Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Male Gaze "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Part I

It is interesting to come to Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" right after reading material from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed.  Cavell's book was published in 1971 and Mulvey's article was written in the same year, although published first in 1975.  Both talk about the magic of movies, both are mainly interested in Hollywood, both are interested in the ways that character types function in film fiction narratives, and both are very interested in the role of women in society.  Cavell, especially in his later book on stories of remarriage, presents a notion of mature adult relationships in which women achieve equality with men.  In general Cavell is much more upbeat about the role of women in Hollywood movies, at least in movies of comedy of remarriage sort.  A Film Studies major could write a good paper comparing the two.

Frankly it is hard today to take seriously talk of "the image of the castrated woman" as that upon which the "paradox of phallocentrism" is based.  And this quote appears in the second paragraph of Mulvey's essay!  I do not know of any man who ever saw women as in some sense castrated:  as being essentially eunuchs:  men who lost their maleness through losing some or all of their male genitalia.  So it seems that we need to take this claim as a metaphor for something else.....but what that something else is is hard to say.   One can for instance do this kind of translation:  for "it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies" (57)  we could possibly have "it is her perceived lack of maleness that give power to the maleness of males for males"  although this sentence leaves out the female perspective.  So perhaps a better translation might be that "the female recognizes that her lack of maleness makes her relatively powerless in a patriarchal society." Both claims is at least plausible.  Again, when Mulvey says "she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis" this could not possibly mean that men actually feel threatened when they first discover as boys that women do not have penises:  if that were the case then we would have some evidence for it, and we just don't.  But it might mean symbolical, for example that men fear losing their manliness or being perceived as unmanly, and that this leads them to lack sympathy for women since to be perceived as a woman, especially by other men, is precisely what they (or at least many heterosexual men) most fear.   

Mulvey and other feminists are no doubt right that we live in a patriarchal society and that this is structured into the way we, (meaning actually everyone), perceive the world.  So one could say, following this translation method, that "the function of woman in forming our commonly shared unconscious in a patriarchal society is that she symbolizes the threat to men's self-perception as manly insofar as she represents that which the manly man does not want to be, i.e. feminine."  Of course with such translations one would lose out on the colorfulness of such metaphors as "Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound..."  (38) But it does allow us to get beyond the feeling that we are dealing with  nonsense here:  which, as I have suggested, we are not.

This translation business is not easy and I pretty much assume I am not getting it right (largely because I do not know that much about Freud or Lacan).  The second paragraph of Mulvey's essay features the mother/child relation, for example in the term "raises her child into the symbolic" the symbolic realm being one in Lacanian terms is that of the male patriarchy.   A Wikipedia article called "The Symbolic" helps here:

"Lacan's concept of the symbolic "owes much to a key event in the rise of structuralism ... the publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship in 1949. ... In many ways, the symbolic is for Lacan an equivalent to Lévi-Strauss's order of culture": a language-mediated order of culture. "Man speaks, then, but it is because the symbol has made him man ... superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature". Accepting then that "language is the basic social institution in the sense that all others presuppose language", Lacan found in Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic division of the verbal sign between signifier and signified a new key to the Freudian understanding that "his therapeutic method was 'a talking cure'". The quotes here taken from Macey, Lacan, Searle and Freud.

I recommend this article for anyone trying to read Mulvey.

Mulvey seems to be saying that when the woman has raised her (presumably male) child into the realm dominated by men, also called "the world of law and language," her life loses meaning.  She wants her male child to attain what she could not, i.e. maleness:  the only other option is to keep her male child "in the realm of the imaginary" which, for Lacan, is prior to the symbolic realm.  

"The imaginary now came to be seen increasingly as belonging to the earlier, closed realm of the dual relationship of mother and child be broken up and opened to the wider symbolic order." quoting again from Wikipedia article.

So, when Mulvey says "Women then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (58) it is implied that she simply operates as tool in the male's world of fantasy which is associated with his dominance of language and the linguistic order and in which she is tied to her function as mother who may only bear a (male) child if her life is to have any meaning, not as someone who can create her own meaning.  In short, film exhibits men's fantasy life in terms of his relation to women who need to be kept down for it all to work.

In the next section Mulvey places a lot of hope in the possibility of moving away from Hollywood films to "artisinal" and "alternative" cinema.  The reader of Mulvey's article should view Mulvey's recent interview  “Conversation With Laura Mulvey (Interview)”  2017  youtube  which covers some of her experimental work in film as well as the essay we are discussing.  She co-wrote and co-directed a number of films with her husband Peter Wollen including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), in which they, as Wikipedia puts it, "connected 'modernist forms' with a narrative that explored feminism and psychoanalytical theory.  This film was fundamental in presenting film as a space 'in which the female experience could be expressed.'"  Mulvey nicely illustrates this in the abovementioned interview.  See also the wikipedia article "Riddles of the Sphinx."  This link will get you to a pretty good print of the actual movie (with English subtitles).  As an experimental film it is pretty hard to watch all of the way through, but it is worthwhile to pick up bits and pieces.  Mulvey thinks that the alternative film can react against "obsessions and assumptions" of the patriarchal society that has produced the kinds of films she objects to.  For me the most interesting part of the her film-making here is the long circular pan shot which seeks to undercut traditional ways of using space and time which Mulvey associates the patriarchy.  The shot style is innovative and worth further exploration.

Mulvey is quite radical in her attack on pleasure, or at least of a certain kind of pleasure in film.  As she writes:  "The magic of the Hollywood style at its best ...arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure."  These films "coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order."  The next sentence is a bit difficult to make out [bracketed material is my thinking about how this might be translated]:  "it was only through these codes that the alienated subject [presumably the male protagonist], torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss [his worry that he might lose his maleness?], by the terror of potential lack of fantasy [in that he would not be able to live out his fantasies of dominating females if patriarchy were overthrown?], came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction [through, for example, being able to erotically view a female character in the film?]:  through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions."  I take it that the reference to "formal beauty" is to the thought that the formal beauties of contemporary film are also implicated in the patriarchal project.  The "play on his own formative obsessions" must refer to the erotic and narcissistic obsessions he developed as a child, perhaps during what Lacan called the mirror stage.      

The end of the first section of the article is quite direct in its rejection of visual pleasure:  "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.  That is the intention of the article.  The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represents the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked."  And this is to make way for "a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film."  This gives way to a "thrill" where the past is left behind "without rejecting it." [It is not clear how that can be done.]  She sees this as a "daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire."

Part II:   I am going to cut this short soon and not really finish commenting on the essay.  But I do want to say something about the beginning of Part II.  Mulvey says "There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as...there is pleasure in being looked at."  (59)  One's natural response is "yes, and is that always a bad thing?"   She describes Freud as associating it with "taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze."  (59)  That does sound pretty bad.  If one's basic morality is the golden rule (which has always seemed about right to me) then treating people as mere means (as Kant would put it) would be wrong.  But then people are not the same as images of people.  Moreover, images cannot be controlled by the audience member, only by the director, editor, and other images manipulators in the media. (And it is true that they control actual people sometimes in very immoral ways as we have seen recently in the case of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer.)  

Moreover, a curious gaze is not in itself bad:  where it is bad is when it hurts someone, as for example when men ogle women on the street and remark on their appearance:  that often makes a woman feel cheap and dirty.   ("Gaze" is strangely such a non-obtrusive word.  We gaze upon a landscape.  We languidly gaze.  Gazing is a kind of casual looking, not, generally, an intrusive form of looking.  The dictionary says of gaze that it is to "look steadily and intently, especially in admiration, surprise, or thought" and that does not in itself seem like a source of harm.  It is not for instance like "stare" or, again, "ogle.")  But if one wishes to gaze on one's lover, appreciating her beauty, that is not not bad: it is actually generally considered a good thing.  But of course if the relationship is one in which the gaze is not only curious but also controlling that would be harmful.  

So, in the end, the question is whether gaining pleasure from viewing images of women who are erotic in some way (for example, Greta Garbo as a glamorous beauty, or Marilyn Monroe) is causing so much harm to women in general that we should probably cut it out.  Let's say that you would be more likely to treat women as mere objects.  (This would be similar to the empirical question of whether viewing violent video games is more likely to make you into a violent person. The jury is still out on that one.)

Plato would say so:  his basic idea is that if you get into the habit of doing something while in the theater then you are likely to do it in real life.  So if you weep tears in pity for a suffering character on stage then you might break down in tears on the battlefield, thus becoming a danger to your fellow citizen-warriors.  

But in the movie theater, as opposed to real voyeurism, you are not actually intruding on someone's privacy.  Or art you?  You might be if the woman was exploited into this position:  Marilyn Monroe committed suicide....maybe because of this?  Mulvey writes "At the extreme, [pleasure in looking] can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other."  (60)  That kind of behavior is clearly morally wrong.  But what is meant by "at the extreme":  is this implying that gaining pleasure from looking at a actress in a movie is still wrong but on a lesser scale?   Or is Mulvey saying that the person who gets such pleasure is really no different from the obsessive pervert?  Surely not.  But what then is the point?

Mulvey addresses some of these issues in her next paragraph (60) suggesting that "conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator the illusion of looking into a private world."  And this leads her to the claim that "the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer."  (60)  I do not quite understand this point since it attributes exhibitionism to the voyeur who is viewing something exhibited.  Is it being suggested the the audience member who takes pleasure in the image is repressing a desire to be an exhibitionist?  So he sees the performer as doing what he would like to do?   Setting that interpretive problem aside, the point is simply that getting the illusion of looking into a private world is getting the illusion of being an actual voyeur, and that this illusion must, in some way, be contributing to patriarchy.  

In reading Mulvey I found myself looking at some of the examples and one of the most famous is the voyeur scene in Hitchcock's Psycho.  One of the most interesting aspects of this scene in which the viewer gets an extreme closeup of the eye of the male voyeur and also to the right of the screen the hole in the wall (you do not then see through the whole.)  So, here, we are being a voyeur on the voyeur.  The shot is somehow wonderful and could operate nicely as an appropriated artwork by itself:  call it "The Eye and the Hole."  I get pleasure from this shot:  I've never seen a more interesting shot of an eye closeup and the juxtaposition with the whole, with its nimbus of light and with, of course, its layers of implication, is fascinating.  I wonder how this complicates matters.  Is Hitchcock more interested in gazing on the male gaze?  Does that make him less morally problematic (insofar as he enables the male gaze)?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Mulvey and other feminists are no doubt right that we live in a patriarchal society and that this is structured into the way we, (meaning actually everyone), perceive the world."

"I do not quite understand this point since it attributes exhibitionism to the voyeur who is viewing something exhibited. Is it being suggested the the audience member who takes pleasure in the image is repressing a desire to be an exhibitionist? "

Perhaps the answer to this comes from your point made above about Plato....

"Plato would say so: his basic idea is that if you get into the habit of doing something while in the theater then you are likely to do it in real life."

So both Mulvey and film industry are training men to be animalistic. The film industry, because a man who is a slave to his desires is a better consumer.

I do not quite understand this point since it attributes exhibitionism to the voyeur who is viewing something exhibited. Is it being suggested the the audience member who takes pleasure in the image is repressing a desire to be an exhibitionist?"

Is this not exactly how female sexuality works? Do these films not train men to be more susceptible to it?

What do you think?