The Construction of Norms in 17th- to 19th-Century Europe and the United States
This research group works on deafness, hysteria, and contagion from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth century as three sites of conflicting new conceptions of the human. In medicine, literature, education, and philology in this period, different rhetorics regarding hysteria and deafness were elaborated that drew on widely different imaginings (the natural, the animal, the miraculous, and later the normal and the abnormal). Initially presented as an isolated and extreme case, hysteria became a common diagnosis in the second half of the eighteenth century, well before it was ever presented as a risk to society. Repeated changes in the criteria for identifying the pathology, depending upon the political and epistemological priorities of the moment, led to an approach to the pathology that prioritized the role of social class and then favored the construction of a female illness. Contagion, works in nineteenth century England, both as a literal disease (fever) and as metaphorical device employed in literary constructions—so that in the Poor Law Commissioner’s Report (1834), paupers become synonymous with spreading the contagion of idleness, leading to unproductivity—seen as a form of disease in the growing industrialised market. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, contagion becomes a ubiquitous motif in the cultural imagination of England—as cholera and fever spread throughout England causing death and disease, as well as a linguistic device deployed to classify that, which is considered diseased.
In the case of deafness, at a time when disciplines such as surgery, psychiatry, and legal medicine were establishing their spheres of influence and authority in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, deafness was typically constructed as a problem to be solved. Each of these fields appropriated the question of deafness and claimed to find “answers” to it. In the process, they created an understanding of deafness to which their own response would be the most appropriate. For example, medical practitioners compared deafness to an illness and argued for the necessity of its eradication, developing specializations geared toward operating on and rehabilitating the organs of hearing and speech (including laryngology, phonology, audiology, and psychiatry). Legal medicine, on the other hand, insisted on the urgent need for specific laws to govern the deaf. Meanwhile, educators and philosophers of language emphasized the use and role of sign languages.
Fields of Knowledge in Competition
Medicine – Over the three centuries studied, a variety of classifications, definitions, and criteria were used to measure the body. Notions such as vapors, fits of the mother, hysteric passion, hysteria, on the one hand, and deaf and mute, deaf-mute, deaf-idiot, deaf blind, deaf-speaking, deaf, hard of hearing, on the other, helped to build new objects. Sabine Arnaud examines how this diversity of categories led to the constant displacement and transformation of approaches and perspectives. Both hysteria and deaf-muteness are categories that date from the eighteenth century, both categories contributed to a redefinitions of the people afflicted and their status in society. In the nineteenth century, these categories would be newly articulated using different terms, but they remained the categories of reference even when criticized. Debolina Dey’s work lies at the intersection between literary studies and the history of medicine, and is organised around the public health movement in Victorian England. Looking at representations of (contagious) disease—she seeks to bridge the gulf between individual narratives of disease and the greater socio-political milieu in which it functioned, through the broad frameworks of literary analysis and historiography of nineteenth century aetiology. Jaipreet Virdi examines how innovative surgical procedures, such as the “artificial tympanum,” allowed English surgeons to gain authority and control over the body of the deaf in the second half of the nineteenth century. Part of the control stemmed from the transformation of societal attitudes towards defective bodies, which stigmatized imperfection. Thus, devices that could conceal deafness became more favorable, especially amongst polite society.
Philosophy of Language – A second focus is how reflections on the deaf and mute affected thinking on man’s relationship to language and the hypothesis of a natural language. At the heart of the eighteenth century, an array of treatises set out connections between language, speech, and voice. Sabine Arnaud investigates their presentation of sign languages as a key to thinking about the origin of language, the relationship between language and thought, and the nature of man.
Education – In the nineteenth century, questions around sign languages prompted heated disputes among educators. Defenders of sign languages emphasized the danger of social exclusion arising from pronunciation difficulties and the acquisition of a limited number of words, while partisans of the voice saw the practice of sign languages as establishing a ghetto. At stake in this controversy was the question of who had the authority and competence to better the lives of deaf-mutes. Was it doctors or educators? Scientific knowledge or pedagogy? Developments in surgery or advances in sign languages? Sabine Arnaud investigates these disciplinary disputes.
Legal History and Criminology – The mental abilities of the deaf have undergone a process of constant redefinition in legal discourse over the centuries, in terms both of deaf people’s rights (including rights to education, marriage, inheritance, and the vote) and their responsibilities (when accused of a crime, for example). The discipline of medical-legal expertise was developed in the nineteenth century in response to these changing definitions, with physicians expanding their range of medical categories in order to pinpoint specific types of deafness and often binding that diagnosis to mental capacity. Raluca Enescu investigates the legal capacity of deaf people during the first period of activity of the German Imperial Court of Justice, from 1879 until WWI. Court decisions in civil and criminal cases show how the law limits the role of the deaf person in the judicial system, and in the process constructs the definition of the normal citizen.