I want to invite you all to join me in becoming immigrants in a country where none of us knows the language or the customs. It is not a simple journey, but is in fact fraught with dangers and adjustments as is life for any immmigrant or refugee. Together I think that we will not only fare well, but learn things that we have never known. Thus, it is also an adventure for the intrepid explorer inside each of us.
You will not be alone, so don’t be frightened. Instead I will try to serve as your guide. It is a territory that I have visited many times over the years. I have learned enough to fill a book and I have returned to tell about it. I am going to introduce you to the country of the blind and, if you trust me, you will never see things the same way again because what we learn about the blind is also going to illuminate the blindness of the sighted.
Among other issues related to this journey is the indisputable fact that we contemporary citizens of the planet live in an increasingly visual and voyeuristic world, where the eyes have become the dominant human sense to a degree that might have been unimaginable had it not occurred. In this activity, we rely on the multiple and multiplying prosthetic devices that have far surpassed the television screen of the last century. This is the ubiquitous computer screen, morphing into smart phones, Google glasses and many other iterations of extended vision.
While vision is extended, it is also narrowed. While we connect with others continents away, we leave our dearest intimacies behind in order to do so. I am also interested in the personal psychological and neurological effects on what it means to be human and how the evolutionary practice will be impacted. Will future generations develop huge eyes or eyes that only see distance? Will human eyes be replaced by devices? Along the way, we will consider these issues.
Much of my focus as a psychologist has also been on the many aspects of gender, ethnicity and what I will call racialization. Mine was the generation that “invented” not only the word, but the fir\eld of gender. The word itself we borrowed from the romance languages; the field had to be plowed and seeded, which we also did enthusiastically.
My interest in these human qualities led me to wonder if they too depended on our visual senses and I thought about it so much that I finally determined a way to find some answers to this question. I wondered what women and men who had been blind since birth would understand about the complex issues of gender and race and how they would even learn about them.
The English language itself often equates seeing with knowing. I invite you to try to speak English without any sight-based verbs for a few days or even a few hours as your first step into this new territory. I have done it and it is not easy.
I wanted to find out if, in a society without sight, the very concepts of gender, race or attractiveness would even occur to anyone. What better place to begin this paradoxical sight-seeing journey than with those who have never had access to vision. Ths project then had two purposes. The first was to find out what it is like to be blind. The second was to find out what it is like to be sighted, or what I came to think of as ordinary blindness.
It has long been noted that the masculine gaze dominates in most contemporary cultures. Literature, film and politics are infused with this one perspective, making it Cyclopean. It is changing being challenged in many arenas, I suggest that each of you watch a movie or TV show, trying to determine from whose perspective the story is being told. This applies equally to any narrative, including your favorite books.
Whose perspective are you asked to adopt? These are very useful exercises in beginning to become conscious of vision for the sighted. The other way that I discovered was to spend years with a number of blind people and to use all my psychological skills to try to understand their perceptions. I participated in most ordinary activities with them, including going shopping, taking drives, going to museums and libraries and eventually being invited to their homes.
What I want to do in my first few columns is to ask you to hitch a ride on my eyes, as I take you into this new territory. I will try to make my own reactions as transparent as possible, so you will come to know me as well as you know my blind friends. Perhaps you will even come to know yourself much better. This is my hope and my intention, so come along with me as I guide you on the unique trip we will be taking together in the next weeks.
Continues on the 10th of November.