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Stares of the Blind

Neglected Facet of Human Bonding

Hemachandran Karah ( teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

The ways in which blind people connect to the art of seeing without the ocular equipment of the eyes are explored, recognising that seeing is as much a political act as it pertains to human bonding.

“You guys must have a ‘sixth sense.’ That is the reason why you all are spot on in your movements!” Such comments have something to do with my blindness, I guess. I grew up rejecting such verbosity, rightfully frightened by unsolicited attention. Thanks now to my training in humanities scholar­ship, I have become aware that such comments come with a penchant for patronisation as well. Not only that, they can reduce blind people into unearthly, divine, and somewhat a

mysterious lot.

All the same, an idiom such as “sixth sense,” and an entrenched belief in the same may conceal an archive of folk knowledge of the blind. Such folk knowledge may include, among other things, ways in which blind people connect to the art of seeing without the ocular equipment of the eyes. That is to say, minus a direct visual perception, blind people evolve political strategies to engage with and practice the art of seeing. “Staring of the blind” is one such strand of folk knowledge that remains so distinct, and yet tied to the optic.

The Anatomy of Staring

What is staring? Among all the sensory performances, one privileges seeing because of the art of observation. Observation facilitates taking stock of all things worldly, including chemistry between people. Well, human chemistry is all about bonding, and lacking thereof between individuals and communities. Deploying the art of observation, people sculpt human bonding, as much as aesthetic sensibilities and moral attitudes that drive it in the first place. In the process of sculpting human interconnections, the art of observation turns out to become a dynamic collection of practices involving staring. Blind people do deploy a good amount of staring practices as a thing of human chemistry, and not necessarily as direct visual perception.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2009: 10) has unpacked the notion of staring in all its contingent forms of the physiological and the social. She describes staring as a natural response to changes in the visual status quo. In this way, it radically differs from the idea of gaze, which is shaped solely by desire. The impulse to stare resides as a universal cognitive infrastructure in every human being, and, at a practical level, as a conduit to knowledge.

Based on the physiological response, it develops into a cultural phenomenon, an expression of social relationship, and a knowledge-gathering endeavour. Hence, staring is experienced in multiple, and perhaps infinite forms. Garland-Thomson negotiates with this infinity by breaking it down into manageable patterns and lists. She categorises encounters of the staring into the blank stare, the baroque stare, the separated stare, the engaged stare, the stimulus-driven stare, the goal-driven stare, and the dominating stare (Garland-Thomson 2009: 6).

Garland-Thomson describes the blank stare as a visual exchange that is categorised by despair and helplessness. The sight of a disabled person, for example, may give rise to blank stares in people who are quite instantly seized by feelings of helplessness and despair. In certain situations, the blank stare is also worn by people from the margins, such as the elderly and the disabled who are subjected to a constant barrage of hostile stares. As much as their able-bodied counterparts, people from the margins, Garland-Thomson argues, exhibit a sense of disorientation and helplessness as well. Their blank stares are expressed in their faces, which display little or no vitality.

Blind people, I suggest, do wear such negative markers on their faces. However, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how they seek recourse to blank stares; although it is reasonable to assume that they wear one when confronted with an inaccessible, and a hostile visual system. In such circumstances, the blank stares of the blind may be in the form of an orchestrated neutral face. A seemingly neutral face is expected to camouflage an onrush of emotions. The face cannot be the index of the mind; not always for sure!

How about the baroque stare? Unlike the passive blank stare, the baroque stare, Garland-Thomson argues, is characterised by unapologetic and flagrant visual curiosity. It is a kind of rogue-looking that respects no social, logical and rational boundaries. Naturally, baroque stares work against the interest of women. The baroque stare ceases to be a pure knowledge-gathering endeavour. Instead, it manifests as the madness of vision, a visual condition that indulges the senses with little restraint. It overloads the ocular equipment of the eyes with unmanageable sensory data. As an overindulgent form of looking, the baroque stare is comparable to 17th-century baroque art that negated the Cartesian and its preference for the cerebral (Garland-Thomson 2009: 50).

In contrast to the baroque stare of the sighted, which is more of an ocular extravaganza, the practice among the blind emerges as a thing of whole body seeing. Developed by John M Hull, the whole body seeing (WBS) describes the blind as a distinct population that is capable of seeing with the entire body, with all its sensory fervour. In fact, Hull (1992) calls himself a whole body seer, for whom his entire body appears nothing less than a non-stop staring machine. Fascinating though it may sound, Hull’s WBS, I suggest, is seldom experienced in its entirety. However, when it does appear that way, the WBS of the blind honours no boundaries, as though it were a baroque stare in its own right.

Given the primacy of the ocular, blind people feel less inclined, and perhaps inhibited from openly using the senses of touch, smell, and taste; and for that matter, any system of improvisation that indulges those senses. But, under certain circumstances of visual anonymity, they do open up as sentient beings with WBS, which I call the baroque stare of the blind. Hidden away from the ocular, they idiosyncratically experiment with baroque stares of the blind that blatantly disregard a rigid visual norm. For an instance, welcome to “Little Flower,” my childhood school for the blind, so that I could relate an anecdote meant to sample human engagement still untamed by the scopic.

I remember checking into my school for the blind in Chennai as a tiny lad. Several curious hands ran over my whole body. “Now, a bunch of fingers dip into my coconut oil-soaked hair; run over a crease on the right side of my flannel shirt; and one with a sharp nail is sort of sizing up the nose.” “Guffaws, giggles, curious murmurs, and what not!” These are fleeting memories of a rich sensorium native to my blind school indicating that baroque stares of the blind, no matter where they surface, transpire when there is a reassurance that scopic omnipresence is under check.

Baroque stares of the blind also take the form of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a neuropsychological phenomenon that is characterised by sensations that are caused by sensory stimulations that originate in senses other than the ones that are being stimulated. I am not suggesting for a moment that blind people acquire synaesthesia as a neurological condition due to a baroque or WBS persuasion. I merely propose that they take to the idea of synaesthesia, which offers them the freedom to relish, uphold and verify sensations that cross-fertilise each other.

Synaesthesia also enables a relish of visual realities that may not be accessible all the time. For example, a blind person can make surmises concerning someone’s class, body language, looks, and even a propensity for intimacy via synesthetic interpretations of voice modulations. In addition, one may draw on synesthetic cues radiating via touch, smell, and infinite modalities of access intimacy. By the way, all such synesthetic interpretations, for the most, may remain discreet and idiosyncratic, with their whereabouts remaining undetectable.

With regards to the separated stare, for Garland-Thomson, it is characterised by ocular disengagement from someone or something that is supposedly negative. People who indulge in separated stare do not just look away from their starees; rather, they choose to socially identify less and less with them (Garland-Thomson 2009: 186). I suggest they also raise physical and social barriers that tactfully keep the unwanted away from their vicinity.

The separated stare may find much favour among blind people who aspire for a steady footing within the realms of the visual. Especially with those who are wary of any contact with other blind people during a scopic mobility. Also, in their advanced mobility into the visual, some blind people impulsively give up anything and everything that they associate with the blind. It is also not uncommon to notice a thirst for exclusivity: a good many blind people who become adept with the ways of the scopic, hate any kind of competition from other members of the blind community (Frye 2009).

If the separated stare distances the blind from their community members, the engaged stare, which they may wear in their vantage point as starees, normalises their social interactions with the sighted. Garland-Thomson (2009: 118) describes engaged stare as an instance of social interaction that is based on an impulse to engage others by their eyes. During such ocular interactions, she suggests, people develop a tendency to look at the breasts, the hands, and the body at large, for traces of hidden visual cues. Needless to say, blind people do not, and cannot possibly indulge in such a meaning-ridden ocular exchange. However, they choreograph social exchanges that render the visual cues accessible and meaningful to them.

During these moments of social choreography of the visual, which I call the engaged stare of the blind, blind people radiate friendliness, humour, charm, formidability, and perspicacity. Such extraordinary feats of social presentation ensure that they are not identified with the popular image of a “hopelessly incommunicable blind person.” In the process, the blind manage to break open the visual hierarchy between them and their sighted starers.

Sensory Shell and Its Aftermath

Normally, in a staring encounter, blind people are approached with a touch, and perhaps, with a raised voice. These manoeuvres, it is believed, instantly may bring out a blind person from their sensory shell. What the sighted starers seldom realise is that the blind starees are active listeners and that they deploy listening as a practice of WBS. For example, without recourse to other sensory modalities, blind starees listen for clues of the bodily from the voice of their sighted starers. From nuances of voice modulations and the gestures that accompany them, blind starees surmise various qualities of their sighted starers.

We already have discussed about synaesthesia. Engaged stares of the blind need not always be surreptitious. It can directly involve a visual field too. Blind autobio­grapher and essayist Ved Mehta, for example, illustrates this with the notion of the broadcasting voice, an idiosyncratic sensory practice that he notices among many of his blind acquaintances. The practice concerns the modulation of one’s voice that makes oneself personally available to the sighted audience, as though there was eye contact between them (Mehta 1993: 47). Used as a supplement to the sense of active listening, the broadcasting voice enables a blind person to exercise the eyes of the sighted starers, without particularly engaging with any one of them as a group. Although the practice goes unnoticed, it establishes a sort of specular consciousness among the blind that is only paralleled by what is known as eye contact among the sighted starers.

When situations permit, blind people can exhibit what Garland-Thomson calls the dominating stare. During a dominating stare situation, the starer may hold a staree under a strict visual command. By visual command, I do not mean a cinematic feat of hypnotism. Nor I mean acts of looking down. Instead, dominating stare signifies putting in place conditions of power that reaffirms the dominant position of the person in charge. That said, there is a good chance of blind people becoming hapless victims of the dominating stare. They may be subjected to incessant scopic violence, including a propensity to attach undue supremacy to visuality.

A Hidden Folk Knowledge

Thanks to affirmative policies, the newly emerging assistive technologies, and a truly resilient spirit, many blind people are now able to make it to visual arrangements and professions that were hitherto unavailable to them. Nevertheless, the perception that blindness has little to do with seeing has not yet disappeared totally. Also, the diabolic violence associated with the removal of blind people from the realms of seeing is gendered and class-specific.

I tag on to Garland-Thomson’s majesterial explorations so that I trace instances of stares of the blind. The idea was not to say that the blind are as good as the sighted. Far from it. Seeing is a political act as much as a thing of human chemistry. It is time we recognise that blind people are a party to games that thrive in lieu of these interconnections. How blind people play such games, and what informs their sense of seeing are a true source of folk knowledge. As it is elsewhere, folk knowledge of the blind also remains disparate, scattered, hidden, and non-canonised. It is time that we take stock of the same.


Frye, Daniel B (2009): “At the Confluence of Arrogance and Tragedy: A Conversation with Ved Mehta,”Braille Monitor, Vol 52, No 3,

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2009):Staring: How We Look, New York: Oxford University Press.

Hull, John M (1992):Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, New York: Vintage Books.

Mehta, Ved (1993):Up at Oxford, New York: W W Norton & Company.

Updated On : 26th Oct, 2019


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