The Buck Stops Here - The Seen to the Unseen

If we want to see what happens in slaughterhouses, how fast food becomes fast food, Michael Pollan argues in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we would demand better food for our tables. “If there is any new right we need to establish,” he suggests, “maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.”

That right, if it be a right, is both innocent and can never be innocent. Our look may record what a camera does, but what we see always establishes a relationship between ourselves and the world outside us. There are things we choose not to see, do not want to know, how cows become meat, what happens on the operating table, experiments on animals, even a loved one dying. There are things we want to see, are drawn to, even if we should not see them and may not want anyone to know we are looking. Voyeurism is always to some extent prurient. From the Bible, we know that if we look at a neighbor’s wife, as David does, bad things happen.

We may see things we should not see, and our knowledge of them may put us at risk, even if, at the same they make us complicit. What responsibility do we assume for what we see? In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart’s mild prurient interest in his neighbors in the apartment across the way makes him an unwilling witness to a crime. We know further that there are places we should not be in, in part, because we should not or do not want to see what is there.

We understand that others see us, often without our knowledge, and that may be either reassuring or threatening. To be seen is to be recognized. We are seen for who we are. To know that others see us – who, we may not always know – and not know what they see is to give them power over us. Today, it is part of the colonization of everyday life. In Michael Haneke’s film, Cache (available on dvd), a middle-class family is destroyed when surveillance tapes of their apartment (both from the outside and inside) and of the husband’s childhood reveal an incident from his childhood he has hidden.

To be able to look upon is power, a one-way street (the boss to his worker, the man to the woman, the white to the black). In Andrea Arnold’s film, Red Road, a woman whose job is to scan surveillance cameras placed in Glasgow neighborhoods and notify police of anything unusual sees a man who had run down her husband and child and begins to stalk him to avenge their deaths. Those without power can neither see nor acknowledge what they see. “Expression is [their] enemy,” T. J. Clark notes, “the mistake [they] concentrate on avoiding at all costs.” The worker never lets his boss know how he feels.

In England in 1937, a group which called itself Mass-Observation was formed – a successor, they trumpeted arrogantly, to Darwin, Marx and Freud – to give the ordinary man the power of his gaze back. They would study life as it was -- shouts and gestures of motorists, bathroom behavior, dirty jokes, female taboos about eating, beards, armpits, eyebrows – that would plot “weather-maps of feeling.” In taking up the role of observer, Mass-Observation argued, “each person becomes like Courbet at his easel, Cuvier with his cadaver, and Humboldt with his continent.” The facts unearthed would permit us to understand our lives and thus transform them.

More recently, the work of artist Nina Katchadourian in New York is an effort to undo the one-way gaze. Katchadourian has set up a telescope across the street from an office in Manhattan, its lens fixed on the 17th floor, which any passerby may stop and look through. The lawyer, whose office window is seen, chooses three objects from his office to place in the window at his whim – a potted plant, a photo of his son, a calculator, whatever. Katchadourian has mounted a pictorial key on the telescope that translates the lawyer’s messages from what he places in the window. Has it been a hard day? Did he accomplish a lot? Is he looking forward to the weekend? In this way, the lawyer talks to the viewer, the object to the voyeur, the seen to the unseen. Contact is made.
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Volume 2, Issue 25, Posted 6:06 PM, 11.29.06