The Two in One: Walking with Smokie, Walking with Blindness
Philadelphia: Temple, University Press 1999, 227 pp. $Cdn 25.25 paper (1-56639-649-2), $Cdn 45.00 cloth (1-56639-648-4)
At the present moment in time, Disability Studies is internationally engaged in a debate over the role of personal narratives in charting the emancipatory project and epistemology of the discipline. This debate is broadly demarcated by Cartesian boundaries that divide structural and cultural arguments. For those who perceive disability as socially created on top of a foundational impairment, and locate its changing character in the social and economic structure and culture of the society in which it is found (Barnes, Mercer and Shakespeare, 1999: 2), solutions to the problem of disability can only be found in fundamental social and political transformation. And, as has been the history of other social movements, collective agency and the politics of identity are seen to provide the most effective means of mobilising the emancipatory project. Personal experience is seen to distract from the structures of inequality that constitute the the material reality of disabled peoples lives. However, a growing number of disabled feminists, reflecting debates within mainstream feminism, are arguing strongly that more weight must be given to the experiential world of impairment in understanding disability, and to the embodiment of disability theory (Morris, 1991; Wendell, 1996; Thomas, 1999). If politics is increasingly as much about aesthetics as it is about economic and public life (Hughes and Paterson, 1997: 337) then there is certainly a compelling argument for including cultural analysis of impairment within disability theory.
One way out of this Cartesian double-bind might be to consider personal narratives in the light of Chandra Mohantys view that the point is not just to record ones history of struggle, or consciousness, but how they are recorded; the way we read, receive and disseminate such imaginative records is immensely significant (1991: 34, emphasis mine). In particular, it is important to consider whether personal narratives simply privilege the personal over the political, or whether they displace the opposition between public and private by re-writing personal experience as part of common struggle, while contributing to the collective memory that sustains political community. It is in this light that I read Rod Michalkos book The Two in One, for as Michalko notes: Like Saids exile, the blind person knows that in a world of contingency, homes are provisional. We can be sighted today and blind tomorrow. Like the exiles experience of crossing political and geographical boundaries, crossing the border from sightedness to blindness provides for the possibility of breaking the barriers of thought and experience. (107)
The books title is taken from the work of Hannah Arendt (1971), who writes I am not only for others but for myself, and in this latter case, I am clearly not just one. A difference is inserted into my Oneness. (1971: 183). So Michalko exists in the midst of many blindnesses (185) the collective representations his society has of blindness.
What is significant about this book, then, and what makes it different from Stephen Kuusistos Planet of the Blind for example, is that it is not simply a narrative of Michalkos relationship with his guide dog, Smokie, but about the relationship between human and animal and between society and nature. Certainly the narrative - of Michalkos quest for a dog guide, of Smokies grace of teaching, of the different reputations of blindness and their relation to identity in theory and practice, and of their arrival at The Two in One- forms the pillars of the book. But it is Michalkos distinction between living with blindness the perception of blindness as an externally motivated condition which imposes negative effects upon a person (174) and requires a body/person split (177) - and living in blindness, which preserves the distinction between nature and society without separating them (179) that alerts us to the fact that this book is more than a narrative.
Michalko skilfully weaves his considerable knowledge of modern and post-modern sociologies with his personal biography as a disabled person to produce a clearly written and accessible text. But he does so in a way that takes us well beyond the tragedy or stigma the living with blindness in most mainstream sociological texts, to a phenomenology of blindness-sightedness. This union is important, for Michalko takes the view that all conceptions of nature are decisively human (151). It is further a phenomenology of a different kind because for Smokie, Michalkos blindness is not lack, but simply the condition within which they work together. To a certain extent the fact that Smokie is non-human enables us to see him as neutral space within which Michalko can embody a different sense of blindness, because Smokie does not share in societys conceptions of blindness. As Michalko explains, [d]ogs as guides symbolize a version of blindness; when most people see a dog in harness, they also see a blind person, whether or not that person is in actuality blind. Indeed, he notes that these same people struggle with the idea that the person accompanying a dog guide may not be blind, as is the case with Michalkos partner, Tanya. These people see their societys conception of blindness rather than an individual blind person.(39). Drawing upon Merleau-Ponty (1962), Michalko suggests that dog guides and blindness belong to each other and release each other into appearance. (42) As such, perhaps, Smokie also symbolizes the possibilities of living in blindness and sightedness together.
I would highly recommend this book, together with its predecessor The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness (1998, University of Toronto Press), as exemplars of both politically engaged narrative writing and phenomenological accounts of disability.
Kings College, University of London, U.K.
Arendt, H. (1971) The Life of the Mind: Thinking and Willing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.
Barnes, C., Mercer, G. and Shakespeare, T. (1999) Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity
Hughes, B. and Paterson, K. (1997) The social model of disability and the disappearing body: Towards a sociology of impairment, Disability & Society, 12(3), 325-40
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan-Paul
Mohanty, C. (1991) Cartographies of struggle: Third World women and the politics of feminism, In C. Mohanty, A. Russo and T. Lourdes (eds) Third World women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Morris, J. (1996) Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability. London: The Womens Press
Thomas, C. (1999) Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability. Buckingham: Open University Press
Wendell, S. (1996) The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge