Read Otto Fenichel’s essay beginning on page 327of the course reader and Freud’s article on Fetishism on page 324-6

·      How has what you have read helped your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

·      Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

·      Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for some people’s need to avidly watch TV?

·      What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others?  (An example might be a city-dweller who collects landscape paintings to ‘replace’ real countryside.)

·      Why are people often so keen to display wedding photos or family portraits?

1. “If reading represents an act of incorporation, it explains the passion which so many pregenitally fixated persons have for reading in the water closet”

Otto Fenichel, The scoptophilic instinct and identification

Aaaah!  I thought as I read this; that explains my middle son’s obsession with staying in the loo for such a long time with a book, or an electronic game or even a box of Lego.  He needs to replace what he must, is in fact forced by nature, to lose.  For years he has held on to as much of himself as possible by only going to the ‘water closet’ every 4 or 5 days!  There are a whole host of possible reasons behind his apparent awkwardness, and perhaps through my writing for this course, some of those reasons will emerge.  In the meantime I should say that even though some of what I have read for this section strikes me, in light of changing culture and psychoanalysis’ development, as questionable, the notion of feeding oneself with visual fodder is not new to me, and something that I have thought about a lot in light of my own experiences.  In fact, I think in terms of ‘nourishing’ the self through a variety of human behaviour, or else gorging and making the self quite unwell through over consumption or consumption of the wrong stuff.

Fenichel ends the first section by summing up; “In the unconscious, to look at an object may mean various things, the most noteworthy of which are as follows; to devour the object looked at, to grow like it (be forced to imitate it), or, conversely, to force it to grow like oneself[1].” Fenichel goes on to characterize the eye as sadisitic, darkly magical, aggressive, a ‘devouring’, overly sexualized “organ that robs or bites”[2].

One of the most important books I read when doing TOAP was James Elkin’s What Photography Is.  I enjoyed reading it to begin with but became increasingly distressed with it as I continued because what I came away with was my perceived notion that Elkin felt life was nothing more than a vicious battle of power for existence between competing organisms.

I said in my review: “In this book, through structure and plot; through his obsessive studies of rocks which evoke the deafening sound of eternity stretching out either side of the 100 or so years between photograph and re-photograph; to the molecular violence and lack of humanity, monstrous beings that devour one another as only a selfish gene can; to the nightmarish and detailed pictures of explosions that are devastatingly destructive and ‘godlike’; and ending with the horrific images of torture that are so upsetting and removed from the life we in West like to think we live now, Elkin describes his view of  photography, of existence, of life.  He shows us a brutal and violent nightmarish Darwinian struggle and he uses the excuse of photography to do so.”[3]

I’m pretty sure I’d have written the sentence differently now (it’s a bit dramatic, I’d say!), but I have to add that whilst I might probably appreciate Elkin’s book in a more positive way than I did then, as I have thought about it often while I consider my own relationship with photography, I am still extremely reluctant to see existence solely in those terms.  And as I read Fenichel, I am reminded by this view of life which determines so much to be about power, dominance and victory over the Other “(looking) is not only actively sadistic (the person gazing puts a spell on his victim) but also passively receptive (the person who looks is fascinated by that which he sees).”  Where, I wonder, does nurture, co-operation and altruism come into it ?  All virtues that are considered adaptive and have contributed to our resounding evolutionary success.  And indeed, according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mothers and Others, might even be, at least in part, the catalyst for the development of modern spoken language.

She argues that our sophisticated communication skills may have evolved in conjunction with and as a support mechanism for co-operative care-taking, in other words altruistic, empathetic human interaction; as opposed to simply eating or fucking anything that can be seen.   We are the only great apes who share the care of very young infants: “Human mothers are just as hypervigilant (as other great apes); they are just not so hyperpossessive.  From the outset a human mother will allow other group members (typically relatives) to take and hold her baby”[4].  And that shared care contributes to higher and more successful levels of survival. “…having a grandmother or great-aunt helping to feed them correlated with faster growth rates.  In times of food shortage, it was also correlated with higher likelihood of survival”[5] Which all led to a natural selection that favoured infants who were able to “monitor and influence the emotions, mental states, and intentions of others.  Traits that helped babies stay connected even when out of physical contact helped these vulnerable infants survive.”[6]

Hrdy suggests that “babbling and motherese evolved in response to the need for babies and mothers to maintain contact while infants were being held by others.  Motherese reassured babies of their mothers’ whereabouts and intentions, while babbling attracted the attention of mothers and allomothers alike.”[7]

In the same book Hrdy states that “Like other apes, humans also perceive direct stares as threatening.  But meanings conveyed by long looks can also be quite variable.  Human eyes convey extra information about what an individual is feeling, looking at, and intending”.[8]

So whilst I take on board that looking and seeing can in some instances be a sadistic action accompanied by intentions that are less than altruistic, as I elaborate on the bullet points we are asked to discuss in the course folder I will always consider a less violent and perhaps more gentle hypothesis, one that takes into account altruism, co-operation, and mutual nourishment in relation to the scenarios and situations we must write about.

2.  I have long thought of ‘nourishing’ the self through a variety of means.  Perhaps having felt fairly undernourished for a good chunk of my life has helped me to reach this understanding.  We feed ourselves not only with food, but also with cultural experiences, and of course through interaction with other humans, relationships.

There is much about “devouring with his eyes” in Fenichel’s essay.

However, listening is also characterised as a way of absorbing metaphorical ‘food’, and famously so in Twelfth Night,

“If music be the food of love, play on

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and die”[9].

The Duke describes his emotional needs in terms that relate to eating.  But it is difficult to suggest there is any pejorative wish to destroy the music, but rather to nourish a yearning within.  Here the only thing he wishes to destroy is his need.

Whilst I do see that the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood has exceptionally large eyes all the better to devour his prey with, an example used by Fenichel, the wolf also has large ears and large mouth, so the eyes are just one sensory organ of many that might be used in terms of a Darwinian power over the Other .  Fenichel and Freud’s analysis of looking and seeing seem to me to be informed by the world in which they existed, and through a sensibility they inhabited.

Fenichel has focused (excuse pun) on terms that highlight the darker sides of our nature.  Yet a feast for sore eyes is suggestive of eating something or rather someone that we love, that we have missed, that we are happy to see, symbolic of positive ‘consumption’.  We often say to our young children, “You’re so cute, I could eat you up!” when we are overwhelmed by our love for them.  This phenomenon is now known as ‘cute aggression[10]’, and refers to our body’s way of balancing out our emotions, of gaining inner parity.  If we feel overwhelmed by a positive feeling, we strive to balance it out through our language; by using seemingly aggressive metaphors for ingesting something we love passionately.

The symbolism inherent in the idea of becoming whole by merging with another, even if only in language, doesn’t escape me either.  Freud and Fenichel might suggest this would hark back to devouring our loved ones in the latent but nevertheless aggressive act of “taking possession and assimilating oneself”[11].

But to ingest something is to survive, to feed oneself.  People mutually sustain one another in relationships.  It becomes destructive if one person is predominantly ‘feeding’ off the other, and the other is not receiving any or very little sustenance in return.  But whether or not one is a grossly unequal relationship, the people we relate to are not enough to sustain us.  In addition and as well our basic needs being met with actual food, followed by adequate housing, sleep, we also benefit from meditation of some description, even if only time alone, exercise and art in any of its various forms  – these activities are imperative to a healthy and meaningful human existence.  The Romanian orphans[12] neglected and left in their cots with no stimulation whatsoever, never mind sufficient food, discovered in the late 80s are testament to this.  And art’s therapeutic benefits are well documented, although apparently ignored by those in power who have been cutting down on artistic education in favour of perceived academic ones in schools.

So, for instance and certainly not exclusively, we go the cinema to see a film (aural, visual kinaesthetic sustenance), the park to look at the ducks, the river to watch the boats go by or an art gallery to look at ideas, dreams, thoughts, expressions made real by people tuned into humanity’s inner worlds.  Some of the art we see might be dark or difficult to ingest for various reasons.  Its making may have been fuelled by the devouring, scoptopholic, symbolic penile eye.  But that thankfully isn’t always the case.

What interests me as a photographer, is the notion of the camera being a “mechanical….’devouring’ eye’, which looks at and incorporates the external world and later projects it outward again.  Women in particular have been criticised for allowing their work to effectively replace the maternal look with the mechanical eye*. I mention this briefly in my review of Family Frames by Marianne Hirsh, which I used as a basis for researching my final project.

“Hirsh looks at how there has been criticism of mothers who photograph their children and amongst others she focuses on Sally Mann whose Immediate Family is so well known, and which generated such a strong response, both positive and negative.  She discusses how the looking that goes on between a mother and her children, looking that is essential to a developing sense of self, is said to be disrupted when eyes are replaced by a camera, changing the mother’s organic eye into a machine.  And therefore replacing the process of looking with a “gaze”.  As I have seen and understood it, the word gaze is pejorative; it is power based and I have noticed often used to describe the activity of male artists creating female nudes over the centuries.  Hirsh doesn’t fully accept the negative ramifications of turning a mother’s look into a gaze and explores various positions surrounding what feels to me enormously difficult and contentious.”[13]

This understanding demonstrates to me that there are at least two ways of looking; on one hand a non-threatening, embracing look, and on the other, a disturbing gaze.  That also echoes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s words stating that human looks are variable, which suggest a whole range of looks exist – not only sadistic, sexualised, devouring ones.  I do not deny that such looks are out there aplenty, nor that people find the idea of being looked at, and particularly in front of a camera, uncomfortable.  It is an awkward position to be in.  As is the idea of simply being stared at by anyone. At times it might be uncomfortable because the eyes we feel upon us are sadistic.  Yet, it may also be because we are afraid of being seen, or at any rate, being looked at gives us the sense that all the defences we construct to protect ourselves from feeling exposed may be dismantled by the owner of the eyes looking at us.  We fear that if someone looks long enough they might effectively find a way to trample with their oversized, uninvited boots or stilettos, through the recesses of our inner worlds and find out what’s really going on in there.  They might see too much.  And the Kleinien monsters that exist within every one of us may be revealed.  I think there is a subtle difference between this fear and the fear of being devoured.  It is a more complex scenario than the primordial soup filled with tiny organisms that are eating or being eaten scenario, suggested by Fenichel.

What interests me greatly however, in the two essays we were asked to read, is fetishism, and the act of replacing something that we feel we have lost.

I’m not sure how this fits in with scoptophillic looking (unless we choose to take my old A’ level tutor’s statement at its most basic face value, that everything we are and do is related to sex) but it seems to me that so much of our cultural expression is about replacing something that has been lost.  From the story of the Garden of Eden, or the “concept of lack (which) appears and again in Lacan’s writings and in the transcripts of his seminars” (quote page 341), or Freud’s fetishism.  Simply put, that sense of loss, or the need to replace something within, manifests itself in our mythologies, fantasies and mediated theories.   And we are asked questions such as  – what could it mean when someone dreams about living by the seaside when they live in the City, as suggested in the course document’s question.  There is a great hunger in humanity.  And advertisers take the greatest advantage of this human desire to replace whatever it is we feel we’ve lost, or feel that is missing, with objects or symbols that they encourage us to fetishise about, such as brands of cars, foot wear or expensive washing machines for instance.  We devour with our eyes the adverts displaying these objects or suggestions of lifestyles we imagine and hope will fill some void within.

Sometimes the lack is tangible, immediate and current such as the loss of a person and immediately understandable.  When I had a late miscarriage my eyes searched out other people’s babies and I could for the first time very much understand something of the stories we read in newspaper’s about babies being stolen. I hasten to add that I did not steal any babies but the desire to replace what I had lost was very strong and difficult to carry.  As I looked at other people’s babies my eyes were linked to some internal fantasy about “taking possession” (quote page 331).  My own eyes “cannot be divorced from motility…” and the “visual perception cannot be separated from kinaesthetic perception; in seeing our whole body undergoes change.” (quote page 332).  My eyes in that case were responding to an internal desire of mine, which was about wanting to “rob” in order to replace the baby and try to fulfil any fantasies I might have had about my future. (quote 337)

But so often, and this is I think what the advertisers are tapping into, it is something less tangible, and described in the essay by Kaja Silverman (quote page 342) about Lacan, as a loss of wholeness.  “Lacan situates the first loss in the history of the subject at the moment of birth.  To be more precise, he dates it from the moment of sexual differentiation in the womb, but it is not realised until the separation of the child from the mother at birth.” (quote page 342).

This desire to return to a state of wholeness, or some pre-apple-debacle-Eden, or to reclaim the mother’s lost phallus that Freud discusses, is rife in Western culture at any rate – I simply don’t know enough about other cultures to speak of those.  Put crudely and rather simply, I think is exacerbated for us Westerners and made real by the very long held habit of separating from our infants in a comparatively speedy manner and it would be interesting to look at other cultures and how they raise their young.  Jean Leidloff’s Continuum Concept is fraught with a lack of empirical evidence and is a polemic rather than a scientific survey but her argument is that humans have evolved to expect certain conditions in order to achieve a balanced “optimal physical, mental and emotional development”.  Her argument is not as watertight as it might be but I think the underlying sentiment is worth considering when we look at our modern habit of consumption, visual or otherwise.   When we think about a person who is gorging on TV or any other visual foodstuff, that offers us a fairly inert, passive means of consumption, (and this is just one example in a sea of them, trying to replace the ‘lack’ that exists within), I can’t help but be drawn back to ideas discussed in The Continuum Concept.  According to Leidloff the process of separation in Western children is acutely aggressive and traumatising, and leads to an infant developing an inevitable sense of shame “about himself and his desires”.  Certainly all that I have understood during a decade of reading about the maternal instinct and varying child-rearing practices cross culturally and across species’, and of course the two essays we have been asked to read for this project, I think that our Western child-rearing habits are likely to have much to answer for.  

Again, I think about how language is full of expressions that reflect our desire to become more than what we are by eating another, even and in fact often people that we love – about this desire to satisfy ‘appetite’.  To incorporate some part of another into our selves. Or how we are sold objects and ideas which we might fantasise about making us feel more whole, ideas which we ’swallow’.  And I go back to my little son on the loo for hours on end reading or playing on his iPod where, according to Fenichel, he may be attempting “to preserve the equilibrium of the ego” (quote page 327) by ingesting through the eyes.  I think we need to continually find ways of sustaining ourselves, and, in varying degrees find ourselves trying hard to satisfy a very real and deep hunger that might come about because we have recently lost something tangible and real, or else due to something less tangible but deep-seated to do with our genetic makeup or environment as we developed.  However, I think that although Leidloff’s Continuum Concept offers some excellent alternative thoughts about the way in which we rear our children, actually to think there might be some Eden like world where we are not required to continually feed ourselves one way or another is a fallacy.  Of course, we should question why we sometimes feel the need to gorge, be it visually, orally or any other way.  But to think we that we should somehow never need to sustain ourselves in all the various ways we humans do, is as ridiculous as saying we should not need to eat and drink everyday.

Fenichel’s essay seems to suggest the visual eating we do is inherently sadistic, vicious. Although he conceded that there is ordinary looking which differs from libidinal seeing, he suggests that the in the latter the sadism simply ‘manifests’ itself more so. To him and Freud the eye is symbolic of the penis and it is all to a greater or lesser degree triggered by the innate desire to ’rob and bite’.  In the West certainly and in other parts of the world where the major religions have dominated for some relative time, sex is seen as a dirty aggressive act, so awful in fact that precious children cannot be told about how they really come about but instead are told stories about stalks etc.  Even today I am an unusual mother in that I find age appropriate books to explain the facts of life as soon as I am asked the question, how are babies made, rather than make some nonsense up or mutter that I’ll tell them later.  And never forget, masturbation was said to make a person go blind – as we, which Fenichel says, wrangle with our exaggerated sense of shame.  Sex is perceived fundamentally, as a bad thing.  But of course this is related to the shame Leidloff suggests we feel, are made to feel, about our wants and desires. If you were somehow able to take that shame away, if you stop want and desire from being bad, then what happens to Freud and Fenichel’s vicious, sadistic penile eye?  If it is Ok to admit that we must continually replenish and sustain one’s ego one way or another, then perhaps the psychology of looking would seem less of a threat, and perhaps then the emphasis could be on the other human ways of looking; the maternal, loving, giving look for example.  In truth both these positions exist on a scale that is circular; and humanity, individuals and societies can be found at differing points along it.

3.  As I mentioned, the research for my final assignment for TAOP is based on Marianne Hirsh’s book Family Frames which looks at the relationship we have with family photographs.  My final project is all about the looks we receive from our family members, and from the photographs of those family members.   I go into some depth about those ‘looks’ in that project.  Perhaps some of those looks, the less than maternal ones, the more dangerous looks, have served to inform a sense of Other that has not always been than terribly helpful to me.  On one hand that sense of Other might mean I am particularly adept at customer service because I’m always sure I must be ‘in trouble’ and in order to avoid that do what I can to please the people I’m ‘serving ‘.  However, it has also led to me being ludicrously afraid, too eager to put up with crap and has ultimately cost me a great deal.  I sincerely hope I can find a way to neutralise that sense of fear as I go forward because I have to say,  I think I’ve had enough, thanks all the same.

Three years ago my husband told me he wanted a divorce.  I was broken by the loss and have spent the time since rebuilding my self.  I have ‘fed’ the void in my self, having been left in a fairly depleted state, with a variety of things.  My life is far more sociable than it was.  I have studied, started a small photography business, and taken to photography with an alacrity that I don’t think I have had for anything else ever.  It has all been positive and life enforcing and I have been very grateful for my developing passion. 

However, I also ‘fetishised’ another photographer’s work.  Looking back I think I was encouraged by him to do so.  Certainly he dropped little hooks here and there which I suspect he does constantly with any number of people.  I had no idea what he looked liked or who he was really when it started.  And yes, at first at least, simply with my eyes, through visual looking and seeing – back and forth between him and me using our photographs and the odd words here and there, he has been able to have quite a profound impact on the grief I experienced over the loss of my marriage.  It has led to a year long, mostly online interaction, which I can only describe as a pernicious, covert, systematic and sustained type of bullying.  He uses his photography, a host of pretend social networking profiles, and quite possibly has others involved in the ‘game’ he plays too, although I have no way of knowing for sure.  He may even be assisted by his partner for all I know, which I don’t.  I am very likely not the first person he has preyed on.  It would seem that Fenichel and Freud were extremely accurate in their description, if one were to only use this photographer as an example.  Why anyone would allow themselves to become involved in such an abusive play of power over the Other is of course the big question.  In the last 5 years however, I have lost my father, followed by my husband, marriage and an imagined future that never was.  I can only think that those factors along with the sense of self I described earlier has much to do with it. That along with my need to try and replace what I lost somehow, and I chose with little conscious decision to do it visually by fetishising the photographer’s work.

What I have learned from the experience however is the intensity of the power of the visual; about the way in which we feed our desires, dreams, and fantasies through our eyes; about our habit of projecting those fantasies, good and bad ones onto the images we see in our lives.  I wrote quite a lot about unconscious optics, the lenses through which we see life, the people and events that populate our vision and I have had much to think about in relation to that through this experience.  For all that though, it still doesn’t make it right that such a person should abuse his position in the way he does.  He seems to relentlessly enjoy making hay with another’s sadness and loss.  Still, I suppose I understand fetishisation in a way I might not have done otherwise.

And it would seem that I have ended this long post by giving a very clear example of behaviour that precisely demonstrates Fenichel’s statement which I included earlier, despite arguing to the contrary throughout: “(looking) is not only actively sadistic (the person gazing puts a spell on his victim) but also passively receptive (the person who looks is fascinated by that which he sees).”   I do this because I think these ideas cannot be so readily dismissed, even though there is so very much more depth to the psychological models that prevail now.

People critisise Freud fairly frequently.  I see why but I also think that we should remember he was operating in a time different to ours and his model is of its time. As a friend who used to teach film studies reminded me, we do not look back at Ford the car maker and scoff at his model although cars are now far more sophisticated.  Freud’s analytical model still has many components which work and inform modern psychology.  Perhaps it was his arrogance and stubbornness that have led to so many people dismissing so much of his work today, even though a great deal of that work still feeds into the way things are thought now. Certainly, the essays I read seemed to emphasise the devouring nature of looking and seeing when as I have demonstrated there are many more ways of looking and seeing in the human eye.  Thankfully for all of us, wouldn’t you say?

[1] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 329

[2] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 337

[3] Quote from my TAOP blog about James Elkin’s What Photography Is

[4] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 73

[5] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 107

[6] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 121

[7] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 123

[8] Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009 page 51

[9] Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1-3


[11] Visual Culture; A reader, Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, The Open University Masters in Social Sciences, 1999, SAGE Publications Page 331


[13] Quote from my TAOP review of Family Frames by Marianne Hirsh, Harvard University Press, 2012


3 thoughts on “Project 1.2: Fetishising the object of your eye, looking and seeing.

      1. To me the important aspect is to make a sense of all the reading first, which is why I don’t worry too much about word count in projects etc. That’s until I get too overwhelmed with words and feel the need to insert occasional pictures!


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