The Face Stares Back
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 5
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology, culture, and the moral life. In the brief preamble to the previous post I said that I would likely not be writing about attention again any time soon. I should’ve known better. Sorry. Consider this a postscript on the last installment, and I will at least keep this one relatively brief. The title of this installment, by the way, alludes to a stimulating book about vision titled The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing by art historian James Elkins. Lastly, I’ll post an audio version of this essay, accompanied by a few links and resources, in a few days.
After writing about how the attention of a machine bears down on us in the last installment, there were some residual considerations I thought worth discussing. Mostly, they have to do with how we bear the attention of another person, but we’ll gradually work our way there.
I noted previously that the attention of a machine bearing down on us generates an experience of the uncanny gaze. Borrowing Clive Thompson’s framing of the eeriness of captcha images being a function of how they force us to see the world through a non-human perspective, I suggested that being subjected to a non-human gaze generates an analogous uneasiness. Robin Berjon responded with an insightful thread in which he observed that “the specific flavour of despair we feel at being observed by a computer is fatalism. With thin mediation (eg. binoculars) there is or will be a human to argue with. With thick mediation, the categorisation has been set in motion and there is nothing we can do.”
I think this gets at a critical aspect of attention, which is often ignored: judgment. Although, maybe it’s not quite right to say that judgment is an aspect of attention. It might be better to say that it often works in tandem with attention.
Consider what is involved when we give our attention to some object. There is the act of noticing, which forms the initial bond between the object and the mind of the observer, and this initial act of noticing can unfold in countless ways. But giving our attention to something also suggests some measure of duration. I may notice something without going on to attend to it properly. When notice is extended in time, we might then say that we have begun to pay attention. But why exactly do we extend our notice? It seems to me that this is where perception and judgment come in.
It may be that sustaining our notice over time proves effortful or even arduous, although in certain cases we will find that our attention is captivated and it requires an effort of the will to turn away and break the spell. But do we think of it as attention only in the former case? We might be predisposed to think of attention as a laborious effort of the will. But I don’t think this is quite right. Our attention can, for example, be solicited by what is beautiful or compelling in such a way that we will find it a pleasure to give and sorrow to withdraw. As Simone Weil has put it, “Attention is bound up with desire. Not with the will but with desire.” But this also suggests that attention is mingled with both perception and judgment. We perceive an object to be desirable or we judge it to be so.
Conventionally, we think of attention as an act of focusing or concentrating our perceptive powers. This is half right, I think. In arguing that attention is not an act of the will, Weil also defined attention as the work of clearing our mind so that we might be better positioned to receive the truth. In either case, though, perception comes into the picture. This may seem obvious, but it becomes of interest when we remember that human perception is not merely the work of registering sense impressions as if our vision, for example, were analogous to a camera snapping pictures of the world before our eyes. Perception is interpretative. It is, in the case of vision, not just seeing but seeing-as. As James Elkins has put it, “Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.”
Although he is at odds with Weil with regards to the will and attention, Owen Barfield has eloquently described what is involved in our perceiving the world:
“I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being. Thus, I may say, loosely, that I ‘hear a thrush singing’. But in strict truth all that I ever merely ‘hear’ — all that I ever hear simply by virtue of having ears — is sound. When I ‘hear a thrush singing’, I am hearing, not with my ears alone, but with all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will. Of a man who merely heard in the first sense, it could meaningfully be said that ‘having ears’ (i. e. not being deaf) ‘he heard not’.”
So attention and perception are mingled because whether or not I move from mere notice to attending depends in part upon what I have perceived and what I have perceived, as Barfield explained, depends on nothing less than who I am. Attention and perception are also mingled to the degree that my ability to perceive the full depth of a given object depends on my capacity to patiently and deliberately attend to it. It may depend as well, since perception can be trained, on how I have cultivated the skill to see or hear or taste, etc.
I’ll note in passing without elaboration that this is why one of the most important consequences of any technology is how it mediates our perception of the world and ourselves. Likewise, that when we talk about machines seeing the world, we do so analogously to human beings in a way that is in danger of missing the fullness of what the human mode of perception entails, with its embodied, mental, cultural and even moral dimensions. The even greater risk is that we reverse the direction of the metaphor and reduce human perception to what we understand a machine to be doing.
Something similar unfolds with attention and judgment. Attention and judgment are woven together. As I give my attention to something, I am often also formulating a judgment about whatever it is I am considering. As with perception, attention and judgment reinforce one another. In theory, I am more likely to give my attention to what I judge to be worthy of my attention, although in practice, of course, I too readily squander my attention on what cannot repay it. It is also true that I will attend more carefully, or perhaps it’s best to say I ought to attend more carefully to that which demands my judgment or in cases where I have a responsibility to judge. Finally, my attending with care will likely shape the quality of my judgments because very often the nature of a given reality will only disclose itself through the labor of sustained attention.
When we consider how attention is ordinarily intermingled with both perception and judgment, it’s easier to understand why the gaze of the machine may become unsettling. In the case of applications designed to take our measure, to assess our creditworthiness, say, or our fit with a prospective employer or how well we are performing, we are not merely being noticed or monitored, we are being judged. And, as Berjon noted, with little or no recourse against unfair or unjust determinations. In his thread, Berjon elaborated on the contrast between the inferences we may draw as fellow human beings and those drawn by a machine:
When we curate how we present, we know that others can draw further inferences. But there are rules to that: it’s limited by human cognition, you can often appeal a mischaracterisation by talking to the person, you know how to course-correct ... That's informal governance.
A computer inference however may draw upon massive data and complex correlations, you can’t argue with the machine, and you can’t see how to change. You have no say and governance is replaced with management […]
I have in the preceding paragraphs referred a time or two to the “object” of attention, and I’ve done so in part because when writing about attention I feel the need to vary the phrasing so that I’m not constantly repeating the same expressions. But this particular expression, “object of attention,” is worth examining. I hesitate to use the phrase because persons are among the potential realities upon which our attention may fix, and a person is not an object. But does our language betray us? Do we, in fact, render people objects when we fix our attention upon them? This is, at least, a possibility, and, under certain conditions, altogether likely.
But to the machine we can only be an object of analysis. We cannot appear as a living subject to the algorithm; we are merely an assemblage of data and probabilities subject to the calculations of instrumental rationality in the service of ends which have little to do with us. Critically, in my view, it cannot account for the logic of the narrative, which has framed how humans judge one another since times immemorial. It is the story that makes sense our actions and our motives; indeed, they are meaningful only in the context of a narrative. And it is only the logic of the narrative that can sustain the possibility of forgiveness or mercy.
I am reminded of Simone Weil’s brilliant analysis of the Iliad in which she argued that force is the “true subject” of the ancient poem. Force, Weil writes, “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” Force, she adds later, is “the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive.”
The machine may not make a corpse out of us, although that is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Autonomous weapons systems, for example, promise to do just that. But the machine, when it outsources human judgment, renders us an object and can thus be understood as an instrument of force or power, or, better, as an instrument whose ostensible neutrality serves to veil the operations of force or power in human relations.
When the gaze of the machine bears down on us in judgment, we cannot look back. And perhaps it is in the looking back that attention can resist the temptation to objectify the person upon which it fixes. If we are tempted to make an object of the other, their gaze meeting ours can reassert their personhood and their integrity as subjects. There is a reason why averted eyes have been insisted upon as a sign of deference by those who would treat others as little more than objects or property.
While reading Robert Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, I was struck by the following testimony to the intensity of Weil’s gaze:
“Through her glasses, she looked at you (when she did look) … with an intensity and, also, a kind of inquisitive greediness that I have never experienced with others.” Her gaze, Tortel confessed, “was nearly insupportable. In her presence, lies were quite simply excluded.”
Weil was a rare human being, and I doubt that most of us will ever encounter anyone quite like her. But I suspect it does not take the gaze of a mystic to unsettle us. In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy perceptively described this common experience:
Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking in the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone's finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?
But what is perilous can also be good. The face of the other, attended to with care, resists objectification. It asserts the parity of the other.
We desire to know and be known. I might even argue that, understood rightly, we also desire to be judged, which is to say that we desire to be valued and affirmed. But such knowing and being known entails risk and vulnerability. To the degree that we desire to know without being known, to judge without being judged, which is to say without assuming the attendant risks ourselves, we will be tempted to make an object of the other. We will seek to gaze upon them without tolerating their gaze upon us. Or, conversely, we will court their gaze without any intention of returning it. 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.
I had the pleasure recently of chatting with Christopher Hobson for his podcast, Imperfect Notes on an Imperfect World. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, which ranged for and wide.
On sadder note, I wanted to mention the passing of Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican scholar and activist who was also a friend of Ivan Illich’s. In 2020, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gustavo about his own work and his relationship with Illich. You can listen to that interview here. Gustavo was generous with his time and encouragement, and I was honored to have known him even if only for too brief a time.
Finally, about a month ago, I queried paid subscribers about whether there might be some ways to make the Convivial Society a bit more social, but in a way that was in keeping the existing ethos the newsletter. The response was encouraging, and I’ve thought about some possibilities that might work given my own limitations. I’ll be trying out some options in the coming weeks. Stay tuned. The writing, of course, will always be public.