Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
The PhD has reached 5000 words. Not all will be kept I’m sure but it’s a start. I’m currently working my way through Pierre Desloges’ description of the Deaf Spaces of the Paris Deaf community in the 1770s. Very interesting and so much information there for those who thing that the Abbé de l’Epée or anyone else ‘invented’ sign language…
Anyway… just to bring together some other information on the Gallaudet situation, particularly following my response to Lennard Davis’ article in the Chronicle (see below). This time it’s I. King Jordan himself who, on the 22nd, published a letter in the Washington Post in which he treads the same line, condemning what he calls the “small but vocal group of deaf people who define the community narrowly”… these he calls the ‘absolutists’ and he argues that they are destroying the university’s inclusive vision of Gallaudet.
I’m not going to comment on the internal politics of Gallaudet. I’ve never been there and I don’t know the American situation very well. If you want reaction, there’s plenty here and here from Deaf and others in America. However, I think it’s worth tying the two articles together and commenting on what’s happening from an academic point of view.
Gallaudet is not a university – well, of course it’s a university, but it’s not just a university. It is possibly the most prominent symbol in the world of Deaf people’s ability to attain their full potential by creating a deaf-owned space and without having to assimilate into the hearing world and it has achieved this in the face of 200 years of worldwide Oralist oppression (I’m using all these terms despite, and perhaps because of the enormous emotional charge they carry). It’s a central landmark in the Deaf world; a representative pole that measures the tide of US (and world) Deaf identity.
Of course, not all Deaf people in the states can go to Gallaudet and not all Deaf in the states are represented by those who do… but then not all Native Americans have stood at Wounded Knee and not all Black people attended Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. But that doesn’t mean they are less Native American or Black… It’s what the place and events signify in the memory of the community that matters.
Unfortunately, what’s happened at Gallaudet is that the landmark status of the university in the Deaf community has not diminished, but the time for I. King Jordan and others to play a role in that representation is now over, and they won’t let go.
The Gallaudet ‘Deaf President Now‘ protests in 1988 were symbolic of a first step in Deaf people taking control of Gallaudet and so, of their own representation. At that time, the idea of a politically Deaf, ASL first-language user being elected was a non-starter… it just wasn’t going to happen and so Jordan was elected to the presidency to represent ‘d.e.a.f.’ America and their academic future. The grassroots, signing Deaf celebrated that, and looked forward to what his presidency would bring.
Now, nearly 30 years later, the boot is on the other foot, but instead of celebrating the successful empowerment of the Deaf community that came through his presidency and stepping out of the way to finally allow the grassroots Deaf community in the U.S. to rise up and take its rightful ownership of Gallaudet and what it represents (as other Deaf organisations are doing, see the BDA’s language ownership campaign in the U.K.) Jordan has proven once and for all that he, as a d.e.a.f. person, does not have the same mind as the Deaf community.
Post-colonial theory is full of this. Ahmad’s criticism of Fanon was that he was too ‘French’ and had got so used to using fancy philsophical theory that he couldn’t relate to the people any more; Fanon’s ‘Black skin, white masks’ is very much about that. In fact, the whole theoretical area of postcolonialism and development is about following those processes of territorial, representational, physical and mental colonisation and de-colonisation and what it is that happens when a colonised people want to take back responsibility for self-determination.
What Jordan has done is no great surprise. By writing his letter he has admitted that he can’t let go of the task of representing the d.e.a.f. community for right or wrong. He is clearly hurt because he doesn’t feel wanted any more and he’s even more hurt that the future that he planned for the d.e.a.f. community in America is not welcome within that community. To coin a well known phrase… the “Mask of Benevolence” has slipped, and all we can now see is the ugly face of bitterly jilted power.