René Harrison


In an essay for the June 2018 issue of Wordgathering, I discussed how Zoltan Torey's theory of language and the motor cortex can help us understand the embodied literary image. In this essay, I want to dilate on the theory of language and motor imagery in order to make sense of these experiences of impaired embodiment. How do disabled writers put the experience of their bodies — islands of singularity — into vivid evocative writings? And how might these words be read as embodied cultural performances that reclaim disability as identity? In this essay I draw some clues about this disabled identity as a cultivated skill of visualisation, by returning to the writings of two very different blind thinkers, the brain theorist Zoltan Torey and the disability studies scholar Georgina Kleege.

The meaning of mental and physical difference varies remarkably across shifting social semiotic contexts. And while there may be some anthropological constancies to our embodied experiences, we should allow our minds to dream otherwise — of how the social relations on which disabilities are interpreted and judged as unhealthy, can be altered for the better when framed by a contrasting social imaginary. It is the important work of artists and writers to generate these myths and visions through our free fantasy. Made up of virtual seeds and malleable historical bodies, a poem is a microcosm simulating worlds. These self-conscious projections into the contested realms of history, permit us all, as Zoltan Torey puts it, to "harness the technique of fiction to manage the world of fact." Yet in addition to interpreting the weight of shared human existence, the tense experience of marginality and affliction brings with it an individuating existential balance, which forces people with disabilities to negotiate myths around the biological, religious, and ethical significations of their bodies. For as Plato also knew, the philosopher poet who tells a likely myth always awakens in a violent struggle with the forces of constitutional disorder, both within, and without, our psyche. Yet what are the myths that help disabled people find our place through the labyrinth? Our bodies often feared as monstrous others, our writings are encounters with alterity and the limits of cosmopolitanism. Poetry makes sense of the liminal experiences of the body politic; yet we must reclaim the value of our souls' republics, both individually and as collective citizens.

Language and The Motor Arm Control Hypothesis

In my earlier essay, I discussed how good writers instruct us psychologically to form images through unconscious techniques of synesthetic analogy. I claimed that one sense can be used to prime another to awaken, as when kinaesthetic qualities like handleable weight and texture prepare the visual cortex to form malleable kinetic images in the mind's eye. I argued that this is what many great blind writers (and travellers) have done, from Homer to Milton (who wrote on classical and neoclassical scenes), to modern epistemologists like James Holman and Zoltan Torey, whose witness is that of the modest empirical individual. Even blind authors with little to no memory of vision, such as Hellen Keller and Gerard Vermeij can experience visual imagery through what I called the analogical structures of collaborative synaesthesia. So when wondering about how visual simulation works, therefore, we should really consider the literary history of those imaginative subjects Jacque Lusseyran called the visual blind.

Philosophers since Plato have been interested in the question of how sensory motor experiences influence the human mind and brain. In my research, I build upon such competing accounts from the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience to understand the impact of sensory deprivation on cortical regions and cognitive function. I believe a synthesis of such studies can enrich our readings of disability writings, because they reveal how the creative expression of those with complex bodies are imbricated in sensory motor movements and language as proprioceptive gesture. It follows that impairment will impact the movements of perception, and subsequently, the poiesis of thought.

According to the blind theorist of mind Zoltan Torey, neoteny worked to bring on a critical change to the human brain. The helpless infant learns to manipulate the world around it through communicating with adults, and it is during this time that communicative gestures become associated with the percepts that the child can only manipulate mentally rather than physically. Torey hypothesises that language is part of a neural technique for socially manipulating objects on inner space through its link up with the motor arm of the brain:

"The breakthrough to Homo sapiens began with the neotenous regression to neuroplasticity at an ideal age for engaging the vocal medium in interpersonal manipulation. This resulted in the linkup of the speech areas with the motor cortex and led to the laying down of a new, off-line (intracortical) response mechanism. It is this off-line mechanism that enables the brain to access and handle its experience internally and manage its affairs.

The off-line mechanism generates language; language creates the organism's sense of self or agency, which is an integral feature of reflective functioning. As a result of language, human experience is always double stranded. It is comprised of what we experience and of the sensation that we are experiencing it. This brings on the oscillation of the attention between the two strands, a functional innovation that makes perseveration (the concentration on topics) possible in a "global workspace." Thanks to the global workspace, an extended time-span is now at the human brain's disposal, enabling it to collate and integrate disparate sensory information in the production of higher-quality behaviour. It is a breakthrough into a world of consciously directed insightful behaviour, a vital aspect of autonomous functioning. (Torey 2014)

Where I differ from Torey, however, is in my greater emphasis on the ethical and "performative" dimension of language for generating group solidarity, rather than its "constative" function at the level of individual information processing or cognition. Language is first a way of getting attention that transforms the state of the world by calling for other's to interpret the speaker's gesture on the scene. Proto language is like crying "Wolf!" Or signing "water". Because the power of the word is based on the collective presence of empathy, we attend to what the speaker desires rather than merely to what is there, as in the speech act, "I now pronounce you man and wife". There is more to language socially than a neural technique of individual thought, or the child's need to manipulate adults for care. The child learns language from adults mimetically, perceiving speech before being able to produce it, after all, and ideas are forms of joint attention before they take on full linguistic significance. The ontology of representation is collective and empathic, although it does involve the planning and deferral of action that Torey describes well in some of its aspects. Even at the level of aesthetic cognition, there is a transformative oscillation between word and percept,, denotative and connotative significance, the speaker's intention and the referent intended, handled across the lateralised human brain. This transformative oscillation of attention enables the self-aware symbolic response to and regulation of the affective values conveyed by the brainstem. To what extent the various concepts and brain regions respond to language processing and other higher cognitive functions is still highly controversial, for instance, as Marina Bebney's studies of blind concept formation reveal.

Language is communicative before it is cognitive, a new tool for cooperative action. and like Helen Keller discovering names at the water pump, our readiness for language depends on the cognitive architecture of theory of mind in general, and joint shared attention in particular. Then this sharing of attention gains itself even greater focus through the language boosted self-awareness we call consciousness. We share attention by verbal pointing and conveying our moods even through non-visual images of what Kleege calls the mind's body. Thus even her teacher's signing water on Keller's hand would have involved Helen's simulation of Anne Sullivan's embodied attention as it baptised the world with the new sacred significance of symbols. Thus the mind's body in general, and the mind's hand in particular are templates for how visual mental imagery is primed by our kinaesthetic senses. In other words, on the one hand, we must touch the world before we can believe in seeing it; and on the other hand, we must follow the attention gestures of others in order to lift these sensations into linguistic ideas. Language, then, through its contemplation of the potential movement of self and other, makes an imaginative simulation of deeds possible; and this simulation, I argue, happens through a process whereby signs substitute for action, deferring our gestures of appropriation, and replacing these online sensory horizontal relations with the imaginative pleasures of off-line vertical intrapsychic representation. The human language boosted brain, becomes what Zoltan Torey calls a Crucible of Consciousness for handling percepts, and what I, more parsimoniously call an inner scene of joint shared representation. For me, shared attention is the same thing as self-aware seeing, or knowing that one knows through the awareness of taking another's intentions as a model.

Because this does involve us in some speculative hypotheses as to the relationship between language and consciousness more generally, I fully understand the frustration felt by blind people like Georgina Kleege who find the figure of the hypothetical blind man tiresome. However, by drawing on the accounts of blind autobiographers such as Keller, Hull and Torey we gain a more first person and concrete insight into the senses as perceptual systems and their role in what we have been explaining as the joint shared attention of language. Alongside these autobiographical sources, we have a growing body of knowledge about the neuroplasticity of the mind-brain which has focused on this very question of how visual information is computed differently in the brains of blind subjects, given our different experience and concept formation (see especially recent work by Marina Bedny finding that the visual cortex of blind subjects is involved in higher language and mathematical processes).

Blindness and the Gaze

There is a very interesting moment in Georgina Kleege's latest book, More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford University Press, 2018, in chapter seven, "Audio Description Described", where Kleege discusses her difficulties accessing a film through the description of her students. According to Kleege, she wanted to know what effect the nudity in a sex scene was having on the sighted audience. This was part of a larger argument where she critiques the theory and practice of audio description for the blind. Kleege wants to open up the collaborative conversation around visual culture by letting subjective responses into the descriptions which are typically framed as objective. In this case, Kleege doesn't really address the issue of political subjectivity and power when viewing a filmed sex scene. She claims not to have a very active mind's eye for visual imagery herself, and thus to be unmoved by the eroticism on screen, which her students are understandably too discreet as to wish to describe to her. Yet if we recall how James Holman was possessed by the visual hallucination of the prima donna at the opera, we might ask more intersectional questions about the blind gaze, especially the supposed gendering of the 'male gaze' as theorised in Lora Mulvey's film theory. As I will go on to explain, this may have something to do with active verses passive visualisation as described by Zoltan Torey and others. But we should note the contrast here between Torey and Kleege's blind accounts of visual knowledge—Kleege claiming a full body aesthetic awareness and a disinterested but empathetic inquiry into the visual perception of others , while Torey planning to act on the world through simulated mental movement in verbal and visual detail. In both subjects the visual knowledge is stimulated by non-visual concepts from language and even mathematical knowledge. But Kleege's focus is on feeling receptively through the body, Torey's more on projecting testable and revisable models that he composes visually. Kleege takes subjectivity seriously and thinks of interpretation as collaborative, whereas for Torey, the aesthetic value of fictions is to filter dangerous illusions; knowledge for him is reductive, objective, and mechanical.

What difference would it have made if Kleege had been a male asking for information about the female actresses' body as she did? Is there a blind male gaze? If so, does it relate to the theme of blindness as punishment we find in classical myth? Do blind people objectify through voluntary or involuntary visualisation? When we describe a human body to a blind person, how far can we go without the social anxiety of objectification arising? Can there be a tactile blind gaze described in language? Are men more visual than women and thus more objectifying and obtrusive when we want a description, or when we form our own image of another's body? Would one be (more) racist for imagining colour, or failing to imagine skin colour? Am I (more) sexist for imagining gender, or failing to imagine gender? Is active imaginative seeing more guilty than the passive drinking in of vision of the sighted? I'm only as white as my cane; the history and culture of the blind has been buried.

The funny thing is that Zoltan Torey, the most visual of all people I've heard of, says that the female form is the one thing he doesn't visualise:

Once I started to recover from my accident I began to miss seeing the female form and the grace of movement that is so appealing. I also found that my own internally generated version of it was not good enough to satisfy my needs. The effort of inducing it detracted from the result. This is a bit like the cook losing his or her appetite by having cooked the meal. There are many areas in life where the real thing leaves the 'virtual' for dead. (Out Of Darkness 161)

Now how's that for evolution! While some of Torey's cues for visualisation are auditory—"the qualities of the voice enabling me to imagine muscle tonicity, smile, and the shape of the face as the latter is an echo-chamber of resonances"—other cross-modal priming appears to be derived from visualising his hands moving objects in inner space so as better to see them: "As time went on my skill of mental representation began to involve the spatial handling of objects, first in my head, then with my hands."

Where bodies are concerned, one might imagine the active hands of the person one is speaking to as a way to prepare the larger image to move, thereby priming visual perception through the mind's hands and the neurons specific to handlable objects.

Here Torey's memory of film close ups help him model facial expressions out of the cinema he recollects. Torey describes how in his "reconquest of vision" his wife and he played with prototypical faces as templates for "visualisation of voice, mood and facial expression":

To assist me, my wife and I worked out a system, a thumbnail method to depict faces. It was a kind of 'identikit', familiar to most people. You take a face, say that of a well-known actor, as a first approximation. Then you begin to modify it, for example, raising the forehead, narrowing the eyes, advancing the chin, broadening the cheekbones and so forth. Or you hybridise a face by taking some features from one face and transplanting them to another. My earlier and frequent movie-going now came in very handy. I had in my mind's eye the large range of typical faces a motion-picture director would have at his or her disposal for casting. This was an interesting task, and fun to boot. There were so many prototypes, so many dimensions and variables to play with, and soon a fair approximation was at my disposal. (155-156)

We need to think more, therefore, about how visualizers can build upon the facial prototypes of cinema as substitutable figures, the gestural language of the close up face, what Gilles Deleuze called perception images and affection images. Although many blind people are reluctant to touch faces, a sightless person can also become familiar with a range of facial types and expressions by imaging through touch and sound before mentally substituting and directing a figure in memory. Other people simply lose interest in images, unable to match up patterns for analysis. John Hull even goes so far as to claim that people's appearances have ceased to mean anything. But Torey here treats visualisation as a form of play with pattern, using templates on which to lucidly dream the information obtained through his remaining senses. He would have us believe that it is language that enables such imaginative variations, synthesis and analysis. And although one might wonder whether play with visual pattern cannot be pre-linguistic, like the kind of picture thinking described by the autistic writer Temple Grandin, she actually says that her pre-linguistic thinking remained pre-conceptual and non-hierarchical so it was unfit for tasks of analysis. Therefore, as Torey trained his brain to hold percepts in visual focus using templates from movies, and psychological profiles of personality and mood, this became a form of active conceptual signification that supplemented his brain's automatic filling in of passive visual habits through hallucinations. These memories were starting to turn grey through the initial sense deprivation, as is common in late onset blindness with Charles Bonnet syndrome.

Describing the relationship between active and passive states of visual awareness, Torey writes:

It is interesting that the visual cut-off point of my accident was not a break in continuity, only a temporary dimming in the clarity of the tract. For a short while there was a dream-like vagueness, but once my visualisation increased, the memory tract became even more robust and coherent than before my accident. The upgraded quality is not hard to explain. My inner vision involves a process of 'active seeing' and this is more enriching than the 'passive immersion in light' for which it substitutes. The latter is the normal, the often lax way we use, or underuse, our sense of sight. As against this, my substitution calls for effort and active brain participation, a creative routine that fills my life. (259)

Rather than depending on input from out there, my thinking hung unanchored in this now charcoal-grey visual space - a screen suspended in fog. I began to project. My sense of disorientation began to be replaced by an inner focus, firmly fixed on what my brain, in lieu of my eyes, was looking at. Hesitant at first, tentative with a dream-like blur, over time this weird mental substitution grew into a formidable source of generative imagination.

Hand in glove with this projective reconquest of 'vision', an inner voice of common sense cautioned me to anchor the new mental magic to validating data from all my remaining senses and later to carefully evaluate second-hand data from trustworthy people. The distinction between fact and fiction became vital, the murky interface of opinion to be carefully assessed. (8)

For Torey, conscious thinking is the same thing as testing his ocular-centric visualisations, through physical interaction and motor imagery, inwardly rehearsing these fictional models and sifting information through "A filter of facts; or what he holds to be sensory truths'. He distinguishes between active visualising as internal thinking, and passive dream-like sense perception, as unconscious unexamined thinking. Indeed, consciously controlling the motor imagery of one's world becomes relevant to many other disabled writers with impaired mobility.

Torey is also very interesting as a philosopher of consciousness and myth. As a refugee from communist Austria, he warns about this mental power of unconscious projection:

Through my enforced caution I can appreciate what, in the absence of such caution, the unchecked imagination could produce. There is a dangerous time bomb in the human brain, able to generate fantasy, to take it for real, to infect others with it, creating havoc and destruction in the end, as dictatorships of the twentieth century have demonstrated. For my part, I harness the technique of fiction to manage the world of fact. (159)

My thought processes often fade across into my dream-state as sensory cues drop away and what was conscious imagery continues as a dream. This happens also in reverse: a vivid morning dream will surface and proceed almost unchanged as conscious thinking or visualisation. So now and again I float, not clear whether I think that I am dreaming, or dream that I am thinking. Then sensory cues begin to tip the balance and I am once more on one side or the other. It is an interesting and pleasant sensation. (258)

Conscious thinking, then, is an embodied dream or simulation of movement mapped onto the bodies motor cortex through the substitution and control of language. Disability poetics puts this impaired but adapted motor control to work, presenting particular physical or cognitive differences creatively. Yet as the example of Torey unwittingly illustrates, we need to be wary of the linguistic manipulation of reality to suit our projecting will to power. Not all signs are linguistic signs; our sensory motor perceptions are the socially malleable grounds for the meanings we find in disability. There can be no ideal optic for manipulating the world, quite simply, because as Torey himself emphasises, we increasingly gain pleasure from imagining the action rather than performing it. However, it is the ethical action that should matter more, not only the objectification of bodies as figures. For these images may ultimately come with ablest ideals and cognitivist baggage attached, that depreciate our fulbody being-for-others.


Works Referenced

Hull, John M. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
      On Sight and Insight: A Journey into Blindness. Oxford: Oneworld, 1997.
Klege, Georgina. Sight Unseen. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1999.
      "Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eye-Witness Account." Journal of Visual Culture. 4:2 (2005), pp. 179-190.
      More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Keller, Hellen. The Story of My Life . Ed, Roger Shattuck and Dorothy Herrmann. New York: Norton, 2003.
Vermeij, G. Privileged Hands. New York: Freeman, 1997.
Torey, Zoltan, Out of Darkness: A Memoir. Sydney: Picador, 2003.
      Crucible of Consciousness : An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain. Foreword Daniel C. Dennett. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. First published 1999.


Tragically blinded by the fiery concoctions since the age of 17, René Harrison has the acute nostrils of a pet rabbit in a gin shop, and the good odour of a fundraising labrador. His tasteful fulminations have appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Literary Orphans, Landfall, Takahe, Shot Glass Journal, Black Mail Press, and Brief, amongst other places. His double malingers in Auckland.