The Construction of Norms: Deafness in 17th to 19th Centuries

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science has a fantastic project directed by Sabine Arnaud, The Construction of Norms in 17th to 19th Century Europe and the United States. A description of the project:

This research group works on deafness and hysteria from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth century as two 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.

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.

Isn’t this right up my alley? I am thrilled to announce that as of April, I’ll be in Berlin for four months as part of a predoctoral fellowship working with Dr. Arnaud and other amazing scholars on this project.

Guess how excited I am?!

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