Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ellyn Kaschak's "Sight Unseen"

Ellyn Kaschak has been Professor of Psychology at San Jose State University since 1974, where she has also been the Chairperson of the graduate program in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling and Director of the University's Family Counseling Service. She is one of the founders of the field of feminist psychology, which she has practiced since its inception some 40 years ago, and has published numerous articles and chapters on the topic, as well as the award-winning book Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women's Experience.

Kaschak applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Sight Unseen: Gender and Race Through Blind Eyes, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Luke says that a sighted person has to let him know if a woman is interested in him.

“Flirtation is visual and depends on being able to hold eye contact,” he tells me. I have heard these words before and have thought them before. Here they are again. When I first began these conversations, I was not so sure. I did not want it to be the case. By now I sadly agree that the absence of eye contact leaves a gaping space in a relationship. It is not just about flirtation, although it is about that. But it is more, at least for me and the sighted people I know. Eye contact informs every phase of intimacy. It is the channel by which heart connects to heart, soul to soul. I have come to know this in a way that I never would have if I had continued through life looking into the eyes of everyone I met or with whom I developed some intimacy. It has been the startling inability to do so with any of these blind people that has compelled me to experience the importance of eye contact in my own life.

It is the complex and reverberating vortex of sight and meaning, acceptance and desire, interest and connection. I would feel my experience reduced and impoverished without this nexus of meaning and desire. I have become all too aware that I look for the light of connection and recognition, of conversation and friendship, of appreciation and even desire in someone else’s eyes. Without having spent these hours with blind people, I never would have known this.

I get to meet Flor, one of Luke’s female roommates. The other roommate, Laney, could not make time to talk to me and may not have wanted the kind of scrutiny that she imagined I would impose on her. Flor and I met a few times in the house they share. Our meetings were always in the living room, which was furnished with the kind of old overstuffed furniture that one finds in thrift shops. It was clean and comfortable, with worn flower print fabrics. Of course, lack of funds is not the only factor that leads the way to this furniture; the lack of sight on which such aesthetic decisions are based also plays a part. As much as they care about gender and ethnicity, these roommates seem not at all bothered by the ordinary issue of decor. Faded flowers are the least of their concerns. How would they even know what faded looks like? I have learned my lesson and no longer try to explain such things.
Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes is a unique approach to our understanding of the culturally-based, life-defining human characteristics that we call race and gender. Page 99 both does and does not represent the entire book , but it does reveal an important aspect of “doing gender” that requires eye contact.

I have spent a lifetime trying to understand the demands of race and gender in the world in which we live, the world that lives inside each of us. I realized that I could study individuals who have been blind since birth and, as a result, could not have seen what we sighted take for granted as racialized skin or the multitude of prescribed and proscribed gendered behaviors and body language. And so I set out on an ethnographic study of the lives of people completely ordinary but for their lack of access to vision.

My first question was “What if the defining sense of vision were absent?” The next questions: “Are such basic human characteristics as gender and ethnicity, race and sexual orientation discoveries or inventions of a species dependent on sight? How would we categorize each other, how would we discriminate were it not for the details of vision transmitted to our human brains?”

What better place then to begin my paradoxical non-sightseeing journey than with those who do not have access to vision? I wanted to find out how they fared in a world so rooted in sight, how they survived in a culture where interpersonal systems of knowledge are so embedded in vision. Did they develop an entirely different system, a different first language, and, if so, what was it and how did it stand up to the language of vision?

This project then was something of a vision quest with at least two pre- conceived purposes. The first was to find out what it is like to be blind. The second was to find out what it is like to be sighted, or what I came to think of as normal or ordinary blindness. I was ultimately after the blindness of the sighted.

Page 99 reveals an aspect of “doing gender” and is part of the stories of two blind people, Luke, a blind man, and Flor, a blind woman. Both were very active in the dating world and very interested in knowing how to flirt. Without eye contact, both found it impossible.
Visit Ellen Kaschak's website.

--Marshal Zeringue