University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Caius MCR/SCR research talks > Landscape shaped by blindness: Touching the Rock (1990) and Notes on Blindness (2016), towards an ec(h)ology of vision

Landscape shaped by blindness: Touching the Rock (1990) and Notes on Blindness (2016), towards an ec(h)ology of vision

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In 1990 John Hull published Touching the Rock, an essay based on the audio journal he kept after losing his sight, as he navigated the complexities of his new condition. Analysing his experience, the theologian identified a turning point in the erosion of his former existence as a sighted person: in 1984, he travelled to the place where he had grown up in Australia. There, deprived of the beloved views of his youth, he felt he had reached the ultimate point of dispossession and alienation that came with blindness.

This confirms, by contrast, the extent to which landscapes function as catalysts in the elaboration of identity. Whether we consider the shaping of the intimate self, or the fashioning of a collective psyche through an aesthetic tradition, we apprehend landscape as an exercise in visually recognising the view as one’s own. The affinity of landscape with sight – it first emerged as a category in painting – explains the role that it played in Hull’s testimony of loss. It also accounts for the attention that Peter Middleton and James Spinney paid to landscape in their documentary exploration of Touching the Rock – a short film, a feature-length film and a Virtual Reality project all entitled Notes on Blindness (2014, 2016).

This paper will show how the essay and its multimodal adaptations challenge a sighted, appropriative and visually normative conception of landscape. In evoking Hull’s growing ability to perceive his surroundings through sound and touch, Notes on Blindnessexplores new ways of experiencing landscape through audio-visual media. From the windy rock formations of Victoria to the rainy vistas of Birmingham, blindness brings a creative disruption to the making of landscape, and leaves behind a model in which the view is appropriated, and the subject fashioned to “command” it. Through the working of echolocation, a new phenomenology of vision emerges as the landscape appears – one that insists on the interrelatedness of sensory experience, and our participation in ec(h)osystems of perception.

This talk is part of the Caius MCR/SCR research talks series.

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