Just as there are semantic, syntactic, phonological, and paralinguistic practices there are also stuttering practices. There are many ways can stutter which all use different technologies of communication. The practices we use when we stutter can and do serve a purpose. They can be used to disguise our stutters, such as when we use interjections as a distraction. They can be used to hide our discomfort, such as when we break eye contact. Or they can be used to showcase our pride, such as when we let the first sounds of our name repeat wonderfully. They can showcase our refusal to accept society’s speaking norms when we choose to use our stuttered voices when a gesture may have been quicker. They can show our determination when we proceed with a word even though we don’t know how it will come out. Every moment of the stutter from the apprehension that precedes it, to the repeated syllables during it, to the way we react to it when it ends is constituted by our technologies of communication. Do we respond to that apprehension by changing words or by saying what we want? During the stutter do we push hard or do we relax? After the stutter do we pretend that nothing happened or do we comment on it? All of these examples demonstrate that there is no authentic way to stutter, only different ways to stutter that use varied technologies of communication. The danger of insisting on the authentic is that authenticity is an empty concept. Insistence on authenticity is inherently conservative; it is insistence on the status quo. What we desire is freedom to speak how we want regardless of how authentic it is.
To be clear, this to not to make a relativist claim that stuttering does not exist or an attempt to deny its physiological and neurological underpinnings. Of course stuttering exists. If it wasn’t real we wouldn’t be wasting all this time and energy thinking and writing about it. What we are arguing is not that stuttering is an illusion of socio-historical discourses but that it is never separate from these discourses. It is made of very specific things, both material and discursive, that occur at very specific times and places. Neural substrates are one of the material things that produce stuttering but it would be simplistic to think that the analysis ends there. Yes, stuttering’s neural markers are real, but the effects those markers have on the subjectivities and lived experiences of the individuals possessing them are in no way necessitated by biology. They exist within certain contexts and power relations. It is not our neuroanatomy that is the problem but the ways our neuroanatomy is acted upon by power that is the problem. That is, it is not intuitive that the neural markers that may underlie stuttering should constitute a particular type of individual, the stutterer. There are many neural markers that are not pathologized.
The ableist discourses circulating within the fields of medicine and speech-language pathology act as forces for normalization and standardization. According to these discourses the multiplicities in our voices do not hold value. They demand that we utilize technologies of communication that make us sound like “typically fluent speakers”. It is right that we resist these discourses which attempt to standardize and control our speech. However, in our excitement to promote a disability pride position it is important that we avoid creating a binary between natural and unnatural speech: between authentic stuttered speech and modified fluent speech. This is an essentialist view that denies the nuances of stuttering that make it so delightful. This binary would place disability studies on one side, which privileges one’s natural and stuttered way of speaking, and speech-language pathology on the other side, which privileges one’s modified and fluent way of speaking. If this were the actual situation we should, of course, be firmly on the side of the former; however, this is a false dichotomy, a potential strawman. The difference lies not in one manner of speaking being more natural or authentic than the other but in the use of different technologies of communication. This distinction is important because if our counter-narratives of stuttering pride are to gain purchase within society at large they must be theoretically sound. Other liberation movements have gotten bogged down in trying to define what it means to be a member of their community. Not only was this unproductive but such exercises in essentialism were ultimately abandoned by modern poststructural theory. We stutterers are a diverse group. Some of us will have had therapy experiences, others will not, some will pass as fluent; others will struggle to string two fluent words together. Only one thing is certain of us all: the technologies of communication we use will be abundant and varied. If we are to build a tent large enough to house us all we need to avoid any definition of what true authentic stuttering looks and sounds like. This will exclude people whose stuttering does not fit that mold. In this way we can avoid arguments over who does and does not belong in our community.
Technologies such as stuttering modification are often portrayed as the result of speech-language pathologists taking a stutterer’s “natural” stuttered speech pattern and “modifying” it to be more fluent. This line of thinking assumes a natural way that we all speak and stutter. However, upon closer inspection this notion of authenticity quickly falls away. We have a speech pattern that is dynamic and constantly changing. It has been developing since we were young children and is never complete, never finished, always in a process of becoming. In much the same way that our semantics, syntax, phonology, and paralinguistics depend on our social histories the way we stutter is dependent on many external factors. This is because speech is learned. All speech, not just stuttered speech, is influenced by every past communicative act that we have produced or witnessed in our historically situated society. Not only is it affected by our society’s ableism but it is also affected by where we grew up, the languages we speak, our genders, our sexes, our social classes, our races, and the past experiences we have had. Each of these experiences contributes to our current way of speaking. We cannot peel back the layers to find the natural pattern hidden underneath because we have no natural speech pattern to return to.
As stutterers, we are especially aware of our speech patterns’ histories. We remember the words we have stuttered on in the past. We know which sounds lead to blocks. We remember times we have been mocked and ridiculed. We remember situations in which we have passed as fluent speakers. We remember the reactions different stutters have elicited from our listeners. We recall the looks on our speaking partners’ faces when we do not respond in the amount of time that society deems appropriate. We know how it feels to speak in a society that has developed conversational norms for an idealized-citizen who is assumed to be fluent. And we know how it feels to have no choice but to violate these norms if we wish for our voices to be heard. The words we have stuttered on in the past, the reactions of our listeners, the feeling of the never-ending block, the bullying, shame, and embarrassment, all of these shape our speech and constitute different technologies of communication.
The sound of our voices and the sound of our stuttering are never separate from these social and historical contexts or these past experiences. Our present speech patterns, the ones we are using in this moment, are unique to this moment. They are different speech patterns than those which we used a moment ago and the ones we will use a moment from now will be different as well. Our speech patterns are always formed by these social and historical contexts. They depend on the technologies of communication that we employ. Therefore there is no natural way that we speak separate from our past experiences. We are always already situated within a social and historical context that is perpetually constructing our speech patterns through our technologies of communication.
If we bracket this notion of a natural speech pattern what are we left with? Our speech pattern, whether yelled or whispered, stuttered or fluent, is always already influenced by society’s discrimination and oppression. Our accents, dialects, semantics, syntax, grammars, morphologies, and, yes, our stutters are constantly worked on by our environments. Even if we have not been to speech therapy out stutters are not natural. There is no natural, no authentic. Our speech patterns our produced by our technologies of communication. To block may be to hold in a stutter, to self-censor due to society’s prejudice, to react to that internal feeling of losing control with a need to control it. The insertion of interjections (uh, um, like), the restarting of a sentence, these are all different technologies of communication. Practices we use to talk. When it comes down to it, everything we do when we speak and when we stutter is constituted by ableist social discourses as well as reactions to that internal feeling of stuttering. The part-word repetition is not the stutter. The block is not the stutter. Rather these are technologies of communication, conditioned reactions to the stutter, fashioned within a context of ableism. For example, if we feel that familiar feeling of stuttering and instead of saying the word “s-s-s-subway” we say “metro”, we have still stuttered (we still had that feeling), but our reaction was different, we’ve utilized a different technology. All of the things we do when we speak, all of the technologies, are reactions to our listeners, to our society, and to ourselves.
Rather than taking about more natural ways of speaking it would be more useful to discuss the technologies of communication we use when we speak. How is our current speech pattern constructed? Do our technologies of communication limit us or do they allow us to express ourselves? In this way we can begin to dissect the ways in which society has influenced us and predisposed our use of certain technologies of communication. Why do we stutter the way that we do? Importantly, why do we feel the way we do when we stutter? By avoiding the binary between natural and modified speech we remain more theoretically consistent as we attempt to challenge the discourses that imprison us. Together we can develop technologies of liberation rather than subjection. Instead of employing technologies that make us sound more fluent, such as fluency shaping techniques, we could employ technologies that allow us to speak more freely. This cannot be prescriptive, technologies of liberation will be different for each person; however, they will have their end goal in common: to stutter freely. When we feel that familiar apprehension before a moment of stuttering we could move towards rather than away from it. We could allow our syllables to bounce and dance rather than tensing up and silencing their song. After a stutter occurs we could treat it as an artistic expression rather than an embarrassment.
When technologies of communication serve to standardize us, to make us fluent, to make us speak as everyone else, we must reject them. We must instead substitute these normalizing technologies with technologies of freedom and beautiful multiplicity. Technologies that allow us to develop unique voices and subjectivities. To quote E. E. Cummings, “To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” Our battle is not to stutter naturally but to stutter freely.
Yours in solidarity,