Friday, May 13, 2022

On snow globes and the two truths

 


"(...) This world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one." 

- Buddha, Kaccayanagotta Sutta (link)


On a recent trip to Geneva with my fiancé, I walked by, and barely noticed, a shelf of snow globes featuring the iconic Jet d'Eau, materialized and preserved in water-like substance. The actual Jet d'Eau which we had just visited was reflected in their glass domes, offering a spectacular mise en abyme.

I barely noticed because I have mostly lived in cities and imported kitsch souvenirs fading in the sun have usually lined the streets where I walk. But there was something about the snow globes that bothered me and begged me not to dismiss them without wondering what psychological need was being met by this cultural practice. 

Anthropological investigation requires patience and the courage to call your mind on its politically-correct haughtiness. So thoughts like the irony is that making and importing all this artificial matter in toxic water-like substance is killing the environment, is killing the water, is killing us need to be transitioned to something softer, more open-ended with space for potentiality. To begin, the anthropological mind might ask: what work does a snow globe do? what is it good for?

Very basically, snow globes allow someone to hold on to, and to accumulate, something to which they feel connected - often places, but also characters, scenes, or brands. One fashion blogger wrote that "getting one won't help because you will then want more."

Yet, snow globes are not doing the same work as statues or images, both which they often contain. Many feature a miniature statue, or a background image without anything else. This suggests that it is especially the water mixed with antifreeze, the artificial snow, and the dome which have the ability, through our intentional movement, to transport us back to a certain mood. Some, such as Maison Martin Margiela's empty globe pictured here, contain no statue or image at all, suggesting that mood is actually pre-matter, or spiritual, in nature.



The crystalline, uterine, lemurian worlds, however material and impermanent themselves, invite us to sense ourselves into the essence of something we thought only material.

They invite us to hold this mood, itself imparted through the fragility of matter, through the fragility of the planet, through the fragility of our own perception. There is the question of impending planetary catastrophe, of aging snow globes whose atmosphere has turned yellow and viscous and before which we ask how necessary this all is anyway, and if our urge to have and to hold on to is what got us to this point of no return. 

Artist and snow globe creator Walter Martin, interviewed by Murphy, tried to explain their allure through this lens of control: "It's the relationship with a miniature world with yourself as voyeur and omnipotent being looking down at this scene and you can make it snow."

Beholding them in their fragility is a mise en abyme of our very own predicament: through them, we recognize the futility and impermanence of all things material, the petitesse of our own grasping mind - indeed, how absolutely doomed it is - and yet, in the ultimate truth, in the objective analysis, in the pure awareness, everything is always okay, even when our water yellows and the sky cracks. 

The snow globe may be a completely unnecessary use of finite resources, and yet it is not nothing: the mood it makes accessible is very real and important to us. It is both material - reflecting our belief that it is possible and desirable to hold on to certain moods through things - and spiritual - indulging our need to be closer to and contemplate moods and meanings, conjured by but not reducible to things. It draws us into the tension between relative and ultimate truth and invites us to embrace the potential of the resulting emptiness, which Mingyur Rinpoche, interviewed by Hasenkamp, described:

"When you really look, in the end [a thing] loses its meaning. (...) That is the meaning of what we call empty. So what we call empty and ness, (...) 'empty' meaning, it doesn't inherently exist. And 'ness' meaning, not nothing. Everything can appear. So, possibility. These two are one. Though it does not exist, (...) potential can manifest. (...) What we perceive mostly is in our mind, (...) created by mind. It does not really exist out there, but at the same time, it's not nothing: you're experiencing that. You can still perceive that. So, 'emptiness' meaning, these two are a union, like (...) fire and heat, or water and moisture."






Works Cited

Hasenkamp, W (Host). 2021 April 21. Mingyur Rinpoche - Awareness, Compassion, and Wisdom [audio podcast]. Mind & Life Institute. (link)

Murphy, K. 2012, December 20. The World Through a Flurry of Snow. New York Times. p. E8 (link)

Monday, April 25, 2022

On visual impairment and inclusion

 


As a visually impaired person, most of my life has been spent performing a sighted habitus to pass as fully abled. To have a job, mainly, and just generally to be accepted and heard beyond stereotypes. Things like stopping to look at store window displays or people-watching from a café terrasse are not among the activities I naturally enjoy when I go out. Instead, my attention goes to navigating safely - not walking into anyone on my fully blind side, or being decapitated by a scaffolding or street sign, or mangled by a scooter or a bicycle at an intersection. An outing without any brush with injury always feels like a small victory. As I enter my building after a stroll, I am grateful to my attentive capacity and to higher powers for getting me back home safely once again. 

I think of people who are fully blind, or who are experiencing other disabilities, and about how much more challenging navigating the world alone must be for them. A few weeks ago, for example, I helped a fully blind man untangle himself from a postcard stand, left out on the sidewalk by the papeterie. I couldn't help but contemplate how the wiry mess of shiny, flimsy paper-plastics, devoid of any sensorial quality or texture, imposing itself through a confusing structure only designed for certain people, was the perfect metaphor for the visual primacy implicit in our societies. 

Until recently, as the peripheral vision of my remaining monocular sight has begun to deteriorate, I was unaware of the way visual primacy is also imposed through driving laws. For example, in my city, cyclists can drive against traffic on one-way streets with a speed limit of 30km/hr or less. The consequence of this for someone who primarily sees through central vision and through hearing is the constant requirement to turn fully and check both ways before crossing the street. That sounds fair enough, except that the small streets of old city centers usually need to be criss-crossed dozens of times since the sidewalk is only wide enough for one person (and that is only if it has not been blocked by a bicycle or garbage can). 




Even with the greatest care, on two occasions in the past few months I have been sideswiped by proud cyclists who could not understand why I was walking in the street, even though the street visibly lacked a sidewalk at all. "Faites attention!" they both screeched as they whizzed by, in a hurry to get wherever they were going. It never occurred to either of these people that they themselves could be more careful by simply slowing down. After all, what if they were the visually impaired ones (do not visually impaired people enjoy cycling too)? Their speed meant that my safety depended on their full sight - on their so-called ability - rather than on their wider attentive capacity. 

Which brings me to the question of, not only how to make more accessible roads and cities (which is urgent and important), but also, how to educate to less disabling societies. In a disabling society, the price to pay for inclusion is often nothing less than the betrayal of one's embodied ways of being and knowing, which, to legitimate the epistemicide, must become (and we are educated to this) less thanWhat would it take for my being in the fragility of being - essentially, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, for my being a body in the body of the world - to coexist safely with others' needs to be above or to be more than - through more speed, more power?

Certainly technology can help, if it recognizes and appreciates my way of being as equal to other faster, more powerful ways. Like many visually impaired people, I have a lot of hope in technology. But being a product of culture, a human technology can only come to be if we begin to take seriously and to educate to the many ways of being and knowing in the embodied, sensory-rich, spacious present.

Friday, November 5, 2021

On the side effects of vaccination

 


One side effect of vaccination, for me, has been an even greater distrust of words. 

For months and months, I was part of the problem, one of those people who nagged their loved ones, without whom they could not imagine living, to get vaccinated. I still remember how much better I slept when they all finally succumbed, one by one. Meanwhile, I myself remained unvaccinated for reasons that seemed to change by the week: for one, there was the fact that I was planning to move to France and, at the time, a CDC vaccination card did not suffice to have a French vaccine passport (passe sanitaire). Then there was the statistical reality that, continuing to social distance, mask, and avoid crowds of all kinds like the introvert I am, the probability of catching the virus was low. Probably about as low as suffering a rare side effect from one of the vaccines, but somehow that probability seemed higher. There were other reasons too: entrusting my health to pharmaceutical companies whose ethics and philosophical anthropology I did not share, the principle of self-ownership, and solidarity with the sub-citizen status imposed by nation-states on those who did not wish vaccination for themselves or their children. 

Looking back, though, the decisive factor - the thing that led me to hold out for so long - was the vaccinated: the way they regarded the vaccine as a panacea even while many fully vaccinated people were falling ill, and the way they quickly justified those cases - just as they had justified the deaths of those who had died of rare side effects - with easy utilitarian calculations and statistics, as if individuals' experiences, however certainly painful, were ultimately irrelevant to the bottom line of physical life for the greatest number. 

It took time, but I eventually reached a place of inner peace even towards them, at which point I could begin to approach the question of my own vaccination from an understanding of love for the world. Without vaccination, I knew I could remain safe at home and continue on as I had been. But my life situation was now asking me to work with the new constraints of the physical world in order to fulfill my task, which included finishing a doctoral dissertation and working as a professor. The good life, I always knew, was not about holding space for space's sake, but about meeting the demands of one's time with new insight. 

Not new utilitarian insight (because only more data was required for that), nor new political insight (because only more words were required for that), but the insight that the only way we can evolve morally is to learn to listen to what the world (including the spiritual world) is asking of us, and to make a free choice about how to act given those demands. For me, being vaccinated meant the opportunity to understand spaces of life to which I would not otherwise have access, and consequently to produce work from this understanding. It meant being an anthropologist. 

From the point I decided to renew my commitment to this karma and say yes to vaccination, I embarked on a vaccine journey of sorts that blurred all lines between me and un/vaccinated identity work. I learned how difficult it is to get access to the vaccine when one is not actively registered in the French sécurité sociale system, which most expatriate French are not for quite some time when they return to the homeland, even if they are working full-time and paying dues. After dozens of calls, I eventually found a pharmacist who would accept to work creatively with the rules and vaccinate me. 

In a quiet little room with a white folding chair at the back of the pharmacy, I thanked him tearfully as he bandaged my arm. Voilà, ça y est, vous pouvez même faire votre footing maintenant si vous voulez, he joked. In that moment (and this would be hard to explain to the unvaccinated, I immediately thought), I knew that I had made the right choice. I knew without calculation and beyond words (which is really the only way to know) that no physical constraint could hinder my spiritual being. I also knew how lucky I was to have been able to make this choice freely and in my own time, a privilege not available to most whose livelihoods depend on their prompt compliance or who do not have access to vaccines at all. 

Back at home, with a slight fever and chills, I shared on social media that I was at last fully vaccinated, and that this changed nothing of my commitment to the principle of self-ownership and my support of medical freedom. As I had imagined, my post was met with a storm of violent words from both the unvaccinated and vaccinated, words that reduced my being to a facile caricature of a utilitarian materialist or an anti-vaxxer.

And that is when I felt, as the lived experience would have it, the main side effect of the vaccine: understanding how many words we waste trying so hard not to hear others and live in a disposition of love towards them. 


Thursday, August 19, 2021

Une nouvelle théorie esthétique de la cuisine



 My latest article, "An Esthetic Theory of the Subversive Sublime of Ital Cuisine", is now online here

Monday, November 23, 2020

Precious beyond the beautiful

 




From an anthropological perspective, one aspect of life that COVID has brought to light is the importance of meaning: the question of individual freedom to make meaning following one's own judgment and will, and the violence of the anti-meaning impulse with which the individual is met as the form of the human being is freed from old utility. 

This evolutionary struggle between meaning and anti-meaning infuses every area of human activity, from public health and education policy to the ebbs and flows of global financial markets. Anyone with an interest in the latter will have noticed the soaring value of precious metals, namely gold, since the beginning of the pandemic. As the price of gold reached a peak mid-summer and hit an all-time high against the dollar, an event mirrored by the bottoming of national interest rates, many would-be investors began to look to silver, the market for which is eight times smaller than that for gold. 

Personally, I have to admit that I have never been a fan of silver. Too cool and unflattering against my warm skin tone. Is it really authentic to invest in something, I wondered, whether a commodity or a company, that one finds aesthetically displeasing? If, according to Rudolf Steiner, the mineral kingdom is the next of the primal slated for total transformation (and indeed, it would seem, a site of future geopolitical struggle), it seemed natural to want to prioritize the beautiful in this process of becoming by betting on its value. Why not invest in beautiful gemstones rather than silver, for example, since gold had grown too expensive?

A practical solution for investing in precious metals involves buying shares in a financial product known as an exchange-traded fund, or ETF. Gold-backed ETFs relieve the investor of having to insure the physical presence of the metal in their possession, as well as the expense of having to ship it and eventually sell it (or fear having it stolen). Instead, one can buy a share in a gold-backed ETF, where physical gold is kept in a vault, often in London, and audited by regulators bi-annually. Of course, there are fears that many ETFs are overleveraged, and should one really need to recover one's investment, fund managers would be unable to satisfy sudden demand for liquidities, essentially replicating the phenomenon of a bank run. 

To my surprise, I discovered no gemstone ETFs. The last one, called GEMS, emerged and failed over the short period of the Great Recession of 2013-2014. Moreover, it was a fund of gemstone mining companies and not physically backed by gemstones. And so I was left mulling a new question: what might we understand from the discourses surrounding the ever-popular gold-backed ETFs that would help us understand why the gemstone ETF failed?

By saying that GEMS failed, I don't mean to imply that it was a bad idea, only that it failed to meet the cultural criteria for a stable hedge investment, which is the whole raison d'être of an ETF. Anthropologically, the idea of a hedge investment has a lot to do with meaning: the perception that there could exist in a given substance a stable meaning, an eternal one even, always accessible beyond our individual and cultural sensibilities. Beyond time. 

Gold is the beloved commodity for most people who can see the precariousness of the national project, its panem et circenses and the subsequent cycles of inflation that ensue. With the massive stimulus spending enacted by national governments as a response to COVID, more money flows into the economy, causing higher inflation as well as higher interest rates, which are good for banks but bad for the value of fiat money. Additionally, investors have faced a lack of foresight concerning supply and demand for oil, given the lockdowns imposed by governments. In light of such instability, hedging options help to ensure the value of one's capital. 

Traditionally, treasuries (bonds) are one such attractive hedge investment during such times, because they don't move in the same direction as equities (stocks). The conventional guidance is to balance one's investments across stocks and bonds, at 60% and 40% respectively. During the pandemic, however, in the context of stimulus spending, the US government has flooded the market with bonds, and the Central Bank has followed by buying bonds at the low end of the yield curve to keep rates low. The result has been that treasuries are no longer seen as a good hedge: while stocks have dropped, treasury yields have not risen. Bond prices are seemingly stuck where they are. 

As real rates, or the difference between what one thinks they are earning on the money invested and the actual value of the money they get back in return from the investment, have gone negative in the US, gold particularly and precious metals generally have become an ever-attractive alternative. 

One factor affecting the potential value of precious metals is their utility qua 'real commodity' subject to supply and demand. For example, about half of silver is used for industrial purposes, such as manufacturing solar panels. Another major factor is the available quantity of the metal, current and projected. All the gold in the world, it is said, could fit into a townhouse. Finally, one oft overlooked factor is the meaning ascribed to the metals by our perception of their purity, a subjective concept that anthropologist Andrew Walsh explores in depth in his ethnography about the global sapphire trade, Made in Madagascar.  

As I have been listening to my gold investor friends, however divided they may be about the legitimacy of gold-backed ETFs, it seems that the metal's purity is what unites them. It occurred to me that this quality might also help to explain why there is no gemstone ETF for the stone lovers among us. 

A major reason given for the winding down of GEMS was that the mining companies, whose operations were financed in part by the investors to the ETF, were themselves linked to the course of equities, being publicly listed companies subject to the whims of the market. Even if that aspect of the fund were corrected (a major structural adjustment, for sure, but not an impossible one), it seems to me that a gemstone-backed ETF would still be a cultural gamble, because of our obsession with purity revealed in how we think about the suitability of gold as a hedge. 

As anyone who has tired of old jewelry pieces well knows, gold can be melted down and molded into a new form. Its value is stable across forms - uniform - because of its purity. Such purity and uniformity of substance are required in order to qualify as an object of exchange, something gold and other precious metals have historically been. By contrast, the purity of gemstones can only be evaluated on an individual basis. The puzzle of which they are a part can never be pieced back together. Consequently, unlike a gold-backed ETF, it would be impossible to know the value of a gemstone-backed ETF through the space held (the weight and quantity) of its stones. 

One fund has tried to address this problem by grouping stones in "baskets" of equivalent purity, independently appraised by a gemologist. The risk, anthropologically speaking, is that "purer" baskets would not actually be objectively purer, only representative of such a level of purity in our perception. Purity here needs to be understood as "purity in perception", not something actually contained in the object, which is the precondition for uniformity.

Gemstones are individuals: in our perception, they do not hold the status of divine substance that gold does. The preference for gold is about its purity in perception across time and across cultures. Psychically, gold acts as a symbol for matter as divine substance. This phenomenon cannot only be understood historically, according to past utility qua object of exchange, but speaks to a psychic striving for the embodiment of an ideal form, a need to identify matter as divine substance that would exist independently of our perception. Because they depend on this cultural fact and appeal to this psychic need, gold-backed ETFs represent a "deeper" materialism than fiat money and productive assets like stocks. 

The paucity of gemstone-backed ETFs shows that a substance must qualify as both uniform and pure to serve as the basis for a stable ETF. Both qualities taken together work to ensure that a substance will give the impression of having value - meaning - outside of human perception and experience. In truth, however, the value of gold, too, depends on our perception and experience of it (and we know this). In this way, it symbolizes our hope for the possibility of a divine substance. Gold represents the divinization of matter, as its worth is believed to be beyond perception, beyond the beautiful. 
 







Friday, June 12, 2020

On color resistance



Aesthetically, as a color resistant, I am enjoying the current mood of natural, pale, dusty, muted, vegetable-dyed almost-color. Painting with it, wearing it, dreaming in it.

Perhaps, I wondered aloud to a longtime friend who stopped to see me in Brooklyn on her way back to Paris just as I was leaving for fieldwork in Beijing, it is an introvert thing: wearing such colors allows one to blend in and go unnoticed. Wasn’t anonymity a big part of why we lived in these harsh cities anyway? Or maybe it was the harmony-seeking, self-effacing, conflict-avoidant, enneagram nine in all of us (and me too)? Or the magical influence of days spent between the pastel lazure walls of the Waldorf kindergarten? I just wish I knew, in the beginning, if it was more a question of life imitating Instagram or vice versa.

John Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice that “the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most,” and I wondered if there was a correlation too with the most thoughtful ethnographers. 

Years of living in Paris and New York, commuting on dirty trains and subways, habituated me to a grayscale palette, though Paris is more of a warm beige and New York more of a cool metallic grey. Either city is heaven, though, for a color resistant. In China, with the exception of the smoky saffron and crimson smocks of the monks passing by in the hutong (colors which Rudolf Steiner, in his theory of color, associated with the lustre of spirit and of life, respectively), it felt like I only ever had the choice between red, black, or white, all very elegant colors to be sure (and at some point I did buy a big black tulle skirt) but too high in contrast to support getting lost somewhere between polarities and being barely there, which was my aim.

Color, it occurred to me, is what happens while we wait. Like all aspects of fashion, color reflects our intentions for change and reveals how we see ourselves in relation to time. Between the finalities of black and white, there is Bergsonian lived time, la durée, the time of our perception and experience. 

As I folded a summer’s worth of vegetable-dyed linen frocks into my suitcase, I pondered how much the ethnographer’s uniform must have changed since Malinowski, who was usually clad in white. In Professor Taussig’s class, we spent a session discussing the chapter “Administration by Bluff” in What Color is the Sacred? where Taussig shares his theory of color and ‘color’. “Goethe,” Taussig reminds us, “says that color in its utmost brightness is shunned by people of refinement, who prefer black and white. Yet even for such people, is there not a quality of whiteness that is so stunning that it amounts to the brightest of bright colors – as manifest by those men in the colonies (…) who adopted a whiteness that covered every square inch of skin, such as workers wear in infectious-disease units or when approaching a toxic dump?” (80) To support his argument about the relationship between color and ‘color’, Taussig shares a photo (“Ethnographer with a Man in a Wig”) of Malinowski and a native sorcerer who is mostly naked save for his wig, and provocatively asks, “is not the man in white every bit as magical as the sorcerer? (…) Nobody looking at the image, with the possible exception of the natives, would know the sorcerer was wearing a wig. In reality, it is the ethnographer who is “bewigged,” decked out in his colonial outfit, which, in its colorless purity, like a painter’s untouched canvas, suggests that color shall open the doors to the art of ethnography (…)” (83).

Could it be, I wondered, that the current palette of pure, unsubsumed primal colors - dandelion, citron, peat, terracotta, oat – was the new colonial white? These colors, as I learned firsthand during an organic dye workshop, are produced using vegetable dyes which are usually carefully grown, sometimes hard to find and expensive, and always ephemeral, in contrast to the colorfast, flashy, mainly synthetic colors readily available for a few dollars to the poorest people in street markets. Yet, because bright colors cannot be worn more than a season without needing to be replaced by more bright colors, they represent the constraint of capitalism and one's dependency on it. Natural colors may fade, but this only adds to their authentic character. “They look good on all skin tones,” touted the teacher of the dye workshop, “because, unlike synthetics, they contain the entire spectrum of light.”

The trend of color resistance, then, would seem to be an expression of aesthetic privilege: of the luxury of escaping the constraints of capitalism, not only as a consumer in one's own wardrobe choices, but also in one's situation as owner, exempt from the requirement of wearing saturated, on-task hues in order to display one's worth and productive capacity. 

Because it is necessary to be well placed socio-economically to be able to afford to dress in rare primal colors, these colors have the effect of obfuscating the historicity of the process of commodification of natural resources. If we view fashion trends as aesthetic attempts to make appealing the enrollment of one's body in a given moment of transformation in accordance with market necessity, we can understand the current trend of color resistance as a way of ostensibly rejecting such transformation of oneself by appearing to stand outside of the process of change - like a native. The silence of neutrals exposes the artifice of the transformed. But the only way such a social distancing is possible in a modern society is if one's position in the economic hierarchy is solidified  - accumulated - enough to make it so.

If money is no object, one can find anything. And fashion is related to this economic fact: the more one has, the more one can afford to have, the more it becomes necessary to create an impression of scarcity in the aesthetic realm that justifies and drives real scarcity in the material realm. The disconnect from nature engendered by this process requires increasingly efficient technology that is also enlisted to spew out synthetic fabrics and colors. Through fashion, the process of transformation comes on and into the body and seduces us by its unpredictability and its freedom from the constraints of origin. It offers hope for a body eventually freed from them too. But along the way of commodifying natural resources, scarcity is displaced from the realm of the transformed back to the primal, such that in fine primal fabrics and colors are most à la mode

Indulging in them hardly makes one beyond capitalism, however, because in a modern society one must stand in a place of privilege vis-à-vis technological processes in order to afford this new earthy trend. One must, directly or indirectly, control access to those natural resources from which such fabrics and colors are derived. This trend is a change of course with fashion traditionally because it obfuscates, rather than celebrates, enmeshment with and dependency on capitalism and its technologies, suggesting that the transformation of the body is something best left for others. It signifies a new aesthetic hierarchy that places the time of salvation back at the beginning, suggesting a denouement of the whole transformative operation. 

Color resistance may well be just another operation in colonial concealment, the latest bourgeois aesthetic trompe l'oeil, because it involves not a recovery of living in mimesis with nature (that would require a lifestyle change, and a systemic change for that matter) but a claim to nature from without, from the urban comfort of mastery. A claim to what purity remains in the world by an aesthetic distancing of the colonizer from the exploitative processes upon which his privileged access to nature depends, and an aesthetic distancing from the colonized who no longer have the luxury of living mimetically with primal, untransformed Nature. By appropriating the primal color palette, the privileged take on the appearance of being embedded in the fundamental forces of matter and beyond the social. 

My friend suggested that there was something to be said, nevertheless, for the healing potential of such colors, for their warmth and peace and vulnerability. For the mimetic intention they express. Spiritual beings, after all, live in all colors, she reminded me, which is why it is good not to restrict oneself, to overcome the habit of color resistance.


Further Reading

St. Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Color. Penguin Books: New York, 2016. 

Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

On the Potential of Fieldwork as Handwork



      Before I spent time with visually impaired children, I couldn’t have imagined the importance that hands could have. In the absence of eye sight, the hand offers, along with the ears and mouth, an opening through which to become part of society. Hands serve as eyes,[1] yet they are frequently restricted through body techniques in education to maintain common ways of seeing and knowing, through the eyes and through literacy. To suggest that blindness might in some ways be an ability, and that it is in fact sighted society that has grown blind and needs to learn to see, is a very controversial idea. The role of the teacher of the visually impaired child is to equip them with the assistive technology necessary to facilitate literacy of the non-sensuous kind from an early age to increase their chances of inclusion.[2] My role, as an anthropologist, is to appreciate the complexity of all of this.
         
    Recently, while reading Michael Taussig’s provocative book, I Swear I Saw This, it occurred to me that the current approach to inclusion, which is often nothing more than a silencing of the “I” of the disabled self and an imposed (materialist-gnostic) virtualization of the body through the latest ‘evidence-based’ ideology and technology, is also the situation in the discipline of Anthropology. The emotional regime of our discipline has become such that in several classes at Columbia, my professors (not Taussig, of course!) have explicitly forbidden the use of certain words like ‘self’, ‘choice’, ‘individual’, and ‘agency’. Informants’ experiences are frequently explained away by invoking uptake of 'neoliberal governmentality' sensibilities of the self. We are trained to use qualitative research software, such as Nvivo or Atlas.ti, that analyzes our fieldnotes and deciphers the “codes” in them. The hand is useful for typing our data into these software of abstraction, which are getting very close to producing explanations autonomously.[3] Clearly a change of tools, which in I Swear I Saw This includes a renewed utility of the hand, is needed if anthropologists are to change the sterilized manner in which their rich experiences are understood and communicated.
           
    Until recently, the Neoplatonist in me preferred to think that the problem could be found in the limitations of language, that manipulative medium, such a distraction from the wisdom of silence! William Burroughs similarly struggled with it. “The word (…),” he wrote, “scared you into Time. Rub out the Word forever. What’s envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist from himself, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual limitations” (cited in Sobieszek, 24). But with time, and through turning to drawing and painting, Burroughs eventually reconciled himself with language, seeing it as a temporary but necessary medium. “Words are the souls” that allow one to “reach beyond space and time where immortality reigns” but “words and language (metastructure) must ultimately be destroyed if human kind has any chance to escape their tyranny” (Burroughs, cited in Sobieszek, 24). Complicating this, he helpfully distinguished between speech and rhetoric: “Freedom of speech,” he wrote, “means freedom from rhetoric” (cited in Sobieszek, 24).
          
  It is not news that there is little space currently to use language in a free way in the field of Anthropology, and some, like Dimitrina Spencer, have advocated for a new reflexive attention to emotions in anthropological training and encouraged the articulation of our “individual transformative experiences (…) in the field” (69) as a means to change the emotional regime of the discipline. In Spencer’s view, this has been hindered by language-based knowing: “(…) anthropologists arrive at their first fieldwork site somewhat ready to engage in a relationship (that is, an ongoing intellectual debate) with those they have already read (that is, other anthropologists) rather than with their own affective world. That will inevitably shape and filter their fieldwork engagements, data collection and analysis” (69). 
           
    It would seem to follow, from Marcel Mauss’ thesis in “Body Techniques”, that to make progress in one’s consciousness, which is what changing any emotional regime requires, one must first change the techniques of the body through which such consciousness is reproduced and maintained. If “anthropologists as artisans are indeed engaged in the production of embodied knowledge” (Spencer 84), then perhaps attending to the body, which is a vehicle for feelings through which thoughts are sought and sifted, is a good place to start.
          
    For Taussig, in I Swear I Saw This, the answer can be found in the hand and especially in the images it is capable of producing. He argues for a rethinking of fieldwork as handwork, and for overcoming the current sclerotia of the hand through old-fashioned handwriting[4] and drawing in notebooks. It is in drawing his observation of a man being sewn, by a woman, into a bag under a freeway tunnel that Taussig “came to realize that this book would be about seeing as witnessing in relation to fieldnotes” (142).
          
    Naturally Taussig’s emphasis on image reminded me of the importance of the virtual in the work of Henri Bergson (and later, Gilles Deleuze).[5] For Bergson in Matière et Mémoire, the image of something material, as well as the interactions in the realm of the material, becomes in our perception a representation of the thing-in-itself, inhabiting a layer of life called the virtual (in which a bit of the thing is also genuinely present too).[6] In this space, the original abstract image acquires personal meaning and is sliced up into details, which are emphasized or de-emphasized, based on the needs (utility) of our body and its functions. It follows that if these functions are modified (for example, if the utility of the hand is renewed), that the acuity of the image we hold will be too. 
        
    The use of an untransformed, primal tool such as the hand in perceiving could allow for, in the terms of the virtual, a rotation and contraction of images that could also infuse our language. The space of the virtual involves an initial observation of unity in the abstracted image, followed by, with rotation and contraction of the latter (often passing through the memory of the body), the perception of multiplicity in the image. It is from this multiplicity that our will to act is elicited. This process, which Bergson believed was precisely that of creation itself, also occurs on the level of language, when words become mimetic with the virtual and then become life itself. This back and forth dance in perception between the unity and multiplicity of images in the virtual world is in contrast to rigid evolutionary theories of purely external or internal finality (Pearson 134).[7]
        
    Bergson is not against finality per se but rather refuses a precocious form of it that neglects the virtual and our unique role in evolution that passes through it. “For Bergson, the important thing is that both science and metaphysics display a readiness to be taken by surprise in the study of nature and life and learn to appreciate that there might be a difference between human logic and the logic of nature” (Pearson 136). Similarly, it seems that Taussig’s argument is not against finality (I Swear I Saw This is, after all, a book in finished form), but rather for a recovery of the virtual in seeing that necessarily results in a renewal of writing, since, in the words of John Berger, “seeing comes before words” (7). Space for becoming vision and bodily irruptions is held with words through a return to sensuously mimetic embodied description, rather than continuing the habit of non-sensuous explanation. Our words will necessarily fall back into a unity in a way that will have carefully circumvented any pre-determined path of finality.[8]
         
   While it is true that the image and the virtual need our attention, this is in truth only possible through a recovery of a slower experience, a process for which the hand is a preferred tool because it goes (relatively) slowly, in unpredictable and unwritten movements, and is part of the primal flesh of the world (to borrow Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept). A recovery of embodied experience allows for a recovery of images in our sight, and then to a recovery of the virtual space of becoming in our thought. In experiencing through the body, one becomes capable of new sight and feels oneself in one’s images of things, and this new mimesis opens up to a forgotten temporality of the virtual. Taussig experiences this temporality as being “drawn along” (xii).[9] It is characterized by the ability to be led by one’s experience of an image. Pearson, thinking with Bergson and Deleuze, writes that the:

“empty time of the event (…) where nothing happens but everything becomes, gives us a multiplicity of presents implicated in a virtual time of becoming. The actual has been broken up. The time of the event is, then, equally the event of time, and it speaks of time’s redemption. The virtual is the time of life. It is also the time of one’s life, providing it with an enigmatic power and an abyssal freedom. Redeemed time is ‘beyond good and evil’. It is not a fable of moral redemption we are being offered or taught in these lessons on, and explorations of, time. As Nietzsche says, going into the depths does not make us better human beings, only more profound ones” (204).

I want to suggest that it is precisely in the development of such a surrender to experience that hope can be found for a change in the way of seeing, that is, in the emotional regime, of our discipline. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin writes of a decline in supersensible perception, which he associates with the ability to see auras. It is not that the physical eye has grown incapable, but rather the consciousness or disposition that we bring to the sensory input of the eye.[10] Allowing oneself to be “drawn along” implies, as I understand it, renouncing a certain way of seeing popular in academia: “using the mind to seek for the mind”, in which “the principle of perception itself” remains inaccessible because “the true mind can be found only by not-finding, by the realization, that is to say, of a pure non-dual Awareness without distinction of subject and object” (Sangharakshita 60, 61).[11] In letting oneself be drawn along in the world via the hand, which Rudolf Steiner, quoted in Heidenreich, identified as “the only sense organ in which to some extent we can still feel the creative will”, in contrast to the eye which “is less permeated by life than almost any part of the body”,[12] we can perhaps learn to overcome the fear that the habit of dualistic sight has wrought.

Fieldwork as handwork, Taussig’s phenomenological anthropology, invites us to appreciate the multiplicities of human becoming, the myriad ways in which (our) space can be uniquely held beyond ideology, since no objective answer to the question of life is possible. A holding of experience in the time of the virtual allows us to wonder safely at the various forms such holding takes among other bodies and visions for what, after complete subsumption, should become of the material. To conceive of the anthropologist as artist, that is, as a witness to such creative evolution, is to acknowledge the art of fieldwork. The art of waiting in the field for, as the late Dutch expressionist painter Karel Appel put it, “the inner light to come on”,  and using whatever body techniques necessary to see that, as Appel said, “we are the planet, the planet is in us.”[13]






Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. (1977) 1979 “Doctrine of the Similar.” In Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhaüser, 204-210. Frankfurt am Main. Reprinted in New German Critique, Special Walter Benjamin Issue 17: 65-69.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn, from the 1935 Essay. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.

Bergson, Henri. Matière et Mémoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1939. Print.

Heidenreich, Alfred. The Risen Christ and the Etheric Christ: Two Lectures Given to the Anthroposophical Society of America in New York, April 22nd and 29th, 1949. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969. Print.

“James Hillman: The Psyche Communicates with Images, not Information,” YouTube Video, 16:11, posted by “Individuation Portal”, 6 Aug. 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=pwi8BziqKrE&app=desktop

Mauss, Marcel. 1979. “Body Techniques.” In Sociology and psychology: essays, 97-123. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Pearson, Keith Ansell. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the time of life. Routledge: London and New York, 2002. Print. 

Taussig, Michael. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.  

Sangharakshita, Maha Sthavira. The Essence of Zen: Five Talks by the Ven. Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita. Glasgow: Windhorse Publications, 1985. Print. 

Sobieszek, Robert A. Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts. Los Angeles: Museum Associates, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996. 

Spencer, Dimitrina. “Emotions and Tranformative Potential of Fieldwork: Some Implications for Teaching and Learning Anthropology.” Teaching Anthropology 1.2 (2011): 68-97. 

Steiner, Rudolf. “Foundations of Esotericism: Lecture XII.” 7 Oct. 1905. 
https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA093a/English/RSP1982/19051007p01.html

 “Waiting until the inner light goes on…Karel Appel on his art,” YouTube video, 4:18, posted by “Soekawala,” Feb 16, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYizdFM7nTM


Sunday, May 12, 2019

New Assistive Technologies for Narrating the Non-Textual: The Ethics of Language in Human Becoming





“I see a produce market,” says ViaOpta Daily, a new app developed by Basel-based bigpharma Novartis A.G. that provides visually impaired users with a narration of everyday life. But can an app really “see” and legitimately “speak” about what it sees? In this paper, I will explore the philosophical foundations and implications of a new class of assistive technologies (ATs) that aim to help the visually impaired to “read” daily life, textualizing and narrating that which is not yet textual or spoken, for example, a sunset or a busy street, as well as colors and objects.[1] I seek to explore what the process of narration of the non-textual suggests about a realist correspondence between symbol (word), concept, and an external reality as perceived by the dominant sighted. How might one contrast “helping”, as Novartis hopes to do, the visually-impaired to “know” their experience in such a textual way, and alternative understandings of knowing the world that seek a renewed relationship of thought with language through the valorization of inner sensory experiences to which the visually impaired are believed to be particularly disposed? Given the textualization of lived experience through technology, how might we consider in a nuanced way the space for authorship, the vision and voice, of the visually impaired self?
After a presentation and analysis of the ViaOpta ATs and the discourses that accompany them, I will problematize the materialist realism suggested by the discourses promoting these ATs. Thinkers such as French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, physicist Arthur Zajonc, philosopher Georg Kühlewind, and blind writer and literary scholar Jacques Lusseyran suggest that our very consciousness, by which we come to understand ourselves, as microcosm, in relation to the macrocosm of nature or the world, has always been in a state of becoming. Furthermore, they remind us of the critical importance of perception and language in that becoming.[2] A progress narrative towards an ever more quantified knowledge of ourselves and the world is rejected as the sufficient moral basis for technological development in favor of an ethics of free individual experience and interaction, with the attendant consequences for possible relationships to language, including silence. Here I hope to offer a critique of the dominant paradigm according to which ATs that narrate the non-textual for the visually impaired are developed and imagine an alternative trajectory for them that would make room for intuition (from Latin intueri, “to look at”) and imagination in being in the world, making them moral technologies. This includes space for the renewal of the mimetic faculty through the recovery of that primal, pre-textual relationship with objects and others that Walter Benjamin calls sensuous similarity.[3] Or as Georg Kühlewind described it, “Once ‘tree’ also included the experience of the tree” (2008, 71).[4]
The Boundary Object
I view these ATs as translation tools for the boundary object of blindness. Visually impaired individuals are grouped as a deficient population that carries the boundary object of deficient sensory perception into the worlds of governance and technoscience. Based on a sense of vision understood as a stable, unmoving, externally-situated capacity that can be read from the body, ATs promote a narrowly-defined understanding of vision as normative. Introducing this issue through an analysis of the ViaOpta suite of apps will allow to ground the ethical considerations of ATs built on such a normative view within a larger citizenship ethic. 
Star et al. define boundary objects as:
“those scientific objects which both inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy the informational requirements of each. Boundary objects are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. (…) They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translations. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.” (1999, 509)

For ATs for the visually impaired, these social worlds include blind individuals, researchers, patient organizations (as shown on ViaOpta’s website and in the app), state welfare institutions, and NGOs. In the production of blindness as a boundary object, we can understand these various actors as collaborating to “produce representations of nature” (1999, 517).[5]
The intersections of different social worlds and actors, according to Star et al.:
“place particular demands on representations and on the integrity of information arising from more than one world. When participants in the intersecting world share information together, their different commitments and perceptions are resolved into representations – in the sense that a fuzzy image is resolved by a microscope. This resolution does not mean consensus. Rather, representations or inscriptions contain at every stage the traces of multiple viewpoints, translations, and incomplete battles. (…) The production of boundary objects is one means of satisfying these potentially conflicting sets of concerns.” (1999, 520)

We might think of language as it operates in the ATs as one way that different ways of being in the world are channeled into a normative representation of a mechanical human being to satisfy the predictability necessary for a successful governance project, of a completed project for consciousness.

Introducing the ViaOpta Suite of Apps

The ViaOpta “suite” of apps, released in 2014, includes ViaOpta Daily, Hello, Nav, and Sim. Information about the apps can be found on their official website, https://www.viaopta-apps.com, and download is available free of charge on GooglePlay or Apple Store. 

Via Opta Daily uses the camera of the patient’s smartphone to analyze, identify, and narrate objects, scenes, colors, money, and text. It also includes a magnifier, a timer, a selfie-taking assistant, and a weather function. Via OptaNav uses the GPS function of a smartphone or smartwatch to narrate the user’s journey to a new or favorite destination, as well as let their location be known by family and friends who are also connected through the app. ViaOpta Sim uses the smartphone’s camera to superpose over video, whether recorded or live, a “simulated” user-selected eye disease and selected degree of severity. Via Opta Hello, also available as software for desktop PCs, allows the user to associate a photo of a contact to the user’s contact list, marrying the facial recognition capacity of Microsoft AI Cognitive Services with the smartphone camera to allow real-time identification of individuals or alternatively their identification in photos, for example on social media. The range of functions of the family of apps addresses the unique challenges that often accompany visual impairment: loss of meaning in everyday life due to difficulty interacting with objects and others in the world (a need addressed by ViaOpta Daily), a solitary lifestyle due to reduced mobility (addressed by ViaOpta Nav), and social exclusion owing to discrimination, a lack of empathy, and public misunderstanding of visual impairment (addressed by ViaOpta Sim). Adjunctive to these challenges is the loss of economic value of the blind individual. Because the family of apps enlists the blind user (albeit anonymously) into a continuous data collection function for the development of recurrent neural networks involving object, facial, and speech recognition by artificial intelligence, all essential for an emerging techno-bio-governance capacity, we can think of the blind user as acquiring through their use economic value vis-à-vis major players like Microsoft and Novartis through demonstrating to the latter the utility of the blind market segment. 
Each of the apps has been downloaded by over 10K users, a small portion of the estimated 250 million individuals globally who are affected by visual impairment. Perhaps because the apps were developed in collaboration with patient organizations, I struggled to find critical feedback about them. In the sections that follow, I will undertake a critical analysis of each, seeking to understand how value operates through the app and calling attention to the philosophical assumptions of its development. I will seek to appreciate how these aspects are communicated through discourse, such as television advertisements available for view on YouTube.

ViaOpta Daily

The Novartis website describes ViaOpta Daily as “a personal assistant to help people with low vision with their everyday activities.” The general conditions of the app caution, however, that it “has been designed to simulate and support real-life situations but does not replace human senses”. It is available in twelve languages,[6]and its functions and benefits are described by the app website as allowing the user to: 
“understand the world around you with greater ease using features such as the voice-guided money, scene, object, and color recognizers; learn what is in front of you with the new scene and object recognizer features; listen to the weather forecast, set a timer, and access your phone’s contact list. The app also has a built-in magnifying glass for convenience.”

The icons on the mobile interface are adapted for low vision and can be rearranged or removed as convenient for the user. 

It should be noted that ViaOpta Daily is not unique in offering these functions. For object and scene recognition, apps like TapTapSee and CamFind are popular, but come with a subscription price of around $10. Apps like Prizma, KNFB Reader, VoiceDream are available for purchase for text-to-speech translation, LookTel for money recognition, and Selfiex for selfie assistance. For two years now, a new free-of-charge app called BeMyEyes exists as an alternative for many of these functions, matching a blind user who requests narration through the app with a sighted human volunteer who provides narration from a distance, though pending availability of a volunteer. 
The official TV advertisement for ViaOpta Daily, transcribed below in Appendix A, shows a blind middle-aged woman waking up to start her day by connecting to the app. She pulls the curtains of her home and feels the sun on her face while the app reads aloud in a suave female voice that it is 21°C and sunny. The blind woman then takes the app to her closet where it reads aloud the colors of assorted dresses, among which a short purple one is chosen. The blind woman walks outside to the produce market and buys three pounds of plump green grapes. The male greengrocer places them in her market tote and gives her a five-euro bill for change, for which she solicits the app to confirm the amount. The advertisement concludes with the blind woman producing her white cane and walking down the sidewalk smiling. “The biggest help is always invisible,” says the advertisement. “ViaOpta Daily, an application for Normal Life.”
Blind people are often considered to be invisible in society (and society and the world invisible to them), but thanks to the help of what Bruno Latour would call a non-human actor (H-NH-H), blind people recover visibility. The advertisement implies that integration with a non-human actor, through use of ATs, by which experience is mediated and narrated on demand, leads to a normal life, that is to say, interaction with the world that is not anomalous or pathological. The advertisement suggests some habits that lead to happiness: living alone with lots of devices, performing gender symbolically through dress, and shopping for food. Two further aspects of normal life are especially salient in the advertisement. One is the suggestion that a non-human actor can be a substitute for trust among human actors, as implied when the blind woman must use the app to confirm that the greengrocer has indeed given her five euros in change. Traditionally, when a sighted person is in the presence of a blind person, the sighted person assumes the responsibility of narrating objects for the latter. This can create an awkward situation of reciprocity for the gift of narration. Another is the subtle naturalization of visual primacy and the imperative of satisfying it, as the advertisement is clearly intended for appreciation by the sighted public. The blind actress selects her clothes and chooses her appearance in terms of what sighted society will see (what the advertisement’s sighted viewers see). If the blind woman has a congenital visual impairment, her relationship with color may not accord with that of sighted society, and other considerations, like texture, might take precedence in wardrobe choices. However, the app does not have a function for this. The sighted viewer comes away from the advertisement with a feeling of satisfaction that the app meets all the criteria necessary for the blind individual to be included according to current terms governing social-cultural life, and as a result, to be happy (like the sighted viewer is). 
Critical feedback of the app on the AppStore and Google Play was always superficial and involved complications with the app’s functions, such as failing to recognize some objects, misidentifying money denominations, crashing when used on Android devices, conflicting with the narration of the VoiceOver function on iPhone, and perhaps more interestingly, failing to read motion, which I confirmed by putting the app to use. In doing so, I encountered other interesting situations, including some indicative of more foundational issues, situations that I will call “failures” because the narrative provided by the app inadequately captured my own experience of the object or scene in question.
Superficial concerns are not the focus of this paper, but I will address them briefly here insofar as they speak to deeper concerns. When photographing various paintings around my house, the app sometimes chose to describe them by genre (“abstract paintings”) and other times to describe what it considered salient aspects (“red flowers”). There was no way as a sighted user and in some cases as the artist of the painting that I could help the app learn to improve its description to make its language use convey my experience. 



Walking outside with the app, I found it to be mostly accurate, though sometimes adding descriptions suggestive of visual primacy, such as “gloomy sky” when, eyes closed, the sky did not appear gloomy to me. 






I also found the length of time between photographing a scene and receiving a narration of it to be excessive, and a source of anxiety as I could not wait patiently in calm and presence, but instead had to listen to the app’s noise (“Please wait while processing the image”) repeat itself mechanically and monotonously until the description was produced, sometimes up to 30 seconds later. Presumably this is because, as indicated in the terms and conditions of the app, the photographs must first be sent to CloudSight, Inc. located in California (or to ABBYY in Moscow, in the case of text) for processing. The most interesting situation I encountered outside was photographing a tree from lying on the sidewalk, a non-traditional perspective because not based upon the position of the eyes for knowledge. 

This was described by the app as “low angle photography of a leafless tree”. Such description further confirmed to me that the app has been developed with an understanding of sight as emanating from the eyes, as the tree could only considered to be viewed at a “low angle” in relation to the normal position of human eyes. This was also the only instance when the app described an image as “photography”, marking the image as artistic or fanciful because it was taken from a non-sighted perspective. In reality, all of the images I took with the app are equally photographs, though benefitting from the privilege of unmarkedness thanks to their sighted positionality which such unmarkedness in language (“photography”) further naturalizes.
Returning inside my apartment, the app was able to identify many things, but not my desk, presumably because it involves many different objects in a small space. However, rather than admit that it could not identify the space and ask for my feedback in improving its description (so that cluttered and eclectic spaces might also become legitimate desks!), the app simply went silent and did not display a description. 






The situations below illustrate how the description of the app can be correct while still failing. These include reducing a menorah to a candelabra (which it of course is, but not only), calling a crucifix a “Jesus Christ statue” (which it also includes), and perceiving a WWI memorial which depicts a woman and a statue just as these elements without recognizing them as part of a larger memorial. 



Not surprisingly, the app struggles with reductionism and with understanding objects as wholes when taken from different angles and perspectives. It successfully distinguished my Turkish Angora white and tortoiseshell cat Theo from my stuffed lion, but sometimes recognized Theo as being a white cat and otherwise as a brown cat, depending on the perspective. He could not be recognized as the same, whole cat.




Nuanced colors and patterns are also underdeveloped in the app. Colors with different patterns (e.g. lace, gingham, stripes, paisley) are sometimes misidentified and their patterns incorrectly narrated or unrecognized entirely, while hues such as citrine and mustard are conflated into “brown” or left unidentified. This could create a preference for recognizable, common colors.











The app has a good capacity to recognize wood even when painted, although it sometimes describes wooden things as “brown”.






When describing plants, the app uses the color “green” to describe living plants and the adjective “withered” to describe dying or dead plants. It successfully recognizes tulips but not hydrangeas, and distinguished artificial flowers from living ones in only one instance. When the artificial plant too closely resembles the original, the app cannot tell that it is not living. Just as wood, living and dying, primal and transformed, are however layers of life that are very easy to sense without sight through the senses of touch and smell.













The app recognized me as a woman in all instances, though sometimes it describes my glasses as black and brown, sometimes as tortoiseshell, and still other times does not mention my glasses at all. It chooses the salient aspects of my appearance that are worthy of narration without asking for my feedback on which aspects I would like to be salient, namely the choice to be described as a woman rather than simply a person.
Because description conveys value, I am left wondering what role for the experience of value as informed by the user has been imagined in the development of this app. ARWorks, the company who contributed to its development, explains in a YouTube video that the app has been trained to recognize not only objects but also branded objects, such as Beats by Dre, Mountain Dew, GoPro Hero4, Korg, Kapo, Hugo Boss, and Apple. Clearly, then, it is possible to include additional aspects of an object into the description. The Latin etymology of the name ViaOpta includes via (by way of) and optare (opto) (to choose). Through choice, the market can continue, and ViaOpta can be credited for expanding that market to the blind segment of society. But my concern is with how the descriptions themselves can be made subject to free user choice. What possibility exists to mobilize the market to help technology evolve towards an ever more relevant and present and living way of using language according to holistic experience, including the inner experience, of users? How might it be made to learn to respect this experience in a balanced way,  narrating life only when the user requests such narration, as well as learning from this experience? In this way, its function might be distinguished between assistance with everyday objects, effectively relieving the user from exerting their attention in tasks which have little value to them,[7]and learning to narrate new objects, which can only be known and fully described through the lived experience of the user with them, such relationship to form being an important site of meaning formation and renewal. This is an important question to raise now as the capabilities of ATs such as ViaOpta are still in their infancy and humanizing their functions (as opposed to mechanizing the consciousness of their users) at an early stage could ultimately lead to more future choice. This will no doubt require much creativity and disruption given the profit expectations of owners of such apps. As a tweet by an intellectual property lawyer reminded me: ViaOpta is an “amazing digital product,” she writes, “but how do we protect (…) IP?”
ViaOpta Hello
ViaOpta Hello is a joint venture between Microsoft and Novartis that enables facial recognition of one’s consenting contacts through adding their photo to the app. They are sent an email where they are invited to upload photos of themselves for analysis, recognition, and narration. This is an important investment in the blind market segment for Microsoft because Apple has long captured this market, having been the first tech company to incorporate accessibility features as standard on all its products, such as VoiceOver on iPhone. According to the Windows blog, the app took five years to develop (Sauer). According to the app’s website, ViaOpta Hello:

“uses Cognitive services and Microsoft latest image analysis technology to identify people, items, and scenes. Microsoft Cognitive Services work across devices and platforms such as iOS, Android, and Windows. (…) The desktop app can provide a description of the content of pictures from any available document library, and if the picture contains a known contact, the app will identify them by name.”

The official TV advertisement, transcribed below in Appendix B, begins by highlighting many technological innovations such as braille keyboards that have offered greater accessibility to the visually impaired. The narrator then explains that there are still “challenges and needs that are not being met”, and immediately reminds us that “Novartis is committed to helping all people that are affected by challenging healthcare issues”. The accessibility and inclusion of the blind in society is reduced to a “healthcare issue” with social, cultural, and spiritual causes evacuated from the frame. The app is touted as a “digital solution” to reduce “anxiety” and “uncertainty about nearby people and surroundings” following a need expressed by “patient organizations”. The advertisement conflates the capacity of object recognition with facial recognition, essentially reducing the person to a thing among others in its presentation. The blind woman’s friends, whom she photographs in conversation together before approaching them, are recognized and named alongside “a small house”, “a kitchen with stainless steel appliances”, “a flower arrangements”, and a “produce market”. The most awkward part of this app is absent from the advertisement: while the facial recognition feature, like the object recognition, is no doubt indispensable for social media participation and saves sighted people the burden of having to caption their photos with written descriptions, it is not at all clear why a blind person would need the app to alert them to the presence of a contact in real life, “to recognize those around them,” when the person can introduce themselves and greet the blind person as they would any other person.
The advertisement promises to help “patients to participate more fully in their lives,” but judging from the kinds of activities highlighted in this advertisement, one wonders if it is not mainly a question of getting blind people to participate more fully in (alienated) social economic life, through allowing the major players in that life fuller participation in their personal lives. This might require espousing a definition of identity (based on bodily/facial appearance) conducive to the utility of the major players that the blind user and/or their contacts do not share.
Performing gender is also a salient aspect of this advertisement: after attending the business meeting followed by shopping in London, the blind woman meets her male partner for a walk. This is consistent with the other ViaOpta advertisements which only represent heterosexual orientations, implying that their sexuality is the only “normal” life. The ads reify the classic gender binary and the utility of the material reproductive life, suggesting little room for other values, other ways of being an “I” as future-value, in the process of digital transformation. 
ViaOpta Sim
This app is designed especially for health care providers (HCPs) and caregivers to simulate the progression of many popular degenerative eye diseases,[8] though users have been quick to point out that the eye diseases available for simulation are rather limited.[9] Like ViaOpta Daily and Hello, it uses the camera function of the user’s smartphone or tablet as a means to supply the background against which vision loss will be simulated. In the TV advertisement for this app, transcribed below in Appendix E, it is promised to help HCPs “visualize the real-world implications these patients face”, including “the emotional frustration of the patient.” The app allows physicians to “view life through the eyes of a patient” and “to walk in the patients’ shoes”, offering a rare “first-person look at living with a visual impairment”. The ad ends with a testimony from an ophthalmologist in Kalamata, Greece. 
The main problem with ViaOpta Sim, it seems to me, is its conflation of experience with visual perception, in suggesting the possibility of experiencing a patient’s “emotional frustration” through a simulated visual perception. To suggest as much equates viewing life without any inner experience the patient might bring, including by way of the other senses, and considering their own history of blindness, especially at what age in their life visual perception began to decline. 
Clearly there is value creation in having access to the data of non-visually impaired users through this app, the only app in the suite that extends to their market segment, as well as value for a company in positioning itself as indispensable in the patient-HCP relationship. But one wonders if such an app can really capture the integral lived experience of visual impairment. Blind writers such as Jacques Lusseyran caution that, for them, the experience of blindness is rarely the darkness that the sighted believe it to be. In other words, ViaOpta Sim cannot accurately capture full embodied, ensouled, living perception, only visual acuity, and further is built on the assumption of a large role of the latter in the patient’s perception of the world. 
ViaOpta Sim contributes to the medicalization of blindness by fragmenting what is in reality a unified experience of life for the blind person who has at their disposal many other senses with which to engage the world, senses which are often more developed for them than for the sighted majority. This fragmentation of perception is then named with the corresponding disease and the progression of visual perception from “normal” vision to severe, from light to darkness, can then be simulated with the swipe of a finger. That “normal” vision is the default view of the device’s camera, and that users access the app through similar devices, has a normalizing universal message that reinforces the ideal of one “normal” shared sense of sight and allows the pathologization of blindness as a technical challenge only, through a mimesis of the eye with the camera lens. If ViaOpta Sim were to avoid being bio-normative, it would need to show not only the possibilities of objects according to one’s level of access to the light which illumines them, but also the range of possible dispositions to the light itself, the range of ways of being in relation to the objects. This would allow to capture the ways of understanding the essences of things (or lack thereof), of perceiving the spiritual (or lack thereof) in the material. 
The advertisement mentions that ViaOpta Sim allows “a dialogue that treats beyond the conventional pill.” While the intention may be to help others take eye diseases seriously despite the lack of pills that exist for treating some of them (like dry AMD), the app translates blindness itself, understood as abnormal perception, as a disease to different sighted groups (HCPs, caretakers). In this deficit mindset, by enlisting these sighted groups to a reductionist view of conscious perception, a company is able to position itself – its technological intervention and eventual pills – as the cure, continuing the allopathic tradition of “fighting against” anomalies rather than try to work with them, understanding diseases as living phenomena that seek to evolve our dying material embodiment. Seeking to understand blindness in an integral way might include addressing society’s disposition and values as the source of difficulties, rather than just the eye. An object (smartphone) shared by all becomes an actor which translates the deficiency to different market segments who can make sense of it in the desired way. Through the new visibility afforded by the app, the blind are imagined to “see” in a pathologized way requiring a mechanical perceptive fix. As a popular image circulated on social media on the occasion of “World Sight Day” (ironically a day for the blind), asks, shouldn’t we all share the same vision?

The effect of such reduction of perception to visual acuity, and the insufficiency of the latter compared to the ‘norm’, and its naming, confers an ethical authority to the HCP to intervene, with the help of bigpharma. This linear-causal approach between mechanical failure, technological rehabilitation, and productive citizenship reduces the lived social, cultural, and spiritual experience of blindness to a bio-mechanical outlier, a difference that cannot be appreciated because it is impeding “the same vision” among citizens. Social, cultural, and spiritual challenges, considered by some to inform the evolution of the material, might be overcome, it is implied, if we all shared the same bio-mechanical perception through technology, the same capacity to act on objects, our bodies, and the world, and the same disposition to these. Such a reduction of the layers of human experience to a smartphone screen reinforces a politics of exclusively materially-informed technological change. On balance, we might say that what is promoted is a negative spiritual anthropology and a positive physical one: while no attention is paid to the aforementioned non-mechanical considerations, the focus (and investment) is articulated according to a precise material aspect that can be known with certainty as the good according to which action may proceed. The result of this choice of positive and negative anthropology is that the focus is not on the individual but on the utility of the human collective before which bigpharma, represented in this advertisement as a white-coat wearing white male doctor with an iPad, has a social responsibility to do whatever necessary to allow the collective to continue to hold space in relation to objects and the world according to current terms of understanding of that right relationship. 
ViaOpta Sim does not narrate for the sighted, so it is not actually the experience of the blind who use ViaOpta Daily to narrate their experience. Narration, then, as it takes place in the other apps, is a project for blind consciousness via language, to do with valid conditions of access to reality or the true. The absence or presence of such narration is indicative of dominant regimes of knowledge and concepts of nature, especially that of visual primacy.[10]
ViaOpta Nav
This application uses the GPS capacity of a smartphone or smartwatch to narrate a users’ trip, similar to other subscription-based apps such as Ariadne and BlindSquare. It notifies the user when to turn left or right when an intersection is ahead, and when they have reached their destination. It allows the user to save favorite destinations for convenient routine trips. According to the app website, the app offers “an experience that can be life changing if you are living with low vision by helping you to increase your mobility and regain independence. You can access voice-guided and turn-by-turn directions, be alerted to intersections along the way, and even pinpoint and share your exact location with family and friends. Also find points of interest near you.” User complaints for this app included that it does not narrate the journey unless the user is approaching a new street or intersection (that is, it doesn’t always tell the user exactly where they’re at), and it does not take into account construction and detours. The anonymous author Pharma Guy of the Pharma Marketing blog complained that most elderly users who are affected by wet AMD don’t own a smartwatch, and that he believed that the app was only released only boost Novartis’ image and provide the occasion for more PR. His argument is that the app is designed for brand recognition for prospective consumers of Novartis’ drugs for degenerative eye diseases, such as brolucizumab,[11]a promising treatment for wet AMD currently under FDA priority review. 
Both official TV ads for these apps emphasize the benefit of discretion the apps confer to the blind user. In the first ad, transcribed below in Appendix C, a grandfather in Budapest connected to ViaOpta Nav via his AppleWatch is walking his granddaughter to the park to play when a young man crossing the intersection in the opposite direction brushes his shoulder – something that presumably would not happen were he walking with a cane. 
In the second ad, transcribed below in Appendix D, this “invisible” biggest help of ViaOpta Nav helps a young, attractive man dressed in business casual attire to navigate the streets of Budapest by listening, with his iPhone to his ear like everyone else, until arriving at a cakeshop. There he picks up a small cupcake and chooses “bench’ from his list of favorite places in the ViaOpta interface. He arrives at the bench and is greeted by his girlfriend who takes the cupcake from him and takes his hand. Following the trend observed in other ViaOpta ads, heterosexuality operates in this ad to convey normality and functional society, perhaps rehabilitating the imagined deficient sexuality of the visually impaired person.[12]
Discretion is marketed as an aspect that adds value for the user who can escape the stigma of deficiency. An article published in the Irish Newspaper The Journal on the occasion of the app’s release includes a testimony by an employee of the NCBI:

“It’s discreet, which is so refreshing (…) Traditionally, low-vision aids practically scream, ‘Hey, I can’t see!’ to everyone. But I don’t use a stick, I choose not to, and with these it just looks like you’re looking at any other app.” (Brennan 2017)

Discretion was further emphasized in a PR-type article published in the Irish Medical Times: “ViaOpta Nav and ViaOpta Daily have been created to assist the visually impaired to better experience the world around them in a discreet way, all at the push of a button” (Sutton 2017, 36).
Concurrent with the value of discretion is that of autonomy or independence, represented by the elderly blindfolded superheros on the app website, and promoted by the official ad itself: “These apps can allow people to retain or sometimes even regain their independence.” These values were also highlighted in both aforementioned articles. The Irish Medical Times quotes the CPO head for Novartis Ireland who explains that, “We are delighted that patients will now have the opportunity to benefit from the use of the ViaOpta apps to improve their independence and quality of life” (Sutton 2017, 36). Meanwhile, another user tells The Journal that the app is “one of the most effective and innovative pieces of technology out there. It’s life-saving, gives you back your independence and autonomy” (Brennan 2017).
One might infer from this combination of discretion and autonomy that the stigma associated with being blind can only be remedied through integration of the blind into the current patterns and anti-social terms of social economic life thanks to technology. Put differently, society has no hope of being changed to be more accommodating to those less useful at manipulating objects efficiently, but technology can remedy this human shortcoming and offer new hope. 
The Final Solution to the Blind Problem
We might ask where value can be found for the owners of ATs in a long-range strategic view. An article in Engineering & Technology suggests that the need for independence of the blind remains unmet by popular features such as Google Maps because, quoting Head of Solutions, Strategy, and Accessibility at the RNIB, these are:

“centered around car drivers. Even if they refer to (…) ‘pedestrian mode’, they are still talking about roundabouts in the road whereas I want to know where the crossing is (…) The traditional problem I would have would be walking down Euston Road and the system will say ‘yes, you have arrived,’ but the destination that I want is across two lanes of traffic on the other side of the road.” (Pultarova 2015, 54)

The article explains that the goal of the “smart maps of the future would navigate the blind user to the destination via the most convenient crossing with almost pinpoint precision” using “detailed mapping” that “combines positioning data with image processing to enable the blind users to find the door of the exact shop he or she might be looking for” (Pultarova 2015, 54). To bring about this future, developers are currently “experimenting with visual analysis. The idea is that you will be able to take a photograph or video of where you are and this photographic information will be analyzed, blended with the data that’s already available to your device from GPS or any other beacons in the vicinity, and you would be able to read the shop signs” (Pultarova 2015, 54).
Certainly ViaOpta’s combination of Daily and Nav can provide such data to potential developers. Further to this, Shoroog et al. criticize ViaOptaNav for not providing speech recognition technology and not providing specific semantic information such as an obstacle in front of the user or recognizing a destination uttered by the user (129). Systems such as Microsoft 3D Soundscape and TrAvel do provide this information but require a special headset rather than just a universal smartphone like ViaOpta Nav does. Such information is important to help “detect static and dynamic obstacles in video streaming recorded by smartphones” and to help systems “generate an intelligent decision representing an appropriate voice directive and an alert to the user when the obstacle is detected” (Shoroog et al. 2016, 130). Given these limitations, Shoroog et al. propose ENVISION, an AT app that includes a new method to detect “static and dynamic obstacles” recorded by the smartphone’s video in real-time and uses GoogleVoice API for voice recognition to find “a valid path to the destination” (130, 135). The ENVISION system then generates an “intelligent decision representing an appropriate voice directive and an alert to the user when the obstacle is detected” (130).  
To summarize, the ultimate solution to being blind in the world is a machine-mediated and narrated existence when faced with objects. Moreover, this mechanical existence should be universal. The chief executive of the Royal London Society for Blind People explains: “You don’t want to have a separate app for the blind, then a separate app for people with dyslexia or other problems. That would be too costly. You want to design things so that they are accessible for everybody right from the start and even make things easier for the sighted” (Pultarova 2015, 54).
This universal solution would necessarily lead to an “emerging Internet of Things as well as Big Data Processing” (Pultarova 2015, 54). Thinking ahead to this “big breakthrough”, the CPO explains that “at the end of the day, we can put a lot of technological solutions in place to deal with the loss of sight, but ultimately it’s the loss of sight that is the cause of the problem. As microchip technology gets even more powerful and faster, the possibility to transmit complex information about the environment into somebody’s brain may become a reality” (Pultarova 2015, 54).
To be sure, this is a technological solution that takes the form of total visibility of all objects and people, and to bring about this solution requires the enrollment of the blind, those individuals deficient in the ability to see objects and to be seen just as others who can see objects are. Business demands to work on what already is, that can be known and predicted, and this as individually as possible to find new space to transform. The newfound visibility of blind individuals, because it is accompanied by an increased visibility of objects, confers autonomy, or the choice of how to act upon objects. But this autonomy must remain discreet so as not to unsettle the external object-focused development agenda of technology and raise the question of alternative development trajectories that would not be object-focused, trajectories that would allow space for alternative dispositions to objects and to light.[13] These dispositions could be known for example through a user-center design philosophy, explored for smartphone ATs for visual impairment by Hakobyan et al.[14]
Exclusion and inequality would not exist, the logic suggests, in a mechanically integrated and known universe, and blindness, understood as the lack of visibility of objects to the blind individual, is the impediment to this. Blindness as a deep boundary object becomes the occasion by which a philosophy of mechanism gets translated to different stakeholders who become enrolled in a telos of predictability wherein, to cite mechanist Pierre Simon Laplace, “the present state of the universe” is “the effect of the past and the cause of the future”.[15]
The discourse accompanying the release of the ViaOpta apps tells a story about blindness as pathological deviation from a defined external norm and technology as salvation in order to enroll such mutation in a development agenda that furthers market penetration for an emerging user-driven (but not user-designed or defined) techno-bio-governance. Such penetration allows for greater visibility of the objects in the world including the human being considered as a material object. With this new visibility comes the mechanistic temptation of considering the conscious human being as only an object consisting of mechanical ‘parts’ of which the sense organs, including the eyes. ATs are developed to work on the deficient parts of this greater technology of the body that exists as a kind of ghost. The technological determinist fear of digital transformation not being inclusive enough, of the blind abandoning ATs and falling off the development trajectory and investment agenda, allows for penetration of technology deep in “normal” life, without regard for alternative temporalities and experiences of meaning. De Abreu writes that “placing causes in the future means a conversion of technological determinism into an instance of indeterminacy which allows (…) to act while an imminent future effects the present” (2013, 267). The way in which ATs are integrated in the lives of the blind has direct import for the criteria according to which technology will be developed more generally, starting from childhood. Blindness is the mutation that drives greater hybridity on a species level. 
The danger lies in forgetting that, in as much as the body and objects are now (technologically) visible for evaluation and rehabilitation because they are visible in the light, they may also be sources of light themselves. Technologies of the body may not be ends in themselves within a determined universe but mere physical manifestations that allow for a spiritual origin to work in the world through the new contributions of individual gifts.[16] ATs can be celebrated on the condition that they also allow space for that work to continue, allowing the “I” even greater possibilities for expression and becoming. But to do so, they need to be developed in a manner that leaves space for attention to explore the possibility of being an “I”. When the whole human being is viewed only as a material ghost, the body as technology, with its many senses, is neglected as a space for the cultivation of the attention necessary for conscious cognition, and this neglect infuses language use. The resulting language is characterized by its unmoving quality, its attempts to preserve the material conditions of life by inscribing consciousness in a realist correspondence with words limited by their current definitions and use, with no space attributed for their imaginative use and free redefinition through individual experience.[17]
If we think of language and reproduction as the two main technologies of the self, the latter the source of continued global inequalities justified by the former which maintains as legitimate the national borders that allow for such inequalities to continue to be explained away, we might understand the challenge of language, of the logos, as how to use language in a way that allows for reproduction to be fully externalized (taken on by the market and its technologies) in a way in which who lives and who dies in the future will no longer be based on national privilege (on utility to holding space for space’s sake), but instead on one’s individual contribution to alleviating global inequalities and meeting the needs of others through becoming ever more united with the world, an evaluation of worth financed through individual visibility to those who own the technologies necessary for eliminating those inequalities and measured by the appreciation of others who receive the individual’s gifts. 
This individual contribution, while having its origin in consciousness, manifests and works through language and is shared through one’s narration of experience, through infusing the collective web of language with the individual will and experience. It is for this reason that I have tried to call attention to the importance of making room for the user’s experience, including in its apophatic or ineffable dimensions, and in avoiding development according to a determined relationship with language, in order to allow for a relationship with the technologies of production of language and text that is continuously and consciously informed by the whole of individual experience. 
Such a neglectful language politics is made possible by converging political agendas between so-called neoliberal actors on one hand and democratic-eco-socialist sensibilities on the other, with the need for predictability in human evolution uniting them. The so-called neoliberal group, informed by materialist mechanism which considers the experience of individual consciousness to be an illusion, maintains that suffering can be alleviated through inclusive material redundancy, with the body as technology forced into a virtual transformation through deep technological penetration of reproduction and language, total dematerialization accompanied by further despiritualization in the secular-materialist tradition, a process that, it is promised, will engender a more intelligent posthuman life form. The material nature of the human being is revealed in his willingness to enlist his own being in market flows, as we can observe in the development of ATs for the visually impaired, that contribute to bringing about this dematerialization based on equalizing mechanical objectives like “sight”.
A second group, however different their political ambitions, considers suffering to be a consequence of material utility arising from physical freedom, but this group, in its belief of dualism, endeavors to thwart any effort to free human utility from the democratic state-controlled ethics of materialization, and its collective language (and consciousness), as a way for collective material redundancy to occur. The substantive equality for which this group advocates only makes the current materialization more equal according to present material criteria, which assumes that suffering is of an exclusively material origin and results in blindness being relegated to a deficit frame rather than celebrated as a valid way of perceiving.
Yet a third way seeks to heal suffering through a concomitant dematerialization, through transhumanist technology and the individual visibility for which it allows, and respiritualization, through a politics of choice and free association based on affinity, in a way that places at its center the freedom of the individual to will their attention, including and especially as concerns language use, to becoming ever more the world. One might find meaning in the experience of going somewhere and wish to be exempt from the narration of a noisy AT during that time, for example. 
This position incorporates demands for inclusion, but not on the level of utility of the collective group, with emphasis instead placed on the individual user’s choice of orientation of attention, of disposition to the light, a spiritual freedom believed to precede the material freedom that has been achieved through national-secular materialization. Accordingly, it hopes to bring about an end to all forms of group domination such as gender, since there would be no value to be found in maintaining the physical materializing nation state in a world of fully-visible individuals. Language is retired as a requirement for collective belonging, and knowledge is viewed as knowing from the direct experience of being (in) the world, which in being articulated has the effect of renewing language. 
Because the neoliberal view of the major players has the technology and needs the market, the question is about what the evolution from the physical utility of the citizen body to its virtual utility will be. This is why the ethics of ATs for the visually impaired are so important for the future of all human evolution, to know whether virtual utility will be only a mimesis of existing (and previously useful) physical sense organs such as the eyes and the body, or whether the relationship of the latter to the world can be expanded, to be informed by the experience of alternative, emerging dispositions to the light.
This is in contrast with the view of patient organizations which hope to include the blind into a common development agenda based on a collective identity, but in doing so, paradoxically naturalize "sight" (and, by extension, gender) in a continued saga of symbolic domination that maintains the morality of reproduction (and materialization) of the physical collective through placing future-value ever more intensely on the manipulation of objects in the present. 
Kühlewind writes that “the world, including human beings and their consciousness, is not originally a world of things but a world of words; that, fundamentally, it is structured like a text and can therefore be read as a text” (1992, 13). He continues on to say that “we can perceive phenomena for which we have concepts or ideas – or for which such concepts or ideas can be developed in the course of observation,” and as we try to apply this principle to “the observation of everyday consciousness,” the “first step in the process of observation is to distinguish between conscious cognition – guided by questioning – and the given image, which is the object of investigation and results from earlier (…) cognition. A further distinction would differentiate between the planes of the present and the past in consciousness – for instance, by distinguishing between the activity of thinking and the (already past) thoughts that are the results of this activity” (1992, 15). 
His view expresses the centrality of the “I” to conscious cognition and as a means to pursue a greater monism in the world. Furthering monism and transitioning meaning from dualism may be seen as critical to ending gender and various other forms of material domination, since the sense of mystery engendered by who/what one is not, that unbridgeable gulf between self and other, inevitably leads to the desire to possess the other. 
Haraway recommends putting an end to such desire by embracing hybrid life forms, such as the cyborg, and celebrating the potential technological hybridity it offers for regeneration rather than reproduction.[18]She views language as central to this aim, since “writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly (…) That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution (…)” (1991, 176).
Texts are certainly central to translating the boundary object, but the point of political and philosophical contention is revealed when we venture to ask by whom such texts are produced, and according to what telos. Specifically, what is the relationship of the individual self to the production of texts?
For Haraway, the autonomous conscious “self” or the concept of the free individual is part and parcel of the dualist tradition.[19] The question is not how to be fluidly with machines, but rather a question of recognizing that “the machine is us” (1991, 180). Accordingly, the noise for which she advocates has to do with using language for keeping perception (consciousness) at the level of her belief that it is the object, without space for a meta-awareness that could suggest that consciousness in fact creates the object (and the machine). Such pollution of perception through language as noise culminates in a materialist monism that is effectively without the possibility for hierarchy because no reflective consciousness can stand outside the noise and speak about it. “Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology,” writes Haraway, “means refusing an anti-science metaphysics” (1991, 181). Accordingly, the ethics of science is confined to the qualities of objects (including human beings) quantitatively measured and known through the limitations of the current physical senses, a task at which machines excel. Since no one can purport by their unique experience to stand outside of such certainty, such experience being invalidated as illusory, change can finally proceed according to an unspoken telos of material equalization, made palatable (and moral) through sensorial pleasure. 
Haraway’s beliefs about the nature of the self, the role of language, and the ethics of science, situated in the eco-socialist tradition, are in contrast to those expressed by spiritual thinkers who seek to bring metaphysics to science through a greater attention to individual consciousness. In their view, gender is not the proper of desire but rather of collective material utility, so the urgency in technological development is not an egalitarian management of objects and bodies but rather a doing away with any such collective management, especially as it manifests through collective (national) language. The hope is that technology might become merged with the individual will whose perception is not limited to current physical interactions with objects and others, but rather is infinitely creative before forms, owing to developed inner or spiritual perception. Technology as a tool for revelation is viewed as essential to this aim.[20] The result is a spiritual rather than a material telos for the person, leading to a spiritual monism established according to a hierarchy of inner qualities rather than an ethics of outer equalization, consistent with the belief in an original spiritual origin of the world rather than a material origin, that consciousness precedes matter. Injustice, it is believed, is not found in the existence of hierarchy but rather in the unjust criteria of collective utility according to which current hierarchy has been established. As concerns language, these contrasting worldviews, the metaphysical and the material, yield two very different possibilities: either language as noise, with individual participation confined to fixed, computational limits (that may include, among other strategies, the censorship of certain words that do not point to material equalization (e.g. ‘self’, 'choice')), or language as reconciliation of thought with conscious experience, that words might be freely chosen by a thinker in a way that could lead to a mimesis of words with an emergent spiritual reality. Such a reality, for example in the Gospel of Saint John, has often been referred to as the LogosZajonc reminds us (21), with language among human beings (“the Word”) imagined as its incarnate form, along with light itself. Words point humanity towards a possible existence, however metaphysical or materialist, in a way that the human being becomes word and the incarnation of the Logos (220). We become the texts we produce. 
On Becoming Through Light and Language
In his book, Catching the Light, Zajonc undertakes a daunting task: telling the story of light, both from the perspective of the history of science and through the history of ideas, retracing how this elusive element of life has been grasped by evolving human consciousness across time. This approach is born of Zajonc’s belief in the inseparability of the “outer light of nature” and the “inner light of the mind” (7), the former representing science, and the latter, spirituality. Zajonc’s own life is a testament to such a marriage: he holds three degrees in physics from the University of Michigan and has also served as the president for the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute as well as the General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society. During his 37-year appointment at Amherst, he incorporated contemplative practices such as meditation into his classes and worked to encourage a renewed epistemology in higher education as president of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. In this inaugural work, he first invites the reader to explore what can really be known scientifically of the banal phenomena of light and mind on which all pursuits of knowledge depend, and as for the yet unknown, to be open to the knowledge and insights that emerge through individual contemplative practice. 
            The first of twelve chapters is devoted to unsettling any certainty we may have about our sense of sight as a sufficient basis for understanding the mind’s perception of light. We are introduced to two of the first cases of congenitally blind individuals who underwent surgery to regain vision. Both patients’ doctors were shocked to learn that their patients had to be educated to see after the success of their operations. Zajonc offers this as proof that “vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind” (5).  One of the patients even came to neglect sight, preferring to continue to live as a blind person because it required less effort of him. This is explained by the fact that there exists a critical period in childhood during which our ability to see develops. Accordingly, Zajonc concludes that “the cognitive capacities we now possess define our world (…) the light of the mind must flow into and marry with the light of nature to bring forth a world” (6). 
Naturally, such an understanding of how our own sight develops leads us to desire a greater understanding about how exactly the light of the world works. Zajonc embarks on a history of ideas about the light of nature, sharing stories from the Zoroastrian god of light, Ahura Mazda, or the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Many of their ideas about light inspired inventors and philosophers alike, and Zajonc chronicles the resulting inventions, often through helpful illustrations, like Johannes Kepler’s “geometrical explanation for the camera obscura” (31), Father Francesco Maria Grimaldi of Bologna’s discovery of diffraction (108), or the inverted world of the philosopher posited by Descartes (33). The latter, believing “mechanical stimuli” to be “perceived by a spiritual principle within man” which “reached all the way into the body but could not of itself complete the process of vision”, requiring first a “spiritual principle (res cogitans)”, inaugurated a new epoch in the history of light and mind since “the light of the eye (…) remained (…) retreated from the body (…) as a disembodied spirit, a vestige of the past” (34), rather than an active co-creator of the world. 
            Descartes’ dualist view of spirit and cognition replaced popular Hermeticist and Cabalistic thought and set the stage for modern-day materialist philosophers such as Thomas Huxley or David Hubel, who believed perception to be simply a “state of the physical brain” (35). Because “mind is an illusion”, it follows that education and social institutions should be redesigned to “serve the brain, not an antiquated notion of ‘spiritual man’” (35). Zajonc considers this turn in neurophysiology and psychology to be a grave error of what he calls “an idolatry of the brain” and wishes to remind us of a time before quantum physics when many scientists also entertained such an idolatrous view of light itself. From Newton, Huygens, and Young, to Euler, Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein, the history of science is full of competing theories of light, whether as material ether, as etheric wave, or as vibration. The error of idolatry happens when we remove the light from its position of constant movement and place it under our stable gaze, as if to define it through capture (and, by extension, life itself). If “each stage of scientific discovery has its idol era” (342), Zajonc invites us to consider present-day views about the brain as the sole origin of mind. If “the characteristics of a culture are mirrored in the image of light it has crafted” (8), what can be said about the image of mind and light in our societies today? He cautions us not be satisfied that academics seem to have reached a consensus view on the neurobiological nature of mind, as history suggests that the popularity of an idea by no means guarantees its validity. As an example, he offers Newton’s theory of optics, which was “accepted without philosophical sophistication” in academia following the publication in 1704 of Newton’s theory of optics, Opticks (88).
            In the 18thcentury, the trend was towards “mechanical models of unseen realities: these were the features of the mental world” (113), then, in the 19th century, the most popular scientific worldview was that of “the universe (…) filled with material objects, between which stretched several elusive material ethers whose motions conveyed the forces of gravity, light, heath, electricity, and magnetism from one object to another” (133). Finally, quantum realism emerged and reminded us that what we took to be the “primary qualities” of things, “unambiguous and irreducible attributes of reality”, do not, in fact, exist for light itself: light, “as an enduring, well-defined, local entity, vanishes (…) in its place, a subtle, entangled object evolves, holding all four of its quantum qualities suspended within itself, until the fatal act of measurement” (315). That is, our human measurement. 
Citing the work of Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, Zajonc suggests that “the passage from that subtle, entangled object to sense reality is miraculous, made possible only by the active agency of the mind. (…) The miracle of reduction (…) takes place by the action of mind in the moment of cognition. Only when one fully includes its role (…) can one account for knowledge” (314). Such a focus on movement leads Zajonc to share Goethe’s worldview of “gentle empiricism” which seeks to incorporate moving perception in knowledge creation.  “By active engagement with the world”, we experience “self-transformation (Bildung)” and learn to see ever more anew, Goethe believed (204-205). His “participatory science” endeavored to train human beings to see ideas within the context of the moving light, which sees human beings before they are able to see the objects illumined. 
If “evolution has occurred in the context of light, and over time, the body has responded with the organ of sight” (341), we might wonder what future organs will be developed by human beings. In the final chapter, Zajonc does not hide his hope that such organs will be developed as a result of a renewed focus on spiritual life. No amount of light, he is convinced, can avail us of the importance of mind in understanding it, and such an understanding is necessarily informed by our spiritual disposition to ourselves and the world. He shares Rudolf Steiner’s belief that today’s light is actually the product of the moral dispositions of the past: that “the natural world around us grows out of the moral world within us” (222). This means that “the physical world is the fruit of the moral world. (…)” (221). 
Zajonc concludes by inviting us to concentrate more on the light and less on measurement of objects. “Holding to light, not to the objects it illumines, is the point,” he writes. “We need time to work with it, live with it, think about it, and see into it (…) Once we have learned to see light, surely everything else will follow” (342-343).
Accordingly, Merleau-Ponty in Le Visible et l’Invisible, proposes that the stakes of perception are not to be found in studying intentionality or a posteriori essences, but in the eventfulness of each of us being part of what he calls the “flesh of the world”, turned back onto itself as it were (a strange situation that may have resulted in Descartes’ dualism but need not remain there). Our experience is often marked by a faith in our visual perception (foi perceptive) of reality that tends to hide the essential role of perception itself in being, to the point of reducing perception to another perceivable object. Johnson explains that:  
“for Merleau-Ponty, perception and expression must be understood as dimensions of a wider originating event of sense, one that is ontologically more primordial than either a sense-giving subject or a sense-bearing object. Subject and object (…) are abstractions from an original unitary dimension of what Merleau-Ponty calls nature, or the “flesh of the world”. (…) The subject or self is interwoven with the world and its objects while nonetheless being also a divergence or gap in the being of nature that makes possible its experiential presence to things. (…) I am encompassed by a range of appearances, then, that are more than merely sensible – they appear as a certain direction of meaning (sens), such that in the intertwining of self and world I am always already engaged with, and by, appearances that are expressive, that solicit and address me. I am able to respond to these solicitations and be an embodied giving expression to the world, a saying of what “wants” to be said, because I am the opening within which the world appears. Hence, things can find their echo in me, and I am the power to understand and say them.” (2017, 694) 


Kühlewind espouses a similar view of immanent perception which he considers central to a knowledge of the logos and also under threat from the “ego-consciousness”: 

“real knowing of the Logos is prevented as long as it is seen from the outside. Because cognizing remains unrealized and unexperienced, one cannot cognize. Cognizing in the deepest depths means simultaneous identity and distinction of I and the world, and this occurs only for an “I”. Therefore, to become of the Logos is to become aware of the inner light, the light of the word. (...) Yet it is also true self-consciousness, by which the non-cognizing element, ego-consciousness, recedes. The speaker first reveals himself in human beings in the process of thinking. The intuition of the Logos is simultaneously the intuition of the inner logos. Man awakens in the word. The invisible I-am-the-I-am-there – the living, present God – becomes present in and through man.” (1985, 23)

Lusseyran has written extensively about the dangers of confusing the ego with the “I” and considers visual impairment to be a gift because his experience is that visual deficiency allows greater development of the “I” and distrust of appearances.[21]The space between the inner and outer worlds opened up by blindness, for him, is an invitation to take seriously the reality of the “I”. 
            In his collection of essays, Against the Pollution of the I, written in the late fifties and first published in French by Editions Triades in 1972 under the title Contre la pollution du moi, Lusseyran reflects on the lessons learned from the major events that shaped his life: becoming blind at age seven after a violent accident, struggling to find employment as a teacher when the state education system excluded people with disabilities, the decision to join the French resistance movement during WWII at age 14, and the experience of the Buchenwald concentration camp from which he was released in 1945 after eighteen months. Lusseyran’s story ended tragically in a car accident at age 46, just before the original publication of this collection. Readers interested in a detailed, emotional autobiography will be disappointed, because the author is less interested in anecdotes than with getting to the bottom of the deep philosophical questions elicited by his unique lived experience.
The collection begins with an account of his early life told across two “blinding” events: the first, personal, at age 7, and the second, social, at age 14, when he understood before many others who were “blind” to the rise of national socialism what a society guided by such beliefs would become. Lusseyran experiences the loss of sight, both his own sight and society’s ability to “see”. His goal, in writing these essays, is to reveal “to the greatest number of my fellow men” that “realm of universal experience” which can be found at “the depths” to which blindness predisposes (26). 
Upon becoming blind, Lusseyran was surprised to find that light still existed within (27), but quickly learned that feelings of anger, fear, or sorrow would cause him to stumble and hurt himself in the external world because he had not orientated his attention towards this “inner light”, which demands a disposition of trust and love (28). To encourage the blind to develop such a relationship, Lusseyran advises the sighted not to pity the blind, but rather to “show them what their loss brings them” (29). He distinguishes between those practical skills which the blind must acquire, such as fluency in Braille, in order to continue to be part of society, and the new perceptive ability, particularly useful in discerning the goodness of others, that the blind quickly acquire. “My blindness,” writes Lusseyran, “saved me from one great misery: that of living with egotists or fools (…) they never came to me” (30-31). 
The author sees this perceptive ability as a result of the development of the attention exercised in seeking to “see” an exterior object or person. “Every single tree projected its form, its weight, its movement (…) I could indicate its trunk, the place where its first branches started, even when several feet away,” he remembers (32). This attention further reveals that “the world exerts pressure on us from the distance”, that “the universe consists of pressure”, and “every object and every living being reveals itself to us at first by a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and its form” (32). This feeling of pressure is accompanied by a voice, whether from a human or the sound of wind brushing a tree, that conveys figure, rhythm, and intention (33). The “correspondence is so exact,” assures Lusseyran, “that when I walked arm in arm with a friend along the paths of the Alps, I knew the landscape and could sometimes describe it with surprising clarity (…) when I summoned all my attention” (33). If only all people could do this, he writes, “they would suddenly see that the world is entirely different from what they had believed it to be (…) all science would become obsolete in a single moment, and we should enter into (…) immediate cognition” (33). 
            Lusseyran writes that the German occupation of his native France was akin to a “second blindness” (34). Listening to German media, he could understand before his fellow countrymen that the ideas being circulated would eventually lead to the end of freedom. “There was no other reason”, he writes, “for my entering the resistance movement. But there was the difficulty of how to go about it” (35). His started his own resistance group, only to be betrayed by one of his comrades in 1944 and sent to Buchenwald where he worked as an interpreter among camp members. While there, he was impressed by an older spiritual man for whom the camp was “only an adventure” which he felt “did not concern him in a fundamental way” (158). This man represented the strength of an active and developed I. Lusseyran came to understand that the absence of freedom that defined the Holocaust was not a problem of faulty morality, but the logical consequence of a generalized underdevelopment of the in the national population.[22]
Lusseyran concludes that, “the fate of the blind community is the fate of all minorities. It is of no importance whether these minorities are of national, religious, or physical origin. At the very best they are tolerated. They are almost never understood.” (41) He believes that society must choose to value the unique sight of the blind, which makes them “experts (…) in the realm of the invisible” (47) and enables them to “experience with an irresistible force the wonderful mutual exchange between the inner and the outer worlds” (59). He promises that, “if we regard blindness as another state of perception, another realm of experience, everything becomes possible” (47). 
The experience of the sighted makes them vulnerable to confusing the surface of things (and people) with their inner nature. The danger of this naïve “cognition (…) lies in the nature of seeing itself, in its quickness, in its usefulness (…) especially (…) when we use it for knowing other people” (55). The act of seeing replaces the and leads to an idolatry of things that inhibits attention and maintains the “prejudice that (…) elevates seeing to its all-powerful position” (71): the belief that external material reality exists independently of our control, that we exist passively and among ourselves as products of this reality, rather than as active creators of it through the I.
Lusseyran’s essays, beyond their literary merit, would be valuable to anyone wrestling with the ethics of technologies and education for the blind and visually impaired. In a field where transformation is driven by a sighted deficit mentality, Lusseyran invites us to consider that “the time has come to compare our experiences” (48), arguing that such a comparison could “accomplish valuable work” in allowing the limits of perception to be explored and known (65). We are challenged to ask to what extent do the technologies and education we provide for the blind allow for such a comparison to take place, while addressing the practical demands of everyday life. To what extent is the student’s inner light taken seriously, the free becoming of theirIpolluted with our ego-based development objectives?[23] To be clear, Lusseyran believes that human beings cannot be reduced to machines, “for they possess an I” (120), “someone watching deep within (…) who sees nothing because he allows seeing” (101), and is sure to displease all who, like Donna Haraway, advocate for the negation of the self. 
One wonders, in conclusion, how Lusseyran would view modern ATs for the blind like the ViaOpta apps of this analysis. Certainly the space they occupy could be used for advertising, Moreover, they reduce the capacity to orientate attention towards an unmediated presence with the world since they solicit the user’s attention for specific functions. These functions are often tainted with reductionism and fail to honor both perception and objects as parts of a larger whole. “Seeing” the world in this reductionist way is in contrast with “seeing” through intuition, which as a perceptive style requires presence because it is simultaneously, as Merleau-Ponty wrote in the Phénoménologie de la Perception, a living and making of reality that is neither a state nor an act.[24]
I am afraid the apps analyzed here could be charged with all of the above shortcomings. Most challenging of all is that they are a reminder of the participation of non-human actors in the becoming logos. But are they too not also necessarily part of the flesh of the world? In La Prose du Monde, Merleau-Ponty pays tribute to the regenerative qualities of language made possible through the meaning of parole (“le langage parlant”), or language that is mimetic with the living act of thinking itself as it manifests in the mind of the speaker or author, rather than just a series of descriptive, communicative signs between consciousnesses (“le langage parlé”) (1969, 17). Specifically, he writes that the voice in which words are spoken pull us into the author’s mind (1969, 19), and therein lies the regenerative and mimetic quality of language. “As long as language truly functions,” he writes, it is not a simple invitation to discover in oneself meanings that already exist there. It is a ruse by which the writer or speaker, touching on these meanings, makes them seem strange, and then draws us into his own harmonious resolution that from that moment on we consider as our own. From him to us, there are only pure relations of mind to mind” (1969, 21). Perhaps the beauty of the ViaOpta apps is this very strangeness of their language, sometimes random, always logical, and the way they encourage us to understand our own perception, whether sighted or blind, and capacity for language in a new way. The fear of the machine gives way to a hybridity that admits artificial intelligence and mechanical perception as just another actor born of a human consciousness now past, a nagging ghost with whom we must now co-exist as part of the unified flesh of the world, in complicity rather than in competition, provided that we seize this opportunity to be human in the space we hold, in the words we speak, in ever more intuitive and imaginative ways. 
This challenge particularly concerns education and specifically education for the blind because the authors who narrate the world for the blind child are increasing ATs, detritus fallen out of a past way of seeing the world, and integration of ATs in the teacher-student relationship, in keeping with governance necessity, is promoted in educational praxis (see De Freitas et al. 2009; Smith et al. 2009; Mulloy et al. 2014; Wong et al. 2016; Zhou et al. 2011). Children whether sighted or blind learn by imitation, a reality that should encourage us to attend not only to the technical competence of their teachers in helping them use ATs, but also to the extent to which teachers participate in the becoming logos in ever intuitive and imaginative ways themselves, and the space afforded to them for doing so in the student-AT relationship.
We also need to attend to the space afforded to the child to act on their knowledge, which I understand as insight from one’s own interactions in the world, with objects and others. As Simone Weil writes: “the most important part of education: to teach the meaning of 'to know' (in the scientific sense)” (xi). Are blind children allowed space to know, and is this knowing allowed to infuse their relationship to language? How do ATs complement rather than replace such space? It seems to me that space (distance from transformative processes) and time (speed in thinking/acting) are variables that can be interrogated to better understand the freedom granted to the blind child to decide how and when, given the proliferation of ATs, to will their attention to objects and others, and how and when to use language.
The question of moral technology, as I understand it, is to imagine how education might now proceed in a way that allows attention to be channeled towards yet unknown objectives freely discerned by the individual learner, including as they feel compelled to act through empathy and compassion for the betterment of others and the earth, and how these objectives might be allowed to bubble up into the language that binds us. Such freedom of attention and responsibility to language could result in the development of entirely new organs of perception. For example, children who have been given space to develop their individuality in a sincere and deep way are able to perceive and appreciate the presence of individuality, however latent or neglected, in others. Consequently, they are able to co-exist with them in an entirely free way, including when others do not believe in the existence of themselves or in the importance of a politics of choice for others who do have this experience. I fear that the converse cannot be said to be true: where the “I” is not developed, fear ensues and the unfree collective is mobilized to subordinate new thought to the material now. An unfree way of seeing objects in the light is enforced in education to impede the speech and pillage the space of those who know themselves to exist by the grace of light, to think by the grace of thought. We might think of competency-based education as seeking to develop individual visibility vis-à-vis the ability to manipulate objects in the light, and concomitantly to develop mastery of the language needed to describe such manipulation. And I am not arguing against any of that. But what is to ensure in the transformative space of education today global individual visibility vis-à-vis the diversity of dispositions to the light itself?[25] Moral technology could help us develop additional senses for recognizing such dispositions and how they work through language, and I understand ATs for the blind as an opportunity to take seriously a disposition of non-duality as a guiding value in the pursuit of knowledge. Nothing less than the recognition that, as Zajonc reminds us, “it can never be a question of separating the moral from the physical (…) we are co-creators of the world not only through the deeds of our hands but, in even greater measure, through the spiritual impulses we foster inwardly” (221).



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