Photo by Steve Johnson, licensed under CC BY.

Probably May 2017. Robert Desjarlais’s phantasmography had me enthused. I am swirling in it: fascinated and intrigued, I think I wrote. We had recently met, here in Paris, not far from the site to which he would return time and time again. The power of the fascinus. An image, comes to mind, naturally—that’s its power. Reading the manuscript, sitting in a window seat of the train on the way back from fieldwork in Switzerland, the overwhelming memory of squinting at the pages, not out of incredulity but rather wonder at the honesty with which he endeavored to grasp what he was doing. Not representing the man on the steps of the basilica, not knowing his suffering, not connecting the man’s presence—the markers of a possible identity—to values and ideas.

What was he doing? He writes:

I cannot perceive or know him.
We know of the photoerotic pleasure of coming close to the ground of suffering, of witnessing its presence, vicariously living the tale of it, of seeing and being close to its presence, but not too close.

Later in the month, perhaps. Honesty in the anthropological endeavor was something with which I had been struggling. I read The Blind Man at the right time, a convergence; I was receptive to Desjarlais’s own fascination with his fascination:

I am intrigued by my need to observe and disgusted and plagued by the desire for observation. I am trying to look at looking, while gazing upon acts of voyeurism.
Obsession from afar.

Later in the year, of that I’m sure. Obsession is always from afar, since it shores up the subject against the world. Obsession, we know, has its origins in phantasm, a phantasm that reassures the subject. What is at stake in the work—and this is where Desjarlais’s honesty is uncommon, or uncommon in a profession whose function rests, in part, on being one who is supposed to know—is to try and produce an intimate distanciation with his obsession. To be far from the distance that he knows he is producing, to make a return to that intimate site of dangerous, defensive distance.

How to defend against the question of what The Blind Man wants (The Blind Man, should it require spelling out, is not isomorphic with the man on the steps)? The Blind Man wants to know who he is. The Blind Man wants some money, or is it value? The Blind Man wants justice, or is it recognition? How to defend against the call for recognition? The Blind Man is the shock of not having spoken a word to the man on the steps of Sacré Cœur. The Blind Man is our indignation at his portrait hanging in New York. The Blind Man is our fear and sloth in confronting what we want to know.

The anthropologist risks not wanting to know him, the man on the steps, so as to hazard showing us The Blind Man.

Refusal of Signification:

All along, I’ve been tending to the wound of an encounter.

The wound stems from the blind spot of observation, and The Blind Man is the observation of that wound.