Dr. Dawg

Muslim immigrants and the scopophilic gaze

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Brother Balbulican did a fine job in the last post of exposing the provoked incidents, confirmation bias and bigotry practised by the Usual Suspects. But I’d like to add a couple of grace notes if I might, based upon my interest in anthropology.

Scopophilia means “the love of watching.” (Note: not seeing, but watching.) With a camera or videocam one transforms everything into durable objects: think of the tourist, visiting places for the first time, but mediating everything that he or she sees through a lens, real or imaginary. “How picturesque,” said a friend, staring out over the gorgeous valley of Glencoe.

When people are subjected to a fixed gaze by strangers, they too become objects. The result is inevitably discomfort, and that response is pretty well transcultural. No one likes to be stared at, and the use of a camera is several steps beyond mere staring. Without securing the consent of the subject, there are obvious elements of aggression and theft involved in the act of recording.

The literature on tourism contains much about this objectifying effect (beginning with John Urry’s foundational 1990 work, The Tourist Gaze : Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies), although the locals, too, may retain their own power, returning the gaze (e.g., S.M. Cheong and M. Miller, “Power and Tourism: A Foucauldian Observation.” Annals of Tourism Research 27(2):371-390). One cannot separate the effect of the gaze, however, from the power on the basis of which it is imposed, as well as the power that the gaze itself confers.

Michel Foucault gave wide currency to the notion of the gaze. The official gaze in its various manifestations (e.g., governmental, medical, etc.) defines and objectifies those gazed upon; moreover, the latter, aware that they are or might be under surveillance, adjust their behaviours to conform to what is expected of them. Surveillance, in other words, has a disciplinary function.

But there is more to it. Foucault did not acknowledge the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre on his own notion of the gaze. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre examines extensively what we might call the private gaze as opposed to the organized, disciplinary one, and how we are objectified by it.

[F]rom the moment that the Other appears to me as an object, his subjectivity becomes a simple property of the object considered. It is degraded and is defined as “an ensemble of objective properties….”

We are, in the final analysis, all Others to each other, but as noted we cannot ignore the dimension of power in our mutual gazes. My chance look at you has a different effect, for example, than the stare of a police officer a few feet away. A glance between women friends differs from the long unwanted look each might receive from a male stranger in a restaurant. The evident sense of entitlement of such gazers marks the difference. Check out David Menzies’ own justification here.

The Muslims being photographed are already marked: they are perfectly aware of their minority status in their new country. In this public place they survey the crowds around them; they sit at a table having refreshments; but they are clearly Others to many in those crowds, including Menzies. And far worse, his privileged, obtrusive gaze makes them Others to themselves.

None of us, exhibitionists excepted, wants to be turned into an object for the scopophilic pleasure of another. The Muslims under Menzies’ lens reacted, as indeed might you or I. But their evident desperation, partially captured in Menzies’ photographs, is also born of a recognition that their relative lack of power and privilege in our society has once again been confirmed.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on August 8, 2011 1:33 PM.

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