DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3
Abstract

In the last fourteen years in Europe, a phenomenon has developed that I call "Dining in the Dark." Its primary success has been to promote communication between blind and sighted people — through a mediation process (rather than any simulation of blindness) — and to show how a disabling society constructs blindness-related problems. Second, it demonstrates real possibilities available to blind people and to the ways a more enabling society could accommodate their needs and skills. Third, the phenomenon has enhanced self-confidence among blind and visually disabled food-service workers. But such "demonstrations" raise questions about how best to design and structure future events, and whether "Dining in the Dark" as for-profit businesses are also successful at mediating blindness. I also consider whether "Dining in the Dark" events function as modern-day, acceptable "freak shows." Finally, I suggest how the concept of liminality can help us better understand and interpret these phenomenon and their achievements.

Keywords: Dining in the Dark; Blindness; Mediation; Freak Show; Liminality

Introduction

In the last fourteen years in Europe, a phenomenon has developed that I call "Dining in the Dark." It started in France in 1993, as a special event within the exhibition "Dialogue in the Dark." That event provided the inspiration for the world's first restaurant operated in complete darkness, the Blindekuh ("Blind Man's Bluff"), which opened in Zurich (Switzerland) in 1999. In 2005, Blindekuh added a branch in Basle. In 2001, Germany's first no-light restaurant, the Unsicht-Bar ("Invisible Bar"), was opened in Cologne by one of the "founding fathers" of "Dialogue in the Dark." Since then, two "Dining in the Dark" restaurants have opened in Berlin: a second Unsicht-Bar and the Noctivagus. In addition, several organizers have begun presenting "Dining in the Dark" events from time to time. One such organizer is the Mediateam event agency in Munich. Another, "Aus:Sicht e.V." ("Out:look"), located in the Stuttgart region and inspired by Blindekuh, presented a five-week "Dining in the Dark" in 2004, a six-week event in 2005 and a twice-monthly, longer-running event in 2006. A "Dining in the Dark" is being presented together with the permanent exhibition Erfahrungsfeld ("Field of Experience") in Schloss Freudenberg, near Wiesbaden, and yet another is running at a school for the blind and visually disabled in Schloß Ilvesheim near Karlsruhe. The numbers of "Dining in the Dark" keep growing, in Germany, Switzerland and in the Netherlands, Austria and England.

This phenomenon has yet to be examined, in terms of its achievements, and its omissions and shortcomings, in improving the social position of blind and visually disabled people. I argue in this article that its primary success has been to promote and enhance communication between blind and sighted people — through a mediation process (rather than through any simulation of blindness). The experience gives sighted guests an impression of how a disabling society constructs blindness-related problems. It also provides opportunities for conversation with blind and visually disabled guides and servers.

A second achievement of the phenomenon is that it provides a live demonstration of the real possibilities available for blind people. It opens guests' eyes to blind people's perceptual needs and skills, and to the ways a more enabling society could meet and accommodate those needs and skills. In a third achievement, the phenomenon has enhanced self-confidence among the blind and visually disabled people working in the food-service field.

At the same time, such "demonstrations" raise a number of questions. For example, should these be enhanced in the future, and if so, how? Does running "Dining in the Darks" as for-profit events, oriented to economic success, serve to mediate problems of blind people in a disabling society? In this paper, I will also briefly consider whether "Dining in the Dark" events function as modern-day, acceptable "freak shows." Finally, I will suggest how the concept of liminality can help us better understand and interpret these phenomenon and their achievements.

Methodology

I am blind myself and worked with "Dialogue in the Dark" from 1990 until 1993. From 1993 until 1999, I also worked frequently with Blinde und Kunst e.V. ("The Blind and Art"), and I still work for that organization on an occasional basis. Clearly, I have conducted this research as an insider. My expertise is reflected in the emic perspective presented below.

In addition, for this research, I visited three of the "Dining in the Dark" restaurants I mentioned above (Unsicht-Bar in Berlin and Cologne, and Noctivagus in Berlin) in the role of observing participance, which goes beyond customary 'participant observation' in terms of the closeness of its relation to the field (Flick 1995). In observing participance, one becomes existentially involved in the field experience; one puts oneself in the place of the actors and does the things that are customarily done in the field, including talking with and interviewing people (Froschauer 2003; Glinka 1998). One observes not only other people, but also oneself in the field — in the actions of participating and observing, and in this sense, represents a true auto-ethnography (Honer 1993; Hitzler 1999). In this case, it isn't enough to just sit or walk around in the dark restaurant and conduct interviews with the guests and the servers; I had to try to slip into the roles of both sides. To do this, I first visited the restaurants together with sighted friends, and drank and ate there like a "normal" guest. In a second phase, I worked as a blind server, to gain a sense of how work and communication in "Dining in the Dark" locales becomes bodily habituated practice (Bourdieu 1977). My goal was to find out and reconstruct the subjective assumptions, motivations and habitually embodied practices of the actors in the field (Schütz 1971; Schütz & Luckmann 2003).

In yet another step, I examined the presentations of the restaurants on the Internet, and conducted and recorded telephone interviews with some of their workers. These interviews were open-ended, non-structured inquiries based on a well-formulated "moderator's guide," developed from previous interaction and experience. In each case, I tried to strike a balance between understanding the interviewees' specific situations and staying mindful of the overall theoretical context.

The Darkness Movement As Mediator Between Blindness And Sight

To understand the phenomenon of "Dining in the Dark," it is necessary to look back on its history and social context. In 1989, something special and completely unprecedented began in Germany. Sighted people let themselves be guided by blind and visually disabled people through a totally dark area in the exhibition, "Dialogue in the Dark." Starting in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Cologne, "Dialogue in the Dark" quickly became a sensation.

This idea of putting normally-sighted people in a totally dark place slowly began to spread among blind and visually disabled people. In 1992, Blinde und Kunst e.V. was founded by a group of blind and sighted artists who had previously worked together with "Dialogue in the Dark." They presented "Blackout — a performance in absolute darkness" in a small theatre in Hamburg called "Foolsgarden." In this event, which ran for three evenings, a range of activities took place in complete darkness — blind and visually disabled served drinks (sighted people had to pay for them!), various types of music were played and fairy tales were told. Performances in a range of other cities followed, including Cologne, Bremen, Hanover, Munich and Vienna.

A dark exhibition of arts called Sinnenfinsternis ("Eclipse of the Senses"), and a dark café called "Café Finsternis" ("Café Darkness"), opened thereafter. They did not offer any live performances.

Many local non-profit associations of blind and visually disabled people (Blinden-und Sehbehindertenverein) now organize events and host locales that function in total darkness. For the most part, these consist of darkened cafés where sighted people can have a drink in darkness. The servers in such locales are always blind and visually disabled members of the relevant association.

The newest and fastest growing fruit on this dark tree is the phenomenon, "Dining in the Dark." A good example of how this idea also has spread among blind people is provided by Aus:Sicht. Before its organizers opened their first restaurant, they held a training course, initially assisted by Blindekuh. For a period of several weeks, all members learned from one another, and those who were unsure of him/herself were encouraged by their teammates. In the words of their speaker: "This group has carried these less-confident people in an unbelievable way. … Some kind of identity has developed, it was our thing, and everyone has contributed to it what he could, to the extent of his means."

One can speak nowadays, therefore, of a "darkness movement" in Germany. In explaining their motivation for building the movement, blind and visually disabled people speak of the movement as a new and useful way of communicating with sighted people and of informing the sighted public about the needs, wishes and lifestyles of blind people. At the same time, neither the blind persons involved nor their sighted visitors assume that blindness can really be simulated by any exhibition. Darkness doesn't reproduce blindness.

Disability-studies scholars have devoted extensive discussion to the appropriate design and use of simulation exercises. Simulation exercises are seen by their advocates as representations of parts of reality that start a learning process for their participants, resulting in gaining of knowledge, development of bodily skills and a change of attitudes (Duke, 1986; Hertel & Millis, 2002). They are quicker and less risky than real-life experiences (Wenzler & Chartier, 1999). Their aim is to increase interest and readiness for learning (Brendemeier & Greenblat, 1981). They are reputed to change perspectives and increase empathy, self-awareness and tolerance for ambiguity (Brendemeier & Greenblat, 1981). However, critics maintain that simulation exercises, or awareness days, are inappropriate because they can't simulate reality in the way they claim (Finkelstein, 1991; French, 1992).

Furthermore, general critics of simulation exercises fear that such exercises promote individual and functional limitation models of disability, while ignoring social models of disability and neglecting the impact of a more inclusive environment (Donaldson, 1980; Siperstein & Bak, 1980). They also fail to illustrate functional accommodations based upon a long learning process (such as training to use a long cane). Such exercises, then, end up simulating what people with disabilities cannot do, rather than on what they could do with appropriate access, technology, skills, or time (French, 1992; Richardson, 1990; Pfeiffer, 1989). Nor do they show how disadvantages can be resolved by society (Wilson & Acorn, 1979). Urgstahler and Doe (2005) have developed a guideline for successful simulation exercises. Nonetheless, Brew-Parrish (1997) and Blaser (2003) recommend real-life awareness and communication between disabled and non-disabled people. These dark phenomena are successful precisely because they do not try to simulate the experience of blindness for sighted people. Rather, they provide a setting or stage for enhanced contact and communication. In other words, it serves as a mediator between blindness and sight.

Conversation, Role-Reversal And Development Of Self-Confidence

In "Dining in the Dark", role-reversal through social interaction is closely linked to the conversational presentation of blindness. When forced to depend on sighted guides, blind and visually disabled people often experience such dependence as a power relationship, with the sighted giver of help in the dominant position. By contrast, in "Dining in the Dark", sighted people find themselves having to depend on blind and visually disabled people. The role-reversal fundamentally changes the power structure between the two groups, with palpable consequences: almost every guide or server finds himself or herself gaining self-confidence and self-respect.

One blind server at Blindekuh states that she really enjoys working there because she likes communication with people in general, to "be there" for people. "Sometimes it's really stressful, but it's also fun, because if you have really nice guests you get so much back. That's really wild." She goes on to say, "There, we are the bosses, as it were; in a way, we are superior to the guests." Servers experience their superiority by showing their guests how capably they can work in the dark.

They also view their job as a kind of psychological nurturing: "Sometimes there are people who say: 'Oh, I feel strange, I'm worried that this is not going to work.' Then you say: "Why not try it anyway, take a seat … it's quite different when you're sitting than when you're just entering darkness."

Oral communication in darkness events plays a role of paramount importance. Blind servers routinely have the opportunity to talk about blindness to the guests. Sometimes this opportunity is used, and sometimes it is not. Blind servers learn to tell when their guests are interested in talking about blindness. What one could call "indirect audible communication" is important in this regard. In the words of an employee in "Dinner in the Dark": "You can hear from a distance when people at your table exclaim, 'How can she find the plates?' They don't ask you that, though."

A Gästebetreuer (the host or maitre d') in Unsicht-Bar in Cologne states: "If there are only a few guests you can sit down beside the guests. Often, conversation then ensues and people ask you how you deal with your blindness."

In an e-mail exchange with Stefan Zappa, a visually disabled psychologist, founding member of the Blindekuh and President of the foundation Blind-Liecht, he characterizes the special relation between blind and sighted people in a dark situation as follows: "What develops here is a turning around of the classical roles; the blind guide sighted people."

Staging Blindness, Rethinking the "Freak"

The most successful presentation of blindness as a staged event is still the exhibition "Dialogue in the Dark." It presents a course of simulated everyday environments, such as a park, a street, a drugstore, a bar, and situations, like buying a beverage. The sighted visitors carry canes and are led through the course, on foot and in small groups, by blind and visually disabled persons.

From the beginning, sighted people have found that the exhibition combines two things: an extraordinary experience that almost every visitor finds relevant to his own experiential life, and an education about the living conditions of the blind and visually disabled. The exhibition has been extremely successful all over the world, with long runs in London, Rome, Paris, Montreal, Tokyo, Mexico City and Turin (there, in parallel with the 2004 Winter Olympic Games). Since 2000, the exhibition has become a permanent fixture in Hamburg. In addition, "Dinner in the Dark" there, originally an irregular event that took place less than once a month, is now running more than twice per week. As it became more and more successful, it was soon booked full time, with a waiting list of more than 500 people.

While the exhibition seeks to educate visitors about blindness, the restaurant's purpose is to enable visitors to enjoy "blindness." At the same time, most of the restaurant's guests come for an "advanced experience"; they have already been to the exhibition. "Dinner in the Dark" is an "outstanding gastronomic event," as a blind employee puts it. Its web site states: "For those seeking an extraordinary culinary treat … and a challenge for the palate and table manners." Although people unfamiliar with darkness events may find the phrase "a challenge for table manners" rather derogatory, none of the blind employees see it that way. That is partly a result of the additional self-confidence and pride that the blind employees have developed from working there.

All darkness events are staged presentations, to a greater or lesser extent, and as performances, do darkness events function as "freak shows"? They come close to presenting what Bogdan (1988) has called the "respectable freak," an aggrandized mode of freak presentation: "With respectable freaks the mundane was exploited as amazing and ordinary people were made into human wonders" (Bogdan 1988: 200). While I think it is inappropriate to say that in darkness events human wonders are created, it seems correct to say that blind people here are created as competent people (Bogdan 1988: 233), in a way that aggrandizes their way of being normal and competent. An example comes to mind from the first press conference of "Dialogue in the Dark" that I attended in 1990. A young blind woman was introduced to the press as "a blind barkeeper"; imagining a blind person in that role was enough to create a sensation and generate admiration. Her normalcy was recast into the familiar role of "supercrip."

Blind guides and servers at darkness events are regularly showered with gratitude and esteem from the guests they serve. Entries in the visitors' book often say "thank you" to a special blind individual and refer to him or her by their first name. And sometimes visitors return for a second or even a third time, wishing to be guided by the blind person whom they already know. So it isn't completely wrong to state that darkness events create "blind stars." On the other hand, it isn't easy to draw the line between freak shows and educational events, as Susan Crutchfield (2005) has shown in her article on Helen Keller as vaudevillian freak.

One other major difference between freak shows and darkness events must be mentioned here. Rosemary Garland-Thomson (2005) has convincingly pointed out that an inalienable element of the freak show is the staring at the "other." For obvious reasons, that's not possible in darkness. Questions from diners may be seen as an equivalent to staring, but even the silliest question can start a conversation and be given a response that can change the perspective of the questioner. This really has to do with the mode of presentation: oral communication can tear down barriers that are often constructed visually. Many sighted visitors report that they find it inspiring to converse with people — be they sighted or blind — whom in the visual outside world they would normally never approach, for reasons of their disability, their perceived class status, lifestyle or membership in a particular "scene." In this respect, "normal life" for a blind person is closer to a freak show than any darkness event ever could be. In the words of a disabled person (not a blind one) cited by Sandell (2005): "We don't mind having people stare at us. We're used to it. We've never known anything else."

Darkness events share some elements of freak shows while lacking others. And the elements they share are akin to what Michael Chemers (2005) has in mind when he finds a utopian element in "midget" cities where, in communities constructed to be miniature representations of "normal"-scale buildings, people of short stature are no longer disabled — and they begin to create their own world. If blind participants in darkness events are likewise freaks, then it must be realized that they are active agents, part of a minority discourse, politicized, self-affirming and promoting their own narratives of peculiarity in the sense that Rosemary Garland-Thomson (1997) had in mind.

In terms of the role-reversal of power relations discussed above, in darkness the patrons become the freaks. Not only have the usual roles changed, the perspectives have changed as well. The blind perspective takes precedence over the sighted one and becomes self-evident. In darkness, sighted people have to leave their own world of assumptions and taken-for-grantedness, and even if they cannot enter the different world of blindness, they can knock at its door.

The Contradiction Between Economic Success And Mediation

In this section I compare the organizational structures, financial situations, and main interests of the different "Dining in the Dark" events and establishments, and relate them to the achievement of mediating blindness.

"Dialogue in the Dark" and "Dinner in the Dark" are sponsored by several global companies. They receive public funding within the framework of an action program for the integration of disabled people into the regular work force. In this regard, "Dinner in the Dark" restaurants are not exclusively focused on economic success. Guides normally serve only about ten guests on average. Although it also focuses centrally on blindness, "Dialogue in the Dark", through its success, has become a huge organization in which blind people have the lower-ranking positions and managers are sighted people. Self-determination has become, at a minimum, co-determination.

Aus:Sicht is a small foundation consisting of about thirty blind and sighted persons. Some, but not all, of the servers are members of the foundation. All servers work in "minijob" roles ("minijobs" are a defined low-wage sector of the German employment market) and are paid by the foundation, from the restaurant's proceeds.

The speaker of Aus:Sicht strongly disassociates their work from simply being an "outstanding gastronomic event": "For us it's very important to present a platform of communication between sighted and non-sighted people." The foundation achieves this aim by placing a strong emphasis on service. No blind employee should be responsible for more than ten guests; that enables real personal relationships to develop. As a result, the restaurant cannot accommodate more than seventy persons per evening. Sufficient time for extensive conversation is provided, so that the blind servers can put their guests at ease and answer their questions. Mediation of blindness is at the center of interest; earnings are only a necessary means of achieving such mediation. At Aus:Sicht, equality between blind and sighted workers functions best on an informal basis. But Aus:sicht works at irregular intervals and is dependant on support by friends, local businesses, and restaurant-owners.

The Blindekuh tries to combine economic success and self-determination on a formal basis. It is run by the Blind-Liecht foundation. The foundation is a non-profit organization; all members are volunteers, most are blind or visually disabled. In Switzerland, foundations that are tax-privileged for fund-raising purposes, are bound by law to reinvest its profits into its own projects for blind people. However, it is hardly dependent on subsidies and is a profitable enterprise. All the employees receive their payment "out of their own strength, through the work they accomplish," as Stefan Zappa writes. But they have to pay a price for this: in the evenings, each employee serves an average of 25 guests, and when the restaurant is overbooked, three waiters serve approximately 90 guests. Not surprisingly, one employee reported finding it difficult to juggle the tasks of serving guests promptly and answering all their questions concerning blindness. She resolves this problem by differentiating between main business periods: in the evening there's definitely not enough time, while at lunch there's more opportunity to communicate because the pressure is not as great.

In Noctivagus, in Unsicht-Bar in Cologne and Berlin and in Mediateam in Munich, economic success is the main goal, and blindness is a means to this end for "social entrepreneurs." Each employee has to serve about 25 guests on average. But there's no guarantee of economic success, as the example of Unsicht-Bar in Berlin shows: it went bankrupt under the direction of the Association for Blind People in Berlin (Berliner Blindenverband). (It was brought out of bankruptcy by its current owners in 2004.) These restaurants deserve criticism in that they foster virtually no communication of the sort originally intended. Nonetheless, they can be positive for the blind servers; blind students have great difficulty landing the sort of part-time jobs that non-disabled students can. In contradiction with David Gerber's (1996) arguments against the volition of disabled people, blind servers work there by choice.

There are several key examples that highlight the contradiction between economic success and enhanced sighted-blind communication.

Whereas in the little bar of "Dialogue in the Dark", and in all dark cafés, payment always takes place in the dark, in dark restaurants payment always takes place outside the dark area. In the first case, the blind and visually disabled workers show off their skills in identifying money by the differences in shape and size of the coins and notes, either by touching the coins with their hands or by using the so-called "cash-test", a little plastic template in which the notes are put. This procedure shifts the usual role expectations and stereotypes that the sighted and blind have of each other, because in darkness sighted people become dependent on the blind for help. Such dependence has always provided a good opportunity for blind workers to give their sighted guests a lecture on how society can enable or disable people: for example, by using coins and notes with different sizes and shapes, society enables blind people to use cash, but if all coins and notes were of the same size and shape (as they currently are in the United States, despite a recent court ruling), then blind people would feel as disabled and helpless as the sighted guests do here. Dark restaurants throw away this opportunity because they choose running a profitable restaurant over optimizing the "mediation": it's likely that the whole procedure would take too much time — mainly because of the sighted guests' "inability" — and thus the blind servers wouldn't be able to serve all their guests in the appropriate way and time. One could hire more blind and visually disabled servers but this would diminish the restaurant's profitability. Meals are chosen in the lighted lounge for the same reason.

Another example is mobility.

In all locations, servers guide the guests into the dark area to their tables and chairs in a sort of "bunny hop": the blind server leads a single file, and each person puts her/his hands on the shoulders of the person walking in front of her/him. Normally, guests are asked to stay at their seats, to prevent the danger of collisions between servers and guests. Guests who have to use the restroom are requested to ask the blind guides for assistance. But when the rush is over, mainly late in the evening, servers will occasionally walk around with guests who want to become more familiar with the room. Other times the guests aren't as orderly: "A business group, and a lot of alcohol, and the whole company was shaking a leg. So what, you cannot nail them down to the chairs. … if they have fun finding their way back to their chairs, then why not." Though this rule is not applied very strictly, here again, the organizers throw away an opportunity. They do not really think about whether this rule should simulate mobility restrictions for blind people. It is justified solely by practical reasons: the workers would not be able to serve properly and quickly enough if "clumsy" patrons were allowed to stroll around in the restaurant. But by installing tactile or audible guides designed to aid patrons in finding the restroom, restaurants could easily demonstrate how restaurants in normal society could simplify independent mobility for blind people.

The Phenomenology of the Dark Meal

Just as darkness can function as a mediator between sight and blindness, the dark meal can bridge the gap between blind and sighted diners. Let us have a look at the ways in which the dark meal is created and constructed. In all locations, the quality of the meals is high and prices are high as well, ranging from sixty to eighty-five dollars. Restaurants offer between two and six different, high-quality, three-course or four-course meals, including fish, meat and vegetarian dishes. The food served here is connected with higher social class status (Bourdieu 1990) or a higher-ranking style of living and experience (Schulze 1992). But it is also linked to blindness, as all participants report that darkness and blindness enhance the art of being a gourmand. This is attributed primarily to the superior opportunities for sensory experience.

An employee of blindekuh points out: "People say that in the dark they rely more on taste because they aren't as distracted … and they relish their food." When vision is no longer the dominant sense, the diner is free to intensify their attention to taste and smell.

To a large extent, the diner in the dark has a different experience than a real blind diner would have. With the exception of Blindekuh meals, all meals involve the element of surprise; guests don't know beforehand exactly what they are going to eat. Because the meals are always a surprise, identifying the food becomes a kind of game. Diners' success in the game varies widely. Sometimes it is "hair-raising", as a visually disabled employee of "Dinner in the Dark" puts it: "I can't believe it: recently, one guest didn't know whether he had eaten a potato or a slice of cabbage." Where the meat is a surprise, it is rarely identified. The speaker of Aus:Sicht reports that they once served a soup of limes that was taken by their guests for a tomato soup. For her, that mistake exemplifies how "impoverished" the sense of taste is in a sighted society. In the dark, sighted diners — and not blind ones — are disabled. That presents good opportunities for blind staff who, as blind diners can easily identify their food, to indicate the environmental nature of disability. In this domain they are not disadvantaged.

Though the vast majority of diners in the dark enjoy their meals, some diners fail to do so. Sometimes, the food's consistency is the problem — some people are very sensitive to edible things that are slightly slippery. In such cases, some diners manage to have a positive experience nonetheless by simply sorting out the unwelcome things without making any complaints.

In contrast to blind people, most sighted diners lose their table manners in the dark: they try to eat with cutlery but then find themselves using their fingers too, either for picking things up or for pushing things on to their forks. Some people even forgo their cutlery altogether. Sighted table manners thus seem to be absent in the darkness.

Drinking seems to be less problematic than eating. Servers bring the first drinks to the table. The next ones are poured mainly by the guests themselves, mostly with success. There are surprisingly few spills. And guests don't have problems in identifying their drinks.

Nonetheless, the vulnerability of visual perception in everyday life and the preeminence of that perception's enormous capability to resurface — are articulated in two common features present in "Dining in the Dark" settings. The first is that rattled diners receive visual reassurance afterwards. To engender confidence, a prototype of every kind of meal — not dirty tablecloths and placemats — is presented in the illuminated foyer. An employee of "Dinner in the Dark" reports that sighted guests are very astonished after their dark meals: "Incredible — that's what I ate?! It looks so nice".

Second, with the exception of "Dialogue in the Dark", where a blind guide always meets guests at the beginning of the dark area, the blind or visually disabled servers welcome the visitors in the lighted zone.

Both practices must be criticized because they are oriented towards the usual patterns in lighted restaurants, in which guests can see their meals and their servers. Because the practices are designed to foster confidence visually, they disrupt the experiment in mediating blindness, and therefore raise questions about which perceptual requirements should be prioritized.

For example, a blind "Gästebetreuer" reports an interesting argument between the blind employees and the sighted management about the weight of cutlery: "If you are eating a soup with a heavy spoon … you never know if there's anything in your spoon or not. And because of that it's better to use cutlery that is lighter, even if the guests may think it's cheap." Here the differences between the blind and the sighted diner appear, and the crucial question arises of where the gourmand fits in. Is (s)he closer to the sighted side, as the management suspects, in its fear that light cutlery could be viewed as a loss of quality? Or is (s)he closer to the blind side, as the blind employees suppose from their own perspective of blind perception? In this regard, the organizers of Dining in the Dark should be more attentive to the way they present and stage the whole event. The more "the extraordinary" is at the center of interest, the more the sighted gourmand's standards need to be met. The more blindness is the central attraction, the focus shifts to a different set of standards.

We have seen that "Dining in the Dark" is a presented, staged and performed event, and no mere simulation of blindness. Again, the organizers must ponder whether, at its core, the event is designed as a mediation of blindness or "an extraordinary gastronomic event" in terms of its very concept. If the first is the case, performative elements, such as the presentation of the meal in the lit area or the weight of the cutlery, should be de-emphasized.

Darkness And Liminality: The Sighted Experience

In the context of the darkness movement, the elements of equality, change in perspectives, role-reversal, role exchanges, and empathizing with the "other" are important issues that are relevant to articulate. These issues are referred to as "public relations" by blind stakeholders. The differences between "outstanding gastronomic events" and "mediations of blindness" are reflected by the entries in visitors' books.

Unsicht-Bar and Blindekuh have published excerpts of their visitors' books on the Internet. In the "outstanding gastronomic event," the exciting experience is all-important: "Never before was food so tast(e)y [sic] & wine so great — I've enjoyed so greatly — it's so great to touch people & smell them — much better than sighted — Felice is great!! Yours." (ORLY — 23.5.2002) But even here a reference to blindness is made: it appears in the shape of Felice, the visually disabled Gästebetreuer.

In the context of mediating blindness, contact with the blind "other" is the main subject: "Being in Blindekuh was unforgettable and unique. Thank you for an experience between the worlds." (Rahel, 31.5.2005)

What here is called an "experience between the worlds" is central. When it works well, the communication process between blind and sighted people in darkness generates a liminal experience (van Gennep 1908; Turner 1969). According to Turner (1969,1974), in hypermodern societies the liminal stage can continue for a very long time, if not indefinitely. Some scholars have found this notion fruitful for disability studies (Deegan 1989; Willett and Deegan 2001; Murphy 1990), since "disability" can create a kind of permanent liminality with undefined status and roles, and with imprecise knowledge about this group within society, thereby leaving the disabled person categorically "betwixt and between."

What is unique about the darkness movement is that it positions sightedness as the liminal actor. In darkness, sighted people are separated from light, from their "normal" status in society, and are led into a liminal state of existence. As Victor Turner wrote, liminality is "a fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities, not a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structures, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to postliminal existence" (Turner 1986: 42). It is exactly this quality of darkness-as-liminal that sighted guests experience: in their re-entry to sightedness they bring with them a new appreciation for managing in darkness.

"Dining in the Dark," therefore, can be seen as a rite of passage out of darkness into lighted society, a rite in which sighted guests and blind servers celebrate together. In so doing, they claim new knowledge about one another and begin to define viable roles and statuses that could exist for blind and visually disabled people in society. Furthermore, it demonstrates that solutions to the "disability" of blindness lie in the creation of a more universally accessible society, and not in the ability or skills of particular individuals to overcome existing barriers.

Conclusion

In terms of its achievements, omissions, and shortcomings in improving the social position of blind and visually disabled people in society, darkness events and meals can, as shown above, promote and enhance communication between blind and sighted people, to varying extents, depending on the structure, organization, and central purpose of these events.

Furthermore, "Dining In the Dark" experiences appear to have positive outcomes for both the blind and sighted individuals participating in them. For blind individuals there is the added value of the mediation itself, which extends beyond simple "conversation": the role reversal in power status and inversion of who is "freaked" by these events is largely the purpose of these ritualized performances. On the practical side, blind people learn job skills and self-confidence, and sighted people form more realistic impressions of the abilities of blind people to perform in the workforce. They also begin to appreciate positive aspects of blindness (such as the embodied, sensory, and tactile experiences described above). In this light, "Dining in the Dark" phenomena are opportunities to promote blind culture and are celebrations of blindness. They certainly re-orient the locus of the "problem" of blindness to a disabling environment. With this knowledge one can hope to develop a more universally designed society.

References

  • Aus:sicht: retrieved 10 October 2006 from http://www.aus-sicht.de
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