Contrary to popular belief, the experience of deafness is not one of silence. This is something Katie Booth and Cristina Hartmann explore in The Resonances of Silence, an essay for McSweeney’s first ever Audio Issue. In a special McSweeney’s and WePresent collaboration, we invite you, the reader, to perform a short series of exercises meant to expand your understanding of what it means to listen, guiding you to experience the sounds around you through your body and eyes. Give it a go! See how you feel.
Animations by Patricia Sangalang.
Chisato Minamimura, a deaf choreographer and performer, uses her work to explore sound as she experiences it – sound for the eyes and for the body. While hearing people are fixated on the idea that deaf people are trapped in a universe of silence, there are deaf people, Minamimura among them, who have long pointed out that this is far too simple a notion. Given the right situations, one doesn’t need auditory hearing to access sound. You can see it. “Sound has a way of bouncing off visual cues,” writes deaf studies scholar Benjamin Bahan in Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. For example, he’s easily made aware of a loud disruption by a crowd’s eyes suddenly redirecting. Sound, which is ultimately vibration, can also be felt through the body. “Standing next to a jet engine,” says Bahan, “I would be shaken by the sound.”
In Minamimura’s performance piece Scored in Silence, about the experiences of deaf survivors of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, she brings this expansive experience of sound to her audience, challenging the notion that the ears are our only way of hearing. Instead, she uses image and gesture, as well as vibrating belts that allow the audience to experience the sound of the performance physically. In doing so, she undercuts the hearing assumption that deaf people experience only silence and express only silence, an assumption that absolves hearing people from our responsibility to deaf people’s stories. This, more than its treatment of visual and tactile sound, is the most powerful quality of Minamimura’s work: it undoes this myth of silence; it teaches us to listen.
You don’t need a high-tech belt to experience expansive listening – visual and tactile sound is all around you. Take some time to explore it through your eyes and your body, and to seek out deaf stories and artists you might otherwise miss.
Look out the window. Observe what sounds you can see: maybe rustling leaves, children playing, a screen door blowing open and shut. What do you see that might not make any sound, but has a sort of visual sound quality? Maybe telephone wires swaying in the wind, the slow stretch of a cloud.
Put on headphones with the music turned up loud and go for a walk through a park or somewhere you can watch people interacting. What can you understand about their conversation by the way they hold themselves? By observing their faces, their bodies, their shoulders, or the lean of their torso, what can you determine about the energy between them? Try to decipher the tone of their conversation.
Go someplace where people are likely to approach you from behind, maybe a sidewalk café table or a bench along a walking path. Notice the non-aural ways you can sense someone is approaching. Do they cast a shadow? Are there mirrors or polished metal objects you can keep in your awareness? Do other people or animals turn their gaze?
Spend some time noticing the vibrations that accompany everyday sounds. The way a cat’s purr travels up and down its body. The thud of a door closing. The rumble of a car engine. Can you tell when a car is accelerating or slowing as a passenger just by feel?
Compare and contrast the sound textures in your kitchen. Put your hand on the microwave as it buzzes, the coffee maker as it bubbles, the dishwasher as it pulsates. Focus on the differences in the texture, tempo, and strength of the vibrations. What can you infer when the dishwasher stops rumbling and hisses hot air? When the popping sensations intensify on the lid of the coffeemaker?
Blow up a balloon as big as you can. Play music from a speaker, hold the balloon near it with both hands, and close your eyes. Feel the rhythm and beats through the balloon’s membrane. Try different types of music – rock, jazz, classical – and note how the vibrations change. Take off your socks and, while still holding the balloon, place both your feet on the ground. Feel the music with your whole body, and dance!
If you enjoyed this piece, Katie and Cristina recommend you listen to the work of percussionist Evelyn Glennie and watch her TED Talk “How to Listen to Music with Your Whole Body.” They also recommend watching dancer Antoine Hunter, the founder and director of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, and check out the short film Feel the Beat: Dancing While Deaf. They also suggest that you check out the work of sound artist Christine Sun Kim and watch her talk “The Enchanting Music of Sign Language” and also listen to the work of Warren “Wawa” Snipe, who pioneered “dip-hop,” or “hip-hop through deaf eyes,” and check out his interview with The Daily Moth before his 2021 Super Bowl performance of the National Anthem. Finally, they recommend watching filmmaker Alison O’Daniel’s work, especially excerpts from The Tuba Thieves, and watch her talk about the film at the 2019 Creative Capital Artist Retreat.
This piece is an excerpt taken from Katie Booth’s The Resonances of Silence in the latest issue of McSweeney’s, Issue 64: The Audio Issue. This sprawling collection, co-produced with Radiotopia from PRX, is an exploration of audiovisual storytelling, combining art, fiction, audio, and a slew of unclassifiable print objects in a custom box. Subscribe today to receive the Audio Issue as your first.
Katie Booth’s work has appeared in The Believer, Catapult, McSweeney's, and Harper's Magazine, and has been highlighted on Longreads and Longform; “The Sign for This” was a notable essay in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. Her first book, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, was published in the spring of 2021.
Cristina Hartmann is a writer living in Pittsburgh. Born profoundly deaf, she got a cochlear implant at six and is now DeafBlind. She received the June 2020 Deaf Artist Residency Award at the Anderson Center, and her work has appeared in Peatsmoke Journal, Slate, and Vox.
McSweeney’s Quarterly is a three-time National Magazine Award-winning literary journal based in San Francisco. Each issue is completely redesigned—some are hardcovers, some are paperbacks, one issue came in a box shaped like a sweaty human head. The New York Times called it a “key barometer of the literary climate.”