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.

Experience and Identity

One of my main duties as a graduate student is to teach an introductory course in geography to undergraduates. In that course, I emphasize a simple yet counter-intuitive idea: visiting a place or having an experience does not automatically impart the truth of that place or that experience. I was reminded of this lesson today in a New York Times opinion article called “After War, a Failure of Imagination“, written by Iraq war veteran Phil Klay. In his article he makes the claim that the perception that veterans’ war-time experiences are “unfathomable” to non-veterans is a myth that results in two harms. First, it treats soldiers as indisputable experts on war, which, in addition to being factually untrue, also forecloses the democratic imperative for debate which military service is supposed to preserve. Second, this myth is inconsistently applied only to soldiers, yet not to, say, victims of child abuse, who Klay says often have stories at least as traumatic as war. Yet, it is comparably more socially acceptable to recognize and empathize with abuse victims’ stories. In other words, the point of sharing stories of abuse — unlike veteran’s war experiences — is not to make the victim an expert on abuse, but to open up a dialogue that creates change.

I found this article compelling given my own military experience and teaching experience at a Deaf school. After spending four years in Puerto Rico, three years of military service overlapped with three years of working at a Deaf school, I returned to the U.S. only slightly more clued in to the social and political context of Puerto Rico than when I first arrived. The experience had not, in itself, made me an expert on either military service nor the deeply political history of the world’s oldest colony. It was only after reading several social and economic histories of Puerto Rico, becoming better versed in the global political economy of U.S. military power, and speaking with people who faced various forms of discrimination, that my first-hand experiences started to make sense. The experience in itself did not impart a conceptual framework to me of how to interpret this experience. Quite the opposite: without a critical recognition of race, class and gender (of myself and those around me), my experience appeared to me as an objective universalizeable experience of a military, rather than a military that creates various benefits and disabilities for various groups of people. In other words, my experience was not authentic or authoritative just because it was my own.

This debate over the authority of experience is a contemporary manifestation over debates between the empiricism of David Hume and the (well, very particular versions of) idealism found in such thinkers as Kant and Hegel, which, to his credit, Klay recognizes in his article. I think this debate continues to work its way out in social life in a number of important ways, and therefore I think it’s fruitful to think about the variety of ways we could use this more abstract idea to frame and analyze other real-world examples in order to create change.

Introduction to Politics for Interpreters

Python Witch
“How do you know she’s a witch?” — “She looks like one!”

Today we are going to deal with how interpreters can and perhaps should think about politics – the politics of our own field and political action in practice.

Let’s start with one prompt and two interrelated problems. First, the prompt. The unqualified interpreter as Mandela’s ceremony has stimulated public attention on interpreters. The details of the incident are in many ways secondary. The real impact of the incident was to create a flash-bulb which illuminated the amazing, professional work that the majority of interpreters do everyday. But it also illuminated some central problems in our field.

Now, the interrelated problems. The first problem is that interpreters seem generally unprepared to respond to public attention with urgency and coordination. The second problem is that the interpreting field itself of marred by hostile politics. Neither of these problems are judgements of individual interpreters, but they are symptoms of the marginality of the field and the lack of strong leadership and collaborative discipline that marginalization engenders.

For instance, I posted a review of RID’s response to the events in Jo’burg as a way of applying discourse analysis (a common technique in our field) to political texts produced by our own organization. The RID statement is an important text which I  understand as an indication of both of the problems I outlined above. First, it indicates our struggle to respond effectively to an event that became politicized in the media. (By “politicized”, I mean that the event was turned into an object of political discourse.) Second, RID’s response was not, for me, an indication of the organization’s inherent moral worth or (in)competence, as many on blogs and Facebook took great pleasure in denouncing. Rather, RID’s response itself is an indication of the destructive horizontal violence that permeates the field of interpreting. The ability of RID to respond effectively was dramatically hampered by internal debates within the membership over who gets to speak for interpreters, what kind of ASL gets represented on video, who within the organization can make a statement on behalf of the organization, and on and on. These problems cannot be ignored as being specific to a momentary crisis. Rather, they are the product of years of contests over which various individuals – hearing and Deaf – have argued over the idea of an ideal “Deaf community” to justify particular professional opinions, or to create and defend insular realms of relative authority over other interpreters. This doesn’t automatically disqualify or undermine claims of authenticity. Nor does it mean that the Deaf community is only imaginary and not actually real. Of course the Deaf community exists; it’s just that every real community also has an “imaginary” aspect of it which holds it together.

What worries me is that  it seems like when we try to challenge oppression, the result is that we end up re-internalizing oppression within our professional community. (See crab mentality.)

To emphasize: none of the problems are specific to interpreters or the Deaf community. These problems have analogs in every marginal profession, every minority social group, every shade of political viewpoint. To be sure, there are specific aspects of the problem within the interpreting community which are qualitatively different. But we are mistaken when we think that these problems are the special ownership of specific people or even specific people groups.

What to do? I have some starting points or premises that I’m trying to work from.

1. Be cautious about using vague terms to screen each other. When I started in interpreting it was ATTITUDE. If you had ATTITUDE or make a public confession of the importance of ATTITUDE (often in ASL classes from one hearing student to another) then you gained authenticity. In some parts of the field, the current term is DEAF-HEART.  It’s not that these terms are useless. Often the power of such vague terms is that they provide a way for otherwise powerless groups to screen membership. But this can also become a way to justify  horizontal aggression. But Deaf and CODA interpreters deserve to know that these terms are frequently used by hearing interpreters to belittle each other.

2. Think beyond the level of individuals. Individual subject positions are the product of social and political contradictions, not the immediate cause. We cannot continue to blame underpaid and underrepresented interpreters for the failures of the profession, nor can we pretend that if we only had better leaders that we can resolve the fundamental problems we all care about. (As I often say to may students, “racism doesn’t need racists,” – i.e. racism can be an active social force even if individuals don’t expressly hate each other based on racial classification.)

As Zizek wrote in his book on violence,

“We should learn how to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence…”

3. Pick a different starting point. I suggest beginning with understanding the political economy of interpreting. By political economy, I mean the economic position of interpreting services in late capitalism as one tiny part of social relations. This helps us to avoid blaming each other for problems that are endemic to global affairs, thereby lessening the horizontal violence in our field. And it might help us formulate a political agenda that creates practical, effective solutions for working interpreters.

This may prompt new questions:

  • what does it means to act “politically”?
  • what is the “political economy of interpreting” look like? (or should look like?)
  • where should we focus our scarce resources?
  • how radical we can be and still be successful?
  • what strategies and tactics will protect working interpreters and the Deaf community? or such a thing impossible?
  • what ideas should we draw upon to reshape our thinking about interpreting?

Ultimately, there’s more to say about all this. I will give what I have to work in this direction. I hope there are others out there who want to work on this project with me.

Interpreting for Judith Butler

Interpreting can mean to facilitate communication between two languages, and to analyze a text to produce a useful and appropriate reading. In reality, these two activities are one and the same. Today I will rely on the second meaning of interpret to see what Judith Butler might add to the field of interpreting captured in the first meaning of the word.

Interpreting is both unteachable and teachable. It is unteachable in the sense that  all language work depends on a dialectic relationship between understanding and misunderstanding that cannot be formally outlined in advance of the communicative event. It is teachable in the sense that though normative models of language we can transform this dialectic into an apparently stable object of study that can be taught to students. In the attempt to make interpreting intelligible, however, we always run the risk of treating our methodological distinctions and actual distinctions, of treating our contingent identities as transhistorical identities. [Footnote: this is not specific to interpreting, but is a general problem of teaching language, identity, culture, etc.] For that reason, my contribution to interpreting, if I ever have one, will be to incorporate theories of instability, misrecognition, and indeterminacy into the field of interpreting.

Let’s look at identity. We live in an age of demographic surveys, victim interviews, and narrative non-fiction where we are encouraged to discover or to create the truth about ourselves. We feel – or are made to feel – anxious over the ambiguity of our own identities, and we try to stabilize that by developing coherent narratives. I do this all the time. But we should also tarry (a great Middle English word if there ever was one) on the topic of our own incoherence and learn to accept our inconsistencies rather than gloss over them. In doing so for ourselves, we learn to do so for others.

Judith Butler wrote this helpful thought (Giving an Account of Oneself 42):

Suspending the demand for self-identity or, more particularly, for complete coherence seems to me to counter a certain ethical violence, which demands that we manifest and maintain a self-identity at all times and require that others do the same.


What does this mean for interpreters? I suggest the following:

  1. It means that there are times when we must question our assumptions about identity. Not just that we think someone is identity A, but they are really identity B. Rather, we have to embrace the idea that we may never know how identity is operating in a given space.
  2. We must remember that the desire to see identity as coherent and stable is itself a historical product. Insofar as interpreters have depended on stable assumptions of identity to interpret the meaning of words and signs, interpreters are also part of making that partial history into an accepted reality.
  3. “Ethical violence” includes both the act of, say, pejorative gatekeepers to screen out your (Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income) client, AND the act of interpreters assuming that we know what Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income means for that person if anything at all. When we act on behalf of a client as a “Deaf” client (and not a Somali, Jewish, low-income client, etc.), we are making a strategic choice, which we must account for, and not an objective one, which we can simply assume is correct.
  4. Finally, interpreters may be in one of the best possible social positions to analyze and extend Butler’s analysis, given how much language, identity, and social space is a part of our daily experience. In short, interpreters already know Butler. We just haven’t read her yet.

I suspect that this is all rather obvious to working interpreters, and you can find examples of this in some working models of interpreting. But I would suggest that even when we recognize the ambiguity of social identity, we haven’t been able to fully theorize that ambiguity. It should bring us some excitement that so much recent work in philosophy and critical theory are in the area of ambiguity, identity, subjectivity, and language. I think if we incorporate these ideas into the most current research on interpreting, we will find that we are better able to understand interpreting and better able to talk about our profession with others.

For more on this, I invite you to read related blog posts:

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.

What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?

What do interpreters need to collectively accomplish? (Which is really a way of saying, what do *I* hope to accomplish?)

  1. A History of our Profession: It is popular today for interpreters to claim legitimacy by remembering the good old days, or to give homage to a few senior names in the field. But this is not what I mean. We need to understand the historical circumstances within which interpreting emerged as an increasingly professional practice. This is not a history of individuals, but a history of the knowledge of interpreting. During this 50th anniversary year of the founding of RID, we have an opportunity to do this. But we also risk re-telling our history only through individualistic accounts at the expense of a more holistic analysis of the cultural and political circumstances of our profession.
  2. A Critique of Ourselves: There is too much criticism and too little critique. Criticism is about pointing out faults and trying to correct mistakes through righting wrongs. Critique is the practice of recognizing the conditions of ones own existence, and determining what direction we might move in to create a different future. The moment for critique is always now.
  3. A Class Analysis of Interpreting: Despite the fiery accusations that hearing interpreters take advantage of the Deaf community, we have largely overlooked the fact that interpreters are largely marginal laborers in the post-industrial service economy, have no substantial political representation, and lack (like more and more workers) the basic protections of job security, wage security, and health care. The identity politics of the Deaf-Hearing divide is important, for sure. But it should not keep us from talking about class.
  4. Better Literature: Yes, intellectual production is important, especially if interpreters are getting paid as traditional intellectuals. The current literature on ASL interpreting is (mostly, not entirely) overly-schematic, borrow concepts simplistically and uncritically from other fields, and do little to develop a coherent theoretical and practical framework for understanding interpreting. If the new generation of interpreters stay committed, they might be able to effect some change in this area.
  5. A Good Answer to Why Interpreting Matters: Why should I be an interpreter? Initial answers may include: learn to sign with a friend, make a living doing something I love, help the Deaf community. All of which are totally acceptable answers, in my opinion. But does interpreting have any social value beyond this? Are there concrete benefits of interpreting to the Deaf community, to the hearing community, to businesses, to schools, to the world? And how might we represent those benefits? We need to play the long game.
  6. Concrete Wins: We need interpreters to work together to effect small but concrete changes that benefit the field and the client base. And those wins need to be advertised to the interpreting community at large, and released to the media. We need to believe (and we need others to believe) that interpreting isn’t just some loosey-goosey social club of people who know a little ASL. We need to have the vision to set clear goals and the power to realize those goals.

Those are my goals. What would you add? Take away? Modify?

What is an interpreter? (The U.S. Department of Labor Can Tell You)

In the course of becoming a recognized profession, interpreting has undergone a number of largely unrecognized transformations. This is the basic thesis of my inquiry into the economics of interpreting.

My driving motivation is not “how have interpreters betrayed the deaf community”, which seems to be Dennis Cokely’s focus in his post on “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?” on StreetLeverage. Interpreting discourse today seems most defined by public melancholy and myopic nostalgia. (Is there ever a nostalgia that isn’t myopic?, Nietzsche might say.) It’s not for me to say whether this is appropriate or not. I only wish to focus my attention on understanding  precisely what has happened, whether it could have happened any differently, and what – if anything – might be done. [End commentary.]

What follows is an incomplete parody of the Department of Labor’s classification of interpreters within O*NET. This isn’t the usual quality of post: it’s longer and less edited than I am typically willing to share publicly. But that’s the internet for you. In all seriousness, the O*NET classification is just one example of how previously unrecognized labor becomes integrated into the complex relationship between state and economy. It is this complex development that I’m interested in, not just the individual-centered narratives that drive most stories about interpreting history. In the 18th Brumaire, Marx said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

This is my pathetically simple claim in short: interpreters did not make interpreting history by themselves. Interpreters are the product of history, and what we encounter is not each other or even “Deaf people” so much as the political and economic world which we create and in which we are created. My hope is that future analyses of interpreting take this as the starting point rather than trying to locate causality and agency within parochial concepts such as Deaf-heart or relative measures of authenticity, such as having Deaf parents. The point is not to undermine these ideas, but to situate them within a broader framework.

*     *     *

What does it take to become an interpreter?

Answering this question is a perennial passion of working interpreters and the life’s work of interpreter trainers. We are not at a loss for thoughtful answers. But despite many excellent suggestions by leaders in our field, I believe we have overlooked a source of collected wisdom and practical answers: the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET for short.

What is O*NET, you ask? O*NET (pronounced “oh-net” in spoken English or O-STAR-N-E-T in ASL) is an online database of job descriptions developed by the U.S. Department of Labor to replace the outmoded Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Yet when one reads the the exhaustively thorough descriptions of job positions in the O*NET database, one suspects that it was designed to flummox guidance counselors in their attempts to point high school seniors towards college or employment. Thinking of becoming a musician? One look at the 300-plus tasks, knowledge, and skill requirements for job 34051 “musicians, instrumental” and a desk job starts to sound pretty attractive. Regardless, O*NET provides complete job descriptions for every imaginable position, and it breaks each job into the following helpful, bullet-point elucidated sub-sections: tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities, work activities, work context, interests, and work values.

Which brings us to job number 39999A, “interpreters and translators”. What does it take to become an interpreter? The gates of Emerald City (or Mordor) open with backlit anticipation.

First, a definition of interpreters and translators: “Translate and interpret written or spoken communications from one language to another or from spoken to manual (sign language) used by hearing-impaired.” I’m glad we cleared that up. So interpreters either interpret between two languages, or between “spoken” and “manual”. Hmm. I don’t think either “spoken” or “manual” is recognized by the Modern Language Association as a language. I would be fine with the “from one language to another” part. But the “comma-or” implies that sign language interpreters don’t interpret between two languages. This is no minor quibble, but we must keep moving. More gems await us.

Tasks. It’s always good for future interpreters to know what to expect in daily work. Task one: “translates approximate or exact message of speaker into specified language, orally or by using hand signs for hearing impaired”. Future students be warned: you will be required to translate as least the approximate message of the speaker. We understand that during difficult assignments, you can’t catch everything. Do you best to more or less interpret what was generally implied by the interlocutors. And if you are translating into “manual”, please be sure to use “hand signs”, as this is the way that the “hearing impaired” communicate.

Knowledge. I rather like this section, all jokes aside. Each of the knowledge requirements are rated out of 100 with measure of importance. “Knowledge of foreign language” (or of “manual”, one presumes) receives a 100/100. Self-explanatory. English language: 96/100. It’s somewhat less important that you know English. (You’re only translating approximately, after all.) You should know geography (25/100), that is: “various methods for describing the location and distribution of land, sea, and air masses including their physical locations, relationships, and characteristics”. I couldn’t have said it better myself, actually. But keep in mind that law, government, and jurisprudence will be somewhat important, as will mathematics, history and archeology, and economics and accounting. Indeed, interpreting is a field of life-time learning.

Skills. Also carefully ranked by importance. Active listening is the top requirement (100/100), as it probably should be for spoken language interpreters. But I would prefer “receptive proficiency” to be inclusive of Deaf interpreters working between sign languages. Information gathering (54/100) and information organizing (54/100) make an appearance here, which I highly commend. But with a 21/100 product inspection (inspecting and evaluating the quality of products) ranks higher than most. This includes checking auditorium steps for that loose snag of carpet which you will surely trip on during the graduation ceremony. An unlikely winner in this category for me is visioning (“developing an image of how a system should work under ideal conditions”), which receives only an 8/100, even though I am very good imagining how various consumers ought to behave. Finally, interpreting-related skills abound: operations analysis, idea creation, judgement and decision making, and (again) mathematics.

Abilities. The first several are oral and speech related, dismissing half of our work out of hand (literally). I linger on “selective attention” (75/100), which explains why I have to keep calling my agency to clarify assignment details. Happily, there are many visual abilities included in the list: near vision (what did I just trip over?), far vision (is that my consumer over there?), night vision (did the electricity just go out in the new wing of our high school?), visualization (I can visualize this presenter actually making sense), visual color discrimination (I thought that was illegal), and peripheral vision (I can see that student copying my signs from sex ed class but I refuse to look at him). And of course, mathematical reasoning.

Deaf Right to the City

The brilliant Gill Harold has a forthcoming article that describes the sound-centric nature of urban spaces. I am reposting the title and abstract below so you get a flavor of the article. Importantly, Gill’s article is published in one of the highest-ranked journals in our profession, which means that – yes – you can get great research on Deaf geographies published and recognized.

Reconsidering sound and the city: asserting the right to the Deaf-friendly city

Abstract: The sensory turn has made a pronounced attempt to broaden the focus in social and cultural geography to encompass the entire sensory spectrum, with the aim of counterbalancing what is perceived to have been the disproportionate attention granted to visual geographies and the act of seeing. In respect of critically understanding the geographies of difference that characterise Deaf citizens’ experience in the contemporary city, this paper calls for a moment in geography to take stock of the signature that visual awareness bears in the social life of the Deaf city, and also to consider the hearingness implicit in geographical commentary on the role of sound in the reproduction of place. Reading urban and public spaces from a Deaf-centred perspective, I draw on parallel discussions from social geography and Deaf Studies to critically deconstruct the phenomena underpinning the aural bias that is deeply embedded in the social fabric, and which finds continuous expression in the intangible aural architectures of modern life. Dispositions and attitudes towards the ‘normal’ hearing body and towards hearing ontological engagements with sound and speech serve to maintain the city’s audist and phonocentric inclinations. Here, the manner in which the right to the Deaf-friendly city is jeopardised is made explicit through empirical accounts from Deaf people in Ireland and England whose everyday geographies are characterised by the negotiation of urban spaces that were designed according to the needs of an assumed homogenous hearing public.

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.