Embodied language: Deaf Theory, visual poetics, and American Modernism
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“Embodied Language: Deaf Theory, Visual Poetics, and American Modernism” examines the intersection between American Modernism and Disability Studies, specifically the emerging field of Deaf Studies. By developing Deaf Theory as a critical lens, this dissertation provides new insight into the fascination with embodied language and visual culture—that is, means of communication that are non-verbal, and either involve one body perceiving another in space or a merging of visual images with words—that shaped the direction of American literary Modernism, particularly the work of Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson, and H.D. The audist biases that kept Modernist writers from recognizing in American Sign Language (ASL), and the culture of the linguistic minority that employs it, a real-world model of the physical, textual and visual hybrids they were describing has also kept scholars from noting the parallels. My work intervenes to historically contextualize why this seemingly obvious site of intersection has remained occluded for so long. I argue that the de-legitimization of sign as a language and its attendant cultural constructs and epistemologies draws stark attention to dominant culture's biases about what language and differently-abled bodies can do. When we go beyond obvious (and almost always simplistic) references to deaf characters, we discover that issues related to deafness permeate American literature and culture, from discussions of silence or silencing, to our definitions of normality, to the very ways in which we define our humanity.