Thinking of Language, Love and Loss with Nina Raine’s “Tribes”

by Abigail Akavia

Would I rather go deaf or blind? Every once in a while, I come back to this question in some version or another. Say I had to choose which sense I’d lose in my old age, which would it be? I always give myself, unequivocally, the same answer: I’d rather go blind. I’d rather my world go darker than quieter. I imagine it as a choice between seeing the world and communicating with it; in this hypothetical, communication with the world is all-encompassing, its loss more devastating than the loss of sight. It is perhaps clear from the mere fact that I pose this question that I do not live with a disability involving the senses. Individuals who are vision- or hearing-impaired would have an entirely different take on this question and on the issues I raise below, but hopefully what I write here will go beyond stating my own prejudices.
To prefer sound over sight is by no means an obvious choice. One could say that a preference for sound over sight goes against millennia of Platonic thought, which prioritizes sight as giving us access to what is stable, verifiable, graspable to the mind’s eye: the idea is literally that which is seen (from id-, one of the Greek roots for to see). Sound, on the other hand, changes in time, it is fleeting, untrustworthy, and hence inferior.

But poetry and myth have offered an alternative way of thought. Ancient myth is populated by sage blind men like the prophet Tiresias and Oedipus (after, of course, he learns the truth about his identity). Their lack of physical sight is not only a counterpart to their exceptional insight into the way of the world but, to an extent, the very source of their intellectual and spiritual advantage. In the case of both, what they lack in perception they make up for in a remarkable facility with language. Tiresias’ advantage over his seeing adversaries is perhaps the better-known example, as he delivers truthful but irritatingly cryptic prophetic messages to Oedipus (in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King) and Creon (in Antigone). Managing to confuse and manipulate them, Tiresias has the rhetorical upper hand, and the audience always already knows that he is in the right. In Oedipus at Colonus, the last play Sophocles wrote, the old Oedipus turns up as a similarly prophetic, wrathful speaker of harsh truths, with a sharp ability to pick out the dissimulators from the honest ones around him by virtue of what they say. Neither man’s ability to communicate is lessened by their blindness; in fact, it allows them to recognize and speak the truth more easily.

Isaac of the Old Testament may seem like a counter-example, representing the vulnerability of the blind (and the old, but that’s a different story). Isaac is duped by his younger son Jacob to give him the inheritance rightfully due to the first-born Esau. And yet, the way Jacob’s trick is almost exposed by his father—“the voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22)—points precisely to the importance of the sense of sound that remains to the blind, and the sensory advantage that it may give them. Isaac’s moment of doubt comes in response to that auditory uniqueness imprinted in and carried by Jacob’s voice—that unmistakable identity that can only be recognized by the ear.

“The voice is always for the ear, it is always relational; […] each voice, as it is for the ear, demands at the same time an ear that is for the voice.” So writes philosopher Ariana Cavarero in For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Italian original, 2003). This focus on the relationality of the voice, the way it presupposes and prescribes listening, is shared by philosophers in both the continental and the American phenomenological traditions, who break with the established philosophical prioritizing of sight over sound. In The Responsibility of Forms (French original, 1982), Roland Barthes has proposed that the voice serves as a double index of a person: the innermost of one’s physical movements as well as a reflection of emotional interiority. Listening to the voice, he suggests, is the basis for interpersonal relationship. Don Ihde’s 1976 groundbreaking work Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound urges its readers to consider alternatives to the “dominant visualism of our understanding of experience” and the “tyranny” of voice-less reason. Ihde’s writing stresses that voice, with its inherent musicality—that inability-to-pin-it-down quality—is essentially human. Composer Pauline Oliveros advances an expansive notion of “deep listening” that involves the entire human body, “ear, skin, bones, meridians, fluids and other organs and tissues of the body as coupled to the earth and its layers from the core to the magnetic fields. … All cells of the earth and body vibrate.”

The thinkers I mention here have this in common: in prioritizing sound over sight, and in giving special attention to the voice and the vocalizing body, they strive to effect a re-evaluation of the ethics and politics of interpersonal relations. Listening becomes a crucial humanistic activity and a means to generate and sustain empathy in our relationships with each other and with the world.

In comes Nina Raine’s award-winning play Tribes (2010) and stands this whole re-adjusted hierarchy of senses on its head once again. Tribes, in its own way, also forces us to rethink our biases—as a culture, and as individuals with “perfect” vision and hearing—by dramatizing voice in new and unexpected ways. Yet it is not by removing sight from one of the characters that it seeks to elevate the status of voice. Quite the contrary. The protagonists in this play are, to varying degrees, deaf. Here voice is enhanced because we come to see it on a continuum of modes of communication, a continuum which includes physical and entirely “visual” modes such as sign language and lip-reading. I must admit I have not seen the play performed, and this places another limitation on what I write here. My exposure to Tribes has been similar to what I am used to doing as a philologist reading ancient drama, mining the script for clues of what can only be experienced in live performance and is barely traceable in the printed text. But there is one important difference: Raine’s script includes extensive stage directions. These prescribe, for one, the actors’ gestures in sign language, an actual script of the physical dimension of the interaction between the characters. Second, they describe the audio and visual dimension of the performance, an entire visual-soundscape made up of music and projected supertitles.

Billy is a young man, the youngest of three siblings, born deaf but raised by his hearing family as non-deaf. He uses hearing aids and is a master of lip-reading. At the beginning of the play, he doesn’t associate with other deaf people and has never learned sign language. This is exactly as his family likes it, especially his aggressively intellectual father (a patriarch who utters liberalist rants against identity politics) and his charming, depressed, and possessive older brother. Billy meets and falls in love with Sylvia, who was raised by two deaf parents and is gradually losing her hearing. The play shows us the path each of them follows to cross over to the other’s “tribe”, and the sense of loss this transition entails. Through his deep connection with Sylvia, Billy comes to realize that his family, his very restricted tribe, never truly listened to him, and he demands that they learn sign in order to remain in contact with him. Sylvia yearns for an empathic reaction to what she is going through—the process of losing her hearing as a traumatic deprivation not only of sound but of her identity—and she feels such empathy is entirely lacking from her tribe, the deaf community.

Billy’s father epitomizes the bias of the hearing against the deaf, for example when he patronizingly presents Sylvia with increasingly complex sentences to translate into sign, finally asking her point blank to admit to the inferiority of sign-language. Sylvia won’t have it: “Are you asking me whether signing makes you a coarser person because signing is a coarse language? Whether deaf people are emotionally deaf as well, lack empathy?” Tribes repeatedly dramatizes the fuzzy boundary between having an emotion, arousing empathy, and feeling empathy. To feel something is to be able to put it into “words”, in whatever form or language they may be, and to communicate it to another so that they’d understand.

Fundamentally, this play asks what is the meaning of love. This may sound corny, yet it’s anything but. Tribes is at its most lyrical when first Billy and then Daniel essentially try to articulate their love for another person. Billy’s voice, the stage directions indicate, “starts to fragment” because the batteries in his hearing aids are about to die out, and he sounds like someone on a “mobile phone with fragmenting reception.” This begins when he tries to express how excited he is at meeting Sylvia and her family, a family where everybody signs. He becomes barely intelligible when he says it “was like a light being lit in my mind […] she’s the one”. The script gives us his fragmented speech “she—the…nn” as well as the projected supertitles translating his speech for us. Using both semiotic registers, both sight and sound, it conveys: this is what it is to use (limiting) words to express an unfathomably complex feeling. We see Billy trying out the words for the first time, literally feeling them out in his mouth, in a way that injects this hackneyed metaphorical expression with the freshness and urgency of genuine emotion. Daniel replies with a question: “You like her?”, as if that straightforward, juvenile expression can contain what Billy feels. Through meeting Sylvia, and then falling in love, learning sign language, finding a job, Billy sheds his role as his family’s sheltered child and little brother. He finally matures, becomes capable of articulating himself in his separateness from his family. He comes into his own not by finding his voice, like the traditional teleological journey from infancy (literally, inability to speak) to adulthood, but by finding sign.

The process has the opposite effect on Daniel, whose childhood stammer returns and psychosis gets worse (he hears voices, of course). At the very end of the play, Daniel’s stutter is so bad that his voice becomes fragmented like Billy’s deaf speech. He can no longer speak, and the first word for which he asks to learn the gesture in sign-language is “love”. If Daniel is infantilized by the experience of losing Billy, he begins to recover both his adult self and his brotherhood not by recovering his voice but by returning to—finding for the first time, it seems—the non-verbal gesture. What’s particularly moving here is that this is not marked as a reversion to the maternal embrace but as a mutual action between two adults. The embodied, non-vocal mode of communication finally becomes a true alternative, a true path towards recognizing oneself and one’s connection to another. By focusing on the deaf community, and on the diverse individuals within it, Tribes enriches our understanding of the voice as the ultimate medium to inter-personal connections. It by no means undermines the philosophical-ethical enterprise to destabilize our “dominant visualism”. It enhances the commitment to a more holistic and inclusive notion of understanding and communication by allowing us to hear and see voice as something more—something deeper—than sound.