David Ensminger's Blog

Abandoning the Ear? Punk and Deaf Convergences Part II

By David Ensminger
Originally published by PopMatters
January 27th, 2013

Deaf and punk cultures seem to share a similar outsider status, and Deaf clubs and social media, like punk bars and fanzines, offer refuge and regeneration, community-building and cures for boredom.

Though often under-the-radar of mainstream America, Deaf culture has long been understood as a vivid and vibrant subculture embracing a commitment to language (American Sign Language), value systems, lifestyles, and worldviews. Unfortunately, Deaf citizens endure ostracism, neglect, disadvantage, rejection, and discrimination as they maintain and preserve their culture while vying for autonomy and self-control of institutions, including schools and social environments, sometimes managed by normal-hearing communities, posits Jeffrey Braden (Deafness, Deprivation, and IQ, Plenum Press, 1994).

Such tensions arise, Paddy Ladd argues, because even contemporary Deaf citizens lack control over television programs devised in their name, Deaf academic studies programs and research, and social welfare services, all of which constitute an effective form of neo-colonialism (Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Selfhood, Multilingual Matters 2003).

Simultaneously, as a subculture, the community is enriched with deeply embedded and distinctive practices, mutual customs and experiences, folklore and history, and other anthropological hallmarks, as outlined by Humphries and Padden (Voices from a Culture, Harvard Univ Press, 1988). As Braden illuminates, through day-to-day interaction, Deaf culture’s outsider status will not be necessary evident, the “disability” largely unrecognized and invisible in until person-to-person interaction occurs.

Deaf citizens may fall prey to stereotypes or misinterpretation by a public weaned on inauthentic examples of Deaf life, cultural glimpses gleaned from media, a gap in public knowledge about Deaf figures as central to American lore as Thomas Edison, and years of denigrating epithets, such as “Deaf and dumb”. As a result, a master narrative has developed, relegating Deaf life to subordinate, inferior status (Braden).

“Teachers [made us] feel like we weren’t capable of doing something simple like reading a classic book. That fucked up a lot of kids,” Muslim punk Deaf filmmaker Sabina England asserted to me in 2010. “She said that because we’re Deaf, we couldn’t really grasp a good understanding of books such as Moby Dick.” (“Call Me Uncontrollable: Deaf Muslim Filmmaker Sabina England”, 13 July 2011)

Other teachers discouraged sign language and stressed reading lips and speaking orally. “In one way, I am grateful for that, and in another way I feel resentful …” England said. “I had teachers who really cared about us and wanted to see us succeed as normal human beings in society. So, they always stressed the importance of oral education, good writing and reading skills, and grammar skills. I’ve ignored the Deaf part of my identity in the past before, and I’ve felt alone and unsure of my own abilities.”

Furthermore, England acknowledged,”Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t do something because of my Deafness. I was worried how I’d get a job or volunteer due to communication problems. So, it became important to me to start seeking out successful Deaf people online. When I met Olin Fortney (veteran Deaf punk and ASL instructor) and people from Deaf Women in Film, I felt so much more reassured, and then I became more confident.”

Such mixed feelings of shared dissatisfaction and distress, identity recovery, and subculture community building link punks and Deaf citizens across class, race and ethnicity, gender, and abilities, sewing a sense of the translocal for the likes of England: “I met so many punks, feminists and Deaf people online. They either found me through interviews and articles, or they’ve stumbled onto me through another friend. I’ve started talking to this blind Anarchist from Australia who speaks about Anarchism and Disabilities.”

“She fiercely speaks out against society institutionalizing blind people and making them feel incapable,” England asserts. “I’ve read her essays and felt there was something very similar with Deaf people. I’ve also met a lot of great feminists online who have opened my mind and taught me even more radical ideas. I’ve met many punks online who come from different parts of the world, like Lebanon and Indonesia. Deaf female filmmakers are always encouraging me, and I’m so grateful to them for their support.”

Not all Deaf or Hard of Hearing punks share the same course of actions. “I know that I haven’t been super into finding others who are Hard of Hearing for some reason,” Hard of Hearing punk Christine Jensen admitted to me. “It stems from me having a shame issue with my disability. I definitely can see how others would have a stronger sense of translocality than I would if they were really yearning to find other people to connect with (it’s a lonely world as a young HOH person; there aren’t many others). There are lots of places on the Internet for people with specific interests and disabilities … [but] I am just not a part of them. But translocality definitely exists.”

Yet, Jensen questions punk’s end-game. “I honestly don’t see links between punk and Deaf messages of empowerment. There are definitely many punks who are into anti-oppression tactics and empowering the marginalized, but it’s not an overall punk thing. Empowerment of the marginalized definitely has an appeal for punks, for punk is about questioning authority, and authority tells us to oppress the marginalized. But punk is not about empowerment of the marginalized, even if it can lead to people wanting to do so.”

Deaf Clubs once abounded in the United States until the ’60s because they offered “a piece of their own land in exile – an oasis in the world of sound” (Bragg and Bergmann, Tales From a Clubroom, Gallaudet Univ Press 1981.) For decades, the institutions supported “the Deaf way.” In doing so, spaces like the Deaf social club in Philadelphia maintained “a sense of openness, free and relaxed communication, a cohesive spirit, and informal mentoring structure” (Stephanie Hall, “Door Unto Deaf Culture: Folklore in an American Deaf Social Club,” Sign Language Studies, 1991).

The Deaf clubs themselves, as some argue, belonged to an earlier era of Deaf culture, before the emergence of advocacy centers in ’80s in metropolitan areas offering services ranging from job training to counseling services. The earlier Deaf Clubs were: “places to congregate, to meet after work on weekends and weekend nights. Deaf clubs organized cultural entertainment: skits, beauty pageants, storytelling, and other forms of narratives. Advocacy organizations can have a cultural agenda, but it is planned and infrequent. Deaf clubs invited drop-ins from anywhere in the country, even the world, but advocacy organizations are professional spaces first and foremost, and social spaces secondarily” (H-Dirksen and L. Bauman, Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking , University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

In the late ’70s, the San Francisco Deaf Club, situated near the Tenderloin, became a space rented by non-Deaf entrepreneurs, including Robert Hanrahan, manager of the Offs, for punk performances. As a result, it did not act strictly as Deaf club leisure social milieu nor was it purely a punk showcase where punks announced their portent to the world. It offered a betwixt and between space that felt unhinged, uprooted, and transformed beyond its common function, if only during the temporary anarchy and autonomy when bands chased dissident dreams.

The bar was no more than a few folding tables and cheap cans of beer, some participants recall. Since punk promoters merely rented the venue, the invasions and fuss were fleetingly situated. Across town, the Mabuhay considered less Do-It-Yourself than the Deaf Club, managed by notorious promoter Dirk Dirksen, garnered more attention from the media and featured more keynote musical acts, thus it remains prominent in the annals of pop culture history.

In contrast, the Deaf Club, an almost singular manifestation of punk-Deaf interplay, slips out of focus. Many bands recall only the dimmest of memories, such as Deaf patrons touching the stage or speakers to sense the music or speaking freely with their hands during raucous, noisy sets from the Zeros and Dils to Tuxedo Moon, X, and the Germs.

Terry Kolb, a fanzine writer, recounted her first 1979 Deaf Club visit, published in an issue of Cometbus (Aaron Cometbus, Despite Everything: A Cometbus Reader , Last Gasp, 2002) “… One of the Deaf guys came over and stuck a rubber alligator in my face, making me laugh. I’ve since been told that Deaf people like Punk because they can feel the rhythm even though they can’t hear it. I felt their presence significantly contributed to the ambience which was light and cheerful … I noticed a variety of sexual orientations in the audience, straight as well as gay.”

As Bonnie Hayes from the Punts told me, “The club was utterly un-controlled, which was one of the best things about it. It was basically like a big, really messy party at someone’s house. It seemed private, like an inside thing — you would meet everybody and be in the family.”

Years later, punks like Sabina England entered similar “unbound” punk spaces, where she immersed in liminality, community-building, and shared practices: “Some places I’ve been to aren’t padded very well, so I couldn’t enjoy the vibrations. I’d just sit down and talk to some of my friends. At other shows, the vibrations were everywhere, and I would be dancing away and slamming with everyone.”

“It’s such a great rush. One of my friends, who wasn’t a punk, always went to punk shows with me just to body slam with everyone because he had a lot of rage, and it was the only time he could physically unleash his aggression. Afterward, he’d be body bruised all over and sweaty. He’d be like, ‘That was fucking awesome, I feel so much better now. Let’s go home.'” (2010)

“Music is more about the movement of the music,” explained Jensen too. “Screamo’s movement is amazing. It slows and wavers and then shakes and then explodes. It pounds. It moves all up and down your body.”
 That physicality, constituting an embodied sense of punk vitality and difference, remains potent to punk and Deaf participants.

Hard of Hearing and Deaf punks may represent a sub-group within their own communities, thus blur their identities between traditions. In the case of England, her upbringing – an immersion in the oralist discourse of her learning institution — did not appear steeped in Deaf traditions, history, and pride. Scholars like Ladd suggest such incidents, manifested overtly in the actions and discourse of the oral institution, cause harmful results such as feelings of inferiority, damage, or trauma (180-181).

Hence, punk very well may act as a potent soundtrack to that suffering, and in turn, a stimulus to rebellion and self-empowerment as well for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and hearing punks alike.

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