We made our way down a busy street in East London, processing in pairs, with one member of each pair wearing a blindfold. Every blindfolded walker held the elbow of their partner who, through this physical contact, could serve as a guide. This was the walk I delivered at The Sociological Review’s 2019 conference, ‘Thinking on the Move’, at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Although I have personally experienced being blind, I certainly felt out of my comfort zone, considering the responsibilities I now had as a session facilitator, with safety being foremost among these. This was only to be expected, given that half of my participants would not have use of their vision at any one time. As I reveal below, I sought to minimise risks through selecting a short route, maintaining a slow walking pace, and allowing the option to remove blindfolds. I wanted to escort walkers outside their comfort zones, yes, but I was wary that my chosen method could be accused of going too far. For example, I was sharply aware of the blindfold’s associations with brutality and oppression, and the potential risk of seeming to crudely mimic experiences of disability. It was also my responsibility to acknowledge these anxieties to participants at the beginning of the session, and by doing so, I was able to set out the aims of the walk as I saw it, while recognising that the activity could yield various take-aways.
I had intended the walk to give the individuals in each pair different tools of sensory perception, and to challenge them to negotiate their shared environment together. My objective was to explore how, in a society with diverse sensory experiences, we could learn about each other’s ways of perceiving, and work towards building an environment that considers this diversity. Of course, I am not just referring to the physiological differences in our sensory toolkits, but the social and cultural factors varying how we sense. Such opportunities to recognise others’ experiences have been sometimes described in the social sciences as disorientation. It was disorientation that this walk ultimately sought to achieve through the use of blindfolds and the acts of guiding / being guided.
What is Disorientation
The idea of disorientation as it applies here was most notably articulated by the feminist scholar, Sara Ahmed, in her ‘Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others’ (2006). Loosely, Ahmed uses orientation / disorientation to refer to how individuals relate to the world around them, including the norms, identities, and viewpoints within it. She wanted to reconceptualise sexual orientation as an embodied orientation; this was a seminal move borrowed by critics of racial and disability-based exclusions. If your body conforms to ascribed norms of time, space, and affect, Ahmed writes that you may encounter the experience of orientation without even realising it. In contrast, bodies that are non-conformist – in sexual or other ways – are confronted with a deficit model that stresses the norms they don’t meet. Here, the process of orientating to norms in the world is a series of crashes and tumbles, that is, a chaotic, disorientating obstacle course.
Ahmed uses the metaphor of walking into an unfamiliar space while wearing a blindfold. Ahmed suggests that the inevitable confusion and disorientation that results are crucial for someone to notice that they had previously been orientated and to acknowledge what that orientation involved. Therefore, understanding norms and their othering impact can only be done from this disorientated position (Ahmed 2006, 5-6). However, it is worth asking what the implications of privileging disorientation are as an automatic go-to for understanding the “other”. In fact, lessons from the walk and the ‘Thinking on the Move’ conference taught me that this enthusiasm for disorientation needs to also be exercised responsibly.
Let’s Take a Disorientating Walk
The walk began with a 20-minute training session, in which participants were introduced to the basics of sight-guiding:
- The person being guided takes the elbow of their guide, who is always 1-2 strides ahead and can warn of upcoming obstacles or changes in the landscape
- The person being guided can control walking pace- by gently pulling their guide’s arm back to slow down or pushing it forward to speed up
- Guides mark significant obstacles, such as steps or doors, by pausing just before them- at the top of steps or in front of a closed door.
I designed the walking route with Dr Alice Elliot (Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths). The route involved a 10-15-minute stroll down Lewisham Way, one road crossing, and 30 minutes of unstructured walking around a park and playground. Before setting off, participants were given the option to close their eyes, instead of wearing blindfolds, if they so preferred, as well as being reassured that they could terminate their participation at any point during the walk.
While walking, participants were asked to co-create descriptions of their environment as they moved through it, with each partner contributing whatever they could sense. Arriving at the park, the task was similar, but this time, the foci of description were static material objects. Participants took it in turns being the guide and the person wearing the blindfold.
Comments from the event, exchanged back in the conference room, were telling. Firstly, participants expressed how the experience of wearing a blindfold had helped them to appreciate features of objects, landscapes, and walking in the city that they had not previously noticed. This included the tactile markings under foot at a crossing, scents in the air, and small changes in the soundscape. Those reflecting on guiding pointed out the difficulties of describing certain phenomena to their partner, such as a human face on a statue, when their partner had not formerly seen or known of the face.
Yet, even more significantly, all participants remarked how their sensory experience of their surroundings was mediated through their partner. For instance, whilst guiding, participants noted that they had to consider the environment in terms of how their partner may navigate it with them. One guide observed that her partner was taller than her, and so she had to start anticipating and watching for things that only her partner might bump into, such as low-hanging tree branches. For the person being guided, they were not only able to listen to their guide’s interpretations of the visual world, but they also felt how their guide negotiated the shared environment. If the guide swerved or abruptly halted, the blindfolded walker would also swerve or stop. The guide is an extension to the blindfolded walker’s sensory toolkit, but more than that, the guide’s movements reveal insight which could help the blindfolded walker to imagine what and how their partner perceived.
Walk participants took in information through their own sensory channels, but the physical contact within pairs allowed them to discover and imagine what the partner could be experiencing at the same time. It was suggested that the task of describing to each other also required individuals in each pair to prioritise learning what and how their partner was perceiving, before composing a suitable description for them. This walk then may be another example of how disorientation – here in a sensory way – could valuably aid learning about others’ experiences. Nevertheless, my experience of organising the walk revealed some of the more worrying implications of disorientating.
When articulated by Ahmed, the idea of disorientation was characterised as an uncomfortable state, often associated with marginal perspectives, and a privileged position from which to examine norms in society. By describing the walk as a form of disorientation, I was anxious that considerable focus would be put on experiences considered marginal, such as that of being blind. My request for half of the walkers to use blindfolds at any one time could have furthered the view that this walk is about being immersed in the experience of blindness and then drawing upon this to interrogate able-bodied walking. Not only was this far from my intention, but I am also convinced that merely donning a blindfold could not be sufficient to help understand a blind person’s experience. For the experience of visual impairment brings with it challenges that cannot be simply undone by removing a blindfold, as well as opportunities to develop skills and solutions to cope with these challenges. Participants on this walk had neither of these at their disposal.
On this walk, there was not one “abnormal”, marginalised position that demanded enquiry. Instead, both the blindfolded walker and their guide had to learn about and adapt to each other’s sensory perception. What is more, each walker sought to understand their partner’s ways of sensing while being sharply aware of their own experiences. This approach does indeed benefit from Ahmed’s concept of disorientation, but it proposes that familiarity does not have to be fully relinquished to become disorientated. By trying to imagine diverse perspectives side by side, participants can disorientate themselves from their own viewpoint while not privileging any one position as affording a critical vantage point. In other words, this walk encourages a form of disorientation which reveals opportunities for intersectional thinking and dialogue.
I organised this walk to explore a sociological method for exchanging knowledge about each other’s sensory perception and thereby learning how to build a shared environment that considers this diversity. However, in addition to this, I discovered a responsibility to anticipate and mitigate any risks of such disorientating methodology. One risk that concerned me during the planning and delivery phase was the potential for disorientation to be characterised as belonging to the margins of our society, and therefore, being something radically different from a so-called “normal” and thus often incomprehensible. The conference embodied the belief in walking as a means to intersectional dialogue and alliance-building. I realised that constructing a sensorially diverse environment involved drawing inspiration from, to name a few, those who walked to remember musical routes through the city, those who walked to activate social change, and those who walked to trace our collective waste footprint. Therefore, while I may have attended the conference with a method for understanding each other’s sensory relationship with the world, I left feeling that I could construct a method which fulfilled a responsibility to sustain the potential for such alliances.
Harshadha Balasubramanian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, UCL, collaborating with the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. Her research addresses human sensory experiences unfolding amidst contemporary social and political transformations. Harshadha’s current project, funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, explores the value arising around immersive technology and immersion. Previously, while at Cambridge University, she investigated how vision was being reimagined by audio describers and sight-impaired theatregoers in the West End. Twitter: @HarshaEtAl