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  • Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature by Rebecca Sanchez
  • Babak Rahimi (bio)
Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature. By Rebecca Sanchez. New York and London: New York University Press, 2015. VII+198 pp. Softcover $25.

Disability studies is a growing academic field. Since mid-2000s disability studies has increasingly challenged the perceived imperative of normality in terms of body and its relation with the social order of normalcy. Equally important to note is that the field itself has pushed against academic marginalization, even in critical discourse fields such as gender, queer, and race studies. Part of the challenge for disability studies has been to identify varieties and intersectional relations of impairments, stigmatization, and harassment within neoliberal local and global contexts. Yet the main challenge remains a theoretical one. How can we understand modernity beyond an ablest paradigm to which disability can take center stage in a more profound understanding of being modern?

Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature offers an insightful approach in theorizing modernity, especially in its literary modernist manifestations, and the epistemologies that modernist awareness casts upon and beyond our assumptions about normative embodiments that continue to define modernity in several areas of inquiry. Informed by deaf cultural and visual studies, in particular ASL (American Sign Language), Rebecca Sanchez’s work offers an original take on modernism as an aesthetic and literary movement, which arose in late nineteenth-century Europe. Modernist transgressions, according to Sanchez, are marked by ways to go beyond “communicative norms” (p. 26), norms that [End Page 173] rely on embodiment in making language possible, through a distinct visual language that cancels out any notion of universal language as a product of abled bodies. The deaf culture produces a kind of knowledge that reveals a “range of interpretive possibilities for engaging modernism that also gesture outward, offering surprising insight into conversations, including those surrounding contemporary generic art, in which modernist studies has a great deal to contribute” (p. 152). The possibilities of language as embodied fragmentation, which modernity has been associated with, opens up to an understanding of literary performance that revolves around visual and temporal, which underline the modernist aesthetics beyond normative cultural and literary traditions.

With four chapters, an introduction and an insightful epilogue, Deafening Modernism introduces the reader to an inventive critical deaf study of aesthetic and literary modernist works of Sherwood Anderson, Charles Chaplin, Charles Demuth, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein. With focus on such figures, tough not limited to them, Sanchez is not interested to explore deaf writers or literary characters, but ways embodied and visual language expose an alternative form of knowledge and expression. Sanchez works through the question of deaf epistemology and modernism through concepts of impersonality, primitivism, difficulty, and the image. In the first chapter, she examines the contentious relations between impersonality, following T. S. Eliot as disembodied status of the writer, and celebrity culture as authorial personalization of the author. Of importance in this chapter is the sophisticated discussion on the modernist clash between depersonal language and embodied subjectivity that depends on affective corporality, which so she argues defines the modernist texts ranging from W. B. Yeats to Sherwood Anderson. Sanchez’s literary interpretation of Anderson from a disability approach is intriguing, as she registers the prominence of the body in language and literature.

Chapter 2 continues the notion of embodied language with a shift of attention to how an understanding of modernism should be contextualized with the standardization of language. This chapter is conceptually and historically riveting for its discussion on deaf boarding schools and the institutional attempt to marginalize embodied discourses, especially at the educational sector at the beginning of twentieth century. Sanchez’s interpretation of Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times from a deaf studies perspective is original and invites the reader to reinterpret other key literary works in the era such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). The underlying argument here is how primitive aesthetics challenged regulative measures through multilayered institutional and media practices in the early twentieth century. [End Page 174]

Chapter 3 examines the concept of modernist difficulty as juxtaposition and indeterminacy. The complex problem in...