Blind travellers and tactile geographies

As part of an ongoing project on travel writing and the senses, I spent some time last week at the Musée Valentin Haüy and the associated bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy in Paris. I am continuing my previous work on travel writing as a form of intercultural translation, but am particularly interested in this work in the ways in which the genre textualizes the role, in the experience of travel, of senses other than sight. One of my starting points is to consider journey narratives by blind and partially sighted travellers, and the museum and library proved themselves to be an essential resource for scholars interested in the history of blindness and in how the condition has been represented in France and beyond. The ways in which the blind were perceived, and their struggle for access to culture, education and full citizenship, are recounted through the objects and works in the museum and library. A series of nineteenth-century travelogues by authors such as Edgard Guilbeau (who created the Valentin Haüy Museum in 1886) and Maurice de La Sizeranne (who went on to set up the Valentin Haüy Association in 1889) will allow me to explore the socio-historical contexts of narratives produced by blind travellers, and will also provide core materials to test a thesis regarding the ocularcentrism inherent in the various forms of thematic and discursive normativity of the form. These narratives provide rich descriptions of soundscapes and smellscapes in urban and rural environments. Equally striking, however, were a number of tactile exhibits in the museum – especially relief maps and globes (such as the 1830s example produced by W.A. Hochstetter shown here) – which reveal the place of geography in the education of the blind in nineteenth-century France (and elsewhere). Such tactile geographies allow, through familiarity with distant places, a form of vicarious travel that would appear to reflect an active policing of the mobility of the blind. This confinement is to be associated in part with the intention to break perceived links between blindness and vagrancy; it also reveals a contemporary – and many would argue enduring – refusal to accept the restricted motility, the reduced right to mobility, of blind and partially sighted people. It is in the context of objects such as these that travelogues by authors such as Guilbeau suggest a surprisingly modern commitment, in the field of travel, to the equal rights of disabled people.


One thought on “Blind travellers and tactile geographies”

  1. Dear Charles,
    I am an associate professor in Ohio, writing on a similar subject, and have also visited the wonderful museum described above. Are you still working on this project, or have you published some of your research?
    Best wishes,
    Julia

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