Currents in Electronic Literacy

What You See is not
What I See

by Deena Larsen

  1. You are six, just starting school. The teacher turns to the blackboard and starts to move her hand up and down. Everyone else around you is busy copying something. You look at the black stuff and see the same black that's always been. What is going on here? What mind-link do the teacher and other students share that you don't have?

  2. You are sixteen. By now, you've had the eye exams and heard the diagnosis: legally blind--attendant with glasses, therapy, etc. Now you go to the movies and people around you are screaming from something they see on the screen--something that you can imagine, but not grasp entirely. How do you know what the others are seeing? Is it that the bad guy has a knife or a hideous face? How can you tell what you are missing?

  3. Until about four years ago, I was legally blind. I could imagine what a tree looked like, or what marks on a blackboard meant, but I could not understand. When I got my sight (a combination of factors, but mostly new technologies), I understood what a tree was, with its slender lines and individual leaves all moving gently in slightly different directions. So I've lived in both worlds--at least enough to understand that you cannot know or even imagine what it is you do not have. You cannot even begin to form the question about what you are missing because you don't know that there is something to ask about. For me, there is beauty in both worlds; it isn't that one is better than the other, or that one is more privileged. If you are blind from birth, you can imagine what the difference between flipping on and off a light switch is, but you will never know for certain. We are all blind in that we do not see in infrared or ultraviolet. What are we missing?

  4. In this age of political correctness, in which handicaps become challenges and we strive for full equality, I want to make an obvious point: Giving a blind person access to a work does not mean that the person will experience it in the same way that a sighted person experiences it. Artists can explain paintings in words: "This is a little blonde girl in a blue frock clutching a black watering can, with deep strokes of paint which blur the edges, creating an impressionistic look." But they cannot capture the same sensations--both physical and emotional--that viewing the same painting will provide.

  5. When I was in high school, I went to the movies with Diane, a deaf girl. We always sat through the films twice. The first time through, I would spell the dialogue into her hand. The second time through, she would spell the details into my hand--what people were wearing, how they moved, what the monsters looked like. We did not have the same experience that a sighted and hearing person had. But we could talk about the same movie with our friends.

  6. Now electronic poetry has raised the stakes from a different experience to a different interpretation of the work. Meaning in this new media depends on symbiociation--the deep connotations and associations of images, movement, structure, and sound that stretch the meaning of the text. To get a glimpse of this, think about William Blake's The Tyger. In the illuminated version, we see an almost friendly tiger, which belies the "fearful symmetry." For centuries people missed the irony in this poem until scholars started to look at the associated imagery. Electronic poetry takes the illumination much further--using imagery, sound, and other means to provide subtle and not-so-subtle undertexts that contradict, support, and expand the text.

  7. In my "Sea Whispers," these undertexts of meaning are conveyed through structure and navigation. The poem itself is embodied in the Japanese kanji, or ideogram, for sea. As you move along outer radical (the drops that mean water), you first feel the sea spray and develop a sense of the dream shore, the outer limits, of the sea. The inner radical (the top line and divided square that means every) can be broken down into man (the top line) and mother (the divided square). I used the man radical to show the search of the horizon--the search for meaning. The mother radical compares our dreams and reality. The whole kanji thus forms the structure, the inner meaning, of the sea. If you cannot see the picture of the kanji and the structure of the piece, then this navigation breaks down entirely--just as you miss the point of the movie if you cannot see the villain's smirk.

  8. So when Currents asked me to create an accessible site, at first I said that it could not happen, that I could not convey the subtle undertext without recourse to the visual picture of the kanji. After a great deal of wrangling and experimenting, we compromised. I did not create an accessible version of "Sea Whispers"; I created an entirely new poem. This new poem provides a different experience--just as going to the movie and signing the meaning into our hands was an entirely different experience from seeing and hearing the movie. You can still talk about the same themes, the same ideas that I hope to bring out in "Sea Whispers." But it is not and cannot be the same poem--and it has a very different subtext and symbiociation.

  9. "Sea Whispers" is actually a pretty simple example of this symbiociation between structure and meaning. I am now working in flash and experimenting in sound as well as motion--adding more dimensions of experience and undertexts which cannot be easily translated from visual to text only. If accessible connotes having the same or similar experience or even wringing the same or similar meanings from a piece, then I cannot make these newer works accessible. I can and may re-create the ideas, emotions, and undertexts from one electronic poem into a non-visual, non-auditory poem. But these will be two very different and distinct works--each offering a unique beauty.

  10. Electronic poetry is just beginning to explore the vast possibilities in this new media. If we hobble the media by requiring it to provide the same experiences and equal access to all, we will slam the door on an amazing art form--just as much as if we required all paintings to be completely understood by the blind or all symphonies to show their nuances to the deaf. Rather, we can open the doors in both worlds and create works that hold meaning in both the visual and nonvisual worlds. Let's embrace all of the potential for electronic poetry--visual, aural, animation, structure, and more. Let's access everything we can and in every form we can.

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Fall 2001 (5),