After reading Australian indigenous journalist Stan Grant’s essays on feeling “trapped by the white gaze” in The Guardian (here and here), and spending a bit of time musing on this “gaze” in conjunction with my reading of Robert Romanyshyn’s excellent Technology as Symbol and Dream, I came to the realisation that this “white gaze” which people of non-European extraction find so disconcerting, or even despotic, is a perfect description of perspectivising perception. It hasn’t much directly to do with “whiteness” per se. The Gaze is a cultural artifact, culturally conditioned, that first rose in the Renaissance with the invention of perspectivism. The Gaze is a mode of perception, linked to a particular consciousness structure — the consciousness structure that Jean Gebser calls “perspectival” or “mental-rational”, and which Romanyshyn refers to as “astronautical man”.
I know from my own experience working with the Aboriginal Healing Project in Canada that the Gaze is experienced by indigenous people as real, and as being very perplexing and disconcerting. So, let’s explore this in depth — the roots of this “gaze” in perspectivising consciousness and perception, and also its strengths and its weaknesses.
Romanyshyn’s Technology as Symbol and Dream is about as thorough a treatment of the perspectivist mode of perception as I’ve yet come across, and a powerful affirmation of the earlier insights into the mental-rational/perspectival consciousness structure made by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin. Those who find the experience of feeling “trapped by the white gaze” disconcerting often don’t realise that the Gazer is himself trapped in the gaze — trapped in the “point-of-view”. There is even a book in my collection by Elan Golomb entitled Trapped in the Mirror, about narcissism. Every action having an equal and opposite reaction, which is the karmic law, being “trapped by the white gaze” — the perspectivising gaze — has its reciprocal or “blowback” effect of feeling “trapped in the mirror”. It’s the karmic law of “as ye do unto others…”
It’s not coincidental at all that mirrors, too, became all the cultural rage along with the development of perspectivism in the Renaissance and the “point of view”. There is even an excellent history of the mirror by Mark Pendergrast, Mirror, Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection, the traces the cultural significance of mirrors since the Renaissance.
This Gaze, as perspectivising perception, is the gaze of the all-seeing eye of surveillance, of distantiation and objectification, the analytical gaze, the vivisecting, dissecting, and anatomising gaze, the gaze that judges (and accuses), and the gaze that partitions, compartmentalises, and sectoralises. It is the gaze of aloofness, and even of indifference. It is the gaze that is represented in the symbol of the European Enlightenment that graces the American dollar bill,
It is the same Gaze that represents ambitions for a panopticon for an age of total mass surveillance
And it is the Gaze that Blake calls “Single Vision” and which he represented in the form of his false god Urizen
It is the gaze of da Vinci’s perspectivising eye and later of Descartes’ “cogito” — the thinking thing,
Among cultures that emphasised less the eye as organ of knowing, and which were more aural (listening), the Gaze is experienced as aggressive — as the hungry eye.
The Gaze is, in fact, highly focussed and highly concentrated, like the beam of a flashlight. It’s strength is also its weakness in that respect. And the reason should be obvious from these illustrations. It does not perceive holistically. It does not and cannot approach what Gebser calls a truly “universal way of looking at things”. It perceives but a narrow spectrum of its overall reality at any one time — a mere pie-slice. It bisects and dissects and vivisects the world. It is, in that sense, the “rational” eye, analysing, measuring, apportioning, perspectivising and rationalising — objectifying and thereby deadening.
(In fact, Romanyshyn examines the notion of “the corpse” as a completely modern invention that arose with perspectivism and the corresponding interest in anatomical studies and the description of the body as machine).
The Gaze comes about from the cultural imperative to “have a point of view” and “to keep things in perspective”. But keeping things in perspective involves removing oneself from the situation, distancing oneself while objectifying the immediacy of the situation. As Romanyshyn very aptly describes it, it is viewing the world through a thick glass window — at a remove, at a distance, which is the distance of ab-straction. This distance of mental abstraction is what characterises Romanyshyn’s portrait of “astronautical man” who attempts to escape the earth and the body.
Of course, the “white gaze” isn’t the only kind of gaze. The human of the European type also finds the “Confucian gaze” equally disconcerting — the oriental face of alleged “inscrutability”. That’s not just perception either. It’s the ancient fear, still characteristic of much of oriental culture, of “losing face” by some precipitous or impetuous act or speech.