Vision and Embodiment
Seeing is powerful among humans and many higher mammals in part because it is a primary medium of social life. Communal relations are established and sustained in different kinds of looks-shy glances, bold stares, rapt gazes, or averted eyes interpret an encounter, confirm a relationship, or signal an intention with visceral force. Vision reveals authority and weakness, charisma and stigma, compassion and aggression, and a host of other dispositions. Seeing collaborates with gesture, movement, touch, sound, and facial expression to form the sensory basis of human communication. Vision also helps maintain social relations by linking individuals to the groups or social bodies that comprise their society-class, kin, tribe, ethos, folk, nation, monastic order, elect, redeemed, and damned.
Because seeing is such a powerful social sense, there is sometimes a tendency to characterize one of its most brutal features, shame, as the dominant tone of vision. That is because shame and shaming are very effective ways in which human beings deal with one another. Shame easily establishes pecking order and etches primary distinctions such as good and evil, powerful and weak, pure and impure, right and wrong. Shaming is a visual procedure, a way of looking; and being ashamed is a way of being seen, a way of appearing. This dual aspect of shame is clear in the nineteenth-century illustration here (fig. 1), which appeared in a very popular schoolbook and captures every child's horror at being singled out for reprobation by teacher and peers. The dunce must wear the large conical hat, derived from the headgear once worn by subjects of the Inquisition. The hat invites the shaming gaze of the group, whose uniform look sets off the boy for special odium. He is stricken by the look and desperately avoids the gaze by covering his eyes. The boy is reduced to the object of their collective stare. He is "the dunce," a role prescribed by a social script enacted in the stare. The gaze defines him; all he can do is to refuse to be seen. He is "a sad, sad sight," as the lesson describes him, trapped in front of the class. And there is no escape-unless he repents and seeks the approval of the others, whereby he may be reincorporated into the group. Only the appropriate penance will secure his freedom from the penitentiary gaze of the others. When that happens, he will cease to be the object of the look of shame, remove the damning hat, and take up another way of seeing and being seen, which will redefine him as a member of the social body of his community in the classroom.
There is no doubting the power of the gaze of shame. Anyone who has experienced it knows its force. We shall examine other examples of it in this chapter, but my intention is to show how unsatisfactory it will be as the singular model for the study of vision as culturally constructed. Unfortunately, the monolithic study of vision as "the gaze" has reduced seeing to shaming or being shamed. The aim in this chapter is to open the book with an argument for expanding the range of study to look for a broader basis on which to study seeing.
To see is to see from the circumstance of a body. Not just one's own, biological or somatic body, but also any encompassing corpus such as a gathering of worshippers. This suggests that to look for a point of view is to look for a body from which, or in which to see. Seeing is the act of embodiment, taking a position in a body-one's own or the shared boundaries of a social corpus. In either case, people make or maintain a body by affirming its composition and lineaments. In the case of the social body, they stand in relation to others, sharing some aspect of common features and maintaining the perimeter of the group. The body is the medium of vision. Placement within a corpus is also individual in the case of the body one inhabits. Collective or individual, a body is a bounded set of members that work together to endure, a system of interdependencies, an enclosure with a homeostatic force of coherence, a structure that displays itself as a public surface concealing an interior, a body with a face that has the ability to reveal the unseen depth. The face of the somatic body is a richly communicative zone. Likewise, the face of the social body is a densely semantic stereotype or symbol-think of familiar faces of social bodies such as the stereotypes of an immigrant group or Uncle Sam as the totemic representation of the American people.
Human societies consist of many bodies, groups such as families, neighborhoods, cities, regions. Also clubs, associations, institutions, classes, religious denominations, professions, ethnicities, races. Each is a kind of community, demarcated by a social boundary. To belong to the community means to look a certain way. There are two different but related senses to this. In the first instance, one bears certain characteristics in appearance-style of dress, accoutrements, behavior, gesture, color of skin. In the second instance, one regards others and the world about one with a characteristic look. In the first sense one is seen; in the second one does the looking. Sometimes the medium of vision is visible; sometimes it is the means of doing the seeing and becomes as invisible as a lens one looks through. This dual meaning suggests that one belongs to a social body by virtue of what one looks like and how one sees the world. One bears on one's body the signs of participation in the social body and one inhabits this body by seeing with its eyes, smelling with its olfaction, feeling with its fingers and flesh. The fact that human beings are always seer and seen, agent and the object of vision, means that the individual human body is not only a discrete biological unit, but also a medium, an interface, the way we participate in bodies larger than our own. But separating the two aspects of seeing, ignoring their intimate connection, is what a fuller account of visuality should seek to correct.
In the case of social bodies, individuals do the seeing, but they are looking with eyes not entirely their own when they gaze upon the world with visual practices they share with other members of the group. The idea of a social body is compelling because I am strongly inclined to understand religions as communities of feeling or sentiment that are held together by shared forms of intuition, imagination, and body practices. But this does not mean that members of most groups walk in locked step. Those who belong to the same club or family, for example, don't feel or see identically. But they do share an ethos drawn from common formation in such things as speaking, eating, throwing, dressing, sitting, running, waving or looking. Members of a group also share history, ideology, and economic interests. My intention is to understand how they also share ways of seeing. Doing so is important for this study, which argues that visual practice is a powerful form of social embodiment. Seeing is vital precisely because it situates viewers within social configurations of power. I do not mean this in a deterministic sense, though indeed the effect of seeing in certain ways can be overwhelming, subjecting the viewer to a commanding set of circumstances, as we shall see. But adopting other points of view can also empower the viewer with sympathy for others, move one to moral intervention, provoke the will to resistance, inspire protection for the weak, compassion for the poor, admiration for some, scorn for others. Understanding how an act of seeing mobilizes people by situating them within the compelling social body of a community that is animated by a common ethos has everything to do with understanding how seeing constructs the sacred in visual practices and images.
The Disciplined Eye: Distance and the Eyes of Others
It is not difficult to observe that human beings commonly change what and how they see by modifying the state of their bodies. They do so by relying on visual practices that discipline or restrain the eye-brain network in order to idealize or conceptualize what or how they see, which may mean purifying, rationalizing, or spiritualizing the object. Vision is made to defer to measurement or technical calculation or the use of special instruments; or it is guided by the rhetoric or technique or style of diagrams, drawings, x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, or other special imaging devices. Or vision may be conditioned by ascetic disciplining of the body such as meditation, fasting, yogic exercise, sweat lodges, or narcotics. In every case, the body is modified in order to enhance, deepen, restrain, or purge how the eye-brain system works. As one philosopher has noted, "no matter how sophisticated our abstractions become, if they are to be meaningful to us, they must retain their intimate ties to our embodied modes of conceptualization and reasoning. We can only experience what our embodiment allows us to experience."
The history of philosophy offers one of the oldest practices of disciplining vision. In a telling etymology, William Barrett once pointed out "the Greek ideal of detachment as the path of wisdom" was expressed in the fact that the word theory derived from the verb theatai, "which means to behold, to see, and is the root of the word theater." Barrett contended that in a theater "we are spectators of an action in which we ourselves are not involved." Theater and theory consist of contemplation, or seeing at a distance. He wished to make the point that Greek philosophers advocated detachment or dispassionate distance from the senses for the exercise of reason. In The Symposium, Socrates portrayed the quest of the lover of wisdom as a graduated removal from the senses, climbing up a ladder of love that began with sexual desire for beautiful boys but ended in the desire to gaze upon the pure Idea of Beauty. Socrates' guru, the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, drew a strong distinction between mortal body and divine idea when she celebrated "the felicity of the man who sees absolute beauty in its essence, pure and unalloyed, who, instead of a beauty tainted by human flesh and colour and a mass of perishable rubbish, is able to apprehend divine beauty where it exists apart and alone."
The desire to idealize seeing is evident in the modern era. The ascent to divine goodness was visualized by Americans early in their nation's history in a very different image-the emblem on the verso of the Great Seal (fig. 2), which is today found on the backside of the American dollar bill. The pyramid, Masonic device and symbol of stepped ascent to wisdom and moral perfection, culminates in the disincarnate eye of the deity, whose effulgence shows benevolently on the new nation's enterprise. The motto, annuit coeptis, announces the providential blessing of the unseen but all-seeing deity. Its act of seeing issued favor, promising Americans that an abundant and felicitous future awaited. The looming eye preserved God's invisibility or supreme otherness, suggesting that virtue was the only proper approach to the godhead just as Socrates insisted that dialectic was the singular means of beholding the ideas of divine thought.
If we are to believe Plato's account of him, Socrates disparaged the bodily senses and the representations that appealed to them with the single-mindedness that also characterizes Jewish, Islamic, and Calvinist anxieties about images and idolatry. Judging from The Republic, Socrates did not associate "theory" with "theater." Indeed, he rued the power of the Greek theater's embodied nature of seeing. The experience of the body and the sway of its aesthetic knowing was never far from the audience of a Greek tragedy, especially if we bear in mind Aristotle's claim that tragedy purges an audience of its pent up fears and anxieties. Think of the gory scene of the blind and bloodied King Oedipus appearing center stage through the ocular gates of the palace:
... The doors are opening.
Yes, you shall see a sorry spectacle
That loathing cannot choose but pity.
Sophocles arranged the scene to mimic the structure of an opening eye: the audience is cued by a cast member to behold the sightless, mutilated man, who appears through the aperture of the stage setting. Oedipus is blind, but the audience is not, and is drawn inexorably to gaze upon the horror of his fate. The viewer was not meant to regard the humiliated king dispassionately, but with pathos. It goes without saying that Sophocles orchestrated a moment of high drama that was anything but dispassionate. Yet Barrett was correct in recognizing the detachment of much Greek philosophy. Reason was powerful for Socrates precisely because he deployed it to curb the darker elements of the soul that Homer and Sophocles stirred turbulently.
Although seeing is sometimes detached, it is also often deeply passionate. If we contemplate some events with lofty disinterest, on other occasions we experience an intense empathy for someone's struggle; or a violent revulsion at someone's deed. The power of seeing resides in the compelling connection it forges between ourselves and whatever we behold. But no matter how detached we wish to be, the very repression of feeling is itself an embodied act. The stiffened gesture, the passive demeanor-dispassion is couched in the body. Seeing construes all manner of relations but on every occasion the act of looking is a bodily one.
Take, for example, those instances in which seeing is unbearable, moments when we bury our eyes or turn sharply away in order to avoid the sight of something disturbing. If I am embarrassed or humiliated, if I've been caught committing an error, even if I merely stumble while strolling on the sidewalk, I am likely to avoid the gaze of an onlooker. Why? Perhaps because in that moment of loss of self-control I see myself with another's eyes. By avoiding the look of the other I presume to vanish, to sink into invisibility, and thereby to remove the stigma of the gaze of judgment and to regain a sense of self-possession. To see myself being seen, to look into the shaming eyes of the other is to suffer the loss of esteem. To see myself being seen under these circumstances can be excruciating because I become painfully aware that in some sense I am inferior to the one looking at me. Yet I am not condemned to this fate if the other excuses my faux pas. In that case, I recover myself and return the gaze with an affirming one of my own. Seeing is able to reestablish my countenance with a look of esteem. But if that does not happen, I may choose to rush off into the oblivion of being unseen and there recover some form of self-presence.
The active and passive coupling of seeing and being seen captures two interrelated bodies of vision-the somatic and the social. Culture's two bodies, as I have called them. Human vision is eminently, perhaps always social, given the expressive nature of the face. Look is what I do and what others do toward me. We see with the same aspect of the body on which we rely for communicating with others. I see and I am seen by others. In the case of being seen, I feel others seeing me-it may be a look of admiration, of contempt, of shame or a petition for assistance. Whatever the look, I feel my objecthood, in the touch of their look on my flesh. Variously apprehended, I am able to imagine myself from the outside, to intuit or envision myself from beyond, as if my eyes separated from my body, joined another, and turned from that distance to behold me. This is a kind of reembodiment, where my objectification results in an altered sense of embodiment.
In fact, there are several different visually activated ways in which reembodiment occurs and it is important to enumerate them for the sake of clarifying how vision works. We have already noted the first, moral judgment or discernment, as a visual apprehension represented in extremis in the Oedipal act of extinguishing the eyes that condemn him by removing his own. On a more practical level, Adam Smith brilliantly explained moral self-government in ocular terms. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith claimed that "our first ideas of personal beauty and deformity are drawn from the shape and appearance of others, not from our own." But we quickly learn, he added, "that others exercise the same criticism upon us. We are pleased when they approve of our figure, and are disobliged when they seem to be disgusted." Beauty and ugliness, according to Smith, the capacity for attraction and repulsion, are not personally generated, but originally interactive or social constructions. We learn of our social deployment from our interaction with others. We then turn to examine ourselves, Smith reasoned, in order to test what others have impressed upon us: "We examine our persons limb by limb, and by placing ourselves before a looking-glass, or by some such expedient, endeavour, as much as possible, to view ourselves at the distance and with the eyes of other people."
On this quest for self-knowledge based on the response of others, Smith built his conception of the operation of human sympathy, or fellow feeling. The origin of moral awareness or conscience parallels our sense of beauty and deformity in Smith's account: we reflect on how much we deserve the "censure or applause" of others and so proceed to examine "our own passions and conduct." It works like this: "We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct." The image in this moral mirror looks at us with the eyes of others. It is a self-examination conducted from the position of the other. One might say that the mirror image is "us" looking at me. It is the chorus of the Greek tragedy conversing with the Oedipal self. For Smith the look of the other became integrated into the self as the basis of conscience and the human capacity to feel the pain and travail of others. The look of the other is the basis of sympathy or human sociality:
When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion.
Moral discernment was a way of seeing with "the eyes of other people," suggesting that the self was enlarged by an imaginative act of disembodied vision, transcending its own interests and integrating itself into a social fabric of duties and expectations by virtue of seeing itself as others see it.
Abstraction is a second way in which seeing undergoes a kind of trans-embodiment. Plato conveyed this in describing Socrates' subordination of the sensory faculty of vision to intellectual vision that grasps the Ideas, the truly real substance of divine thought. Abstraction is the epistemological procedure of separating essences from accidents, differentiating general and particular. If I wish to discuss the nature of horses, I talk about the horse and do not mean this or that horse, but the entire class of horses, what Socrates meant by the "idea" of horse, or horseness. As a form of contemplation, abstraction separates idea from body in what it sees, but in so doing also distances the seer from what she contemplates, suggesting the remote consciousness of the cogito, that disembodied thinking thing that René Descartes classically described as something distinct from the body in which it resides. Here the etymological derivation of theory from theater that Barrett noted comes fully into play. Theoretical thought is contemplative, speculative reflection: vision that gazes from afar.
Akin in some respects to abstraction is a third category, mystical and aesthetic contemplation. Both of these lift the viewer ecstatically beyond immediate corporeal circumstances to inhabit a self-transcending form of vision. In art and nature aesthetic experience is able to elevate observers above themselves. At least, this is one way of defining "aesthetic" experience that has commanded considerable attention since the eighteenth century. It hinges on disinterestedness, that is, the disengagement of certain aspects of embodiment. One does not focus on the satisfaction of bodily desires as the end, but on the pleasure of contemplative absorption in the object of disinterested contemplation. By virtue of this denial of self-interest, one is alienated from an aspect of oneself and made free to regard an object otherwise. Ralph Waldo Emerson provides a powerful example of contemplation that is both mystical and aesthetic in the opening pages of Nature (1836). Walking in the woods, he says, allows him to escape the distractions of social life:
Standing on the bare ground-my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space-all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
Here mystical and aesthetic experience intermingle. Beauty, God, and Self appear as versions of one another. A contemporary reader created a delightful caricature of Emerson's passage (fig. 3), in which we see the writer's grotesque form as a giant eyeball, floating over the rural landscape on long, stilt-like legs, supported by a body shriveled to a ghostly whisper, the merest accession to materiality by the looming orb of pure consciousness. This version of the disembodied eye captures the human longing to transcend sociality, but also a kind of self-transcendence that reduces the body to an ethereal apparatus. Emerson aimed at a liberation of the mind for a loftier form of self-communion, one purged of social obligations, distilled of egotism and self-interest, a state of being in which soul and Soul merge.
Another form of visual reembodiment that should be outlined here may be called extension because it consists of projecting the body beyond its organic limits in acts of observation that rely on a mediating apparatus or technology. The device for tracing objects illustrated by Albrecht Dürer, discussed in the next chapter (see fig. 9) is a good example of technique or technology intervening between the seer and seen to transpose both to a mechanical or cybernetic body of seeing. In some sense, the eye is augmented by a lens or protocol that arrests the body, separating it from the thing seen in a process of objectification. Scientific observation is perhaps the most immediate example. Ocular devices such as telescopes, microscopes, cameras, or magnetic resonance imaging machines make visible something distant or tiny or hidden.
A final and related mode of seeing, objectivization, relies on protocols of observation that restrict the observer's interaction with the object of study as if the observer were present only at the remote distance of seeing. The medical scientist studies human "subjects" who are coded with numbers. Their personal identities are masked. Journalists cover stories exercising reportorial objectivity. And the effect of ideology is no less objectifying. The "body count" of enemies is morbidly objective. Enemy dead are nameless and faceless, referred to only as foes, enemy combatants (only "our dead" have faces, which appear as official portraits in media reports). Propaganda operates in the same way, reducing opponents to stereotypes and racial clichés. Ideological ways of seeing act as cultural lenses that distance us from what we see by subjugating our eyes to the manipulative views of ideology.
These forms of visual scrutiny variously induce self-alienation, self-transcendence, or the cancellation of vision in one register in order to see in another. Or we might say, they cancel seeing for oneself in order to replace it with being seen by another. In discernment, abstraction, contemplation, extension, and objectivization, one strives to see objectively, not subjectively, that is, to subordinate one's bodily and personal or otherwise idiomatic interests in order to regard an object-one's own self, another person, a work of art, a microorganism-with a look one does not control. It is almost certainly true that this ideal of objectivity is deeply interested. Behind it may be concealed a variety of desires and aims that are anything but dispassionate.
The larger matter to recognize is that even in subjugating one's interests, seeing in one form or another is a practice that integrates two corporeal registers: the body of the individual and the body of the group. An example will make the point. In his youthful compilation, Rules of Civility, the teenage Virginian aristocrat George Washington assembled a code of conduct, drawn from French sources, befitting a gentleman. Rule 37 reads: "In speaking to men of quality do not lean nor look them full in the face, nor approach too near them. At least keep a full pace from them." Social station was registered in the look one gave the other. Mode of address was not only ocular, but thoroughly corporeal, as the code demonstrates: the informality of leaning and the familiarity of proximity were the bodily analogues of looking the superior other "full in the face." For Washington, social order and harmony depended on the observance of a code encouraging self-inspection. Civility was the medium and foundation of a republic, a kind of self-applied discipline. Republican gentility meant submitting oneself to the templates of social imaging. Self-indulgence was rigorously subordinated to the strictures of gentlemanly conduct. "Good form" trumped individual interest because it meant one belonged to the social body of the genteel class.
Seeing, I have wished to suggest, happens in tandem with the entire body of the seer. But if emending the state of the body changes vision, the importance given the sense of sight among human beings also enables the reverse: changing patterns of seeing not only affects the body of the seer, but also, I shall argue in chapter 3, shifts consciousness from the somatic body to the register of the social body, the corpus of the group. But there remains much to say about the bodily context of vision and how seeing has been studied. Many at work in visual studies have presupposed a model of vision in which shame is the arch orientation of seeing. This is implicit in the sharp distinction between look as forceful act and look as the passive object of being seen. To be sure, shame is a powerful motive in human relations, and is used by parents, teachers, priests, and other authorities to shape behavior and attitudes among children as well as adults. It is important, therefore, to examine this orientation of the visual encounter of people in order both to understand it and to be able to move beyond its singular fix on the study of visual culture. Shame, as we shall note, marks the end of seeing, which is a circumstance that suits those averse to vision as untrustworthy, dangerous, or misleading. Shame is the state of seeking invisibility, the longing to avoid being the object of vision. But if we want to know how seeing operates in other respects in religious practice, a more capacious view of visual encounters will prove indispensable.
The various modes of visual reembodiment that we have quickly surveyed chasten or discipline the self, even resulting in self-erasure, and are propelled by shame of one sort or another, or a sense that the body must be repressed or controlled in order to see properly. This is a prevalent way of analyzing vision among scholars of art, film, and popular imagery. Shame undeniably commands a powerful social utility, but it is inadequate as a broad basis for understanding visuality. The remainder of this chapter and the next two will seek to demonstrate this and to establish a more encompassing scheme for studying visual culture.
Shame: Public Spectacle and the End of Vision
The power of the eye is dramatically demonstrated by extreme instances that turn on destroying it: putting out the eyes when seeing is said to be unbearable or unacceptable. The end of vision arises in shame, an emotion that commands enormous social effect. The Gospel of Matthew transmits a grimly puritanical but ironically spectacular teaching of Jesus: "And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life [after death] with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown in to the hell of fire" (18:9). I remember feeling relieved as a boy when a biblical commentary assured me that this was an instance of "oriental hyperbole." Jesus didn't really mean what he said. He was simply exaggerating in order to signal the solemnity with which his followers were expected to comport themselves. But since Origen had been able to wrangle the passage into justifying the surgical removal of another, no less precious part of his body, lest he be tempted to sin with it, my relief was not complete. Jesus relies on a repulsive spectacle to underscore the urgency of membership in the social body of the kingdom of heaven. Seeing with only one eye meant seeing with the transformed vision of the blessed.
An even more gruesome and sensational example offers more text to work with than the gnomic utterance ascribed to Jesus. Was it similarly hyperbolic for Oedipus to puncture his eyes with the golden brooches plucked from the breast of his dead mother and wife? If Jesus could settle for one, Oedipus demanded both eyes, then accounted for the grisly deed:
How could I meet my father beyond the grave
With seeing eyes; or my unhappy mother,
Against whom I have committed such heinous sin
As no mere death could pay for? Could I still love
To look at my children, begotten as they were begotten?
Could I want to see that pretty sight?
To see the towers of Thebes, her holy images,
Which I, her noblest, most unhappy son
Have forbidden myself to see-having commanded
All men to cast away the offence, the unclean,
Whom the gods have declared accursed, the son of Laius,
And, having proved myself that branded man,
Could I want sight to face this people's stare?
The chorus had opined that death was preferable to blindness, suggesting that death might have offered an end to dishonor, while blindness only prolonged his humiliation. But Oedipus insisted the punishment was just, for death was no escape from his shame, and blindness at least removed from him the agony of seeing the shame reflected in the beauty of his incestuous children and the damning gaze of his fellow Thebans. Yet Oedipus's self-mutilation bears conflicting motives. Death would have compelled him to face his dead parents without the ability to satisfy the debt he owed them. Shame was the coin of his compensation. And blindness also relieved him of the unbearable, shaming look of the living.
Both Jesus and Sophocles acknowledge in their extreme examples of self-mutilation the power of the shaming look and the way in which social order relies on seeing and not seeing. Although I assume that neither moralist advocated the actual deed as the best way to deal with temptation or guilt, they each produced a striking sense of the terrible burden of shame and the powerful way in which shame was and remains a visual medium of sociality. Jesus's utterance seems to suggest that blindness removes the stimulus to sin. One eye is expendable because it could be easily made into the instrument of weakness. It is better to deny the self the pleasure, to practice mortification and thereby to preclude the exploitation of the senses that would prevent entrance into the kingdom of heaven. In a gospel that pivots on the trope of economy as Matthew does, an eye is worth the cost. The view presumes that the corporeal senses are inferior to the inward moral compass, the power of conscience, the inner sense of duty that properly subordinates the flesh to the higher calling of God's commandment to be holy.
Sophocles offered a different lesson. His account of Oedipus may teach with tragic pathos that removing the eyes from the body is a metaphor for the agonizing gaze of those who judge us. The idea assures that the guilty may not hide. They will be found out, they will fall under the penitential gaze of the good-those to whom all are beholden. Removing the eyes from the body deprives us of returning the gaze, that is, of looking back. As a result, we become the hideous object of derision, dishonor, abjection, pity. There is nothing we can do to reclaim the countenance of those who see us because we have no means of reengaging and therefore changing their gaze. In a terrible sense, others do not see us any longer, but gaze instead upon a transgressor. We cease to be who we were and become another whom we ourselves would despise. In Oedipus's blindness, we are fixed forever in the visual aspect of disapprobation. To be seen in one way alone is to be rendered blind, unable to be a seer. It is a state of hopeless condemnation, judgment without reprieve. The self is reduced to one thing, and therefore becomes an object that cannot return sight. We might even say that Oedipus had to blind himself rather than take his own life because in doing so he placed himself in a perpetual state of self-contempt. He will never again see himself or images of himself (his children), but will remain singularly what others see. He is beyond redemption, forever unequal to his debt, incapable of compensating those he has injured and the public good he has violated.
The intricate economy of shame and vision was explored with considerable philosophical introspection in Jean-Paul Sartre's famous account of "the look" (le regard). Sartre analyzed the look as a way of understanding "the problem of the Other," that is, the ego or self of the other person who held him in his gaze and alienated him from freedom by regarding him as an object. Sartre characterized the encounter with the "other" as consisting of shame. He described shame in the memorable example of being caught seated on a chair before a door in a hallway, peering through a keyhole. Realizing that he is being observed, he is ashamed, which "is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging." Sartre had much more in mind than being caught in a single instance of spying. Shame is the nature of self-awareness that others afford us. "For the Other I am seated as this inkwell is on the table; for the Other, I am leaning over the keyhole as this tree is bent by the wind. Thus for the Other I have stripped myself of transcendence." He was nothing other than what the viewer has found, someone exhibiting pettiness or jealousy by committing an impropriety. In the gaze of the other he becomes the vice he commits, an object of derision, and is nothing else. All that he might otherwise be-a distinguished academic, a lover, a humanitarian, a war hero-suddenly vanishes.
Sartre saw the other as the reality that robbed his ego of its transcendence. "The Other ... is presented in a certain sense as the radical negation of my experience, since he is the one for whom I am not subject but object." The loss was so fundamental for Sartre's account of self-awareness that he portrayed it as the fall of humanity from an Edenic state, resulting in a shameful ejection from the blissful garden of complete self-presence: "If there is an Other, whatever or whoever he may be, whatever may be his relations with me, and without his acting upon me in any way except by the pure upsurge of his being-then I have an outside. I have a nature. My original fall is the existence of the Other. Shame-like pride-is the apprehension of myself as a nature." To experience shame, he reasoned, was to watch himself losing his freedom in becoming the object of another's apprehension. One is reminded of Freud, for whom the pure state of the unfettered libido produced "the universal original condition" of narcissism that is objectified as the ego forms and the instincts undergo the chastising gauntlet of civilization. The narcissism of the infant paralleled the transcendent reality of the thinking substance. The abrupt transition into consciousness was like the agony of leaving primordial bliss.
It becomes clear from Sartre's discussion that seeing is powerful because it configures human relations. To be seen by others estranges me from the experience of my ego as transcending the world of objects and subordinates me as being-for-the-other. Sartre likened this to a state of enslavement. An image in which the Sartrean relation of subjection is horrifyingly performed is René Magritte's portrayal of a rape, Les jours gigantesques (1928; fig. 4). Enclosed within the contour of an assaulted woman's naked body is the form of her attacker. He is clothed and we see him from the back. The way in which the artist has merged the two figures conveys the repugnant nature of the forced union-the rapist's invasion of her being could not be more insidiously visualized. She looks away from him as he devours her body, gazing intently on her bare flesh. His hands do what his eyes see. The woman is alienated from herself by the attack; he invades the very being of her body. The invisibility of his gaze is felt in the objectification of her body. She is reduced to the objecthood of her flesh, the object of his humiliating manipulation. As Sartre said of the other, he is the one who refuses to be seen, refuses to be an object of her consciousness. Instead, she belongs to him. To be seen means to be powerless to regard the other close up or far away: "It is never when eyes are looking at you that you can find them beautiful or ugly, that you can remark on their color. The Other's look hides his eyes; he seems to go in front of them ... . the look is upon me without distance while at the same time it holds me at a distance-that is, its immediate presence to me unfolds a distance which removes me from it." Because the object of this gaze is unable to return it, unable to grasp the source of oppressive vision, the ego is fixed and enslaved.
One is tempted to say that the eye of the Sartrean other is the sinister sibling of the looming eye of God seen in the Great Seal (see fig. 2). Yet conferring appellations of sinister and benevolent will depend on one's location in the visual field. To those who fall in the providential path of the eye of God, rather than gaze from behind its searching light, it is not a smiling deity who beholds them, but a merciless force, what white Americans were fond of calling "manifest destiny." Native American possessions, British territory before the Revolutionary War, Mexican continental holdings before the war of 1846-48-all were transformed by the unilateral gaze of the divine eye, which shone in favor of the new nation, not its rivals. The gaze corresponds to the interests of those directing vision on anyone forced to forfeit freedom when they find themselves under its auspices.
In every instance, seeing is a social medium, the means by which relations of power are arrayed and maintained among human beings. Seeing and being seen (or not) constitute frameworks of self-consciousness, consciousness of others, and consciousness of one's social body, which entails the feeling of one's relation to a group and to oneself. What is striking in Sartre, even if one objects to his unnecessarily reductionist scheme of ego set against ego in a zero-sum game, is that seeing articulates a world's focus and structure. Moreover, this articulation is, in spite of the hundreds of pages of Sartre's intricate philosophical analysis, conducted by feeling and intuition, and manifested as disposition and mood. Seeing, as he treats it, is infused with feeling, grounded in the body, linked directly to the felt-awareness of one's relation to others. Sartre was interested in the ego, the cogito, the human as thinking substance, but his data were the sensation of being seen and the physiological response one has to the look of the other. This urges us to correct the strong tendency to think singularly of the gaze as posing distance between viewer and viewed. Sartre may have thought he was a disembodied eye spying on a lover or neighbor from a silent distance, but he was also a crouched body gripped in the gaze of someone standing behind him. Shame made him visible as a body. Like the schoolboy in figure 1, he might have wished to become invisible, just as Oepidus destroyed his eyes in order to escape the penitentiary gaze of others. And yet, in doing so, Oedipus condemned himself to a debased visibility for public display. Oedipus's act is a grotesque hyperbole about shame. In matters of actual conscience, people don't puncture their eyes, but they do something that is figuratively equivalent when they avoid the gaze of others. They do not wish to see themselves being seen. Sartre considered fleeing in order to escape the terrible visibility that had trapped him.
Sartre, Oedipus, and the dunce wished to make themselves invisible. As their accounts show, invisibility and visibility are inextricable. To see and not-see are complementary acts, both individually and publicly embodied. While he wished to escape the vision of the other, which made him visible, Sartre also longed to reduce the other to an object. He wanted to contrast his own (in)visibility with the other's. And Oedipus concealed the world from himself at the expense of making a pathetic spectacle of his self-inflicted blindness. Invisibility and visibility are not just material conditions, the result of hiding or display, but are culturally fabricated forms of social association. You can only be invisible, after all, if someone is looking but does not see you. And to be visible is to be capable of being seen, encountered, addressed, engaged. What we see and do not see is a project, a task driven by shame or hatred, but also, as we shall see, by such feelings as desire, devotion, and sorrow.
Seeing is robustly embodied, and so we do well to recapture the aesthetic element of vision, the felt-life of seeing, the manifold and subtle relations of seeing to other forms of sensation. Exploring the intricate psychosocial anatomy of vision is the task of the critical study of visual culture. The study of religion as visual practice has something important to offer this broader enterprise by helping to restore the vivacity of sensation and emotion-seeing as interface, intimacy, or intercourse with people, places, and things. To this end, we might scrutinize several other modes of consciousness in addition to shame for their capacity to reveal the structure and focus of worlds as characteristic forms of human relation, situations that stage the human self and its communities. For example, what about powerfully orientating states like desire, sorrow, or praise? Surely such forms of awareness reveal different situations in which a human self might be grasped in no less prevalent forms of consciousness. By entering visual fields of others, we discover and cultivate modes of the human self. A self, it follows, is not a timeless essence or disembodied cogito, but a particular orchestration of roles in which that self engages with other selves to create the world to which they belong. Visual fields parse or disclose the structure of relations prevailing among a variety of actors. By entering these fields, people practice and cultivate modes of individual and shared identity as well as produce and encounter what may be called the sacred, as I shall explore in greater detail in chapter 3.
There is no reason to make shame the master trope of vision. Sartre was persuasive in arguing that human freedom consists of the construction of human existence. Only his restriction to the look of shame was unnecessary. Looking takes a number of other forms with existential and social consequences. Shame is just one, very powerful, visual orientation. There are many others. This is not to deny the importance of shame, but to seek to reestablish the embodiment and sociality of vision. There are probably many archetypal visual dispositions, but to make the point that shame is only one among several others, we might enumerate a few that, along with shame, characterize the felt-life and emotional temperaments that religions generate and manage. We have already mentioned such common human feelings as desire, sorrow, and devotion, or praise. These are not deduced from an a priori scheme, but belong to a longer list, and one that will inevitably be parsed differently from one culture and historical moment to the next. But that there are fundamental emotional dispositions in any given society that help organize human experience seems a reasonable hypothesis. The point is not to determine a universally representative set of moods, but to identify compelling orientations to add to shame as examples of the dispositions that conduct the visual construction of reality. Each disposition represents a fundamental orientation characterizing relations among humans, between humans and animals and other animate beings, divine or mortal, and between humans and their worlds. This is not to flatten cultural differences into a general human nature. I have in mind by these moods or dispositions the broadly shared, culturally varied, and historically transmitted matrices in which human worlds tend to take shape.
Shame, as we have seen, occurs as an objectification in the gaze of others, and in some sense a loss or end of vision: one is seen, but no longer sees, as grimly illustrated by the case of Oedipus. But more commonly with shame, one looks away from the sight of others as if to cancel vision and become unseen. Desire operates quite differently, seeking out or hunting another. Meeting the gaze or even the glance of the beloved repays the long suffering of the lover. The gaze of those in love, who dwell in long silence and rapt attention, intermingles their egos by canceling contrary inclinations in themselves or discovering undeveloped impulses. They grow together and experience a powerful symbiosis that measures time in a narrative marked by anniversaries, the purpose of which is to renew the recognition of the original look. For this reason, a record, photographic or otherwise, of the journey together is cherished and curated with care. To desire is to want to see.
In contrast to love, capturing the flesh of the desired is the aim of pornography, another version of desire, which may be said to consist of two aspects: the sexual violation of boundaries of the body (abjection); and sexual enforcement of hierarchy in domination and submission (subjection), both of which are perversely envisioned by Magritte's painting examined earlier (see fig. 4). Abjection assaults the definition of the self in the body's configuration of inside and outside, transgressing borders and blurring distinctions. Subjection enslaves the subject to the other by compelling its visibility as object and concealing the other from view. In both cases, and in all forms of desire, the appetite is voracious. It always wants more and is never content with the previous conquest, or with what the beloved last allowed as a favor.
Limits are the agony and stimulus of desire, which is a driving force that would violently burst all bonds restricting its satiation. This is why the lover worships the item which the beloved has given as a gift-a lover letter, a photograph, an article of clothing, any trifle, the more minor or casual the better as a gesture to be overinterpreted and cherished as the promise of more and more to come. Likewise, pornography and erotica operate most powerfully when desire is teased. The slightest bit of clothing that adorns the body generates intense desire because it incites the longing to remove it. In desire we see what we can become or consume (and thereby make into ourselves).
While love seeks a sustaining relation to the other who restructures one's relationship to oneself and the world, sorrow is the violence of losing someone or something whose familiarity and agency are so important that we depend on them to orient and anchor daily life. Sorrow is a sharp punctuation, a horrific end to the ordinary. If desire is a hopeful hunting, sorrow is a desperate pining. I am reminded of the splendid elegy of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, where readers become aware that the author mourns the loss of his mother, whose photograph he happens upon one day following her death. Barthes discusses her image and her presence in the image, but never shows readers her picture. She remains unseen, haunting the book. We see instead many other photographs of dead people and distant places.
Photographs for Barthes are about loss, loss but not destitute absence. They give something to the viewer. Barthes characterizes the power of photographs as their ability to prick or wound the viewer. They bear a punctum that impresses the viewer with pain. One is reminded of the Franciscan tradition of the stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Jesus that pierce the bodies of the saintly few whose suffering he graces with this supreme favor of imitating him in their very bodies. And so it is that Barthes speaks of "the gift, the grace of the punctum." A gift, but the gift of the dead. The point of any photograph is its impact on the body of its viewer. Photographs touch us, Barthes contends, in a way that light once touched them. We encounter in the photograph the trace of a presence that is gone. The way to see a photograph well, he says, is "to look away or close your eyes." Then its poignancy emerges. In not seeing the image, it becomes more visible to us than before. One remembers it in a second act of loss that is also a recovery. Memory is a sort of resurrection: "to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness." In the look of sorrow we see what is absent in ourselves, we see the end of ourselves, a border caused by sudden violence. In mourning we learn to be someone else, a new thing created by loss.
Missing the lost one leads inexorably to praise, or the expression of devotion. Loss and gratitude are either side of the same coin. In fact, they are features of every moral economy. Loss is the depletion of resources, and gratitude is what one offers as an expenditure to acquire a social good. Gratitude signals the nature of praise as part of a relationship that is described in the social dynamics of the gift, a form of economy that organizes relations between two parties. One pays tribute in order to buy obligation, license, liberty, or privilege. There are at least two distinct forms that praise takes: deference or public tribute to those whose stature is pivotal as constituting and sustaining the community (god, leader, or hero); and devotion, which is personal or private dedication of oneself to the other. In either case, praise posits a difference discernible in the submission of oneself to the other. But in most instances the submission is not absolute or purely unilateral. The king must honor the rights of subjects or suffer rebellion. The other is also amenable to supplication and covenant. The devotee of a saint offers thanks, pilgrimage, prayer, or pledge before the saint's image precisely because the saint can be flattered, moved, or cajoled into helping the petitioner. Praise is the coin one pays to entreat attention and favor.
Deference is the prevalent form of praise that suits public commemoration of the deeds of a hero or national patron. Memory is key to the communal tribute of deferential praise. Presidents, senators, emperors, and kings offer their tribute to gods and founders to invoke blessing on their reign and renew national dedication to a cause. Public rites of piety remember the founding narratives that confer identity on the community by tracing its story from origin to the present. The monument or memorial statue erected in the public square visually and spatially triangulates the viewer's relation to the hero and the people for whom the hero dedicated himself in some sacrificial form. Heroes are important to a social body because their presence allows a form of visibility otherwise unarticulated. By seeing the hero, people see themselves as a people belonging to and embodied in the hero. The totem is us.
In every case, desire, sorrow, and praise configure a field of visual relations, a network of linkages between the viewer and another, or others, transforming personal identity in the process. Seeing and being seen is not a singular prospect, as Sartre's characterization of the look holds with respect to shame. We might say the same of Jacques Lacan's celebrated treatment of the mirror stage. This moment in early psychological development occurs when the child, aged between six and eighteen months, according to Lacan, "assumes an image" presented by a mirror. The image perceived by the infant becomes a new version of himself, his double, his own ego looking back at him. The development is of singular importance, according to Lacan, because it marks the move from an inwardly felt sense of self to a "specular I," a fictive, imaginary, and ideal self that looks back and constitutes the paradigm that the lived I forever and imperfectly seeks to emulate. Self-consciousness is born in a moment of misrecognition: the infant's acceptance of the specular other as its true self, imposing itself on the gazing baby as the superior reality of its inarticulate, embodied self.
Fascinating as this conception of self-development is, it easily ignores the already rich interactive, social life of the child by this age. From birth the child has been sensuously engaged in relations with its parents, and perhaps with siblings. And the mirror is hardly necessary to conceive of the encounter of an ideal self, since parents and others address the baby in terms of what she ought to do. The superego, in other words, is an internal ideal self that the child is constantly urged to instantiate. Indeed, Lacanian psychoanalysis does not insist on actual mirrors to achieve the decisive step in consciousness (if Lacanians did so, they would need to account for the absence of mirrors in cultures and societies that did not include polished metal or silvered glass devices). Instead, Lacan might suggest that mirrors are only symbolic of the self-imaging that does constitute the significant stage in human awareness. The mirror stage does not require them. The social interactions of the child account for this moral formation.
In fact, this idea was developed by Adam Smith in his idea of the looking-glass. But unlike the shame of the look of the other analyzed by Sartre, Smith found the look able to affirm no less than to scold. Moreover, the look of the other did not undermine the ego, as it did in Sartre's phenomenology of consciousness, but enabled its moral operation in the world of fellows. The motif of judgment, passing sentence, bears comparison with the moral severity of the Freudian superego. But the motif of self-judging also recalls Foucault's discussion of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. An architectural configuration for prisons, factories, poor houses, hospitals, asylums, and schools, the panopticon or "inspection-house" organized cells around a central tower in which attendants conducted surveillance. The form of the construction was not only to make surveillance efficient, but served, according to Bentham, as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind." Foucault argued that the structure's design configured a gaze, an entire visual field, in which occupants themselves were structured. To see within this regime was to participate in a gaze that organized the very act of vision. The panopticon made occupants the subjects of perpetual inspection, serving as a physical framework that impressed on them a subjectivity of being seen. As such, the design is a visual template in which authority and subject reside in the enduring formation of one another. The panopticon is a material enactment of a mode of visibility, an active shaping of the conditions of seeing. The architecture was "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power." Or even more tersely, echoing Lacan, Foucault wrote: "Visibility is a trap." At the same time, the panopticon manufactured invisibility by concealing freedom in the barren glare of visibility. Bentham's inspection house was to operate so perfectly that "inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearers." And so it was that Adam Smith may be understood to have expressed the ideal of Foucault's "disciplinary gaze": by internalizing the juridical gaze of others, the self is its own judge and jury.
For Sartre, Lacan, Smith, and Foucault, seeing and being-seen is a formative experience in which the ego is tempered by encounter with others who return its gaze. So powerful is the look of the other that it can imprison the ego. What I have proposed, however, is that this scenario does not exhaust visuality nor serve as an adequate foundation for its understanding. Smith's (and Lacan's) discussion contends that the alienating gaze of the other is internalized and used by the ego for self-scrutiny. This suggests that we need to understand the alienation of the other's gaze as part of a dialectic of reembodiment, in which we forsake or discipline our bodies in order to assume the look of others directed at us. The result is a useful self-transcendence. By seeing with another's eyes we acquire the ability to sympathize, to feel what the other feels under scrutiny because we ourselves have endured such scrutiny. The consequence is the capacity to participate in communities of feeling. This means an alternative to viewing others antagonistically or regarding the world from the unsympathetic distance of the isolated or secluded cogito. The visual construction of reality is more complex and pluralistic, and it is not the work of individual psyches, but of networks of individuals and communities forming a massive variety of social bodies.
What we learn from Smith as well as from Foucault, in contrast to Cartesianism, is that human beings are not principally or fundamentally indivisible egos, but social beings visually constructed by their engagement with others and the material worlds in which they live. It was Descartes who posited a metaphysically foundational distinction between the mind as a thinking thing that was impartible and the human body, which admitted of partition. But there is never a moment in human existence when we are not comprised of the looks of others. Smith, Foucault, and Lacan argue for selves constructed from engagement with others, encounters in which the other's gaze is incorporated into our identities. But in contrast to Sartre and Lacan, those looks are not limited to shame or deception or misunderstanding, but also include desire, love, sorrow, praise, and a host of other primary emotions that organize social life. Demonstrating how this is the case in a variety of different historical settings will occupy a number of the chapters to follow.
Add source code 15W5487 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.