Tuesday, October 13, 2020

On Gaze Theories

I have, I think, worked out why "gaze" theories have never sat well with me, and it's not because I am an unrepentant racist. Let's back up and sketch out what the original "Male Gaze" was about.

This is an idea from the 1970s, and it's about movies. The idea is that movies, often, present the male characters as heroic or at least strong, the female ones as weak, subservient, and so on. The women are there to be saved by the men. Embedded in this is the idea that a movie fixes the meaning of a lot of stuff. Not everything, of course, but a lot. We do not know for sure whether Deckard is a replicant or not. We do know that he is the protagonist, that he is the driver of the plot, the salvation of the girl. We know that Rachel is literally a made thing, and that Deckard in some sense rescues her.

These meanings are nailed down with varying degrees of certainty by the narrative, by the visuals, by the entire content of the movie.

A single frame of the movie does not convey any of this. No single frame does, any more than any single word of A Tale of Two Cities embodies the novel. We'd need rather a large run of frames, or of words, before any of these nailed-down meanings would even begin to suggest themselves.

"Gaze" implies fixed meaning. To suppose that something exhibits "white gaze" or "black gaze" or "female gaze" is to suppose that the whatever it has nailed down enough meaning to do that, to embody some kind of meaning that supports a specific point of view.

Nevermind that we're not really sure what point of view "female gaze" is supposed to support or embody, we first need to establish that whatever it is actually has the capacity to fix some meaning in place.

Meaning, in cinema, is an emergent property of the whole. You can probably cut a lot from many a movie without losing all the meaning, but at some point the wheels fall off. The meaning is not carried in the fragments, but in the arrangement of the whole.

Similarly any media. The arrangement of words, sounds, visuals, and so on carries the meaning. Sections and pieces may carry portions of the meaning, but at some point the fragment size becomes too small, and there is no meaning in those little bits.

So, to photographs.

On the one hand, I am absolutely certain that you need yourself to hold a point of view, to take up a position, when photographing. I am absolutely convinced that the point of photography is to fix meaning, to communicate.

On the other hand, I think that it is rare that a single photograph actually does that. This is why I make things that put a bunch of pictures together, often with a bunch of words.

Is a photograph equivalent to a single frame of "Blade Runner?" Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it's more like a scene. Occasionally, I suppose, it's the whole film. Mostly, though, photographs are fragments large enough to suggest meaning, large enough to hint and imply, but too small to really nail it down. Photographs tend toward the ambiguous. You can't read them any old way, but in general they allow multiple readings, they can be understood in several ways.

This is, really, what makes them artistically so interesting and powerful. You can easily make a thing that's big enough to open a door, but small enough that it won't close the door behind itself.

What this in turn means, though, is that "gaze" is not something we can meaningfully attach to a photograph. "Gaze" assumes a fairly fixed, nailed down, meaning. You can accomplish that with something that includes photos, easily enough.

Certainly you can argue that "colonial gaze" is, or was, a thing. There was certainly plenty of media produced in the service of Empire, in the service of colonialism in all its complexity. Certainly some of that media included photographs.

Those photographs, though, as often as not, do not themselves embody a "colonial gaze" any more than frame 73,271 of "Blade Runner" embodies "male gaze" or particularly proves Deckard to be the protagonist.

Similarly there are contemporary photobooks which reasonably be said to embody a "female gaze" in some sense. The individual pictures in the book probably do not embody any such thing, and to the extent that the book is just a container of pictures, it may also fail to embody a "female gaze." Still, it is possible obviously for a book to assemble a collection of ambiguous fragments (photographs) in such a way as to fix a meaning sufficiently to be said to embody a "gaze" of some sort.

But the "gaze" is not in the pictures. It's am emergent property of the whole.

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