115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Touch Teaches Vision”: Haptic Poetics in Constance Merritt’s A Protocol for Touch

This essay examines the poetry of Constance Merritt (who is blind), exploring how the poems of A Protocol for Touch (1999) deconstruct the hegemony of vision in our culture and in enlightenment thought not only in their content, but also in their use of traditional forms, reminding us that a “form” is also something to be touched.

Proposal: 

In “Blindness and Visual Culture,” Georgina Kleege points out enlightenment philosophy’s reliance on the stock character she calls “the Hypothetical Blind Man” who suddenly has his sight restored. From Descartes to Molyneux to Locke, this character’s awakening to vision works to reinforce the idea that sight is “the most comprehensive of all the senses,” as Locke writes. Kleege resists this narrative by exploring the ways that actual blind people understand blindness not as the absence of sight, but as an embodied way of being that allows them to use their nonvisual senses in different ways (523). Interestingly, a contemporary of Locke’s named Étienne Bonnot de Condillac was also critical of the primacy of vision in enlightenment thought. For Condillac, all knowledge and experience arises from sense data from all the available senses. And instead of a hypothetical blind man who is suddenly given sight, his Treatise on Sensations (1754) imagines a hypothetical statue that is endowed with one sense at a time and in various combinations. Rather than focusing on a sensory lack that is returned to “normalcy,” then, Condillac imagines and takes seriously the powerful contribution of the senses that are present in his variously “disabled” statue, exploring the unique experience of the world each sense and combination enables. Through this thought experiment, he makes the radical assertion of the primacy of touch, not sight, in human perceptual experience. “Touch teaches vision,” according to Condillac, and furthermore it is the only one of the senses that can give us a sense of the external world—that there is something “out there” that is not me (171).

In this essay, I argue that the poetry of Constance Merritt echoes and expands the implications of Condillac’s early exploration of the ways that “touch teaches vision” in order to depose vision from its place of privilege in a culture and a language where “I see” means “I understand.” In the poems of A Protocol for Touch (1999), acts of vision are revealed to be inaccurate, wounding, erasing, and discriminatory. The stares of others at her black and blind body are “Translating texts of skin and eyes / As: our lives are whole without her” (18), allowing them to keep her at a distance: “that’s you and not me” (19). Even artistic visual images such as Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Iris” painting seem so “indecently exposed” that Merritt’s speaker “want[s] to clothe its nakedness in layers of [tactile] soft petals” (11, 12). Indeed, it is a similar act of touch that launches Merritt’s own poetics: “the tiny, unobtrusive tear / In the fabric where the poems are” (66). In what I am calling her “haptic poetics,” Merritt deconstructs the hegemony of vision not only in the imagery and language of her poems, but also in their use of traditional forms. Though poetic form is often understood in relation to the sense of sight (as in the shape of the poem) or hearing (as in the repeated rhymes or words), Merritt’s poems remind us that a “form” is also something to be touched. Merritt’s work thus teaches the “protocol” for a new ethics and poetics at our fingertips.