The Construction of Deafness in Western Europe and the United States (Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries)

The Construction of Deafness in Western Europe and the United States (Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries)

Sabine Arnaud, Mara Mills, Raluca Enescu

arnaudneu.jpg

Franciscus Mercurius Van Helmont: Kurzer Entwurf des eigentlichen Natur-Alphabets der Heiligen Sprache. (Sulzbach: Abraham Lichtenthaler, 1667). Original source owned by Institut National des Jeunes Sourds de Paris.

In this project, Sabine Arnaud studied the construction and diffusion of medical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge on deafness to consider how an infirmity was constructed simultaneously with different areas of competence designed to attend to and possibly eradicate it. She examined visual and textual documents in detail in order to trace the development of criteria of reference and traditions through citations, symbolic investments, intermeshing opinions, and the establishment of classifications. Drawing on literary genres, affecting recognizable styles, and rhetorical figures, and evoking particular imaginings, these works bring together existing references and usages to new effect. Medical and philosophical texts, for example, established analogies between the deaf, animals, automatons, and people to be colonized and configured sign language as a means of accessing a natural or universal language. Sabine Arnaud analyzed how a complicated web of references was enlisted to support the respective claims of each discipline and to make speaking or signing an essential feature when defining the ontological, epistemological, and moral expectations placed upon mankind. The study of rewritings at the turn of the nineteenth century—a moment when new medical categories were being produced—thus allowed her to ask how the body becomes an object of political investments.