Conversation Series Addresses Histories of Blindness and Citizenship

What do the Bible and the U.S. Constitution have to do with the education of the blind? Daniel Caeton, PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and DHI Dissertation Year Fellow, demonstrated how these two texts helped to literally and symbolically produce the blind citizen in the U.S. in the mid-1800s.

Part of the Conversations in the Humanities series sponsored by the Davis Humanities Institute, Caeton opened his talk with the story of John Archibald Metcalf, the first graduate of the Kentucky Institution for the Education Blind. Upon graduation, Metcalf received a copy of the Holy Bible and the Constitution of the United States printed in Boston Line, a form of raised type.

This was no insignificant gift, since the cost of such texts could be 100 times as expensive as a copy-ink print. Caeton argued that, “possession of these texts was considered crucial for assimilation.” Together, they represented the twin virtues of modernity: Protestant Christianity and U.S. liberalism made manifest through literacy.

Metcalf learned to read and write using a system of raised type, which was also readable by the sighted literate, but more difficult for the blind to read. Punctiform coding relies on raised dots, as demonstrated by the dominant system today, Braille. The systems of raised dots were seen as anti-assimilationist by some, as they alienated the blind system of writing from that of the sighted. However, it was preferred by the blind community and eventually adopted throughout Europe and the U.S.

Making the blind literate contributes to the erasure of blindness, suggested Caeton. Tactile literacy enabled blindness to become normalized and acceptable. Prior to the emergence of schools for the blind, blind persons often lived in darkened bedrooms without work, social relations, or companionship. Blind educators and social reformers hoped that literacy would assimilate the blind into modern life and remove their dependence on others.

Graduates such as Metcalf, were now seen as responsible for their own successes and failures. “The rules had been written down for him,” in the form of the two texts, argued Caeton. Thus, any failure to adhere to the tenets of modernity represented by Metcalf’s graduation gifts was his own fault, rather than society’s. This is the making of the abject blind person into a liberal subject.

Tristan Josephson, PhD candidate in Cultural Studies responded to Caeton’s talk by discussing the complexities of citizenship as a legal category and as an affective community of belonging. He wondered how this second option of “cultural citizenship” could open up a way of studying the autobiographies of the blind that presents an alternative to institutional and legal definitions of being a subject to the state.

The second respondent, Sarita See, associate professor in Asian American Studies, suggested that Caeton’s research on raised type versus punctiform writing systems offers the opportunity for a complex interpretation of citizenship, assimiliation, and self-determination. Their commentaries fueled a vibrant dialogue that kept the conversation going at the reception following the talk.

The Conversations in the Humanities series continues with the Digital Humanities Lightening Talks.  In partnership with Shields Library, the event will showcase the possibilities of digital humanities at UC Davis in five-minute presentations by ten faculty, librarians, and researchers on Thursday, May 3rd from 4 – 5:30 p.m. in the Shield Library Instruction Lab, first floor.