Notes Toward an Ethics of Non-Normative Communication (or, Why Can’t a Writing System be “(a) Language”?)

Deaf and autistic people actually draw upon a wide range of semiotic and communicative repertoires and communication modalities. This is an area of productive overlap as both deaf and autistic people confront normative language ideologies about what language is and how it should be produced as well as the role of other people, machines, and technology in mediating communication.

michele friedner & pamela block

We would do well to abandon the pretense that it’s possible to reproduce base things in realms other than those that gave birth to them. Instead, we can leave those things well enough alone where they belong, or, moved by possibilities, we can transgress, translate, and transform them.

john lee clark

Access and affordances

These notes are in part inspired by a disastrous Twitter exchange where I was unsuccessful in attempting to argue for a view of writing systems as (a) language. As Twitter may not lend itself well to scholarly dialogue or extrapolation, I will here attempt a longer essay.

First, part of what I was attempting to address was what I saw as the underlying perception of language as a formal linguistic system that is a priori to what takes place when someone writes (in other words, the modality of writing is an expression of the named language as a complete linguistic system, which a priori resides elsewhere than in the act of writing and is just being borrowed or channelled in one modality when writing takes place). This argument also requires some dexterity since many scholars see the hegemony of written language as what needs to be challenged rather than what needs to be defended.

Most of us are born into a world where language is already there. We hear sounds and voices in utero and are born to parents and caregivers whose sensory ecologies are reciprocal with ours. Other uses of language, including writing, that we acquire are subsequent to and follow from this initiation to the world. However, if we are born deaf or deafblind, we may encounter language not immediately but elsewhere. Such language and our mastery of it may not (ever) be viewed as complete in normative terms. If we become, instead of being born, deaf or deafblind, we may need to give up the mastery of language and begin anew. Other uses of language, including writing, may not be adjacent or subsequent, but primarily how we interact with and interpret the world. Thus, a writing system may be (a) language for some people. In writing, we can become a writer, which is a way of being in the world and not simply representing it.

This is the idea: The world contains instruments, which we grasp in terms of their affordances for action. In performing actions habitually, we take on roles, and in routinely taking on roles, we have an identity. Represented schematically:
affordance > instrument > action > role > identity
This process yields a way of residing in the world and is distinct from, but related to ways of representing the world.

terra edwards (interpreting kockelman, 2006)

The process of  “going tactile” and figuring out a language that deafblind people can use directly with one another and that represents the tactile world is a way to confront the problem of existence. It means figuring out a way that the world can work for us. This process means reinterpreting the affordances of the tactile world and of language. Language is not there a priori but is created in the act of use.

By bumping into, sniffing, tapping, brushing past, we are gathering intelligence of our own. 

john lee clark

Applied linguistics and new materialist views of language may better account for the complexity of what language means for different people with differing access and different affordances. We can look at how languages are understood from the perspective of the local, situated, and emergent, and think of language in terms of practices and distributed semiotic resources. Language is relational and entangled. In these terms, we might embrace the fumbling that takes place when people try to interact, communicate and understand.

Orientation and sociality, and power

This is the awful function of access: to make others happy at our expense. 

john lee clark

Autistic studies can contribute new understandings of the creative (and communicative) potential of refusal to engage in normative communication; refusal … can be an agentive act.

michele friedner & pamela block

Where should we disclose our discomfort with normative communication and sociality? Whose problem is it? 

Earlier this month, my department had a large meeting via Zoom. For background, I am the only deaf and ASL-using person in my department. There were two sign language interpreters booked because we anticipated a longish meeting, but I did not turn on my video camera when I logged onto Zoom. Over the past year of virtual meetings, I have learned to ask that participants turn off their cameras in order not to have a large gallery of faces taking up screen space, although this mostly means that the person everyone looks at is the interpreter. 

At the beginning of the meeting, attendees were asked to individually type our names in Zoom chat for the benefit of the minutes-taker. I was relieved because I thought this would take care of the introductions that hearing-speaking people seem to insist on at the beginning of every large meeting. However, after this, the faculty member chairing the meeting started to ask individual attendees to one by one turn on their video cameras and introduce themselves—name  rank, title. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on my camera to “introduce” myself (i.e., move my hands to have the interpreter speak while everyone else watched) and instead typed in the chat that I had already done so. I knew, however, that I had violated a fundamental convention of department meetings and made myself appear rude and uncooperative. I felt shaken and worried. I couldn’t sleep that night.

Others who may resist or stumble during this performed approximation of the norms of hearing-speaking-seeing-in-person communication include not only deaf and neurodiverse people but also racialized people who may not seamlessly pass in terms of normative white sociality. For most or all of our lives, we may strive to approximate normative communication because we want to be loved (by our families) or liked by peers or colleagues or at least not seen as disruptive. An ethics of non-normative communication considers what kinds of engagements are taken for granted and whose perspectives and identities are excluded, lost or overlooked.


My thanks to colleagues who shared their writing and experiences, and commiserated with me in writing these notes: Terra Edwards, Michele Friedner, Jason Nolan, and Jo Weber in addition to the contributors to the Twitter exchange on 22.4.2021.


Clark, J.L. (fothcoming fall 2021). Against access. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 64.

Edwards, T. (2021). The Protactile Movement. In Going tactile: Life at the limits of language. Manuscript in preparation.

Friedner, M. & Block, P. (2017). Deaf studies meets autistic studies. The Senses and Society, 12(3), 282-300.

Kockelman, P. (2006). Residence in the world: Affordances, instruments, actions, roles, and identities. Semiotica, 162, 19-71.