boundary 2 28.1 (2001) 75-90
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Regarding the Gaze
It happens that certain remarks strike us but do not fully reach our understanding, remaining in the shadows of what we grasp. They can return in unexpected moments and in surprising ways, long after they have thus seeped through the defenses of what we already know. On the occasion of viewing La Jetée, some such thoughts gathered, accidentally at first, around something that could perhaps be called a film. They were recalled and opened a meaningful environment in which I could move about more or less freely.
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These are scattered remarks having to do with the gaze:
If the distinctive feature of the images that rise from the memoire involontaire is seen in their aura, then photography is decisively implicated [End Page 75] in the phenomenon of the “decline of the aura.” What was inevitably felt to be inhuman, one might say even deadly, in daguerreotypy was the (prolonged) looking into the camera, since the camera records our likeness without returning our gaze.1
What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside. It is through the gaze that I enter light and it is from the gaze that I receive its effects. Hence it comes about that the gaze is the instrument through which light is embodied and through which . . . I am photo-graphed.2
That film gazes at us (or glares or glances) aligns it with the great arts, though its specific way of animating the world—unlike poetry’s, or painting’s or theater’s—is unprecedented, still being absorbed, worked through. We will doubtless think of animation as something that must be brought to works of art, say in terms of the powers of each of the arts to produce psychological transference, or as Emerson puts it, to return our thoughts to us with a certain alienated majesty.3
Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.4
Thus do the gods justify the life of man: they themselves live it—the only satisfactory theodicy! Existence under the bright sunshine of such gods is regarded as desirable in itself.5 [End Page 76]
I was puzzled. How can something like a film collect all of these thoughts and gather them meaningfully? Or is this precisely the power of the work of art, to return to us these rejected thoughts. And in relation to this, too, I would like to say something regarding the gaze.
* * *
Whose gaze? We are used to saying that we behold works of art, that they are the object of our contemplation. In other contexts, we have learned to say that our vision is directed by the work. These can be problematic or critical contexts, where it is said that the work of art answers hidden fantasies, structures a certain gaze, or even constitutes the subjectivity viewing it. But is it possible to attribute to the work of art the power to raise its eyes when I look at it? To attribute a gaze to the work of art is a projection or fiction, some would say, romantic or primitive animism, according to others, but all the same: Is it possible to say that my ability to see depends on the work of art returning a gaze, or looking back at me? Or alternatively, does my opening to meanings in the work of art assume the gaze that answers my attention and enables it as ecstatic vision? This splitting of the gaze—I see when I am an object of the gaze—is the issue to which I would like to turn in relation to La Jetée.
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I take my lead from a moment in La Jetée—the moment in which the woman opens her eyes and looks. She—an unknown woman, maybe a figment of the man’s imagination, maybe the experimenters have created her image in him, maybe she is a dream or a faint memory. But he desires that she...