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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Big Blue Eyes?

Everyone in my family has big blue eyes. Except me. I am probably genetically entitled to big blue eyes but my coloboma has changed the way my eyes look.

My eyes, with bilateral congenital coloboma.
(Photo by James Kent)

I don't mind. I can gaze into my sons' eyes whenever I want and anyway, I like my eyes. They look a little bit like cats' eyes and I think they are striking and interesting. They fascinate people and are a great way of starting a conversation. Their size and shape means that I am particularly prone to 'red-eye' and generally don't photograph well but I'm not really that bothered about not being recorded for posterity in such a resolutely visual medium.

When I was about 14, my optometrist suggested that I might like to wear cosmetic contact lenses to make my eyes look like everybody else's. Even as an image-conscious teen I was instinctively appalled by the idea. It felt a lot like hiding, that I would be at once denying the reality of who I was, and acknowledging that I felt ashamed or embarrassed about the way I looked. I refused and the matter was dropped. Now I wonder whether the implications of that offer were perhaps more sinister. Would the contact lenses be for my benefit or the benefit of those around me? Sure, they might reduce the number of upsetting comments I received from strangers. I'd have been grateful not to have experienced the pity of the American lady in a hotel in New York in 1989 who stared at me in horror before addressing my parents with a sympathetic 'I'm so sorry'. Or the lady on a French train near Narbonne in 1992 who delivered the devastatingly double-edged 'Sans vos yeux, vous seriez presque belle'. ('Without your eyes you would be almost beautiful'). But was the well-meaning optometrist really thinking about the self-conscious teenager trying to make sense of her place in the world? By hiding my eyes behind a pair of big blue contact lenses, I would have been an accomplice in the dissemination of the widespread belief that perfection is better than imperfection, the normal better than the abnormal. These contact lenses would have been purely cosmetic. They would not have changed the way I see, only the way I look. They would have made me less aesthetically offensive to strangers encountered on trains or in hotels, allowed me to 'pass' as a completely sighted person.

The only way of challenging the myths about superficial perfection which govern our society and which the optometrist's offer reveal is to expose people to difference in a non-negative way. At the age of 14 I only had a very dim sense of why wearing contact lenses was wrong. Now I see that it is important not only to show people how my eyes look, but to show them that I am happy with how they look. That I wouldn't change them even if I could. That although big blue eyes are beautiful, they only represent one interpretation of beauty.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Amadou et Mariam

Have you ever done that thing where you are wandering round a shop and you like the music they are playing so much that you go up to the cashier and ask them to sell it to you right there and then? I have only done that once and it was Amadou and Mariam's first album Dimanche a Bamako that I bought. I was in Borders in Oxford looking for a Father's Day present for Raffy to buy for his daddy. Raffy was about 18 months old and asleep in his pushchair. I was very pregnant with Zak.
This was the song I heard first. As soon as I heard the music I knew that Simon would love it too. It was in French and produced by Manu Chao. What's not to like?

Amadou and Mariam are both blind. It was a while after discovering them that I found this out and I forgot it almost immediately. It didn't seem like a relevant piece of information at the time. But now, as I think about their relationship to the representation of blindness. Amadou and Mariam embody two of the cliches which I have found most recurrent in nineteenth-century-French writings about blindness. Firstly, that the blind make exceptionally gifted musicians. And secondly, that blind people (but presumably especially the sighted population) are better off when they marry between themselves. It would be very tempting to keep Amadou and Mariam trapped in this blind ghetto by telling their story as a heart-warming struggle to overcome adversity. But to do this would be to miss the point of their music. This article on Amadou et Mariam manages not to make a big deal out of their blindness. Instead, it encourages its readers to listen to their music as a way of rethinking their own relationship to the world. And it does this by denigrating the importance of the visual. What happens to our relationship with the world if we close our eyes? Sounds which once seemed to exist in the background move into the foreground and become our way of making sense of what is happening around us.  By including Malian street sounds at the beginning or end of their tracks, Amadou and Mariam are offering us an audio snapshot of their view of the world. After reading this article I understand why I love listening to music in the dark or, failing that, with my eyes closed. When you remove the visual, the audio at last becomes the centre of the world.

With thanks to Adam Watt for sending me the article from The Guardian which inspired this post.

A Bicycle Made for Two

When I got married 9 years ago, some of my friends got together to buy my husband and I a wonderful blue tandem:

Me and my tandem

I was (and still am) delighted with the present and saw it as a symbol of the teamwork, compromise and companionship which make for a successful marriage. We were often to be seen cycling across Cambridge and we still use it now in Oxford on our relatively infrequent but precious childless trips out to the cinema or for dinner. Tandems are rare and I always love the looks and occasional comments we get as we fly along. Simon sits in front and steers and I sit behind and provide the power behind our journey. I wouldn't say that this arrangement necessarily replicates our roles within our marriage, but it does remind us that we are a great team.

On my wedding day, when my best friends proudly showed me a picture of our new tandem, it never occurred to me that my tandem might also function as a symbol of the complicated relationship between the sighted and the blind. Of course they probably would not have bought if for us if I had enough sight to be able to ride confidently alongside Simon on my own bike. But for some reason this thought never crossed my mind. But last week I came across an extraordinary picture which made me think again about tandem cycling and blindness.

From Lenderink, H.J. (1907). Blind en doofstom tegelijk. De ontwikkeling der doofstomme blinden in en buiten Europa, benevens een beschrijving van het doofstommenwezen in Nederland. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willem. Kindly shared by  Pieter Verstraete

In this tandem picture, a blind woman sits in front, with her male companion behind. At first glance, this picture seems to represent an amazingly liberating and liberated experience for the blind cyclist (not to mention the female cyclist). When I first saw this picture, I imagined that the sighted man was describing the route and any oncoming hazards and trusting the blind woman to steer their course accordingly. But if you look closely at this picture (and here the more sight you have the better), you can see that this tandem has a mechanism which means that the sighted cyclist at the back is in fact steering the bike from behind. The blind cyclist only has the illusion of control; in fact she is being led by her male companion. Is this a depressing reminder of blind people's dependence on their sighted guides, or a celebration of the possibility of blind Independence?

I think this blind cyclist has more control over her journey than the discovery of this remarkable mechanism might lead us to believe. She is at least in part powering her own movement rather than having to rely on public transport or a lift from an obliging friend. And her position upfront implies that she has perhaps set the destination and dictated it to her companion. In practical terms, she could always just stop pedalling or put her feet down to stop the bicycle in its tracks if she didn't like the direction the bike was taking. Just as in marriage,  her companion relies on her goodwill just as much as she relies on his.

When Simon and I are out on our tandem I never feel like I'm being led by him. We have always decided in advance where we are going and I don't hesitate to suggest an alternative route if I don't agree with his choice. And he wouldn't get anywhere at all if I just stopped pedalling.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Looking at the Blind

This striking image of a blind beggar was taken in New York by Paul Strand and published in 1917. It raises fascinating questions about the politics of looking at the blind. This women's use of a large written label immediately puts her on display. She is positioning herself as an image to be interpreted, a text to be read. She is an object to be looked at. She is also positing herself as a victim of misfortune. The assumption here is that her label will encourage people to pity her and thus to help her. This woman's use of a textual clue demonstrates that despite (or perhaps because) of her blindness, she has a profound understanding of how the sighted world works. People are always looking, always interpreting and always responding to what they see. This  beggar's use of visual clues knowingly exploits the way the sighted relate to the world.

The fact that this woman has been immortalised in a photograph raises another set of issues. Photography is of course a profoundly visual medium. And by making a blind woman the subject of a photograph, the artist suggests that blindness is not necessarily the opposite of vision, it is (or it gives rise to) another kind of vision. Or, to put it another way, blindness has led to vision because it has led to a photographic image.

I'd like to know how this woman would feel about being looked at and photographed in this way. Her use of the sign and her situation on the street already position her as an object of the public gaze. But she is doing this for a reason. Does she know that she is being photographed? Does she even know what photography is or implies? Another way of reading this photograph is to say that it emphasises - indeed extends - the gulf between this woman and the sighted people who look at this photo. The viewer's difference from her is encapsulated in their very act of viewing. As soon as someone sees this photograph, they are reminded that they possess the very thing whose lack has led to the creation of this image. It seems very fitting that it is this woman's blindness which reinforces the sighted viewer's sense of his or her own superiority over the subject of this photograph. The viewer can see her blindness precisely because he or she does not experience it. In another way, of course, vision lets us down in this picture. We cannot tell by looking at this woman that she is blind. It is only by reading the textual clue that we know this. But what if this clue were a lie? What if this woman were not blind? When we look at this picture we trust what we see and we assume that the written sign refers to the woman it is attached to. How would our reading of this photograph change if we knew that this woman was looking back at the photographer?

My thanks to James Kent for introducing me to this picture during his talk on the flaneur in Cuba as part of RHUL's seminar series.

Click here for more on Paul Strand's photo

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Zina Weygand - the Blind in France

When I started working on French representations of blindness in late 2011, I kept encountering the name Zina Weygand. It is testimony both to Zina's international reputation and to her generosity as a scholar that several people recommended that I contact her directly. Zina responded immediately and with exceptional warmth and generosity to my queries. Since that initial e-mail she has sent me many suggestions of books and articles that I should read, and people that I should contact. She came to meet me whilst I was working at the Association Valentin Hauy earlier this month and we enthusiastically shared our thoughts on French blindness over lunch.

Zina in the Valentin Hauy library, with her book, Vivre sans Voir (Paris: Creaphis, 2003). Translated as: The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille (Stanford U.P., 2009)

Here you can listen to an interview (in French) with Zina on France Inter in which she talks about the changing role of the blind in French Society, from the middle ages to the nineteenth century.
As well as being the leading scholar in the field, Zina is passionate about her subject and its importance. Thanks to her warmth and energy, she has created an international network of researchers on blindness who enjoy very rich and fruitful exchanges. Yesterday I felt honoured that she introduced me to many of them during a research meeting I attended at Paris 7. I am looking forward to more fruitful exchanges in the future.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Dame Judi Dench

I listen to the radio every day. Mostly Radio 4. I almost never read the papers because the print is just too small. I can read newspaper print with my reading glasses (and do so dutifully every time I go to the JR for a check-up) but it is usually just too much of an effort. This morning the first story I heard on the radio was about Judi Dench who has revealed that she is suffering from macular degeneration. The story was billed as 'sad and touching', presumably because Judi Dench is a National Treasure and it is of course upsetting to see someone lose something so precious. (In fact, Judith Wood, a counsellor who works for the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind has described the feelings associated with sight loss as a kind of mourning.)

But the very fact that Dame Judi is in the public eye means that she is in a great position to challenge some of the myths surrounding blindness. Blindness does not have to be seen as something to be 'overcome' or as a barrier to a 'normal' life and yet this is the language of the headlines reporting Judi's news. These predictable headlines are happily at odds with Judi's rather more cheerful account of how she is carrying on with her work. She likes having her scripts read to her by friends and family and loves listening to audio books. I too am finding that not having to worry about seeing has given me more time for listening, touching, smelling, tasting. I don't believe in the myth that says that the blind have super-enhanced senses as compensation for their lack of sight. But I have noticed that non-visual experiences bring me as much pleasure as visual ones do. And yet our occulocentric world almost always assumes that sight is best. I love reading braille in the dark when everyone else is asleep. And I love listening to Radio 4 in every room of the house. Perhaps Dame Judi Dench's positive take on blindness will encourage more people to stop reading and start listening.

Introduction: Personal and Professional Blindness

This is a blog about blindness. It is about my experiences of my own partial blindness but it is also about my current research into French representations of blindness.

I have spent this week working at the library of the Association Valentin Hauy, 5, rue Duroc, Paris 75007. The library has an incredible collection of French nineteenth-century novels about blindness.

(This image shows me standing outside the AVH: 
it is the first ever picture of me and my cane)

As this project develops I will post my findings here. I will also post my experiences of being a partially blind person in a resolutely sighted - or ocularcentric - world.