The Virtual Gaze

Watching the replay of a not too recent India versus New Zealand cricket match on Television I was particularly struck by one of the innumerable advertisements that were played and replayed in between overs. A little girl with a pair of large glasses looks into a mirror and asks Father, Am I pretty? The dad’s voice tells her Of Course, you are. The girl replies: then why doesn’t anyone look at me? There follows a loose shot of a kindergarten class where the little girl looks longingly at a tiny boy next to her who is too busy writing on his notebook to notice anything! There is enough to put even Jacques Lacan to shame! But worse is to follow.  The father buys a large car and the girl sprawls in the seat and everyone stares at her! This is the height of ridiculousness. You are entitled to promote your ware and sell over the small screen anything and everything in this capitalist world. But what right do you actually have to twist and pervert the tender minds of million such kids who would certainly watch and imbibe these visuals innocently? What is the idea here? Is it the quality of your car or its comfort or even its elegance that is projected? The truth of the matter is the perversion of the look and gaze that is given undue focus here, perhaps deliberately, or even unawares?  How could the media feign irresponsibility in this matter?  What right do we have to corrupt the innocent minds of tiny tots—we have but borrowed our world from them!

Existentialist philosophers drew attention to the look and the gaze. Our very identity depends on the other and we share a reciprocal existence.  The look of the other could engender meaning in terms of pride, pleasure, position, or simple being. Of course the other, as Jean Paul Sartre reminds us, is always Hell! In a marvelous scene that connotes the situations of class- wars and class-consciousness, Eugene O’Neill in his play The Hairy Ape pits the look between two people of entirely different social class to tremendous advantage. The hero is a huge hunk of a hairy dark man who works in the coal-fuelled underworld of the steamship while the heroine is the representative of the tender, fragile, rich, aristocracy.  When the lady looks upon the dark awesome creature she yells and shrieks—there is a long minute of the look that transforms both at once.  The man is yanked off his feet and is too shocked to understand while the lady is even more shocked that such creatures like this one exists at all! The class-difference is too very well brought out here and the devastating impression of the look is dramatically established. A mere look can do wonders—it could shatter and disfigure—constitute, create, or crush. 

Feminist intellectuals over the last century have drawn attention to the gaze that they term is often the male variety.  The patriarchal world runs on established power structures that condition the male gaze even in women who might be biologically born as women but are re-conditioned into playing gender- stereotypical roles in life.  The male gaze operates virtually in all spheres of living and bestows its own value-systems. The female of the species quite unconsciously is also trapped in this social structure. In fact a great deal of the world of the market is strategically controlled by this sort of gaze: female beauty pageants and the entire market world of beauty products are dependent on this response to the male gaze. What a woman wants, what she is supposed to look like, what manner she is supposed to bear herself– all this is conditioned and manipulated by this devious device of the male gaze.

We have the look, we have the gaze. In the advertisement that we have noted above both these attitudes are unbearably taken advantage of. The little child is made to behave in an adult manner and fit into the mode of the patriarchal world view. Given the psychology of the child at that age, to believe Jacques Lacan, there would not be any possibility for the erasure of any given image in this early stage in the development of the child’s ego simply because it is only beginning to constitute.  The child is an innocent victim in this avaricious world of the adult thinking. Why should the little girl start thinking about the image of the public eye? Why in the heaven’s name should she be made to appear under the male gaze? If you want to sell a product couldn’t you do that without resorting to the corrupting eye? Not only do you desire to corrupt the present but you also desire to throw mud into the eyes of the future generation as well!

Our world is now manipulated totally by the virtual gaze. We are made to believe in the more real reality of the virtual than our own everyday reality!  What the media thinks and distributes, we are silently made to swallow and digest. And we are willful victims in this process of slow destruction and decay.  We need to sit up and resist. At least now, before it is too late. At least, some among us.

In one of his great plays Albert Camus the French existentialist intellectual has a unique scene that goes like this.  A handful of extremist rebels have decided to annihilate a powerful potentate. Their selected killer however backs out of the act of throwing the grenade into the vehicle of the dictator as it passes him by. The reason is simple: there were a couple of little children in the vehicle with him!  The message is clear: in our rage to annihilate the atrocities of the past and the present we have no business to commit any violence on the future! How could we make ourselves do this now? What right do we have to inculcate devious values into the future minds? We need to resist. And resist we must. The media of the present that is run on super technology might dig up some excuse or other, but we need to remember our responsibilities. After all we have only one earth and we are the last of the species, apparently, because we can think like human beings. Our gazes are already attaining the level of the virtual. Let us not be made virtual as well!

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