Sunday, November 05, 2006

Power to the Eye: The Gaze

What is the Concept of the Gaze?
According to Cavallaro, the concept of the gaze describes 'a form of power associated with the eye and with the sense of sight' (p.131). Gazing is not equated with looking because it can be metaphorically said that when an individual gazes, the individual almost probes and masters, penetrating and objectifying the body in the process.

Seeing is when certain sensations associated with light, colours and shapes are registered without any ulterior motives. Observing is looking carefully to find out the details, and then there's the glance, when eyes are skimmed over the subjects and their surfaces are caressed in a casual way. But when the gaze is administered, the aim is to control the subject. This power of the gaze is due to the Western tendency to bestow upon sight the most sophisticated of the five senses; supposedly because of its close association to the mind, rather than the body.

Flippo Marinetti puts forth what is known as Tactilism: 'a means of liberating the most eminently erotic features of the sensorium' (Cavallaro, p.132). According to Marinetti, all experiences emit from the sense of touch, whereby even the visual sense is born from the fingertips. Indeed, that all five senses are actually modifications of touch 'divided in different ways and localised in different points' (p.132).

Power and the Gaze
Throughout various classical mythological narratives and folklores, the power of the gaze is very much evident and manifested as the evil eye with the power to bewitch or even kill just by looking at a subject. We have Gorgon's gaze, Eurydice, and even Lot's wife who have all had that extraordinary power.

Nowadays though with the advent of etiquette, the power of the gaze has been pretty much subdued under the new rule: it's rude to stare. Maybe that's why homogenising people through uniform efforts at school, or in the army, or even prison, is linked to this code of conduct; so that other members of their group will not be attracted to look at them. But at the same time when you're wearing uniform amidst non-uniform wearers you do tend to stick out like a sore thumb, for paradoxically uniform at the same time causes wearers to look different than non-uniform wearers, and so become the active or passive objects of the gaze.

Adding to this Michel Foucalt contends that power and the dynamics of the gaze are inseparable. He traces this by observing different displays of power in pre-modern and modern societies. He observes that in pre-modern societies 'the powerful advertise their authority by putting themselves on display and thus awing the impotent masses into submission', compared to modern societies whereby 'power is relatively invisible and controls us by seeing everything whilst remaining unseen' (Cavallaro, p.133). This is so because modern societies rely on being surveilled rather than 'spectacle'. Foucalt attributes these shifts in the modern societies to the rise of 'modern disciplining practices centred on technology' and subjecting them to 'visual control'.

This brings us to the structure of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is defined as 'an ideal prison where each inmate is subjected to an unrelenting gaze without being able to see his/her observer' (Cavallaro, p.133). This architecture is not just limited to a literal prison, but can also be used in the building of schools or hospitals too. Funnily, 'Big Brother' comes to mind here..!

Foucalt also adds that the gaze plays an important role in the medical field, whereby nowadays the body's inner functions are available to science's gaze.

The Socialization of Vision
Starting off this section, Jacques Lacan hypothesises that 'the world of inanimate objects is not passive, but actually looks back at the perceiver' (Cavallaro, p.134). He believes that what we see is always pretty much a function of what and how we are meant to see. Accordingly, the inanimate world watches us to the extent that there is 'someone or something that expects us to see things in certain ways' (p.134).

Nonetheless, the socialisation of vision relies on the unification of vision. Reducing literal vision from two eyes, to one singular I, to one point of view. But the belief that there is one correct way of seeing, or one correct way of representing the world, is logically incorrect because each of a person's eyes sees differently. So the mind is figured as a sealed space where images are reviewed by an inner eye, and everything is processed independent from external reality, and shielded from sensory life.

So as camera obscura, like perspectivism, is pronged on the principle of monocularity (one-eyed vision) and desensualization, these functions are supposed to 'socialize vision according to shared cultural values' (Cavallaro, p.135).

Emphasised by Jean Paul Sartre, an individual's gaze is 'inevitably caught in an inter-subjective network of perception' (Cavallaro, p.135). To Sartre, an individual human's identity is infact a product of the gaze. Also stressing the point that 'nobody is ever the sole master of their visual domain, no individual is free to look at the world through purely subjective lenses of our own making' (Cavallaro, p.136), simply because we have to share this vision with others. In turn, each individual's sense of identity actually depends on the presence of another individual.

Physiology establishes a relationship between knowledge and biological/anatomical structures. The unity of vision is challenged by the discovery that different nerves relate to senses differently, and that from one nerve to another, the same sensation can be felt differently too. Which pretty much brings to a conclusion promulgating that no one subject can process the world in a singular way, but would depend on multiple channels.

The gaze is associated with four concepts
  • Scopophilia: refers to the experience of pleasure that arises from the act of looking
  • Voyeurism: denotes the sense of excitement produced by viewing other bodies
  • Fetishism: the tendency to feel strongly, obsessively even, attracted to objects associated with a sexual partner, rather than the actual body
  • Sadism: to derive pleasure from the observation of another person's pain, gaze is only pleasing when subjected to cruelty and violence

Laura Mulvey, Sexuality and Power

Laura Mulvey ascertains that sexuality is explicitly intertwined with power, which is in turn inseparable from the eye. Through her analyses of Mainstream Hollywood movies she contributes that this tradition pivots on the point that 'inscribes woman as the image and man as the bearer of the look' (Cavallaro, p.137), and that female movie characters are actually controlled by the male's gaze. This can be seen on two levels
  • The male protagonist objectifies the heroin through his gaze
  • The male spectator identifies with the filmic hero and uses his own gaze to frame the heroine as a passive object
According to Mulvey, this male urge to control the female erupts from her lack of a penis which implies 'the threat of castration', and so becomes a source of anxiety. Men, in turn have two ways to cope with this apparent state of anxiety
  • The woman is devalued, demonised and pictured as a symbol of sexual corruption, connected to sadism; or
  • The woman is over-valued, transformed into a desexualised icon and worshipped from a distance, connected with fetishism (fetishistic scopophilia)
Lynda Nead in her studies of the nude, also contends that the male urge tries to control a supposedly dangerous femininity through his gaze. With context to the female nude she says 'femininity and female sexuality are considered undisciplined and excessive...and that the female body is seen as disturbing and even obscene' (Cavallaro, p.138), hence the related ideological connotations that have existed since forever that try to contain femininity and female sexuality.

The nude in high art offers a cleaned-down version of femininity for the male viewer's consumption: 'it frames the flesh, conceals its flaws and achieves a kind of magical regulation of the female body' (Cavallaro, p.139). Not only that, but it also creates a more desirable image as there is no fear that it will fight back.

In investigating the relationship between naked and nude, Kenneth Clark says '[t]o be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition...nude...carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone' (Cavallaro, p.139). Considering the conjured images too, when the word naked is projected in one's head a huddled and defenseless body comes to mind, whereas nude brings an image of balance, prosperity and confidence. Yet naked or nude, to Nead the body is an 'effect of cultural practices and established codes of vision' (Cavallaro, p.140).

Elizabeth Bronfen though brings in a very different concept of the subjection of the female body to a powerful male gaze without the fear of woman in cue: the female corpse. Apparently, according to Bronfen, the female corpse makes mortality alot more bearable, as it covers the fact that death is ugly, disturbing and disrupting. With a beautiful female corpse death is transformed into something 'soothing' even!

To Objectify or Not To Objectify?
Some thinkers and critics argue that in order to rescue the female body from this visual objectification, it should be removed from representation as they are constantly subjected to an oppressive and sexist gaze. On the other hand though, this would entail a future of guaranteed exclusion.

Nonetheless though we must always be in constant reminder that gazing is not merely about looking, in fact it's about 'the consequences of how we use the sense of sight' (Cavallaro, p.140).

1 comment:

laurogov said...

great blog, very educational.
i am using it for my studies!!!!
than you!!
bye. lauro