The Plasticity of Listening: Deafness and Sound Studies

"Listening Post" by Flickr User Theory

“Listening Post” by Flickr User Theory

Editor’s Note: Steph Ceraso‘s post wraps up Sounding Out!’s three-part February forum on the intersection of deafness, Deaf Studies, and sound studies.  However, SO! would like this series to open an ongoing conversation. If  you would like to respond to these posts and/or pursue your own avenue of inquiry, please direct your pitches to jsa@soundingoutblog.com. We’d love to hear from you.  By the way, if you missed (or want to re-read) Liana Silva‘s “Listen to the Word: Deafness and Participation in Spiritual Community” click here and C.L. Cardinale‘s “my mother’s voice, my father’s eye, and my other body: the sound of deaf photographs” click here.

There is no difference in being deaf or hearing—one will always appreciate the subtleties of sound because of the ability to feel things in greater depth to what the ear alone will allow us to hear. -Evelyn Glennie from Shirley Salmon’s Hearing—Feeling—Playing: Music and Movement with Hard-of-Hearing and Deaf Children

I am not deaf, nor am I someone who is affiliated with the scholarly field of disability studies. However, I am someone who is very interested in expanding notions about what it means to listen. For my dissertation research, I have been working on developing a theory of what I call “multimodal listening.” Rather than understanding listening as something that is dependent upon the ears, “multimodal” listening refers to the various ways in which sound is felt throughout the body (via vibration), and to the multiple senses in addition to the auditory sense that are employed during a listening event.

Photo by Flickr User jimmiehomeschoolmom

Because of my interest in moving beyond ear-centric models of listening, I really appreciated Liana M. Silva’s recent post on the Deaf International Community Church (DICC). I was especially struck by how her experience as a hearing individual attending a Deaf church service suddenly defamiliarized her own relationship to sound and voice. The visual nature of this service, which was conducted through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), prompted her to consider listening practices that do not rely on a fully functioning auditory system.

I wonder, though, if swapping the ears for the eyes is still too limiting—too dependent on a single mode. For instance, if a non-signing deaf person was attending a service similar to the one Silva described, visual listening (in a discursive sense) would not be a possibility. My use of “deaf” (with a small “d”) is a strategic choice here. The descriptor “Deaf” (with a capital “D”), as Silva uses it in her discussion of the church, is almost always employed to refer to the Deaf Community as a cultural and linguistic entity, whereas “deaf” refers to an audiological deficiency. Since the use of ASL is most often associated with individuals in the Deaf community, those who do not sign would most likely avoid churches like the DICC. However, depending on the acoustics and the material features of the church, a non-signing deaf person might be able to experience the sound of music through vibration in a more full-bodied kind of listening practice.

Photo by Flickr User curran.kelleher

Listening via vibration is something that Cara Cardinale Fidler writes about in her poetic account of growing up with deaf parents. She remembers,

In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus.  It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo.

In this passage, Cardinale Fidler amplifies the tactile experience of sound—the ability of all bodies to listen-feel through the force of vibration. Sometimes we feel sound in our guts or throats or teeth, but this is not usually an aspect of listening that most people with a working auditory system meditate on, or try to refine in any way.

I think it is important to acknowledge, as Silva and Cardinale Fidler do by example, that the labels “deaf” and “hearing” are not as clear-cut as they may seem. There is a whole range of auditory function among people who are given these labels, or who fit somewhere between them. Sound scholars might think of deafness, then, not as a uniform lack, but as a range of listening practices in which sensory modes other than the ears are employed. Some people rely more on one mode than others, and some might develop synesthetic listening practices.

Evelyn Glennie, playing the marimba faster than the camera can cope with, Photo by Flickr User Bankside

For instance, in the documentary Touch the Sound, percussionist Evelyn Glennie uses the convergence of sound, sight, and touch in her own listening training. We need to start thinking about listening less in terms of binaries (e.g. you either have the capacity to listen or you do not), and more in terms of possibilities. The fact that bodies can be retrained to experience listening via multiple modes highlights the extremely flexible, plastic nature of listening habits and practices. In considering this diverse range of listening possibilities, I wonder how we might design more listening experiences that are truly multimodal—that require or at least present the possibility of listening with more than one sensory mode. How might we expand the listening capacities of all bodies?

Deaf space and architecture is one area that is beginning to take up such questions. Based on the concept of universal design, which emphasizes the production of products and environments that are accessible to both so-called “disabled” and “able-bodied” individuals, deaf architecture considers the ways in which deaf listening bodies move through and communicate within space. These spaces seem particularly well-designed for visual and tactile listening situations. For example, according to blogger Scott Rains, some key principles of deaf architecture include: the use of partial walls or open concept spaces, no sharp angles and curved corners to increase visual range, no sources of glaring light that might impede vision, and wooden floors for more pronounced vibration. Bodies, spatial and material configurations, and the senses were all taken into account in this kind of design. The visual and tactile elements in these spaces accommodate particular bodies and communication practices, but there would be no need for such spaces without the existence of those particular bodies and communication practices. The design of deaf architecture is based on the reciprocal relationship between cultural and physiological needs, which in turn broadens the listening possibilities of the inhabitants of deaf spaces.

The Myer Music bowl, where the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra accompanies Evelyn Glennie, photo by Flickr User learza.

Deaf studies and deaf scholars have much to contribute to sound studies. Expanding ideas about what it means to listen, coming up with new ways to extend the capacities of all listening bodies, and developing more dynamic and complex theories of listening will require sound studies scholars to think about listening not only in terms of the ears, but in terms of bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics. In this sense, deafness may be one of the most significant and generative areas of research in the continuing development of sound and listening studies.

Conversely, sound studies can offer deaf studies fresh ways to think about how sound shapes/enhances/disrupts deaf cultural practices. As we have seen from the examples above, sound plays a powerful and sometimes complicated role in deaf contexts. Using sound studies approaches and methodologies, then, could help to augment the ways in which sound figures into deaf culture–a subject that has received very little attention thus far. Collaborations between these seemingly contradictory areas of study have the potential to enliven and enrich each other in mutually beneficial ways. Sound studies and deaf studies have a lot to say to each other. They just need to start listening.

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Steph Ceraso is a 4th year Ph.D. student in English (Cultural/ Critical Studies) at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric and composition. Her primary research areas include sound and listening, digital media, and affect. Ceraso is currently writing a dissertation that attempts to revise and expand conventional notions of listening, which tend to emphasize the ears while ignoring the rest of the body. She is most interested in understanding how more fully embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Ceraso is also a 2011-12 HASTAC [Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory] Scholar and a DM@P[Digital Media at Pitt] Fellow. She regularly blogs for HASTAC.

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About sceraso

Ph.D. student in rhet/comp, University of Pittsburgh

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