Platon’s Cave and Wells’ Country of the Blind: Culture as disability

“Before entering the Country of the Blind, Nunez thought that sight was essential to being fully cultured and that having sight in a world of people who cannot see would net him the cultural capital of a king.”
– McDermott and Varenne (1995), “Culture as Disability”, on H.G.Wells (1904), “The Country of the Blind”

There have always been didactic narratives with the topic of how to point into a direction not pointable in a specific culture, and of its restricted perception of reality. One of the best known and most quoted narrative is Platon’s “Allegory of the Cave” (around 380 B.C., from his “The Republic”; the translated text can be read here).

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There are many suitors to this narrative, it may in fact constitute a whole literary genre: The traveller who brings back the (in)sights from another world to his people, who either succeds in changing his own ‘world’ as a teacher and reformer, or who gets shunned or killed by his fellows for fear of his unusual views.

One of my favorite SF-authors has been David Galouye (the movie “Matrix” could have been inspired by his “Simulacron 3” ). Galouye wrote 1961 the beautiful novel “Dark Universe”, where people live for generations in a world of absolute darkness, and where its hero embarks on a quest to find out, what the concept of “darkness” means – the word has long lost its meaning because darkness is always and everywhere, so it had no further use as practical category.

The most well known contemporary author contributing to this genre may be H.G.Wells, who wrote 1904 “The Country of the Blind”, where Nunez, a man from Bogota (what a coincidence…) discovers a hidden valley where everybody is blind – but the people adapted to their environment, and adapted their environment to their needs. They do not understand that he sees them as ‘disabled’. Read the summary here, the whole text is online here.

So, what has this to do with Pedagogical Media Theory?

Here is an interesting text by McDermott and Varenne, “Culture as Disability” in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, who refer to Wells’ story.

“Not only is our wisdom not total, there is yet much to be learned from others. (…) The perfect unit for displaying such instinct and insight is what anthropologists call “culture,” a much contested term that is generally taken to gloss the well bound containers of coherence that mark off different kinds of people living in their various ways, each kind separated from the others by a particular version of coherence, a particular way of making sense and meaning. In the Country of the Blind, a One-eyed Man is confused and confusing.”
– McDermott and Varenne (1995), “Culture as Disability”

There is an interesting take to some of our own culture’s problems, which are so ‘normal’ for us, that we do not see them as created by us, but as something ‘natural”:

“Without a culture we would not know what our problems are; culture, or better, the people around us in culture, help to define the situation specific, emotionally demanding, and sensuous problems that we must confront. There is a significant sense in which, or, at least, there is much analytic leverage to be gained by thinking as if:
without a money system, there is no debt;

without a kinship system, no orphans;
without a class system, no deprivation;
without schools, no learning disabilities;
without a working concept of truth, no liars;
without eloquence, no inarticulateness.”
– McDermott and Varenne (1995), “Culture as Disability”

Seeing, as hearing or speaking, is the use of a medium which is hardly perceptible because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness. As in Torsten Meyer’s text (2007) “Education Within a new Medium” is explained, we are immersed in differing systems of perception and interpretation. The “digital mediosphere” (see Christina Schwalbe (2010)) may in the future become another such a medium, as did language, scripture, print.

Awareness of the medium is one of the pivotal preconditions for tolerance of other variants (e.g. cultures), or modifications of one’s own. But how to do this in an interesting and harmless way…?

“if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”
– Platon, “Allegory of the Cave”, from “The Republic”

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About Wey

My name's Wey-Han Tan, I graduated 2007 as Diplompädagoge (educational scientist) in Hamburg, and 2009 as M.A. in ePedagogy Design. Currently I work at the project "Universitätskolleg" as scientific assistant at the Faculty for Educational Sciences, Psychology and Human Movement at the University of Hamburg. My research interests are game based learning, second order gaming, media theory and (radical) constructivist approaches. I like pen-and-paper-roleplaying, especially in contemporary horror settings like "KULT" or "Call of Cthulhu".
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