From the Series: Book Forum: The Blind Man
Robert Desjarlais’s The Blind Man is a beautifully written and provocative book. The work challenges and complicates ethnography as a genre, stretching its boundaries beyond what is commonly considered the academic style of writing. Through diary entries, which sometimes have serious and at other times playful undertones, questions of ethics in ethnographic methods and of visual and textual representation arise. Engaging with ethics through photography, The Blind Man speaks to Donna Haraway’s (1988) idea of visualizing technologies as supporting “the god trick,” the presumably objective scientist’s look from above, this time in anthropology. So, if we consider The Blind Man to be an ethnography, which I suspect that some will question, then what kind of ethnography is it? Below, I uncover some of the book’s layers, one after another, not to determine which is the most valid but as an appreciation of its multiplicity. What other layers, I wonder, might you, dear reader, discover?
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This appears to be an ethnography of a blind man.
The blind man from an image, taken at the Sacré Cœur basilica in Paris, with whom the ethnographer never exchanged more than a few words. How could that be? We ethnographers tend to be tied up with words, with verbal exchanges. Instead, this ethnography arises from images, both actual photographs and imagined visions. This should work well. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. How many pictures can a book of words depict?
This is an ethnography of a certain place, the basilica of Sacré Cœur.
This book depicts an entrance into the Sacred Heart. How does it look? A lonely, isolated, exotic little island, colonized by people coming from the former French colonies, now beggars, outcasts in one way or another.
This is an ethnography of violence, at multiple levels.
There is police surveillance and intimidation of the sellers of bottled water and beer at the doorstep of the Sacred Heart. There is the military patrol circling around; their presence seems to have already become normalized, a part of the everyday.
There is the violence of care. A priestly man talks to the blind man on the steps of the basilica. It seems to be a caring gesture, and yet the narrator senses “something oppressive about this care. It’s though as if the priest is drawing the blind man into his web of comfort and counsel and supporting him with this pastoral care.”
For a moment, the ethnography of violence takes the reader to an entirely different place, Greece, where the violence has to do with the burgeoning economic crisis. The ethnographer, much like a watchful spider, is never at rest.
And of course, there is the violence of the photography. The book is born out of one particular image, capturing a very specific encounter—between the blind man, a young man posing for a picture next to the blind man, another man who seems to be taking that picture, a couple of female passersby, and the narrator, who caught all of them on his own camera. Are the two seeing men in this photograph taking advantage of the blind man? “Why,” the narrator wonders, “would they think that this would make for a decent photograph, un bon souvenir?” There are plenty of tourists around, flashing with their cameras, iPhones, and smartphones—mindlessly, it seems. Ours has become a pitiful world of selfies. There is something wicked in photographing suffering, the narrator suggests, as he photographs this injustice: “There was a casual, careless meanness in their intent, I thought.” While it first seemed that the photo in question was of people, it was actually of people’s perversity.
And then there is the violence of imagining. The narrator imagines so much that his own imagination leaves visible marks on the materiality of his body and possessions. His glasses break, and his sunglasses fall from a high bridge. Finally, his eyes start to falter. Is this the work of some sort of phantom? Perhaps of the ghostly presence of the blind man following him around in the world?
This could be an ethnography that puts forward a new theory of suffering.
But the author decides against this. Too easy. Been there, done that.
This is an ethnography of technology.
Of all sorts of technologies of vision; lenses abound everywhere. “The body is a reluctant cyborg,” Desjarlais writes.
It’s an account of the powerful and the powerless, documented and remade as such through the technology of photography. Teju Cole writes: “When we speak of ‘shooting’ with a camera, we are acknowledging the kinship of photography and violence.”
Or, in the words of Donna Haraway (1988, 585): “Vision is always a question of the power to see—and perhaps the violence implicit in our visualizing practices.”
This is an ethnography of care.
The blind man and the narrator exchange “gestures of caring regard.” What kind of care is it to imagine someone, day and night? In such imagining, who is taken care of and how?
The seeing photographer considers offering his eyes to the blind man, in an act of care. Or was that repentance?
This is, it seems, an ethnography of phantasm. A phantasmography.
There seems to be some theory to this book. A theory of what Desjarlais calls phanomenology:
A study not so much of phenomena per se … but of phanomena, the phanomenal, that which apparitions as spectralities of light, as spectral phantom, phantasms . . . Perhaps phanomenology, as phantasmography, as multispecter ethnography, as possibility of thinking, is called for more than ever in these restless, spectral times.
This is an auto-ethnography.
“For I am a phantom, you see,” writes the narrator.
This book may not offer your typical anthropological theory of suffering. But is it an ethnography of suffering nonetheless?
The theory of phantasmal perception appears to be but dust in the reader’s eyes, a strategy to cover up a particular wound, deep as a cut in a finger. The wound is the moment when the image tore the subject from itself. “With a gauze bandage of abstract words,” we read, “I’m covering over the wound of an encounter.”
Where there is a wound, is there suffering?
The subject of suffering: a phantom, born out of a chance encounter.
Where there is a wound, is there healing?
The photographer shadows the blind man and a random grandmother, appearing as if out of nowhere, leading the blind man away from the Sacred Heart, through the streets of Paris and toward the underground, to a metro station. In a few moments, the blind man will disappear below the surface of the Earth, where passage is forbidden and the danger of death awaits. But for now, the blind man seems to be anything but suffering; he and the old woman are “having a jolly good time, laughing and smiling.”
Ethnography or not, this book is contagious.
For a few days now, I have been reading it intensely. In the left corner of my left eye, a twitching started. Whatever I do, it refuses to subside for more than a short while. It seems to be here to stay.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.