" To meet the gaze of another is to recognize in the other not an object to be used but a subject to be respected and treated with dignity." So important today!

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Don’t know how this connects but I thought about it as I was reading about your ideas on objects of the gaze. https://youtu.be/DMUC584ppNQ

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Apr 3, 2022·edited Apr 3, 2022

Great to see you bring up "The Object Stares Back". I've never read another by Elkins, but you're reminding me that I should. So much comes to mind. Years ago, I workshopped a somewhat related essay which focused a bit more on the privacy angle. I never managed to get it where I wanted it because coherently integrating everything that seemed relevant became overwhelming, so I always find the practiced clarity and care of your writing impressive. 

I think I've mentioned it before here, but one of the most salient realizations of my middle-age has been how much power my environment and routine have over my mental life, and that I am not (and no matter how hard I try, cannot be) an indelible, insusceptible person at the center who decides himself into existence. But this epiphany is impossible to hold onto. Anything that's incredibly obvious and repetitive has a way of becoming deeply subtle in its influence, which I suppose is due largely to the constant loss of a basis for comparison. I think my ineradicable conceit of control is the same one behind the dismissals you mentioned in you last edition–that because we've become bored with or inured to once-fretted-over technologies like writing, printed books, and television, worries over the internet or smart phones are cliché and unfounded. The implication seems to be that anything we can become bored with or inured to is necessarily harmless or unworthy of critical attention. I think there are a lot socio-economic incentives and individual defense mechanisms that make that an attractive conclusion. For my part, if I accept that my tools and environment shape me, and also that banality is the destiny of every ubiquitous invention, then any hope of self-knowledge and self-control is dependent upon interrogating them in order to make the normal strange enough to notice again.

Your point about our bias for judgment bears consideration. I think somewhere Elkins mentions that our eyes function by constantly sweeping rather than staring. Neither attention nor basic biology is capable of remaining fixed, and so, while they may be noticed and revisited, judgements are compulsory for understanding and action. Goffman’s work makes this very clear at the social level. I recently read an interesting little book called “The Forgetting Machine” by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga that went into the biology of this as it relates to perception. The basic thrust was that perception builds understanding from its most fundamental level, and this compounded, mutable understanding is what memory involves and consists in rather than some kind of sense-data access. Another case of metaphor creep.

One last thing: you previously mentioned Alan Jacobs’s claim that it’s our addiction to each other that our smart phones channel, but I think it goes further than that. Smart phones serve so many purposes and compulsions at this point that I’d rather say they’re about putting discrete, controllable interfaces over ourselves and our environments, something AR/VR aim to extend. Among many other purposes, they provide a sense of being able to shut off the gaze and judgements of others as often as not, wouldn’t you say?

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This was packed with helpful thoughts for me, Michael, in two distinct but different endeavors. One, I'm a singing teacher and when I hold studio classes for my students, where they sing for each other works in progress, I seek to teach students both as singers and as peer audience members about the power of their actions in terms of attention. This rich kind of attention, that produces freedom from fear of judgment on the part of the singer (because they are intentionally bringing into being something larger than just themselves by their approach to sharing a particular piece of repertoire, something which exists in real time and cannot be reduced) and a richer kind of attention on the part of the audience as they learn to enter into these wonderful ephemeral worlds presented by their peers in this moment. It's a kind of play, and we have to enter into it together, which makes it thoroughly convivial, at least potentially.

The other endeavor is teaching people to read the Bible. I'm preparing a class on Parables to teach this summer for my parish's adult education offerings, and Jesus' use of the way in which attention and perception are mixed to hide truth from some and reveal it to others. (There is some wonderful cross-pollination between those two worlds that will at some point turn into a book I think.)

Anyway, your thoughts are so helpful many times, especially these last two posts! What I find with students especially is that they feel trapped, like they are cogs in a machine, but they don't know how to get out. These are really helpful observations that will help me give them more tools to protect themselves from the gaze of the machine.

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