The Gaze

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,

Perspectivism: The Dialectical Consciousness

It is the same Gaze that represents ambitions for a panopticon for an age of total mass surveillance

Logo of the DARPA "Total Information Awareness" Programme

Logo of the DARPA “Total Information Awareness” Programme

And it is the Gaze that Blake calls “Single Vision” and which he represented in the form of his false god Urizen

Urizen -- Architect of the Ulro, "Ancient of Days"

Urizen — Architect of the Ulro, “Ancient of Days”

It is the gaze of da Vinci’s perspectivising eye and later of Descartes’ “cogito” — the thinking thing,

da Vinci's Perspective: the Eye and the Pyramid of Vision

da Vinci’s Perspective: the Eye and the Pyramid of Vision


The Cartesian "cogito" illustrated by Descartes

The Cartesian “cogito” illustrated by Descartes

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.


5 responses to “The Gaze”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Mark Dotson provided a link to an essay by Romanyshyn in a comment to the last post. The essay is well worth taking in, as it covers everything in the book pretty well, only in a more condensed way

    Very pertinent to the significance and meaning of “the Gaze”.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I should like to point out what appears to be the radical implications of Romanyshyn’s description of “metabletics” and the mutability of the human and reality conjointly. It means that your real body does not end at the skin, but is all of nature, and that your soul as such is the cosmos itself.

      This is not really a new idea, though. It’s a very old idea. It’s represented in the pre-Socratics for whom the realm of “physis” (or “Nature”) is completely indistinguishable from the body. You can equally think of the situation in those terms — your body is all of what we call “Nature” or the Earth, while your soul is coextensive with the cosmos. Obviously, they aren’t really separate.

      That may sound a little crazy, I know. Can’t help that. But watch Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk again and pay careful attention to what happens to her body and her relationship to her body as she experiences that altered state of consciousness. Then it becomes obvious.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I guess “post-truth society” and “new normal” have now become interchangeable terms.

    That’s kind of annoying.

  3. Charles Leiden says :

    Lee worth Bailey talks about the “camera obscura” as metaphor of a new way of imagining the mind. Bailey writes: This dark room slowly became an unconscious root metaphor for the growing philosophy of the subjective mind cut off from the outer objective world, communicating through the eye’s tiny light channel.” John Locke used the “camera obscura” as the way to conceive of the mind and became a guiding tacit metaphor for empiricism.

    John Prine in the song Picture Show part of the verse goes

    Every time he clicks his Kodak pics
    He steals a little bit of soul.
    Every time he clicks his Kodak pics
    He steals a little bit of soul.

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