Some months ago, I was in a difficult personal place. Events had happened that left me feeling very vulnerable. During this time, I tried to express my feelings through forms of art – particularly through collages. They began as hand-cut collages, that were then digitized, adding depth, color, and a sense of texture. Unexpected themes emerged in these collages. Eyes watched from across the page: the gaze of the wise owl, the stare of the observant cat, the cheeky glint of the crow’s eye, the upward gaze of children, the downward glance of a girl, and countless obscured, covered and hidden human eyes that overwhelmingly belonged to women’s faces. I counted over thirty revealed and obscured individual eyes. Alongside eyes emerged hands, touching, feeling their way across the page. Not as dominant as the eyes, but rather more hesitant in coming forward. Other bodies also appeared: animal shapes with feathers, fur, wings, beaks, hooves, even stingers. There appeared violent shapes, too – silhouettes of men with tiny guns, inflicting damage on the page. Their bullet holes seemed oddly juxtaposed with bodies that hugged, danced, protested, seeming to call out to the insignificant but relentlessly marching soldiers.
In creating the collage, I began to feel as though there was something I should ‘see’ within the creation itself. Something I needed to understand; some deep work I needed to bring to light. Indeed, I felt that being able to ‘see’, coming to ‘insight’, ‘understanding’ and ‘self-awareness’ were all implied in what I had created. I understood this as an imperative: ‘open your eyes and see’. This in turned I heard as an an injunction with which I’ve long been familiar: ‘look harder, try harder, work harder, and you’ll be able to see more clearly.’ And yet, insight eluded me. It was a distressing and disorienting experience for somebody who has worked hard to ‘achieve’ knowledge, understanding, clarity and insight, to the point of getting a PhD in philosophy! I considered that perhaps the collages were an expression of something seeking to emerge from within, that could not be approached by simply looking harder. I began to research the meaning of the eyes, of sight, of seeing, and I discovered something interesting. You could say that I developed a new perspective, a way of seeing that I had not foreseen. This post is a reflection on this new way of seeing, of what it might mean to come to ‘insight’ without sight.
The eye and the ‘I‘
It is often said that the ‘eyes are the window to the soul’ that reveal or express a person’s character. Indeed, eyes are highly expressive: they sparkle, roll, can be deep, intense, light. Eyes have the capacity to express moods we would rather hide, fear, anger, hate, even as the face is quickly schooled into a neutral countenance. Eyes have a revelatory character in this way. The language of the eye, writes Anthony Synnott in the ‘Eye and I – a sociology of sight’, ‘is surely the most expressive component of body language’. As expressive, sight reveals and discloses the person to the world, even as the eyes are also at the same time the way we come to know others in the world. We come to ‘see’ who we are in the eyes of another, whose eyes in turn can reveal parts of ourselves which we may not have ‘seen’ or wish to see. ‘We look out and see the other, but we also see in, and see the self’ writes Synnott. He references the sociologist, George Simmell, for whom ‘the eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives’ suggesting that the eye of a person discloses his own soul, even ‘when he seeks to discover that of another’. That is, the eyes both establish and self-disclose the subjective ‘I’ of identity. Reading this account, I felt a resonance – a connection made at an intuitive level, between the theme of sight that had appeared in my collage and my own sense of vulnerability about my identity and place in the world.
The supremacy of sight
Yet, there is a darker story that runs alongside this seemingly innocuous account of sight and the emergence of the individual self in relation to others. Synnott describes our age as a ‘visual age’ in which ‘sight is supreme’. He refers to this as the ‘supremacy of sight’ in a ‘sensory hierarchy’, where sight has become ‘hegemonic’ over the other senses in interpreting the world. In this story, sight has long been associated with rationality: ‘I see’ is synonymous with ‘I understand’ as well as other words associated with understanding: insight, illumination, enlightenment, reflection, clarity, perspective, point of view, observation.
Both the philosophical and Judeo-Christian tradition have contributed to a valorisation of sight. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, the philosopher ascents out of the gloomy, dark cave of myth (mythos), opinion and shadows, into the bright world of reason (logos) truth, and light. The person/philosopher who emerges from the cave is at first ‘blinded’ by the light of the sun (reason); their sight must adapt, first through reflection, until they ‘see’ or behold the truth in the world of light. While more practical and grounded than his teacher, Plato’s student Aristotle similarly declared that ‘we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.’ In the Judeo-Christian tradition, sight is associated with the first act of creation: in the beginning, God created light and ‘saw’ that it was good. Later Christ is referred to as the ‘light of the world’ something also enjoined on his followers. In this narrative, seeing becomes connected to ideas about the divine, with God/the sun, transcendent above the earth, all-seeing and all-knowing, and therefore also able to speak and act with authority and judgment, something that would later influence ideas around political sovereignty and rule.
I like Synnot’s description of sight as first in a ‘sensory hierarchy’, and I can readily see myself in this narrative, thanks to my Judeo-Christian heritage, as well as my years as a philosophy student. I am therefore not surprised that my ‘I’ , educated and formed to accept sight or insight as the ‘highest value’, might be challenged by what emerges from within and seeks to find its own expression through art. Still, just knowing this at an intellectual level is not enough. And I found myself thinking to myself – if ‘sight’ is not actually the highest value, where should I look instead? At this point, I am still looking for the ‘highest value’ that will reveal itself, if only I can find the correct approach.
The dichotomy of sight and touch
A second article helped me to see my experience from yet a different perspective. In an article aptly titled ‘The dichotomy of sight v touch’, PhD candidate Betty Stoneman describes the ways intellectual history has created an ‘ideological dichotomy’ between the category of reason, associated with the mind, human nature and sight, assigned to man, and the category of emotion, associated with the body, non-human animals and touch, assigned to women. Stoneman suggests that this opposition between sight and touch is deeply embedded in our intellectual history. It emerges in early Greek philosophy both through Plato and Aristotle, for whom women were associated with bodily appetite, including male desire for food and sex. In this account, men must avoid women, for they drag the rational soul away from (eternal) truth back to the perishable and transient world of embodied desire and unruly emotions, symbolised by touch. In such an account a woman’s own purpose is presented as seeking to ensnare or trap the free, rational man. Stoneman’s article, which draws on key feminist philosophers discusses the implications of this in more detail. What interested me first and foremost, was the appearance of a different account of values, displacing the place of sight as supreme. I connected with the language of dichotomy, as this resonated also with my collage – where hands emerged, more subtle and hesitant, but nevertheless challenging the dominance of the eyes, simply by their appearance on the page. And after reading Stoneman’s article, I noticed these hands, and attended to their symbolism, and what this meant for me, in an engendered body.
Curious about this language of dichotomy between sight and touch, I read still further. I came across a book, The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness, by Rod Michalko. He explores the dichotomy of sight and touch through the lens of a person without sight. Michalko describes his own experience of gradually losing his sight (as an adolescent), comparing this to losing his sense of identity, and his sense of self. He writes of the struggle he endured, as he forced himself to behave and appear as though still sighted, even as he was losing his capacity to see as he once did. He notes that he could not conceive of a time when he would be without sight and still have a meaningful life, nor could he conceive of his own identity, and what would remain of the sighted person he once was. In his own adolescent mind, the experience constituted a powerful either/or dichotomy:
Being both blind and sighted, having a “mixed nature,” was not within the realm of my self-identity possibilities. I had to be one or the other. I could not be both. Being both would have been like being alive and dead at the same time. It seemed to me that being both sighted and blind was impossible since the two were opposite to each other and opposed to one another and the latter was antithetical to the former. The two natures could not be mixed and thus could not be integrated into wholeness. It was either one or the other but not both.Rod Michalko, The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness
I felt a deep connection to Michalko’s existentialist account of the experience of losing sight, of becoming physically blind. Michalko’s first person experience makes no claims about the external world at this point, but speaks only to his own sense of being in the world. And for him, he could not experience himself as being both sighted and blind at the same time. The loss of sight impressed upon him as an either/or – one that emerges because it was so powerfully connected to his sense of identity in the world. His sense of self was shaped precisely by his capacity to see, which in turn was of course constituted by an internalised narrative that hegemonically valorised sight as the highest virtue. How could Michalko experience going blind as anything but a catastrophic loss to his sense of self, when his very identity was constituted by having the capacity ‘to see’?
Seeing texture and feeling objects
After reading Michalko’s account of coming to learn to live with blindness, I wondered to myself whether I too was learning something more about living with unexpected, more shadowy parts of myself. Parts that were challenging the meaning of my own identity in the world. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that perception, or how we become aware of something, is not simply a function of the mind, but is itself deeply grounded in a body that also shapes a sense of self in relation to others in the world. In an essay on painting, ‘Eye and Mind’, Merleau-Ponty describes the body as the place between ‘the seeing and the seen, between touching and the touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand’ in which ‘a blending of some sort takes place’. What I really like about Merleau-Ponty’s account is the way he describes sight not as a disembodied gaze, but as itself already deeply embodied. Reflecting on Merleau-Ponty’s insight, Stoneman writes: ‘When both sight and touch are present, the two utilize each other so that one can see texture and feel objects in the world.’ I love these phrases of seeing texture and feeling objects in the world. They challenge the very values that I hold, values that established the dichotomy in the first place. The words which may seem ‘incorrectly ordered’ actually work to break down the dichotomy, to point to the blending of both sight and touch in coming to know the world.
Michalko’s identity gradually changed in response to losing his sight. Yet, Michalko suggests that the disruptive experience of going blind might have something to teach those who rely only on sightedness. He notes that blindness has the capacity to ‘disrupt sight’s intimate and familiar, almost familial, relation to the world’, including our ‘taken-for-granted ideas and practices of seeing’. Michalko asks, what if instead of teaching blind people to adapt to the ‘real world’, we allow blindness to teach? As Michalko notes, the world reveals itself through touch to the person who is without sight. Certainly also other senses, but touch provides the immediacy of access to the world that sighted people take for granted through the act of seeing. Indeed, touch can reveal something that is not immediate to the eyes, for touch gives direct contact with the world. Relinquishing our desire for sight is a struggle; it requires relinquishing control over our ‘familiar’ world. Michalko helpfully draws a link between the blind person and the work of the artist.
“The artist and the blind person must confront the difficulty of discovering both their world and their depiction of it. The so-called art of mistrust is the mistrust of our depiction of our life in the midst of a world known and trusted. It is never ‘easy’ to capture the world artistically or to live in the world without seeing.”Rod Michalko, The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness
For the artists and blind persons, seeing cannot be taken for granted. Merleau-Ponty similarly notes the importance of the artist’s body in producing art: ‘It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings […] a body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.’ Both blindness and art can challenge a world in which ‘seeing is easy’ because most people are ‘satisfied with seeing whatever there is to see’, concludes Michalko.
I felt somewhat reassured that my groping in the dark, through my creative expressions, may yet have some purpose that I can’t foresee. This feels important somehow. In simply accepting what I can see and understand, I am reassured that the world, and my place in it, is as it is. There is satisfaction and comfort in relying on sight in this way. But as I have learned to valorise sight (and rational understanding) at the expense of other senses, I have also cut myself off from more deeply experiencing myself and my own humanity. Through art, I am learning to ‘mistrust’ my long-held depiction of the known and trusted world, and my stable and fixed place in it. Learning to trust this mistrust might feel alien, even dangerous and threatening to my previously stable sense of self, yet it is necessary. And importantly, it is also already a part of me by the mere fact of its appearance in my life.
Coming to embodied insight
Since I created my collages from a place of need, from within, I have tried to pay attention to what has emerged. I have discovered important insights about the relation between sight and touch, that I could not have understood without first giving expression to deep, and at times threatening, emotions. The eyes that were blinded, covered, obscured or gazed directly at me, the hands that emerged feeling their way across the paper, all testified to the visceral emotions and feelings with which I kept company during this time – an experience that seemed to emerge from my body. At the time, my mind you might say, struggled to keep up, found it impossible to ‘rationalise’ what was happening at more primal levels. My initial reaction had been to work harder to ‘see’, so that I might come to understanding, clarity, insight and more importantly, regain some control over what felt threateningly like an unstable sense of self. Perhaps turning to academic research to understand the ‘meaning’ of the experience was initially a way to reassure myself that this alienating experience was also within my scope of understanding.
Yet, the insights by Stoneman, Michalko and Merlau-Ponty do not provide easy answers to rebuild my sense of identity. Instead, I now see that my unstable sense of self might well be my body’s best gift to me. What I have read and discovered offers a new perspective that suggests I might actually listen and attend to the messages offered by my body during this difficult time. And I am more likely to come to ‘insight’ by letting go of the need to rationalise my experiences into an overarching narrative. There is still more to this story. More to be said on the violence, on the silhouettes intent to inflict damage on the bodies that moved, hugged, danced, and protested. But that will need to wait for another time. This is only an early foray into a writing practice that emerges from the experience of attending to my body. It is my hope that this writing will grow. And with this, a new way of understanding and appreciating my communicative body, and a richer sense of myself in relation to the others in the world.