Power of Sight

In the Fall 2017 ENGL 431: Octavia Butler class I took with Dr. Beth, we discussed the implications behind sight and seeing. We talked about how sight ties in very closely with the theme of consent; looking at something or someone without explicit consent, such as looking at another person’s diary, is wrong. We also discussed how sight can determine power dynamics; there is a power dynamic at play in situations where the one being seen is unable to prevent others from seeing them. I’m seeing similarities between what I learned back then and the concepts we’ve discussed in class so far.

I’d like to bring back some concepts we discussed when we were reading Fortune’s Bones in class. Specifically, I’m thinking of the stanza in “Kyrie of the Bones” under “1960 [sorprano]”: “Our field trip to the Mattatuck Museum / greatly impressed me. I’ll never forget / looking into my first love’s depthless eyes / right after we first saw Larry.” According to the biographical verses in Fortune’s Bones, when Fortune (an enslaved man) died, his bones were not buried in the ground like most of the other enslaved persons of Waterbury; instead, Dr. Porter, who “owned” Fortune and his family, decided to use Fortune’s bones to study anatomy. Eventually, as “1960 [soprano]” indicates, Fortune’s bones ended up in the Mattatuck Museum on display. What really struck me about this stanza is how the narrator describes looking into the “depthless eyes” of their “first love.” Although “depthless” describes the eyes of the first love, I think it might also be connected to what the narrator saw prior: Fortune’s bones on display. Because of this connection, “depthless” for me had negative connotations; it meant that everyone who was visiting the display could see everything about Fortune whether he consented or not. A person’s bones are typically not supposed to be seen because it’s hidden under layers of skin and muscle. The fact that people could see something about someone that’s not meant to be seen gives off an invasive feeling. The visitors to the exhibit are looking not just at Fortune’s bones, but, in a way, inside of Fortune; they are peeling back his skin and muscles and looking at the very depths of Fortune. This becomes more disturbing when we consider how consent factors into the situation and how Fortune likely did not give consent to his bones being displayed after his death. Looking at someone, especially deeply into someone, is something that can be incredibly invasive without consent.

Sight and its connection with aspects of violence also appears in one of the chapters we read in Medical Apartheid. When discussing the process by which Sims examined women with vesicovaginal fistula who were enslaved, Washington deliberately gives her readers the historical context at play, describing: “During the Victorian period, layers of dress signaled sexual chastity, and doctors were not in the habit of viewing women’s unclothed bodies.” Yet, as Washington describes, Sims made the women he examined “undress completely, then kneel on hands and knees while he and several physicians took turns inserting a special speculum…to open the women’s vaginas fully to view.” Once again, consent comes into play because all of Sim’s “subjects” in this study were women who were enslaved. Washington states that it was not the women but rather their “masters” who agreed to the experiments, indicating that there was no consent in the experiments. It becomes more disturbing when we consider how it was socially taboo for doctors to look at women’s bodies; the fact that Sims and his doctors forced the women to undress and looked fully at a private part of them without consent is incredibly invasive. In a time when even looking at the naked outer bodies of women was considered wrong, looking inside of them through means of force definitely crosses many unimaginable lines. Additionally, according to Washington, Sims, when discussing this event, stated: “I saw everything as no man had seen before.” Seeing “everything” about someone is an incredibly intimate action and is typically reserved for those close to the individual; it is not something that should be done without consent. By breaking consent, Sims and the other individuals involved establish a power dynamic with them at the top; the women in the situation were powerless to stop Sims from seeing “everything as no man had seen before.”

Sight thus connects deeply with the themes of power and consent. What we’re able to see is determined by our power in a social situation and/or whether consent is being violated; even the narrator in “1960 [soprano]” is involved in a power difference and a lack of consent, for they are able to view Fortune and Fortune is unable to prevent them from doing so, violating Fortune’s consent. It’s interesting that vision, something that’s a part of so many people’s everyday life, is something that could hold such a complicated relationship with power and consent. 

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