Seeing, Staring, Looking

[Seeing] is a product of battle-tested strategies and hard-won epistemologies honed into tools for carving out a space and habitation of survival.—Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection

Aaron Bady’s recent essay on Tarzan in American Literature (AL, open access, it’s a good thing) thinks through the fantasy-reality of Tarzan’s flight as Tarzan moves from Burroughs’s universe to other genres. If we remember anything of Tarzan, it is the spectacle of his flight, a spectacle that is invisible to the native villagers he terrorizes in the first novel, Tarzan of the Apes (1912). I find incredibly useful Aaron’s weaving of flight, spectacle, and terror, and also, the geo-racialization of spectacle: what can it mean to have access to the spectacle of Tarzan’s flight? And how do we make sense of Tarzan’s invisibility to the natives he terrorizes?

Spectacle and ghostliness are modes of racialization in Tarzan of the Apes. The terrorized African natives—themselves relatively ghostly given how little we learn about them—understand Tarzan as a spirit, unseen and malignant. Within their cosmology, the unseen Tarzan who, as Aaron points out, terrorizes through lynching, can only be approached through propitiation. He enacts his horrors while unseen. Here, it’s worth noting that the horrors he enacts range from the silly and mischievous to the truly ghastly.

I have been trying to think about what it means not to see Tarzan, that is, specifically, about the modes of racialization anchored around not seeing—taxes paid to a foreign government whose representatives are terror, for instance. And, more generally, about the modes of subjection anchored around not seeing. What kind of labor is entailed in seeing Tarzan? What battles must be fought for seeing to happen? And while I use seeing to suggest demystification, I am also interested in the more banal (if equally powerful) act or process of seeing. I am interested in the kinds of “battles,” to invoke Scott, fought to see. In a sense, I am interested in what W.J.T. Mitchell describes as “showing seeing”: “to overcome the veil of familiarity and self-evidence that surrounds the experience of seeing, and to turn it into a problem for analysis, a mystery to be unraveled.”

What would it mean for native villagers to see Tarzan? What names or paradigms would become available were they to see him stealing arrows and food and killing humans and animals? What names or paradigm would become available were they to see him living with his family of apes, fighting for dominance within that family? To invoke Scott again, what forms of “survival” become available through acts of seeing?
Staring is a state of being arrested by and in thrall to the extraordinary.—Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Ways of Staring”

A Nairobi story: a man would stand in the center of town and stare intently into the sky. Individuals would collect around him, intent on seeing the object-scene-situation being stared at. The original starer would then leave the staring crowd, laughing at the trick he had played.

Versions of this story abound—it is a true Nairobi story, a trickster tale, suggesting something about gullibility. We might choose to laugh with hare as he proceeds on his merry way. But I want to stay with the crowd, to think of what the collective, intent desire to stare might mean. I want, in other words, to return to the spectacle of Tarzan’s invisible flight as an object of desire, to think about the collectives who agglutinate around staring.

Let me be upfront: I am departing from Garland-Thomson’s essay in significant ways: she examines staring within the framework of disability studies, paying attention to the labor enacted by extraordinary faces and bodies—how they work on us, or work within a U.S. context. I think it’s important to mark geographies here, because staring does not work the same way in all places. There are protocols in place for where one should look and how one should look (at objects, at scenes, at others), and staring can provide a measure of relief—a certain freedom.

How might one read or re-read the collective Nairobi stare? What kinds of freedoms are possible when one stares from within a collective? What forms of togetherness (contingent, though they are) emerge from this shared experience of desire, of inclination? And while versions of this Nairobi story have so often focused on the duped crowd, I wonder if it’s possible think about the psychic loss occasioned by the trickster.

While I want to be attentive to geography, let me branch out a little to Nella Larsen’s Quicksand:

“Helga found herself wondering who they were, what they did, and of what they thought. What was passing behind those dark molds of flesh? . . . Yet, as she stepped out in the moving multi-colored crowd, there came to her a queer feeling of enthusiasm, as if she were tasting some agreeable, exotic food—sweetbreads, smothered with truffles and mushrooms—perhaps. And, oddly enough, she felt, too, that she had come home.”

Adjust the scene for a moment and picture these “dark molds of flesh” engaged in collective staring. Engaged in a seemingly meaningless random act of suspended meaning-making, the making of a collective “something” that might remain unnamed, but performs valuable work.

What might be “the extraordinary” conjured up by an act of collective staring? What forms of enthrallment are in play and at stake? And while I suggested the absent Tarzan as a possible object of enthrallment, it strikes me that the kind of collective staring I am thinking about might make Tarzan besides the point, precisely because its modes of object-making and situation-creating and event-becoming are so loosely tethered to spectacle. This is not “come see the massive accident.” It is, rather, come see. And that opens up other possibilities.
The right to look is not about merely seeing. . . . The right to look claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity.—Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Right to Look”

Nicholas Mirzoeff offers a useful genealogy of visuality and counter-visuality:

In tracing a decolonial genealogy of visuality, I have identified three primary complexes of visuality and countervisuality: the plantation complex that sustained the transatlantic slave trade; what was known to certain apologists for the British empire as the imperialist complex; and what President Dwight Eisenhower identified as the military-industrial complex, which is still very much with us.

More concretely (to my mind, at least):

Visuality’s first domains were the slave plantations, monitored by the surveillance of the overseer, the surrogate of the sovereign. This sovereign surveillance was reinforced by violent punishment and sustained a modern division of labor. Then from the late eighteenth century onward, visualizing was the hallmark of the modern general as the battlefield became too extensive and complex for any one person physically to see. Working on information supplied by subalterns—the new lowest ranked officer class created for this purpose—and his own ideas and images, the general in modern warfare as practiced and theorized by Karl von Clausewitz was responsible for visualizing the battlefield. Soon after this moment, visuality was named as such in English by Thomas Carlyle in 1840 to refer to what he called the tradition of heroic leadership, which visualizes history to sustain autocratic authority. In this form, visualizing is the production of visuality, meaning the making of the processes of history perceptible to authority. This visualizing was the attribute of the Hero and him alone. Visuality was held to be masculine, in tension with the right to look that has been variously depicted as feminine, lesbian, queer, or trans. Despite its oddities, the interface of Carlyle’s appropriation of the revolutionary hero and his visualizing of history as permanent war with the military strategy of visualization has had a long legacy. While Carlyle’s idea of mystical leadership was not a practical form of organization, British imperial visuality was organized by an army of missionaries bringing light to darkness by means of the Word, actively imagining themselves to be heroic subjects. The fascist leaders of twentieth-century Europe claimed direct inspiration from Carlyle, while today’s counterinsurgency doctrine indirectly relies on strategies of local and remote visualization.

What is one to make of the staring natives that populate imperial texts? That is, while I am very interested in the genealogy of visuality Mirzoeff sketches in this essay—I have yet to read the fuller book—I keep thinking about the multitudes of staring natives. That stare, often described as “blank” or “disturbing” is persistent. Its archive is vast. And it seems to me that we have yet to find ways to write about that particular stare—to register its textures and tones, to think about its ubiquity.

It has been easier for us, I think, to refuse what is disturbing about that stare, what is irritating, what is shameful, and to offer too-general explanations of resistance and subversion. No doubt, these are correct, but they also feel incomplete. The staring native remains startlingly invisible. We would rather accompany the Nairobi trickster in his playful subversiveness.
Seeing. Staring. Looking.

Despite what might sound like certainties—especially the very tentative argument I’ve suggested about the importance of theorizing native staring—I am still feeling my way through these variously (related) models of discussing the visual. I am fascinated by “blankness” and “expressionlessness,” intrigued and terrified by the pages upon pages of staring natives, and their afterlives in our semi-pornographic, genuinely Kenyan postcards.