Michele Friedner on her book, Sensory Futures

Interview by Timothy Y. Loh


Tim Loh: Congratulations on this exciting new book! Your first book, Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (2015), examined the productivity and limits of deaf similitude—what you and your interlocutors called DEAF-SAME— and forms of deaf becoming as deaf people turned towards each other. Is it accurate to say that this book looks at how the state, pharmaceutical companies, and medical practitioners also strive to make deaf people the same, albeit in a different way? Can you tell us also how you moved from that earlier project to this one?

Michele Friedner: Thank you so much for your close reading and generous analysis and the making of connections here. I also look forward to seeing what you do in your cochlear implant research! I think you’re absolutely right that Sensory Futures is about sameness although there’s lots of friction and ambivalence around this sameness. There are putatively star cases and professionals constantly compare children and their mothers and the work that mothers do. The star cases and mothers also evaluate themselves in relation to others. And deaf sociality, or implanted sociality, is both encouraged and discouraged as children are supposed to hang out with hearing children instead of other deaf children. As I write, it often seems like there are biosocial refusals. There’s also constantly the spectre of the bad mother and the failed child. For the state, CI corporation, surgeons, and most/many audiologists and speech and language therapists, the goal is to create a hearing child who is close to, near to, or almost “normal” in terms of listening and spoken language. However, and beyond this, the project is also to create people and state citizens who do not need any help and support from the government and who are “independent.” These people ideally don’t have so-called deaf accents and develop “hearing brains.”

I didn’t plan to write a book about cochlear implants or to conduct research on them. However, when I returned to India in 2016, after my first book was published, I learned about state and central government programs providing deaf and hard of hearing children with cochlear implants and I became intrigued. I was also really interested because signing deaf adults want more signing deaf adults in the world and they want Indian Sign Language (ISL) to be seen as “normal.” The deaf adults I met at one particularly institute in the state of Kerala—where they were enrolled in BA programs in ISL—were really upset because at the same institute there were early intervention programs for small deaf children who had been implanted. These college students were excited about their coursework and their friendship networks, and they wanted to teach these little kids ISL but felt that the kids’ parents literally pulled them away and prevented them from seeing sign language. They were worried about the future of deafness in India. And so I decided to do research on cochlear implants in India. I was fascinated by how the state was now funding these super expensive surgeries and devices. I was also fascinated by the new expectations that seemed to be emerging—that kids born deaf could become normal—and that there was a new sensory infrastructure developing. And it’s also interesting to think about things like newborn hearing screening and attempts to develop universal screenings and what these screenings mean for the kinds of choices parents have (or not). Laura Mauldin writes about this too in a US context. I’ve talked with Mara Mills about how hearing is perhaps the most surveilled sense. What does this mean?

Tim Loh: You write a chapter about maintaining and caring for cochlear implants and the work that parents and implantees have to put in to get the devices to work and to continue to work, and the new dependencies on corporate and medical infrastructures that emerge from getting an implant. You examine the inequitable distribution of cochlear implants around the world (as you also do here) in addition to the limits of “tinkering” and “hacking” that have become central to crip technoscience. What new insights into the relationship between disability and technology do you think your book provides?

Michele Friedner: I think my book pushes us to look at how projects of normalization involving technology use can result in new and complex dependencies on device corporations. The children who do really well with cochlear implants, who learn to listen and speak and become auditorily dependent—are the most precarious and vulnerable. If their devices break, they don’t have other ways to communicate. I also think we need to pay attention to ambivalent users, sometimes users, and non-users, and the ways that individuals and families are essentially abandoned by device manufacturers. Because cochlear implants work so well for some people, it’s imperative that there are more safeguards and supports in place for maintenance. It’s an issue of sensory and social justice.

Tim Loh: One of the important concepts that you advance in this book is that of “multiple normals,” which you have also discussed elsewhere. Normality is a desired outcome for some of your interlocutors but it is also a kind of narrowing that contrains different ways of being in the world, and you argue against prescribing teleological paths for deaf people. I found especially thought-provoking your critique not only of sensory normality as advanced by cochlear implant advocates but also of the project of “becoming-disabled or becoming-deaf in terms of identity and community formation” (p. 161) as advanced by some disability and deaf advocates and scholars, which can also be teleological. Can you tell us more about what you think the stakes of this idea are?

Michele Friedner: I think that often within disability and deaf communities, there is a celebratory narrative around coming to a disabled or deaf identity that involves embracing this (new) identity and finding community and sociality. I think this narrative is just as teleological as the narrative around becoming hearing or becoming normal. I think that we need multiple ways of being disabled, deaf, and normal in the world and that we also need more robust analytic language for discussing different experiences—relating to the senses, perception, and pain, as examples. I think the move in disability studies towards crip theory really helps us to destabilize disability identity and I am not quite sure that we’ve seen a similar move in deaf studies/deaf anthropology.

Tim Loh: I was also struck by your emphasis on “total communication” as an approach, both as articulated by anthropologist Margaret Mead as well as a pedagogical method for deaf children that saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s but seems to have mostly fallen out of favor in many deaf educational circles. As you write in the conclusion, “Surely there are more than four ways (listening and spoken language, a bilingual-bicultural approach using sign language, cued speech, and total communication) to communicate. I see value in total communication as a philosophy that involves all of the senses and orienting to children and others more generally based on what they need and when they need it” (p. 193). Do you see this work as in some ways a reclaiming of that term?

Michele Friedner: I really love this term and what it meant for Mead—as an orientation towards openness and recognizing all signals, or at least more signals, as communicative. I also recognize that many in deaf and disabled communities have major beef with how total communication is used as a practice. In deaf schools, for example, total communication has come to mean “sim-comming” or simultaneous communication in ASL and English, which does not provide deaf children with access to a full and complete language and basically is just half and half. And in autistic education, total communication approaches have been used as an excuse not to teach autistic children language at all. While I am aware of these grave problems, I also think as a philosophy or way of orienting to other people, especially those who do not communicate the same as you do, total communication is very compelling. There has been so much exciting work lately in deaf studies on translanguaging and semiotic ideologies and on “crip linguistics,” which resonates with how I think about total communication.

Tim Loh: As with your first book, your positionality as a deaf person shaped many of the interactions you had with your interlocutors. I loved hearing about your experiences and seeing how they framed your analysis: your deaf interlocutors’ reactions when you decided to get a second implant, your interactions with your surgeon as well as with AVT (Auditory Verbal Therapy) specialists (those Ss!), and, of course, the interview you conducted with your mother. Can you say a little more about your approach to writing this very academic—yet deeply personal—book?

Michele Friedner: I struggled with how to include myself, my choices, and my family’s choices. I also struggled with writing about them in a way that does not seem banal or sentimental. And I don’t want to be one of those deaf people writing about deafness for a hearing audience; I want what I write to be interesting to deaf folks as well. I felt like I had to include myself in the book because as I noted, I chose to get implanted after doing my dissertation research with Indian Sign Language speakers and then I chose to get a second implant during the midst of this fieldwork because my hearing aid broke and my health insurance would not pay for a replacement, but it would pay for an implant! And during the research, people—surgeons, audiologists, families, children—all had questions for me about my experience with cochlear implants. And, as I discuss in the book, my speech was also adjudicated by speech and language therapists and found to be deficient.

Tim Loh: What are your hopes for Sensory Futures? Who do you hope will read it, and what work do you hope that it will do in the world?

Michele Friedner: I’d love for everyone, including my mother, surgeons, audiologists, and speech and language therapists to read it. I was excited that there were funds to make the book open access and that folks in India have been reading it. I received a very nice email from an audiologist and speech and language therapist in India who told me that while she did not agree with everything I had written, she appreciated the book. She also encouraged other practitioners to read it. I want medical anthropologists, sensory anthropologists, and deaf studies and disability studies scholars to read it—I think it’s super important to think about the ways that sense is produced, and constrained, through political economic conditions. It’s not just that the senses are culturally produced, but with the advent of new technology, senses are actually produced. I also hope the book intervenes in discussions of normalizing, normals, and normality and contributes to how we might think of normalization as narrowing or constraining. And methodologically, I hope more people will start explicitly writing about how they do research with others in inter-sensory ways!

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