

“It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional and systematic philosophers. It must first be shown that all men are “philosophers”, by defining the limits and characteristics of the the “spontaneous philosophy” which is proper to everybody. This philosophy is contained in: 1. language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not just words grammatically devoid of content; 2. “common sense” and “good sense”; 3. popular religion and, therefore, also in the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and of acting, which are collectively bundled together under the name of “folklore” (SPN 1971, 33).

Rather than do the work of explaining what I think about this passage, I simply leave it to you, dear interpreters, to think about this passage today. Some questions to ponder:

  1. What does this passage mean?
  2. What does it mean to interpreters?
  3. Why is language at the top of the list of things that make us all philosophers?
  4. What belief systems are you encountering today, and how does that influence your interpretation/translation?
  5. What powerful systems of language are beyond your control?
  6. When do you have the ability to transform language? When don’t you?

I’d love to see your thoughts and feedback!

Only Deaf? Only hearing? – on the Limits of Contemporary Interpreting Frameworks

Most texts on ASL interpreting assume (rather than demonstrate) that a concrete, uncrossable chasm exists between Deaf and hearing people, and that interpreters must necessarily fill that void. In this metaphor, an impossible weight hangs on the back of the interpreter to do their job perfectly or risk oppressing Deaf people. Hence the constant chatter about the authenticity of individual interpreters to the exclusion of economic, structural, and theoretical conditions of interpreting as a social practice.

Yet consider this. At a recent interpreting assignment I was interpreting for a Deaf parent who was, as we say, Deaf-of-Deaf, and had a college education. There is a reciprocal relationship between English fluency (spoken or written) and educational attainment, such that this person was conversationally fluent in what I call “mouthed English”. That is, they could turn to another parent and mouth greetings, complaints, and short comments without my assistance. Equally important, they were familiar with the schema of being the parent of a school-aged child, and knew the right time to turn to another parent and eye-roll, feign a yawn, nod approval, etc. If you’ve interpreted for longer than a week, you know what I’m talking about.

Does this person need me to jump alongside them and interpret everything? No. In fact, my attempt to sign everything potentially interrupts their ability to have a face-to-face relationship with other parents. So I intentionally avoided interpreting side comments unless I saw them visibly struggling or when they called me over.

My point isn’t to debate the ethical aspects of my decisions. Rather, I want to emphasize how much this experience contrasts with virtually every major text on interpreting. Pick a book on interpreting and read it with this question in mind: Can two Deaf and hearing individuals have a successful conversation or relationship without the interpreter? Based on the definitions and descriptions of most texts, the answer is “no”. The DEAF-WORLD and hearing world appear to be mutually exclusive, and the only bridge, virtually the only one with any degree of agency, is the interpreter. Behind this model of interpreting is the (implicit and sometimes explicit) assumption that Deaf individuals are defined solely by their Deaf identity, and hearing individuals are identified by their hearing (non-Deaf) identity.

So what’s the problem? The problem is, these models have inexplicably glossed over the essentializing nature of this concept of identity, and therefore foreclosed the possibility that Deaf persons can have relationships with hearing people oriented around other forms of identity: parenthood, sexual orientation, educational level, economic position, etc. Instead, in nearly every chart and every encounter we are forced to interpret social interaction through the narrow lens of Deaf v. hearing.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will need to address the empirical and theoretical problems with this conceptualization. And we will have to develop a more sophisticated, albeit more practical, framework for understanding social relations that include – but do not limit us to – Deaf and hearing subject positions.

The Culture Problem in Anthropology


One of my ongoing projects involves understanding the history of this term “culture” and its reception into ASL studies in the late 1970s as a way of talking about Deaf social groups. In other words, where did we get this idea that Deaf people could be described as “Deaf culture”?

Nicholas de Genova, one of the leading anthropologist today, describes his rejection of the term “culture” as analytic category in his book Working the Boundaries (p.27). Here’s the relevant excerpt to ponder.

“For my own purposes in this book, in light of the accumulated and ossified connotations of “culture” as a fetishized analytic category within anthropology as well as popular discourse, I reject the usefulness of the concept of “culture” altogether. Likewise, I regard with general suspicion all social theories or descriptions that rely on notions of self-enclosed, bounded, thinglike “cultural” realities posited as separate, distinct, and relatively autonomous spheres of sociopolitical life. I characterize such approaches as culturalist.”

The True Meaning of Labor Day

Labor Day is more than a long weekend at the end of summer. Labor Day was established in 1887 in recognition of rights and needs of U.S. workers. Even though Labor Day preceded the massive growth of unions in the first half of the 20th century, it still stands as a tribute to the success of U.S. unions to reduce inmate and child labor, reduce workdays to reasonable 10- and 8–hour days, and to give laborers the ability to contest powerful corporations and government downsizing.

Many credit the labor rights movement in the U.S. with providing the foundation for various waves of civil rights movements  – including most famously the southern Black civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s focused heavily on labor justice.

I mention this here for an important reason. We readily acknowledge the Deaf civil rights movement, grounded most visibly in the Deaf President Now campaign in 1988. But we forget that there has never been a Deaf labor rights movement.

Today, American Sign Language is more recognized than ever, and the term “Deaf culture” is accepted by all but the most stodgy individuals. Many Deaf individuals, however, live in poverty because jobs are not available to them or they can’t access them. Deindustrialization in the Midwest has meant fewer steady manufacturing and shipping jobs, jobs which attracted critical masses of Deaf workers in the past. The dominance of low-wage service industry jobs has negatively affected Deaf workers for a different reason: service jobs depend heavily on “communication skills” (in spoken English, of course) preventing many Deaf workers from being integrated into the new post-industrial workforce.

The new Deaf pillars – Deaf schools, Deaf services organizations, ASL classes, interpreting programs – provide jobs for many Deaf professionals, as do some government agencies. It is common in immigrant communities for immigrants to specialize in a particular industry in order to provide jobs for peers, and to use those businesses as springboards to future success. However, it is still almost unheard of to find businesses that are  ran by Deaf individuals and where Deaf workers can find employment. Despite the explosion of hearing people taking ASL, none seem to use their language skill to recruit and employ Deaf persons within the U.S. corporate market.

Today let’s not forget the “true meaning” of Labor Day and remember the importance of workers’ rights for our Deaf neighbors – and everyone else, too.