On many different levels, the atrocities of the twentieth century created a profound existential crisis and prompted the need to question what it means to be (or as it were not to be) a human being in the world. The questioning of human subjectivity, and of whether there is anything essential to it, features as a guiding thread in recent European philosophy. Looming behind the twentieth-century suspicion that human subjectivity might not be as self-evident or as complete as we might like to think, is the shadow of arch-mustachio guru Friedrich Nietzsche.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes: ‘and if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ Although it might appear a bit obscure at first glance, this aphorism appears as a keystone in the edifice of recent continental philosophy. Through its ominous imagery of paranoia, Nietzsche’s dictum posits the self as essentially split; vision no longer seems to guarantee control over what is seen. Instead, we are at the mercy of what we think we perceive: what is looked at becomes a dangerous abyss threatening to engulf us—it gazes straight into us.
The notion of the self split through vision was notably taken up by French psychoanalyst/rockstar Jacques Lacan in his seminar: ‘The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am in the picture’ (Seminar XI). For Lacan, the seeing subject is decentred by the presence of a gaze that comes from outside, which ultimately testifies to the fact that ‘I am in the picture’. Such a radical decentring can appear alien in the light of Western common sense, which typically considers empirical perception as an empowering feature of the subject.
Although the suspicion of optics is characteristic of twentieth-century French philosophy, it also appears in much earlier accounts – not strictly philosophical ones. An obvious example (perhaps because of its ubiquitous presence in the Western collective unconscious) is William Shakespeare’s playHamlet. In Hamlet, the presence of a decentring gaze coming from outside is embodied in the ghost, which stands for the Nietzschean abyss. When we look at the ghost, it stares back at us ‘most constantly’, in Horatio’s phrase. The ghost symbolises an exogenous gaze that circumscribes the self – not only Hamlet but also us, the audience. Being under the scrutiny of such a gaze has drastic repercussions: Hamlet’s acute capacities of observation ultimately turn him into ‘the observed of all observers’, as Ophelia puts it. Looking is being looked at.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, the perception of the Other’s gaze indicates the onset of paranoia and invariably announces a crisis (Hamlet’s famous ‘To be, or not to be’). However, this displacement is not contained within the (imaginary) boundaries of the play: it extends to ‘the real world’ too. When we watch or read Hamlet, it gazes also into us; it reminds us of our own precarious position as seeing subjects. Like Hamlet, we are ‘the observed of all observers’. The ultimate function of theatre, it seems, is to stage the abyss, the gaze of the Other. Such a paranoiac regime is characteristic not only of theatre but of all forms of mediated entertainment.
In the so-called ‘developed’ world, TV stands for the gaze of the abyss that stares straight into us. It anticipates our emotional reactions and ultimately takes charge of enjoyment. This alienating function is illustrated, for instance, by canned laughter, which always seems to intervene at the most random moments in TV series. Canned laughter is not only arbitrary; it is also profoundly traumatic as it deprives us of our emotional content. Canned laughter does not tell us when to enjoy – we never laugh anyway. It literally enjoys for us.
Another example of the extent to which mediated entertainment displaces subjectivity is modern televised pornography, where the sole purpose of the viewer’s eye is to register how others enjoy instead of me. Thus, when I watch pornographic films, I become a mere object at the mercy of the TV screen that gazes back at me. This paralysing gaze becomes materialised when one of the actors stares at the camera in the middle of the intercourse, thus acknowledging the viewer as part of the performance. From a contemporary point of view, the pornographic gaze of TV is Nietzsche’s abyss.
And if you gaze for long into the screen, the screen gazes also into you.
Turn the TV off.
Reflection by Étienne Poulard, November 2011
Étienne Poulard is studying towards his PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University (UK). He likes to think of literary texts as platforms that allow us to address present concerns – or to think of present concerns as links towards literary texts. He is also interested in Daoist philosophy as well as Chinese martial and internal arts.