Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Signs Taken as Wonders: Žižek and the Apparent Interpreter


[Hi ITM readers: This posting also appears on the blog for “Reorienting Disability,” a seminar that Julie Orlemanski and I are organizing for the New Chaucer Society Congress in Iceland in July 2014. We invite anyone with interests in medieval disability to follow along and join in on the conversations that unfold there, even if you aren't attending the conference!]

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, 16 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,” as 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 Orlemanski 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?[1]

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 this on a medieval studies 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.[2]

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. 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 Orlemanski has stated in an 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.

[CORRECTION: The original posting had the word "singing" a few times when "signing" was intended. I've since corrected the typo. A provocative transmodal typo, but a typo nonetheless!]

[1] 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.
[2] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194.


  1. Great post, Jonathan. Wow, what a complicated story -- at the intersection of categories of disability (mental illness and deafness, as you say), race, the performance of nationhood on the international stage -- and (if we zoom out to include the man whose life was being memorialized) different models of political practice -- and (if we read the latest news-stories about Jantjie like this one at Slate, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/12/16/thamsanqa_jantjie_bogus_mandela_signer_allegedly_helped_burn_men_to_death.html) violence of different kinds and at different scales. As more details become available, I am struck by how LITTLE we know about Jantjie. What to me was a "flat" spectacle (the state funeral) -- canned, staged, already saturated with the depressingly familiar logic of neo-liberal global-order-spectacle -- indeed has become much "weirder" or "crazier" (adjectives that keep being used to describe the events in news-stories). I have lots of things to say -- about Zizek's categorization of "poor, black South Africas" as properly historical actors ("the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling") vs. the deaf, about "robotic calm" and "aliens", about what kind of analysis would be needed to think through the actual semiotics of deaf-interpreters at televised events -- but alas, the office is closing up so I have to get off the computer. More anon!

  2. Thanks for this post, Jonathan, which I'll be mulling for a while. I kept thinking about Margery Kempe as I read through it -- in part because of Julie Orlemanski's haunting question on FB about thinking about what it is like to be Kempe. That "thinking about what it is like" takes an act of narrative inhabitance that disallows people becoming signs, from becoming characters in a narrative assigned them by someone else.

    One of the things I love about Rosemarie's book is that it shows how that enframing can be constantly defeated when the one who is stared at stares back, when the story and its power to violently enframe rebound. So whose story does Jantjie vanish into? One from the deaf community (who have been truly slighted by not having an interpreter even vetted)? One from Zizek, who has a way of turning everything into guilt-making political allegory? One from the schizophrenic community, if such a collective can be imagined? Or is the story of angelic communication and visions that narrates irreducible, so that all the narrative processing machines in the world are not going to be able to flatten into something comfortable? I don't say that to make a heroic a figure out of him (he seems to have committed some heinous acts) but to emphasize the difficulties that inhere in turning people into signs, into stories.

  3. Thanks @Julie and @Jeffrey for your thoughtful comments here. I think you are both picking up on what I'm trying to suggest at the end of this--the question of how we might engage in more informed modes of "thinking about what it is like" to inhabit a narrative (or rather a narrative orientation) that doesn't allow certain minds/bodies to merely "signify" (as symbol, metaphor, what you will) for something or someone else. I think what is so difficult for us (and here "us" specifically refers to people who are trained primarily as literary scholars) is how to "get out of" our default modes of interpreting the world around us -- via structuring schema of metaphor, symbolism, narrative. Julie's comment seems to go so far to show that "whatever is going on with Jantjie" is so completely alien that all Z. can do is transform J. into allegory.

    I think what's so powerful about Rosemarie's work in this regard is to shift the entire conceptual *orientation* around, to move inside/inhabit that seemingly-alien or unfathomable position and work outward from there.

    As for Kempe: I've been thinking a lot about this too. One difficultly with Kempe is how much the Book foregrounds its mediated structure -- in third person, via at least two different scribes -- so inhabiting a narrative orientation is even more challenging. Or perhaps the Book already shows us how gaining access to what is going on "inside" *any* mind or embodied experience is necessarily a heavily mediated one.

    As you both point out, I don't want to be making Jantjie into some sort of otherworldly saint here -- the reports of his participation in acts of violence are indeed disturbing. But I did feel that it was really important to "call out" Zizek for his astounding lack of engagement with the Deaf community and disability rights perspectives -- especially for as someone who *purports* to speak on behalf people who are "disadvantaged" or "marginalized."

  4. Thanks, Jonathan for putting foreword the charge to "cultivate a generous understanding." I think this is one opportunity we have as scholars to reach across time and space in generative ways. It is a productive practice in the face of the current spirit of the persistent critique of the present.

  5. @Unknown: Thank you so much for your kind comment! I think the more we can think generously across time and space the better it is for everyone. I will note that activist work and scholarship is justifiably present-oriented and such critique should continue--I feel that it should *also* continue with a mindfulness of the past, including seemingly distant historical contexts.


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