Dr. Josephine Hoegaerts – KU Leuven – December 12th 2013 – To guard the public speaker from physical disability: Vocal practices and acoustic constructions of the able body in the long nineteenth century
Disability is often conceptualized in visual terms: its historical presence is imagined as a paradoxical situation of invisibility (in the historical record, and in most historical work), and of a simultaneous conspicuousness (according to Garland-Thomson, “the history of disabled people in the world is in part the history of being on display”). Especially in the nineteenth century, the story of disability is one of increasing scrutiny as disabled people became subject to not only casual stares, but also the medical gaze and the disciplining institutional gaze. To afford these gazed upon historical actors more agency, vocal metaphors abound: researchers have strived to “give a voice” to those forgotten by conventional history, or to simply “speak up”. While analyses of the hierarchic gaze and practices of gaining voice have debunked modern notions of the disabled body, they also seem to relegate disabled agency to the voice – and therefore run the risk of buying into what Jonathan Sterne has called the ‘audiovisual litany’ in which the powerful, rational world of the eye is juxtaposed with the more somatic, emotional sound of the powerless.
In this lecture, I will try to turn the metaphoric audiovisual litany on its head by focusing on those disabilities that were only audible. Vocal impairments (such as aphasia, dysphonia and stuttering) have an ambiguous relation to the body: they only manifest themselves during the act of speaking, and are therefore necessarily ‘performative’.Through speech impediments, a more fluid notion of disability presents itself, which calls attention to the necessity and inherent danger of the constant performance of vocal ‘ability’, and also problematizes the practice of ‘speaking up’ against the (medical) gaze.