This text (this assemblage of texts) is from a while ago, but I mentioned Hull's account* last week in relation to speaking into the dark, so it's copied below for completeness. In the wider context of other writing I've been doing this week (on recording speech, for instance), it's worth keeping in mind that Hull, being blind, recorded his accounts into a dictaphone rather than writing them down. What effect did this have upon his thoughts and their composition?

* references at foot of BLOG main page


Below is an extract from John M. Hull’s 1990 account of his experience of blindness, paired with an extract from my own earlier account of ‘half-bind’ drawing. My text wasn’t written with this particular passage of Hull’s book-length account in mind, although the book has generally provided useful insights into blindness which have informed my drawing experiments. This passage I came upon for the first time this morning. That they were written separately means that while certain clear parallels between the two texts emerge, the parallels are not resolved nor as generative as they might be. They are open, or open-ended. Nevertheless, as they are, their pairing roughly indicates one way in which the terms of parallel but distinct metaphorical chains can be crossed to build up, share or blur networks of associations between them.

“Once he is on it, a stairway is one of the safest places for a blind person. You never find a chair left on a stairway, or a bucket or a brick. There is never a stair missing from a stairway, and all the stairs are the same height. There is almost always a handrail or at least a wall to touch. There may be some uncertainty about the top step and the bottom step, but with the white cane, that problem is simplified.


“What the blind find difficult are smooth, open spaces. It is just these areas which are assumed by many sighted people to be the best for the blind, because there is no danger of tripping. From the blind point of view, however, a flat, open surface is not negotiable because there are no orienting signals. There is no structure. It is not predictable, because it may end at any moment, and there is no way of telling where you are, once you are on it. The problem for the blind person is not falling over, but knowing where he is. For this reason, it is easier to find my way around a campus which is marked out by steps, little hills and valleys, low walls and lots of changes in texture, because I can mark out my route with sections. The structure becomes a sequence when I am moving through it.

“Let us take another example of an unpredictable structure. Sometimes my route over a forecourt is obstructed by cars parked at different angles from each another. The danger is not that I might walk into a car but that I will get lost. Blind people do sometimes walk into the edges of doors or into obstructions sticking out at head height, but it is unusual for a blind person to walk into a wall or a parked car. The white cane gives sufficient warning of the presence of such a large object. The problem is rather than having negotiated around three sides of the vehicle it is difficult to pick up one’s route in exactly the same direction. If, with the next step, a second parked car is discovered, lying at a different angle, and then a third, it is almost impossible to align oneself with the original route. You have to try to maintain in your mind a map showing all these angles and set it against the original direction. This is what I call an unpredictable structure.”

“Once paired, pencil and eye must move exactly in time with one another: if either temporarily slows down or speeds up, inconsistencies of scale tend to be introduced. If they both move too quickly details might be missed that likely cannot be revisited for correction later on. There is little chance of amendment because there is no looking at the page—no aerial perspective from which the pencil might swoop and peck at earlier errors or omissions. Every detail must be attended to on the ground, so to speak, at the very time and place it is first encountered. Burrowing grub-like about the surface of the page, the tip of the pencil maintains contact with the object only by the contact it maintains with the paper, so if it is detached from the page, the object and the drawing drop out of sight and cannot be retrieved.

“This said, I can sometimes find a brief window of opportunity to adjust marks laid down very recently and very close by. It can be possible to retrace a route just taken provided that the muscles of the hand can remember the last few flexes of its fingers or the last adjustment of its wrist, and is able to repeat this sequence of movements in reverse. The memory of the hand offers a couple of inches of revision—a second or so—and this redress can be put to use strategically. Unless the object is very simple indeed, frequent decisions need making about the route of the proboscis about the surface. At a certain scale the junction of knuckle and fingers, for instance, might comprise five approximate routes short enough that each finger might be traced onto the page with each return trip to the knuckle brief enough and swift enough that the muscle memory of my drawing hand can render it all quite well. It is a different matter at more complex or multiple junctions: where a forearm intersects a collarbone for instance, escalates into a hand of its own and then needs returning to the collarbone to intersect it a little further along, such that the positions and angles of the arm and the remaining length of collarbone look uninterrupted by my foray through the hand and back again. The muscles of my drawing hand cannot to remember a procedure as complex as this so tides of error are be introduced: the form ends up flayed across the page, elements pivoting through one another at every junction. Here a strategic approach might be to crawl along the ground in a series of branching advances and retreats, or to choose the routes that might be salvaged by muscle memory and attend to them together, accepting as inevitable that regions with sparse detail will disorient the pairing of pencil and eye.”

The pairing of these passages suggests two points of departure for further examination. Firstly, it might be formally compared with the pairing of metaphors found in Story of the Eye, in which the two metaphorical chains were written very much with one another in mind and never existed outside of their pairing. How might the two metaphorical chains be written together differently in order to contaminate one another as Barthes describes—or indeed, do the references to blindness and the white cane in my original account do this work sufficiently on their own?

Secondly, it might be searched for points of differentiation between the two accounts, which may turn out to be productive in unexpected ways. For instance: when I am drawing blind, there is no advantage in identifying memorable routes as Hull does on a university campus, because while he expects to repeat his journey as it becomes increasingly familiar, I expect to navigate my object only once, and should the pencil come to retrace the same route on the page I am blind to the fact, since the lines leave no tactile trace I can register by touch a second time around. Equally, while Hull and I encounter similar problems of navigation when forced to detour from our routes by obstacles too numerous or irregular to track, it seems appropriate to use the word ‘unpredictable’ of his dilemma but not of mine. The track he expects to rejoin is already there waiting for him in such a way that he might predict its whereabouts with more or less success; the track I expect to rejoin is only notional: it will not exist on the paper until I draw it, in which case it is not truly a rejoining at all. It only makes sense to call the whereabouts of my intended line unpredictable if I imagine some ideal rendering of my object to be lying on the page already, and my task is to copy it as exactly as I can. And yet with the kind of navigation blind drawing requires, the idea or ideal of prediction seems helpful nevertheless, even if only as an ideal to push against. It takes a feat of memory for either of us to continue our route with success, but is success the same for each of us? I conclude my own account:

“I am reluctant to admit that when finally I look at the page I want it to look good. I want the drawing to resemble the object, I want to have strategized well, left nothing off, got things mostly in the right places. Where there are tangles and errors I want them to be of the illuminating kind, giving the object new qualities in some way appropriate to its character rather than diminishing or distracting from it. I am reluctant to admit these preferences because they run counter to the project of half-blind drawing as I have set it out to myself: that the surface of the drawing and the surface of the object are conflated into a singular encounter with the object so undifferentiated that it is finally more of a mutual absorption than an encounter."

It is easy to imagine that by contrast, for the blind navigator good navigation is straightforwardly a good thing. What counts as good navigation might be more nuanced when one is trying to end up with a drawing that recalls the route rather than trying to end up at a certain location by a certain time, and to end up there without coming to harm. But the contrast can be overstated, and perhaps it conceals some common ground. While Hull did not set out for himself a strategic project of blindness—going blind was not a plan he undertook in order to better understand some aspect of, say, navigation or topology—his account is shot through with illuminations and insights that have resulted from his loss of sight which do indeed “give the object new qualities in some way appropriate to its character” as I wrote of drawing above. Indeed, while he does not make light of the despair (p. 10), anxiety, fear, mourning (pp. 100-104) that have accompanied the loss of his sight, what emerges in parallel through the increasing deepening of his blindness is a new relationship with the world around that might resemble “more of a mutual absorption than an encounter.” In the Postscript to Touching the Rock, he writes:

“Increasingly, I do not think of myself so much as a blind person, which would define me with reference to sighted people and as lacking something, but simply as a whole-body-seer. A blind person is simply someone in whom the specialist function of sight is now devolved upon the whole body, and no longer specialized in a particular organ.” (p. 191)

Does this bring us back to the prospect of the line as a kind of caress, participating among rather than acting upon the objects it describes?