Peter Graif, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Undeniable Statements: Other Minds and the Intelligibility of Deaf Writing

Please join us on October 16th at 4:30 PM in the Human Development North conference room (5730 S Woodlawn Ave) for Peter Graif’s presentation.


Arjun Gurung is 27-years-old and deaf. He lives in the backpacker hotel that his family has owned since before he was born. He is proficient in a half-dozen languages, and he hopes to know another half-dozen by the time he is thirty-five. Nevertheless, his parents and wife believe that he is a simpleton. They believe, incorrectly, that he has only a childish understanding of what goes on around him and that he is incapable of language or complex thought. Arjun is unintelligible to his family members in part because his primary language — Nepali Sign Language (NSL) — is formally indistinguishable to them from the ad hoc amalgam of gestures that he and they used to communicate when Arjun was a child. Because Arjun’s signing is intelligible to them some of the time, they cannot easily explain why they do not understand it all of the time.

This paper examines the culturally particular practices involved in the evaluation of other minds. It argues that these evaluations create the spaces in which deaf social particularity is manifest. Specifically, I examine Arjun’s efforts to build a universal phrase book, a semantically organized collection of words and sentences in diverse foreign languages that Arjun has assembled through countless hours of work with the tourists that pass through his hotel. As an object, this phrase book is a tribute to translatability. By aligning referentially equivalent phrases in writing, Arjun is both demonstrating and trivializing the scope of linguistic arbitrariness. As his phrase book circulates, however, it passes through sequential domains of recognition that render it variously intelligible and unintelligible as a language object.

Discussant: Andrea Ford, PhD candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Andrea is in her third year in the Anthropology PhD program, specializing in cultural and medical anthropology. Her research interests include childbirth, breast milk banks, midwifery; embodiment, affect, food, and animal-human relationships. She works in the US and West Africa, and has a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA from the University of Ghana.

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David Ansari in advance at 773-702-3971 or contact

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