Finding a Language

Caroline Block is a Ph.D. candidate. We invited her to tell a little about her life as a deaf woman in the academy.

At work I think it is fairly clear that I am Jewish. A curly-haired 20-something social scientist from the Semitic suburbs of New York working on a conspicuously Jewish dissertation topic, I know I am the Jew in the room — and so do those around me. I pepper my syllabi with showings of “Yentl” and readings by both of the Boyarins. I am familiar with many competing discourses of “Jewishness,” and am often comfortable enough to play with them. I favor those fantastic beaten silver rings from Hadaya in the Old City (you know you’ve seen them), but if you look closely, mine are engraved with Talmudic axioms more analytical than pious. But sometimes — perhaps not often enough — I express more with my hands than these words etched into silver. This is when I sign, expressing a Deaf identity which I have found far more difficult than Jewishness to translate intelligibly at my place of work.

Of course, one very practical reason not to sign is that the majority of my friends and colleagues are hearing and wouldn’t understand. A product of public and private schools, I encountered being deaf early, but Deaf culture relatively late, and haven’t yet reached the same point of comfort that I have in bringing Jewishness into my departmental life. This is not an issue of “passing” at work. People know I don’t hear them. They see my hearing aids, show various reactions to the intensity of my gaze when we are speaking. And yet the fact that I am Deaf is somehow literally unsayable in this context. In my second year of grad school I sat through a reading group on the concept of “listening.” I mentally combed through the latest uses of Derrida and language theory I had seen in Deaf Studies collection while sitting with my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy, finding that the latter had nothing very specific to say on the topic. The post-doc who had called the group into existence declared his theoretical interest in hearing aids. I waited….I guess his interest really was only theoretical.

I feel I am left with (and fail to pick up) the burden of making a relevant and positive vocabulary available and assimilable into the everyday language of the academy. While the word may look the same on paper, I worry that the proud identity “Deaf” I see in the Deaf community will translate poorly into the label “deaf” of University administrations, or even on the lips of well-meaning professors and colleagues. In the slippages that take place as the semantic field shifts from one “Deaf” to another, I see the word accrue meanings I don’t appreciate and discursive associations I don’t want for myself.

And so, in my professional life I haven’t spoken extensively about being Deaf. To me it has seemed like a contract: If I don’t talk about it, if I take on the burden of communication, I allow people to know that I am Deaf without their having to think too hard about it, or feel too uncomfortable with it. But of course this is circular. People are uncomfortable imagining that I am Deaf because they don’t have a vocabulary for it. And I should take some responsibility for not having provided one for them in the way that I have for the many overlapping Jewish spheres I inhabit. Because perhaps here, too, there is room for play.