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Silence: Upholding the Norms of our Society (Web Event III)

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

“[S]ound… carries a lot of social status and/or currency.” (Kim 1)


Sound as social currency. When I think about this term, I immediately think of sound as a physical form that can be used in exchange for something else. What exactly can I buy with sound? Can I buy silence? Power? Status? In what ways must I use sound to obtain these ‘products?’…what do I do with them once they are mine?  I am having trouble understanding sound as social currency. Although, I understand what I can buy, at least I think  I do, I am not exactly sure how sound can be used to actually buy something. It could be that I am taking the term too literally; but, as someone who possesses and has mastered sound, there is no denying that I use sound as social currency to navigate, negotiate and understand the world around me.

As mentioned in my first two web events, in my cultural background, sound and silence represented the power dynamics within my culture and home. More specifically, sound was used as a “form of authority” (Sun 1). When my parents spoke firm, unwavering, one-syllable sounds, I knew my place as a young person. I also knew that my silence, although enforced on me, was a sign of respect and my expected role. I had learned early on that sound shaped the cultural norms in my household, while my silence, and that of my siblings, upheld them.

I knew that this dynamic was unjust. It was not fair that, in terms  of currency, I was constantly being sold silence in exchange for my own sound; and, it wasn’t like I could say “no” because there was always an underlying pressure to make this unfair exchange against my will. Even though I knew this and became more aware of it as I grew older, my awareness went out the door once Christine visited. I did not exactly know how to respond to Christine Sun Kim when she arrived and I don’t think I responded too well…at least, in my head.

Similar to how I poorly reacted to Erin when she did not give me the direct translation of the Chinese poem, I reacted the same way to Christine Sun Kim. In my refusal to see her as a disabled or unable being, I expected a lot from her in terms of her awareness of sound—not in actually hearing it— in a society that depended heavily on it. However, when she “failed” to meet these expectations, these cultural norms around sound and silence, I noticed myself growing uneasy and agitated.

I thought: Why didn’t she realize that interpreting and showing a video at the same time was too much noise? Didn’t she realize that it is hard for hearing people to listen to an interpreter’s voice while focusing on a video? ….Didn’t she remember that she had turned on the first video and that the noise from the first video would conflict with the second video? Couldn’t she have been more aware? Since she is deaf, shouldn’t she have been super sensitive, and cautious, to how sound is perceived by hearing people?

In her incomplete dissertation, Christine wrote, “… I am never truly at ease nor in complete control of the sound I make” (Kim 1).  However, in my attempt to see her as fully able, I thought that she could have, at least, be in control of and aware of how sound is conveyed to others outside of her art form (1). To be more specific, I felt like her deafness was not an excuse for not knowing the cultural norms surrounding sound and silence to hearing people. If she could feel sound without hearing it then she could also learn the social norms of sound without hearing it.

As I reflected more on my thoughts and Christine after the presentation, I now realize that as a hearing person living in a hearing world, it was completely unfair of me to expect so much from her. It was unfair of me not because she was deaf but because I was trying to exercise power over her—I was making an unfair exchange.  Although I am guilty of my thoughts, I think it speaks to an even larger issue: the reality that as the majority, it is expected that those who are not must either be aware of, in the process of learning or already know the cultural norms of the majority. Thus, anything against this is unacceptable unless in art form, as shown by Christine, where it is confined, oohed and aahhed at as being different and edgy but not representative of reality.

Similar to how my silence growing up upheld the norms in my household, I had confused Christine’s silence as a medium to do the same in a hearing world.  In assuming and wanting Christine to be more aware of cultural norms around sound and silence, I, as the hearing person, was not making myself open to hearing what it is like to be deaf—to know and be a part of her cultural norms. Had I viewed her actions with the videos and the talking of the interpreters as insight into the world of the deaf, perhaps I would have realized that cultural norms of the hearing are sometimes irrelevant and could be broken. Perhaps the experience of just listening, rather than expecting, would have broadened my own cultural interpretation of sound and silence.

 As I understand it now, sound as a social currency does not, and should not, mean that it grants power over another; instead, it should involve a true exchange where one is granted silence in exchange for sound and vice versa. I did not do that with Christine because in her silence and what it encompassed—her unawareness—I was still hearing myself; thus, as I “listened” to her in silence, I still possessed sound while she only had silence. Although I have learned from this experience, I wish I could go back and re-do my hidden reactions to Christine. I wouldn’t have confused and used her silence for my own gain; instead, I would have done as John Edgar Wideman said in his reflection on silence and used it as “proof…to pay attention” (Wideman 549).



Anne Dalke's picture

The malleability of sound


As you explain, this essay parallels the story you told a few weeks ago about your reaction to Erin's silent exercise: Not Knowing Sucks But is Exclusion Necessary Sometimes? In both cases, you are honest in reflecting back on an experience, naming your expectations, describing how they were disappointed--and then, somewhat aghast @ recognizing your own assumptions, rethinking them through the lens of an unintentional exercise of power: as an English speaker who expected Erin to translate a Chinese poem for her, as a hearing person who expected Christine to respect the norms of hearing culture.

What is strikingly different, though, is where you go with those parallel events. In the first one, you questioned your "need to know," and recognized that sometimes a person you encounter (in person or in textual form, like Rigoberta Menchu) might have good reason not to translate, not to make herself, or her cultural forms, available to others outside, like yourself. In this second case, though, you go a step further. You first confess y/our expectation that the Deaf must accommodate themselves to the "cultural norms of the majority" (and that refusing to do so is "unacceptable unless in art form"--really insightful aside, that!).

But then you go on to explain that "not making myself open to hearing what it is like to be deaf," you failed to broaden your "own cultural interpretation of sound and silence." This is about more than the earlier posting, which focused on respecting the limits set by others, on letting them define what they want to reveal. It's offering the further claim that "the experience of just listening, rather than expecting" might have given you access to an experience you hadn't had before. Instead, like Wideman, you say, "I was still hearing myself."

I'm also thinking here about what you said in your last web event--that sound is "a malleable presence that is constantly screening what we choose and choose not to hear." You've just given another testimony to that malleability--for which many thanks!

P.S. You might want to look @ the other web events reflecting on Christine's visit; see Sarah's Silence as Discipline, Sharaai's What Can a Body Do?, and Dan's Frustration....