Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
The last month or so has been quiet on the blog – I have a good excuse, a new member of our family: Zebedee Noah, arrived (very quickly) on the 16th July, some 12 days after his due date (and I was so hoping for a 4th July baby, and then a 14th July baby… something revolutionary at least!)
So, I’ve been a bit busy – but in the meantime, I’ve heard that my paper, proposed for the Berlin, Max Planck conference “Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History” has been accepted.
No doubt they will do their own publicity, but here’s the successful abstract for your enjoyment:
Games we play with spaces: the 1900 congress, and the dis-abling of the Deaf community
On the evening of July 18th 1889, Lemardelay’s in the Rue de Richelieu played host to the last, bittersweet, meeting of the “1889 International Congress of Deaf-mutes”. As each of the French and foreign visitors arrived to wish each other ‘Adieu’ and begin the journey home, there was a distinct ‘end of summer camp’ feeling in the air. Their regret at parting was especially heightened by something that had grown through the congress itself – a Deaf space so close-knit and unique, so united, so complete, that it eclipsed the difficulties and challenges of their everyday experience.
If the congress’ blossoming Deaf space shaped the congress delegates’ experience, it posed an interesting challenge for its organisers, who shared a guilty secret; in organising the event, their aim had been less about bringing Deaf people together, than about getting prominent international figures to side with them in a fifty year-old battle between local associations over the right to represent the Deaf community and define it to the hearing state.
However, it seemed that fate had conspired to thwart such petty rivalries. As delegates came together, bringing their own visually-mediated realities, and sharing them through negotiated visual languages, the discovered joy and simplicity of ‘being deaf in the world’ together had reoriented the congress upon the real challenge of the time. With the influence of the Pure Oral Method threatening to force Deaf people into lives of visual silence – what the Deaf community risked losing was more important than simply local pride; it was the root of their very existence as Deaf people: Deaf space itself.
And so, spurred into action, from the early 1890s, a committee drawn from a wide range of Deaf organisations began to address the question of how to resist the Pure Oral Method. Their conclusion was that, as in the days of the Banquets, the most convincing way to convince the hearing world of Deaf equality was by inviting hearing people into a space where it was demonstrated. To that end, they hatched an audacious plan: they would create a publically accessible Deaf space – in which they would debate their own future – and embed it at the heart of an event designed to define France to the rest of the world: the 1900, Paris World Fair.
This paper traces the evolution of that Deaf spatial offensive from its planning through to its final, staggering, failed conclusion on August 6th 1900. Focussing particularly on the disruptive tension between spaces proposed and produced by the Deaf community, and those authored for Deaf people by the World Fair organisers and the French government, it explores how the proposed Deaf space was initially welcomed, and then accidentally, and eventually purposefully challenged, hijacked and subverted to disarm it, and keep the Deaf community in a situation of dis-ability.
Ultimately, it demonstrates how – by refusing to validate Deaf space itself, and instead enforcing the ‘only-ness’ of the hearing world as a reference point for equality – the Deaf community were captured by a normalising disability paradigm that, then, persisted their dis-abling for the following 100 years. And how, by reaffirming Deaf space, we might begin to fold back those layers of oppression, and begin to reveal the reality of wider humanity.