Objects Stare Back

by jdavidcharles

The Levinasian conception of the experience of the other is, in short, that I encounter the face, the gaze of the other and am made responsible to it. It is by first encountering a human that is outside myself that I put myself into question—thus birthing ethics, how I am to act beyond myself and with others. Slavoj Žižek in a fabulous lecture series argues that Levinas stopped short—that is the concept of face that makes me responsible is not limited to humans alone. Who has not felt responsible or guilty when gazing into the face of an abused animal? Although a topic for another post, this is what is so sinister about meat production, namely the disavowal of the face of the animal, the destruction of the animal as other. Suffice to say, ethics is born not exclusively within like species, but across a gamut of inter-special experiences.

But should we stop short at animals? Is it too much to wonder if vegetables gaze back? Too much to ask if quasi-others, ie statues, pictures, film, music, sounds, equally have a face? From this line of questioning the post-phenomenologist deconstructionist in me wants to push this questioning to and beyond its own horizons. Which leads me to wonder if non-sensual objects, ie institutions, class-structure, gender, etc, also can gaze back. Here I think of OOO work done on hyperobjects, specifically Timothy Morton’s classic example of global warming as hyperobject (read some here). In short, global warming is not a directly tangible, isolate object like my laptop, however it is an object that invades my space while always being more than my experience of it (it withdraws). Global warming is not wholly, exhaustively found in any catastrophic experience of it (melting ice-caps, climate change, etc). Although not fully sold on OOO, I think I can comfortably enough adopt the term “hyperobject” and claim that hyperobjects gaze back.

I think here of Nietzsche’s all-too-often quoted aphorism, “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This is not a mere poetic anthropomorphism—one of Levinas’ points about the gaze is that it is an authentic experience which occurs outside of the self’s world or language, that is, the gaze is a cataclysm, a violence, an abyss—it tears into our very being and opens up a void. This void is guilt, responsibility, calling the self into question. Others otherness is rightly an assault of otherness, a harassment. We cannot appropriate it, reduce it to language, grasp it. It is pure abyss, non-language, and in that abyss is an authentic gaze calling our very being, way of life, into question. This is precisely how hyperobjects seem to function to me—class distinctions and global warming are avoided, repressed, denied, disavowed, until a radical rupture or collapse. Although we can “see” class oppression for instance before revolution or riot, we cannot see it seeing us until a cataclysmic assault. Revolution is an example of the cataclysmic otherness of class oppression gazing back, the abyss of the object unfolded, open, wide-eyed and staring back. How can we not be made responsible to this gaze, this void, this otherness? How can we not see the otherly gaze of animals, art, sound, other people, class, gender, kin-relations, global warming, et al? Are we not looking? Are we not looking long enough?