The Construction of Deafness in Western Europe and the United States (17th to 19th Centuries)

The Construction of Deafness in Western Europe and the United States (17th to 19th Centuries)

Sabine Arnaud, Mara Mills, , Raluca Enescu


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.

Sabine Arnaud studies 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 examines 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 analyzes 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 allows her to ask how the body becomes an object of political investments.

Past events:

December 10-11, 2012
Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History, Sponsored by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Project Biocultures, University of Illinois at Chicago
Conference website

June 7, 2013
Shaping education and setting the boundaries of knowledge in France, England, Germany, 1750-1950, with the participation of Sabine Arnaud, John Carlson, Kathryn M. Olesko, Sophia Rosenfeld