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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can 'the dress' change our attitude to blindness?


The image shows a striped dress which may be gold and white or may be blue and black

Since the now infamous photo of 'that dress' was posted on the internet last week, millions of people have been arguing about whether the dress in question is in fact white and gold or blue and black. The subject even came up in my 'Blindness and Vision in French Culture' class this morning as we were discussing the role of colour in French artist Sophie Calle's series Les Aveugles (1986).

Once my students had all shared their views on the gold/white-blue/black controversy, we began to think more critically about why this dress has made such an impression on so many people in such a short space of time. And we wondered how we might use it to encourage people to reconsider their preconceptions about blindness and vision.

Most sighted people prize their sense of sight above all their other senses. They place it at the top of an imaginary 'hierarchy of the senses' and consequently cannot imagine life without it. This is why blindness is so often seen as a tragedy, a fate worse than death. This misguided reliance on the power of sight is encouraged by the sight-obsessed world in which we live. The images which bombard us send us two separate, but related messages: firstly, they constantly reassure us that most of our information comes to us through our eyes; and secondly, they consequently teach us that how we look matters because this is how people make judgements about us.

The arguments over the dress's colour scheme have caught our imagination precisely because they shake our trust in sight. They invite us to question our preconceptions about the power of the visual by demonstrating that two people can see the same picture in different ways. They demonstrate that sight is not an objective, perfect way of seeing the world: it is fallible, unreliable, and subject to change.

'The controversy over 'the dress' is important because it has the potential to undermine sight's privileged position in society. And one result of this challenge to what we think we know about sight, might be a renewed interest in what exactly we can (and cannot) learn about the world through all our senses. Aren't hearing, touch and smell more reliable senses in certain situations? Perhaps, therefore, blindness is not in fact the tragic, life-limiting affliction so often evoked in books, films and newspapers. No matter what our reaction to the dress tells us about colour perception, photo exposure, light waves - not to mention temperament, political views and even general outlook on life, -  it certainly invites us to rethink our fierce reliance on, and constant privileging of, our far from perfect sense of sight.