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Sign Language Studies 3.1 (2002) 77-89
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A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook
Deaf-World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook, ed. Lois Bragg (New York: New York University Press, 2001, 430 pp., cloth, $70.00, paper, $25.95)
AS EVEN the back cover makes clear, this volume constitutes a major contribution to Deaf studies. Sporting endorsements from three significant scholars and figures in the contemporary Deaf- world—Gallaudet University President I. King Jordan; Deaf culture advocate and Northeastern University psycholinguist Harlan Lane; and Yerker Andersson, former chair of Gallaudet University’s Deaf Studies department—the volume is lauded as a “marvelous initiative,” “valuable resource,” “most welcome contribution,” “vital service,” “comprehensive collection,” “landmark in the history of Deaf studies,” and an “astonishingly balanced selection.” Before one even opens to the table of contents, one’s expectations run high and anticipation seems significant. These are dampened only slightly by a back-cover blurb from the publishers (New York University Press) that begins with rather bold ethnographic exoticism—“To many who hear, the Deaf world is as foreign as a country never visited.” The blurb goes on to claim, however, quite accurately, that Deaf-World “concerns itself less with the perspectives of the hearing and more with what Deaf people themselves think and do.”
Both the arrangement of the book and the list of contributors make this perspective evident. The editor, a professor of English at Gallaudet University who specializes in “Early German languages, literatures, and mythologies” (xxxi), chooses to open the volume with “a story, really three stories intertwined,” as she offers a memorial [End Page 77] essay to some of her own Deaf roots, “In surdam memoriam: Karl Jaekel” (xi). Bragg’s opening essay serves at least three important functions. First, it makes manifest her own authority in editing such a collection, allowing her to trace her Deaf heritage (at least doubly through her “Uncle Charlie,” the Karl Jaekel of the title, and her late-deafened grandmother). It also permits her to editorialize some, in personal and historical space, on “institutionalized efforts, in Uncle Charlie’s day, to prevent Deaf people from marrying each other.” Second, her essay starts the volume in an appropriate “Deaf way”—with a story. What’s more, this story (or rather the “three stories intertwined”) serves a double rhetorical function as first of all “just a story” that validates the editor’s place in Deaf culture even as it also serves a wider function as a kind of fable of “institutionalized efforts” that affect many Deaf lives. Numerous other pieces in the volume also take up these various institutionalized efforts that influence the lives of (American) Deaf people; likewise, many other pieces begin with stories, fables, and allegories.
The third function this opening essay serves in its hybrid form (as a somewhat personal essay/memoir, biography, and introduction to a scholarly volume) is as a piece of epideictic discourse. Epideictic, a ceremonial form of discourse whose subject was often praise or blame of an individual or attention to the significance of an event itself, is one of the three principal forms of rhetorical discourse laid out by Aristotle (along with forensic/judicial deliberation and political discourse); among the Greeks and Romans, where public oratory was the mark of an engaged and competent citizen, epideictic was widely practiced. Bragg’s tribute to her Uncle Charlie thus not only celebrates his Deaf life but also speaks to the event of this publication. For although this volume is not necessarily the first of its kind, it is unique and certainly worthy of epideictic acknowledgment. 1 In this memorial then, a traditional epideictic genre, Bragg has fashioned a fitting introduction.
However, like a pair of pants that might fit well at the waist but drag the ground or show, unfashionably, the ankles, this unique sort of introduction does not necessarily fit the body of the whole as well as it might. For although it is also a very well-written essay/ autobiography/biography (one even worthy of literary attention), [End Page 78...