Looked-at Looking

Posted on June 20, 2013

In this response to the monthly looking group series, No Looking After the Internet, writer Noel Glover examines the role of witnessing and shame in the pedagogical space of the gallery and asks what it means to look at images while being looked at by other viewers.

No Looking After the Internet agitates what is customary about the practice of looking in the space of the gallery: it gives motion to the very stance with which we might ground ourselves in an encounter with an image that is itself ungrounding, an image that is difficult to approach. No Looking is a looking group initiated by Gabby Moser as part of her curatorial residency entitled “Coming to Encounter.” Moser’s looking group is keen on the practice of looking itself, keen on dislodging and leveling-off the viewer’s gaze, a gaze that too often, with an all-too-rehearsed avarice, ranges over and dwells on images with the aim of completing an imagined epistemological circuit; framing strategies employed in the gallery, she admonishes, also rationalize, also seek answers to what is affectively taxing about a given image, framing our looking so as to justify our feelings of disgust or shame, and to effectively end them. No Looking reminds us that the knowledge we use to make sense of our affective responses to images is necessarily incomplete, and asks that we direct our gaze instead upon our proclivity to look for ways to close the feedback loop of aesthetic confrontation; to consider why it is that we endeavor to seal—that is to say, conceal—what looking at certain images may in fact expose in us.

I want to begin where Alison Cooley left us with her post, “Not Knowing and No Looking, “an acute discussion of the careening social dynamics of collective looking. Cooley remarks, “when we look together (or refuse to look, together), we can become accountable for both our individualistic discovering practices and our tendency toward groupthink.”1 It is this process of becoming accountable that I want to spend some time with, to look at it in the manner of Moser’s looking group: that is to say, slowly. Specifically, I am interested in the role of shame in the space of discursive programming such as looking groups. For instance, when we look together, not only can we unmask what it means to read images strategically or perfidiously, but we can reveal as well what it means to be seen “in the act,” seen seeing an image—expectations flooding in from surrounding others. The looking group discommodes our looking because it is the looking, too, that is being looked at. How might feelings of shame in this instance regulate or stultify our attempts to become accountable, together? How might feeling shame also be a productive kind of reflexivity in this setting? Can shame actually enhance our capacity for confronting otherness, and can shame engender a pedagogical encounter?

One of the features of responding to images of violence, trauma, or injustice in a group setting—and with the intent of responding appropriately—is that our responses necessarily come up against a limit, namely, the limit of our being, a limit that also traces the borders of the being of others. In a group we must recognize and indeed live this limit, which is a constriction of our freedom and of our ability to witness. At a social level, this limit reveals our abyssal inexpertness, an ungraspability, in the face of the interpretive projects of others. “To be looked at,” suggests Jean-Paul Sartre, “is to apprehend oneself as the unknown object of unknowable appraisals—in particular, of value judgments.”2 It is this apprehension that makes shame an imminent and portentous— perhaps also formative—possibility in the space of discursive programming. “By the mere appearance of the Other,” continues Sartre, “I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object,” concluding, “shame…is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the other is looking at and judging.”3

Moser has observed that an increase in the “exhibition gestures” or “display strategies” of the gallery space occasioned an increase in public response and interest. “Now that it looks like something gallery-like is happening,” she remarked, “more people are coming in, asking questions, wanting to look at images.”4 And while it may be unsurprising that public response is minimal when an exhibition is hard to see (or difficult to look at), perhaps there is something to be said for the correlation, and inter-animation, between how an image comes into view and how a public comes into viewing. It seems that by tracing the intentional, official limits of the aesthetic encounter, Moser conditioned as well what its public would be seen as accountable for; accountability that is more easily recognized is more readily approached. Unmarked borders, or worse, blurred boundaries, are, after all, matters of otherness, the affairs of the other.

Our ability to respond to certain images is closely connected to how these images have been demarcated, disclosed, by a set of limiting and informative curatorial strategies. We are willing to approach and confront images only when we have first seen their borders, seen the limits of the social and ethical demands they will make on us. In a way, we are more inclined to confront an image that has first been exposed to us before we will allow ourselves, in turn, to be exposed by it, to be opened to its affective currency, and finally, to be subjected to its potential for shame. The exhibit—and its exhibitionism—may evince more about the vulnerability of the spectator than we might at first suppose. As Eve Sedgwick points out, “shame points and projects; shame turns itself skin side out; shame and pride, shame and dignity, shame and self-display, shame and exhibitionism are different interlinings of the same glove.”5

A curator chooses in what way to present an image and a public is drawn to the aesthetics of this display. No Looking offers a chance to see, and read, both what is being revealed as well as concealed in this process. How an image comes into un-concealment may actually divulge something about what its spectators wish to conceal of themselves. The looking group surrounds an image with viewers that are equally vulnerable to exposure, to a play between introversion and extroversion performed in public, before a group of looked-at-lookers. When we enter the gallery, an environment of exhibitionism, becoming subjects (and intermittently becoming objects, too) of the exposure of our practiced gaze, we enter a performative dialectic that is fertile ground for the sting of shame.

As No Looking aims to prolong our encounter with images, extending the temporalities of interpretation, so too does it prolong the other’s encounter with our encounter, and of course, our eventual encounter with this encounter. Not only is the potential for shame hereby augmented, but the opportunity to acknowledge, or make intelligible, these affective intimations is also extended and expanded—a double, reciprocal reflexivity. And here is where the vagaries of shame (and pride) may offer us a unique vision, a kind of lucidity perhaps (a sensitivity certainly), for perceiving otherness. While I am fixed, objectified, by the unknowable appraisals of a group of others, Sartre conditions that “at the same time that in shame or pride I recognize the justice of these appraisals, I do not cease to take them for what they are—a free surpassing of the given toward possibilities.”6

The possibilities are multifarious, made all the more variegated when we propose to do our research in and with the public, as the Gallery TPW R&D project does. If the other is in a sense “the radical negation of my experience,” we must accept uncertainty and doubt as key features of this kind of curatorial work.7 As Moser acknowledged, part of the challenge with this kind of work is working to be comfortable with, and open to, changing our minds in public. We may wonder, then, how the threat of shame before a public for which we are not subjects but objects might restrict or even foreclose our openness to changing our mind, our openness to recognizing the justice of unknown appraisals, a possibility that is, perhaps, all the more bewildering when one finds oneself in a position of authority, as organizer or educator.

When witnessing challenging and unfamiliar photographs together, the accountable viewer may in fact be flushed with a sense of shame, shame brought about by a sensitivity to the regard of others, positioning the self at the end of an objectifying gaze that rounds, fills in, the very being of the self. That we are limited, and seen, is why we are vulnerable to shame. Accountability before a difficult image is a recognition of these limits—knowledge that is necessarily incomplete—under the ungraspable gaze and subjectivity of others. Certain images trouble our intuitive notions about what is showable, what is fit to be seen in the Kantian sense of carrying a certain moral integrity. We might also think of these images as troubling our intuitions about our own fitness as viewers. Is it that certain photographs are unfit to be seen, or that certain spectators are unfit to see them, or unfit to be seen seeing them? To be fit to be seen seeing, to be accountable, one has to come-to-terms with limits, with unknowability, and with objectivity, all in the face of an image that may in the last analysis even refuse one’s attempt to bring it into view.

The question, then, is how feeling shame in the space of the gallery, a feeling that is intensively intrusive, might actually also be extensively generative. As Sedgwick notes, “That’s the double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality.”8 Shame is sometimes conferred through the stigmatizing and objectifying treatment of the self by influential others (other-regarding shame), in which case it is invidious and destructive. But shame can also be brought about by a relational and objectifying recognition by the self of influential others (self-regarding shame), in which case it is favorable and constructive: “In interrupting identification, shame, too, makes identity.”9 A slower form of looking, compounding the potential for reflexivity, amplifying our capacity for perceiving otherness, allows the interruption of shame plenty of time for construction, for making identity, for becoming self-regarding. The shame we feel when looking after the Internet may serve as a kind of reminder of our radical mutuality, and may communicate a fundamental interdependence that in fact opens the door for our becoming accountable, together.

Shame institutes durable, “structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others,” and is a key reason for why we look at images differently when we interpret them with a community of others.10 With a group of others, the responsibility I incur for an image by the way in which I direct my gaze upon it is a responsibility I incur for myself by the way in which the gaze of the other has been directed upon me (and my gaze)—a gaze I return, a relational positioning that necessarily includes my responsibility for the other(s).  As Cooley summarized, “No Looking is an exercise which necessitates the viewer’s vulnerability, awkwardness and care.”11 I would add that in and through the denuding interpersonal intensifications of shame, No Looking is also an exercise in sharing: that is, in the sharing of limits, and of recognizing a need between self and other, a need for unknowable otherness in general, to fill in the interpretive possibilities of the self.

Finally, I want to reflect briefly on what might be said in reference to shame concerning the function of the gallery as a space where pedagogical encounters can take place. Cooley observed that Moser “visibly struggled with how much information to provide viewers.”12 Moser’s struggle with uncertainty is visible, is seen. She must apprehend herself as an object before the gaze of others: she must be open to the interruptions of her own shame before she can, as a critical subject and curatorial figure, begin to understand herself “as subject to uncertainty and as a subject with other subjects.”13 Deborah Britzman affirms that the “teacher’s unfinished work is to understand her representations of education as a project of learning to live with others.”14 This, I think, sums it up nicely. The pedagogical encounter takes place where the gallery facilitates a learning to live with others. We might finally think of the unfinished work of the curator as a project of learning to live with others living with art, and learning to live with her shame before others living with their shame before art.  



1. Alison Cooley, “Not Knowing and No Looking”, May 15, 2013 http://gallerytpw.ca/publications/rd-blogs/knowing-and-looking/
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992): 358.
3. Sartre 302, 350.
4. Gabby Moser, “Residing”, October 29, 2012 http://gallerytpw.ca/publications/rd-blogs/coming-to-encounter-4/
5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” Gay Shame. Eds. David M. Halperin & Valerie Traub (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 51.
6. Sartre 358.
7. Sartre 384.
8. Sedgwick 51.
9. Sedgwick ibid.
10. Sedgwick 59.
11.Cooley ibid.
12. Cooley ibid.
13. Deborah P. Britzman, The Very Thought of Education: Psychoanalysis and the Impossible Professions (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009): 30
14. Britzman ibid.

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