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by Kestrell Alicia Verlager
Talk/discussion delivered at Readercon on July 09, 2010

To begin with, I wanted to mention how I came to propose this discussion. I graduated from MIT's Comparative Media Studies master's program a number of years ago, and my thesis was _Decloaking Disability: Images of Disability and Technology in Science Fiction Media. .

One of the reasons I love speculative fiction in general and science fiction specifically is it's many characters with non-normative bodies and modes of perception. However, when it comes to fictional blind characters, I often find myself shaking my head and wishing I could talk to writers about what they have gotten wrong in regard to the experience of being a real blind person. So, when I received an invitation to submit ideas for Readercon programming, I thought, Here is the perfect audience! And the Readercon programming committee was kind enough to encourage me.

Because my goal is to discuss specific representations of blindness and blind people, I am going to use concrete examples from specific works. I don't wish for this to be interpreted as personal attacks upon the writers who wrote these works; I specifically mention in the title of this talk that these are all goodwriters, really, the best writers. The problem, I believe, is that there is so much mythologizing and misinformation about blindness and blind people that it is difficult for even the best authors to always distinguish fact from fiction, reality from stereotype.

My hope in presenting this talk is to supply some ideas and questions which people can employ in order to be more critical as writers, readers, and reviewers, for--I'm going to use a quote here from Samuel Delany's introduction to _Uranian Worlds_:--
"If we want to change the way we read, we have to change the way we write."

In considering representations of blind people in narrative, one becomes aware of how deeply woven together story and blindness are as represented by the mythic figure of the blind storyteller. Borges, Carolan, Milton, Homer--their blindness seems not merely a matter of biographical detail but something of more significance. My use of the word "significance" is intentional, for I wil repeatedly be returning to the question of what blindness signifies or means within the context of the stories I will be discussing.

The myth of the blind bard was well-established long before Homer for, as in the case of many things, the Greeks borrowed the myth of the blind bard from the Egyptians, who had painted on the inside of their tombs images of blind harpists which included symbols indicating that the bards knowledge was more than mere human knowledge, that his songs possessed some higher truth, that he was in direct contact with the gods.

More recently in history, Gaelic cultures endowed their blind bards with the title "Dall" (pronounced, to the best of my knowledge, like "dial," with a slightly elongated i), which not only meant "blind" but also implied that these blind bards were in possession of superior knowledge and wisdom.

And it isn't just the Egyptian or the Gaelic cultures which have throughout history either discovered or created blind bards in order to add authority to their own stories, to express what often seems most important but most ineffable to that culture.

May I point out that here we all sit, part of a culture which we call science fiction, and we have our own blind bard named Rhysling from Robert A. Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth" (Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 8, 1947).

What does Rhysling signify to science fiction culture?

Many readers would probably suggest that Rhysling's poetry evokes the golden age of space exploration and of science fiction itself. Whatever your answer may be, there is the recognition that it is Rhysling's blindness which seems to add additional authority to his stories.

The authority and omniscience of the blind storyteller is something which we so take for granted that, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993, Toni Morrison used the image of a blind storyteller to pose the idea that it is only by constantly questioning the meaning of stories and the very authority of narrative that we can ensure that stories remain a living, changing thing embodying subversive possibilities.

And yet there is more going on than just the myth (I would even suggest, the archetype) of the blind bard, for this linking between knowing and seeing exists on the linguistic level, for in the Indo-European languages the word "to see" means "to know." This is unlike some other languages such as Asian languages in which the word "to know" is linked with "to hear." [Note: after presenting this talk, someone informed me that this equating of seeing with knowing is also true in Hebrew and Arabic.]

According to the OED, the English language possesses twenty-six separate cases for the word "to see." This is why, when a sighted person is speaking with a blind person, the sighted person will often suddenly have an attack of overwhelming self-consciousness as he or she realizes that it is almost impossible to avoid using some reference to seeing when speaking. Normally harmless phrases such as " " I see your point" and "see you later" seem to shape almost every concept we have about perception, observation, communication, and knowledge.

And blindness can be used to negate or subvert almost every one of these meanings. Consider the word "occult," which in both its common and astronomical meanings means something which is hidden or secret.

Add to these linguistic turnings and twistings the symbolic and metaphorical possibilities, and I am reminded of what Umberto Eco said in explaining the title of his novel _The Name of the Rose_: he intentionally chose a reference to "rose" because a rose could signify almost anything.

Of course, _The Name of the Rose_ also had a blind character in it.

What I wish to underscore at this point is that, when one asks what is the meaning or significance of blindness in fiction?, the answer is, blindness can be made to signify almost anything.

And sometimes blindness is just a way in to telling a story which the writer wishes to tell. For this example, I will cite John Varley's short story "The Persistence of Vision" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1978). In this story, a sighted drifter discovers an isolated community of blind people who allow him to live with them for a period of time.

The first time I read this story, I really loved it because it had all these great smart independent blind people in it. The second time I read it I began to realize that wasn't really what this story was about; what it was really about was a sighted male, an aging hippie, who discovers a frontier community of magic blind people with psychic powers which practices nudity and polyamory. In addition, the culture is explained to him by a sighted thirteen-year-old girl with whom the male protagonist has sex. The experience of real blind people actually has very little to do with this story.

Date: 2010-07-12 03:51 am (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
From: [personal profile] firecat
I really liked all three parts of this essay, thanks!

I want to specifically thank you for discussing "The Persistence of Vision" because I recently tried to read it and had to stop because I saw it going where you say it went. I wondered if I had made a mistake giving up on it, and now I don't wonder any more.


kestrell: (Default)

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