Vision really is a strange sense. (Sense! I love that we use the same word for the neutrality of perception as we use for the processing of data. There's a dissertation there — to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty paraphrasing Malraux, all perception is already stylized.) Often, we see vision as somehow removed from the fray of it all. After all, seeing seemingly happens at a remove: we are just seeing it, as if that somehow absents us from the event — as if seeing something is not an intimate, sensual experience. But everyone from Heisenberg to Merleau-Ponty to Bracha Ettinger — for that matter, anyone who's ever been moved looking at a person or mountain or work of art —knows otherwise.
Merleau-Ponty says to see something is to palpate it. I love that: to see is a form of touching. Touching we know is sensual; it is so explicit. Why? Because we can see the two things touching! It's a matter of proximity. But when we see something, there doesn't seem to be any touching at all. I'm here; you're there. You could be hundreds of feet away (a funny thing about aging: these days, if I'm to see you at all, that distance shrinks to the point where we might as well be touching). But, for Merleau-Ponty, seeing is touching! It erases distance. Or, better, overcomes it, eyes reaching with their extended grasp to take in the sun and moon and horizon and couple screwing in their window across the street.
And, of course, vice-versa: the sun and moon and horizon and couple screwing in their window across the street reach to us, come to us, entwine with us. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as the chiasmus in which seer and seen intertwine.
To see, then, is never a neutral act. There is no seeing that is not implicated, not involved, not constituent and constitutive of the event. To see is to touch another thing, is to entwine with another thing. And yet it is not that the two things — at least two, probably more; well, at least three or what Burroughs and Gysin call the Third Mind, the mind that exists between the two — anyway, it is not that the two things unify and become one. They inflect each other, nudge each other, caress each other, repel each other. It is a creative event in which multiple bodies co-create each other and the world.
This is not a radical claim. We all know it — whether it's in the form of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (or, perhaps, the observer affect) or pornography or just being aroused by seeing someone or something. We see and we affect and are affected in ways that are quite similar to touching and being touched.
The play of passive and active is always confused in all perception. After all, when you touch my face, is my face touching you? Sure, there are important legal differences. But ontologically speaking, when you touch my face, my face is not just the object that is touched; it, too, touches. With vision, this ambiguity is amplified. Am I seeing the cup? Where is my agency in this seeing? Is it something I do? Well, no, not really. The cup seems to just insinuate itself into my eyes, my body, my thinking, my being. To say "we see the world" suggests that seeing is active when, in fact, all there is is seeing, a co-poietic event in which all parties mingle.
This is not to say that there is no differentiation of power or intensity within the perceptive act. We draw clear boundaries — that may get blurred now and again — between active and passive touching. This is essential to our, or any, civility.
But we know it in seeing, as well. We all know — I would think women in particular are well aware — that there is an aggressive mode of seeing, a seeing that seeks to dominate the seen, subjugate the seen, molest the seen. This mode of what we might call the phallic gaze is not restricted to men looking at women (although that is no doubt its most common and egregious expression). We know it in the workplace from bosses who look without seeing, whose gaze dismisses us before we've even locked eyes.
And we all know the supreme oddity, discomfort, power, and eroticism that comes from making eye contact. Holy moly, it's an odd experience. Making sustained eye contact with a stranger — really, with everyone but with people we know, we don't usually see them as much as we act blindly through habit — but making eyes with a stranger initiates a downright delirious feedback loop that threatens and teases and entices and ravels and unravels our identities.
As I tried arguing, we don't see per se. There is no clear agency; seeing is always already a co-seeing with the seen. I don't see my own eye. Where my eye is, you are — or this screen, these scraps of paper, my cocktail glass. My eye is a no-place that is always already filled with the world (like a womb, perhaps —pace Ettinger). Seeing will always already have taken me outside myself, had me constituted by other things that are not in fact other things at all precisely because they constitute me and my eye — and my seeing, not to mention my very comportment in this world. Seeing is fundamentally in-between and turns all being into an in-between place of mutual becoming.
So when I make eye contact with a stranger — it's great that we call it eye contact — a strange event is initiated in which two non-I's are co-creating each other in an endless ever morphing loop. All identity is suspended in the swirling ether. This is what makes eye contact so dangerous, so alluring, so essential: it initiates an explicit, palpable event of co-mingling.
It's often terrifying when it happens on the train or the street — and nearly impossible to sustain. What are the terms of exchange with a stranger as you co-mingle, both of you swept beyond your meta-narrative of clothes and class, swept into a smear of a field, this slurring of identities? What do you express as you heed the expressions? Are you thrown back on yourself, to your known self, to a phallic come hither gaze? Do you enter that place of unspeakable vulnerability in which you don't know what you want or who you are? Eye contact is a volatile, indeterminate space.
What happens when you make eye contact with an animal? In Jaws, we hear of the dead black eyes of the shark. Why does it fill us with such fear and loathing? Because that blackness, that utterly alien mode, enters us, commingles with us.
Dogs have almost human eyes. We see, we experience, we touch their pathos. And yet they are distinctly not human. Making eyes with a dog is truly delirious. In some sense, it feels safer than with a human stranger as you have permission to look away from a dog's eyes. There is no judgment or shame implicit in our social contract with animals (although many claim there should be). On the other hand, making eyes with a dog can be the most challenging, a gaze that so thoroughly unravels our all-too-human selves and egos, our narratives of identity.
Of course, it's easy to lay a narrative over that canine gaze. It's easy to make it human. In a great episode of the HBO series, "High Maintenance," we see a dog seeing life and, in particular, seeing one woman. We see his love of her and we imagine it much as we might imagine our own love. But this dog's love is different and the episode does a nice job at the end of making this clear — there is a limit to a dog's sentimentality. Or, rather, a limit term between human and canine sentimentality. They are not the same. And yet, for those moments when we lock eyes, we do partake of each other in a way that is palpably powerful and transformative. We partake of the flux of all becoming and it's beautiful.