Sensory politics and the cochlear implant debates

Joseph Michael Valente, Benjamin Bahan, H. Dirksen L. Bauman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

13 Scopus citations


The cochlear implant controversy is frequently portrayed by popular media and framed by stakeholders as a battle between science and technology versus culture. Cochlear implant proponents claim that early childhood is the most critical period of development if implants are to increase spoken language and literacy development. On the other end, members of the Deaf community assert that cochlear implants are an assault on their culture by interfering with deaf children's right to acquire a fully accessible signed language. As they play out in the public media, these arguments pit the well-funded biopower industries against a tiny linguistic minority (Ladd, 2003; Lane, 1992; Bauman, 2008). This imbalanced portrayal of the argument forms the story line of most media coverage of the cochlear implant controversy, for example, the film Sound and Fury, in which articulate white-coated doctors espouse the wisdom of early implantation and emotionally charged Deaf community members seem to be Luddites shunning technological advancements. But these familiar narratives do not take into account all the complexities of the issues at the crux of the cochlear implant debates. This chapter attempts to defamiliarize two familiar yet polarizing narratives, that is, Deaf culture versus hearing culture. Although the Deaf culture side of the argument has been faulted for its embrace of essentialist identity politics and for ignoring ways Deaf culture actually benefits by positioning itself in opposition to biopower institutions (Friedner, 2010), we also recognize how the medical-educational-industrial complex that promotes cochlear implants is equally motivated by a particular cultural orientation favoring its own sensory orientation in the world. This chapter uses the lens of what we refer to as "sensory politics" (Bahan, 2007, 2009, 2010) to explain the political implications of the enforcement of dominant cultural norms of sensory experience. In other words, sensory politics looks at the intersection of biological perception and cultural mediation and interpretation within a field of power. Sensory politics, as will be discussed below, often finds tension in the culturally determined hierarchy that values and devalues sensory experience, especially between visual and auditory perception. As we unpack the notion of sensory politics as it applies to the cochlear implant debates, we see that the allegedly neutral rhetoric of medicine and science are just as motivated by a cultural orientation as the Deaf cultural argument. This demystification paves the way for more balanced and culturally aware perspectives that provide insights into the implications and orientations involved in decisions of whether to implant. Prior to any consideration of ethics of cochlear implants, preconceived notions and dominant Western assumptions about the senses must be disentangled and made explicit. Before we can better understand the implications of cochlear implants, we must understand how senses and sensory politics work in complex and diverse ways around the world. To provide insights that come from what has long been thought to be a neutral biological process, sensory perception is now being studied for how it is culturally mediated and interpreted. A growing field of sensory anthropology has inquired into the relation of sensory experience and culture, foregrounding the fact that not all cultures in the world define and describe sensory experience in the same way (Geurts, 2002; Howes, 2005; Hall, 1982). This provocative body of research brings fundamental epistemic questions to the fore. For example, do all cultures claim to possess five senses? How do disparate cultures parse sensory experience in their epistemological framework and linguistic expression? These questions open the way for an understanding of sensory politics that erodes the bedrock foundations of Western epistemology. In short, the natural and biological notion of normative sensory experience is not so natural and normal after all but is, rather, a phenomenon formed through the complex interplay of biological function and cultural and political mediation. The primary focus of this chapter, then, is to begin discussion of a framework of sensory politics within which debates of cochlear implants and educational choices for deaf children may be realigned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCochlear Implants
Subtitle of host publicationEvolving Perspectives
PublisherGallaudet University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)1563685035, 9781563681509
StatePublished - Dec 1 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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