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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Andromaque: Audio Descrption in the Seventeenth Century

I have been teaching French literature to undergraduates for 15 years or so but I rarely venture any further back than 1789: I am a dix-neuviemiste at heart but am equally at home teaching twentieth-century fiction and film. So this year it was quite a shock to find myself down to lecture on Racine's seventeenth-century drama Andromaque as part of one of our new first-year courses. As a prose specialist I'm not used to studying plays and I sat down to read it last night rather nervously. What if I couldn't get my head round the complexities of Racine's text? How could I possibly teach the play to students if I couldn't understand it myself?

I emerged a few hours later completely in awe of Racine's tragedy. The plot was gripping, the language was both compelling and beautiful and the whole thing was much easier to follow than I had been expecting. This blog is not the place to indulge in a detailed assessment of the play but there is one aspect of Racine's drama which particularly appealed to me. Unlike almost all the playwrights I have come across, Racine uses hardly any stage directions. Instead, it is the characters themselves who announce the action as it happens. So, in Act IV, Secne 2, Andromaque's line: 'C'est Hermione. Allons fuyons sa violence' (Here is Hermione, let us flee her violence), announces both Hermione's entrance and Andromaque's exit. French drama specialist Joe Harris tells me that this intriguing technique has its roots in the practicalities of seventeenth-century staging. Racine's plays were first performed not in theatres but in badly lit real tennis courts where most of the audience would struggle to see what was happening on the narrow and distant stage. So Racine built verbal prompts into his plays as both a set of cues for the actors, and a set of clues for the audience. What I like most about this early modern predecessor of audio description is the way that it does not take sight for granted. Our modern occulocentric world is obsessed with the primacy of vision. It would never occur to modern playwrights that spectators might have difficulty seeing what is happening on stage. Audio description is an extra feature which is added after the fact (if indeed it is added at all). It is not considered an integral part of the work (although perhaps it should be). But Racine's way of having his characters announce their own and others' entrances and exits makes the play equally accessible to blind and sighted audiences (as well as to blind and sighted actors). By verbalising movement in this way, Racine creates a properly multi-sensory experience which modern playwrights would do well to learn from. I wonder how different plays (and films) would be if they were conceived with the blind in mind from the start.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Happy Birthday Blind Spot Blog!

When I created this blog a year ago I had no idea what an adventure it would be. It started as a place to chart my research into French representations of blindness, but quickly blossomed into a way of commenting on the place of blindness - and then disability - in modern society more generally: the posts on audio description, the Paralympics and Tina Nash continue to attract interest from around the world. Alongside these current-affairs-related posts, there are also posts on my own way of living with blindness. This blog has given me a place to work out what I think about using a white cane, the shape and size of my eyes and what reading in detail really means.

But in this birthday post, I'd like to look again at my original research project. I have been spending a lot of time in the past year at the Association Valentin Hauy in Paris. Their library contains a vast collection of literature in French either by or about the blind. By gradually reading all the nineteenth-century novels they possess, I am building up a picture of how nineteenth-century France saw blindness. At first I was disappointed by what I found. Novels by blind novelist Therese-Adele Husson seemed to confirm my fears that blindness would be seen as a pitiful state characterised by emotional, financial and intellectual deprivation. As this blog has shown, this is the image of blindness usually found throughout cultural representations, from Madame Bovary to contemporary advertising and children's fiction. But as I delved deeper into the world of the nineteenth-century French novel, I found some examples of novels where the blind protagonists are capable and likable role-models. In the published work which will be the eventual fruit of this research, I will be arguing that these novels - by relatively unknown writers like Berthet and Pont-Jest - embrace the 'personal non-tragedy' approach which twentieth-first-century Disability Studies is only just engaging with.

I hope that my research will bring these neglected works out of obscurity and encourage readers to think again about literary representations of blindness.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Face Blindness

One of the reasons that I love audio description is that I have always been terrible at recognising people. I just do not see faces clearly enough to be able to tell who people are from what they look like.  I recognise most people I know by a combination of their voice, their general body shape, their hair style, the clothes that they wear and, crucially, the context in which I encounter them.

So if I am at work and someone says hello to me in the corridor, I know it is most likely a student or colleague. My brain usually comes up with the right identity based on the factors listed above. If this doesn't work I tend to enquire after the person's health in the hope that either their voice and general demeanour will tell me who (as well as how) they are, or they will mention in passing some crucial piece of information (a location, child's name, shared concern) which will allow me to work out who they are.

This somewhat haphazard approach usually works reasonably well. More often than not I manage to work out who I am talking to before it becomes apparent that I started off the conversation completely in the dark. Luckily, most people are relatively predictable in their style of dress and general body shape. Most people are also more than happy to talk about themselves, thus giving me crucial clues as to their identity. But recently, I found myself in two situations where my tried and tested people-recognition techniques faltered.

Over the weekend I attended a party at my parents' house. Although I have known many of the guests for over thirty years, I spent much of the evening struggling to work out who I was talking to. It seems that people who have no problem with facial recognition cannot imagine what it is like not to recognise people in this way. Even though my eyes look noticeably different from other people's and all my parents' friends know that I am registered blind, no-one told me who they were before embarking in conversation. I think I made a reasonably good job of putting names to faces, especially because I knew exactly who was at the party, but it was quite an effort and did lead to some awkward moments. If I had been wearing dark glasses and /or holding my white cane, I'm sure people would have been more forthcoming. But I guess it feels odd to introduce yourself to someone who you have known for thirty years.

It is hardest for me to recognise people when they appear in an unexpected place or at an unexpected time. I would not recognise my husband if I encountered him unannounced at my place of work. I would not be able to pick out my children if I happened across them during a school trip and I would not recognise my best friend if I met her in the supermarket. This does not mean I do not love these people, it just means that I need more clues before I can identify them. This morning I was approached at the railway station by a friendly stranger who turned out to be a close and dear friend. When he first said hello to me I had no idea who he was. I quickly ran through a mental list of which people I might conceivably encounter at Oxford station early on a Monday morning and no one on this (admittedly short) list fitted. Plus, I wasn't even sure he was talking to me. He persisted in his greeting until I smiled and said hello back. Still having no idea who he was, I asked him which train he was getting in the hope that this would prompt him to reveal some crucial information without giving away the fact that I still didn't know who I was talking to. Luckily as soon as he said more than a few words I recognised his voice instantly and was (belatedly) delighted to see him.

As I ran for my train I wondered why I put myself in such an awkward situation. When my friend said hello to me, why did I pretend I knew who he was? Why not simply ask him to tell me his name? Social convention is a pretty powerful thing. Everything we learn about human interaction is based on the assumption that human faces are instantly recognisable. Infringing this rule feels deeply wrong. Perhaps I'm worried that people will be embarrassed by their assumptions, offended by my forgetfulness or hurt by their own apparent forgetableness. More alarmingly, I wonder if my reluctance to ask people to identify themselves comes from deep-seated feelings about my blindness. Despite my best efforts, am I still harbouring feelings of shame or self-hatred? Is my denial of my own inability to recognise people part of a need to 'pass' as a perfectly sighted person and thus refuse the validity of my way of seeing? Whilst sipping my latte I decided that I would use the memory of this encounter to be more honest with people about what I can and cannot see.