Vicariates of the Eye: Blindness, Sense Substitution, and Writing Devices in the Nineteenth Century

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This essay asks how teachers and pedagogues of the blind regarded the relation between blindness and sense substitution in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The essay provides an account of the concept of Sinnesvikariat and compares its inner sensorial implications with the adaptation of blindness to new, external forms of sense compensation.

This essay explores ways in which nineteenth-century pedagogues and educators of the blind and visually impaired regarded the relation between blindness, sense substitution, and mechanical-sensorial aid. During this century, state-funded rehabilitation programs set up in new institutes for the blind increasingly complemented the aid provided by private charity organizations. At the core of these new institutes was the conviction that the education of blind people had to be based on sensory-oriented classes. The so-called object lesson, which stressed the pedagogical use of three-dimensional artefacts, soon became the raw model for teaching visually impaired persons. If teachers and pedagogues agreed on the importance of sensory -based lessons, they were less unanimous, however, as to how blind people interact with exterior reality. How did visually impaired persons compensate for their lack of eyesight and how was one to envision this perceptual process? (1) Such questions had obvious epistemological implications that evoked the preoccupation with blindness in the writings of philosophers such as John Locke, George Berkeley, and Denis Diderot. As shown in the proceedings of the schools for the visually impaired, blindness continued to pose a philosophical and psychological problem throughout the nineteenth century, albeit in a more practically-oriented manner. A central concept in these discussions was the German term Sinnesvikariat, or vicariate of the senses, which referred to the senses that act as substitutes for a non-functioning sense organ: for the blind and visually impaired, typically touch and hearing. Sinnesvikariat expressed the widely held view that blind people have an incomplete access to exterior reality. In accordance with this view, the vicarious sense made up for the lack of visual input by performing double work, so to speak. In addition to its haptic tasks, the sense of touch aided the visually impaired in dealing with what they could not visually perceive. Exactly how this was realized remained a debated issue. Did the blind acquire a refined sensitivity to touch and hearing simply through habit, or was the Sinnesvikariat rather the effect of sensuous nerve energies that were transferred from the non-functioning eye to the vicarious sense organs? The latter explanation was based on biological theories that depicted the body as a mechanical apparatus permeated with nervous energy. (2) Understood in this way, the vicarious senses of the blind were somehow strengthened with the innate and unexpended stimulus energy for vision. From the viewpoint of the sighted, it was assumed that the Sinnesvikariat not only acted as a stand-in for vision, but also rendered the sensation of the blind more physiologically coherent.

Drawing on the concept of Sinnesvikariat, I have three purposes in this essay. First, I give an account of how the concept was construed and discussed in the nineteenth-century discourse on blindness, in which pedagogical ideas played a significant role. Then I relate the notion of a vicarious sense to the rise of mechanical writing devices and recording apparatuses, objects that were constantly displayed at medical-scientific meetings and public exhibitions in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Launched at the intersection of the human sensorium and the rise of industrial capitalist society, these devices put a different slant on the question of sense compensation, haptic interaction, and sensorial aid. Lastly, I discuss to what extent the notion of a Sinnesvikariat and the introduction of mechanical-sensorial devices can be regarded from the perspective of prostheses and contemporary reflections on what has been called the prosthetic trope. …