Review of Sensory Futures: Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India By Michele Ilana Friedner, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 2022. 269 pp.

Reviewed Book

Sensory Futures: Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India By Michele Ilana Friedner, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 2022. 269 pp.

Cover of Sensory Futures (2022)

Alicia Wright

University of California San Diego

Videos of deaf children with newly implanted cochlear implants seemingly experiencing joy at hearing for the first time have become ubiquitous on the internet. In what reads like a direct rebuke of these carefully crafted moments, Michele Ilana Friedner’s Sensory Futures is an ethnographic exploration of cochlear implants in India and the “sensory infrastructures” that surround them (19). Throughout the book, the author argues for ambivalence—“as a mode and as a methodology”—when understanding this technology (28). Namely, Friedner calls for ambivalence with the hope that readers might see the limitations of categories and move past rigid value judgements. She argues for a radical extension of this idea of ambivalence to our understanding of normality—conforming to specific standards, characteristics, behavior, etc.—as simultaneously constraining but also multiple, expansive, and offering various paths for becoming and unbecoming. Ultimately, the author emphasizes relational infrastructure as a way for us to move past “narrow definitions of ability” (197). Relational infrastructure refers to the assorted ways people connect, communicate, and care for each other with different senses and through different modes. Thus, she is arguing for embracing deaf and disabled individuals (and everyone) as complete beings who are “multisensory, multimodal, and engaged in multipersonal interactions” (192).

Existing literature concerning cochlear implants and deaf children has typically focused on what cochlear implants will or will not do for the implanted person. Taking a different approach, Friedner shifts the initial focus away from the cochlear implant user and begins this book by focusing on what cochlear implants do for the Indian state, the surgeons, and the corporations who produce them. This proves to be a compelling structural choice that allows her to effectively develop her argument for ambivalence rather than for a resolutely positive or negative outlook on cochlear implants. For example, in the first couple of chapters, Friedner provides a detailed overview of how cochlear implants are implicated in a large complex web of identity, relations, and dependencies between the state, the surgeons, transnational cochlear implant corporations, and cochlear implant recipients/beneficiaries. With cochlear implants, unlike other forms of disability aid and distributions, the state is no longer just acting on bodies but also inside them. The connection between state and citizen is more intimate. Additionally, the author persuasively argues that underlying the state, surgeons, and corporations’ (unrealistic) desire to cure deafness with cochlear implants are other, perhaps equally influential, desires for positive perceptions, connections, profit, and technological advancement. By beginning the book with a focus on the cochlear implant providers, distributors, and specialists, Friedner is expanding the reader’s understanding of who benefits from, is harmed by, and is dependent on cochlear implants.

The sheer volume and breadth of Friedner’s research and evidence, exemplified particularly in chapters 3 and 4, is what makes this book truly stand out. In these chapters, the author examines the mehanat or hard work undertaken by cochlear implant users and their families, mainly their mothers. Her detailed focus on the hard work and care taken to create, improve, and maintain their child’s hearing and/or speaking abilities highlights the anxieties, precarities, and constraints involved in this care work. In chapter 3, Friedner presents a meticulously detailed account of two Indian early intervention and educational programs for deaf children and their mothers. As readers of these evocative ethnographic examples, one often feels the general frustration, boredom, glee, or anxiety of Friedner and the participants themselves. Many of her interlocutors asserted that the only true hard work and care families (mothers) could perform was maintaining their child’s hearing and talking at the expense of other viable paths. The author questions this rigid definition of hard work and care. Rather, Friedner asserts that “attending to multisensory engagement and multimodality, and to the whole sensorium, is [also] a form of care” and hard work (105). The author elegantly weaves together ethnography, personal accounts, government and corporate reports, history, media analysis, and specific case studies to help the reader understand how families and children deal with cochlear implants and the various feelings and modes of becoming and unbecoming they can create.

It is in the final chapters that Friedner lays out, what I believe, are two of her most important contributions: the importance of total communication and a need for deaf futurism. In these sections, she focuses on competing definitions of normality, what it does for her interlocutors, and what it can do to them. Throughout the book, Friedner sets up contrasts between the unisensory focused relational work and the multisensory focused relational work that her interlocutors are involved in, clearly showing a preference for the latter. Building on the multisensory and multimodal relational work she observed and drawing from Margaret Mead’s work on semiotics and Bissera Pentcheva’s synesthesis concept, the author argues for “total communication”: the simultaneous involvement of all one’s available senses and modalities to communicate and connect. Many Deaf studies scholars in the United States have dismissed total communication as a less than useful method in educating deaf children. However, Friedner is not advocating for total communication as a method—she is well aware of the criticisms—but as a philosophy that could guide people on how to orient toward deaf children and leave “room for sensory unruliness” (193). Friedner ultimately advocates for maximizing the potential of deaf and disabled individuals through an expanded definition of “deaf futurism”. That is, deaf futurism that is undetermined, flexible, and allows for the “full range of deaf people’s multisensory and multimodal engagements with the world” (194). Friedner’s conclusions implore readers to think more imaginatively about the potential futures of deaf and disabled children.

In many ways this book is in line with previous literature such as recent scholarship by Deaf, multimodal, translanguaging, and disability scholars who have been calling attention to the multisensory and multimodal ways deaf and autistic people communicate. However, in other ways, Friedner breaks from previous research, including her own, by not focusing on communities that are connected by “deaf socialities”, that is, deaf people who focus on sign language and maintaining “deaf worlds” (13). Rather, she focuses on communities that are drawn together (and forced apart) by their aspirations for normality. Her arguments in this book would have been further strengthened by a more in-depth look at the lives of the cochlear implant corporations’ “star cases” (the cochlear implant users who are presented in commercials and advertising materials as examples of the life changing impact that cochlear implants can have on deaf children; 194). These young adults are referenced throughout the book and a bit more detail is provided about them in the conclusion. However, I would have liked to read more about the ambivalence and anxieties present in their lives with the same ethnographic details applied to her other interlocutors.

In sum, this book is a must read for medical anthropologists, Deaf studies scholars, science and technology scholars, and disability scholars alike. Advanced undergraduate and graduate students would also benefit from this book as a reading assignment. Additionally, with its detailed and expressive ethnographic accounts, this book could serve as a great aid for teaching how to write ethnography. Acknowledging the fact that neither deafness nor cochlear implants are going anywhere, with this book the author candidly and effectively wades into the tense debate over cochlear implants and deaf futures and calls for accepting and embracing the multiple and ambivalence.