- Silent Poetry: Deafness, Sign, and Visual Culture in Modern France
This book examines what has been a primary, yet largely dismissed, metaphor for works of art in modern France: deaf sign language. Traditionally, “silent poetry” has referred to painting, and a number of artists, da Vinci among them, advocated observing the deaf in order to fine-tune the imitation of gestures and expressions in painting. Nicholas Mirzoeff examines that popular metaphor through the lens of a number of historical periods and intellectual perspectives in modern France, and in so doing, he traces the turbulence of various social constructions of the deaf and their sign language over time. “An initial fascination,” he notes, “in the writings of Condillac, Rousseau, and Diderot with sign language as the original language of action soon gave way to the categorizations entailed by a new distinction between the normal and the pathological states of the body. Consequently, deaf people were now perceived as suffering from a disease called deafness” (p. 6). These categorizations were fueled by nineteenth-century scientific events such as Darwinism, race science, and the origins of anthropology; to this day, the pathological view of deafness and sign language is one that has persisted. Consequently, for those unfamiliar with deaf culture, the metaphor may risk the misperception of sign language as mere “pictures in the air” rather than as a linguistically valid language. This is clearly not Mirzoeff’s point, as he moves beyond a reductionist, pathological view to analyze deaf culture and deaf sign against a vast political and artistic backdrop.
By recognizing deafness as a central metaphor for art, Mirzoeff poses a very important question: literally, what role have deaf artists played in art history, or visual culture? The politics of the French Revolution led to the establishment of the Institute for the Deaf in Paris; this enabled a new class of deaf artists, who embraced the alliance of visual sign language with the visual arts culture. They “used the cachet of high art to resist being categorized as ‘primitive,’ and as a means of demonstrating their intellectual capabilities to a skeptical hearing majority” (p. 3). This was a strategy in response to the inability of the hearing to accept the deaf and their language on their own terms. Paradoxically, this process of marginalization provided deaf artists with an “overriding imperative to demonstrate the ‘normality’ of their perceptions and their re-presentation in art” (p. 99). With the ascent of deaf artists, sign language itself often became the subject of art. These artists tried to create analogies between art, sign language, [End Page 749] and speech, pointing out how each of these systems of representation is at a remove from the idea itself; in this way, they attempted to present sign language as an analogue and alternative to speech.
Mirzoeff emphasizes the importance of seeing deafness, sign language, and visual culture as complex issues that are not reducible to simple interpretations. One result of his practicing what he preaches in terms of his multiaspectual analysis is that it can be difficult to keep track of his train of thought, or to grasp the whole. However, when he applies the underpinnings of his arguments to interpretations of the paintings and sculptures of various deaf artists, these points of contact are most fascinating; I find his interpretations of deaf artwork to be the best moments in his book.
This book makes a significant contribution to what is increasingly becoming a visually centered culture by locating traditionally overlooked moments in the origins of modern visual culture. Mirzoeff has achieved a very illuminating intertextual analysis of the interactions of the deaf and their sign language with art; many people will find his book enlightening, since it offers something for nearly everyone, including those interested in the history of medicine, linguistics, and art history. Mirzoeff ends with a reminder that, regardless of our hearing status, we should simply enjoy the “pleasure of the visual sign” (p. 262) as exemplified by sign language, art, and even cyberspace.