More on blindness

by Yule Heibel on August 8, 2003

In a comment to my “Steveland Morris” post on the 6th, Betsy Burke writes, On blindness, somebody might find Jacques Lusseyran’s autobiography interesting. Steve Talbott mentioned him in his newsletter- Lusseyran makes it sound as though sight were more of a handicap than a useful sense. During the war, Lusseyran was the teenage head of a resistance movement in Paris, because he could perceive so much through hearing- the one occasion in which he had doubts about what he heard in a voice, turned out to be their downfall- that particular person betrayed the movement. But he has some very interesting comments and advice for parents- about limitation and expanded horizons of expectation.

Below are the links to follow her suggestion. Talbott first reviewed Lusseyran’s remarkable And There Was Light in NetFuture #92 (1999). Read it first, and then don’t miss the excerpt Talbott posts, in which Lusseyran describes part of his 15 months at Buchenwald, his experiences there with illness, death, and life.

To learn how the lessons of disability, as conveyed by Lusseyran, inform Talbott’s critiques of technology, see also NetFuture #101 (January 2000):

I don’t know of any truth more worthy of contemplation in our society today than this one, startling as it may appear: No problem for which there is a well-defined technical solution is a human problem. It has not yet been raised through imagination and will and self-understanding into the sphere of the human being. And what is this sphere? It is, above all, the domain of the “I”, or self. The “I”, as Jacques Lusseyran remarks,

‘nourishes itself exclusively on its own activity. Actions that others take in its stead, far from helping, serve only to weaken it. If it does not come to meeting things halfway out of its own initiative, the things will push it back; they will overpower it and will not rest until it either withdraws altogether or dies.’ (

Against the Pollution of the I, Parabola, 1999

All problems of society are, in the end, weaknesses of the “I”, and it is undeniable that technologies, by substituting for human effort, invite the “I” toward a numbing passivity. But by challenging us with less than-fully-human problems and solutions, technologies also invite the “I” to assert itself. This assertion, this grace bestowed by technology, always requires us to work, in a sense, against the technology, countering it with an activity of our own — countering it, that is, with something more than technological. Then the technology becomes part of a larger redemptive development. When, on the other hand, technology itself is seen to bear “solutions”, the disastrous reversal has already occurred.

What we should ask of the technology pushers, whether they reside as engineers at the MIT Media Lab or as employees at high-tech companies or as consumers in our own homes, is a recognition that the primary danger today is the danger of this reversal, where the strengthening activity of the “I” is sacrificed to the automatisms around us. For every technology we embrace, we should require of ourselves an answer to the question, “What counter-force does this thing require from me in order to prevent it from diminishing both me and the social contexts in which I live?”

My mind is frivolous and leans toward pranks, so I can’t help but think of an article I came across yesterday, How 1950s wives kept fit on a diet of hard work. The article annoyed me for the way it managed to suggest something good about the “good old days” without criticizing them sufficiently, but it intrigued me for pointing to some of the dangers of our “brave new days”. My frivolity consists of speculating that narcissism and vanity might save us from over-technologization: it seems that the 50s housewife burned more calories and was fitter and healthier than her new millennium counterpart because she had fewer technologies — gadgets — to help her. Ah yes, the good old days when you had to hand wash (in water that you boiled on the stove) snotty hankies on a scrub board, rinse them by hand (several times to get the mucus out), mangle them, hang them up, and then iron them, vs. our lazy indolence of cracking open another box of paper tissues…. I can see it now: the narcissistic desire to stay forever beautiful, to cheat old age and death, will make us redefine the role of technology in our lives! Perhaps blogging is even a kind of counter-force, which helps explain its affinity with narcissism, if indeed the latter impulse pushes against the technological.

But humour here is, alas, only a temporary measure to relieve the harder insights that Steve Talbott’s questions provoke.

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