POETICS AND THE VISUAL BLIND - PART 1
"When you read a novel you don't see the characters. You don't see the places. Yet you do see them, or else it is a bad novel."
"No one should read self-pity or reproach into this statement of the majesty of God; who with such splendid irony, granted me books
and night at one touch."
"If touch is a torch and the
How can skills gained from living with blindness contribute to an artful play with visual patterns? And what can the blind authenticly know of the visual?
O Personalism! … As one who has read more autobiographies of the blind than anyone should, I am living proof of the pathological "weight" of the genre — characterized by so many Synchronies and awry paradoxes of resentment and the sacred. Through historical meditation and my own poetic experimentation, I condense and unpack the construction of what I call blind visual rhetoric throughout this essay. I advocate for an appreciation of the anological structures of full body synesthesia that a disability poetics affords. Such embodied vision is like painting on a windy day when you've run out of canvas and the wheat sticks to your retina.
Blind bards have hooked our eyes and x-rayed our skulls
As Daniel Simpson concluded in his essay for a Wordgathering reading loop, poets write about what we don't know. Perhaps consciousness shouldn't know about what the unconscious knows too well and keeps seductively hidden. Language is the conscious mind's tool for ordering perception; but it is also a moving escalator where one explanation slips away from meaning into the playful tension between extended 'ecology of mind' and self-referential paradox. No matter how skillful the artist's patterns may be, if we knew how it was done we wouldn't do it so well. But there is more to it than magic; it is a matter of what neuroscientists call grounded cognition. Even if you've never seen a spear, your brain knows about its weight and motion, and will simulate the motor imagery of handling such an artifact. Depending on your perception of shadows, you will have no trouble seeing the heavy projectile move as you have already recalled how shadows move as the sun moves like heat across your skin. If I say the word "scissors" you should image how they move and how they are handled. Other words will be similarly grounded in experience, permitting possible conscious simulation if used well. So while the linguistic symbols are arbitrary and amodal, they are grounded in iconic and indexical perceptual sense modalities. The word will point to an object of collective representation, recollections of acts of meaning and social gestures that summon the attention of others. The interesting thing is how we are educated in cultures where the senses are valued hierarchically, typically with vision privileged over touch. This means that our language for textures will be less strong than the lexicon of vision even when one's body understands the world haptically.
There are many fellow travelers in these adventures of blind anamnesis, and all are superior sailors to me — G. Thomas Couser, David Bolt, David Feeny, Georgina Kleege, and Oliver Sacks in particular have all charted the rocky odyssey between the 'visual blind' and the stereotypes of life-writing — which is also the subject of my marooned dissertation research into how visually impaired writers (autobiographers in particular) have influenced the 'textual' visual image. For, as so many great writers from Homer to Milton to Joyce have experienced 'disabling' vision loss, we need to assess what both the personal and the social dimensions of blindness and disability mean for their subjectivities and for ours.
After losing the little vision I had by the age of nineteen to inept surgery and a rare genetic condition called Osteoporosis Pseudoglioma Syndrome, I found it difficult to keep my memory green, due in part to the strange buzzing of swirling lights in my right eye, brought on in coincidence with an initiation into light and sound meditation — O the irony! Only after careful study of the imagery of non-visual experience was I able to access my verbal-visual dream-scape, and return to writing image rich poetry as I had done as a youth on what Beth Omansky analyzed as the borderlands of blindness. Only through vivid-dreaming and subtle literary suggestion do I become one of what Jacques Lusseyran, the hero of the French resistance called 'the visual blind'. A few insights and theories of psychology and neuroscience helped me grow on my journey as a poet of images, and, in no particular order, I'll share some clues here. In the first part of this essay, I will discuss how my poetic process of researching disability and aesthetic embodiment enriches my sense of imagery as a profoundly blind person, while towards the end I will compare the tradition with what is currently happening with literary disability poetics in New Zealand.
Blindness As Heuristic
According to the seventeenth century empiricist philosopher John Locke, ideas of colour are proper only to the sense of eyesight and no analogies are possible between the senses:
Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: query, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so… (John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)
Here's my answer to how the predications of visual knowledge can cross to another sense modality such as red hot touch or taste:
UnLocke The Stars
Can the hypothetical person born blind understand colour? Is it pathological to perceive colour in sound patterns? Are there structural analogies to visual appearance in music and in how colours can signal other sensory attributes indexically? If blindness is not merely a void, is a black hole hungry at the limits of the spectrum? How does consciousness fill in horizons? The literary critic Reuven Tsur, who writes on cognitive poetics, has persuaded me that such synaesthesia is part of what makes sound patterns expressive. And Don Ihde, the phenomenologist of listening and voice, has illumined how sounds convey shapes, surfaces, and spaciousness, all of which, of course, will suggest visual images as well as tactile associations. But despite these overlapping horizons, most people still fail to use their imaginations enough to perform a simulation on their inner scene as literature instructs us. The Romantic figure of the blind seer can still awaken curiosity —yet we have a long way to go before we may confront the issues of disability for accessing the scene of representation as singular individuals. In order to do this, however, we need to challenge the ablest assumptions of Lockean epistemology, by investigating how the blind can form spatial images out of verbal and haptic experience, Through what psychologists call the "cross-modal object priming between vision and touch" (Heller 2000).
In her essay "Blindness and Visual Culture", Georgina Kleege mounts an attack on the philosophical figure of the "hypothetical blind man", which, she argues, is outdated and regressive for the real interests of blind people. This thought experiment quoted above, concerning the 'understanding' of eyesight by a man born blind given vision through surgery (the famous Molyneux problem), however, was crucial for kick starting the evolution of the genre of blind autobiography, as Justin Clark shows in his essay, "the origins of blind autobiography in Visionary Antebellum New England". The blind not only served a sentimental role in literature, Clark argues, but as 'savvy entrepreneurs' in the literary marketplace, "they addressed Americans' mounting curiosity about the nature of physical and spiritual vision." Indeed, blind people do themselves question the source of their vision.
Seeing Voices With Imaginary Hands
I try to see voices, but how do I face you with respect when my very imagination throws your perceptual presence into question? We no longer listen to radio plays where the moral character of the voice, cigar in mouth, was altered by the intentionality of the mode of recording, which strove to lend each character an auditory image of status and corporeal type. Now that even positive vocal stereotypes are being rejected, the blind imagination (which necessarily models appearances out of stereotyped possibilities) more than ever requires touch as its point of collaborative witness. Yet they say the oedipal gloom is lightening and blind people no longer grope to know. This can only be if the possibilities for what David Feeny (2007) has called "collaborative synaesthesia" are built on between the describer of the visual and the listener's other senses.
Whenever I fail to fall in love my date says it's because I'm 'missing out' on her beauty; despite this, the analogies I can form through my hands and visual memory might be judged as objectifying if performed by a sighted man. By contrast, were the acoustical and rhetorical voice always homologous with the body's contours, I might wish I was deaf, for all the lazy manners of speech I hear. Does such synaesthesia (the turning of voice into images) make me pathological? A maladjusted freak? Are not the ideas I have of what you look like based upon your style of speaking, really impure projections of the sound phenomena onto a visual template, or vice versa?
At the dawn of blind autobiography, here's James Holman (15 October 1786 Died 29 July 1857 ), the once famous "blind traveller" from England, the first major figure of blind autobiography, writing about his visual intuitions:
I visited the Theatre Cocomero, and heard the Barber of Seville, an opera so well known, that it would be superfluous to enter into any description of it; but I cannot resist stating the extraordinary effect produced upon me by the singing of the prima donna. I thought I could have given the world to have seen her pretty face and figure; the tones and expression of her voice, however, appeared to connect themselves in my mind, by pure sympathy, with exact delineations of her person and attitudes, and to excite the most intense desire to possess the power of vision, which I ever recollect to have experienced since I had the misfortune to lose it. I heard, I felt, I saw or imagined I saw, every thing which words, gestures, and actions could convey: I rose, leaned forward, and felt an almost irresistible impulse to spring upon the stage, to ascertain whether my ideas were illusive or real; and what may be thought more strange my desire to see, appeared to originate from a wish to convince myself that I could not see. I may be thought to overcharge this description with too vivid or affected sentiment, but I can assure the reader, that it contains only a small portion of the exquisite feelings which I experienced. (Holman, The Narrative of a Journey: 141-142)
Common desire, resentment, love, and paradox — allow us to imagine … not the central figure of the diva, but Holman's pathetic masculine body, straining forward in awareness of the scene before him, instructing the reader to likewise give body to the singing figure of ideal beauty. But how does the blind person form the image, track, and then evoke the scene in this passage? What is the 'value' of romantic music and sensibility here in the background of Holman's epistemic interests in testing the beauty of his vision? The aesthetic experience is perfectly embodied and passionate, rather than distanced, in his pathos. Yet he articulates the paradox of blind vision so precisely— as if wishing to be blind in spirit to spare himself from the ecstasy of divine Eros: "my desire to see appeared to originate from a wish to convince myself that I could not see." There are several fascinating passages in Holman's travel writings concerning his discernment of feminine beauty, sometimes betraying his ethnocentric imperial views, and I want to come back to this problem of aesthetic objectification later — for every figure has a cost.
Evoking Sight on the Scenic Imagination
Ironically, elsewhere Holman criticises the inauthenticity of the theatrical voice for expressing verisimilitude of emotion, but here, it is as if his status as an English gentleman makes him wish for greater access to the distant public figure of desire than theatrical convention permits. We can see this same visual evocation of the scenic structure of desire in other passages and settings relating to his focus on touch rather than listening. For instance, Holman travelled to Fernando Po aboard an abolitionist ship in the 1830s, and described becoming an honorary guest at a native feast:
A more curious part of this singular feast remains to be described. On opening the animal, it was found to be with young, when the uterus, containing two lambs, each about six inches long, was, as a particular mark of favour or respect, placed in my hands: but, not appreciating the gift so highly as probably had been expected, I immediately laid it aside. After the departure of the King, it was a second time brought to me, and I now contrived, by shaking my head, and other demonstrations, to make them comprehend that I did not intend to make use of it, and that it was entirely at their service. This was, without doubt, very agreeable intelligence; for, having pricked the sac, to allow the liquor to drain away, and laid it for a short time before the fire, the whole was divided into portions, and eaten up apparently with avidity and delight. (Holman, Voyage Round The World volume 1: 281)
In contrast to 'ideal' desire, this scene evokes comic revulsion around a foreign culture's sacred centre. The larger passage evokes the circular structure of the gathering around the fire, and we want to see the gestures and facial expressions, as Holman, who has a medical education, is watched examining a sheep's uterus and fingering the embryos (we wonder what his European companions thought and said to him as well) as the famous blind traveller was "apparently" so honoured by the king. Holman has successfully made us imagine this event with verisimilitude to the perceptions of touch and vision, but what does this passage evoke? And how does he know all this? Firstly, we probably appreciate the sense of exoticism and the emotions of anxiety experienced by traveling to a foreign culture, but the primary focus here are the emotions of disgust and the egocentric ordeal of servility Holman modestly portrays with exquisite Schadenfreude. We are left to activate our own motor imagery of polite gestures of renunciation, around this social disability, as if body language were the first gesture for negotiating equality. Although we visualise the scene somewhat, by mapping it onto our own seated reading bodies, there is a temporal irony in the lag between Holman's (and our) tactile then visual decoding of the identity of the two six inch long embryos in the womb full of fluid. I want to suggest, therefore, that we should pay attention to how touch and imagery interact through the mind's hands before entering the brain's visual simulation in a process Ian Watt has called "delayed decoding" (Zunshine and Savarese). Note too, that Holman's ethos depends on his modesty as a man of science (a member of the royal society of naturalists, his writings even cited by Charles Darwin), with the scepticism concerning things apparent vs ideal, which is a rhetoric we find in the distancing of other visual blind. In each of these two instances, we become aware of the paradoxical fascination exercised by the object attended to by the blind subject, but also wonder — at the formal self-sufficiency of the aesthetic sign as double bind, used to evoke the object of desire while renouncing its appropriation: for one can't have one's cake and eat it too.
Did you notice how we experienced solidity through the simulation of Holman's touching the sheep's uterus? Did you sense the flexibility of the image through the hands, and the density and rarity of the clammy meal? I encountered the term "mind's hand" in the autobiography of Geerat Vermeij, the blind palaeontologist, who made me more keenly aware of the short comings of my mainstreamed education, especially around wanting a larger language of textures and shapes, such as his scientific expertise affords him. But having such "privileged hands" is always negotiated on a collective scene whereon there are taboos and sacred centres linked to ritual and the disciplines of knowledge.
Helen Keller and Joint Shared Attention
After the blind traveller's achievements were eclipsed by the sentimental literature of the 19th century, the next big event in the history of blind/visual culture was The Story Of My Life (1903), the autobiography of the author, lecturer and political activist Helen Keller, who was deaf-blind. Helen Keller (1880-1968) is a truly remarkable figure for many reasons of genius and character, but chiefly because she is the only person we know of to record an experience of the punctual origin of consciousness and language. According to Keller, her full humanity was coincident with language as event — a true revelation! — where she learned the name for water that flowed from the pump onto her hand as her teacher finger signed it on her palm. But what does the revelation at the water pump reveal? Wondering at the mystery of language origins, we become aware of the formal as well as the historical institutional aspects of signs to designate and evoke desire on both private and public scenes. In what psychologists call theory of mind, Humans pay attention to the attention of others in ways animals don't appear to. The psychologist and primatologist Michael Tomasello calls this aspect of human communication joint shared attention. In an article in the online journal Anthropoetics, Edmond Wright discusses Helen Keller's epistemology in terms of joint shared attention:It seems likely that what the blind and deaf Helen Keller unconsciously realized, as she ran her hands under the water from a tap and was treated to tactile signing of /water/ from her teacher, was not so much that she had come to understand what a name was (Aitchison, 1996, 96) but that language began with the understanding that the other's attention, through the hand sign /water/, was on the 'same' portion of the Real, even though she and her teacher had markedly different perceptions of it, her teacher having normal sensory access to the world.
While Wright is rather misleading when he refers to Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, as having normal senses – she was herself visually impaired – he gets at an important point, namely that understanding begins not so much with the representation of information, but with the attempt to share attention in a gesture, and thereby seek significance through the socially mediated real. Naming this real object, "water", is joint attention and formalised intention; it is ethical cooperation before it is information. And yet the name of water allows a new focal awareness of all that the tactile and affective senses can make sacred through the ostensive power of shared attention. For Keller and the blind generally, pointing is useless for directing attention, and thus the most fundamental relationship between the hand and language is somewhat altered. However, the blind can know differences of gesture within the perceptual horizons left to us. While Keller is perhaps unique in her recording of a memory of the discovery of language, it was not only her realisation that everything might have a name that is significant, according to Wright, so much as her tacit understanding that regardless of appropriation of the object for its own sake, attention to a portion of the real could be shared through the sign with the other. In other words, by recognising that teacher was paying attention to the sign for water, and then forming an association with the real water, Helen understood that the sign could be used as a name to share abstract attention to an object/signified. The wonderful discovery of the name for water must have retained its sacred quality for her through the association with her teacher's consciously shared presence, and by marvellous extention, with the presence of all humanity on a shared scene. Through the magic of representation, the water became enchanted: "Water Written on the hand!
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow. (Keller, 27)
Because Helen realises that her doll has a name, she must also realise that it has a life for others, a life that she has broken with her "phantom" violence and cannot reassemble, save, perhaps, in a new life of signs where language is " a strange new sight". The passage has a strange biblical resonance for me, because through knowledge of the name she comes also to understand the idea of life and death through the interdiction of murder ("thou shalt not kill"), even if the subject of her violence was only a doll.
Roger Shattuck, in his afterword to the critical edition of The Story Of My Life, punningly titled "A Mind of One's Own", addresses the issues of authenticity and plagiarism that were levelled at Keller and her teacher throughout their entire life (as they had earlier been for Holman): "After "The Frost King" and later after The Story of My Life, sceptics began to say and to write that Helen Keller, a little girl under the thumb of an ambitious woman, had plagiarized her very personality, that she had a prosthetic identity made out of words, a second-hand soul. Macy had to acknowledge the situation when he referred to the stiffness of Helen's early style and to the way "her thoughts ran in set phrases"(277). It must have been very difficult for one lacking sight and hearing to become at home in the rhythms and sonorities of language, which are so context dependant even artificial intelligence can't capture all the new synesthetic analogical possibilities.
Is the citational vision of the blind ever authentic? Some blind people say they feel the muscles of their faces becoming mask like through not knowing how to show emotions, but contrariwise, the blind can notice when false voices mask character, as was vital for Jacques Lusseyran, a leader of the French resistance. Of course, Helen Keller's relation to the politics and phenomenology of voices was problematic to say the least.
Art is a practice of imaginative variation and reversal of perceptual stabilities, figure and ground, in order to seek out structural analogies. The blind writer is always appropriating and citing the sight of others, but sometimes this newly coded citation enriches vision with other contexts and senses. As we shall see, the witness of the visual blind can sometimes seem other worldly and DE familiarising, even what I shall call ob-scene, because we may see things from another scene and cite from another site.
We need to understand mind cyberneticly, Bateson argued, as a modifiable circuit of differences. Keller learns by mapping concepts onto her different sensations and expectations. The words are arbitrary, but their analogical structure is embodied and grounded, for she is very attentive to subtle contexts and builds her meanings through combination and associations. The arbitrariness of the symbols is more than a mere conditioned indexical reflex on the one hand, or an iconic resemblance on the other, but develops out of the imaginative oscillation back and forth between fascinating transcendent names and the objects granted permanence through shared designation of the sign. The names are ostensive meaning acts, such as "fire!" or "wolf!" which have the paradoxical power to command the presence and trust of the community. But many people believe the blind are inauthentic users of visual signs, unreliable witnesses like the boy who cried "wolf!" Yet hopefully the blind writer can evoke faith that the wolf lives in the poet's prophetic imagination, grounded in tactile, olfactory, and auditory modes.
With language comes the idea of the negative and absence we are moved to fill in. Anne Sullivan, Helen's teacher quoted her as saying, "but if I write what my soul thinks, then it will be visible, and the words will be its body". On the one hand, Helen's faith here suggests a theology of language that allows for transcendence of personal disability; but on the other hand, unfortunately the social dimension of physical impairment returns as disability when she seeks public recognition for her witness, through these horizons of her imaginative performance.
Zoltan Torey and the Neurological Turn in Blind Autobiography
The question of the hypothetical blind person's knowledge of the visual persists today, in the ongoing neurological research into the grounding of imagination and cognition in sense experience. I will go out on a speculative limb here, and side with Zoltan Torey (1929-2014), a blind clinical psychologist and philosopher of mind, whose path breaking book the Crucible of Consciousness, was first published by Oxford University Press in 1999. Torey argues that language as verbal pointing makes human self-reflective consciousness possible, and that it is the "motor arm" of the brain that handles and binds words to percepts. After reading this important book, Oliver Sacks suggested that Torey write about his blindness, and the result was Torey's fine autobiography, Out Of Darkness, in which he indirectly suggests that language also makes possible his "reconquest of vision". He claims that drawing on verbal and sensory cues, blind people can train the visual cortex to vividly experience percepts on the inner screen. To give you an idea of Torey's evolutionary theory, I quote from The Crucible Of Consciousness:
As a result of the takeover of left-hemispheric manipulo-spaciality, there is now a motor link between percept and word. By uttering words the brain evokes percepts, maintains them in focus and elicits pari passu the proprioception of the deed. The coordinated flashing on of percept and word in opposite hemispheres induces an attentional oscillation between them and a holding mode for the word-percept pair in focus. (Torey 65)
The intention is to eliminate the ambiguity caused by incomplete data through achieving visual clarity. The brain has to find perceptual clues that restore percept integrity. It is clarity of perception and not grammatical correctness as such that is the decisive factor. […] It is goal-directed behaviour where the goal is the linguistic reproduction of the speaker's modality experience. (96)
Torey argued for the human brain's linking up of proto-language with motor image control which enabled the breakthrough to what we call consciousness. What Oliver Sacks and others found fascinating, however, was how Torey continued to cultivate amazing visual simulations even after losing both eyes in an accident at the age of 21. Torey regarded visual simulation as essential for clarity of thought, so ignoring all the advice he heard about adapting to blindness through focusing on his remaining senses, Torey practiced visualisation. I was unable to clarify the relationship between his own theory of consciousness as linguistically stabilised and is methods of imaginative suggestion with him before he passed, however, the main obstacle in our conversations was a reluctance on his part to view consciousness and language as an event, as it had been for Helen Keller. Both his ocular-centric and logo-centric approach to blindness and Daniel Cush's auditory approach remain controversial and a bit freakish. In the case of Torey, language somehow makes us interact bodily with the world; while in the Case of Daniel Cush who advocates echolocation, we interact like bats by analysis of sound.
In Borgesian fashion, I argue, Torey's autobiography together with the writings of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote the forward to Torey's autobiography, Out of Darkness, can help us re-think the history of blind autobiography in a culture of vision. Now science has FMRI scanned the brains of many more blind subjects, who perform remarkable visual tasks such as painting, and have found that much the same brain regions are active in the image cortex as in visual perception. This means that the visual cortex is really an image spatial sketch pad that can be used as real estate with input from other sensory processes for mapping three dimensional spaces and tracking movement. The visual word form area, for instance, which activates with the recognition of intelligible letters and words, also activates when congenitally blind subjects make sense of braille. I have taken up braille lessons myself recently, and am finding pleasure in the recognition of shapes through touch as well as thinking about the origins of the shapes of our traditional alphabet. I believe some people even with vision could become better learners through cultivating the vivacity of touch.
To sum up, imaginative vivacity is synesthetic and cross-modal, a form of what John Hull calls "full body seeing" and what contemporary neuroscience calls grounded cognition. Accordingly, imaginative writers instruct reader's visualisations by reminding us what it would be like to interact with the objects and characters on a scene of shared attention. We have seen how the senses work together involuntarily to activate the mind's eye or mind's hand. Holman instructs the reader to move their hands across the object so we visualise it against the scene of oscillating attention, just as Keller's hand receives the image of water from the brush of a finger. Imaging is like drawing as the wind blows. Or think of John Keats's sense of his life as a rarefied texture in the line "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. " Poets are vision makers. We find the object of desire as a template and dream it moving on a larger scene. We've also observed how Keller's mind's eye creates sacred presence through joint attention to objects drawn on her hand. Something speaks pointing from the periphery like flickering flames or the eyes and gestures that direct attention to the sacred central figure. In what remains of this essay, I will illustrate these modalities by comparing my favourite images of non-sighted subjectivity with some other disabled poets in New Zealand.
*Editor's Note: The second part of this Reading Loop "Disability Literature in New Zealand" will appear in the September issue of Wordgathering. Citations for the works referred to will appear in that interview.