17 October 2012

Shannon Lecture: Renumbering the Sensorium: How the Blind Man Lost a Cane and Regained His Senses

The third in this year's Shannon Lecture series at Carleton University on the theme Making Sense: History and the Sensory Past is:

“Renumbering the Sensorium: How the Blind Man Lost a Cane and Regained His Senses”
Georgina Kleege, University of California, Berkeley

October 19, 3:00pm, 303 Paterson Hall, Carleton University

I will begin with a discussion of the figure I call The Hypothetical Blind Man, who has long served as a prop for theories of consciousness. From the Enlightenment to the present, philosophers and cognitive scientists have compared the epistemology and ontology of the normative sighted subject to the experiences of an idealized blind man who is always understood to be both totally and congenitally blind, and to live so far at the margins of society as to have little or no exposure to visual concepts and terminology. Theorists devised a one-to-one correspondence between the two eyes of the sighted man and the two hands of the blind man. If the sighted man is all eyes, the blind man is all hands. It is as if neither man has any other sense experience. . I will compare these theoretical treatments of blindness to autobiographical accounts by blind writers, artists, scientists and philosophers. These accounts affirm the significance of touch in blind experience, but also complicate our understanding of tactile and haptic sensation. I will also consider their descriptions of other sense experiences. In all these instances the point is not that blind people are endowed with supernaturally enhanced sensation, rather they develop techniques of heightened attention and interpretation. At the same time, they demonstrate the many ways that the senses work in combination and counterpoint. Finally, I will suggest that our traditional understanding of five discrete sensory modalities is inadequate to describe the diversity of human sensory experience.

Georgina Kleege joined the English department at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003 where in addition to teaching creative writing classes she teaches courses on representations of disability in literature, and disability memoir.  Her collection of personal essays, Sight Unseen (1999) is a classic in the field of disability studies.  Essays include an autobiographical account of Kleege’s own blindness, and cultural critique of depictions of blindness in literature, film, and language.  Many of these essays are required reading for students in disability studies, as well as visual culture, education, public health, psychology, philosophy and ophthalmology.  Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller (2006) transcends the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction to re-imagine the life and legacy of this celebrated disability icon.  Kleege’s current work is concerned with blindness and visual art: how blindness is represented in art, how blindness affects the lives of visual artists, how museums can make visual art accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired.  She has lectured and served as consultant to art institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

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