deaf here, Deaf there, deaf everywhere (II)

As of the first chapter of Deaf in the USSR, we were in 1917, on the tail of a revolution from centuries of despotic rule by a series of tsars. Inclusion and unification were at the top of the revolutionary agenda, and the deaf were perfect mascots for the new Soviet ideal of human perfectibility through physical work. Their numbers were increasing in universities, trade schools, jobs in the government, and unions that they’d won the right to run themselves. Was the Soviet dream an exception to the rule of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? We learn in chapter two of Deaf in the USSR that the answer is an emphatic “No.”


The fine print of Communism was already dawning, and would seriously forestall social contracts both between the deaf and their nation and among the deaf themselves. The divergences it revealed invite questions about the construction of deaf culture that remain unanswered today.

              Reading Claire Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR, Chapter 2: “Making the Deaf Soviet”
Following the 1917 revolution, physical labor was the route for deaf people to integrate into a society that was now working-class by design, and they championed the revolutionary narrative of overcoming physical defects by being excellent workers. But the Soviet dream had more than just physical conditions for true belonging: there was also a universal standard of social cultivation through the sciences, humanities, and traditional big-C culture. Lenin called to eliminate social stratification by making cultural forms through 1917 accessible and intelligible to the masses, and developing public institutions that would make a taste for these works widespread (Zvorykin, pp 9-15). So while some deaf workers would exceed their work production quotas by more than one hundred percent, it wasn’t enough; they also had to demonstrate their appreciation of cultural artifacts (Shaw, 65).

Statistics from that transitional period suggest that the deaf were being appropriately funneled up the cultural ladder, but a closer look at their internal conflicts and everyday experiences reveals that this progress was relatively superficial. Deaf literacy rates would rise by 15 percent between  1925 and 1933 (Shaw 68), however the literacy rates among the hearing doubled within the same time period. This relative lag, along with society’s low bar for deaf literacy (only basic reading levels were required for state factory work), made university coursework all the more daunting for the deaf first-generation college students who began to enroll. On one hand, following classes through readings was prohibitively slow; on the other, sign language interpreters were hardly more efficient, muddled instead by the spectrum of language modes in the classroom:

One [deaf student] reads lips and does not know fingerspelling or sign language. Another does not lipread but knows fingerspelling and sign language, a third knows only sign language. There are those who come from rural areas with their particularities, with their nonspeak. It is natural that in one and the same class they do not understand each other. (Shaw, pp 69-70)

If they hoped to accommodate the diversity of students relying on them, interpreters most likely had to reduce the complexity of their message, slowing down passages, repeating them, or completely glossing them over in an effort to at least approximate the content for everyone. So, sure, dozens of deaf students did register for higher education and advanced technical training in the 1930s– but myriad communication obstacles stood between them and the more abstract, theoretical content of their courses (Shaw, pp 62-69).

A Soviet society’s new distaste for differences was not entirely to blame for the systemic nature of these obstacles; internal political fragmentation over deaf identity and deaf goals also played their part. Membership in the All-Russian Association of Deaf-Mutes (VOG) rose from 5,143 in 1929 to 39,000 by 1937, thanks to the active outreach programs they had installed to recruit and educate rural members; but as their numbers grew, so did the divergence in their interpretations of Lenin’s acculturation objective. They divided into two general factions on this subject, one for assimilation via more traditional conceptions of culture (much of which had its origins in music or spoken Russian), and another which sought to develop a more characteristically deaf culture in dialogue and parallel with the former.

Struggles between the two different approaches played out clearly in a tug-of-war over deaf affairs, notably over whether or not “deaf affairs” should operate at all. Wouldn’t a separate governing body rely on discrimination in order to exist, and hadn’t the deaf been waiting for centuries to be regarded the same as everyone else? In the eyes of this assimilative faction, deaf unions like the VOG were mere transitional maneuvers, stepping stones towards deaf integration whose mark of success would be rendering themselves obsolete. They resisted VOG affiliation, sign language, and other marks of cultural identity beyond “Soviet.” What’s more, comments from members of this faction defy the idea of deaf culture altogether: “Special conditions do not imply a separate culture! We deaf people are divided among ourselves by nationality and are obliged to familiarize ourselves with the culture which exists in each nation, not to create our own culture” (83).

On the other side of the aisle, the deaf-cultural-development faction resented the dream-like nature of the Soviet dream. “[Another deaf member] believes that deaf-mutes are not disabled, they they are equal to physically healthy people,” said Romanchuk, a VOG member. “Is that really so? I believe that deaf-muteness is the most negative type of disability” (Shaw, 85). One representative from this faction employed Soviet rhetoric to argue for a form of deaf separatism, accusing the opposite faction of neglecting “the call of the masses” (i.e., the deaf) to chase a pipe dream of conformity which was hardly attainable for the early-deafened, genetically deaf, and those who had reached later decades of life without ever being offered speech therapy. Indeed, representatives of this faction couldn’t fathom how the deaf with residual hearing, or who were skilled in speech and lipreading, expected more visually-dependent or illiterate deaf individuals to simply catch up:

 “[the other faction’s representative]’s point is that ‘the difference between deaf-mutes and speaking workers should be erased.’ How are we to understand this?… perhaps he is implying the abolition of differences in communication. Then he needs to say so. To erase the difference in communication is very hard, because you hear and I do not” (Shaw, 80).

Meanwhile, deaf cultural developments would face tight regulation regardless, as the government distrusted affiliations that might compromise the unity of the proletariat. Lenin had demanded the redistribution of culture, and stated that “the task of raising the cultural level is one of the most urgent confronting us,” but would curtail some of the most progressive turn-of-the-century works–even musical scores without lyrics–on the grounds that they were anti-Soviet for being too esoteric (Zvorykin, pp 9-16). To a leader appraising culture in terms of its reach rather than its breadth or inventiveness, deaf culture was going to be a hard sell. It didn’t matter “what art gives to hundreds, or even thousands,” Lenin said of cultural works that appeal to small groups, “out of a total population numbering millions” (Horton).

Though we don’t yet know the outcome between these two factions, the deaf-cultural-development faction stood at a serious disadvantage. Relatively immature, Soviet deaf culture was going through puberty at a time of major social transition: “[deaf culture] was not yet an established culture transplanted into the city but a culture in the making” (Shaw, 82). The moment was opportune to capitalize on the revolutionary hope of a better life, and deaf individuals with speaking ability had to weigh their priorities: a straight Soviet identity, which represented a safe form of normalcy, or a Soviet deaf identity, whose founders were scrambling to define the logistics and scope of its makeup. Sign language development wasn’t faring much better, as exchanges among newly converging Soviet deaf peoples sent it into an evolutionary whirl that was slippery to pin down for educational or standardization purposes (Shaw, pp 78- 80).

Some deaf sought to refine deaf interests; other deaf failed to conceive of what those interests would even be; but almost all agreed on one goal that would chafe the modern deaf studies scholar: to do away with deafness. Studies estimate that up to half of the deaf population had lost hearing only later in life by accident, illness, or heavy industrial noise pollution. The VOG (if you recall, a deaf association) formed a coalition called “Take Care of Your Hearing!” (beregi slukh!) which campaigned to reduce the rates of non-genetic deafness over time by improving hygiene and factory conditions (Shaw, 73). “We lose our hearing as a result of our ignorance and unculturedness,” one slogan read; “sanitary education through the explanation of causes and cures of deaf-muteness is on the agenda of VOG work” (74).

If even deaf-cultural-development activists were willing to subscribe to the ideology behind beregi slukh, the reader can admit that Soviet politics, either through intimidation, successful collectivist propaganda, or both, had significant influence on the contours of the deaf self. If we begin to compare the histories of American and Soviet deaf communities, a key difference in their respective conditions is the temptation of the Soviet promise. Is Soviet belonging not more promising than freedom, when freedom is the mark of an isolated man? In an article published in the 1936 paper The Young Stalinist, reporters interview deaf worker Petr Spiridonov, who attributes his technical skills, literacy, and livelihood to the effectiveness and benevolence of Soviet leaders. “And in conclusion,” they reported, “[Petr], with special expressiveness, gesticulated: ‘Life has become better, life has become more joyous.’ Having made sure that we understood him, he headed for his brigade in the depths of workshop, from where the clatter and clang of metal could be heard” (Shaw, 67).

Stay tuned for chapter III, “War and Reconstruction.”


Additional references:

Horton, Andrew: “The Forgotten Avant Garde: Soviet Composers Crushed by Stalin.” From The Central Europe Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1, June 1999.

Zvorykin, A.A.: “Cultural Policy in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” From Studies and Documents on Cultural Policies, UNESCO, 1970.

Photo downloaded from Sean’s Russia Blog, which features transcript from an interview with Claire Shaw, author of Deaf in the USSR.

deaf here, Deaf there, deaf everywhere

You may have already learned that sign language isn’t universal, but it’s a common assumption to have. We think sign language as a brain app that clicks on when a human is running on deaf mode, as if deaf experience itself were universal. But the only thing universal about deafness, apart from not hearing, is the mystique that it carries for people who do. As such, deaf cultural studies do seem to focus on universals; either on customs born from their sensory experience or on their responses to hearing politics, i.e. the suppression of sign language education. Certainly sensory experience is pivotal and cultural violences are endured by deaf across the world, but these truisms point more to the simple physicality of deafness and the universality of hearing oppression (audism) than anything else. So when we peel away these common threads, what distinguishes the experiences of the deaf in different nations?

Reading Claire Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR, Chapter 1: “Revolutionizing Deafness”

Maybe because widespread deaf-hearing interactions are only as old as the advent of legitimate interpreting, or because we have kept the deaf so busy dispelling our myths, the above question seems a hard one for the field of deaf studies to ask, let alone answer. With Deaf identity being impossible to extract from sign language development and human rights milestones, it’s compelling to wonder how, if we diverted our gaze from these common denominators, national modes of deaf identity could come into sharper focus. Based on my reading of its first chapter, Deaf in the USSR seems to lean in this angle.

In Russia, the 1917 revolution marked freedom from a tyrannical tsar and the beginning of the Soviet campaign, which promised a bright future to all who bought into the Soviet ideal. Among other things, this Soviet ideal imagined the most devoted citizens as those who were free to refine themselves through high culture and physical labor. This strict, obligatory give-and-take between the state and the masses would ensure a proletariat worthy of (in theory) ruling themselves. Ideologically fuzzy and generously plastered on visual propaganda, this was a social model that the deaf saw, understood, and wasted no time putting to use.

The deaf were uniquely empowered by the USSR’s badge of being a “worker’s state.” In this context they could ignore the old tug-of-war between deaf-culture (sign language) and hearing-culture (oral) education methods, and argue instead as Soviets in defense of work: sign language was a quick route to basic literacy and job orientation, whereas arduous speech training would delay entry into the workforce by six to seven years (Shaw, 39). Their defense of these new values was revolutionary, and as such aligned smoothly with an overarching sentimentality toward breaking free from imperialist strictures. Communism handed down a logic by which deaf activism was a nationalist concept rather than a question of human rights, and deaf autonomy could be seen as instrumental to the Communists’ collective success.

In this regard, deaf identity was equally informed by the USSR’s mission to become an “affirmative action empire.” while the state initially considered autonomous deaf organizations as a hindrance to their social integration, the deaf won the right to unionize by arguing that social integration for a linguistic minority like themselves would first require consolidation of their own developmental objectives (Shaw, 41). Only as a unified, independent body could they better standardize common needs (like communication accommodations in the workplace) and refine their own cultural pursuits. They had carefully studied the USSR’s “affirmative action” rhetoric concerning the integration of ethnic minorities like Kazakhs and Tajiks, which sought to privilege them with their own territories and native-language institutions. Language inclusion and tailor-made outreach, the USSR hoped, would render Soviet propaganda more intelligible and intimate to minorities across the board. The deaf recognized themselves as a minority nation within this framework and argued for autonomy using the same logic. Because the communist party pledged to fund minority nations’ pursuit of “maximum development” (Martin, 12), the deaf were able to sidestep the reductionist ways they were commonly perceived, bringing to the forefront more complex aspects of their community identity.

Lauding American Deaf organizations in the early 20th Century, the authors of a Place of their Own wrote, “The ubiquitousness of American deaf organizations is striking… [and] contrasts dramatically with the experience of deaf people in other nations, where historically most organizations were established for deaf people by hearing people” (Cleve and Crouch, 87). It appears they overlooked the USSR, where as early as 1920 the deaf were hijacking communism and internationalism to transform public understanding of social inclusion and minority identity. The Soviet deaf story is one far more personal than the universal revolt of “proving to the hearing we can do it.” So far, Deaf in the USSR pulls the reader into a distinctly Soviet watershed moment, politely offering a seat at the table of deaf negotiations on who they wanted to be and why.

Books titled Deaf in (insert country) tend to posit deafness as a line of defense against discrimination, with an obvious (universal) pursuit for their communities and language to be granted equal legitimacy in practice and under the law. Yet like any sociolinguistic minority, Deaf people practice self-actualization in dynamics unique to the places they live. If we seek to understand them on these deeper levels, we’re wasting time detailing their contempt of discrimination or the fact that they have their own language. These things are only useful to combat hearing misconceptions, and I don’t know about you, but I’m bored of seeing things from my own point of view.

Stay tuned for Chapter II, “Making the Deaf Soviet.”


Marx et la poupée (Marx and the Doll)

A novel wins an award, and I wonder: what makes one person’s story stand out among the thousands of others being published that year? Sometimes the author is a whisperer of words and brains, but (::petite curtsy to Gustave Flaubert::) our world is only graced with so many of those. Sometimes a story is no more than very well done, but performs better than it otherwise would because it resonates with the fetishes and fears of its time. Do novels like these content themselves with being prizewinners, or can they change public consciousness for the better? Maryam Madjidi’s autobiographical novel Marx and the Doll, winner of France’s Goncourt prize for “best and most imaginative prose work of the year” in 2017, seems to take a well-deserved bow, thank the audience, and back away.

Marx tells the story of 6-year old Maryam’s journey from post-revolutionary, wild-east Tehran to political exile in Paris and beyond. Marx is a nod to her underground-communist-militant parents, and the Doll gazes back to the toys she had to bury behind the home they fled in 1986 (her parents bury contraband books in the same spot). This hasty tomb of treasured objects serves as a metaphor for the axial theme of the book, the devastation of an Iranian identity buried alive.

The text weaves through disjointed pasts and presents that the reader reassembles as they advance through the book. It begins in the throes of the 1980 Cultural Revolution, in utero, when her mother jumps out of a window while seven months pregnant to escape right-wing paramilitary forces attacking the university of Tehran. She and her mother both survive, and remain in Iran until Maryam turns six. As the parents’ political movements are stymied repeatedly, and friends and family disappear or get executed one by one, the father escapes ahead of his family to make a base for them in France (Joining Maryam’s father in Paris spells the end of her mother’s dream of studying medicine, a blow she only seems to register more deeply as the years go by). Security detains Maryam and her mother at the airport, and they barely board the plane to join her father abroad. There begins their scourge of a new life, sharing a 15-by-15m maid’s chamber in Paris: Dad strings together odd jobs and smokes opium, mom slips into chronic silence, Maryam feels like an outcast at school, and at home refuses both her croissant and her Persian lessons. Later on and through adulthood, she ends up re-learning Persian, writing a thesis in comparative literature, travelling the world, and returning to Iran before she sighs into France as her home. Every other vignette, unresolved memories appear in figurative forms to alert her to her own trauma. They get dropped carelessly like euro bills at a metro stop, fly as birds around her mother’s head, or carry a cane and limp as an imploring old woman.

What the book does well is walk us through stepping stones along Madjidi’s path of growth, from a fragmented identity to a smooth one that she can touch without wincing or having a panic attack. Her dissonance pulls between France and Iran, but it could just as easily be Germany and Lebanon, or Sweden and Chechnya; it is a personal narrative that limits its scope to personal ghosts.

Still, what happens to be an Iranian tale appears at an opportune time, with talk of Iran oft on the news, in the headlines, and huffing out the American president’s mouth. The unfortunate upshot is that Western readers are left like 7-year-olds without babysitters to imagine Iran for themselves, at the same political moment that news producers project its flag alongside North Korea’s to herald a blurb on nuclear war. Readers looking to challenge Western lore of Iran need look further than Marx and the Doll, because the memories carrying the protagonist’s dilemma are the same ones driving our fuzzy optics on the Middle East: revolutionary head-clubbing to “Allah Akbar,” regime-sanctioned torture and the smell of tea, a woman kidnapped for her improper veil, that bread you just can’t find anywhere else, second wives and a tattooed Iranian lover who’s a thug but sweet on the inside. In other words, just as y’all suspected: Iran is one of those backwards places racked with civil unrest but saved by hospitality, shrewdness, and amazing traditional snacks. Perhaps Iran’s shot at a more nuanced reputation counts among the casualties of exile.

In her book, Madjidi acknowledges that stereotypes and orientalism limit the ways French people think about Iranians, rooting popular focus in politics, a dry climate, or at best classic literature, rather than the ways institutional differences shape the experience of everyday people. For example, what’s the proportion of technical schools to liberal arts schools in Iran, and how does a heavy technical emphasis shape peoples’ community involvement? More interestingly, as I recently learned from “Moral Refinement and Manhood in Persian” by Mana Kia, classical Persian morals hinge on intentions, while more Western schools of thought place judgement on behaviors. So the idea of having bad intentions while remaining civil (or conversely, being abusive even if you didn’t mean to be), is foreign to Persian thought. Can’t literature give us some more perspective on that?Anyway, she is candid about the way her younger self used to kindle the simplistic sexiness of being “Eastern” as a party trick to seduce French friends:

Usually, these people had heard of Iran through the news, books and movies. All that’s a bit distant and intangible, but now they had before them something very much alive. And so I became a storyteller before an audience thirsty for exotic tales; and I exaggerated here and there and made my tone dramatic and I saw their little eyes glisten with rapture, giving me the floor completely: some of them, the most sensitive ones, were even brought to tears. I was a triumph (pp 74-75, “Vision”).

When the book ushers the reader further into her adulthood, she’s repeating this same masquerade at yet another party, when she suddenly floods with panic; in the corner appears the huddling ghost of her uncle Saman (a former political prisoner), contemplating her with disappointment and apparently missing a mouth. Sweating, she hails a taxi home where she’s greeted by the ghost of her grandma, who tells her to drop the act and to “let your pain speak.”

Madjidi did grow up to let her pain speak, raw yet measured, universal yet intimate, in the form of this accomplished book. But reading it left me wondering, especially in this climate, about Iran’s collective pain and the ways that we stifle it by repeating stories that we have all come to expect. When Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign language film with “The Salesman” last year, critics complained the jury’s choice was more political than artistic, maybe even a gesture of support to Iran, who president Trump had slammed with the immigration ban. As with “the Salesman,” the timing of Marx and the Doll is not the sole reason for its critical success, but it does burden the work with the opportunity to portray Iran responsibly, which Farhadi alone did beautifully. One can’t take umbrage at Madjidi for declining this opportunity in favor of telling her own story. But it would have been nice.

In the end, forgoing defense or analysis of her homeland was probably the most honest thing for Madjidi to do; as her parents did, she sacrificed heavily to salvage what she could of her country, but had to let it go to survive, ultimately leaving Iran to fight for itself. In the chapter “History repeats itself,” her father returns to Tehran in 2009 and observes young protesters in the streets during the Green Movement. Guilty of having fled to survive, he no longer feels entitled to demand a better future for Iran:

His heartbeat thrills, he wants to join them…he would like to join them as he did thirty years ago. But at 59, he can’t join them anymore. He stands motionless, helpless on the curb, a grief-stricken spectator, and wonders what is happening within him… he no longer wants to die in the name of ideas… he watches to be a witness, and that’s all that he can do. (p 59)

It’s at this moment that the author seems to look Iran in the eye, and where the story’s pain is most visceral and unique. Maybe Madjidi didn’t defect from a higher cause, but rather saw herself as unworthy of the uniform. If letting her pain speak was the best that she could do, her story stakes a flag in the ground for future recruits to see and take heart: “I am a garland of words hanging from a tree that a child points out” (“Once upon a time,” p202).

An English translation of some passages, with author bio and a French audio clip, is available here.
*Read Matt Conti’s article about the Iranian mural artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo here.


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