restricted access Chapter 10: Conclusion
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Chapter 10 Conclusion ! THE MOMENT when a society must contend with a powerful language other than its own is a decisive point in its evolution. This moment is occurring now in American society, which has only recently discovered American Sign Language and ASL literature. It has discovered that the rather complex gestures used by Deaf citizens are integral to a legitimate national language. Many things change under the pressure of this newfound polyglossia. As Mikhail Bakhtin notes, “Two myths perish simultaneously: the myth of a language that presumes to be the only language, and the myth of a language that presumes to be completely unified.”1 In American society, English is not the only language—nor for Deaf Americans is ASL the only language. Moreover, neither English nor ASL is completely unified; each is an aggregate of elements of other languages . So too is Deaf American literature a polyglossic aggregate of various discourse structures. These multiple discourses that make up and stratify every language —differences of genre, register, sociolect, dialect, and their interpenetrations—constitute what Bakhtin calls heteroglossia.2 In the dialogic interaction of these elements, Allon White explains, the 201 975 Gup DAL Chap 10 7/17/00 7:49 PM Page 201 high languages (as opposed to those associated with children, immigrants, deviant subcultures, etc.) “try to extend their control and subordinated languages try to avoid, negotiate, or subvert that control.”3 Thus, polyglossia is a heteroglossic phenomenon on the national level: a dominant language (English) seeks to exert control and another language (ASL) twists, squirms, tries to escape, and gets back at that control. Such twisting, squirming, and jesting help make Deaf American literature an incredibly rich and multifaceted body of works. It is uniquely bicultural, bilingual, and bimodal—even trimodal. Many national literatures draw on both oral and literary traditions; so too ASL literature has an oral performative component rooted in traditional vernacular forms and a print component based on the aural language of the majority culture. But no other literature has a visualkinetic component: a visual vernacular that enables ASL to create a visual literature, or visuature. This visuature has properties so far outside what is usually considered “linguistic” that only analogies with dance, graphic art, cinema, and drama can do it justice. Every literature is evolving, but Deaf American literature is experiencing changes that are particularly numerous and significant . In a way, it is less than half a century old, for ASL, after generations of suppression, first achieved recognition as a legitimate language in the 1960s. The vernacular of its visual component, too, is comparatively new, dating to the early nineteenth century (and Old French Sign Language, from which it borrowed heavily, is just a century older). However, its visuature—its ASL literature—is working to catch up with literature in English. More and more Deaf Americans are creating increasingly sophisticated and artistic productions, and eagerly making use of videotechnology both to record and distribute and also to compose these works. With the help of new technology, Deaf Americans are experimenting with innovative graphic enhancements, both live and recorded, as Ella Mae Lentz’s Treasure video demonstrates.4 Another way in which ASL literature is evolving is in its gradual transition from the “oral” to the “literary,” a transition undergone by many literatures before it. Until quite recently, there was a sharp division between print literature and ASL “deaflore,” the culture’s 202 Conclusion 975 Gup DAL Chap 10 7/17/00 7:49 PM Page 202 traditional vernacular productions. Yet the burgeoning ASL videotape literature now has assumed many of the properties of a print literature. How far will this trend go? As more ASL videotape literature is produced, will deaflore diminish or even vanish? Watching this evolution in action helps scholars better understand the worldwide transition from orality to literacy in the distant past—and also, ironically, today’s growing orality, fostered by advances in telecommunications . The evolution in ASL literature is momentous, but there should be a concerted effort to locate and record the traditional ASL forms before and if they disappear. We can see promise in where Deaf American literature is going: more masterful and artistic use of ASL, more use of videotapes , and more use of traditional vernacular forms in composing artistic works. Perhaps if vernacular forms are more widely distributed , more Deaf Americans will utilize them as a basis for composing increasingly complex works. As its sophistication and complexity grow, Deaf American literature may become more like a...