Far from being a sheer individual and thus personal experience, blindness is a social one. It is an experience that "comes to us" — to blind and sighted people alike — always-already framed by and wrapped in the "one size fits all" conceptual and material cloak of culture. In this sense, there is no direct experience of blindness since, to experience it, is to experience a multitude of cultural representations of what it culturally means to be blind and to be sighted. All disability experience, including blindness, is mediated, or at the risk of sounding glib — no culture, no experience and, therefore, no disability. In what follows, I explore the social process of such mediation by theorizing everyday life examples of living "with" and living "in" blindness (Michalko 1999, 172-188).
Culture Standard Time
Like anything else, blindness is an iconic figure that makes an appearance only on and within, to borrow from Judith Butler (1993, 28), the sceneographic background of culture. Still, it can be said that blindness experience comes to us in qualitatively different ways. I can say, for example, that I experience blindness directly since I am blind and that you, if you are not, experience it indirectly. And yet, this first and second order distinction of experience collapses into the heuristic heap that it is when we come to "see" that the temporal experience of blindness, its durée, in Henri Bergson (1910) terms, its experiential timing, originates in the "cultural clock" always set to "culture standard time." And, this is as true of your experience of blindness as it is of mine. Our "blindness time" is always set to "culture standard time" and we do synchronize our watches from time to time. We do so insofar as blindness, first and foremost, needs to "make sense" in a world socially organized through and by some version of "seeing" — a version that presupposes an objective world "to-be-seen." Thus, we "watch" and take care that this world remains as it is, seen and see-able, and we synchronize our watches from time to time, especially at the time when blindness makes an appearance. What time is it? What time is blindness? Blindness time is always a time for something, most often a time for something other than itself. Blindness is certainly the time to re-set its time to the "sighted watch." Blindness time is the time to set its time, at least in contemporary western time, to ophthalmology, to terror, to denial, to anger, to self-pity and finally, to acceptance. Blindness time is the time to set its time to rehabilitation, to a person who merely happens to be blind, to being synchronized with the time of being "like-everyone-else." Thus, blindness time is set at the "right time" and the right time is, of course, "culture standard time." And what is this "culture standard time"? It is time for blindness to be sighted once again and for the first time. This seeming paradox is not so paradoxical really, at least in one sense. For those who are congenitally blind, blindness time is the time to recognize that there is such a thing called seeing and that there are things to be seen or, as Alfred Schutz (1973) says, to recognize that there is a world, "just there," for all of us to "see." The world and sight are both "just-there" and both take each other for granted. Sight does not see either its own or the world's just-thereness, since they are both "just there." Blindness, though, needs to "see" the just-thereness of the world in order to believe it — to believe that the world is there to-be-seen at least, by some. This is the time to orient to this world, to develop an orientation to seeing and sights. Sara Ahmed (2006) speaks of orientation as a beginning and congenital blindness time marks an orientation, a beginning. It is the time for blindness to set its time to the time of seeing, for the first time, from the beginning. And, for those of us who are adventitiously blind, it is time for us to see again. Sight comes to us "again" through the curative power of medicine and, if this fails, as it usually does, sight comes to us with the transformative power of rehabilitation. It is time for both congenital and adventitious blindness to see again, like everyone else, albeit differently and to do most of the things that everyone else does, albeit differently. To take liberties with the parlance of the day, it is time for blindness to become differently sighted.
The Time for Blindness
Culture standard time is always the time for blindness. It is the time for blindness to make an appearance in the word not only to sight but for sight. We do, as Hannah Arendt (1971) suggests, make an appearance in the world and we do so to and for others. In this, blindness is no exception except that it appears as exceptional. Blindness appears to and for us as an exception to the "rule of sight." We all have our time. We come into the world at a particular historical moment, at a time when that particular history is being played out and thus reproduced and reconfigured as the present that is, in turn, reproduced and reconfigured as a movement into a ubiquitous future. Our time is set, reset, and told within the infinity that marks the movement of a human collective as it continuously strives to carve out the meaning of being human as you and I (we) make an appearance to and for one another. And, the meaning we make "at the time" blindness appears is exceptionality — an exception, moreover, that we make appear as something that must be standardized through, as Henri-Jacques Stiker (1999, 128) puts it, drowning it in the social whole. In culture standard time, then, blindness marks time as appearing for sight as its time to set blindness time to the right time.
The Time of Blindness
Let me illustrate these theoretical tropes regarding blindness time by telling a story that demonstrates the telling of culture standard time. I am walking down the street, my street, Bloor Street, in Toronto. I am walking in the way that blind people who use white canes walk — step forward with my left foot, move my white cane to the right, step forward with my right foot, move my cane to the left and keep doing this. This feels "dorky" as blind playwright and performer Lynn Manning says in his play Weights and so it must look dorky. This surely is a dorky way to walk down the street but, as Manning also tells us, "we'll make it look cool."
But, how cool can this dorky blind walk be? Not cool enough for everyone on Bloor Street to take up the white cane and get into the dorky walk. Sometimes, though, not often, but sometimes, it is cool. For example, I left my apartment building one evening to join a couple of friends at a local bar. Incidentally, this bar is located on the bottom floor of my apartment building this is very cool. I entered the door knowing that in a few steps my cane would come in touch with the pool table, a landmark I use to locate a table at which I usually sit. I squared myself to the door and began the dorky walk. In a few steps, someone yelled "Watch it, you"re going to hit the pool table." (I will watch this phrase "watch it" a little later.) I replied, "Thanks, I know." In another couple of steps my cane touched the pool table and in touching the edge of it with my hand, I proceeded to follow it to its end. As I did so, I said, "See" (a response to "watch it," I think). "See, I follow the table to the end, hit the carpeting, and a few more steps and I"m at my seat."
"Oh cool," came the response from the same man who warned me to "watch it." But now, the man was watching me since, through my explanation, I told him to "watch it." The "it" refers, of course, to my way of locating a seat in the bar. "It" also refers to the normative order tacitly employed by anyone for locating a seat in a bar. And this "it" is what I always watch and is what I asked the man to watch, at least, for a moment. Whether or not the man saw the "it" that I asked him to watch is something I don't know but I do know that I placed the "it" directly in his field of vision. Blindness time, then, became the time to "watch it."
The story doesn't end here. Leaving the bar later with my friends Tanya and Jim, I retraced my tracks — carpeting, pool table, door. As I approached the end of the pool table a man, a different one from before, said, "How's it going?"
"I"m good," I replied, "shooting a little pool?"
He said "Yeah," and I asked him if he was winning.
He said, "Tough fucking shot I got here." I asked him what sort of shot he had. He described it to me and we joked about how hard the shot was and how I had as much of a chance of sinking it as he did.
I surprised him by saying "Let me check it out." I moved to the other end of the table and Tanya helped me locate the ball he was trying to make. I then walked back to the other end of the table and asked the man to show me where the cue ball was. He did. I then joked about using my white stick to make the shot. Everyone around the pool table laughed. We were all having a very good time. I then said that I though I'd better use the real stick to make this shot. The man handed me his pool stick and I handed him my white one. Locating the cue ball, I leaned over the shot. As I did so, Tanya moved to the other end of the table, bent down and made a bunch of loud noises close to the ball I was trying to hit. I added drama — I stood up from the shot and said, "Chalk, I need chalk."
Everyone laughed and the man handed me the chalk. I chalked the cue stick very deliberately. And, to the sound of laughter again, I located the cue ball once more and leaned over the shot. With the exception of the noises Tanya was making, everyone suddenly became silent. Drawing out the silence and with the air of a real pool shark, I stroked the cue ball and, believe it or not, I made the shot.
The place erupted. There were cheers and high fives. Very coolly, I turned and held the pool stick out to the man. He took it, gave me my white cane, and said, "That was fucking cool." He gave me one more high-five and my friends and I left the bar.
Here we have a two-part story and a fairly ordinary one. There was nothing really extraordinary about a man entering a bar or about people playing pool. We "see" these things all the time. What is extraordinary about this two-part story is, of course, that one of its characters is blind. Blindness doesn't ordinarily make an appearance in any sighted realm, let alone in a bar, and it almost never makes an appearance in the ream of shooting pool.
Meeting friends in a bar, shooting a little pool — these are ordinarily activities conducted in the socially organized spatiality of sight. And, they are also activities conducted in the "time zone" of culture standard time — time to meet up in the bar, time to shoot a little pool.
Enter blindness into this time zone. From what time zone blindness has come is not certain, but what is certain is that it is from a different zone. It is also certain that blindness time is not set to culture standard time, to the time zone it has just entered. "Watch it," the man says. I watch and I see, his words echo around the zone of sight, that it is time for me to go around the pool table. But when I watch you, you from a different time zone, I see that it is time for you to hit the pool table. But, then, you tell me that the pool table is not only a pool table, it is a landmark and so is the carpeting. "Cool!" we are in the same time zone. Your time zone, a private one really, a zone with no sight and no sights comes into my time zone, one of sight and sights, a public one really, and you are "able" to reset your clock to my time — this is very cool. And there was an even more dramatic resetting of blindness to culture standard time. There is no pool in your blindness time zone, you make a pool shot — this is fucking cool.
Cool Blindness Time
What is cool about blindness time making an appearance in culture standard time is that these two time zones are made to appear as if they co-exist but in one time zone. What is cool is that culture standard time "sees" (understands) blindness time as desiring to reset its clock. "Watch it" — watch what? What is the "it"? Blindness is not merely entering the time zone of culture standard time, it is re-entering it. In fact, blindness has never left this time zone, it merely "looks" as if it did — it looks dorky. Looking dorky represents a potential danger for anyone entering a new time zone or entering any kind of zone, for that matter. Anyone might "run into things" and look dorky or even hurt themselves if they don't "watch it."
What is cool is that blindness time resets its clock to culture standard time with the mechanism of "figuring-out." Blindness is the time to figure out sight and the subsequent sighted configuration of the world. Blind people doing this figuring out are admired by sighted people and when such figuring out turns into "figured out," sighted people think this is cool. Sight thinks blindness is cool when it can tell the time — when its time is the time to figure out sight and sights, when blindness "sees" its time as the time for sight and that there is no other time zone.
Now, it is a fact — even though it isn't true — that blindness is the opposite of sight. In fact, we know of the existence of sight because of its opposite, the existence of blindness. It might even be said that sight owes its existence to blindness. But, this is only a fact within the equally untrue fact of the conception of culture standard time understood as the only time zone. Nonetheless, sight needs blindness and this is cool.
But, sight needs blindness even more than this. Sight cannot see itself nor can it see itself seeing and this is not only a fact, it is also true. Sight does, however, see blindness figuring out the configuration of sights, the "just-thereness" of an objective world in culture standard time. Ironically, this marks a beginning for sight to see itself, to "watch it." Blindness can be the time, the occasion, for sight to see itself as a constant, continuous "figuring out" of a configuration of sights and to see that this act of "figuring out" is the act of constructing and generating a "just-there-world-for-anyone-to-see." The subjectivity of blindness, blind people, making an appearance in the world as figures who figure out is the time for sight to figure out that it configures not only a "just-there" world but also a sighted subjectivity, sighted people. Blindness time is the time for us (blind people) to "see" that we are wearing "mirrored shades". When sight "looks blindness in the eye" it does not see its opposite, it sees itself. Blindness reflects sight and it shows sight to itself, something it cannot see without blindness. Blindness time, our time, is the time for sight, for normalcy, to develop self-understanding and this is fucking cool.
- Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Arendt, Hannah. 1971. The Life of the Mind. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.
- Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
- Bergson, Henri. 2009. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Ithica, New York: Cornell Library Press.
- Michalko, Rod. 1999. The Two-in-One: Walking with Smokie, Walking with Blindness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Schutz, Alfred. 1973. Collected Papers, Volume One: The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
- Stiker, Henri-Jacques. 1999. The History of Disability. Trans. William Sayers. Foreword by David T. Mitchell. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.