The living tie of belonging connects us to concrete reality (i.e., to the world, to the community, to ecosystems, to the elements, etc.) where the senses play a crucial role. This fact raises the question of whether we have the power to orient our senses, and our gaze in particular, toward belonging. The question arises because it is the encounter that creates community, isn't it? And isn't it gaze that creates or allows encounters to take place? Is there a way of seeing, then, that favours or encourages encounters and true feelings of belonging? Is it possible, moreover, to learn how to look, how to see, in such a fashion?
In order to respond to this kind of question, we have to raise another. Is the way our senses function purely a biological phenomenon? Or is it a biological phenomenon marked by culture and history? If our eyes function, for all intents and purposes, as they did for our ancestors of old, does it then follow that our ways of seeing are the same as well?
No, says Ivan Ilich, in a fascinating exploration of the history of "scopic regimes" a term of art roughly equivalent to "ways of seeing." The evolution of our scopic regimes sheds significant light on our relationship with reality. Ilich distinguishes four regimes that move toward diminishing the importance of the "subject" and increasing the importance of the "image." Here we will limit ourselves to looking only at the beginning and the end: the classical regime and the regime of the "show."
Within the framework of the classical regime, which characterized the way of seeing during the epoch stretching from ancient times until the Middle Ages, seeing was related to touching. One could compare seeing to using an arm that could be extended and retracted, an arm that could touch the object in view and bring its image back to the eye.
One variation of this interpretation suggests that the one who is looking or seeing emits a visual beam in the direction of an object, of a person, of a face. "The gaze radiates from the pupil to embrace an object, to fuse with it, so that the eye is dyed the object's colors.'' Eros is at the heart of this movement; some authors even describe the pupil as erectile. Euclid spoke of it as an impulse in the form of a cone whose point must meet the object of its gaze. We should remember that, thus experienced and conceived, seeing is an act that has real effects: a look can assassinate in the most concrete sense of that word. It might also be so loving as to give to the person who is its object the feeling of being recreated by it. Ilich avows that it is difficult for students of medieval sciences to understand this: "Freud has made it difficult for them to grasp how Sister Diana of Verona
could embrace Friar Jordan of Saxony, doing so with chaste glances"1 Let us also remember that we are the masters of our gaze, just as we are masters of the movements of our arms, and that we must educate our gaze, our looking and seeing, teach it to operate in service to others and in search of this beauty which awakens love and attachment.
"It has become difficult," Illich continues, "to evoke this mastery of gaze, or to understand educated gaze as a virtue: modern man has difficulty grasping that there can be a good and a bad use of the eyes."2 This is true especially of those students "who think they have a skull fitted with a binocular camcorder, and who are unable to conceive of training their gaze except in terms of improving the technique of their rhythm of digital digestion." 3
Many people have come to understand that we become what we eat, and they have, consequently, given up junk food. It seems more difficult to understand that we become what we look at, and that we have to give up looking at "junk sights" as well.
We are not entirely responsible for this situation. We have been born into an optical regime, that of the "show", in which looking and seeing have been reduced to scanning. Unlike what was true of our ancient ancestors, our gaze passively receives light and images; its passivity is such that it lets itself be violated without realizing that this has happened. Our gaze is as indifferent to that which it looks at as it is to the way vision functions - i.e., "how" it is that we look at or see something. It can, however, appreciate the technical perfection of the tools available to extend its power.
Ilich doesn't hesitate to associate classical gaze with civilization, and thus one can guess at the fears that this new "scopic regime" inspires in him. He does nevertheless conclude that all kinds of scopic regimes - that is, ways of seeing - remain possible. Nothing demands that we renounce the education of our gaze; on the contrary, everything invites us to undertake it with determination: "Just as the ancient science of optics, by warning us of traps on which our gaze might fall, envisioned the possibility of virtuous gaze, it seems to me that modern optics should do as much - make us see what is going on when we routinely rub shoulders with the seductive non-entities that virtual reality multiplies endlessly around us, and help us to see how that influences our connections with others."4
Evoking the image of contemplation of an icon, in terms of a scopic regime similar to that of ancient times, he articulates his thinking this way: "The icon was considered a threshold to a superior reality to which only faith could lead. Virtual space requires that we look into an inhabitable "non-place." The icon, I would say, enhances my ability to see the misery of a slum or to be present when I am travelling on a bus or walking the streets of New York; my vision is illuminated by a light that comes from beyond, and I am able to cast that light upon those with whom I come into contact. On the contrary, the practice of operating in virtual domains propels me to see in others what is virtual and disembodied. They become, so to speak, no more than coat hangers on which I drape the abstract "programming" that I bring to these encounters."5
An educated gaze by Pierre Ronsard
The other day you saw me, as you passed by,
While I was above you on the stair: you turned
Your gaze, dazzled my eyes, my soul so burned
At finding myself the focus of your eyes.
Your glance entered my heart and blood, just like
A flash of lightning through the clouds. I burned
Hot and cold, in a lasting fever, well-earned
By the mortal wound of your glance’s piercing flight.
If your fair hand had not made a sign to me then,
White hand that makes you a daughter of the swan,
I’d have died, Helen, of the rays from your eyes:
But that gesture towards me saved a soul in pain:
Your eye was pleased to carry away the prize,
Yet your hand rejoiced to grant me life again.
1. Ivan Illich. La perte des sens, Fayard. Paris 2004, Surveiller le regard à l'heure , (Conférence inaugurale de la grande rencontre internationale d'Interface, Hamburg, January 19, 1993, p. 205.
2. Ibid., p. 168.
3. Ivan Illich and David Caylcy, « La corruptiion meilleur engendre le pire », Actes Sud 2007, p. 156.
4. Ibid, p. 168.
5. Ibid, p. 168.
6. Sonnets Pour Helene Book I: IX