Evalangui's (readingz) wrote,

Seeing Voices: A Journey into the world of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks . [Non-fiction]


Published June 1989, the year after the Gallaudet University revolution.

Interesting but pretty basic. Good for me since I haven’t read much on the topic at all and it references other material (David Wright’s autobiography, for example) and gives enough of a basic history to give a casual reader a basic understanding. I’m quite sorry to have listened to the audio version since it skips most of the footnotes, which are the most interesting part of the book for me! It’s a short-book in any case (64.000 words) and Sacks is a very readable writer.

The pathos is a bit too obvious, although undoubtedly the situation was (and sometimes is) quite dire for deaf people and it made me all teary eyed anyway. Still, it might well be that old cochlear implants were pretty much useless to make a deaf person into a hearing one, unlike current ones. See my review of Sound and Fury for more on that.

Another criticism to be made is that Sacks, like all Usian writers, is pretty USA-centric. Although there are appropriate comparisons to other countries and some history of the French tradition from which the Usian tradition originated with Clerc and Gallaudet and in the footnotes I did read interesting references to the very advanced organization of education for the deaf in countries like Venezuela and Uruguay (check the quotes) so it is possible that there is more about other countries in the ones I have not read but the bibliography is pretty much all Usian (I’m including it here, too).

I find it a bit confusing how there’s proof that every sign language is a separate language and the level of intelligibility is so high that two random signers of any language will get by with each other and be able to have conversations in a couple weeks.


* More remarkable, in a sense, was the indifferent or hostile reaction of the deaf themselves, whom one might have thought would have been the first to see and welcome Stokoe’s insights. There are intriguing descriptions of this—and of later ‘conversions’—provided by former colleagues of Stokoe, and others, all of whom were themselves native signers, either deaf or born of deaf parents. Would not a signer be the first to see the structural complexity of his own language? But it was precisely signers who were most uncomprehending, or most resistant to Stokoe’s notions. Thus Gilbert Eastman (later to become an eminent Sign playwright, and a most ardent supporter of Stokoe’s) tells us, ‘My colleagues and I laughed at Dr. Stokoe and his crazy project. It was impossible to analyze our Sign Language.’

The reasons for this are complex and deep and may not have any parallel in the hearing-speaking world. For we (99.9 percent of us) take speech and spoken language for granted; we have no special interest in speech, we never give it a second thought, nor do we care whether it is analyzed or not. But it is profoundly different for the deaf and Sign. They have a special, intense feeling for their own language: they tend to extol it in tender, reverent terms (and have done so since Desloges, in 1779). The deaf feel Sign as a most intimate, indissociable part of their being, as something they depend on, and also, frighteningly, as something that may be taken from them at any time I would think the similarities to immigrants and their own languages is quite obvious here but Sacks is probably monolingual and did not think of the obvious parallel (as it was, in a way, by the Milan conference in 1880). They are, as Padden and Humphries say, suspicious of ‘the science of others,’ which they feel may overpower their own knowledge of Sign, a knowledge that is ‘impressionistic, global, and not internally analytic.’ Yet, paradoxically, with all this reverent feeling, they have often shared the hearing’s incomprehension or depreciation of Sign. (One of the things that most impressed Bellugi, when she launched on her own studies, was that the deaf themselves, while native signers, often had no idea of the grammar or inner structure of Sign and tended to see it as pantomime.)

And yet, perhaps, this is not so surprising. There is an old proverb that fish are the last to recognize water. And for signers, Sign is their medium and water, so familiar and natural to them, as to need no explanation. The users of a language, above all, will tend to a naive realism, to see their language as a reflection of reality, not as a construct. ‘The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity,’ Wittgenstein says. Thus it may take an outside view to show the native users of a language that their own utterances, which appear so simple and transparent to themselves, are, in fact, enormously complex and contain and conceal the vast apparatus of a true language. Again the foreign language perspective is obvious, also why I believe non-natives to implicitly have better skills to teach the language than natives at all but very advanced levels (What is the use of a native to teach a kid the verb ‘to be’?) This is precisely what happened with Stokoe and the deaf—and it is put clearly by Louie Fant: 158

* 158. Fant, 1980.

Like most children of deaf parents, I grew up with no conscious awareness that ASL was a language. It was not until my mid-thirties that I was relieved of this misconception. My enlightenment came from people who were not native users of ASL—who had come into the field of deafness with no preconceived notions, and bound to no points of view regarding deaf people and their language. They looked at the signed language of the deaf with fresh eyes.

* But there has not yet been in the United States any official attempt to provide deaf children with a bilingual education—there have only been small pilot experiments (like that reported by Michael Strong in Strong, 1988). And yet, in contrast, as Robert Johnson observes, there has been a widespread and successful use of bilingual education in Venezuela, where this is a national policy and increasing numbers of deaf adults are being recruited as aides and teachers (Johnson, personal communication). Venezuelan schools have daycare centers where deaf children and infants are sent as early as they are diagnosed, to be exposed to deaf signing adults until they are old enough to go to nursery and grade schools, where they are instructed bilingually. A similar system has been set up in Uruguay. Both of these South American programs have already achieved notable success and hold out great promise for the future—they are, unfortunately, as yet virtually unknown to American and European educators (but see Johnson, Liddell, and Erting, 1989). The only other countries with bilingual programs for the deaf are Sweden and Denmark—where the native sign languages are officially recognized as ‘mother tongues’ of the deaf. All of these show very clearly that one can learn to read perfectly well without speaking and that ‘total communication’ is not a necessary intermediate between oral education and bilingual education.

[Selected bibliography]SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY


The fullest history of deaf people, from their liberation in the 1750’s to the (deadly) Milan conference of 1880, is given in Harlan Lane's When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf.

Excerpts from autobiographies of the first literate deaf and their teachers, during this period, are to be found in Harlan Lane, ed.,

The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education, translated by Franklin Philip.

A pleasant, informal history of the deaf, full of personal vignettes and fascinating illustrations, is provided by Jack R. Gannon in Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America.

Edward Gallaudet himself wrote a half-autobiographical history of Gallaudet College, History of the College for the Deaf, 1857-1907.

A remarkably informative and lengthy article, under the heading of "Deaf and Dumb," may be found in the "scholars' " (11th) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.


An extremely vivid, poignant account of the unique Martha's Vineyard community is Nora Ellen Groce's Everybody Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard.


David Wright's Deafness is the most beautiful account of acquired deafness known to me.

A more recent book by Lou Ann Walker, A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family, draws a powerful picture of life as a hearing child of deaf parents.

The Quiet Ear: Deafness in Literature, compiled by Brian Grant, with a preface by Margaret Drabble, is an extremely readable and varied anthology of short pieces by or about deaf people.

A vivid account of a rich, creative life is Lessons in Laughter by the eminent deaf actor Bernard Bragg. Interestingly, this was not written (though Bragg, a Shakespearian actor, is intensely literate), but signed (for Sign, not English, is Bragg's first language) and then translated into English.

Another fascinating account of a full and creative life is What's that Pig Outdoors, by the book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times,

Henry Kisor. Kisor lost his hearing at three and a half, when he had already acquired speech and language-he does not sign, but lipreads and speaks. Kisor does not identify himself as culturally Deaf, and his life, unlike Bernard Bragg's, has been spent entirely in the hearing world.


Demographic surveys are usually dull, but Jerome Schein is incapable of being dull. The Deaf Population of the United States, by Jerome D. Schein and Marcus T. Delk, Jr., provides a vivid crosssection of the deaf population in the United States fifteen years ago, at a time when major changes were just starting to occur. Also recommended are Schein's Speaking the Language of Sign and At Home Among Strangers.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the situation of the deaf and their Sign in Britain. A fine account is given by J.G. Kyle and B. WoIl, in Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language.

A splendid overview of the deaf community is Sign Language and the Deaf Community: Essays in Honor of William C. Stokoe, edited by Charlotte Baker and Robbin Battison. There is not a single essay in this volume that is less than fascinating-and there is also an important and moving looking-back by Stokoe himself.

An extraordinary book-the more so because its authors are deaf, and can speak from within (as well as about) the deaf communityits organization, its aspirations, its images, its beliefs, its arts, its language, etc.-is Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries.

Also very accessible for the general reader and full of vivid interviews with members of the deaf community is Arden Neisser's The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America.

A real treasure for browsing (even if the volumes are a little too heavy to read in bed, and a little too costly to read in the bath) is the Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness, edited by John Van Cleve. One of the delights of this encyclopedia (as of all the best encyclopedias) is that one can open it anywhere and find illumination and enjoyment.


In the works of Jerome Bruner one can trace how a revolutionary psychology can in turn revolutionize education. Particularly remarkable in this context are Bruner's Towards a Theory of Instruction and his Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language.

An important "Bruneresque" study of the development and education of deaf children is provided by David Wood, Heather Wood,

Amanda Griffiths, and Ian Howarth in Teaching and Talking with Deaf Children.

Hilde Schlesinger's recent work is only to be found in the professional literature, which is not always readily available. But her earlier book is both vivid and accessible: Hilde S. Schlesinger and Kathryn P.

Meadow, Sound and Sign: Childhood Deafness and Mental Health.

Observation and psychoanalysis are powerfully combined in Dorothy Burlingham's Psychoanalytic Studies of the Sighted and the Blind; one wishes a similar study could be made of deaf children.

Daniel Stern also conjoins direct observation and analytic construction in The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Stern is particularly interesting on the development of a "verbal self."


The linguistic genius of our time is Noam Chomsky, who has written a dozen books on language since his revolutionary (1957) Syntactic Structures. I find the most vivid and readable are his 1967

Beckman Lectures, reprinted as Language and Mind.

The central figure in Sign linguistics, since 1970, has been Ursula Bellugi. None of her work is exactly popular reading, but one can glimpse fascinating vistas and dip with much pleasure into the encyclopedic The Signs of Language by Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi.

Bellugi and her colleagues have also been the foremost investigators of the neural basis of Sign; here too one may gain a sense of the fascinations of the subject in Howard Poizner, Edward S.

Klima, and Ursula Bellugi, What the Hands Reveal about the Brain.


Highly readable, witty, and provocative is Roger Brown's Words and Things.

Also readable, magnificent, though sometimes too dogmatic, is Eric H. Lenneberg's Biological Foundations of Language.

The deepest and most beautiful explorations of all are to be found in L.S. Vygotsky's Thought and Language, originally published in Russian, posthumously, in 1934, and later translated by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Vygotsky has been described-not unjustly-as "the Mozart of psychology."

A personal favorite of mine is Joseph Church's Language and the Discovery of Reality: A Developmental Psychology of Cognition, a book one goes back to again and again.


Though he may (or may not) be dated, there is great interest in all the works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, and his incessant pondering on "primitive" language and thought: his first book, How Natives Think, originally published in 1910, gives the flavor of him well.

Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures has to be by one's side the moment one thinks about "culture"—and it is a crucial corrective to primitive, romantic thoughts about pure and unadulterated, uncultivated human nature.

But, equally, one has to read Rousseau-to read him again in the light of the deaf and their language: I find his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality the richest, the most balanced, of his works.


Unique views of what human beings are like if deprived of their normal language and culture are provided by these rare and fearful, but crucially important human phenomena (each of which, Lord Monboddo says, is more important than the discovery of 30,000 stars). Thus, not accidentally, Harlan Lane's first book was The Wild Boy of Aveyron.

Anselm von Feuerbach's 1832 account of Kaspar Hauser is one of the most amazing psychological documents of the nineteenth century.

In English, it was published as Caspar Hauser.

It is again more than coincidental that Werner Herzog conceived and directed not only a very powerful film of Kaspar Hauser, but also a film on the deaf and the blind, Land of Darkness and Silence.

The deepest contemporary pondering on "the soul murder" of Kaspar Hauser is to be found in a brilliant psychoanalytical essay by Leonard Shengold, in Halo in the Sky: Observations on Anality and Defense.

It is well worth looking at Susan Curtiss's minutely detailed study of a "wild child" found in California in 1970, Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day "Wild Child. "

Finally, an enthralling and minutely-detailed account of a modernday Massieu, a deaf man who reached adulthood with no language of any sort, but later acquired language, and how his life and mind changed with this, has been provided by Susan Schaller in A Man without Words.
Tags: #audiobook, #essay, #non-fiction, *author: male, *read for university, +academic, +deafness, +disability, +evolution, +social issues, 2013, 2013: non-fiction book, @read in english, [quotes], [quotes] book, [quotes] book/non-fiction, author: oliver sacks

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