Forming a Transnational Deaf Public Sphere

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Joseph Murray, Gallaudet University
Beginning in 1889 and continuing onto the twentieth century, a particular American minority sought transnational sustenance for its national-based discourses of belonging. Sign-language-using Deaf Americans participated in a transnational Deaf public sphere, forming a common strategy of full citizenship through sign language with their European counterparts. This strategy challenged existing linguistic nationalisms, predicated on monolingual national spaces, by proposing a version of citizenship which used bodily difference as a basis for bilingual citizenship. Scholars have long understood Deaf people’s struggle to preserve sign language as a means of ensuring linguistic survival. However, Deaf leaders’ support for sign language was not predicated on separatist arguments. Rather, Deaf people positioned sign language as a tool for creating citizens and assisting the assimilation of Deaf people into their surrounding communities.

That this argument re-occurred in different national settings is certainly due to parallel emergences of nationalist ideologies and liberal public spheres, but also as a result of an active interchange of ideas among Deaf people, belying traditional conceptions of minorities as locked into specific localities. Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s ”subaltern counterpublics,” this paper traces the formation of a transnational Deaf public sphere into a space in which Deaf people could exchange ideas on ways of living as signing Deaf people. This sphere emerged most prominently at a series of well-attended international conferences in the final two decades of the nineteenth century. In 1893, this insistence on normalcy through sign language was articulated by one Deaf American leader under the term “co-equal,” a term which can serve to denominate the discourse put forth at this time. This paper looks at the various ways in which Deaf Americans, Germans, and Britons were able to contextualize this discourse to their disparate national settings.

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