Phantasmographic Possibilities

From the Series: Book Forum: The Blind Man

Photo by Newtown Grafitti, licensed under CC BY.

There are elements of Robert Desjarlais’s provocative book, The Blind Man, that anthropologists will find unorthodox, if not unseemly, most obviously his decision not to seek consent from the blind French panhandler he observes and photographs. Since we do not learn the man’s real name or story, he remains a deliberately inaccessible and unsettling figure, a genuine mystery or phantom. And that is the point: “We meet a person and conjure an entire life,” Desjarlais writes. The ordinary strictures of empiricism demand that we limit such imaginative guesswork, which belies the critical role that phantasmography plays in our everyday observations and encounters. In that sense, The Blind Man is not about the blind man to whom we are never formally introduced. Rather, seeing and not seeing are points of departure to consider how knowledge of others and ourselves are mediated, imagined, and experienced as spectral.

For Desjarlais, blindness provokes anxieties about vision in an age of ubiquitous images and imaging devices. But phantasmography arguably comes in many forms. Consider John L. Gwaltney’s very different book (1970), The Thrice Shy. Gwaltney does not provoke in the same way as Desjarlais, but offers a standard ethnography of blindness among highland Chinantec in San Pedro Yolox. If The Thrice Shy is a more conventional text than The Blind Man, it is made unique because Gwaltney is himself a blind man. Between The Blind Man and The Thrice Shy are alternative approaches to disability research and, arguably, to phantasmography.

For Gwaltney, San Pedro Yolox residents provide an opportunity to consider alternative strategies for managing an unusually high number of sightless neighbors and kin. For instance, he notes that children (who “play blind” with one another) also routinely offer to lead the blind around, a service that the ethnographer experiences for himself. In contrast to the kinds of spectral alienation that Desjarlais experiences, Gwaltney’s research suggests that San Pedro Yolox is a cybernetic assemblage, harkening back to Gregory Bateson’s image of a blind man and his walking stick, whereby vision becomes distributed across bodies and generations. If The Blind Man is experimental in form, then The Thrice Shy is radical in method. The Blind Man is an autoethnographic account, changing with new locations and experiences, yet always situating this within Desjarlais’s partial and enfleshed point of view. By contrast, The Thrice Shy is an unconventionally conventional village ethnography that does not focus on any one person, but offers an overall portrait of San Pedro Yolox, while generally absenting Gwaltney, his blindness and blackness, from view.

These two books represent contrasting, yet compatible approaches to sensory (in)experience. Placing The Blind Man alongside work by scholars with disabilities calls into question not only what we think we see but how we perceive more broadly, demonstrating that distinct contexts of dis/ability entail unique phantasmographic affordances and impairments. The Blind Man may not be authored or coauthored by a blind man, yet arguably has just as much to say about the fragility of bodies and the flimsiness of the interpretations we make with them.


Gwalney, John Langston. 1970. The Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodation to Blindness and Other Disasters in a Mexican Community. New York: Columbia University Press.