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Until the nineteenth century, philosophical inquiry into the question of visuality mainly concerned matters of sense perception, the nature of imagination, and the truth-status of representations. A long tradition in western and many nonwestern philosophical discourses gives to vision a particular and relative significance as the medium of both apprehending the world and verifying the truth of predicative statements. Beginning in the seventeenth century, however, scientific inquiries into the mechanics of perception, and post-Cartesian investigations of the relationship between mind and body, led to a split in discourse about visuality. That split was oriented around the opposition between “seeing” and “being seen,” and between the “eye” and the “gaze.”
There have been a number of efforts to historicize this process, most notably by Michel Foucault, Jonathan Crary, and Martin Jay—the first in the realm of knowledge, the second in the realm of technology, the third in the domain of aesthetics. Despite their different disciplinary locations, these authors all undertake a twofold gesture. First, they trace the impact of optics and the development of associated technologies, noting that efforts to augment and extend the reach of vision (via the microscope, the telescope, and so forth) were associated with the idea that reality is limited to that which can be brought into the field of vision. Second, and simultaneously, they emphasize that these historical and technological developments made palpable the limits of the human eye as an organ for discerning reality.
Martin Heidegger had criticized the simultaneous valorization of technology and the limitation of human faculties to a practice of organizing the world for vision in his essay “The Age of the World Picture” (1952), but his philosophical intuition was not supported by historical research. In the writings of Michel Foucault, however, the historicization of vision is linked to an analysis of emerging forms of governance in the western polities.
Foucault identified a form of governmentality dominated by the logics of surveillance, which, he argues, were sustained by the discourses of institutionalized knowledge, from clinical medicine to geography, education, and psychology. In Discipline and Punish (1977), for example, Foucault states that penal architecture and social reform converged in the post-Enlightenment period around a new aim: the cultivation of a political subject who would internalize and anticipate the “gaze” of power. This new structure of subjectification, Foucault argues, was not only marked by a normative demand for self-discipline but was also associated with the depersonalization of power. As a result, power became a force no longer incarnated in the relatively sovereign body of the monarch, but one that was diffused through a vast capillary system of microinstitutions. Taken together, this system worked to generalize the sensation of being seen, precisely in the moment that overt spectacles of power lost their centrality; thus did a theater of power in which sovereignty showed itself as a local and even personal phenomenon give way to an unconscious and invisible dramaturgy that demanded the self-revelation of subjects. In many ways, Foucault’s history of power’s depersonalization resonates with Max Weber’s conception of bureaucratization, but for Foucault the process was dependent on the relative privilege that vision enjoyed in the discourses of power and knowledge. Foucault’s writings entered a field in French philosophy that was equally concerned with the concept of “the gaze” (le regard ). In the existentialist thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser, the gaze features as a structure of negative identification. In strikingly analogous scenarios, these writers describe moments when a figure of power discovers the subject, often in some illicit act such as peeping through a keyhole or committing a crime. In Sartre’s case, this moment of being discovered produces shame; in Althusser’s case, it is followed by the subject’s being “hailed” by the representative of power, a process that grants him (or her) a violent kind of recognition. Both cases express a sense of subjectification as that which takes place in and through the experience of being apprehended in the visual domain. Significantly, this “being seen” occurs from a point unseen by the subject.
This concept of the gaze is further developed in Jacques Lacan’s famous seminar XI of 1964. However, Lacan revised this notion of the gaze as the condition of “being seen” by positing a prior state of “giving to be seen.” Lacan’s particular interventions responded to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom Lacan credits with the basic understanding that human subjects apprehend the world from the position of visceral materiality: as objects among other objects. According to MerleauPonty, what makes human beings exceptional is that they orient themselves to those other objects, and he calls this orientation intentionality. Moreover, in Merleau-Ponty’s analysis, intentionality is organized by the perception of form, and by the imagination of an all-seeing being behind the myriad objects that constitute the world.
Lacan insists that this all-seer is merely metaphoric, the name of a principle by which the visible is actually dependent on a structure that places the subject under the gaze of an “other.” But this gaze of the other is also a metaphor in Lacan’s writing, or rather it designates the process by which the subject covers over the fact of the gaze’s invisibility with an image of a seer’s eye. This misrecognition is necessary, argues Lacan, if the subject is to feel attracted to or aroused by desire. Here, desire designates a lack in the subject, and this sensation of lack is what compels the subject toward intimate social relationships, but also, as later thinkers such as Judith Butler have reminded us, toward normative forms of identification. This normative dimension of the gaze is not lost on Lacan, and he notes that, in patriarchal contexts, this “giving to be seen” is realized and demanded most especially of women.
Frantz Fanon had, in fact, already discerned the unequal distribution of the effects of the gaze in his reading of the experience of being looked at as a “negro.” Fanon emphasizes the nonreciprocity of looks in colonial milieux, noting that only racially dominant subjects can appropriate the power that is located in the gaze, whereas black subjects must constantly give themselves to be seen in a process that renders them vulnerable to catastrophic psychic injury. Although this appropriation is itself born of a misrecognition or conflation of eye with gaze, it is nonetheless one that is withheld from black subjects under colonial conditions, according to Fanon.
It is often assumed that Lacan’s theory of the gaze represents the apogee of a tradition that renders the question of the subject a matter only of ontology. By contrast, Foucault’s reading of the gaze is said to represent an absolute historicization of the concept, and a repudiation of ontological arguments. To be sure, Foucault’s historicist critique of psychoanalysis encouraged the reading of their approaches to the question as mutually exclusive. It is important to recognize that Lacan himself undertook his analysis of the gaze with an explicit invocation of the Cartesian turn in philosophy and with a nod to the representational histories that precede and follow upon it in the plastic arts. It therefore may be more helpful to understand these two thinkers, and the approaches that they inaugurated, as symptoms and diagnoses of a persisting moment lived in thrall of vision’s hegemony. Foucault approaches the question of the gaze from the point of view of what he calls “human multiplicities,” whereas Lacan treats the subject who, precisely, possesses a “point of view” rather than a gaze.
It is nonetheless notable that this development of theories about the gaze occurred in the space between World War I and the conclusion of the space race toward the end of the 1960s. In other words, the problematization of the gaze occurred in the moment that European modernity seemed to be in ruins thanks to the experience of aerial warfare (in which oversight had made total destruction possible), and, simultaneously, on the brink of a new kind of total visibility made possible by space travel, satellite imaging, and the first experience of earth as apprehended from elsewhere. In France, where most of this work was generated, the exposure of rationalism’s apotheosis in the death camps of World War II was followed by the revelation that Soviet socialism had become a totalized penal society, and together these spurred a massive rethinking of both sovereignty and subjectivity. It is in this nexus that the question of the gaze itself becomes visible.
- Althusser, Louis. 1971. Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
- Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. [Peau noire, masques blancs]. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto.
- Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison [Surveillir et punir]. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
- Foucault, Michel. 1980. The Eye of Power [L’oeil du pouvoir]. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews, 1927–1977, ed. and trans. Colin Gordon, 146–165. New York: Pantheon.
- Heidegger, Martin.  1977. The Age of the World Picture [Die Zeit des Weltbildes]. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, 115–154. New York: Harper.
- Jay, Martin. 1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis [Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychoanalyse]. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York and London: Penguin.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible [Le visible et l’invisible]. Ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
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