Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Contemporary Problems, My Response to Chapter 3

2011.NOV.04                        Chapter 3, Modernity: Spectatorship, Power and Knowledge

  Key Questions from Presentation
Descartes and the Enlightenment; is it a bad thing?
Modern figures, Freud, Lacan, we are created with a certain unconscious: what is ego?
Do we all see equally, with same gaze (gender viewing), power or privilege?
Define gaze? (do we need terms like these?): Gaze always creates Other, e.g. ‘exotic’
Entire apparatus of how vision works, who sees, what they see, how it makes them

Marx, Foucault: are we all the same (middle) class? How to define class? Or power?
Aren’t norms, discipline, natural? Aren’t norms a good thing?
       Share humanity, universal values, progress?
Or is there always dominant terms in binaries? (B/c everything defined by what it is not)

Whole, modern subject: independent, responsible, individual choices, tastes
Rational actor, modern subject the basis of market capitalism, act in own best interests
Free to put on whatever role we want? What’s stopping you?

  My Key Questions
Spectator a specific term: something formed in the act of seeing, vision
       not by rational, independent modern subject: not a fixed category
Created by discourses, the sum of knowledge and shared rules around given practices
Foucault, Order of Things: madness, sexuality, design: discourses that produce subjects
Media do too; photography, surveillance, architecture (Panopticon), clothing etc.
Look at objective determinations of the things that make up our identity
       Word means both unique and collective, what classifies you and what is unique, defines you
First chapter of his thesis, Las Meninas
Describes gesture of painter, he stands back, we see back of canvas; he will disappear in a minute behind canvas; caught mid-oscillation between being visible and seeing his painting; between seeing and being seen, back and forth; looking at us
Can’t see what he is seeing, just back of canvas; (would even the painting be what he is seeing?); but the painting we do see is what he must have seen; we are pinned on a line between his gaze and ours, “pure reciprocity”; but not between viewers and artist, but original subject; spectators are additional, incidental? although they (we) are the real purpose of the painting, to be shown to, “no gaze is stable.”

Unable to see painting, can’t fix what he is looking at; painter’s gaze instead seizes, fixes us, changing array of viewers; Light floods from almost invisible window in sharp angle to right; light shows artist the characters in studio, and his vision is lit up, but invisible to us; like a psyche, we see only the back of the canvas
Pictures on back wall, one different, with two silhouettes with a curtain; mirror, opens up what other canvas hides; this is the only visible representation in the picture, no one is looking at it; it is visibility itself, but without anyone to apprehend it; reflects nothing we can see in the space of the painting;
Dutch mirrors refracted and distorted original picture, backs of the subjects e.g. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini; why not reflect what is in front of it, in front of us? Establish identities here of all characters; Vélazquez, King Philip, Infanta (Princess) etc.; but these labels, words, are inadequate work too differently from images; lighted stairs at back, what he is looking at, from a hidden space behind canvas; list of characters in foreground, Infanta’s gaze, eyes dead centre of picture and straight out at us, and one-third up the canvas; maid to left, gaze fixed at right angles to hers, but looking only at her
Everyone finally focused o what is outside the painting, what is not of the painting is the key to what it is; King and Queen in mirror; attitude of characters suggests attention is due; but they are pale shadows in highly detailed and sharp-focused picture, and no one is looking at their representation, in mirror; yet they are the centre that orders the entire tableau
Everyone is in the same spot: the painter (of the actual painting, Las Meninas); the king; and the viewers
The gaze is transferrable like that; creates us as spectators, playing roles in order to see; we demand to simply solve the visual puzzle, to just see it simply for what it is; we miss that it is creating us, structuring our vision, demanding we be subject to it; everything here is pointing to what is not there
Baroque at start of the modern; self-reflexivity, about subjectivity and experience of alienation
Does design capture us and position us like that? Gets us to buy in to the vision of consistency, identity
Could we write about design like that, how it makes meaning out of what is not there, how type works, or composition
Raymond Williams, Politics of Modernism, Table of Contents tells us what his concerns were, and how he saw modernity as more than an artistic style:
When was Modernism?

The Politics of the Avant-Garde

Language and the Avant-Garde 

Theatre as a Political Forum

Cinema and Socialism

Culture and Technology 

The Future of Cultural Studies

The Uses of Cultural Theory
Cultural studies has become essential to every other discipline in the humanities, asking questions about every assumption of what and how we study things
Cultural studies also underwent a visual turn, came to understand the importance of images, and to see texts as images (the definition of design), not just reading texts in social context
Where are we now? Habermas arriving at awareness of Postmodern, beyond rational, efficient form
Habermas Modernity—an Unfinished Project
Modernity more than modern, the now; systematic way of life, not just change from the past
1960s US avant-garde rehearses 1920s Euro avant-garde, modernism loosens disciplines
Modernism exhausted, “dominant but dead”
Culture of modernism blamed for decay, loose morals, speed, hedonism, and loss of tradition
Rulers want “economic and administrative rationality,” but oppose “societal modernization” (8)
Lose faith in liberal culture, liberal arts, and liberal education; art underlies its distance from society
Critique dissolves art, auto-critique, containers shattered; no synthesis, no vision of possible future
“An emancipatory effect does not follow” (11) — i.e. no freedom coming from that direction
Modernity in art distorted in absence of modern ethics / politics, or modern reason / science
Also intrusion of art into life creates distortions, loses its autonomy, its only value and must compensate for absence of real modernity in other areas of life; art’s self-negation is a failure in this backward culture
Project of modernity not yet complete, neo-conservative conclusions arise from
       expertly administered culture
Postmodernism seen as reactionary, i.e., product of modernity in arts alone
Postmodernism vs. poststructuralism: the first is a broad theory of social and artistic change
Poststructuralism a philosophical argument about meaning, the self-defeating limits of language
We do not do or say what we think we are doing or saying
Poststructuralism, deconstruction, does not find the ‘real’ meaning, analyze it or dig it up
It traces the impossibility of saying precisely this or that: a frustrating game at the limits of language
Designers just want to be clear; this is a theory of why you can’t ever really be clear, exactly
Derrida,  Of Grammatology
Translator’s “Preface,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Do we ‘send’ a message? Or pick up bits and pieces of existing system, language, and disseminate them
Messages scatter, and never reach their destination, in a defined meaning, or clear reception
Messages defined by what is not there, their place within a system, what they aren’t saying, absence
Signs don’t trace back to original meaning; lead to others, suspended indefinitely, a chain of signifiers
Is experience some final guide to understanding? We experience the world through language
Helvetica’s meaning is changed by new sans serifs, shaped by what it is not, i.e. Ariel, Akzidenz etc.
It is metaphor, a kind of metaphysics (ghosts and other presences) to think the meaning is in there
Illusion of ‘depth,’ we want meaning to come from somewhere original (to be an author, the authority)
All identity a product of language, endless play of inadequate texts: we are empty signifiers,
       determined by the play of difference from other things
We are permanently marked and by what are not: psyche carries “the trace of a perennial alterity [something other than itself].” 


  1. Chapter 3

    The world uses a system of binary opposites. There is always going to be an opposite to anything. Therefore the term gaze is perfectly fine to use. (And if it wasn’t and we stopped using the term, vision and the way of looking we refer to as “the gaze” wouldn’t stop as long as we have vision, so does it matter if we use the term?) Its not just the gaze that makes us think of the other, its not just vision. Its every sense. Sounds does it as well. Right now I hear the loud thunder of a train rumbling by my house. I much prefer the quiet. Quiet vs. loud = opposites. Or train vs. hum of computer = my personal binaries. That other will always be present. The same can be applied to smell, touch, and taste (coffee with cream vs. sugar vs. both, coffee or tea?). It is not only gaze. It is the binary opposite that makes something what it is. Can we fully comprehend what something is, can we fully experience it, without knowledge or experience of the other, the opposite?

    There are dominant sets of binaries, obvious solutions, but the binaries don’t always have to be what we expect. They are not always the clear answer, or even clear opposites. Instead of the obvious loud vs. quiet, maybe I don’t prefer quiet. Maybe I prefer music to trains. Or maybe I prefer thinking when its quiet, but trains when I’m doing something else. The binaries don’t have to be typical. They don’t even need to be fixed or constant. You can switch between the two, or are there more that just two? Can I say train vs. music vs. hum of computer vs. silent? Or can I choose them all? None of these are dominant, none are best. None are even fixed. They can change in a second. The same as with the gaze. Who is the other? It’s not always the typical colonial story of white European vs. exotic African. There’s more to the story than that. It’s the differences that make something what it is, for us to completely understand, but there isn’t just one difference.

  2. "The gaze is transferrable like that; creates us as spectators, playing roles in order to see; we demand to simply solve the visual puzzle, to just see it simply for what it is; we miss that it is creating us, structuring our vision, demanding we be subject to it; everything here is pointing to what is not there"

    In the notes, this section was referring to the painting by Diego Velázquez in which he creates different gazes. This concept reminded me of the way in which advertisements use this idea to sell their products. When we watch an ad, there is no simple puzzle to solve. For example, a Coke ad is not just about buying the product to quench your thirst. Instead it is selling us what is not there and what cannot be physically given to us by drinking the product. Coke advertisements show diverse and fun individuals with unique music preferences and trendy clothing enjoying themselves while drinking the product. When you buy coke, you don't get a list of songs or clothing stores to shop at to become "cool". Thus the ads are pointing to something that is not actually found in the product itself. It is selling through metacommunication, which is when the ad speaks to the viewers about the process of looking at the ad.

    The "Chanel No. 5" advertisement with Audrey Tatou is a perfect example of this selling tactics. If you haven't seen the ad before you can check it out at: When you watch the ad, you realize it is so much more than simply buying the perfume because it smells good. You watch the ad and you want to be travelling to another country like Paris in that quaint train. You want to find that lover who is taken up by you after seeing or rather smelling you just once. You want her adventurous lifestyle of roaming about the country without any pressing problems. It is these things that make you envy her. The perfume is just the starting point. It's incredible how advertisements use this idea of the gaze where the viewer is essentially "playing roles" to see what lifestyle they want and could supposedly have if they buy that product.

    In the textbook, Sturkin and Cartwright talk about the photographic gaze which shows the relationship of power through differences. For instance, a series of Absolut Vodka ads show the shape of their bottle in foreign or exotic settings. At the bottom it would say "Absolut Tokyo" or "Absolut Blahnik". These ads are targeted to the "white man" who can experience this exoticism by drinking that product. But that sheer ignorance is what irritates me. They refer to anything that is slightly different to their norms as being exotic. In an attempt to emulate that difference, they create their own version and label it as being the same. For example, many people adore Korean BBQ but in reality the real Korean BBQ is nothing like what it is here in Canada and the United States. They take these foreign concepts and bastardize it to fit them. They label drinks like "chai tea" which is ridiculous because in the Indian culture chai means tea. If the North American culture really wanted to learn and adapt other cultures, then they should have actually taken the time to look at the culture. Through this, one can see how this culture likes to feel superior to other cultures by making their traditions the "norm" and everything else "exotic". Thus it is these beliefs and ideas, that advertisers use when selling products to their target market in North America.

  3. I believe that the transferrable gaze of Velazquez's Les Meninas can be linked to design in that it creates spectators that must solve the puzzle through signifiers to understand the signified, the design demanding that the viewers become subject to it in this sense. Perhaps design isn't meant to be written about as fine art is, as typography and composition don't necessarily have hidden meanings although they could be used as elements to guide one's eye through a piece to help decode it the way the designer intended, yet design is meant most of the time to capture and position the viewers in a persuasive manner, structuring their vision just like Valezquez has, yet most times it is not to decode some deep underlying meaning like how it is usually in fine arts, but to create a sense of want. By placing the viewer into the painting indirectly through the use of a mirror, Valezquez has used a similar technique in modern advertising and design today. Or, I guess I should say modern advertising and design use a similar technique as Valezquez. As it is, the meaning of his painting is hidden in what is not there, just like advertisements and commercial design do not use blatant, to the point messages to get their audience to buy into what they're selling. What the audience sees perhaps, is a lifestyle they want, that they can visualize themselves having through the same effect that is used in Les Meninas - the transferrable gaze.

    On the topic of poststructuralism, I feel that the idea of the self-defeating limits of language does not in fact hinder design at all. If it is impossible to be clear with text, then perhaps it is design itself that is the closest thing there is to clear communication. With the use of known and extensively researched and observed signifiers/signified in a specific society or community, such as symbols, images along with words and phrases, design doesn't need to solely rely on language to make it's message clear, but instead uses a combination of all of the above in order to get it's intended message through to the audience. One might agree that communication and deconstruction are ever-evolving things, and that it is the designer's duty to move the process forward in any way possible as designers are in fact professional communicators and this task is one directly related to the job.

  4. Claudia Yuen

  5. "No Gaze is stable". This statements is very true, but also opens many doors for interpretation and discussion, as sometimes the creator tries to get the viewer's gaze as 'stable' as possible, whereas some creators leave all the cards out on the table. Take designers vs. abstracts artists for example; A designer working for an ad agency works towards guiding the viewers gaze to a very intended message (buy these Ray-Bans, or you are just not as cool as those who will have them), and if that message gets lost, the designer did not do their job. Using binary opposites, and comparing one thing to another (cool vs. uncool), it creates a situation and sparks thought and emotion. Abstract artists on the other hand, have their own reasons behind their work but would never expect the viewers to understand a structured message or image. Yes, it is true that people may all have various views of pieces such as ads, but as long as the sense of desire for that product is taken away, it is safe to say that the gaze was close to, but not exactly, stable among viewers. It is the other, minor things about the ad that are unstable to people and create this idea of how viewers make meaning and what it is that draws them in.

    If the ad were to have say, a tall, brown haired, fit, male figure with his shirt off, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, a female viewer such as myself will stop doing what they are doing to look at this ad. A viewer such as myself, will focus the gaze on the minor things such as the handsome figure, leading to the intended message of the desirable sunglasses. On the other hand, someone who does not find the figure so attractive, but enjoys the music playing in the background will also find this ad desirable. These unstable parts of the gaze define us as viewers. It is these differences as well as opposites that define viewers and create an “ego” or an independent person. Everyone is different in their views and desires, and if we weren’t, I don’t think the world would be where it is today. Because everyone views things differently, it is these gazes that lead to new things.

    The gaze can be broken down further past just the senses (such as seeing something with our eyes) but digs deeper as the mind starts to process. The mind “sees” then it judges, relates, and creates more thoughts. As Descartes says: “And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.” Everyone sees the same physical object and shape, but it is how it is processed that makes the gaze unstable, and defines us as viewers. Without defining things as they are not, in compared to other things, everything would stay the same and the world would not be as it is today. Something must be viewed in comparison to the other things in the world around them, otherwise there would be no development or thought, and we would not have “things” at all.

  6. Gaze is used to describe the relationship between the act of looking, the desires that lay behind looking, as well as being looked at by other people. It is not so much an action, but more so a way to describe the correlation of what is happening and why it is happening. The Gaze also in a sense has power, or can be used to create power. The feeling of being watched can deter people from doing things (like committing crimes etc). We are subjected to this “relentless gaze” on a daily basis. Surveillance cameras are extremely common and put in most stores and shopping malls. This is used to prevent people from stealing. These cameras have even started showing up on the tops of traffic lights. We are put under the gaze of the governments and people of authority for the majority of our day. This gaze can lead one to believe that they are committing a crime or about to. It gives a sense of right and wrong.

    With this being said the gaze works hand in hand with a system of knowledge and understanding known as “binary opposites.” These opposites help use organize information and form meaning. For example, right and wrong, up and down, the “norm” and the “other.” There is always going to be an opposite to something, which can be describe as “the other.” Although these lines can be blurred on some occasion, in design and advertising the binary opposite of “the norm” and “the other” can be used to create a sense of exoticism. They attach this perception of being exotic to their product in hopes that it will sell and bring interest. With this being said, the gaze creates other, hold true as it done subconsciously to help create meaning.

  7. We do not see equally with the same gaze since there is the gender, power and privilege, which define the gaze we use. We have a common gaze between the dialectic gaze, the ideal ego and the ego ideal. Beyond that our gazes differ based upon our gender, if we have power in the situation (for example if you are right in the argument you may see the other individual as less whereas if you’re wrong you might see defeat or see the other person as a tyrant) and also what types of privileges we have.

    Class can be defined by varying factors, which are similar to how we might choose to define power. Class can be defined by how much money an individual may have which can be direct correlation with how much power they may have over a situation (for example a client will have more power over a person providing the services simply because they are paying). Class can be defined as a group of people who have common attributes characteristics, qualities or traits which have put them together and that could lead to power in numbers as well. We can go on to show that class can be defined by clothing, job status, seniority, etc. all which can have a clear correlation to power.

    There is no dominant term in binaries. Binaries can be whatever you want them to be or not to be. Binary opposition is a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning such as up and down or left and right. Yet they do not need to be limited to these two oppositions therefore they do not have to be dominated. They can be oppositions such as bright against light against dark and even you could choose natural light as a complete alternative option. You choose between breezy, windy and blustered days, which are all opposites of one another.

    All this applies to design in that each person perceives everything differently. An ad can be beautifully designed but can easily offend someone who sees the image as it was not intended.

  8. Can we, in some way, revive the modern mentality of innovation and new-found efficiency and transform it to suit the needs of a sustainable world? Are sustainability and modernity opposites simply because modernity dug a hole so deep for the world that it seems almost impossible to emerge? I’m not sure if these concepts would be able to coexist and if reverting to a modern mentality would do anything to provide the innovative answers we need to create solutions to our wicked problems. Would modern certainty limit us in creating these solutions, or would it help us focus on the task at hand? Modern society did succeed in doing a lot, whether or not it was ethical or responsible and if industry would have begun with long-term, rather than short-term gain in mind, society would most likely have been designed in a sustainable, responsible and ethical fashion. This would’ve eliminated many issues such as unsustainable practices, international hunger, and so on. Is the state of the world now simply due to some sort of inherent selfishness of humans? Could we harness modernity’s industriousness and repurpose it? What does this have to do with design?

    Much of the design which we’re producing right now as students has no real significance in the big picture. Likewise, most modern design didn’t really do anything to combat these issues specifically either. Should the efforts of designers be focused to simply combat these problems through the redesigning of new products and services so that they use resources in a sustainable manner and limit waste and energy consumption? Are nicely designed posters that are “pretty,” really doing anything positive, or are they just killing trees, wasting ink and pollution the Earth? What purpose is design going to serve in the future? I think perhaps in order to combat these increasingly serious problems, design for design’s sake will have to be put on hold at some point and its efforts focused into something “constructive.” Then, slowly, it may be able to be reintroduced and reinvented as an industry that can be self-indulgent without leaving a footprint. Although much of the economy is dependent on good design, the more serious problems of ecological collapse sort of urges us to reevaluate all aspects of society. Design is important. Arguably, it is one of the most important professions in contemporary society as the human-made world needs badly to be redesigned. However, not everything design does is this important. Do we need to suspend self-indulgent design for the time being; is it simply a waste of efforts or is it instrumental in creating new ideas which will help us solve the big problems? Do we need to redesign as we go, making only responsible design choices in even our self-indulgent projects (such as concert posters, for example, which have no real environmental benefits)? Design’s significance going forward causes me to question what its producing now. When will it come to the point where we’re all going to be forced to put away our fancy paper stock for a bit and save the world?

  9. I might actually argue what we produce as students, can be more significant in the "big picture". In the "real world" the stakes can be higher than just a bad mark, leaving students the opportunity to push design farther from being simply "good" design. Isn't something more worthwhile and significant if it makes your peers question wether or not it is "good", or wether its a complete mess? In that you've taken design farther. And if design is so important to society, is it not necessary we push the limits of our own field, or is that to artistic? Are we not designing a gaze? In which we see design as more communicative than abstract art, or as "one of the most important professions".

    Also, when people threaten that "the real world is harder than school", doesn't it just feel like the same threat in high school "work hard because post-secondary you will drop your grade 10%!". However I think this is a process also of gaze. Whereas we've created a system of a powerful future (to be fearful of a more difficult future) , whereas only the privileged will achieve getting into and graduating post secondary, or graduating and landing a job. Which looks at the question of "Aren’t norms, discipline, natural? Aren’t norms a good thing?" Doesn't this create a class system? Does having these norms lead us to have more fulfilling lives?