Seeing Seeing, pt 2

Look in the mirror. Stare into your own eyes. What do you see? It's not just your eyes. You see your eyes seeing you. And, what's stranger, you see your eyes seeing your seeing of you.

Eyes, then, are not solely things that see but are things that are seen. Eyes are at once camera and screen. They are always consuming, taking up the world. But, at the same time, they are always playing the world back.

This feedback loop may not be continuous. The eye that sees may be the eye that plays back what it sees. But this play back is always, and necessarily, modulated by the complex algorithm of the body's life—its memories, its associations, its diverse trajectories. Of course, there may be times that this circuit is more or less immediate: seeing a horrific event may yield horrific eyes.

Now turn away from the mirror and look into the eyes of the person next to you. You don't just see his eyes. You see his eyes seeing you. And, what's stranger, you see his eyes seeing you seeing his eyes. This is no doubt what makes eye contact so potent, so powerful, a most provocative gesture, inciting lust, violence, desire, confusion. I see you crying; I'm thinking about a joke a friend once made; my eyes smile; you think I'm callous; and so on.

Seeing another inaugurates an infinite circuit: no resolve, no center, no certainty, an endless mutual inflection. The only way out is to turn away or cement one's own gaze, hold it so steady that the circuit is able to find a local anchor.

But things are more complicated. Not only do you see another person seeing your seeing of you. You see his seeing of everything he's ever seen and experienced—birth, his parents, squirrels, films, books. When I see you, I don't just see you seeing me seeing you. I see your seeing of everything that you've seen, including the shared space we're in. And I see your seeing of me seeing all the things around us and all the things I've ever seen. When someone in a long airport line looks at me conspiratorially, as if we see the same indignity, I try to make my eyes say: "I don't see what you see, I don't see in the same way you see. Go see for yourself."

To see another person is to see an entire playback—a film in which this other person's face and body are the screen—of a life: it is to see an inflected node within an enormous network, an elaborate economy, of images. To see another person is to see a moving interpretation of this life; to see another person is to see a film, a seeing and playback of the world. This means that I am a film(ing)—a recording screen—interacting with other film(ing)s, both of us recording and playing back each other according to our respective algorithms.

Now look at a painting, a portrait. The portrait looks back at you. You see the person in the picture seeing you but probably not your seeing of her—but this depends on the portrait. It is quite uncanny to look at a face in painting and find it seeing you seeing it. In any case, you do see a seeing of what you're seeing; that is, you see the seeing of the painter, a seeing that is a touching of paint to canvas, a haptic impression. Each painting, whether figural or abstract, declares, "This is a way to see the world; this is a seeing; come see how I see." This is why I will never tire of Van Gogh's "Starry Sky" or his sunflowers: they are always a seeing that is alien, strange, and thoroughly enjoyable, funny, surprising, intense.

When I see a painting I see the painting. And I see what's in the painting. And I see a seeing of what's in the painting. And my seeing becomes something that is seen, that can be seen. My seeing is enfolded into the fabric of the visual, even if only for the film that I am: it is inscribed on, in, and for me. My seeing of this seeing makes an impression on the general fabric of visual, even if that impression is only stamped on the fabric that is my film. I am, after all, a screen.

Seeing, then, is not outside of the film, outside of the playback. The act of seeing the world is part of the film, is seen. We see seeing. And we are seen seeing seeing.


Ryland Walker Knight said...


Anonymous said...

Maybe this is why the women on the Floretine portraits in the 15th century were portrayed in profile: that made them more of an object since they could not return the look and men at the time did not like women gazing back at them (eg Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). Leonardo's women (a century later) look at us directly.


Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes, yes: that's John Berger's argument, more or less, in Ways of Seeing, isn't it?

But I wonder if being seen necessarily entails the eyes. That is, if I look eye to eye with a portrait, does that necessarily mean that the woman represented is not an object? And, just because she's turned away, does that mean that she is necessarily an object?

I wonder if there is a looking back that happens through posture and gait, through mood and affect.

Anonymous said...

As you read this, you do not really see the pixels, the screen, your hands, and the surroundings, but an internal and three-dimensional image that reproduces them almost exactly and that is constructed by your brain. The photons emitted by your screen strike the retinas of your eyes, which transform them into electrochemical information; the optic nerves relay this information to the visual cortex at the back of the head, where a cascade-like network of nerve cells separates the input into categories (form, color, movement, depth, etc.). How the brain goes about reuniting these sets of categorized information into a coherent image is still a mystery. This also means that the neurological basis of consciousness is unknown. – J. Narby

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