Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Infant's Gaze

During the period of infancy from three to six months the visual-motor system is virtually mature, allowing the infant to engage with its primary caregiver as a more or less equal partner in gazing activity. So says Daniel N. Stern (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, p.21), who continues:

[I]nfants exert major control over the initiation, maintenance, termination, and avoidance of social contact with the mother; in other words, they help to regulate engagement. Furthermore, by controlling their own direction of gaze, they self-regulate the level and amount of social stimulation to which they are subject. They can avert their gaze, shut their eyes, stare past, become glassy-eyed. And through the decisive use of such gaze behaviors, they can be seen to reject, distance themselves from, or defend themselves against mother. They can also reinitiate engagement and contact when they desire, through gazing, smiling and vocalizing.

(pp. 21-22, citations omitted)

(NB: Stern uses the terms "mother" and "primary caregiver" interchangably.)

No deep thoughts here. Is the gaze in absence of immediate social contact a diminished form of the essential phenomenon? A simple variation? I wonder how much time infants spend gazing off into space–Stern I think would say "staring" off into space, but I'm not sure there isn't such a thing as gazing off into space as well. What do we mean by gazing?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:41 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes, "gazing" is an interesting term or activity, and nobler than "staring".

I associated to Sartre's theory of "seeing-as-being-seen" = that you become aware of being seen by The Other as in his example of the man looking through a keyhole then suddenly becoming aware that he is always being looked at.

Another line of thought is from art theory:

There are several summaries of the gaze available. I think the most lucid and persuasive is Margaret Olin’s essay, included in the volume "Critical Terms for Art
History." The gaze, as she puts it, is part of a larger attempt “to wrest formal discussions of art from the grasp of linguistic heory, to focus on what is visual about a work of art and yet address the wider issue of social communication.” In other words, the gaze is an indigenously visual way of thinking about visual art, one that responds to the fundamental
acts of seeing that constitute every work and is attentive to the political and social dimensions of visuality.

From the outset, there are difficulties in saying exactly what “the gaze” is. Olin points out that “there is usually something negative about the gaze as used in art theory”:

It is rather like the word “stare” in everyday usage. After all, parents instruct their children to stop staring, but not to stop gazing. A typical strategy of art
theory is to unmask gazing as something like staring, the publicly sanctioned actions of a peeping Tom.

I stole this from:


So is gazing an act of wonder, whereas staring also includes some form of stupidity (he stared in disbelief).

Orla Schantz

November 28, 2006 2:59 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Elkins' paper is interesting. I'm scaring up Olin's entry on the gaze to see where that leads.

Gazing as an act of wonder. That leads me to the social and political dimensions of philosophizing and such. Should it? But I think it's so true, that sense of wonder in the gaze.

The stare as stupid? Perhaps with regard to "social intelligence"? If we make a distinction between the stare and the gaze, then the stare has I think a dis- quality: disbelief, disengaged, distracted. You see, I'm trying to envision a single phenomenon of the gaze with various manifestations. Maybe that isn't really true to experience. I'm just mulling it over here.

November 29, 2006 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Fido, I love the sense of wonder in the gaze, too.

Maybe the dictionary can help us out a bit here:

gaze: To look steadily, intently, and with fixed attention.

Synonyms: gaze, stare, gape, gawk, glare1, peer

These verbs mean to look long and intently.

Gaze is often indicative of wonder, fascination, awe, or admiration: gazing at the stars.

Stare can indicate curiosity, boldness, insolence, or stupidity: stared at them in disbelief.

Gape suggests a prolonged open-mouthed look reflecting amazement, awe, or lack of intelligence: tourists gaping at the sights.

To gawk is to gape or stare stupidly: Drivers gawked at the disabled truck.

To glare is to fix another with a hard, piercing stare: glared furiously at me.

To peer is to look narrowly, searchingly, and seemingly with difficulty: peered at us through her glasses.

Orla Schantz

November 29, 2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the gaze for Lacan is that it is not the subject or another subject that is doing the gaze. The gaze, for Lacan, is always an absent gaze. The best example in Sartre's Being and Nothingness is that of the soldier crawling across the field in the dark by the barn or farm house. The dark windows of the barn seem to peer at me even though I have no idea of whether there's actually someone there or not. It is this *absent* gaze, this wondering about the Other, that evokes desire, not the direct gaze. There's all sorts of ripe material here for a religious phenomenology with regard to how certain subjects perpetually wonder whether God is watching them or not (assuming, of course, that we need make not strong ontological claims about whether God actually exists in order to engage in such a phenomenology). At any rate, for Lacan the gaze is an object, not an act of the onlooker. In the case of voyeurism, for instance, what is exciting is the thought of being this object for an ignorant person (the person that is unsure of whether or not I'm watching them). In the case of exhibitionism, I seek to seduce this object in the Other.

November 29, 2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Well you can see my simplemindedness on display here because I see the gaze as first an activity and only secondarily, by means of imaginative projection or reversal, as some kind of disembodied objective presence. I remain skeptical of all forms of the equation of being with being seen. However, my notion of what it means to gaze is still quite fuzzy. I don't think it's adequate to define the gaze as "to look with fixed attention." What does it mean to attend in this case, or to fix attention? Is there a "to each other" implicit in gazing? I simply wonder. I should like to read Merleau-Ponty's Le visible et l'invisible which I have only glanced at many years ago. I don't know where it will lead me, but I'm curious.

November 30, 2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Not simple minded at all. I take it that one way of understanding Lacan's account of the various objets a (voice, gaze, breasts, faeces) is in terms of those elements that link the subject with the Other. Lacan draws a distinction between the cause of desire and the object of desire. Objet a is not an object desired, but rather an object that causes desire. In the example of gaze, the subject either seeks to court or thwart the gaze as a way of evoking the desire of the Other. I don't take it that the choice between gaze as you're describing it and gaze as object as Lacan is describing it is an exclusive one. Moreover, you might recall the passages from Seminar 11 where Lacan speaks of the manner in which drive can easily shift from active (seeing) to passive (being seen) to middle voice.

November 30, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Just glanced at Olin. Her reading of Lacan is that for him "the eye and the gaze, although split, are part of the same person; for the gaze is projected, imagined. It is not the gaze of a real person who wishes to malevolently deprive us of our independence as subjects, but the result of our own struggle for self-mastery" (2003, p.325).

Now my question about the absent gaze is: Is this absence already fully implied in the gaze, or do we have to step outside it somehow to arrive at this? (And whether direct or indirect, how many steps is it from gaze to absent gaze? Just one? Two? Four?)

December 01, 2006 12:42 PM  

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