Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seeing Voices: Oliver Sacks

An Anthropologist on Mars (read my review of it here) led me to explore Dr. Oliver Sacks a bit more. Seeing Voices is about deaf people, the evolution of their language (Sign), and their struggle to be accepted in a world that is predominantly, well, non-deaf.

This short book has three chapters. The first chapter, A Deaf World, introduces the reader to the world of the deaf and talks of the pioneers in understanding and teaching deaf people. The second chapter, Thinking in Sign, dwells on Sign language, its different variants, and how it evolved to the level of sophistication it has reached today. The third chapter, The Revolution of the Deaf, traces a campaign to get a deaf person elected as the President of Gallaudet University (a university for the deaf).

As you would expect from Dr. Sacks, there is a lot of detail about the deaf in the book. Some of the smaller details are quite illuminating, and makes you appreciate the deaf from a totally different perspective. Consider this example.

“If a dead person becomes seriously ill, it is crucial to immobilize only one arm with IVs; to immobilize both arms may render him unable to talk. Similarly, it is often not realized that to handcuff a deaf signer is equivalent to gagging him.”

The significant difference between the deaf and the non-deaf is, to me, summarized in this excerpt.

“Different social conventions arise in the intercourse of signers, dictated in the first place by the differences of eye and ear. For vision is more specific than hearing—one can move one’s eyes, one can focus on them, one can (literally and metaphorically) shut them, whereas one cannot move or focus or shut one’s ears. And signing, so to speak, is lasered in a narrow beam, to and fro, between signers, and does not diffuse in all directions, acoustically, like speaking. Thus one can have a dozen different people signing at a table, in six different conversations, each conversation clear and distinct, none of them disturbing the others. There is no “noise,” no visual noise, in a room full of signers, because of the directionality of visual voices and of visual attention. By the same token (this was very clear at the huge student bar at Gallaudet, and I have seen it at large deaf banquets and conventions) one can easily sign to somebody at the other end of a large crowded room; whereas yelling would be horrible and offensive.”

However, there are some aspects of the book that left me a bit cold. An Anthropologist on Mars was brilliantly readable because it was driven by the examples – each piece was a story, and empathy was built through the story. Seeing Voices lacks that tone and feel. Consequently, it tends to get a bit heavy at times, especially for a novice like me.

A second drawback is that Dr. Sacks is a touch too strident in defending the deaf and in demanding acceptance for the deaf. Without denying his right to do so, I would have preferred it if he could have dwelt on demonstrating the life the deaf lead, and leave us to build and demonstrate our empathy for them. The classic “show, don’t tell” tenet of writing, I suppose.

The last criticism I will lay on this book, albeit a minor technical one, is the split between the main text and the footnotes. The main text is 129 pages long, and the footnotes make up an additional 65 pages – that’s half a page of footnotes for every page of the main text. While the footnotes are useful and insightful, it tends to break the flow of reading, making you flip back and forth twice for every page. Moreover, if you are one of those who tend to concentrate more on the main text than on the footnote, you may miss out on some gems. Incidentally, both the quotes above are from the footnotes.

May be my expectations were raised too much, but Seeing Voices did not move me as much as An Anthropologist on Mars did.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, because I sat with him at his table when he visited the cafeteria at Gallaudet. We sat in the corner in one of the side rooms. He a quiet man with a bushy beard and a nice smile.

De Scribe said...

Wow! Can you throw some more light on Gallaudet and on Dr. Sacks?

Peter said...

I wonder if part of your trouble with this book, and part of the reason for Sacks' stridency, is that he may be out of his professional league. He's a neurologist, and he can be thrilling to read when writing about neorological subjects (I read a couple of his early popular books years ago). But perhaps he knows less about deaf people than about people with brain injuries, and thus is more superficial in his discussion.

Anonymous, are you deaf? Does Sacks sign? I wonder if he was able to communicate with the subjects of his book.

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