Thoughts from John Hull & ‘Notes on Blindness’

John Hull was meant to join us at a speaker at the ‘Blindness’ event in May 2014. Unfortunately, he had to pull out at the last minute due to ill health. However, John has generously agreed to share some thoughts he had in relation to the event on this site. When preparing for the event, each speaker was asked to respond to two questions: How can the non-blind understand blindness? and How can blindness be represented? Here are John’s responses:

How can the non-blind understand blindness?

There are, of course, many kinds of understanding.  As someone who has had no light sensation for more than 30 years, I have never stopped wondering about the meaning of blindness, and I am not sure if meaning is the same thing as understanding.  I think that total blindness is a life world, in the sense used by Alfred Schutz and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  It is so far removed from the life world of sighted people that mutual comprehension is difficult.  Darkness and light are antithetical.  Since I have no light I do not experience darkness; I am in a place beyond light and darkness.  What does that mean?  Inter-subjectivity works on the presupposition of reciprocity but between blind and sighted people reciprocity is damaged.  I draw a fundamental distinction between sighted people who cannot see and blind people.  You cannot simulate the blind condition by closing your eyes.

Some sighted people seem to have a kind of intuitive empathy which creates a strangely beautiful sense of acceptance within a common humanity.  Love overcomes all barriers.

> How can blindness be represented?

How can the different human worlds speak to each other?  The gift of art is to enlarge imagination, not to shrink from difference and to be ready for vulnerability.  Blindness cannot be presented cognitively without emotion since to encounter another world is also to understand one’s self.

John Hull’s books on blindness are Touching the Rock (re-issued 2013 from SPCK with a forward Oliver Sacks); In the Beginning there was Darkness (SCM Press, 2001); and The Tactile Heart: Blindness and Faith (SCM Press, 2013).  He has written the theological section of Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource (DLT, 2014), pp. 49-100.

Here you can watch the short film Notes on Blindness, made by James Spinney and Peter Middleton. Notes on Blindness is a New York Times Op-Doc, which premiered at Sundance in January 2014. The film uses John Hull’s original audio diary recordings, kept between 1983 and 1986, which were later published as Touching The Rock.   

About londoninterdisciplinarydiscussiongroup

Susie Christensen recently completed a PhD about modernist literature and neurology at King's College London.
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