Below is a pairing of two accounts of blind navigation. The first is an extract from John M. Hull’s book-length reflection upon the experience of losing his sight; the second is part of a short description I wrote about my experiments in ‘half-blind’ drawing: drawing without looking at the page. The accounts describe some of the strategies we each developed for locating a particular point—Hull’s position on the ground, and my pencil’s position on the page—and keeping track of that point as it moves relative to a particular topology of that surface, be it the memory of the route Hull has in mind and seeks to follow, or the image of the object I observe and seek to draw.
My pairing of the two accounts is fairly uncharted. I put them together without really knowing where they would take one another. There are some compelling correspondences between them, but many differences too, and many paths that seem to digress from any argument they might share. I had not yet read this part of Hull’s book when I wrote my description, and perhaps I would have written differently if I had. I might have tried to emphasise parallels between the two experiences and omit or redirect aspects of my own that seemed to have no equivalent in Hull’s. The result might have been a more direct and complete analogy between the two, but I wonder what would have been lost.
“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.”
(Hull, J. M. (1990, 2013) Touching The Rock: An Experience of Blindness. London: SPCK, pp. 90-91).
“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 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.”
It occurs to me that the uncharted pairing of these texts produces an unpredictable structure of its own, which I might be able to navigate by means of the strategies the texts themselves describe. Reading the accounts in parallel, I find myself expecting one to offer a kind of map of the other, or an indication of how to navigate it. The occasional points of correspondence between the two are landmarks by which I can orient myself and, once oriented, I can try to feel my way along the surface of one account while keeping track of where I am relative to the topology of the other account. This is the way analogy works, and perhaps analogy is always somewhat blind—but if I press on through the blind pathways of an analogy I am embarked upon but have never tested, where might I find myself? What new routes might I stumble upon, and what might these routes lead me to understand, imagine or invent about half-blind drawing and sightless navigation?
For instance, here is a point of correspondence. Hull and I seem to encounter similar problems of navigation when we are forced to detour from our route by obstacles too numerous or irregular to track. At this point I am standing in both texts at once, but almost immediately the two diverge. For one thing, 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. Nevertheless, with the kind of navigation half-blind drawing requires, the idea or ideal of prediction in relation to drawing is remarkably generative nevertheless. As the pencil creeps forward blindly along the page, can I imagine the line is there ahead of it, unseen to me but somehow sensed by the tip of the pencil? Is the form of the object I am drawing a prediction of what will be on the page, and if not, what are all the things it does not predict, and what are all the ways the drawing will resist and counter its prediction with the exigencies of process, material and mark? What correspondences and resistances and are introduced into my drawing process when the temporality of prediction—the give-and-take of expectation and fulfilment or frustration—is brought into play? And here is the thing: thinking about unpredictability in relation to blindness forces a rethinking of my drawing process that I believe I would never had reached had it not been for the route uncovered by analogy to Hull’s process of navigating blind.
Another point of generative correspondence and divergence: when I am drawing half-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. Indeed, 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. But here I find myself imagining the prospect that my drawn lines should leave a tactile trace, and this trace might help me to repeat my journey around the object many times over as though it were a walk I made ever day to work. What kind of drawing practice could this be, and might the destination be a completed navigation of the object, or a tissue of time spent drawing or spent with the object, or perhaps an experience of drawing as a tactile practice not unlike a touch or a caress of its object, with no destination as such, but rather an objective of continuity, parity or communion with the object it describes?
And another: 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 strategised 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.”
One might suppose 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 might 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. His reflections on rain are one example. Indeed, while he does not make light of the despair, anxiety, fear, mourning 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 specialised in a particular organ.” (p. 191)
Perhaps finally this brings us back to the prospect of the line, or the drawing of the line, as a kind of caress that participates among rather than acting upon the object it describes, devolving the specialist function of drawing from the pencil, say, to the whole body of the person drawing, who might feel themselves undifferentiated from the body of the object in this way too: again, but differently, experiencing more of a mutual absorption than an encounter.
The pathways of these blind analogies, of which there are many many more, lead to proliferations of proto-ideas: thoughts on the fringes of coming into being, which exist only as experiments of the mind, ready to be tested and redirected through the further routes they reveal. They suggest to me a way of looking, reading or proceeding which is dependent upon chance discoveries made possible when one moves forward not despite the impossibility of seeing what lies ahead, but because of such impossibility. What I find so compelling about drawing is exactly this impossibility, and indeed this unpredictability. Perhaps to draw is to reach an analogy for the thing being drawn, only it is an analogy drawn in the dark: uncharted, incomplete, digressive, and all the more generative because of it.
Download PDF Tamarin Norwood: Unpredictable Structures
Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.