Of looking and power

I’ve been watching the BBC serial North and South and a lot of scenes depict people looking. We’re always looking at someone looking at someone. And it’s interesting how much power is implicated in one single look. The masters are always looking down at the workers from their office high up in a building, a mother surveilling the interactions between her son and a lady, a man looking at a woman.

Why is it that looking always seems to confer upon the looker a sense of power and control, while making objects out of those who are looked at? Laura Mulvey, of course, talks about this in relation to the male gaze inherent in the film apparatus. “Scopophilia,” or the love of looking, is seen in how men take women as objects of their erotic desire, while women connote to-be-looked-at-ness in many media with a cinematic aspect. Mulvey, Freud, film theory and the male gaze aside, I wonder how this plays out in real life.

People look at people all the time, but does it always concern power? Does looking always lead to an asymmetry of power? In today’s surveillance-heavy society, it seems to be the case. Someone is always looking at us going about daily lives, not just wherever there are cameras, but online too with every Google search you perform, every hyperlink you click or every purchase you make. Everything about you becomes something to be looked at, and not just that, but mined for information, primed for businesses, used as objects. You become so much less than human; you become data. So, in a sense, we become objects of a to-be-looked-at nature and the faceless corporations looking at us have the power to objectify us. In a way, we have to keep pushing back against these structures. We have to keep our ground and push and push until we stop falling into a bracket, a demographic, a pattern that fits market research. We have to be human: to be surprising and unpredictable and diverse and beautiful in our difference.

We also have to push back in a way of not seeing people the way corporations do. We have to remember in looking at people not to reduce them to labels, to social markers, to their categories. And just because we are taught by the media to sexualise, well, everything, does not mean we have to live in a way dominated by sex (and romance). Part of the power of the look is sexual in nature. It is looking for erotic pleasure that gives this looking a sense of power: because the looked-at becomes fodder for fantasy, used for the looker’s own desires. So, perhaps, we need to learn to look without turning people into objects; we need to look at them as people, look in terms of appreciation, admiration, honest evaluation, without our own solipsistic needs.

It is interesting how just directing your gaze at someone can transform them into something without agency, and that says something perhaps about our ocular-centric culture. As much as we can’t change the way we are socialised, or the way social structures dictate certain norms, let us change the way we look at each other. Let us not use power in relationships dear to us. Let us possess a love for looking, but only because we love people, not because we love what they can do for us.


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