Monday, February 17, 2014


In my literary discussion yesterday I mentioned “the Gaze” which is a theory that was invented by Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and another of those inscrutable ever-so-subtle academics who sometimes seem to have universities by the throat.  Since I really don’t grasp this stuff myself, I thought I’d make an effort at summarizing.  When I went to Wikipedia, I laughed, because it has a heading saying it is too technical for most people to figure out.  Of course, that’s a nice little challenge.  (And of course they don’t tell us who wrote the existing entry, if it was a single person.  Authors are hidden, which is the source of Wikipedia corruption.)

So, according to this cloaked person, “element one” is realizing that people can see you and are watching.  (The seeds of paranoia, eh?  Or maybe you just live in a small town.)  The second element is realizing that you have an appearance -- you are not just a “look-er”, but you have a presentation, you are an object.  Chimps at the mirror, touching the mark put on their forehead.  Evidently Lacan doesn’t have a third element about knowing how to change your appearance, to be a “shape-shifter,” perhaps to be less or more obvious and interpretable to others.

This concept has a history.  “Numerous existentialists and phenomenologists have addressed the concept of gaze beginning with Sartre. Foucault elaborated on gaze to illustrate a particular dynamic in power relations and disciplinary mechanisms in his Discipline and Punish. Derrida also elaborated on the relations of animals and humans via the gaze in The Animal That Therefore I Am. . . .“Michel Foucault first used the term "medical gaze" in The Birth of the Clinic to explain the process of medical diagnosis, power dynamics between doctors and patients, and the hegemony of medical knowledge in society.”  These are heavyweight inscrutables, but perhaps we become more interested in deciphering them now that so many of us are under surveillance, esp. as we “present” ourselves on the internet in tiny bits of information and image.  These ideas are coming out of WWII when a resistance formed in France against an invading nation.  Now we find ourselves having to resist our own government.

A new layer of interpretation was added by Laura Mulvey, a Brit academic best known for her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal ScreenThe kernel of this was that film was dominated by powerful white men (some would add Jewish, patriarchal, and phallocentric) who wanted to watch beautiful women without any risk, a subset of traditional prostitution and pornography.  This situation has been annihilated by gay men who wish to watch beautiful men, esp. those who want actual contact.  Also, the indie movie scene has allowed many women access to this kind of power, but the phenomenon persists in the military, the university and the corporation.  It was interesting to be a minister, who stands in the pulpit weekly and is scrutinized by the congregation, who perceives or invents what that figure represents and is really like.  To some men, I was sexually available.  To some women, I was their child.
One context in which this inequality of gaze is strongest is in the medical context.  A male doctor requires the female patient to strip, examines her closely, makes a decision about her state, tells her what to do, and possibly does things to her -- even penetrating her with knives.  The boys of at-risk groups who must be constantly subjected to blood draws, catheterization, anal inspection and so on, sometimes face the gender-reversed situation when the medical personnel are female.  When some privileged people consider the medical person treating them to be lower class, maybe colored or ethnic, being scrutinized in this way is also unbearable.    

The “feeling” of being inspected is feeling the power of the Other, which is normally justified by them being highly trained and professional.  In our zeal for equality, those justifications have been weakened.  Police, who have access to information about us and control over our bodies and who may see us in demeaning ways, are highly resented.  Maybe our love of crime and cop shows is an attempt to “watch” THEM and discover their private lives.

If someone is watching, the temptation is to put on a show, to pose.  The alternative defense would be learning invisibility.  Some of us have invisibility thrust upon us, because anyone who is interpreted as powerless will be unworthy of notice to the entitled male gaze.  At local town meetings I sit in the back where no one sees me except people who know a bit about me, and if I speak to the new men at the meeting, they don’t listen.  In fact, if you asked them afterwards, they would not be able to describe me.  Men look at other men to determine and manage power; men look at women to determine and manage sexual potential to the watcher as “things.”  Those who do see me, often see me only in terms of marriage to Bob Scriver in the Sixties.

So feminists identify women who see other people as “things” as having a male gaze.  The gender-assigned modes of rationality, owning, and controlling are male, and a woman who takes on those modes becomes a pseudo-male.  The alternative is not well-defined in “Western society,” and becomes a problem in a colonial situation where the power-brokers are female.  Hawaii comes to mind.

"Men Who Stare at Goats":  "In 1979 a secret unit was established by the most gifted minds within the U.S. Army. Defying all known accepted military practice -- and indeed, the laws of physics -- they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring."

What would an inclusive “human,” integrated gaze be like?  Many women go to a mother’s gaze, watching and protecting the children.  Sometimes this is so powerful that they escape the species and want only to gaze at animals, to understand them, maybe to watch them  without being watched in return (as on film).  People who understand what a camera is doing may object that it is stealing something from them.  People who love animals are shocked when the camera objectively sees death.  They don’t often realize how much of what they see is staged for their benefit. 

“Making eyes” at someone attracts their attention.  The feeling of being watched is not comfortable.  I used to have students who would jump up and strike another student for the offense of “looking at me all the time.”  A boy who was angrily rejecting me would command, "I forbid you to look at me!"  There’s a Grimm brothers fairytale about a simpleton who is instructed to go call someone out of a meeting by casting sheep’s eyes at them.  The dummy goes to the butcher and comes back with a bucket of actual sheep eyes which he throws.  This definitely attracts attention.

The news that computers not only accumulate a dot-by-dot image of us by recording our “hits”, that some computers can not only can tell where you are looking on the screen and adjust to that, but also can look back at the keyboarder without a camera attachment or any sign that they are watching -- well, it makes me paranoid.

But I am a writer and part of the art of writing is careful observation through one's sensorium for the sake of either reporting or of inventing a virtual world that is rich with detail and pattern.  Tim says, “Never fuck a writer.”  It’s good advice unless you can transcend the power issues with a trusting intimacy that shuts off the recording device that is in each of our heads.

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