The ancient Greeks explored the dialectics of the gaze in the form of the myth of Medusa, who can turn people to stone with a single glance. The Medusan story symbolically condenses a range of experiences of looking and being looked at in the graphic image of the “petrifying gaze” (petrification meaning literally the turning of the other into an inert object), and the Medusa, being a female deity, introduces the idea that “looking” implicates sexual and gendered phenomena of some social and cultural importance.
The human sciences have demonstrated that “looking” is a profoundly social and political phenomenon that obliges the analyst to distinguish between different modalities and practices of seeing (“looking,” “gazing,” “staring,” “glancing,” and so forth). It is thus important to distinguish the physical and physiological properties of “seeing” from the culturally defined forms of “looking.” For example, very young infants tend to stare at objects and others (particularly other persons with a distinctive physical attribute); as children are socialized they learn to sublimate this natural inclination into the more civil act of glancing and looking away. Children are taught that certain forms of eye contact are regarded as impolite, that looking is subject to appropriateness norms.
We are not far from Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of voyeurism and the attendant social relations of masochism and sadism in his work Being and Nothingness (1956). Here the Medusan imagery is elevated into a description of the human condition as consciousness seeks to objectify the other person and thereby escape from the petrifying glance of another consciousness. Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) built upon Sartre’s phenomenology of the gaze by formulating the topic in explicitly gendered terms, distinguishing between the aggressive masculine gaze and the defensive feminine look. Frantz Fanon explored similar phenomena by identifying the racialized perspective that projects the other as the object of racial oppression and prejudice (Fanon 1967).
Today the cultural construction of the gaze has led to a number of significant lines of research. Feminism’s critique of patriarchal modes of experience, including the phallocentric ways in which women’s bodies and female experience are cast into “objective” terms, is frequently formulated in “objective” terms, resulting in representations of women as an “object” of male desire. In a similar vein, John Berger has explored the male gaze and its role in creating representations of the female body in the history of Western art and, more particularly, in the history of the two- and three-dimensional nude figure (Berger 1972). Noteworthy in the field of media and film studies is Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytically inspired work on the voyeuristic conventions of Hollywood cinema, and more especially her theory of the phallocentric links between male visual pleasure and narrative cinema (1989). Erving Goffman’s investigations of the “interactional work” of seeing and being seen—for example, the blank “stare-into-the distance” assumed by urban passengers (the kind of neutral stare adopted in situations such as sharing an elevator, traveling on the subway, standing in line, etc.)—led him to his concept of “civil indifference.” Goffman’s research (1963, 1970) was prefigured by the German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918), who is well known for pioneering work in the social phenomenology of the blasé attitude of cosmopolitan life. For Simmel, the urban metropolis creates forms of life where the self lives in a world of strangers, is continuously observed by the disinterested eyes of crowds, and loses the potential of creativity envisionment.
The look and its social analysis continues to play an important role within the field of visual culture theory and research. Popular culture is increasingly defined as a culture of global visuality, where all signifiers are either explicitly or implicitly reconfigured in voyeuristic terms—a multimedia world-industry of images designed to be looked at. Today computer-based communications, TV, film, and digitized multimedia provide the ultimate technological means that extend the social relationships embodied in gazing to a planetary stage. The related concepts of “the society of the spectacle,” “simulacral culture,” and the surveillance society have been developed to explore new geographies of power as these are redefined by the electronic media of watching, staring, and controlling the social field.
Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
De Beauvoir, Simone. 1970. The Second Sex. New York: Bantam.
Fanon, Franz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks: The Experience of a Black Man in a White World. New York: Grove.
Goffman, Erving. 1961. Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1970. Strategic Interaction. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Film, Feminism, and the Avant-Garde. In Visual and Other Pleasures, 111–126. London: Macmillan.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1956. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.