One of the major criticisms of Laura Mulvey’s work in spectatorship and the gaze was her insistence on the passivity of the spectator, who she characterized as under the thrall of the image. I don’t want to fully counter Mulvey’s argument regarding the power of the image to create subject-positions and agency via an ideal-ego portrayed on the screen. But her idea of spectatorship tends to foreclose on the ability of a person to “gaze back” (as in “talking back”) at disabling, stereotypical representations of identity. What would it mean to gaze back at an image and resist its signification? Is the oppositional gaze even possible? bell hooks seems to think so and makes an excellent case in “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” However much I would like to buy into hooks’ argument lock, stock, and two smoking barrels, I can’t. Wo/men are more than “duped” by mass-media (and other Institutional State Apparatuses), they are inculcated.
If we accept the fact that we are born into a symbolic destiny that is instituted to a great extent via the mirror stage (see my post on Lacan), then we can see just how difficult it is to reconfigure the systems of knowledge and power that value certain identities and signs and devalue others. On the other hand, hooks has a point – resistance is not futile, but can reshape sign systems incrementally until one day, a signifier that once damaged and devalued certain identities now enables and empowers. The word “queer” is a good example, and I can see a similar change happening to the word “minority” – a term that will one day be put to rest. Holy crow, that word is such a signifier of devaluation. It’s a word that slides off those designated as “white” and sticks to those designated as “non-white.” Of course, the word is usually instituted via the gaze – those who have the privilege to gaze at others can also engage this word.
I remember being at a conference in Los Angeles about five years ago and attending a cocktail party where academics of both sexes were actually looking around the room and noting how few “minorities” were present (I am not going to designate these academics as white – if I do, I’ll just be perpetrating the same discourses they did). “What a shame,” said the woman next to me, “that more ethnic minorities can’t participate in these events. They just don’t have the funding.” I admit that I was rendered speechless: it’s true, actually, there are not a lot of non-whites in grad programs. The reason, in part, has to do with the way class systems are racially organized in North America, among other problems. For the purposes of this post, the main point is that this woman, and others like her, were “packing” a metaphorical gun – the scope was up and they were scanning for markers of racial difference from a perceived norm. Once located, these academics would fire “the gaze” that would enable them to catalogue someone as a “minority.” The power of this process and the fear of it was made apparent to me the next day when I was talking about the party with an attendee. The guy whispered to me, “I am mixed race, but I am afraid to tell this lot because they will hone in on me and never leave me alone.” So he “passed” as part of the privileged “majority” so he wouldn’t have to bear the weight of the gaze through which he would signify as “minority.” I don’t hear this word quite as much at conferences, and I am hoping this shift is a good thing.
Here is a little experiment you can try out, if you feel brave. Stare at someone with authority in an Institutional State Apparatus (ISA). How long can you gaze at this person before s/he challenges you either by gazing back with power (articulated via raised eyebrows or other signs of displeasure) or this person might actually ask you what you want or ask you to stop. How did you feel? Could you do it? Were you intimidated? I bet you were! And that’s the power of the gaze to designate subject positions.….by the way, I wouldn’t try this experiment with a member of a Repressive State Apparatus – you could actually get into trouble.