Blindness Through the Looking Glass expands on ten years of ethnographic fieldwork, with 40 blind women in Israel, examining blindness and sightedness through the lens of gender identity and performance. Applying a robust interdisciplinary framework that draws on anthropology, critical disability and blindness studies and visual cultural studies, Hammer interrogates the relationship between blindness and sight and disability and ability. She shows how these experiences are mutually constructed and interrelated and disentangles entrenched cultural associations between beauty and goodness, seeing and knowing, and femininity and the body. What results is a full and reflexive analysis of the behaviors, experiences and relations involved in the making and performance of gender and disability identity. Hammer demonstrates a command of the literature and different perspectives across fields. Disability and blindness studies scholars, especially, will recognize and appreciate references to Rod Michalko, John Hull, Stephen Kuusisto, Sally French, Osagie Obasogie, and Georgina Kleege, who provides the foreword.

The objectives of the book are to give voice to blind women's experiences of gender, beauty and femininity, a group typically left out of such conversations, and challenge the "already-always power" (Hammer, 2013) of sight and able-bodiedness. Its main content is broken down into three sections under, gender identity; the dynamics of visual culture and; the sensory body. Section one tackles the visual dimensions of gender socialization, appearance management and romantic relationships, and reveals how blind women understand and perform beauty and femininity, mitigate disability stereotypes and navigate visual rituals of courtship and intimacy. Of the main findings, we learn unsurprisingly that blind women's appearance management varies, with greater or lesser care given to it, based on different social contexts, personal preferences and priorities like work, dating, a desire to be comfortable, feel sexy and be taken seriously. Appearance management operates at the intersection of multiple social categories to accommodate the gendered, multi-sensory and disabled body; and align with local norms, resist disability stigma, and demonstrate self-discipline of femininity and personhood. The interpretation of visual norms and culture- knowing without seeing- is found to be an important function of identity performance and assertion of agency that fosters intimacy and pleasure, particularly in dating. In dating encounters where disability stigma is a barrier to connection, the women perform what Hammer calls a "feminine-blind-personhood" (p. 77)—the embodiment of dominant culture and that of pushing back to navigate and subvert romantic conventions and liberate choice. This is an especially illuminating observation because it demonstrates how intersectionality works in practice and how identities function ontologically in and through narratives, to cite Margaret Somers (1994).

Section two invites readers to 'rethink the gaze through the prism of blindness' by considering the different ways we see (and understand) one another. Emphasis is given to examining how hyper-visual culture is used and countered to reconstruct what it means to see and be seen. To contextualize the analysis, Hammer investigates how blind and sighted people interact and participate in a dark museum exhibit. Visitors, Hammer included, are taken through a "sensory rite of passage" (p. 102), getting an idea of what it means to be blind as they experience situations without sight through, for example, tasting and smelling different foods, feeling temperature changes on their skin, and different terrain under their feet. In the absence of sight, performance is liberated and staring and gazing are more than just visual acts of sexualizing, normalizing and objectifying. They become non-visual, reciprocal and sometimes subversive instances of display between parties and an opportunity to express and interact freely without the scrutiny of sight. Setting aside the problems of disability simulations like this, using stereotypical representations of disability and endangering an outsized appreciation for able-bodiedness, the dark museum exhibit confirms power asymmetries in visual culture and reveals what can happen when these relations and the hard lines between sightedness and blindness; ability and disability are tested (albeit temporarily).

The last section of the book is the most compelling and illuminating in my opinion. Hammer documents dialogic performances, the physical "conversations" initiated between people with different abilities (p. 136), and intersensory experiences, like speech, non-verbal communication and kinesthetic movement (p. 30; Geurts, 2002, p. 178). She reveals how the senses are articulated as a spectrum of corporeal and cultural experiences and highlights how all people, not just sighted people, have sensory knowledge and capital in visually-dominant cultures (p. 150). The context and focus of Hammer's analysis is a tandem cycling group of blind and sighted people working together with different abilities. We learn about their heightened intersensory experiences and that the visual realm is both seen and felt and navigated with mutual trust, collaboration and interdependence. The closeness created and required to work together on the tandem bicycles, prompts self-reflection among group members about what constitutes sight and ability, leading Hammer to conclude that shared experiences between people, that call for and regard different physical abilities, can challenge and change perceptions and perspectives and do away with stigma.

Gili Hammer's rich text makes a fresh and important contribution to multiple fields of study by showing how visual-material culture is a multi-sensory field shared by and between people with different interests, expectations and abilities. The personal narratives and participatory interactions presented, foreground the spectrum of experiences involved in the making of gender; bring much needed nuance to the meaning of beauty and femininity; blind and sight; disability and ability; and prompt a reconsideration of identity norms and hierarchies. Ultimately, Hammer succeeds at uncoupling visual/cultural associations and presenting blindness and sightedness as subjective, dynamic and relational rather than fixed and distinct from one another. Most importantly, and being the broader message I believe, it elevates and celebrates blindness and disability as valuable perspectives and embodiments with teaching and learning potential within and beyond the research context.

References

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