Sensory Futures

Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India

2022
Author:

Michele Ilana Friedner

Revealing inequalities and sensory hierarchies embedded in the latest medical technologies and global biotechnical markets

Sensory Futures explores deaf people’s desires to create habitable worlds, grappling with their futures amid a surge in biotechnical interventions and disability rights activism. With implications for a broad range of disability experiences, this sensitive, in-depth research focuses on the specific experiences of deaf people, both children and adults, and the structural, political, and social possibilities biotechnological and social “cures” offer.

Michele Friedner’s book is a gem—I can’t think of anything else like it. Scaling from the pronunciation of 's' by a deaf American child who will someday become an ethnographer to Indian state partnerships with biotech corporations, we encounter many ways to be hearing and deaf. And we see this communicative abundance whittled away by repressive transnational infrastructures as well as local rules, tests, and disability bureaucracies. To my mind, Sensory Futures is the union of medical anthropology, STS, and disability studies at its finest.

Mara Mills, cofounder and codirector, NYU Center for Disability Studies

What happens when cochlear implants, heralded as the first successful bionic technologies, make their way around the globe and are provided by both states and growing private markets? As Sensory Futures follows these implants from development to domestication and their unequal distribution in India, Michele Ilana Friedner explores biotechnical intervention in the realm of disability and its implications for state politics in the Global South.

A signing and speaking deaf bilateral cochlear implant user, Friedner weaves personal reflections into this fine-grained ethnography of everyday negotiations, activist aspirations, and the space of the family. She places sensory anthropology in conversation with disability studies to analyze how normative sensoria are cultivated and the pursuit of listening and speaking capability is enacted. She argues that the conditions of potentiality that have emerged through cochlear implantation have, in fact, resulted in ever narrower understandings of future life possibilities. Rejecting sensory hierarchies that privilege audition, Friedner calls for multisensory, multimodal, and multipersonal ways of relating to the world.

Sensory Futures explores deaf people’s desires to create habitable worlds and grapple with what their futures might look like, in India and beyond, amid a surge in both biotechnical interventions and disability rights activism. With implications for a broad range of disability experiences, this sensitive, in-depth research focuses on the specific experiences of deaf people, both children and adults, and the structural, political, and social possibilities offered by both biotechnological and social “cures.”

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Michele Ilana Friedner is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She is author of Valuing Deaf Worlds in India.

Michele Friedner’s book is a gem—I can’t think of anything else like it. Scaling from the pronunciation of 's' by a deaf American child who will someday become an ethnographer to Indian state partnerships with biotech corporations, we encounter many ways to be hearing and deaf. And we see this communicative abundance whittled away by repressive transnational infrastructures as well as local rules, tests, and disability bureaucracies. To my mind, Sensory Futures is the union of medical anthropology, STS, and disability studies at its finest.

Mara Mills, cofounder and codirector, NYU Center for Disability Studies

Sensory Futures compels us to question what it means to live with disability as an ongoing process of becoming. Michele Friedner excels at describing the everyday demands of disability and normality in India. Engaging, insightful, and careful, this extraordinary book spotlights the reshaping of state power and technological promise through the everyday intimacies of multisensory life.

Harris Solomon, author of Lifelines: The Traffic of Trauma

Contents

Note on Transliteration and Anonymization

Introduction: Sensory, Modal, and Relational Narrowing through Cochlear Implants

1. Disability Camps and Surgical Celebrations: Indian Disability Interventions and the Creation of Complex Dependencies

2. Becoming Unisensory: Creating a Child’s Social Sense through Auditory Verbal Therapy and Total Communication

3. Mothers’ Work: Intersensing and Learning to Talk like a Cricket Commentator

4. (Non-)Use: Maintaining Devices, Relationships, and Senses

5. Becoming Normal: Potentiality Beyond Passing

Conclusion: Beyond the Bad S: Making Space for Sensory Unruliness

Acknowledgments

Appendix: Five Indian Cochlear Implant Trajectories

Notes

Bibliography

Index