Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Flaneuse or Innocent: Blind Women in Chinese-Language Visual Culture in the New Millennium

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Flaneuse or Innocent: Blind Women in Chinese-Language Visual Culture in the New Millennium

Article excerpt

This article focuses on representative texts in Chinese-language visual culture in the first years of this new millennium: the films Happy Times [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (China, Zhang Yimou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 2000); The Eye [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Hong Kong, Pang Brothers 2002); the pictorial book Sound of Colors [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Taiwan, Jimmy Liao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2001) and its film adaptation (Hong Kong, Joe Ma, 2003); Be With Me (Singapore, Eric Khoo, 2005). These texts are similar not only because each foregrounds a disabled heroine, but also because they are set against the background of the oft-cited "Rise of China," a grand narrative inextricably associated with global neoliberalism at the turn of the new millennium. These texts appeared during the preparations for spectacular events nominally mounted for disabled citizens, the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and the 2009 Taipei Deaflympics Games, which promoted Beijing and Taipei as players in global capitalism in the humanitarian dress of honoring the disabled worldwide. The blind figures in the text stand on the one hand in stark contrast to these enormously self-congratulatory global cities and on the other hand owe to those very cities the existence of a commoditized visual culture where the texts were produced and reproduced.

Drawing on recent advances in disability studies, I focus on both the blind woman and her negotiation with the urban environment where she is located. The environment in question includes both the non-interpersonal and the interpersonal: a physical infrastructure that can impede the blind woman's mobility or even threaten her survival; the urban dwellers who may ignore, cheat, confine, or overprotect her because of her disability. I am more concerned with the interpersonal environment, and thus the question of ethics: the proper ways in which the blind woman, the marginalized other in the city, ought to be treated. Inspired by Annette Baier, a philosopher known for her discussion of trust in moral philosophy, I propose that the notion of trust saturates the thoughts on the blind woman and her hostile or patronizing environment. Each of the characters under discussion is intricately embedded in diverse relations of trust.

Admittedly, representations of the blind in Chinese-language visual culture are scattered throughout history, across regions, and in different forms (television soap operas, photography, comic books, etc.), but I choose to focus on texts that are easily circulated as transnational commodities across and beyond Chinese-speaking areas. Readily accessible to the wider international audience, they can serve as basic texts for transregional discussions; all are readily available in North America and Western Europe, where interest in Chinese-language cultural creations continues to grow.

Two Models: At Large or At Home

Two models describe the ways in which the blind woman takes shape in each text. One is the blind "flaneuse," who is expected to move around in the city in the mode of Walter Benjamin's flaneur, seemingly unaffected by her lack of sight (Benjamin 35-66). The other, by contrast, is "the sweet innocent," who is watched over by a typically male benefactor and actively prevented from loitering in the city. Whereas the former is at large and exposed to unexpected threats, the latter is protected from dangers or even confined at home.

I find the notion of the blind flaneuse in David Serlin's discussion of Helen Keller's shopping. A disability studies scholar, Serlin, translates Benjamin's conventional flaneur doubly into the blind flaneuse, and cites Keller as an example: gendered female rather than male, and embodied as disabled rather than able-bodied (Serlin 193-208). The model of "the blind flaneuse" for its connotation of mobility in the city seems to describe better the blind figure than the more general "blind woman," which implies neither motion nor urbanity. …

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