Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

To Free Speech from Free Speech

Marxism, Mediation, and Disability Aesthetics in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2021), 15, (2), 169–186.


Liberalism glorifies free speech as the primary means to achieve progress. Free speech is presumed to involve a clear association across awareness, individual voice, collective speaking, and increased representation. Michel Foucault located a genealogy of related practices of speaking truth in the Stoic tradition of parrhesia. However, as he established, liberalism limits speech, as centrism and civility flatten all forms of speech as equivalent whereby all sides come to matter. As demonstrated today, the alt-right and radical left are seen as equally illiberal and asking for too much. Speech, specifically under liberalism, loses its import. The article asks what happens when we free the concept of speech from free speech and the liberal tradition. To explore this, the article turns to disability, particularly deafness, to grapple with other formulations of speech. It examines Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s classic film A City of Sadness (1989) and focuses on its representations of deafness and its disability aesthetics. Hou’s aesthetics and use of media objects establish a political critique that does not rely on truth, repair, or recognition. This film develops a Marxist theory of speech and reconsiders speech through other modes of governance like autocracy. Ultimately, the article explores how different governance structures rework not only speech but also notions of political change.

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Author details

Yapp, Hentyle