As some of you may have gathered from my Tweets, my paper has been selected for the Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History Conference to take place on December 10-11 in Berlin. The conference is sponsored by the Max Planck Institute and Project Biocultures at the University of Chicago.
The history of deafness presents an exemplary model of a community’s mobilization for the recognition of a cultural identity. It is also an unequaled history of divisions across a broad range of pedagogy, techniques, and scientific inventions. Across the last four centuries at least, constructions of deafness as a cultural identity and/or as a disability have lead to opposite claims. Deafness became a focal point for arguments over citizenship, eugenics, language, theories of the mind, and the like. A different set of categories was produced to give voice to these claims and the dialogue between their supporters has been extremely difficult for lack of a common stake. Depending on the approach, one can say such a heated debate has given the question of deafness a very specific place among human variations. Sign language, in particular, has lead many to question the relationship between mind, body, and language. Topics include the use of objects and techniques for creating a space of encounter, conceptions of the relationship between humans and language, language and thought, or language and society across time and space. We are seeking explorations of the dialectic between hearing and silence, deaf and hearing as well as the technologies and ideologies that intervene between the deaf world and the hearing world, the deaf person and the hearing person.
My paper abstract:
Institutional Boundaries: The Early Years of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est.1816)
The issue of medicalizing the deaf has been a primary source of conflict between the D/deaf community who regard medical treatments as an infringement to their culture, and medical practitioners who impose their paternalistic authority through medical and surgical treatments. The source of the tensions, however, goes beyond technological cures and is embodied in the historical role and conflict between medical and social efforts to cultivate “isolated” deaf individuals for social integration. This paper establishes roots in this historical picture by illustrating the early history of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (RDDE), founded in 1816 by the aurist-surgeon John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) as the first nationally-recognized institution in Britain providing specialized care for deafness. In particular, this paper will demonstrate that the RDDE occupies a central place within the history of nineteenth century aural surgery, for it provides an interesting historical insight into the dialectic of spaces for deafness and hearing, as the objectives of the institution blur the boundaries between duty and philanthropy, as well as medicine and technology.
Founded at 38 Carlisle Street, London, near Soho Square, the RDDE was founded upon two main objectives: to expand on benevolent charity for a class of sufferers often neglected by society and medicine, and to provide a base whereby aural surgery could establish itself as a specialty, provide proper training to interested practitioners, and experiment with less invasive procedures for treating deafness. It was thus a space where the deaf population could go for medical advice, receive free or inexpensive hearing devices (e.g. trumpets, ear cornets), and even participate in a community conditioned largely by charity. In the first year of its establishment, 364 patients were admitted, 89 of which were cured, and 75 “relieved” of their maladies. By the end of 1820, the RDDE admitted 1,863 patients. As London society congratulated Curtis for rescuing a neglected class of diseases from ignorance and empiricism, the institution’s reputation grew more prominent; Royal patronage secured the reputation of the institution and it relocated to larger grounds at 10 Dean St., Soho, where it remained until 1876. By examining the discrepancies between the two objectives, a close history of the RDDE reveals the extent to which deafness was taken seriously as a medical and social ill and to which a cure was desperately sought within institutional boundaries.