- Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature by Rebecca Sanchez
This exciting book is in the vanguard of disability studies, demonstrating that the category of disability can be productive not only for discussing texts in which there are disabled or deaf characters, but for illuminating, in this case, experimental modernist texts that have no direct relation to deafness or disability. In this study of American modernist authors such as Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, T. S. Eliot, H.D., William Faulkner, and William Carlos Williams, Rebecca Sanchez enlists principles from deaf studies and ASL linguistics as tools with which to analyze modernist texts. Sanchez’s analyses engage what she calls deaf epistemology to mediate between several key tensions that structure modernism and to consider modernist difficulty as a result, in part, of an understanding of language as embodied.
As Sanchez points out, the notion that disability studies analyses can only be useful in reading disabled characters ignores the fact that we are all embodied, just as we all have a race and a gender. She writes:
It would seem rather absurd (one hopes) to argue that critical discussions of race should be limited to texts that prominently feature bodies of color or that queer theory provides valuable perspectives only when the characters or authors being considered belong to a sexual minority. But somehow the otherwise familiar notion that the margin constitutes the center loses its grip when it comes to discussions of disabled bodies.(4)
Deaf studies is especially pertinent to explorations of modernism, she argues, because it emphasizes language, putting “pressure on [our assumptions] about linguistic practices” (7). Sanchez stresses two key aspects of signed languages: that they are visual and that they are embodied, inseparable from the bodies of their speakers. What she calls “deafening” our understanding of modernist literature entails letting the knowledge gained from thinking about deaf history and signed languages provide insight into the ways embodiment and the visual are incorporated into modernist literature.
The first tension Sanchez addresses is the apparent contradiction between the emerging culture of celebrity and reigning theories of impersonality. After setting up this opposition by reviewing Eliot’s insistence on impersonality and the concurrent rise of the celebrity poet in the careers of Stein and Amy Lowell, she explores the body politics of ASL poetry by Debbie Rennie, Peter Cook, and Kenny Lerner. She proposes that sign language literature synthesizes the opposing terms by modeling an embodied impersonality, “a self-shattering that nevertheless refuses the disavowal of the embodied subject” (31). She then uses this intriguing model as a way to revisit Anderson’s volumes of poetry, A New Testament (1927) and Mid-American Chants [End Page 693] (1918). Engaging queer studies, theories of dependency, and ethics, Sanchez demonstrates within Anderson’s understudied poems a depiction of radical human interdependence that, like the ASL poems she describes, transcends the apparent divide between the body of the author and the extinction of personality.
In chapter 2, Sanchez turns to the tension between primitivism and the mandate to make it new. Here she argues that part of what the excitement about the “primitive” did for modernism was offer alternative ways to think about norms that govern communication. Beginning with a discussion of Josephine Baker, this chapter brings together issues of race, gender, and language politics to set up readings of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Sanchez argues convincingly that these texts question the regulatory standards of language and demonstrate the dangers of “forcing bodies to express themselves in standardized ways” (74).
One of the most engaging readings in the book is this chapter’s discussion of Anderson’s story “Hands”; here Sanchez weaves a disability reading of the sexually ambiguous schoolteacher Wing Biddlebaum into the more obvious queer reading, suggesting that it is his “attempt to restrain his hands, to communicate ‘normally,’ rather than some inherent quality, that reduces him to a shell of a man” (88). The same could be said of...