What is Structural Blindness?
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By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

What is Structural Blindness?

Apr. 10, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The recent discovery of a hitherto-unrecognized human organ — the interstitium — has provided a concrete example of the phenomenon of structural blindness, that is, the inability of people to see something, not because of a defect in their eyes, but because of a long-standing feature of the world. As we shall see, structural blindness has likewise affected the observation of long-term climate change. Following the discussion of these cases, the article will then turn to the human world, where reason and politics will also be shown to be affected by structural blindness.

The newly-discovered interstitium consists of “networks of interconnected, fluid-filled chambers that line tissues throughout the human body … on the underside of skin, around the digestive tract, bladder, lungs, arteries, and within muscles.” The reason medical researchers had failed to see the interstitium earlier was due to the standard apparatus used to study the inner workings of the human body. As Rachael Rettner explains:

“These fluid-filled spaces had been missed for decades because they don’t show up on the standard microscopic slides that researchers use to peer into the cellular world. When scientists prepare tissue samples for these slides, they treat the samples with chemicals, cut them into thin slices and dye them to highlight key features. But this fixing process drains away fluid and causes the newfound fluid-filled spaces to collapse.”

It was only with the invention of new imaging technology that the interstitium was finally revealed. This new apparatus — which has been described as nothing less than the “reinvention of the microscope” — consists of “30,000 optic fibers topped by a camera barely bigger than the head of a pin.” When in operation, “lasers light up the tissue, and sensors analyze the reflected pattern.” This apparatus allows for the observation of “living tissue in its natural environment,” including the fluid-filled spaces that constitute the interstitium.

The implications of the discovery of the interstitium are significant. Thanks to the new imaging technology, medical researchers have overcome their previous structural blindness, and now have new explanations for “the metastasis of cancer cells and their quick spread beyond the limits of the organ in which the cancer started,” as well as possible solutions for medical mysteries such as the unexplained efficacy of indigenous medical techniques like acupuncture.

A different example of structural blindness comes from climate science. As Jared Diamond (2005) reminds us, the biological lifespan of the average human is too short for societies to directly perceive long-term climate change, especially those changes that occur on “a multi-decade time scale” (p. 12). This structural inability of humans to directly perceive long-term climate change makes climate change an example of what Timothy Morton (2013) has described as a hyperobject, that is, an object which is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (p. 1), the inhuman scale of which makes such an object effectively unknowable to us (p. 180). Thanks to this scalar form of structural blindness, human societies have historically remained unaware of the need to prepare for the effects of long-term climate change:

“In many prehistoric societies the mean human generation time — average number of years between births of parents and of their children — was only a few decades. Hence towards the end of a string of wet decades, most people alive could have had no firsthand memory of the previous period of dry climate. Even today, there is a human tendency to increase production and population during good decades, forgetting (or, in the past, never realizing) that such decades were unlikely to last. When the good decades then do end, the society finds itself with more population than can be supported, or with ingrained habits unsuitable to the new climate conditions.” (Diamond, 2005, p. 12)

Most of the time the people fail to recognize their role in confirming or modifying the distribution of the perceptible, thereby allowing the gatekeepers to maintain the configuration of domination and subjection.

As with the discovery of the interstitium, the discovery of climate change required a change in our methods of seeing. As climate change would not have been noticeable from day-to-day observations of the weather, it was discovered only after the scientific community had put in place an apparatus to record observations of the climate from across the globe, the decades-long records of which finally demonstrated long-term climactic changes. A recent example comes from Africa, where such long-term records have provided evidence that climate change is one of the likely causes of the decades-long expansion of the Sahara Desert.

Aside from these examples, there are also commonplace instances of structural blindness which most people would have experienced. One such instance is the poignant tale told in the lyrics of the Doobie Brothers’ 1978 hit “What A Fool Believes,” in which the song’s protagonist, the eponymous fool, comes to the ugly realization that a woman whom he believed had feelings for him long ago actually never had any such feelings at all. Despite this sober realization, the fool’s wishful thinking defeats his reason, and he holds out hope that she may yet fall in love with him. As the narrator points out:

What a fool believes he sees

No wise man has the power to reason away

The structural reason for this blindness to reason lies in the constitution of the mind, where, as Plato observed millennia ago, reason coexists with the non-rational passions and emotions. In the worst-case scenario, the self, instead of being governed by reason, becomes a slave to his appetites, leading to unhappiness and dissatisfaction (577c–578a). This echoes the mental state of the fool, who prefers delusion to reality. However, the fool’s mistake is a common one. As the ancients knew, what the mind presents us with is not reality in itself, but the mind’s own interpretation of reality. For example, the ancient Buddhist philosophers of mind found that while the senses “apprehend” reality, the mind “constructs” its image of reality based on the sensations received by the sense organs (Stcherbatsky, 1962, p. 65). Our perceptions of reality are hence deeply influenced by the non-rational constituents of the mind, including the emotions. As modern-day psychologists have documented, emotions can influence logical reasoning, occasionally to the detriment of the self’s ability to correctly understand the situation and make rational decisions, as the fool of the Doobie Brothers’ song demonstrates.

The concept of structural blindness is also applicable to the realm of politics. This can especially be seen in the political theory of the philosopher Jacques Rancière (2011), who sees politics as reconfiguring “the distribution of the perceptible” (p. 4). One of the ways power manifests itself is its influencing people to pay attention to certain things in the world, and more importantly, to pay no attention to other things. This is the distribution of the perceptible (Tanke, 2011, p. 62). The gatekeepers of the distribution of the perceptible include those that Rancière (2007b) has described as “the authorized speakers: presenters, editorial writers, politicians, and experts, specialists at explaining or debating matters” (p. 73). These are the gatekeepers who decide what and who society should or should not be paying attention to. By authorizing particular voices and silencing others, the distribution of the perceptible “is part of the configuration of domination and subjection” (Rancière, 2007a, p. 277).

The people who are the spectators of the distribution of the perceptible have a role to play as well, for the act of looking is “an action that confirms or modifies that distribution” (Rancière, 2007a, p. 277). However, most of the time the people fail to recognize their role in confirming or modifying the distribution of the perceptible, thereby allowing the gatekeepers to maintain the configuration of domination and subjection. This is a powerful form of structural blindness which allows for the continued domination of the masses. As Rancière explains, “there are people who see and people who don’t see, and if people are unequal it is because of real inequality, but they are unable to see it” (Rancière and Power, 2010, p. 78). Change can only come when the people first recognize that their understanding of the world has been limited by the distribution of the perceptible. For some people, their recognition of the distribution of the perceptible occurs “at moments of epistemic discovery, when our eyes suddenly open to that which had previously remained unseen, or when our ears suddenly hear what had remained unheard” (Lim, 2013, p. 5). With this realization, the people can overcome the distribution of the perceptible established by the gatekeepers and redistribute it — for example by giving a voice to those who were formerly voiceless and ignored. Only with this change will come the possibility of changing or ending the current configuration of domination and subjection.


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