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Expert comment: The Metanarrative of Blindness - The Research and the Reprint

David Bolt 150 x 150 Thursday 11 February 2016

Associate Professor David Bolt describes the process of researching and writing for The Metanarrative of Blindness, which is due to be reprinted in paperback.

David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s book series Corporealities: Discourses of Disability has been published by the University of Michigan Press since the end of the twentieth century. Having been impressed by its titles from the start, I was delighted when my own monograph became part of the series in 2014. This delight was sustained when the publisher recently informed me that in the next few weeks the book, The Metanarrative of Blindness, will be reprinted in paperback.

The book, which I use with my undergraduate and postgraduate students, provides a critical engagement with literary representations of blindness that is broadly appreciative of personal, social, and cultural aspects of disability. My aim in the book is to aid curricular reform by contributing to the interdisciplinary field that brings literary scholars to the growing discipline of disability studies (and vice versa). 

My students have enquired from time to time about how I first approached this project. My initial research question pertained to the vast amount of knowledge we seem to have about people who have visual impairments. Why are they/we often rendered as both asexual and hypersexual? Why are they/we both stared at and ignored? Why are they/we deemed both ignorant and extraordinarily intelligent? How are these and other such binaries located in the cultural imagination? How does the cultural imagination impact on society?

With these questions in mind, I adopted the methodology of textual analysis and took as my starting point the concept of normate reductionism that, as my students are well aware, derives from the early work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Her field-defining monograph, Extraordinary Bodies, refers to the received notion of a so-called normal person as the normate, and suggests that most destructive to the potential for continuing relations is the normate’s frequent assumption that a disability cancels out other qualities, reduces the complex person to one attribute. I expanded on this model of social friction by adding that, ironically, normate reductionism simultaneously invokes an array of extraneous details. The complex person who has a visual impairment is not only reduced to that impairment, but also keyed to what I came to call the metanarrative of blindness (i.e., a vast array of received notions and universals about “the blind”).

In a deconstructive vein, I explored this metanarrative of blindness by unveiling the binaries in 40 works of twentieth-century Anglophone literature. That is to say, I identified and analysed some of the ways in which the metanarrative of blindness has been invoked by writers ranging from J. M. Synge to Brian Friel, from Mary Norton to Susan Sontag, from James Joyce to James Kelman, and so on. While I found that the metanarrative (pertaining to reproduction, dependency, monstrosity, beauty, and suicide among other things) can be traced back to antiquity, its presence in twentieth-century representations warrants special attention because of a resonance with the Anglo-American science of eugenics. People who happened to have a visual impairment in the early twentieth-century fell victim to, for instance, institutional segregation in Britain, sterilisation in America, and extermination in Nazi Germany, not to mention the implications of later developments in prenatal testing (i.e., the potential to screen out people with a genetic visual impairment). In this truly terrible Modernist project, personhood was effectively displaced in favour of a totalising scheme. 

In the book I reveal the extent to which such practices corresponded with the contemporaneous representations of blindness and conclude that attitudes toward people who had visual impairments were often informed by the metanarrative of blindness.

Although the book is available in our library, a number of my most dedicated students and closest colleagues still choose to purchase their own copy. Given the cost of hardback books, I’m therefore very pleased indeed that the publisher has decided to print a more affordable paperback alternative.

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