Frank Bechter
University of Chicago

April 27, 2002

Review of Keating/Mirus: 

“American Sign Language in virtual space: interactions between deaf users of computer-mediated video communication and the impact of technology on language practices”—for the Language & Culture on-line forum:

            Keating and Mirus’s working paper concerns deaf signers’ use of web-based video communication, and, in its core sections—which examine the problematic interface of this technology with ASL expression—we see an ideal research site for contrasting the “visual” manifestation of ASL to that language’s systemic definition as a distinct semiotic mode requiring the dynamic coordination of spatial and “facial” signification.  This strength of the research, however, although elaborated at several points, is unfortunately masked by the overall framing the authors propose, wherein the advent of video-phoning itself and deaf signers’ “negotiations” concerning it are taken as the object of analysis.  In an age promising “the possibilities of new types of relationships across time and space” (1), it is understandable that this new technology might take center stage in an anthropological investigation of the signing community (particularly as mainstreamed schooling increasingly segregates deaf children from one another).  And yet, what seem to be centrally at issue here are questions of a different order.

            While language can be studied in relation to social action, as we are reminded on page 2, the authors’ claim to ling-anth attention need not be founded upon the facts of discursive negotiation or on “how new knowledge of technologically mediated environments is shared.”  Following Jakobson’s classic discussion of language multifunctionality (1990:69-79), we see that subjects’ negotiations over the videoline are examples of “phatic” talk, i.e., talk which thematizes the channel of communication in the given speech event.  Yet, what is anthropologically compelling about the given data, I suggest, is not the social fact of subjects’ phatic negotiations (given that general theses on human adaptability and reliance on talk are not in dispute), but rather the social fact—the social constitution—of what these phatic negotiations concern, i.e., the actual articulatory parameters of ASL itself, which the video connection compromises.  What Keating and Mirus have demonstrated is that, by disrupting the transparency of the shared space between signers, the entire mechanics of ASL breaks down, and signers resort to “English-like” (“sequence-based”) expression (10).  On page 11, the authors briefly indicate the factors at issue (“subject-object agreement” in space, “facial grammar,” head tilt, lip position, eye gaze, speed of articulation); and it strikes me that an elaboration of this problematic, with further examples sought in the video-phone data, could well be adopted as the objective of the paper.  Forcing ASL into a novel and constrained medium helps us theorize what ASL is.

            There are no examples of spatially-based “subject-object agreement” (11) shown in the present paper, and, if I understand the authors’ point correctly, this a result of the medium.  Understanding why this may be so reduces to understanding the fundamentally social nature of ASL phonology at the level of propositional signification (i.e., beyond the phonemic inventory required to describe isolated citation-form signs).  When we examine the way propositions are signified “in space” in ASL (propositions such as ‘John asked Mary’ or ‘John asked me’), we must recognize that the entire formal apparatus—what Haviland might call signers’ “interactive space” (1996)—is built upon the straight line defined by signers’ eye contact, and the lateral (“left/right”) opposition this line yields, which can be diagrammed as follows:

                         |     A     |

                   Sp.1 ( )> ----- <( ) Sp.2

                         |     B     |

The divisions labeled “A” and “B” function as signifiers for third-person referents introduced in a given stretch of discourse, and are shared between signers, corresponding to the same referents no matter which signer employs them.  Thus, the sign “ASK” (bending an upwardly extended index finger downwards as the hand moves in the direction the palm faces), if directed from A to B, would signify the event of A’s referent asking B’s referent something.  Similarly, such a sign could be directed between Speaker 1 and Speaker 2, or between any combination of these four “loci.”  (Sign language linguists have modeled such loci as “subjects” and “objects” in these constructions; hence, the notion of “agreement.”)  In the absence of using referential loci in shared space, signers must, of course, rely on full noun phrases or fingerspelled English pronouns, signed in English word-order, consistent with the authors’ analysis.

            In terms of the diagram above, many of the problems video-conversants encounter become clear.  First, at least according to the camera-monitor configuration that Keating and Mirus describe (where the webcam is perched to the right of the monitor as we look at it), we see that the cornerstone of the signing space—the line defined by eye contact—is compromised.  This is apparent in the authors’ discussion of the sign glossed as “YOU” (12), typically formed by pointing directly forward at one’s interlocutor, i.e., directly beneath the line defined by eye-contact.  Here, if signers point parallel to their eye-gaze (directed toward the interlocutor’s image), the camera captures this as either a third-person reference (pointing toward division “A”) or as a seeming second-person reference to someone off-screen.  Signers attempt to remedy this by pointing directly to the webcam; and yet this too produces a problematic image, in that the signer’s eye-gaze suggests that this is either an invocation of division “B” or a peculiar second-person reference where the signer does not maintain eye-contact.  Thus, as the authors describe, signers sometimes choose both to point and to gaze at the webcam; but this has the effect of absenting the addressee from the signer’s view.  This, then, radically compromises fluent ASL expression, which makes frequent use of what sign language linguists regard as “topic-comment” structures—e.g., “[you know the] BOOK? [I was] FASCINATED [by it]”—wherein signers rely on minimal signals of recognition from interlocutors in order for statements to proceed:  “[you know the] BOOK? … LAST-WEEK [from-you]BORROW[me]??? … THAT.  [I was] FASCINATED [by it].”

            As Keating and Mirus point out, the “facial grammar” involved in signifying a “topic” (raising the eyebrows, which I transcribe as question marks above) and many other non-manual signs for a host of other distinctive ASL constructions are distorted or otherwise imperceptible given poor internet transmission speeds.  But I am suggesting that it may be more than transmission and resolution problems that are at issue (though, clearly, these are of great importance).  I suggest that the deeper issue may lie in the technology’s radical interruption of both the signing channel and the signing-space’s socio-physical parameters as such.  Regarding channel, as just illustrated, addressee feedback is a constituent of well-formed ASL expression internal even to simple propositions.  To mark a “topic” is to form a “sentence”; but to seek minimal signs of comprehension from one’s interlocutor is indicative of a fundamentally social mode of signification.  Who would raise one’s eyebrows to a webcam, after all?

But more importantly, regarding the socio-physical parameters of the signing space itself, if we look to Figures 3 and 4 in the text, we see that the interlocutor has been isolated in a little square on the monitor, smaller than the signer’s hand, thus seriously compromising any possible “shared space” between signers, as ideally represented in the above diagram.  One might say that we have artificially isolated “the ideal speaker/hearer,” as it were, and, unwittingly, we have found that the ideal speaker/hearer cannot speak ASL.  Keating and Mirus have shown—providing hard empirical data—that a speaker-centered ideology of language, which has underwritten the elaboration of sign language linguistics, simply cannot account for even the phonology of ASL.  In the absence of a viable “interactive space,” the entire diagrammatic edifice of ASL collapses, and a one-dimensional, syntagmatic mode of semiosis is adopted.  What seems to be called for, on the technological end, is not small representations of both signers on the screen, but rather one full 30-inch screen representation of the interlocutor, and a sophisticated webcam (or set of webcams?) positioned centrally and calibrated three-dimensionally so as to ideally “link” the real space in front of one signer to the virtual space in front of the other.

            Perhaps Keating and Mirus’s data corpus does contain examples of signers struggling to exploit ASL spatial signification.  (They do cite instances of signers modifying their indexical gestures so as to better indicate objects in the space around them (12).)  Such examples, supplemented by informant interviews, would provide an excellent base from which to interrogate the systemic constitution of ASL.  That is, beyond providing a list of processes that the medium seems unable to accommodate (e.g., “lip position,” “squinting of eyes”), the authors could elaborate the “overdetermination” of these semiotic forms within ASL as an integrated semiotic system—i.e., what Hjelmslev might call the “dependences” (1953) of these forms on one another.  Thus, lip position and squinting (among many other non-manual signals) are fundamental in ASL’s “topographic” mode of signification (Poizner/Klima/Bellugi 1987, Emmorey 1996), where space is utilized as a mapping resource, such that static and dynamic relationships between objects (such as cars, planes, buildings, ponds, fences, people, animals, streets, furniture, etc.) are signified iconically, with lip position and squinting functioning as supplements to the depiction of proximal and distal relationships.  Thus, it is not simply that the new medium cannot well accommodate space or small movements of the mouth and eyes, or quick hand movements, or the affective stances of characters as they are cinematographically depicted by signers, but rather that these signifying forms are all cogs and gears of the same integrated system.  Compromising any one of them would seem to pose serious problems in fluent signed expression.

            At the most general level, I am suggesting that current videophone technology—precisely because it is problematic for signers—might better be viewed as a choice research site for investigating the semiotics of ASL, rather than as an object of study in itself or in relation to signers’ sociocultural response to it.  If there were something particularly unexpected in signers’ negotiations, then this might be different.  But, indeed, while a new force in the signing community may well be emerging, it is not clear that this is the only, or even the best, way to conceptualize the videophone as a signing environment.  By focusing on the “newness” of video telephony, the authors are led to treat modified articulations of signs such as MEXICO, VALENTINE and SON as “new properties of language” (8).  But it seems possible that any similarly constrained communicative environment might yield comparable modifications (e.g., when standing far away, or when the signer’s torso is not visible).  Thus it may be more productive to view such modifications not as “new forms” (e.g., as in the sign MEXICO, where the hand now moves upward instead of directly outward from the forehead), but rather as providing insight into the proper, minimal “phonemic” description of the basic signs at issue.  Keating and Mirus seem, again, to have discovered an ideal research site for the theorization of ASL form—this time generating sign tokens which can be put to use in theorizing the distinction between the minimal structure of a sign and its variable performance.

            On the other hand, it does seem possible to pursue an ethnographic project which would interrogate the impact of videophone technology on the American deaf community in macro-sociocultural terms. As the authors indicate (2), the signing community is, indeed, unique among known linguistic communities, given that the overwhelming majority of signers come from non-signing households, where, by and large, they have lived in acute linguistic isolation, often having little to no language base (in either a spoken or a signed language) when they first enter school.  Such schools, in turn, tend to be mainstream schools where the student continues to be relatively isolated.  I am therefore curious:  Whom are the deaf families in the present sample calling?  When the children in these families substitute phone-chatting time for TV time (15), are they sometimes chatting with deaf children from non-deaf households?  And, conversely, are deaf children in non-deaf households video-chatting every chance they get?  Considering the uniqueness of the deaf signing community as an anthropological object, it might make more sense to investigate the enculturation of “the next generation” of signers (13) not within deaf households—since this mode of enculturation is relatively familiar to cultural theorists—but rather as a process of recruitment between “Deaf” and “non-Deaf” contexts.  Deaf adolescents who attend mainstream schools often do not encounter ASL-signers in any number—i.e., often do not experience “the deaf community”—until they attend summer camps for the deaf, out of state.  Are the friendships that are made and the ideas that are encountered in these settings now viable over the internet-mediated (and hence inexpensive) videophone line?  Have subjects been interviewed concerning the number and kind of acquaintances they maintain now via videophone versus the number and kind they maintained with TTY-technology only?  Or—perhaps of special concern to linguistic anthropologists—Do TTY conversations differ from videophone conversations not only in form, but also in content?  And, if so, what systematic relationships obtain to these differences?  These are questions that recommend both examination of videophone data as well as ethnographic involvement.

            Lastly, while I have suggested other possible orientations to the data here, it is worth pointing out that Keating and Mirus’s orientation in terms of subjects’ human achievement (15) and adaptability to new circumstances of their environment (13) makes sense within the context of Deaf Studies literature more generally, which has approached the culture of deaf signers largely in universalistic or humanistic terms.  “Deaf culture,” Padden and Humphries conclude in their seminal study, “is a powerful testimony to both the profound needs and the profound possibilities of human beings” (1988:121)—a position these authors ground with reference to the preceding two decades of research on ASL as the “natural language” of the deaf, i.e., as specifically amenable to the Universal Grammar thesis.  Similarly, Rutherford contends that her examination of deaf folklore “provides us with a clear illustration of the nature of culture as a mechanism by which a people adapt to their environment” (1993:141), and concludes that the community’s folklore “serves American Deaf people the same as any folk group’s traditions do” (ibid).  This tendency to conceptualize deaf culture as “human culture,” and moreover as “the same as any other human culture”—a necessary argument in the birth of Deaf Studies—perhaps contributes to the present study’s focus, as well as to its foregrounding of multigenerational deaf families.  I have tried to indicate here, however, that it is rather the exceptional nature of both ASL and deaf sociocultural reproduction that might have a greater claim to scholarly attention, as it is these which show the limits of current models rather than their strengths.


Emmorey, Karen. 1996. The confluence of space and language in signed languages. IN Language and space. (Eds.) Paul Bloom, Mary A. Peterson, Lynn Nadel, and Merrill F. Garrett. Bradford, MIT Press. Cambridge.

Haviland, John.  1996.  Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps.  Language & Culture (on-line forum): Symposium #3.

Hjelmslev, Louis. 1953 (1943). Prolegomena to a theory of language. Supplement to International journal of American linguistics, Vol. 19, No. 1. (Trans.) Francis J. Whitfield. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics: Memoir 7 of the International Journal of American Linguistics. Waverly Press, Inc. Baltimore.

Jakobson, Roman. 1990 (1960).  The speech event and the functions of language.  IN On language. Harvard University Press. Cambridge.

Padden, Carol and Tom Humphries.  1988.  Deaf in America: voices from a culture.  Harvard University Press.  Cambridge.

Poizner, Howard, Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi. 1987. What the hands reveal about the brain. MIT Press. Cambridge.

Rutherford, Susan.  1993.  A study of American deaf folklore.  Linstok Press.  Burtonsville, MD.