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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gazes in Literature

Gazes in Literature / 19 June 2010 / 3rd Sem CEP

The aim of this session was to make aware the students of literature about the existence of 'gazes' within the realm of their studies.

A 'gaze' is different from a 'look', which is different from 'to see'. 'To see' would connote the physical sense or attribute of seeing; a 'look' would be to see with a particular purpose; a 'gaze' is a term with social connotations - it would be determined by prevalent social values. Simply put, it could mean similar to, but not completely the same as, 'in the perspective of'.

An example for a gaze would be the 'male gaze'. The 'male gaze' is when an individual (of any sex and gender) perceives the woman as a consumptive object.

Different academic disciplines have gazes. Mr Pinto argues with the case of the anthropological gaze. This gaze, which came along with its discipline in the colonial era, looks at communities with a coloniser-colonised binary perspective. He further argues that this becomes a common world view, with the coloniser and colonised being replaced by other power poles; for example, the city-village binary.

An understanding of this neccessitates revisiting the history of anthropology. Anthropology came along with colonisation, where the colonisers were curious to study the colonised. Interestingly, argues Mr Pinto, when one studies an other, the one is endowed with a position of higher power/knowledge. So when the colonisers studies the colonised, it was from their position of higher power that they went about it.

Anthropology has four branches:
- Archaeology
- Social anthropology
- Cultural anthropology
- Physical anthropology

The colonisers mainly dealt with physical anthropology where racial bodily differencs were studied, with the aim of perhaps discovering 'a perfect race'.

As mentioned earlier, a group of people studying an other is put in a position of higher power, thereby automatically producing a power structure with two players - the students, i.e. the colonisers, and the studied, the colonised.

The colonisers considered it their responsibility ('White man's burden' as Rudyard Kipling puts it) to impart their knowledge, technology, and thus modernity and development to the colonised lands. They were the bringers of the light. This is a gaze. The 'poor needs help from the rich'. And this binary gaze exists even today, in many different forms.

There are gazes in literature too. When we talk about feminist literature, or post-colonial literature, or Native-American literature, our gazes shift. Certain meanings, values and interpretations are associated with the work by virtue of our gaze.

The point of this argument is not that we do away with gazes. Rather, it is that we have to be aware of the presence of such gazes within the realm of literature, and be cautious of them. Perhaps even revisit these gazes, and question their form.

Coming back to the coloniser-colonised binary, it can be a problematic gaze. If we have an understanding of developed cityfolk trying to help undeveloped village communities, we have a vision which is slightly skewed in some place. But most of us are conditioned into this gaze through our many years in this world. A shifting of the binary does not help. An argument that since women have been exploited for centuries by men, a shifting of positions with women posited above men will solve the problem does not really hold ground. So what can be done? One solution, though not the best one, is to make the categories more inclusive and open. Another is to engage in love. But I lost track at this point, and further discussion is required to clarify certain points!


Pinto, Anil. "Gazes in literature". 19 June 2010. American Literature, 3rd semester BA CEP. Bangalore, India. Class Lecture.

(Notes by Mohan K. Pillai - post subject to author's bias and perspective)


Anil Pinto said...

Quite well written, Mohan. Thanks a million

JoseAngel said...

A gaze is linked to a point of view, in the many senses of the term. Besides this ideological perspective, there's also the use of gazes (literally, characters looking at something or seeing something) as a way of slanting information - controlling focalization and narrative information.

Anil Pinto said...

Agreed. thanks for that little but important addition, JoseAngel.