The Activating Captions magazine features texts by art writers, scholars, and poets that reflect on captioning from a range of personal perspectives and experiences. Read more.
My Relationship with Closed Captions: [sobbing mathematically]
I’ve had a long relationship with captions. Being deaf, I don’t remember not reading captions. But not until recently did I start seeing more people be vocal about it. I never thought I’d see it become normalized in the past ten years. Growing up in the US, an officially monolingual context that has a weird relationship to captions, the captioning device was only for two types of people: deaf people and weird people who liked foreign films. An ugly duckling of accommodations, I never thought I’d see captions blossom into a solid example of universal design, accessible to and benefiting everyone in many situations. Now, everyone has an opinion on it.
I always find it strange when people can’t stand captions, which is like hating having to write from left to right. But then again, like any language, it has to be learned. It isn’t natural. Still, something about hating captions reeks of phonocentrism. If written language is generally believed to be a substitute of oral language, we could argue reading captions is an extension of that bias. It’s perceived as an alternative of speech rather than something that adds to and enhances the overall experience. I mean I get it. Since any language has to be acquired, it’s natural that oral language precedes most people's relationship with written words, but what isn’t always remembered is that written language doesn’t necessarily represent oral language. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary after all, as our old friend Saussure used to say.
In other words, who the fuck are you to say the text [SCOOBY DOO SNEAKY PIANO MUSIC] is only a substitute for whatever music they used?
For me, in my little phenomenological world, this whole information processing thing works the other way round; oral language represents written language. I know that isn’t true, but that’s how my brain perceives it. Actually, I prefer captions even to seeing someone use my native language, American Sign Language (ASL), in film. It’s just a different kind of reading. By the way, I take issue with the word “reading” in this instance. Reading captions isn’t like reading a book. It’s another way of watching a film.
Captions are a blessing and a curse though. I can’t deny my relationship to movies is informed by whether it has captions or not. Fortunately, most movies are captioned today, but it used to be a source of quiet desperation when I was youn—I HAD TO WAIT 20 FUCKING YEARS TO WATCH BLACK CHRISTMAS! But there’s a silver lining to the relationship: it makes it more fun hunting for those captioned movies, and ultimately, it increases one’s appreciation of the experience, taking ownership of the reward. Only God knows how many trashy horror movies I watched only because they had closed captions, but being forced to step out of my comfort zone led me to some wonderful movie experiences.
Of course, everything’s relative. Compared to my deaf parents, I was a lucky kid riding the coattails of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990. Most TV shows had begun adding closed captions before I was born, unlike my parents, who only had TV show Dynasty (1981), possibly the first soap opera with closed captions. Today, my parents’ friends wouldn’t be caught dead watching a soap opera, but back in the day, they held on to every word John Forsythe spoke as if their lives depended on it. What I remember most when they tell me about it is how all of their college friends, also deaf, watched the series every week, always together, shoehorned into one cramped lounge. They weren’t just watching the show, they were celebrating it for the first time.
It’s a bittersweet sort of celebration. They shouldn’t have to celebrate having access to a goddamn soap opera, but at the same time, it’s an acknowledgment of the progress they’ve made in the scheme of the civil rights movement. Thanks, Joan Collins.
Andrew Fisher is a writer and stand-up comedian. A Stand-Up NBC finalist, he has been expanding his audiences by performing at colleges and universities across the U.S. In addition to writing for the Chris Gethard Presents show, Fisher has developed and written a webseries entitled (un)Settled. He also has written and produced the comedic short film Plan Z.