Tacenda, or Speaking the Unhearable

How do I say the unhearable? One of the few essential informants of my deepest, dailiest life is a relationship to hearing and deafness that very few people share.

How few? Fewer than you mean when you say “few people.” Fewer than I mean when I’m talking about anything else. I was a hearing child, a hard-of-hearing adolescent, a late-deafened adult, and am now a cochlear implant user. I’ve done some time guinea-pigging for scientists, and they tell me that my CI results fall in the top 2% of CI users – that is, with a CI processor on, I hear damn well.

The figure of total CI recipients, world-wide, is about 325,000 now. Results, as they say, vary. Two percent 325,000 is 6,500. I don’t know how many of these people have my history of “normal” hearing, hearing loss, and late-deafness, before high-end CI results. About 11 years for each phase, rounded. So in terms of direct sensory experience of the major sense that defines one’s social existence, across this whole range of deafness and hearing, I share that experience with – let’s round it up to – 7,000 people in human history. Using this estimate of the number of people who have ever been born, that’s .0000065% of human beings.

That few. I know a few of them. There is much in life that one cannot discuss intelligibly without a common frame of reference. And in certain respects, my typical experience isn’t in anybody else’s frame. I could talk about it, but nobody knows how to hear it. Usually, I don’t want to put myself through the emotional wringer of others who mistake their misunderstanding for knowledge.

So I’m stepping out on the limb here, a little bit. I’m doing it because this past week stirred up several media swirls that directly touch on this part of my being.

Last weekend, the hashtag #academicableism emerged on Twitter, initiated by @zaranosaur. Most of the contributors seemed to be current students, who were speaking to the exclusions they routinely encounter in academic life. Readings these, participating in the discussion, was a heartening agony.

When I was a student, I didn’t talk about any of this. I don’t mean that I suppressed a desire to speak, and felt silenced. It never occurred to me to talk about this stuff. If it had, there wasn’t anyone to speak to. I mean that last part literally, in the proper old sense of “literally”: my college and grad school had no disability services when I was a student. I recall some conversations with university staff in which I brought up my deafness, but these episodes either didn’t take the form of accommodating me as a student, or they occurred with someone who lacked the power to effect accommodation.

In college, my hearing loss was in the severe range, and it crossed a jagged line into profound about half way through grad school. I used hearing aids and FM devices (big clunky things back in the late ‘80s & early ‘90s). As I write this, I’m still feeling extreme reluctance to say much publicly, so I’m going to use the unfortunate short-hand of grades: I can point to places on my undergraduate transcript where my grade represent what I didn’t hear, not what I learned. Yes, I asked professors for what I didn’t even know at the time to call access. Didn’t get it in college. So in grad school, I never asked. The only dip on my graduate transcript came in a term when a dear friend died. Here the gap between grades and lived experience opens wide and deep: through eight years of grad school, I “heard” class discussions only in fragments, and responded only when I thought I understood well enough. I missed almost all of the social life of graduate students, nor did I realize then how much connections with one’s peers, or the lack thereof, forms later professional experience. Again, I’m going short on detail here because my throat clamps up as I write this. There’s too much to say, and I’m not sure I want to risk it.

I was deaf before I became an academic. As an academic with a CI, I’m still deaf. Yes, I have substantial hearing function from the implant, for which I am amazed and grateful. But my CI doesn’t make me un-deaf now, and it certainly doesn’t change the past. Nor can a CI do anything to change systemic injustice against deaf people, inside or outside academe. My experience of academe, from grad school till today, is a deaf person’s. When I bring this to the attention of others, that fact is sometimes trivialized, but it is not trivial. Sometimes I prefer invisibility to undergoing trivialization.

Every discussion I’m part of, as an academic, is intimately conditioned by this fact, whether my colleagues and students realize it or not. Usually, not. For instance, I grimace at discussions of the academic market that assume, usually tacitly, that systemic injustice in academe sprang fully formed from the head of 2008. But that’s not today’s ball of wax.

In #AcademicAbleism, I saw common experience as I never had it in my student years. Yet the very ability to speak about it – in public, even with the sometimes-necessary cloak of anonymity – seemed like a great boon. Who were these kids (yes, you all look young to me) who just assumed the right to speak in a public forum? Who supposed that redress was possible and just? Amazing. Painful. As my complex and difficult emotional response to the hashtag was still formulating itself for a post, another media wave crashed over my head: the viral video of Joanne Milne’s hookup and the ensuing critique on the interwebs, with posts by Lilit Marcus and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke. So I foolishly posted these to my Facebook timeline, thus prompting a discussion thread I later deleted. It was just too – so let me try again.

Read Blankmeyer Burke’s post for an excellent discussion of why these videos are problematic in how they represent deafness. She also digs into the gender tropes, an important piece of intersectionality.

I’m taking a different tack here: this video genre is also problematic in how it represents CI-hearing. The whole trope of “deaf person hears” invites the hearing person (the implied audience, and the vast majority of the actual audience) to equate the CI user’s experience with hearing as hearing people know it. And it’s not.

My hearing isn’t your hearing. No one can ever perceive the qualia of another’s sensory experience. But some of us have more sensory experience in common than others. When I see those videos, I remember my own hookup and the first sounds. It’s a bleeping bubbling delightful mess. Sometimes, it’s speech discrimination too. Point is, the CI, especially at hookup, is a distinctive sensation, neither hearing nor deafness. I have never seen a hookup video that attempted to do justice to this basic fact.

I’m not talking about the acoustic performance of the implant – which is damned impressive these days. Here was the pitfall that I found too painful on Facebook: we can’t reduce all discussion of the implant to the question of the device works. It works, and there is also much more to say. Acknowledging the complexity of experience, or expressing frustration when this complexity is silenced, is not an attack on the CI itself.

So what’s missing? I mean something simpler, just what it sounds like, especially at first. I also mean something that acknowledges the temporal nature of our being: what does the CI sound like, at first, to someone who has been profoundly deaf for let’s-say ten years. Acoustically, emotionally, it’s not a restoration to a status quo ante surditatem. It’s a new thing, another phase, an alternate universe of sensation. Also, how it sounds at first isn’t how it’s going to sound in a few weeks, much less years, later. Natural hearing doesn’t change like this over time. It changes, but not like this. Others have pointed out the absence of narrative from these videos, and I agree with that point. Sensory experience integrated with time would be one facet of such a narrative. But we won’t find it here. We won’t even find its absence acknowledged.

You want to know how I feel, right? It varies. Sometimes I tear up at these videos, although I did not get weepy at my own hookup. (Cue gender tropes.) I notice how the deaf person is situated in space, vis-à-vis the hearing people: does she have good sight lines, or are backs turned, and if so, whose? Sometimes I’m paying more attention to the hearing people than to the deaf one: what emotions are on their faces, how are they narrating this event to themselves, and what is the gap (but I know) between their own narration and the deaf person’s internal narration? Sometimes I’m distracted by camera jolts or the audiologist’s hair-do. Over a year ago, my cousin posted his own hookup video, at which he said to the audiologist, “What, I’m supposed to make sense of this shit?” – Hilarious and very him. Since then, hookup videos always remind me of this line, precisely because I know what it sounds like, but I had a very different emotional response to it. In short, my attention isn’t structured by the deaf-person-hears narrative.

Just a disclaimer: I don’t think the blog discussion of these films is about the CI itself. The device really does work, if we define that as “provide better speech discrimination than someone would have otherwise.” That’s an amazing feat of bioengineering, and it should not be distorted or sniffed at. However.

I resist the over-simplification of deafness that occurs when it is coded as brokenness that needs fixing by corporate medicine. I resist the over-simplification of hearing as merely a sense, with no attention to Hearing as ideology (see Teresa on this). I resist the over-simplification of CI use as “hearing,” in either sensory or ideological terms. Functionally, it is, and that’s great – but there is so much more to talk about that should not be passed over as not worth discussing.

Finally, I’m all too aware that these videos serve up a deaf person’s experience for the consumption of a hearing audience that will, in all probability, never have, and can’t really imagine the sensory experience represented. Yes, I know about those  clips you can find online that purport to show how a CI sounds. (Start at 3:15 for the CI simulations.) I know some of the scientists who made the clips. (Hi, Michael.) But I’ve listened to these, and they don’t sound like how I hear, either now or when I was first turned on.

The functional quality of a device and lived experience of its users, from the physical sensations and demands, to our subjectivities over time, to how we ascribe meaning to our implants – these are not the same things, and the latter cannot and should not be reduced to the former. Yeah, it works damn well for me. I love this machine. But it’s not the hearing I lost, and it’s not your hearing. It’s something else that has not been named, much less adequately articulated.

Even if I could describe it well, how would anyone who doesn’t hear what I hear know what I’m talking about? There is way too much to say, and it is all unhearable.

7 thoughts on “Tacenda, or Speaking the Unhearable”

  1. The gender aspect is significant, and for obvious reasons I was not aware of, till now.

    The thought – provoking aspect for me is the resistance to the videos disseminated. Or is it an apparent denial of your own experience? In your blog, with great numbers, your experience is thoughtfully articulated, with more to come about the unhearable aspect.

    I certainly agree the videos are oversimplified… this oversimplified presentations are, to me, endemic in the body politic of our culture, politically, academically, journalistically, corporately and religiously. This blog is a better medium for discussion on this topic, not Facebook or Twitter.

  2. I really appreciate that you reiterate the differences between your hearing and the hearing of those around you. Being autistic, I have the same feeling–my feelings, my emotions, are not the emotions of others. However, that doesn’t make my emotions worthless; it doesn’t mean that I do not have emotions. It means that I am autistic. I am not autistic like others are autistic; I am autistic like I am autistic.

    I am very glad you have voiced this distinction. I have the feeling that many other disabled people (with various disabilities) feel the same way.

  3. I appreciate your wilingness to talk about your experience. It can’t be easy, but you get huge admiration from me for negotiating college and grad school without accomodations to your disability. Truly mind boggling, and shows the power of the intellectual life for you.
    Reading your reflections, I wonder if people’s ideas of “healing deafness” might refer back to our common cultural document, the Bible, specifically the story in Mark 7 where Jesus heals the deaf man who immediately begins to speak. That’s our cultural example of what happens when “the deaf shall hear.”
    And, as you decode the viral videos of new CI hookups as being intended for a hearing audience, of course Jesus was not preaching to a deaf audience. When he said to the deaf man, “Ephphatha! (which means “be opened”) his audience is hearing, and he is using a deaf person as a metaphor for spiritual opening and spiritual “hearing.” It is annoying that the deaf person is not a person but a metaphor. What we are seeing today in these CI videos.
    Another subtext in the biblical story is that people become ill when they “sin” and that their faith heals them. This idea has resulted in a lot of stigmatization of disabled people, and translates as a kind of secular blaming of people who are ill. Serious illness? You didn’t exercise or eat right or have a positive enough attitude. Purify yourself enough and you will heal! (Go and sin no more!)
    I am interested in your reflections on this, since you have a better scholarly understanding of the Bible than I.
    I am veering off your point, but I am also picking at the cultural assumptions of what’s “normal”and how that objectifies those of us who live outside that norm. The idea of “normal” is also based on fear of being outside that category, so there are attempts at control and blaming behaviors of “the other”.

    I will stop here , but continue to celebrate this dialogue and your very powerful contribution to it.

  4. Hi BeccaOfAustin — I really like your discussion of the phenomenology of hearing with a CI and would love to learn more! I’ve got a forthcoming article that digs into the phenomenology of hearing, and would love to have a discussion (perhaps even coauthor a paper if the discussion pans out?) with you about this.

  5. Hi, Rebecca.

    Thanks for writing this. As someone who grew up hearing, became a late-deafened young adult, and after much discernment decided to get bilateral cochlear implants, I find myself resonating with your comments about being “unheard.” I have been struggling with my perceptual realties as d/Deaf and as h/Hearing, especially since I also enjoy very good results when wearing my CI processors. Being able to converse fluently in ASL, I am keenly aware of the cultural implications of biomedical engineering to the Deaf community. Thus I find it hard to celebrate the functionality of my “hearing” through the CIs while attempting to refute the medical model that espouses that all d/Deaf persons need to be “fixed.”

    I also struggle with the constant duality of being both functionally deaf (without CI processors) and hearing (with CI processors.) Given the stark contrast, I often wonder how my choices to wear (or not wear) the processors at specific times or places influence the way in which my experiences are “heard” by others.

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