Visuality and Culture: The Gaze

Visuality: Levels of Visuality

1. Sensation

2. Perception

3. Visual Experience

4. Visual Culture

5. Art

The Problem with Vision

Vision has a contradictory status in contemporary society. It is the sense that we appeal to most, but it also has been associated with oppression:

  • Vision is the operative sense in science. It tends to objectify, and is the sense that operates at the greatest distance. It reinforces idea that the world is split into the subjective and objective. It reinforces the idea that there is an external reality and an internal interpretive world. It tends to be non-political, as if we are getting "facts", not "values".

  • Vision is used for control. Think of Bentham's Panopticon, the prison which operates not with strong doors, but with surveillance. Where does surveillance happen in society today?

  • Vision tends to give us the idea that externality is important. We imagine that we know something about someone by the way they look. Cultural studies questions this, but also recognizes that controlled visual representation may indeed create identities.

The Gaze

For cultural studies, the gaze is a specific kind of visuality. We don't just look, we master and control through the look. Foucault does the most work on this, pointing out, for example, the medical gaze that the doctor has of the body. The body becomes a problem to be solved, dehumanized.

This relates to the question of identity as well. Sartre comments that we need to be recognized by another in order to have identity. Many marginalized groups strive for recognition, a visual metaphor. We want to be seen in the way we want; yet, we really have little control over that.

We are spectators much of the time. We view television, film, sporting events. Our watching makes these things what they are - it not only makes them possible, but makes them a particular kind of event.

See Daniel Chandler,
Notes on "The Gaze"