Theory Teacher's Blog

Going Blind

One of the bummers about being a young, not-yet-tenured professor is that my reading is so circumscribed by my research projects, editorial work, service to my university, and teaching that I have little time to venture out into the rest of the wide literary world. If you’ve been reading my blog this past year, you’ll recall posts about Ethiopian history, the webzine Ogina, my faculty trip to Kenya, and reflections on teaching composition — all of which connect to my professional concerns. In some ways, academia is the intentional practice of tunnel vision, if you’ll excuse my metaphor. But this vacation, in addition to my research and preparation for next semester’s classes, I set aside a few books to read for pleasure: the novel Real World by Natsuo Kirino, the novel Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, the philosophy Multitude: between Innovation and Negation by Paolo Virno (which I promise to blog about soon), and the memoir Going Blind by Mara Faulkner, OSB. Today I’m going to blog briefly about Going Blind, which I just finished reading this morning during breakfast and which I think other readers of this blog might want to pick up before the winter vacation ends.

At first sight (again, please excuse my metaphors), Faulkner’s book is a memoir about her father and about her family’s silence regarding the gradual onset of blindness that they all saw happening to their father and that transformed their lives. The book begins, “Blindness was my father’s blind spot, and it became my family’s and mine, the word we didn’t dare say.” But as Faulkner says in interviews about her book [here, here, and here], it is more than just a memoir. Really, it’s a collection of essays — or meditations — on the concept of blindness, and each chapter is a thoroughly researched investigation into various topics such as the Great Famine in Ireland that brought her family to America, the policies of the U.S. government that devastated Native American communities around her home town in North Dakota, the nearby internment camp for Japanese and Germans during World War II, representations of blind people in the media, gender roles, the metaphor of blindness in Christian theology, and the nature of language itself.

The book is as wide-ranging as it is introspective, and Faulkner is as courageous in her questioning of the world as she is in her questioning of her self. As a result of her creative investigations, Faulkner notes how much her own understanding of blindness changed over the course of researching and writing it. In her final chapter she writes, “When I look back on my early notes for the book, I’m shocked at their narrowness and inaccuracy. For there, in all their shameful glory, are most of the patronizing and damaging misconceptions, stereotypes, and bad attitudes I’ve tried to dismantle in these chapters.” As I read her book, I felt like I was learning along with her, learning to dismantle and revise not only my own misconceptions about blindness but also how I see the world.

I wonder if her careful deconstruction of blindness might not illustrate some of theorist Paul De Man’s arguments in his book Blindness and Insight. There, De Man asserts that the insight of both literature and literary criticism depends in part upon its own tunnel vision and remains blind to the possibility of a literary text beyond the purview of its methodological orientation. Similar to Faulkner’s observation in the lines I quoted above about her own writing process, De Man notes that the final insight of a literary work in some ways seeks to negate (or dismantle) its own starting point, a starting point which may have been simply confusion and frustration. Like both Faulkner and De Man, I hope to instill in my students a constant questioning of all their assumptions and all conceptualizations of the world and of literature — noting the paradox that a concept can simultaneously lead both to insight and to blindness. I think one of the strengths of Going Blind is that, although it may dismantle its own starting point, it consciously and critically traces its own lines of inquiry so we as readers can see the many possible starting points and many possible destinations of the memoir.

There’s a lot to say about these traces. In the introductory chapter, Mara Faulkner draws upon theorist Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “infinity of traces history leaves on the psyche” so that for anyone writing a memoir “it is imperative at the outset to compile an inventory of history’s traces.” In other words, history affects us all whether we know it or not. For instance, Faulkner’s family was willfully blind to its own condition; the Irish were willfully silent about the realities of the Great Famine; and most Americans were (and still are) willfully ignorant about the effects of government policy on Native Americans. All of these events affect who we are today, and our repression of our memory of their reality produces what psychoanalytic theorists call symptoms. As Going Blind brilliantly shows, trauma can stay with us in unpredictable, unconscious ways.

Another literary theorist, Raymond Williams, has focused on something he calls “structures of feeling,” which — agreeing with Gramsci’s political theory — are organized not only by ideology but also by historical traces and habits of mind. The way we feel about the world might be partly determined by dominant (or hegemonic) ideologies and socio-economic structures, but only partly, as there are also residual structures and cultural forces in play (not to mention the fundamental indeterminacy of the human spirit.) For example, although today we live in a democratic nation, it is obvious that fantasies about hereditary monarchy still play a powerful role in how we as Americans feel about politics (e.g., the Kennedy and Bush dynasties, as well as the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and many King Arthur movies. The Star Wars movies are a perfect example of how monarchical and democratic feelings combine in nonsensical ways.) Monarchy remains a residual political form even if representative, republican democracy is the dominant one. In Mara Faulkner’s book, she discerns how the social habits that emerged among the Irish as a response to British imperialism over a century ago still affect how the members of her family respond to the mundane circumstances of everyday life today.

In some ways, Going Blind is as much a work of theoretically informed  “cultural studies” as it is a memoir, although an actual “theorist” is mentioned only once in the entire book (in the sentence about Gramsci’s traces that I quoted above.) I believe this book will have a lot to offer the emerging new scholarly field of “disability studies” and ought to be read alongside other works that blend the genre of memoir with the genres of essay and cultural studies such as Life as We Know It by Michael Bérubé about raising a child with Down’s syndrome. As a “theory teacher” I think Going Blind has a lot to offer the teaching of theory as well (as I’ve tried to indicate in this blog post.)

My only criticism of Going Blind is its lack of attention to public policy on blindness. While I don’t expect a single book to do everything, and Mara Faulkner references numerous other books on blindness, some of which do focus on policy issues, I did notice a disconnect. Its chapters on the Great Famine, Native Americans, German-Russians, and Japanese internment camps all rigorously analyze the often sinister role of government policy alongside the socially irresponsible “blindness” that allowed that policy to happen. But what about the government’s policy on blindness? This is absent, and it is important. For example, when I was a graduate student, I did some organizing for the graduate student labor union, and in doing this, I encountered another graduate student getting his Ph.D. in chemistry who was blind. He collaborated with the union because he felt the union could put pressure on the university to address the concerns of blind students — often meaning something as simple as putting Braille on things such as the on-campus ATM machine. I remember joining this student in solidarity by attending his “bowling for the blind” in which several blind graduate students and several sighted graduate students went bowling together, an event that was covered on the nightly news. While the book Going Blind deftly analyzes other policy issues and even more deftly deconstructs our misconceptions about blindness, it is curiously blind to the very specific, mundane, everyday realities for blind people that are created by the often “blind” policies of our democratically elected government. Democracy itself is essentially a practice of willful blindness (i.e., the decision of a majority party blinding itself to the vast multiplicity of perspectives of its many stakeholders such as labor unions and associations for the blind.) Going Blind is also “blind” to some of the practical ways (e.g., labor unions) that different kinds of people (e.g., blind and sighted, Indian and European) might form productive political alliances beyond identity, beyond personal relationships, and beyond an individual’s intuitions of transcendent justice.

But that said, the book provides its readers with all the conceptual tools for making those connections on their own.

On a completely different note, Going Blind was a timely read for me, because just a couple days ago I went to see Pedro Almodovar’s latest movie Broken Embraces, starring Penelope Cruz, and its main character just so happens to be a writer-director whose sudden blindness leads him to recreate himself, eventually see his past through someone else’s eyes, and “revise” one of his films. Also, the erotic opening scene of the movie (with him very stylishly seducing a young woman) immediately defies the usual stereotypes of middle-aged blind men. (A suggestion for readers of this blog: if you haven’t seen an Almodovar film before, I suggest watching his classic Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown before going to the theater to watch this new one.)

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December 29, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Hey Steve!

    If you haven’t already, you should vote for Sister Mara’s book for the Minnesota Book Awards Readers’ Choice Award. Just go to TwinCities.com and click on the Minnesota Book Awards icon. Voting is open all through the month of March. Spread the word!

    Comment by Hanna | March 4, 2010 | Reply


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