Book Review: “Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History”

by Manali Karmakar

Virdi, Jaipreet. Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020. 319 pp.

Yellow cover, red words, black and white image of a woman with a hearing deviceJaipreet Virdi’s Hearing Happiness dives deep into the existential and embodied anxieties of deaf individuals by tracing the evolution of deafness cures from the Nineteenth Century to the Twenty-first Century. Virdi’s book, on the one hand, examines how the medical prosthetics construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the notions of identity and selfhood of individuals who rely on hearing aids for being assimilated into the hearing world, and on the other hand, focuses on how the deafness cures and biomedical interventions are informed by the socio-cultural, political expectations of the society in which they are embedded. Virdi states, “The history of hearing loss is more than a history of medical and technological intervention. It is the history that incorporates ideals of citizenship and philosophy to debate the meaning of humanity and what we consider normal” (9).

In the preface, the author explicitly states that the book is not a historical account of the culture of deafness. Rather the book seeks to analyze the narratives related to the medical and technological treatment for hearing loss and their complex entanglement with the culture of consumer capitalism. Virdi beautifully weaves the phenomenological account of deafness with the historical records of the medical cures in order to examine the discourse of deafness with a renewed attention to the notions of normativity, stigma, health, and disability. The book also foregrounds the epistemic uncertainty and unreliability that underlie the medical management of hearing loss and contests the media reports that offer optimistic narrations of the technological developments.

The book draws on critical perspectives from history, sociology, and life narratives to seek answers to questions such as “what is it about deafness that leaves it vulnerable to the clutches of fakers and frauds, or to the medical practitioners who insist on invasive treatment without guarantee of a cure. Why this obsession with ‘fixing” deafness”? (p. 6) The introduction discusses the socio-cultural prejudices that are enmeshed with the phenomenology of hearing disabilities and throws light not only on the anxiety of the person who has lost hearing ability but also on the crises of the family members who seek all the possible medical and improbable cures to reassimilate their children within the normative structure of the society.

Chapter one, titled “Improbable Miracles,” discusses a range of therapies such as hydropathy, phototherapy, mesmerism, galvanism, and radiotherapy that evolved during the nineteenth century to assuage the pain and suffering of the patients. The chapter explains how the physicians combine knowledge from herbalism, astrology, and ritualism in order to find “miraculous cures for incurable diseases” (37). The chapter also discusses the self-medication strategies adopted by many patients to escape from painful invasive surgeries that offer little therapeutic benefit for hearing loss. The second chapter titled “Ear Spectacles” examines the concepts of shame and self-stigmatization associated with the usage of hearing aids. The chapter discusses the pain and apprehension of the users who foreground their fraught relationship with the prosthetics. Although a few consumers acknowledge the hearing device as a prosthetic extension of their selfhood and identity, the stigma of deafness persists. The third chapter titled “Electric Wonders” discusses the “capacity of electricity to deliver sound to the deaf” (120). The chapter throws light on the evolution of electrotherapy products in the late nineteenth century for curing ailments including hearing loss. “Fanciful Fads,” the fourth chapter, narrates the evolution of medical fads used in treating deafness such as flying cure, medical magnetism, finger surgery, and window operation. The final chapter titled “Edge of Silence” discusses the momentous technological developments of the 1930s, when hearing aids “shifted from being portable devices to wearables ones” (201). The chapter also analyzes the new marketing strategies adopted by the manufactures to influence the deaf community to rely on hearing aids to improve their lifestyle. The manufacturers advertised the process of adopting and adapting to hearing aids as a social responsibility of the deaf community in order to get acknowledged as responsible citizens.

The book concludes its argument with an epilogue where the author discusses the uncertain and controversial nature of the cochlear implant technology that is proselytized by the media as a “medical innovation that breaks through the wall of silence, by providing children the opportunity to lead a more normal life” (251). Virdi offers an in-depth analysis of this technological development and the obsession of medical science, media, and consumers to find a cure for deafness; at the same time, she also draws attention to the individuality of the deaf person who might not consider deafness as a tragedy that needs to be repaired. She argues that we should acknowledge the autonomy of choice and the diversity of the deaf persons who might not be willing to embrace the possible technological solution to get assimilated into the hearing world.

The book is strongly recommended for students and scholars working in the area of disability studies, posthumanism, affect studies, and science and technology. The book can also be an eye-opener to readers who are operated by homogenous and stereotypical notions of health, normativity, and disability. Through its rich account of man-machine interaction leading to the generation of a complex order of identities, Hearing Happiness becomes a fruitful addition to the research narratives on entangled subjectivities and medical prosthetics.

You can also listen to Jaipreet Virdi interviewed by Brandy Schillace on our Medical Humanities podcast.

Manali Karmakar is an Assistant Professor in English at the Vellore Institute of Technology, Chennai, India. Her research interests include literature and medicine, posthumanism, mental health, and disability studies

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