Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 1, May 1985

Watching TV, Watching Yourself: The Viewer and the Gaze

Rod Giblett

I switch on the TV. It's time for the news. The logo comes up and recedes, and then the newsreader takes over. He or she looks straight into the camera—I look straight at the TV. He or she gives a greeting like a stranger, then begins to read the news. Although he or she seems to be looking at me, he or she is not looking at me, but through me, at all viewers, or I am in all viewers, or all viewers are in me (see Lacan, 1973/1979: 75). Although we seem to be staring at each other, our gazes never meet, can never meet. Although it is as if he or she were speaking to me, he or she is speaking to everybody who is watching.

So I construct a fiction, or I am constructed in a fiction, which at the same time I know is a fiction, in which the newsreader looks at and speaks to me. It is as if I am reading a book which is addressed to me like a letter, but which I know is addressed to anyone who is reading it. I hold these two things together at the same time—that the newsreader is addressing me, but that it is a fiction. Although the second follows from the first, both are necessary for the practice of watching the news. Without the first there would be no communication of the news. If I did not think that the newsreader was in some ways addressing me, I would not listen to what he or she is saying. Without the second, there would be no construction of the viewer. If I really did think the newsreader was addressing me, I could reply to what he or she was saying. Instead I can only talk back to the TV. It is in this curious space constituted by the gaze and speech that TV news operates and I, as viewer, am caught up.

Although I speak now, I cannot speak to the newsreader then. I talk to the TV. I reply to what he or she is saying as if he or she could hear. But then I am constructed in this ambiguously past and conditional tense of 'could', which is suspended between conditions which can never be supplied in this situation: the actuality of being able to speak to people who speak to me and look at me, and the past when I have done so, when I am not watching TV.

So I speak to the TV and I gaze at the TV but I cannot return the gaze of the newsreader who gazes into the camera, and I cannot


speak to the newsreader who speaks into the microphone. I don't have the power to return his or her gaze, and so I am blinded, even though I can still see (see Lacan, 1973/1979: 84). I don't have the power to reply to him or her. I am rendered dumb, even though I can still speak. I can only see the TV and speak to the TV. I do not see and speak to the person on TV as an 'I'. I cease to be 'I'. I dissolve into this sightless, speechless, unseen, but sort-of-looked-at, unspoken to, but sort-of-spoken-to thing called the viewer. I'm not saying here that I hate TV, nor am I saying, 'Look, this is what TV does to you.' All I am saying is that this is what happens when we watch the TV news, this is the contract we enter into, this is what we don't simply collude with, but what is constructed out of collusion.

The newsreader drones on. The voice goes up and down, pauses and recommences, while the gaze continues fixedly looking into the camera, except for an occasional glance at the sheet of paper. The gaze is not connected to the voice, the gaze does not follow the rhythm of the voice. When I actually speak to someone, what I say and what he or she says to me relates to how we are looking at each other. We hold gazes when we want to say something important. We look away when we are uninterested in what the other person is saying, or when we are thinking of what to say to the other person. And so on. But on TV the newsreader gaze bears no relationship to the voice. The gaze stays above the voice like a flat sky, while the voice rises and falls beneath like a rolling sea.

The newsreader gazes into the camera. It is like someone watching me—it is like being a prisoner in Bentham's Panopticon, a design for a prison which comprised a ring of cells opening out towards a central observation tower from which the prisoner could be watched without knowing it (see Foucault, 1975/1979: 200-1). TV is like the Panopticon, 'a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad' (Foucault 1975/1979: 201-2). But, although I am seeing and not being seen when I watch the TV news, there is an image of someone who looks as if they are looking at me. The TV is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad into the see/not being seen/ but as if I were being seen triad.

In this triad, though, I am 'the object of information, never a subject in communication' (Foucault 1975/1979: 200). At least with the newsreader I am (also) the subject of a gaze which is a 'disciplinary apparatus'. A perfect disciplinary apparatus 'would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly' (Foucault 1975/1979: 173). When I watch the TV news, I am as close as physically possible to seeing everything, constantly. Instead of being the prison where


'the theme of the Panopticon—at once surveillance and observation, security and knowledge, individualisation and totalisation, isolation and transparency—found ... its privileged locus of realization' (Foucault, 1975/1979: 249), it is TV where it i8 still finding its realization, is still being realized.

Watching TV is not only like being in the cell of the Panopticon, but also like being in the tower at the same time. 'He who is subjected to a field of visibility inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles' (Foucault 1975/1979: 202). Watching TV is like watching myself, watching what I do, watching what I say: 'there is an observing gaze that watches over people and that each individual, due to the fact that he feels it weighing on him, finally internalises to the point where he observes himself: everyone in this way exercises surveillance over and against himself' (Foucault, 1978a: 12; 1978b: 155; see also Lacan 1973/1979: 75). In 1984 (the year of the book) Big Brother doesn't need TVs which are also cameras, as in Orwell's novel, since we are already watching ourselves in a way more complete than the random range of surveillance of Big Brother. Or is Big Brother not bureaucracy, or even the BBC, as Orwell thought, but a metaphor for, or super-egoization of, the gaze? So everyone is his own Big Brother, which is really more like Big 'F' Father.

Instead of someone watching me, instead of seeing myself seeing myself, seeing me being turned inside out to be watched from the out side by another, by myself as other, when I watch TV 'watch' me I do not see myself seeing myself, nor does someone else, so I am turned outside-in to be under the gaze and surveillance of the other from within (see Lacan, 1973/1979: 82). This outside-in structure of watching TV 'watching' me is the structure of the unconscious, which is constructed by the looking into the camera: 'it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious' (Benjamin, 1928/1979: 243). When I see the representation of someone looking into the camera, I too enter into this space.

The newsreader gazes on into the camera. But even as I have no power to meet his or her gaze, or speak in response, nor can he or she meet mine or speak to me. The newsreader could say, 'the camera records our likeness without returning our gaze. But looking at someone carries the implicit expectation that our gaze will be re turned by the object of our gaze' (Benjamin, 1939/1973a: 189-190; 1939/1973b: 147). But the newsreader doesn't look at someone. He or


she looks at something. But still at someone through or behind that something which would otherwise create the expectation that the gaze would be returned, just as for me when I am not watching TV. The newsreader is thus under the power to hold his or her gaze in the camera, even though knowing someone is looking straight into his or her eyes—the cameraman, and behind, or through him and his apparatus, the viewer.

So the gaze is no mere weapon which is used against me; and, though I cannot use it while I'm watching TV, it holds sway over those who use it: 'the gaze is not faithful to truth, nor subject to it, without asserting, at the same time, a supreme mastery: the gaze that sees is a gaze that dominates; and although it also knows how to subject itself, it dominates its masters' (Foucault 1963/1973: 39). It uses those who use it, so that it is not an instrument or power used on a passive and powerless object. It is one of 'man's' own particular conveyers of power which is used against 'man' 'himself'. 'God and the emperor had the power of the hand, man has the gaze' (Barthes, 1964/1972: 12). The gaze is not an instrument of power like the hand, which is simply used against another who is other, a created or political subject. It is a field in which the gazer does battle with the gazed upon, in which the gazer is implicated as soon as she or he uses the gaze.

But even if I cannot meet the gaze of the newsreader, even if I do not have the power to return the gaze, to reply to the speech, when the news switches to the depiction of events, to reports from here, there and everywhere, then I am relieved of this impotence of not being able to return the gaze, of not being able to speak in reply, as I am put in a position not only where I see what is going on in the world, but also in a position where I know about it. My position is like the cinema spectator's, which is 'one of power, specifically the power to understand events rather than to change them.... The spectator's position is that of the seer, who is able both to see and comprehend what is seen.... It is a position of knowledge which constructs the spectator as able to produce a vision of truth through the film.... The spectator is the point of intelligibility of the film' (Ellis, 1982: 81, 82, 83, 88). In this position seeing and knowing become equivalent; the camera sees for me, the journalist gives me the knowledge which goes with what I see, which is what I see. Nowhere else in my life, except when I see a film, am I put in this position of seeing what I know, of knowing what I see.

But this is another fiction, or a secondary fiction constructed upon, or inside, the first. This knowledge is not mine, does not come from


me, is not necessarily meant for me, nor is the power mine which it gives me. Knowledge is 'the space in which the subject may take up a position' (Foucault, 1969/1972: 182). The TV news demarcates a part of this space in which I may take up a position. The TV news gives the power to this knowledge which does not come from me: 'Power does not originate in the subject' (Bersani, 1977: 4). The TV news constructs a field in which I can take up a position at the intersection of power and knowledge: 'Between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power there is no exteriority' (Foucault, 1976/1981: 98). Power and knowledge are interior to each other, and the TV news folds me into this interiority, implicates me in their implicit relation ship with each other. 'We should admit that power produces knowledge; . . . that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations' (Foucault, 1975/1979: 27).

But this power/knowledge into which I am inserted is inert until I activate it in speaking about what I am seeing/knowing on TV and then I am reconstituted as a subject. Knowledge is 'that of which one can speak in a discursive practice' and it is also 'the space in which the subject may take up a position and speak of the objects with which he deals in his discourse' (Foucault, 1969/1972: 182). I cannot speak to the newsreader. In the speech of the newsreader I am lost, absent, there is no place for me to speak to reply to him or her. But when I speak to others in the room about what we are watching on TV, or when I speak to others afterwards about what I or we have seen on TV, then I am regained, reconstituted. I am no longer in the cell of the Panopticon, though I am still in the Panopticon. Instead of being in an individual cell, I am now in a dormitory prison, a communal machine for surveillance. So we watch TV together so that we can talk about it together, so that we can simultaneously experience this loss of our subjectivity when the newsreader and others on TV 'gaze' at us and 'speak' to us, when we plummet into the space of the unconscious, and also experience this recovery of subjectivity when we speak to each other of what we see/know. So we are doubly con firmed and comforted in our subjectivity by our compensation for the immense vertigo of its momentary loss.

The news takes a break for ads (at least on the channel we are watching). At the end of the Philishave ad the macho man gazes into the camera. During the Pulsar EXA Turbo ad the flashdancer gazes into the camera. At the end of the Fortron Strong Motor Oil ad the mechanic's animated calendar pin-up gazes into the camera in a stereotypically seductive way. How do I look back. How do I, depending


on the gender of the person which fills this shifter, meet these gazes? I have basically two options for looking, which are also available for the cinema spectator. These are:

two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator's fascination with and recognition of his like. The first is a function of the sexual instincts, the second of the ego libido. (Mulvey, 1975:10)

But equally I can adopt these positions with the newsreader, with Ann Conti or Rick Ardon. Either I can take pleasure from the representation of the figure on TV, or I can derive pleasure from seeing myself mirrored in the image on TV.

The position of scopophilia can also be differentiated into two different sorts, both of which produce narratives in which I am caught up, if I take up either of these positions:

It is further possible to argue that scopophilia, the normatively masculine form of the gaze, involves either voyeuristic or fetishistic modes of identification; and that these give rise to distinct forms of narrativization (a voyeuristic regime will tend to be distanced, analytic, and sadistic, and to generate articulated and linear narratives; a fetishistic regime will attempt to abolish narrative distance and is therefore 'only capable of producing an attenuated narration, a repetition of scenarios of desire, where the repetition around certain neuralgic points out weighs any resolution of a narrative enigma, any discovery or reordering of facts'. (Frow, quoting in part Ellis, 1983: 23-4)

What sort of narrative does the narcissistic mode of looking generate? A narrative which is cloistral and claustral, in which I identify with desirable and pleasurable images of myself which are always given back to me in specular exchange.

But it is difficult to be a voyeur when what I am watching seems to be looking at me in return. Maybe there is, in general, 'the lack of a truly voyeuristic position for the TV viewer' (Ellis, 1982: 163). Certainly, in particular, I cannot peer as if through a keyhole at what is on TV when it seems to be looking back at me. 'A voyeuristic regime of looking sets up a distance between the hidden seer and the seen' (Frow, n.d.). The voyeur is the one who sees without being seen. To be seen is to cease to be the voyeur. To be the voyeur I need to be the removed spectator of the Other scene, of the scene of the Other. But when that other seems to look at me, I am a part of that scene, the


other is no longer other.

This opens up the possibility of a third position I can take up when someone on TV gazes into the camera, which is not only a position I take up in looking, but also a position I take as if I were being looked at, yet knowing that I am not being looked at, a fictive position in the circuit of gazes on the third side of the seeing/not being seen/but as if I were being seen triad, a short-circuit on the trajectory from the subject to the Other (see Lacan 1977: 28). In this short circuit, the other is no long other, but the bearer of the gaze through which desire is mediated. I desire that this gaze sees me, but I know it can't, so I construct a fantasy in which we can exchange gazes. The object of my desire is not the Other but the gaze of the other (see Lacan 1977: 28). I never reach, never engage with the Other, but continually keep short-circuiting with images of the other projected and invested in his or her gaze.

In what sort of narrative does this position of fantasy implicate me? What sort of narrativization does this fictive mode of looking and being looked at produce? A fantasy narrative which is open and in which the gaze of the other is a kind of pure signifier which I can fill with a plethora of fantastic scenarios of pleasure. This is also fetishistic, for the gap between my gaze and the gaze of the other, and the absence which is the gaze of the other, is filled up and smoothed over to render it a pure and replete surface of inscription upon which those scenarios can be written.

But this article too is a fiction like the fictions I create/TV creates. Yet it is a fiction which is a 'truthful lie' (Lacan, 1973/1979: 144), for it presents the 'truth' of watching TV when someone on TV looks into the camera in a way that is not possible in any other way, even an abstruse theoretical way. For the gaze and speech slide across each other and escape each other unless they can be held in that point of writing, the first-person subject pronoun, the 'I' who writes, which is a fiction for the subject itself, the subject of speech and the gaze.

Thanks to John Frow for all his advice and comments on this fiction/article.

Rodney Giblett is a student at Murdoch University.


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