Learning to Be Seen

 This is a fun exercise. Go through actors you know — like, dislike, don't care — and ask how they stand towards the camera, whether they let themselves be seen. Consider the ever dreamy George Clooney, who will never been seen; Mike White, who is somehow always seen; and Harvey Keitel who invites the gaze and then lets himself be seen.

So, yes, we live in the age of the always on camera. We lead public lives. And, yes, this makes for some anxiety amongst young and old alike. We elders cringe as we fear the camera; the kids cringe as they read comments and likes.

But there is nothing inherently good or bad about this inside out world. As with everything, there are some good things, there are some bad things, there are a lot of neutral things.  It all depends on the individual, on how he or she goes, what he or she wants.

What's most important is not how we slow down or speed up this involution. It's how we stand towards it, how we invent new postures of living, new ways of being in the world.

As Marshall McLuhan says, problems arise when we use old technologies to make sense of new environments — we use the horse and buggy to understand the railroad, the book to understand the video game.  Of course to a 65 year old literature professor, video games look like the devil, tempting kids not to read. But to the gamers, video games are a new kind of text that have non-linear narratives and move more than eyeballs. 

It seems to me, then, that in a world of an always on camera, rather than turn away, we need to learn how to be seen.  And, perhaps, know when — and how — to hide.

Here is something I wrote a while back about Marc Lafia's great film, The Revolution of Everyday Life

"The distinction the film draws is not between public and private but between demanding to be seen and allowing oneself to be seen. On the one hand, there’s Tjasa who imagines herself a radical fomenting change through situationist performances. Tjasa demands to be seen, screeching into the camera just as she screeches at others, to no one and everyone. Meanwhile, Lizzie, her lover, avoids the spotlight but finds a much more intimate relationship with the camera and with being seen. In a gesture of infinite generosity, she allows herself to be seen.

...In these two modes we get postures of standing towards perception, postures of being seen. We get an ethics (mercifully bereft of judgment)."

Revolution of Everyday Life from marc lafia on Vimeo.

How does one learn to be seen? What kinds of demands does this make on our personhood? What, precisely, is it asking of us?

I, for one, go cold in front of a camera.  I am a narcissist and feel my best when holding forth in front of a large group. But stick me in front of a camera and I get nervous, awkward, tongue tied.  How do I change this?  Practice, sure, but I'm talking about more than that. I'm talking about how I would have to change my self-perception, my literal and metaphoric posture. 

My instinct says it demands greater self-confidence and that age-old mode of wisdom: resignation.  That is, just giving in, letting go, surrendering all of body and mind and whatever else we are to circumstance, to the gaze. I think in resignation there is a kind of indifference — by succumbing all the way, we move past caring, past posing. 

But I know of resignation through Kierkegaard — and what the fuck does he know about life in the Spectacle? (If I were one of the kids, I put some sort of emoticon denoting I'm half serious, half not.)

Part of me thinks we have to move past the true/false dichotomy, past what we consider our true selves and our false selves, into a perpetually grey area where dissimulation is the norm (and hence, perhaps, simulation?).

Or is it the opposite and we need to affirm a line between that me and this me? 

I think of the famous story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man (I've heard other attributions but this one works well). Hoffman shows up on the set looking a wreck— he'd been doing god knows what for days in preparation for a scene in which he's tortured and then runs away. Olivier looks at him and says, "Dustin, chap, you look absolutely terrible." And Hoffman replies, "I've been preparing for the scene, getting into character." To which Olivier replies, "Well, why don't you just try acting?"

Which posture, I ask you, is the posture the always on camera demands? What new postures do we need to invent? How do we learn to be seen?  And what is exposed in that gaze? What do we reveal and what do we hold back? When do we act and when do we "be"? Or is that the wrong question?


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know that I've still been reading these even though I haven't had a change to comment thoughtfully (tons of papers due for school right now).

I think that some people today (myself included) as you mentioned in a previous post tend to see themselves through the eyes of others', at least as far as their self-image or opinion of themselves goes...in other words, seeking approval from outside sources rather than building up a "this is me, this is what I made, and I think it's pretty great, but if you don't, that's fine, and I'm not going to let it bother me" sort of outlook. So in that case I think there's a distinction between being seen when you know (or think you know) the photographer and when one is just "out in public" among strangers. I suppose there's something, too, where I feel much more comfortable being seen by "one" camera at a time — so in talking one on one with someone, I feel less timid to open myself up than if I am in a group of people or giving a review session where there are lots of people, all of whom are intermittently seeing me (and, perhaps I don't know when they are seeing me, if I am focused on just one of them — so I find myself being more closed-off to that one person if I am in a group...conscious of the different angles that others might see me revealed, which dictates not only body language but also topics of conversation).

I guess on that last point, "seeing" moves beyond mere visual activity; perhaps that's part of the point in all of this new connectedness these days...seeing has moved beyond the visual.

As you mentioned, there's a strange sense in that after being seen for a while, and learning we cannot avoid it, it just becomes a part of us...we accept the inevitable and in that way some of the stress is relieved. So, in an odd kind of way, the only way to learn to be seen is to be seen so much such that it is no longer "special" or "unfamiliar."

But still, I don't think we ever stop caring entirely. Simply because when I'm in a bad mood, I'm much more aware of being seen; and I don't want to be seen — I lower my eyes, avert my gaze, take less-frequented paths (no, I really mean this) on campus to get to my classes. I don't think that becoming habituated to being an object of vision can ever make one "comfortable" with it entirely, because I think that our attitude toward being seen is very closely tied to our moods and just silly things about how our day is going — like whether I got a parking ticket, or the bank forgot to process my paycheck, or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I guess that poses a problem for authenticity: if moods are variable and our attitudes of being seen are tied in some primal way to moods — what is it to be seen "authentically?" Is it severing mood from the way we carry ourselves so that we're seen as bodies in absence of our moods and thoughts? I don't think so...it seems too general — though our bodies are all distinct in some minute way, it is our personalities that make up the majority of our "uniqueness" and thus that thing that people look for when they look at us.

So I'd say that there's both a mental and a physical posturing involved in being seen; and given the nature of the mental — at least my mind — that makes things more mysterious. I can't say that I control my thoughts; just how I act on them. This goes back to the "true/false dichotomy" that you mention and seems to demand that we stop "acting" — perhaps being seen means revealing or uncovering our selves, whether or not we're having a bad day.

Finally I think there's some sort of reciprocity between being seen and our feelings; sometimes being seen in a way I don't want to be seen can be validating: I see a look of empathy and know that my feelings are valid, that I am relating to someone by allowing myself to be seen in a certain way; the smiles we give to strangers or the seats on the bus that we give up to others seem to be another result of this seeing and allowing-to-be-seen. There's something about it, too, that involves discourse and conversation: often if we do not see someone else as related to us or "nice" or "pleasant," we might try to avoid them. Perhaps our goal toward presenting ourselves as objects of sight should be to avoid this putting-off expression and to express some sort of openness: an invitation to conversation.

I think it's only when one moves beyond sight that one connects with someone else; yet it is often based solely upon sight that we shut off any possibility of that connection. And it's a vicious cycle: past alienation leads to the present belief that "I am one whom others alienate," and to fit that mold, I unconsciously or consciously comport myself in a way to fulfill that identity — though it be a sad and lonely identity, often I think we grasp identities that seem present-at-hand for the sole reason that we'd rather be "something" and _know_ what that something is than to be grasping at some undifferentiated void for some semblance of our substantive selves.

This is very un-edited and all-over-the-place, so I apologize for that...didn't really have time to think through it or edit, so I'm typing as I think. Just wanted to let you know I am still reading the blog and really appreciate your entires and the thoughts that they bring up.