I’m teaching a class this summer called Image/ Text/ Screen. Today my students and I watched the first part of the second episode of the BBC TV version of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It’s from, I guess, around 1972, and it’s worth watching for the mod 70s fashions alone. Really. There’s a pair of blue-green granny boots in this video that I can’t believe I don’t own.
If you didn’t take the time to watch it, and haven’t read the seminal (love that word, really) book of the same name, know that this episode focuses on the female nude in art and also on women as objects of the gaze (including their own). He narrates:
Men dream of women.
Women dream of themselves being dreamt of.
Men look at women.
Women watch themselves being looked at.
At the time, I imagine this was a very radical observation. Of course in some ways it is still true. But it doesn’t, in its elegant essentialism, really represent the reality of how women look at men, or at each other, or even how women look at themselves, does it? I think you could switch the genders in the quote above and it would be true, and would even be true in some cases if you had the same genders in each line. Do you agree with me? If so, do you think that has always been so or has our (everyone’s) situation changed dramatically in the past 40 years or so? Granted, there’s still a lot of “old thinking” left. One of my students, a male, insisted today that “men are more visual” and even printed out an article by some (male) sexologist to “prove” it. “Nonsense,” I told him, saying that no male “expert” can contradict my own experience.
The notion that men “own” the domain of the visual and the power of the gaze is so last century.
All the same, there are other remnants of the traditional Western way of seeing that linger, and that I have been noticing as I move through this project, namely,
1) the notion that to solicit the gaze by displaying oneself is somehow shameful and vain
2) the idea that clothing as a subject of discussion is trivial or superficial
The first point brings to mind those Western painters Berger mentions who, desiring to look at women, painted them nude, put mirrors in their hands, and made their paintings anti-vanity morality tales. The same is true of images of expulsion from Eden. What thin excuses! European cultures were so long steeped in this kind of culture of shame that it seems to have found its inverse extreme in the exhibitionist climate we now live in. Even the word “exhibitionist” has disparaging nuances. The fact is that we all exist as form in at least three dimensions, and we all have eyes, and image capturing devices, so why does the shame (or inverse “shamelessness”) around display (and this occurs to me, applies not only to visual display, but to verbal display as well) still linger? I don’t pretend to have an answer to this question. It’s just something I’m noticing.
Regarding the second point, it occurred to me today that clothing is in fact neither trivial nor superficial. Deciding what to wear is a daily aesthetic choice that everyone has to make. There’s nothing trivial about aesthetics. So much meaning and affect and history go into every one of these decisions. We assume that clothing is superficial because it covers the surface of our bodies, but really that is too literal and just wrongheaded. Cloth and clothes wrap us just after birth, in sleep, and even in death: nothing is closer to us or more intimate than the garments that touch our bodies (“nothing comes between me and my Calvinism”). The clothes are part of us.
Something else I have noticed: I am not interested in “fashion.” Not really. I am interested in clothing.
Fashion is about hegemony.
In the same way, I am not interested in what group of poets is ahead or who the powerful figures are or who gets to have the most secure toehold on eternity. This seems to be the focus of many squabbles on the blogs and elsewhere, and those are the sort of posts that get the most comments and attention. At the risk of sounding quaintly essentialist (or just insufferably superior) myself, I really do think this is a male concern. I’m interested in poets and poetry and poems, but not Poets and Poetry and Poems. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Today’s outfit really can hardly be called an outfit. It turned into an uncharacteristically-for-July cool and rainy day, and I really just threw this on. I wanted to wear the aloha dress I mentioned yesterday, but that really is a dress for a sunny day. Again, my students liked this outfit: the colors, they said. The bright orchid cardigan got a couple of nice compliments. I like the cutouts on the purple empire top, but I do think overall the ensemble looks very teenage, and not really artfully so, either. A co-worker stopped me on the campus at lunchtime to tell me I looked like a student.
It was so humid and sticky that I had to do something with my hair, which felt like a scratchy wool poncho, so I did this top bun thing and then the four braids on either side. I did it while waiting for my lunch to come at the Thai restaurant. Another co-worker, an Indian guy, stopped me later and said I looked like Laura from Little House on the Prairie. I thought to myself, don’t I look more like Shiva? Anyway. Here I am, looking tired today, because I have pain from using computers too much, and it’s rainy.
And here’s another co-worker, Cassandra Dawn, looking so cool in her Wayfarer glasses, understated navy shorts and t-shirt, and smudgy Converses:
It’s supposed to rain again tomorrow. Maybe I’ll put the damn dress on anyway? We’ll see.