Listen to this story
Metaphors do not run cleanly through our language. They blur. In this series of essays, we’ve followed stories from the material histories of lenses in order to take apart the idea of “sight” as a metaphor for perception itself. We began by observing that the lens is a figure for multiplicity, a way to consider a topic or object from multiple interpretive angles. We have traced the mechanical development of the lens through war, statecraft, nationalism, and fashion, seeing how this very special object has gathered other meanings around it, like the nacre that accretes to form a pearl. But the core metaphor of the lens is the idea of a thing through which we see. The lens points us to all the refractive powers of human subjectivity.
But what of disability? Sight is a bodily sense, and people experience it differently. In considering vision as a metaphor for understanding and subjectivity, we often fail to acknowledge its ableist implications. In English, we use the word “see” to mean “understand.” I see your point, I might say. The word “blind” as a figure for lack of knowledge or perception runs rampant. People claim to be “blind to race,” as if not looking at somebody were the same as not participating in a racist society. “If he doesn’t see how wonderful you are, he’s blind,” a friend might say, as if all your great qualities were visible.
In our language, sightedness is profoundly bound up with knowledge: Think of insight, clearsighted, perspicacious, vision in the sense of genius, a compliment on somebody’s powers of observation. Blindness means the opposite. “Was blind, but now I see” means a revelation.
Most considerate people have eradicated from their vocabularies a number of words associated with disability and illness. (I’m sure you can think of many slurs without my help, the kind a nasty kid might have wielded on the playground.) There are also borderline words and phrases that have ableist implications but remain in currency. In April of this year, the New York Times ran a headline about Mick Mulvaney wanting to “cripple” a government agency. Lame, deformed, crooked: Each of these words derives from a physical difference experienced by human beings and is then used metaphorically to describe deficiencies in intelligence or wholeness.
Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1989) are striking works dedicated to this subject. The slippery boundary between scientific and figurative language around illness gives rise to ideas like a “fight” between patients and their cancer, for example. “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning,” Sontag wrote, “that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.”
In 1999, the late, great Naomi Schor published a beautiful essay titled “Blindness as Metaphor.” In it, Schor begins by showing that the use of “blind” to mean “lacking in understanding” is a form of what she called catachresis. There are several forms of catachresis, but they all arise from a word being used outside of its original purpose, often crossing the boundaries of category in the process. This could be a mistake (using “infer” for “imply”), or a stretch (“I’m starving”), or a kind of necessity: What would we call the legs of tables except legs, even though they are not legs?
Schor cites the French grammarian Pierre Fontanier, who wrote in 1818, “Blindness must have at first referred only to the deprivation of the sense of sight; but he who does not clearly distinguish ideas and their relationships, he whose reason is disturbed, obscured, does he not slightly resemble the blind man who does not perceive physical objects?” By comparison of objects to ideas, the word “blindness came naturally to hand to also express this deprivation of moral sight.”
For Fontanier, Schor writes, moral or intellectual blindness is an “obligatory metaphor,” meaning that we need it in order to express an idea: We see something when we understand it, so we use non-seeing to express non-understanding. What else could we call that idea but “blindness”? It’s a bind. There are now so many words in English related to sightedness that it is simply not possible to remove them all in the interest of cleansing ourselves of ableism. There are certain phrases, like “the blind leading the blind,” that we can think twice about using. But the general vocabulary of sightedness is so widespread and so deeply embedded in our language that it cannot be excised the way “cripple” could and should be.
But blindness is not strictly an illness. It’s more like a state of being. You can be blind for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with being sick — in the past, present, or future. “Blind” is not exactly a slur like “cripple.” It is often used in a negative sense, denoting ignorance or stupidity. But once we remember that blind people have no lesser access to knowledge than sighted people, metaphors of sightedness turn out to be a limited way to describe knowledge.
In her essay, Schor (who herself experienced impaired vision) argues that we can accept knowledge-blindness as an obligatory metaphor but change the stakes. After all, love is blind. When we depict Cupid as a blindfolded child, throwing his arrows wherever they may land into human hearts, we do not mean that he is stupid. Similarly, Paris Hilton recorded an underrated song called “Stars Are Blind.” In it, she promises that she will love the object of her affections “even though the gods are crazy, even though the stars are blind.” When Hilton calls the stars “blind,” she uses the same idiom as Shakespeare when he wrote that Romeo and Juliet were “star-crossed.” The zodiac moves the way that it moves. Whether or not it condemns human lovers to despair is none of the sky’s business.
So, “blind” here is not a metaphor for lack of understanding. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” He looks with the mind! Is that not a superior form of understanding? Hilton’s and Shakespeare’s idiom describes love as using a different kind of sight. It makes us unreasonable, impractical, “blind” to our lover’s appearance, say. But that very “blindness” privileges Cupid and Romeo and Juliet and Paris Hilton’s stars with other kinds of knowledge: zodiacal, romantic, emotional. Love is blind precisely because is not logical. Instead, in Schor’s words, we can see that “blindness sets one free, that blindness to the other’s physical appearance and gestural language is precisely what enables the lover to see — rather to hear, because what is at stake here is a massive repudiation of the supremacy of vision — the lover’s true soul.”
Schor makes it clear that she is not interested in romanticizing impairment or in viewing “any loss of sensual apprehension of the world as anything but a catastrophic diminution of human potential.” As a sighted person, I’m not sure I can speak to that assertion. But as long as the metaphors of sight remain cemented into our language, we can search for ways to resist the naturalization of blindness into a destructive and ableist metaphor.
Implicit in every history of the lens, however, is an inquiry into adjustments made to the human sense of sight. Differences in human vision, and ambitions for the sighted to see farther, more clearly, closer, bigger — all of those dynamics have driven the art and science of the lens forward. The lens is a metaphor for perception, but also the fruit of disability. Lenses allow some people with vision differences to see within “normal” range. Should we consider the Hubble Space Telescope a corrective to human beings’ defective sight, that disability which prevents us from seeing the full shape of the planets? Lenses, I think, interfere with the rules that define what is an able or disabled human body.
Meditating on lenses and their meaning for our figurative language (and our cultural history) demonstrates something very important: Relying on perfect vision as a metaphor for perfect understanding leaves the ableist speaker with a limited concept of knowledge itself. If you cannot be blind in the way that the stars are blind, then there is something that you are not seeing. There are many ways to be blind or partially sighted, Schor reminds us, and figurative language contains riches that are hidden to the ableist imagination. There are so many lenses through which to think.