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Expressive and Receptive from the Deaf Perspective
by Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway, Oberlin College

by Deaf ASL teacher and linguist, Adam Frost

I understand that the original shift from receptive to expressive writing had to do at least in part with Deaf users’ political resistance to being treated as objects of study. Do you feel that adopting an expressive writing perspective has succeeded in making Deaf writers more clearly marked as subjects, rather than research objects?


In the instructional materials and in other discussions I’ve seen of the shift to expressive writing, I’ve heard it described as “seeing through your own face” or “signing from your own perspective”.

That usefully characterizes what it’s like to write expressively. However, I’ve rarely heard people discuss the impact this has on reading “through someone else’s face” or “from someone else’s (spatial) perspective”.

How do you feel this affects the ways in which you read other SignWriters’ texts? What skills are involved in reversing the perspective to imagine that you are being addressed and/or in imagining yourself in the (literal and possibly figurative) place of the writer?

Does this possibly encourage readers to adopt the perspective of the writer in ways other types of writing systems might not?

Rather than see expressive writing as allowing readers to take on someone else’s perspective John Lee Clark, a deaf/blind blogger, frames expressive writing as making it more possible to make the text “your own”. He posted these comments about the future of ASL literature on his blog:

“Someone else’s voice. Someone else’s hands. It’s not that we cannot enjoy ASL performances. Readings, videos, and theater are still important. But there’s something about the abstract, bare symbols on the page that invites our minds to engage, argue with, and absorb the language before us. We cannot do these things as well when we are only spectators.

One of the most important things the new developers did with written ASL was to make it a rule that writers are to project themselves spatially onto the page. If the writer is right-handed and says “Hello,” his hand, from his own point of view, moves right. He is to write “Hello” in that way. He is not to write as if it’s someone else saying “Hello” to him. Written ASL does not create a movie screen or a line of mannequins. Instead, it creates space for us to say things as ourselves. And it creates space, when we are reading it, to fall into the text. In that space, we are there.”

How do these comments resonate with your experiences as a skilled SignWriter and reader? Are these mutually exclusive ways of understanding the effects of expressive writing, or just different ways of experiencing it?


When I asked questions about receptive/expressive to the listserv a while back, André Lemyre imagined some possible futures involving playing with writing from different perspectives:

“I would read a book with intense emotions written expressively by the narrator to make me feel in the shoes of the character. Then comes the mean character, whom threatens my character that I read receptively. There would be a tendency to make mean character left handed (even with a scar on a hand). Until the identity of the mean character is known, no sign would display a face...

Other narrators may write in the receptive perspective to keep a distance from the reader, example an official report.

The view from above could be selected for a character like Spiderman...

Poetry would swap between left-right, expressive-receptive, even top view to exploit shapes of the signs. The arab calligraphy use geometry sometimes...”

As the range of genres written with SignWriting expands, what do you think about the possibility of adopting multiple visual perspectives in writing?
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