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Going Blind. A Memoir by Mara Faulkner is the outcome of a ten years research process. The nine chapters of the book have valuable material for sociologists, psychologists, philosophers of mind, cultural historians, anthropologists and for anyone interested in reading a good literary piece. In this book I find the outcome of a refined effort to link memories and specify theses through an elegant vocabulary and a straightforward language.
This is a readable writing of what it would be like to undergo oncoming blindness (caused by retinitis pigmentosa), how self-consciousness might be forged in the niche of a family in which other members also go blind and in a social environment which ignores experiences (for example: fear (p. 59)) that somebody going blind undergoes with her thoughts and actions. Faulkner articulates technical information within the stream of an autobiographical story in which her father (Dennis Faulkner, an Irishman) is the protagonist. Notwithstanding, this is not merely an autobiography, but a critical chronicle about multiple conceptions of 'blindness'. So, in Going Blind, the reader could also find a piece with ethnographic value --a book in which analysis of social behavior and fieldwork play core roles.
Retinitis Pigmentosa causes "narrowing vision on the top, bottom and sides [...] the person is looking out through two tunnels at the milky shapes moving from darkness into darkness" (p. 7). Faulkner opens the doors of the reality in which her family (mother, father and seven children) inhabited together with Retinitis Pigmentosa. The book begins with describing such reality by analyzing the blindness of Dennis Faulkner -- a man whose blindness had to figure as a "blind spot" before the "eyes" of a society in which he worked for the economic stability and security of his family.
We could conceptualize the life of blind people, on the one hand, in terms of a reality in which they become "blurry shapes" that, through time, fuse with darkness and sometimes become invisible to themselves and others and, on the other hand, in terms of a reality in which blind people express their self-invisibility through faces with neutralized gestures, "sight means power", there is no self-confidence and there is no humans able to survive. Alternatively, we can understand the life of blind people by conceiving something taking place within our social reality and making part of the mainstream of the history of a culture in which several stereotypes are shaped and transmitted generation by generation. In this vein, Faulkner quotes Erik Weihenmayer (the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest): "people's perceptions of our limitations are more damaging that those limitations themselves" (p. 55). Even when our social environments require that blind people convert their skin, ears and noses in a "sea of eyes", it is not necessary that they become supercrips to constitute active parts of our society. The latter idea, I suspect, plays the role of a departure stance tacitly adopted by Faulkner.
Going Blind has not a normative or motivational purpose. Otherwise, I think, it shows its strength through a descriptive and explanatory style. The book, on the one hand, guides sighted people to believe that their conceptions also structure blindness and blind people's life and, on the other hand, guides blind people to accept that they do not inhabit in a world of disability, but that they make possible and contribute with the design of the structure of our actual social reality.
The nine chapters of the book sketch a holistic analysis of blindness. There is no blindness if there are no blinders or causes for blindness. So, according to Faulkner the causes for blindness are not only physiological but also social ones (Chapter 1 and 2). From this view, Faulkner specifies different senses in which 'blind' can be understood: "out of sight, out of the way, secret, obscure" (Chapter 3), "unable or unwilling to perceive or understand" (Chapter 7), "insensible, unaware, lacking intelligence and consciousness, narrow-minded with no openings or passages for light" (Chapter 8), "to dazzle, to dim by excess of light" (Chapter 9). In general, Faulkner thinks that 'the blind' "[... l]ike all handy labels [...] has a way of growing until it eclipses the array of people it claims to describe, sometimes becoming their whole identity, in the minds and eyes of those around them and, worse yet, in their own minds" (p. 39-40). Going Blind identifies blindness not merely with a physiological disability but also with a complex epistemic state. In this sense, real blindness (a personal condition within a society) has complex relationships to knowledge of stereotypes and myths as well as to metaphors about blindness (as a concept) (Chapter 3). Such knowledge of stereotypes, myths and metaphors can contribute to make blind people lesser blind by challenging conceptions instead of simply "resisting them". In this way, Going Blind includes a critical chapter (Chapter 4) in which Faulkner analyzes the vicious circle between hunger and violence originated by being partially blind, on the one hand, to justice and equality and, on the other hand, to law.
Language, media, schools, workplaces plus different social classes, ethnic backgrounds, genders, religions (or lack of them) weave a net in which are grounded millions of experiences and concepts of 'blindness'. In such net we find a striking connection between faith, intuition and blindness (Chapter 5). As Faulkner says, "faith is, by definition, a belief in which we can't see often in the face of contrary evidence" (p. 110, italics mine). Faulkner is not only thinking about religious faith, she rather is describing a type of belief which can be understood as an attitude toward something that cannot be seen, even whether this is about god, democracy, science and so on. Faulkner claims that many convictions of blind people must be toward different sorts of things than those which sighted people's are about. For example, faith and predictability are joined to give rise to blind people's behavior in physical environments since, for instance, blind people must trust in several spatial patterns in which things are arranged in their environments. So, Faulkner offers us an analysis of the reasons due to which blind people must believe in things (for instance: "open space and solid ground") that sighted people see.
Further on, Faulkner claims, the concept of 'blindness' and the concept of 'prejudice' "overlap at several points" (Chapter 6). So, we find a kind of prejudice framed by epistemic and emotional states (for example, uncritically inherited from past generations) -- Faulkner calls such kind of prejudice blind prejudice. Prejudice can result either from lacks of knowledge and experience or from their selective acquisition. Racial, aesthetic and other sorts of discrimination would result from these prejudices. However, sighted people will often tend to think that blind people are less prejudiced, in this sense, than they are. Faulkner argues that, although "[physiological] blindness sometimes prevents swift leaps to judgment" (p. 124), prejudices can take several paths to enter and guide blind and sighted people's minds and behavior.
Wellbeing, comfort and tranquility are figuratively conceived (mainly in Judeo-Christian traditions) in terms of light and lighted places. Otherwise, blindness is often conceived in terms of darkness, decontrol, anguish and so on. Perhaps, I think, the latter conception perhaps has been consolidated through the phylogenetic career of Homo sapiens sapiens. However, the former conception has been forged in the mainstreams of our societies and cultures. Likewise, light has also been conceived as a sign of death and disaster, as the survivors of the atomic bombs could confess. In fact, many things considered as wonderful happen in darkness, for instance: the natural germination of seeds.
In general, Going Blind is a comprehensive, prudent and holistic introduction to the concept of 'blindness'. The most general moral I find in it is that 'blindness' does not only refer to physiological conditions but it also does to "patronizing and damaging misconceptions, stereotypes, and bad attitudes" (p. 190) reinforced, through history, both by sighted people and blind people.
© 2010 Carlos M. Muñoz-Suárez
Carlos M. Muñoz-Suárez is a researcher and graduate student at Universidad del Valle and Professor of Philosophy of mind at Universidad Icesi (Cali- Colombia). His areas of specialization in philosophy and psychology are philosophy of mind, philosophy of neurosciences and metaphysics.