Group: Jonah, Spencer, Frances, and Jo
The phenomenon of looking can be thought of as consisting of two composite parts: seeing and interpreting. Seeing, the visual experience of something happening before one’s own eyes, or gazing upon a representation such as a photograph or piece of visual art, forms the principal step of looking. However, it is often subservient to the act of interpreting. Seeing is merely the intake of visual information, while interpretation places this pure information into the appropriate context. Interpreting facilitates understanding, where the viewer ascribes a meaning and a narrative to the pure images in front of them. It is the difference between saying “I saw his mouth frown, his eyebrows furor, and his face turn red,” and “I saw his face disfigured by anger.” Only after interpretation can the act of looking be of any use to the looker; as images are not useful in isolation, but rather as a part of narrative.
In her monumental work Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag introduces the idea that looking is not a neutral process, but a heavily subjective one based in large part on identity. Oftentimes two people witnessing the same event will come away without a unified interpretation, despite ostensibly “seeing” the same thing. Each person’s understanding of what they saw is colored by their identity and political outlook. Sontag examines the politics of looking in regards to war photography, pointing out that images of brutality, far from being the universal condemnation of violence that anti-war activists would hope for, can actually be interpreted in a huge variety of ways based on the identity of the viewer.
When critiquing the anti-war rhetoric of famed feminist writer Virgina Woolf, Sontag writes “For Woolf, as for many antiwar polemicists, war is generic, and the images she describes are of anonymous, generic victims.” This is how war is viewed by those who have the privilege to be casual observers— those who do not have skin in the game, so to speak. Those who are invested in war, however, regardless of side, will see these images through the lense of combat and therefore extrapolate the meanings of these images in order to align with their previously held political convictions. Humans, as a rule, are generally not amenable to thinking of themselves as incorrect. Especially when presented with the brutality of war, it is oftentimes more psychologically comfortable to interpret suffering in a way that confirms previously held beliefs. Otherwise, one risks causing a conflict of identity, by thinking of himself or those he classes as like himself as brutalizers or accomplices to violence, rather than righteous fighters for justice. Sontag demonstrates how identity influences the phenomenon of looking with a particularly relevant and visceral example, writing: “To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything.”
Sontag’s idea that identity forms how we interact with images is not a new one. In one of the most influential essays in all of film studies, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” feminsit film critic Laura Mulvey developed this notion into the concept of the male gaze, a prime example of how identity and power relationships inform the act of looking, and the interpretation of what is seen. For Mulvey, the way men see women, and the way that women are seen by men have enormous consequences in how media is created and differently interpreted by men and women. So if gender, politics and nationality can inform the dual processes of seeing and interpretation, how do these aspects of identity inform the gazing upon the divine?
In the Old English poem Danial, King Nebuchadnezzar’s political position as oppressor of the Jewish people, and his spiritual identity as a pagan obstruct his ability to look, preventing him from interpreting the acts of God, despite seeing them firsthand. The differences of interpretation (or the lack of a coherent interpretation) is similar to how Sontag demonstrates the ways adversarial identity can influence modes of perception. Like the differing reactions to seeing war photography based on the viewer’s identities, the differing reactions to seeing divine works are heavily influenced by one’s spiritual identity and real-world relationship to God through His chosen people. However, Sontag’s secular concept is complicated through the integration of truth into the process of interpretation, and how identity can affect the ability to interpret the divine “truth.” In each instance of divine interference, from Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, to his seeing the survival of the Three Noble Youths from the fire and his inability to read the writing on the wall hints to a disconnect between what he is seeing and what he can interpret due to his identity. Nebuchadnezzar, despite “the truth being made known to him” in his dream cannot understand the meaning of the dream or what he has seen. The king’s pagan sorcerers similarly cannot interpret his dream, while Daniel, a Jew and a prophet of the Lord, is able to understand the king’s dream. Throughout the Old Testament, there is a deliberate emphasis on the exalted place of spiritual identity in regards to one’s ability to truly see and rightly interpret the works of God. The Jews as the chosen people of God are able to look upon His works, while pagans and oppressors may “see” miracles, but cannot interpret them because their spiritual identities prevent them from understanding these as works of the true God. Therefore, they cannot truly be understood as divine witnesses.
The role that identity plays in looking upon the divine is further explored in The Life of Saint Margaret, when nonbelievers are confronted with the image of Margaret’s divine suffering and her martyrdom. When Margaret is being beaten for refusing to surrender herself to the prefect and renounce the Lord, the surrounding women cannot bear to see her suffering, and compel her to submit herself to the prefect, saying “truly we all feel sorry for you, for we see you naked and your body being tormented.” Because these women are nonbelievers and cannot understand Margaret’s martyrdom, there is again an obstruction in their ability to look upon the divine; there is a disconnect between the physical suffering they are seeing, and its divine meaning that cannot be comprehended because of their paganess. The specific wording of the women’s plea for Margaret to submit herself to the prefect also seems to evoke an impression that the women’s gender is influencing how they are seeing Margaret’s suffering. Special attention is paid by the women to Margaret’s nakedness and the mutilation of her female body, indicating a sense of empathy that these women feel with Margaret’s suffering that is almost certainly heightened by their own identities as women. As they are not able to interpret Margaret’s suffering in the context of the divine, they instead understand her pain through the destruction of Margaret’s female form. The women’s interpretation of seeing Margaret’s bodily suffering can be contrasted with that of the prefect. Instead of empathizing with Margaret’s bodily suffering, he seems to take it as an affront to his authority saying, “if you do not obey me, my sword shall have mastery over your body.” This interpretation of Margaret’s suffering that focuses on it as an act of defiance, rather than a tragedy deserving of empathy shows the way gender dynamics can influence looking upon divine suffering. Because he does not have a female body, the prefect does not empathize with this aspect of Margaret’s suffering, and sees it instead through the lense of male domination of women. However, these modes of looking are united regardless of gender in their inability to truly interpret Margaret’s martyrdom because of their collective spiritual identities as nonbelievers.
The complex phenomenon of looking is heavily influenced by identity, whether that is in the differing responses to seeing the same images of violence based on political identity, or the differing responses to gazing upon the divine, based on religious and cultural identity. Evidently, seeing may or may not be believing, depending on who you ask.
Anlezark, Daniel. “Daniel.” Story. In Old Testament Narratives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.
The Life Of Saint Margaret