David Bolt. Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing. Corporealities: Discourses of Disability Series. Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 2013. 178 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-11906-6.
Reviewed by Hannah Tweed (University of Glasgow)
Published on H-Disability (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
David Bolt’s The Metanarrative of Blindness is the nineteenth book in the University of Michigan Press’s Corporealities: Discourses of Disability series. A lucid, wide-ranging, and provocative text, it offers a careful critique of the cultural narratives surrounding—and constructing—visual impairment in the twentieth century. Bolt structures the text thematically and grounds it in Gordon Allport’s (1897-1967) model of prejudice, alongside classic and contemporary disability studies theory. Allport’s “antilocution, avoidance, discrimination, physical attack, and extermination” are all discussed with relation to visual impairment. However, Bolt roots his discussion of antilocution in literary and cultural representation: avoidance is linked to institutionalization and segregation; discrimination is connected to ableist behaviors and language; and “visual violation” is presented as a sister to physical attack. Finally, Bolt challenges the wealth of narratives that link visual impairment with suicide—what he terms “culturally assisted suicide”—discussing those texts in conjunction with Allport’s final stage of prejudicial behavior, extermination (p. 127). Presenting this metanarrative of blindness as an essentially modernist concept, Bolt reiterates the essential value of critical approaches informed by disability studies, especially with regard to experiential knowledge and the “disruption of ocularnormativism” (p. 131).
With this agenda in mind, the text begins with an introduction titled “Embodied Introduction,” seeded, in the disability studies tradition, with critically reflective personal accounts of cultural bias toward individuals with visual impairments, and the metaphors and language of seeing. These anecdotes are combined with a brief history of discrimination against individuals with visual impairments, and disability rights more generally (Stuart Murray’s work on autism is introduced, regarding the value of anecdotes, as is Ato Quayson’s Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation , in a useful engagement with attitudes toward both physical and cognitive disabilities). Bolt then introduces his key terminology for the volume: most significantly “ocularnormativism,” indicating “the mass or institutionalized endorsement of visual necessity” (p. 5). This term works alongside the already established “ocularcentrism,” where “perspective and ... subject position” are “dominated by vision” (p. 17). The early section of the volume is particularly useful for researchers who are unfamiliar with the field; Bolt’s careful unpacking of terminology, drawing on a wide range of other scholars (Georgina Kleege, Lennard Davis, Donald Kirtley, Kenneth Jernigan, and Stephen Kuusisto, among others), provides a concise and nuanced engagement with the origins and use of such terms as “blind,” “the blind,” “sighted,” “unsighted,” and “visual impairments,” as well as disability studies approaches to the literary representation of individuals with visual impairments. While much of Bolt’s original analyses take place in the rest of the text, this section offers a useful introduction to the frequently problematic history of the terminology surrounding visual impairment.
In “Character Designation: Normate Reductionism and Nominal Displacement,” Bolt presents narratives of “the sighted and the blind” as binaries within a modernist framework, where characters are named and identified, first and foremost, as “the blind girl” or “the blind man” (pp. 35, 37). Using texts ranging from Rudyard Kipling’s “They” (1904) to Susan Sontag’s The Death Kit (1967) and Stephen King’s The Langoliers (1990)—all of which feature later in the monograph—Bolt demonstrates how the terminology of “the blind” and “the un/sighted” affects literary representation of individuals with visual impairments across the twentieth century, particularly with regard to the removal of individuality and subjectivity. This interest in subjectivity is continued in the analysis in subsequent chapters: in “Come-to-Bed Eyes: Ophthalmocentrism, Ocularcentrism, and Symbolic Castration,” Bolt critiques the long-established association between blindness, emasculation, and castration. The characters in Bolt’s chosen texts are carefully analyzed as beyond normate sexual desire, despite the sexualization and fetishization of the eye in Western literature. Similarly, in “‘A Hand of the Blind Ventures Forth’: The Grope, the Grip, and Haptic Perception,” Bolt engages with another prevalent cultural myth surrounding visual impairment: the concept of “extraordinary senses” (p. 67). More than simply stating the inaccuracy and false expectations raised by this stereotype, this chapter suggests that the specific language associated with extraordinary senses is linked to more pernicious eugenicist trends. In particular, Bolt proposes that this association of animal characteristics with individuals with visual impairments includes references to an “animalistic lack of control” and explicitly discriminatory language (p. 68). His exemplar texts (H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” , James Joyce’s Ulysses , John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids , and James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late ) provide compelling evidence of a cultural myth that any non-visual sensory experience is both abnormal and suspect. In particular, the analysis of “the groping blind figure,” and the associations between touch, visual impairment, and lechery—in the discourse of the primary texts—provides provocative ground, where eugenic concerns permeate the representation of sexuality and physical connection (p. 76). The attention paid to animalist language and compensatory gifts also seems fertile ground for analysis in representations of cognitive disability, as well as portrayals of visual impairment specifically linked with touch.
Building on this cultural wariness of touch, the fifth chapter in the text, “Social Friction and Science Fiction,” focuses on representations of visual impairment as contagious disease. Linking Allport’s concept of avoidance as prejudiced behavior, Bolt suggests that avoidance of people with visual impairments is linked to the idea of “contagious blindness”—as demonstrated in John Varley’s “The Persistence of Vision” (1978) and José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) (p. 80). One of the key commonalities in these texts, and others discussed thus far, is that they present visual impairment as a binary, rather than a spectrum. Furthermore, in the portrayal of contagious blindness, the authors perpetuate the use of animal motifs, “blurring the human-animal distinction” (p. 87), even as binaries between sight and blindness are artificially reinforced, with the latter state held up as both fascinating and fearful.
The final two chapters of The Metanarrative of Blindness concentrate more explicitly on extreme negative representations of visual impairment. In “Visual Violation: Staring, Panopticism, and the Unseen Gazer,” Bolt responds to Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s seminal work on staring, engaging with her discussion of the complexities of staring and subjectivity, while also delineating the violence inherent in the ocularcentric presentation of sight as synonymous with knowledge, and the role of spectacle. Bolt’s “unseen gazer” is fundamentally separate from Garland Thomson’s starer-staree relationship (and the potentially destabilizing force of that interaction) (p. 109). Instead, what is presented is an ocularnormative subjectivity that is fundamentally disempowering to the gazee. Such a position of vulnerability aligns with the presentation of characters with visual impairments in Bolt’s most provocative chapter, “Culturally Assisted Suicide,” where, in his primary texts, characters with visual impairments are presented as firmly and detrimentally other, set apart from the normate population. In many of the plays and novels in this chapter, cultural myths surrounding blindness present both visual impairment and “cure” narratives as a logical prompt for suicide (implicit or explicit)—a position that Bolt presents as cultural extermination. Finally, Bolt suggests that in such texts as Joseph Conrad’s The End of the Tether (1902) and J. M. Synge’s The Well of the Saints (1905), both “sight loss and sight restoration come to present the bearer with the same disturbing sense of a chasm to cross,” concluding that the representation of sight and blindness as binary oppositions is the defining problem behind the metanarrative of blindness (p. 125).
Given to social influence of literature, the cultural conditioning surrounding ocularnormativism is as disturbing as it is pervasive. The Metanarrative of Blindness offers a provocative challenge to these dominant literary and social discourses, and constructs a theoretical framework via which twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature can be productively critiqued in order to demonstrate and alter the pervasive ableist discourses surrounding visual impairment. Ria Cheyne describes the monograph as “bridg[ing] the cultural, the personal, and the political”; as Cheyne states, one of the strengths of Bolt’s text is the ways in which it presents cultural productions as political acts and renders ablelist politics personal. A lucid and provocative extension to disability studies and critical theory alike, The Metanarrative of Blindness is a valuable text for scholars across literary and cultural (disability) studies.
. Ria Cheyne, quoted in Centre for Culture & Disability Studies, “Our Books,” http://ccds.hope.ac.uk/ourbooks.htm.
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Hannah Tweed. Review of Bolt, David, Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing.
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