Disability Studies · Rhetoric

Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places

One of the categories for my annotated bib was Rhetorically Theorizing Disability, so next up is Brenda Brueggemann who rhetorically theorizes deafness. And because I was reading the book with particular attention to how she writes about technology, it contributes to some of the ideas discussed by Goggin & Newell and Ellis & Kent.


Cover of Deaf Subjects
Deaf Subjects by Brenda Jo Brueggemann

Brueggemann positions Deaf Subjects as a commonplace book—a collection of different accounts of the betweenity of the modern deaf subject. As she notes, d/Deaf people constantly occupy space between hearing/not hearing, English/ASL, speaking/signing, Disability Studies/Deaf Studies. This book, then, attempts to make rhetorical meaning out of the cracks of this betweenity, focusing on the power of ASL, the importance of deaf literature, and the ideology imbued in visual material that attempts to characterize deaf identity.

I am most interested in her exploration of writing as a technology and how, particularly through digital media, we narrate d/Deaf lives. She writes, “These technologies now, more often than not, move deaf lives into the mainstream (where they are “heard” by more hearing people) while also helping convey deaf lives to other deaf lives; thus, these technologies are in effect, the between space” (6). In order to interrogate this, we must explore the rhetorical differences of “deaf’ and “Deaf” and the rhetorical impact of these distinctions on d/Deaf identities.

Brueggemann raises questions about labeling some technologies “assistive” that echo the concerns of Goggin & Newell (2003) and are echoed later by Ellis & Kent (2011). She asks, “[W]hy are such devices, when used to aid the deafened ear, commonly referred to as ‘assistive’ or ‘adaptive’ technologies when, after all, technology/ies are—by the very nature of the definition of the term—assistive and adaptive to begin with?” (17). Aside from perhaps the obvious, that this labeling seeks to position particular users as disabled and in need of particular technologies, Brueggemann is more interested in how Deaf Studies can address these issues. She is interested in the rhetorical relationships that shape and emerge from our identities and technologies. Such a focus, she argues, would investigate “the shape and substance of purpose, intention, motivation, and communication” that technology has in refiguring what Rachel McKee calls “the Deaf Gaze” and changing the assumption of deaf people as “people of the eyes” (18).

Brueggemann’s interest in technology is rhetorically grounded in understanding how particular technologies position d/Deaf subjects in particular contexts for different purposes. Although she doesn’t position technology as an inherently good thing for d/Deaf users, she does imagine significant rhetorical potential for the wedding of digital media, rhetoric, and deafness in the future. Specifically, she calls for three key things that continue to rethink the rhetorical constructions of d/Deaf identity.

  1. First, she calls for an increased production of documentary film and digital media that narrate deaf lives (95). Here, she is careful not to dismiss user-created digital media and acknowledges the importance of YouTube videos, for example, as important means of identity construction, but she also argues for more professionally produced media that highlight the importance of taking deaf lives seriously.
  1. Second, and related, she calls for the collective integration of deaf narratives rather than individual efforts.
  1. And finally, she calls for “the development of community and school/university-based workshops that bring deaf and hard-of-hearing people together to work on manuscripts ad documentaries about their lives and to collectively learn the crafts of biography, autobiography, and documentary” (96).

These three calls work together to imagine writing—and here “writing” is understood more broadly as composing across media—deaf narratives that are professional, collaborative efforts across community and institutional initiatives.


Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.



5 thoughts on “Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places

  1. I just have to say, I am reading every one of these reviews with huge eagerness and also gratitude. Some of this I’ve read, some I haven’t, but this feels like the best parts of getting to be in grad seminars again!! THANK YOU. Is there some way I could reciprocate?

    1. Thank you for the lovely note, Margaret! I already have these written, so I figured I might as well share–I’m glad they’re useful in some way 🙂

      Your question makes me think it would be (geeky) fun to do some sort of blog carnival where folks post about interesting/thought-provoking stuff they’ve read. I thought of that when Jay posted on Fb about the book he had just finished. There’s so much good stuff out there–both old & new–that I know I should check out. And although Amazon is pretty good at recommending things for me, I’m more likely to pick up something that someone has recommended…

      1. I looove the idea of a blog carnival! I have Jos Boys’s _Doing Disability Differently_ in hand, and I need some sort of nudge to sit down and read it carefully–something to hold me accountable. Would you be comfortable announcing something like this via FB or the DS-Rhet list? I ask because I don’t want my own voice to be the center of this–however, I am also mindful that this would take up your time, so let me know if I can help provide words / ideas / coordination!

      2. I could definitely write something up about this! I’d love to send you a draft when I do, though–to make sure I’m framing it thoughtfully, have a good timeline, etc.

      3. that sounds like a great arrangement! And do feel free to say this is something you and I are together. I just want to encourage younger scholars to be the “voice” of such things, so to speak, if that makes sense. but only if it feels right to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s