Starting the Conversation: Schizophrenia and Angels (Disability, Deafness, Fake Mandela Signer)

Hi everyone! Hope you are all doing well. Now that we have a critical mass of abstracts posted, I wanted to try and jump start our conversations using a contemporary story as the starting point. Julie and I have been having some discussions about this story over Facebook since this story first “broke” and we thought it might be good to bring this conversation to the blog–so I’m doing that here with some direct reference to issues in some of your abstracts (as well as some of the recommendations for further reading that we’ve been gathering). FYI, I’ve also cross-posted a version of the prompt (without reference to your abstracts) on “In the Middle” in case you want to see how the conversation unfolds there. – Jonathan

In this posting, I’d like to respond to an increasingly complex story about the “fake sign language interpreter” at a highly publicized memorial for Nelson Mandela. As reported by the Associated Press:

[Thamsanqa] Jantjie told the AP last week he has schizophrenia and hallucinated, seeing angels while gesturing incoherently just 3 feet away from President Barack Obama and other world leaders during the Tuesday ceremony at a Soweto stadium. Signing experts said his arm and hand movements were mere gibberish. (16 Dec 2013)

Deaf communities in South Africa and worldwide have justifiably perceived Jantje’s faux-signing as an insult or affront (see HERE and HERE for instance), but Slavoj Žižek claims in his remarks in the Guardian (read the whole piece HERE) that hearing people can find the mere bodily presence of the sign interpreter at an event like this in self-congratulatory terms, regardless of whether the signing is meaningful or not:

Now we can see why Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good. (Guardian, 12 Dec 2013)

While this overstated critique—which seems to reflect more upon Žižek’s view of the government than the issue at hand— is perceptive in some ways, this discourse (however it is intended) still has the effect of speaking for a “‘public’ or ‘us’ [that] does not seem to include the deaf or disabled,” Rick Godden has stated (in the Facebook discussion that precipitated this blog posting). Indeed, Žižek doesn’t use the term “disabled” in this piece, as if to avoid directly invoking or including them as such (he uses the terms “underprivileged and hindered” and later “marginalised and handicapped”). Žižek—in order to score irony-laden political points—rhetorically “[renders] deaf people unimaginable and unencounterable” (as Chris Piuma nicely pointed out). And the signifying force of the interpreter is reduced, as Julie stated (again, via Facebook conversation): “his interpretation dissolves the ‘signifier’ of deaf people to get to the ‘signified’ of ‘poor, black South Africans’ as explosive ‘collective political agent’ (i.e., the ‘aliens’).”

This story is complex and a wider entanglement of other sociopolitical issues remain to be explored where disability is concerned: what emerges here is that a story seemingly “about” one kind of disability perceptible via outer actions (deafness) is implicated in another: the much more difficult-to-discern external manifestations of schizophrenia and mental illness. I should state here that I align deafness and schizophrenia under the umbrella of “disability” here only provisionally. There are vigorous debates within the disability community about the implications of drawing varied kinds of physical impairment and mental illness into the same interpretive and political category. Does mental illness or a chronic condition qualify as disability? Are the deaf even disabled or a linguistic minority within a hearing majority?[i]

What interests me is how such misperceptions about the meaning of this “fake signing” arise. This is not about “hearing vs. deaf communities” per se but a dynamic relation between them: two simultaneous modes of perception and meaning-making that only sometimes overlap with one another. An interpreter—in order to be an interpreter—does not stand squarely in the world of the hearing or the world of the deaf; she or he must necessarily inhabit both worlds concurrently. Rather than embodied lingua franca, two worlds (is it just two?) encounter a disconcerting lingua incognita and register a sequence of alien signs in divergent ways. Deaf viewers perceive the gibberish as mockery; hearing people (at least those unaccustomed to sign language) see the “exotic” hand movements no differently than they see other signed languages—and project whatever misconceptions or fantasies they might have upon it.

So why am I writing about here on the “Reorienting Disability” blog? I am thinking about Žižek’s strange discourse of miracle and wonder that emerges halfway through the piece: “What lurked behind these concerns was the feeling that Thamsanqa Jantjie’s appearance was a kind of miracle—as if he had popped up from nowhere, or from another dimension of reality.” This sense of encountering alien embodiment as miracle makes me consider how wonder in contemporary disability studies and premodern culture operates as an ethically charged force. While Žižek is attempting some sort of social critique, I’m more sympathetic to criticism that more earnestly expresses its investment in the lives of people with disabilities or whose bodes otherwise read as unfathomable. In a foundational essay on ethical beholding, feminist and disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson shifts attention from the “starer” in any encounter to the “staree” who is perceived as “different” in her embodiment. Garland-Thomson observes that the “stareable body” can act not as a mere object (of wonder, marvel, or disgust) but as a transformative agent, a catalyst for meaningful social change.[ii]

This notion of an ethical beholding of an extraordinary body yielding transformative effects resonates so well with medieval hagiography and its host of angelic and otherworldly messengers. I’m thinking of Josh’s abstract about the poetics of mental disability (and why disability studies is to reticent to discuss it). Leah’s thoughts on narrative prosthesis and saints’ lives also comes to mind, as does M’s abstract on crip Christianity and how it is expressed. In interviews Jantje reports hallucinating and communicating with angels, and Žižek briefly amplifies the effects of these statements to apparently dismiss them and move on discuss other things. However perceptive his points might be (in general), I can’t help but feel that Žižek risks romanticizing lived schizophrenia—not to mention deafness—as a set of mysteriously unknowable experiences that ultimately serve no other purpose than to signify for “us” (the so-called “normative” majority). This still leads back to wonder: the question of what—or how—disability signifies.

[Ruth Evans posted this great response to this story on Facebook: Note that the guy purported to be having a “schizophrenic” episode, which Zizek does not follow up on (his purpose had nothing to do with Jantjie’s mental state), but there are interesting things to say about this. According to Darian Leader (What is Madness?), the paranoiac often presents themselves as “the sole interpreter” of a law or knowledge, but the schizophrenic wants to communicate that “there has been a change,”, so the choice of a meaningless sign language seems especially apposite: Jantjie was not interpreting a truth but registering change (his own; South Africa’s) and allowing himself, through this weird performance, to structure his world. To see this as an affront to deaf people is to assume that he was there as an official interpreter (was he?) and to ignore the need that schizophrenics have to make sense of their world.]

I realize this is more than an issue of linguistic misperception and this story’s entanglement with mental illness is very complex (various reports suggest he was institutionalized at some point and had other gigs as sign interpreter)—but these unexamined discourses of wonder in Žižek’s response strike me as requiring closer consideration.

I’ll end here with some thoughts on what this whole story might say for those of us interested in disability studies and/or scholarship on premodern culture and theory. I might venture to say that medievalists and others working on historically distant cultures try to cultivate a generous understanding of the perceived alterity of minds and experiences in the distant past. As Julie has stated in a great article on leper-kissing in postmedieval, putting premodern culture and contemporary theory in conversation enacts a complex “interface” between worldviews (see HERE), and Alison Hobgood and Houston Wood (in their intro to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England) urge a mode of scholarship in which premodern culture and contemporary disability studies “generously behold the other” (10) (see HERE). If we actually restore deafness and schizophrenia into this discussion perhaps a more ethically transformative understanding can emerge. This story serves as a reminder to be attentive to the communicative and transformative potential of all minds and embodied experiences—even if (or particularly if) they are perceived as alien.

This is a lot of stuff I’m throwing out here, I realize! I’ll be curious to find out how this posting might speak to some of the things you’ve all been thinking about in your abstracts. Look forward to seeing where this conversation takes us!

[i] For instance these varied perspectives in the Disability Studies Reader, 4th Edn, ed. Lennard Davis (Routledge 2013): Margaret Price on defining mental disability, Bradley Lewis on the “Mad Pride” movement, Catherine Prendergast on the “unexceptional schizophrenic,” and Susan Wendell on chronic illness.

[ii] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194.

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