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Catherine Lucas: January 2012

Marcel Mauss: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

A Critical Review

Introduction

This essay will critically explore Mauss’ theories and findings relating to gift reciprocation, honour, and the concept of ‘free’ or ‘pure’ gifts without agenda. In the process of doing so I will incorporate the usage of these concepts by a variety of theorists writing on contemporary themes of gift use and exchange in modern societies. Although Mauss’ most acclaimed work in the influence of following anthropologists and sociologists, “The Gift” has encountered many criticisms where certain hypothesises appear to conflict with contemporary practices. Although focused on archaic societies, I will endeavour to show throughout the essay in a balanced manner, how we can use Mauss’ ideas in an enduring way when looking at certain aspects of economical and gift exchange systems in contemporary anthropology.

In order to begin to explore these three areas, we must first understand the ‘Potlatch’, the system through which gifts are exchanged, encompassing the acts of giving, receiving and most importantly in the text, the way they are reciprocated. As Mauss has it:

“The potlatch itself, so typical a phenomenon, and at the same time so characteristic of these tribes, [Melanesian and Polynesian] is none other than the system of gifts exchanged.” (Mauss, edited in 2001, p.45)

Particularly focusing on the Polynesians, Mauss shows us how from the development of this “whole system of gifts and this form of exchange” (ibid, p.26) we can trace societal meanings of generosity and responsibility of wealth. Generosity is the focus of the first part of the essay, and from this we look at concepts of honour. Finally, we can engage with contemporary criticisms to challenge theories surrounding the notions of ‘free’ gifts.

The Obligation to Reciprocate: Generosity and Greed

Mauss explores the obligations on us to give gifts and more importantly to reciprocate that which is given – in either equal or greater value than that which was received. In each given example of the practices and rituals of gift giving in a diverse variety of societies, (Hindu, Germanic, Roman, etc.) although the practice of gift exchange and the reasons behind them may differ, Mauss consistently impresses on us the constant re-encountering of the obligation to reciprocate gifts. The value of the returning gift is essential to maintaining alliances between parties and partial relations; giving too much may incur as much offence to the recipient as returning goods or services with too little value.

Mauss’ method of impressing this upon us through examples and folk tales of social ramifications from these errors serve to put the practical aspects of these theories into context. Mauss also uses the original native word in the subsequent Mother language for these exchanges, which are crucial to understanding the original symbolic meanings of the gift exchange.

If there is one criticism that I must give to his attempts, it is to the lack of consistent translation that Mauss is occasionally guilty of when evaluating words against others from different languages. For example, in exploring Germanic terms alongside Hindu, the un-translated words may be compared for the intricacies in their meanings, without re-evaluation of these given words. The denseness of information requires careful translation references on the part of the reader, in order to glean a full understanding of their symbolic connotations.

However, it should be noted that Mauss attempts simple translation of the root and the inherent symbolic meaning of unfamiliar words wherever necessary to differentiate a classification of ‘gift’.

Out of the obligation to give gifts, one can further explore the symbolic nature of generosity. Looking at wedding gifts in Germanic societies, Mauss gives a keen example of this symbolism by looking at the meaning behind the giving tradition: “In a few places the generosity of these gifts is proof of the fertility of the young couple.” (Mauss, 2001 ed. p.78) Generosity versus greed is an integral theme to the underlying moral intention inherent in gift exchange. A recurring notion is that “the recipient puts himself in a position of dependence vis-à-vis the donor” (ibid p.76) and by this notion Mauss illustrates the intricate moral balance inherent in gift exchange.

If we view the gift exchange as a moral contract there must be moral implications to how much is given and why. Gifts of too great a value, in the wrong context, may denote ill feeling towards the recipient of the object or service rendered. It shows a vulgar display of wealth intended to ‘flatten’ the recipient, and implies a challenge of further reciprocal wealth.

This display is very different to generosity of given wealth. It is a display intended to challenge rivals. Mauss explores the fear of being ‘beaten’ by superior gifts in his initial exploration of the Potlatch and its three main obligations, “to give, to receive, to reciprocate,” by focusing on the element of prestige acquired by giving a gift of high value. It is the issue of being obligated to accept a gift you fear being unable to match in reciprocation that is the focus here.

As Mauss asserts:

“The obligation to accept is no less constraining. One has no right to refuse to attend the potlatch. To act in this way is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate, to fear being “flattened” [i.e. losing one’s name]…to admit oneself beaten in advance…”(Ibid p.52)

To be ‘beaten’ by a gift is to show inferior wealth, and also inferior generosity by failure of appropriate reciprocation. Mauss uses direct and firm language when expressing this idea, further cementing its importance in the theory. The physicality of the language – the notion of being ‘flattened,’ implies a physical presence of this shame on the beaten party, and the resultant sore effect on their societal standing.

Honour and Wealth

Gregory cites Mauss’ influence on anthropological interpretation of “competitive gift exchange systems” in his essay on ‘gift exchange …in contemporary Papua’ (Gregory, 1980) in which he explores the symbolic ‘destruction of wealth’ in ritual gift offerings to gods as well as other men, and the idea that wealth that is distributed generously will be revisited on them. He suggests that better than the giving of wealth to other men, the giving of it to gods enforces a faith in the power of the gift exchange and the power of the obligation to reciprocate the gift, even if it is not in a material sense. He looks to wealth gathered by the Church and by charitable organisations, and the faith from the benefactor that these gifts will be used in a manner befitting the sacrifice. In practice, he sees that monetary wealth in particular is used for many other uses by the beneficiary than that which it was intended.

It is interesting to note that this essay looking at a contemporary although to some extent tribal society (village societies in Papua New Guinea) that still carries rituals as a part of its symbolic nature, does no longer fully align with the ideologies surrounding generosity and greed that Mauss perceives in archaic societies, particularly in Melanesia and Polynesia, which are noted influences in how Gregory approaches his subject.

Mauss refers to both Polynesian and Melanesian archaic societies where he addresses these questions of “honour and credit” (Mauss, 2001 ed. p.42) and its importance in the ‘system’ the gift and the reciprocated gifts are generated through. As symbols of social standing, Mauss argues that that which is exchanged serves “to reflect somewhat directly the manner in which the subgroups…feel that they are everything to one another.” (Ibid, pp.42-3.) The notion of honour acquired or maintained through generous giving is the driving force between relations with other groups, just as it is in the contemporary society Gregory explores. Giving wealth is a honourable institution, but further to this what we can take from Gregory’s use of Mauss is that giving without a full sense of how the wealth will be used (here we may read: monetary wealth,) is more honourable still.

Critics of Mauss and Defenders of the ‘Free Gift’

A key contended theme of the text is the rejection of the concept of ‘free gifts’ – donations willingly given without necessity of reciprocation. Mary Douglas explores it immediately in the foreword of the 2001 edition. The rejection of free gifts is contended in Laidlaw’s essay “A Free Gift Makes No Friends” (2000), in which he cites the ‘neglect’ to explore free gifts as a product of Mauss’ theories and their influence on cultural anthropologists since. Laidlaw uses the free or ‘pure’ gift as the main emphasis on the subject of the Gift, rather than Mauss who focuses on the gift exchange and the concept of contracts. Largely focused on religious donations or sacrifices, Laidlaw argues that Mauss’ emphasis on the importance of reciprocation destroys the symbolic nature and pure intent of the donation. He argues that the theory of seeking recognition by giving cheapens the intent of such a gift.

In the course of Laidlaw’s exploration of the ‘free gift’, he refers to Derrida (1992), who sets out the ‘conditions’ of so-called ‘free gifts’ in order to pursue some form of examination. His first condition is that the free gift cannot be reciprocated at all. This immediately forms a rift with Mauss’ strong analysis of the obligation to reciprocate on moral terms. Laidlaw suggests that a reciprocated gift immediately establishes an “‘economic’ cycle…and make[s] is part of an interested exchange…” (Laidlaw 2000, referring to Derrida, 1992), and that to avoid this exchange one must not see the gift “as a gift,” (ibid) but to ignore its occurrence. This he feels is the only way we can prevent the advent of a ‘debt’ that must be paid off.

One must ask whether such a theory is possible in practice, and Laidlaw unfortunately fails to offer any fully non-reciprocal practical example of this idea in action. Even if the gift is not socially acknowledged or physically reciprocated, the gratitude that may be extended towards the giver, even in silence, may not be reliably measured, and is this gratitude in itself not a form of intellectual reciprocation? I shall therefore leave Laidlaw’s critique to the side at this juncture.

Perhaps a better critic of Mauss to explore here is Titmuss, whose 1997 book “The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy” focuses on modern blood donations. Titmuss argues that anonymous blood donations may be “the closest approximation in social reality to the abstract concept of a ‘free human gift.’” (Titmuss 1997, p.140) Although he shows awareness that blood donors have “some expectation and [need] assurance that a return gift may be …received at some future time,” i.e. if they require a blood transfusion in the future they hope that others will have donated, they have no guarantee of this.

Where blood donation passes between strangers, Titmuss argues: “in terms of the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers there is no formal contract …and no explicit guarantee of or wish for a reward or return gift.” (Ibid) In this theory, the gift ‘exchange’ has no place in the context that the gift is given.

I can agree with Titmuss’ criticism to a point. Anonymous donation is without explicit contractual exchange between the donor and recipient, however to underline his argument Titmuss closes that these donations are “acts of free will; of the exercise of choice; of conscience without shame.” (Titmuss 1997, p.140 l.36-7)¨*

Looking at the action with its psychological implications, I cannot agree that any choice with an element of conscience can subscribe to an ‘act of free will.’ Rather, there are free-obligation acts, where the recipient through anonymity is free of obligation to reciprocate the gift. Mauss rarely makes reference to anonymity in gift-exchange in “The Gift,” which may be an oversight and worth exploring further.

Further to this, I would suggest that the donor is tied to the giving of this ‘free’ gift through conscience; he fears that without his own participation in the donation scheme he may not receive blood himself if required. In this manner the donor is tied to this gift, even when it is the closest example of a ‘free’ gift; and this returns us to Mauss’ theories concerning morality as examined above. Mauss in his exploration of Classical Hindu Law in “The Gift” keenly illustrates the theory of belief in that any gifts given even ‘freely’ and in “charity and hospitality” are hoped to be revisited on the giver at some point: “In this world and the next, what is given away is acquired once more.” (Mauss, ed. 2001. p.73, quoting a Hindu text.)

Conclusion

“It is common knowledge that men present themselves publicly by the conspicuous presentation if gifts. Generous contributions to a charity have always been a source of prestige in the United States…especially…when such gestures are made by individuals rather than corporations…” says Schwartz (1967)

The social standing created through gift exchange is a key element of Mauss’ dialogue and as we have explored, the influence of these theories continue to exert their authority on anthropologists and sociologists today. However, few have attempted the feat achieved by Mauss of encompassing so many societies and their rituals into one area of social exchange.

The elements of this discourse discussed in this essay do, I feel, review the key areas inherent in studying concepts of ‘the gift.’ As Mauss himself concludes, this study encompasses “…science of customs [and]…moral conclusions,” where the gift serves as a tool to analyse the use of “wealth amassed and then redistributed,” and how these exchanges can be used to theorise the symbolism of gifts, behind their practical outcomes of “mutual respect and reciprocating generosity.” (Mauss, ed. 2001, pp.106-107.)

Words: 2,525

References

Derrida, J (1992) Force of law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority (M. Quaintance, Trans.) in D. Cornell, M. Rosenfeld, D.G. Carlson (Eds) USA (New York): Routledge.

Godelier, Maurice (1999) The Enigma of the Gift. USA: Polity Press and University of Chicago. First published as L’Énigme du Don (1996) France: Librarie Arthème Fayard.

Gregory, C. A. (1980) Gifts to Men and Gifts to God: Gift Exchange and Capital Accumulation in Contemporary Papua in ‘Man, New Series,’ Vol. 15, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 626-652 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Laidlaw, James (2000) A Free Gift Makes No Friends, in ‘The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,’ Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), pp. 617- 634 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Mauss, Marcel (1925; 2001 ed.) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.

Michaels, A. and Pierce, P. (1997) Gift and Return Gift, Greeting and Return Greeting in India. On a Consequential Footnote by Marcel Mauss in ‘Numen,’ Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 242-269 Published by: BRILL

Schwartz, B. (1967) The Social Psychology of the Gift in ‘The American Journal of Sociology,’ Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jul., 1967), pp. 1-11 Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Strathern, Marilyn (1988) The Gender of the Gift. USA: University of California Press

Titmuss, Richard M. (1997) The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. UK: LSE Books


 

¨ *Note: Later, in chapter 16 of “The Gift Relationship,” Titmuss acknowledges that when Mauss “was in his seventies, blood transfusion services were in their infancy.” (p.276) We can only speculate on how Mauss would have aligned this form of donation with his theories on gift exchange and obligatory reciprocity.

Please accept apologies for any lack of quotation marks as they did not come straight over from the Word document I wrote the essay in. I have tried to fill them in wherever needed, however I may have missed a couple. Please do not plagarise this essay if you feel the urge, your degree ain’t worth it especially for my scribblings.

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Recently I was asked to reccommend some academic texts for the study of fashion alongside a cultural studies/anthropological theme. You can find the answer on the ‘about’ comments page, however I thought it might also be useful to paste it in here as a post too.

The following books are listed alphabetically by author, because that’s not only fair, but also it would be impossible for me to advise anyone on what books could be of most use to them. It depends entirely on the information you’re looking for, and the aims of your theoretical research. However, I do have a large personal library of academic texts surrounding anthropology and gender in particular, as well as fashion theory, and these have inevitably become interlinked with feminist texts, media and PR critical analysis, and various other intermingling topics, particularly psychoanalytical of late.

If you’re thinking about looking at the subject of fashion and culture, however, these texts might be a good starting point – I know they were for me:

Barthes, Roland (2004), The Language of Fashion. Berg Publications
Barthes is concerned with semiotics – i.e. the idea that everything can be taken as a sign or symbol for something else. I personally used this book to help me research Dandyism, of which this book has a short chapter, examining not only the techniques of this dressing style, but also its social ethos and political symbolism. The book is not very long, so I see it (perhaps mistakenly) as an additional add-on to Barthes earlier work, ‘The Fashion System,’ which is also excellent.

Crane, Diana (2000), Fashion and it’s Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. University of Chicago Press.
This book examines clothing not only as a mode of self expression, but as a mode of non-verbal reaction against social norms. It examines views on class and gender in particular, with a keen focus on outward expression of sexual orientation. I found the chapter “Fashion Images and the Struggle for Women’s Identity’ particularly impressive whilst researching for an essay on advertising in women’s fashion, and the notion of ‘building’ and embodying identities. However, the book also touches on political elements such as global markets, class and control, and also, unlike many books about fashion, devotes an entire section to a very interesting exploration of masculine identities as impressed through dress.

De Beauvoir, Simone (1949, republished 1997) The Second Sex. Vintage Classics.
Good lord, where to start on this book? It’s vast, for one thing. My own tattered but faithful copy looks like a hedgehog on acid, it has so many coloured tab markers in it! Helpfully segregated into two ‘books’, and these into various parts with their own chapters, De Beauvoir’s book is one of the most important books (in my very humble opinion) to study when looking at not only Gender studies, but also the social construction of ‘woman’ from infancy, through childhood, to adulthood, with the section on motherhood particularly interesting as it examines the idea that a mother is not a natural transitional identity, but must be in some ways socially formed. Anyway, I can’t go on about this because we would be here for many days!

Moore, Henrietta L (1988), Feminism and Anthropology. Polity Press.
It is very difficult to discuss Fashion, in an Anthropological sense, without looking at Feminism. I have a love/hate relationship with the subject, however it is important to understand certain movements of feminism (the so-called ‘waves’ are very different from each other and should influence the way we view movements in fashion and embodied identity differently). Moore’s book looks to the main social issues surrounding and impacting feminism, such as changing family structures, the viewing of and status of women in the workplace, and what ‘women’s work’ is or has evolved as, and perhaps most importantly, examines feminist critques in anthropology itself. The book has come under a lot of criticism, not all of it complimentary, but this by no means makes it less useful reading.

…Those are my ‘big four,’ if you will, for the specific area of focus on fashion and anthropology, however the following are equally important and very often influence my reading:

Butler, Judith, (1999) Gender Trouble. (Routledge)
Cole, Shaun (2000) Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay men’s dress in the twentieth century. (Berg)
Vinken, Barbara (2005) Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. (Berg)
Wolf, Naomi (1991) The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. (Vintage)

Various other theorists of interest:
Sophie Woodward (women and everyday dressing)*; Emma Tarlo (muslim and faith dressing and it social and political signifiers)*; Hannah Arendt (theories of loneliness); Valerie Steele (fashion theorist and historian); Joanne Entwistle (the dressed body); Donna Haraway (theories of cyborg and techonology in the social sphere); Ariel Levy (feminism); Germaine Greer (feminism); Frances Pine (women’s work and family roles in rural Poland)*, etc etc etc!

Also, if you have access to JStor or AnthroSource, these are invaluable search engines for academic articles and readings, as well as academic book reviews. Most universites have access to these and they are brilliant. I like to download and save interesting readings, even if I just think they might be of use at some point though not necessarily for what I’m researching at the time.

I hope all of this is useful to anyone looking into this subject area! If you have your own reccommendations, please leave comments for other people to be informed – and to inform me too!

(*okay, I’m biased, these three have been tutors of mine…)

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(Catherine Lucas, 2006)

Using the Psychoanalytical Notion of the ‘Male Gaze’ to Analyse Visual Examples from Film, Photography and Advertising:

Challenging whether this concept is still relevant to an understanding of our cultural production.

The feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in 1975.

“ Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29).”[1]

In considering concepts of pleasure, Mulvey ascertained two types of scopophilia, which is defined as a joy of ‘looking’. The first of which is ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ –the pleasure one gets from looking at others, which is highlighted in modern culture by the cinema, as we “in the darkness of the cinema auditorium … may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer … the voyeuristic process.”[2]

One may also identify with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera, which may intrude on habitually ‘private’ moments –for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “The Rear Window” contains intrusive shots into the windows of the protagonist’s neighbours so that the viewer may see what he is looking at out of his window –as he spies on the intimate moments of his fellow man, the audience may do the same by adopting the camera’s ‘gaze’ as their own, and so become secondary voyeurs. Mulvey argues that in most cases, the gaze one is adopting is intended as ‘male’ because it may portray women as objects. For example, “The Rear Window” focuses on woman as an image of desire, and the male protagonist as bearer of the gaze –the woman actively displays herself by exhibiting herself and her dress to the man.

This concept of voyeurism is still highly relevant when examining modern popular culture. Feminist writer Ariel Levy refers to the popular American ‘men’s’ TV show “Girls Gone Wild” as an example of a program specifically catering to the male gaze, yet also as an arguable example of what some women may view as an expression of female sexual liberation. Her in-depth investigation into the female exhibitionists who choose to partake in the show, which films ‘ordinary’ women in various states of undress and sometimes in scenes with other women, brought up this quote from “Girls Gone Wild” regular, Debbie Cope: “…yeah Girls Gone Wild is for guys to get off on, but…it’s fun!”[3] This quote clearly signifies an awareness of the male gaze, but also as an alternative to habitual feminist views against the use of the male gaze and suppression of a ‘female gaze’ in popular culture, a certain desire of some women to exhibit themselves for this very purpose –a trait explained by Mulvey’s theory of ‘narcissistic scopophila’[4] and exhibitionism, which will be explored in more depth as the essay progresses.

Many feminists argue, “…media images of women are always directed at men.”[5] However, this argument, once fuelled mainly by images from the pages of “Playboy” [Fig 1], seen by some as degrading to women, may now in our increasingly liberal culture even be traced into ‘prime time’ advertising, with the concept of voyeuristic scopophilia particularly apparent in the portrayal of some scenes, such as that which I shall now relate:

 

 Modern advertising is controlled in the United Kingdom by the Advertising Standards Agency, which ensure that what is shown on our television screens is politically correct and inoffensive. However, there is still strong evidence of the male gaze. Take, for example, the ‘Fashion versus Style’ advertising campaign[6] launched by French Connection UK. The basic plot of the advert was a fight between two girls [Fig 2a] clad in FCUK’s latest clothing line. However, as a twist towards the end of the advert, one of the girls pushes the other against a wall and kisses her [Fig 2b/2c]. This advert characterises a clear influence of the male gaze, from the point of view of women being exhibited and objectified as lesbians for a male fantasy ideal. On the other hand, feminists could argue that there is a pro-lesbian message behind the plot, and that this advert was shown on national television, approved by advertising standards, and signifies the furthering of public acceptance of exploration of female sexuality. That said, it was not an advert too widely enjoyed by heterosexual women, although the sensationalism of the advert certainly worked in the brand’s favour.

The FCUK advert is only one of many examples of the male gaze through voyeuristic scopophilia, though it may be seen as an extreme. The scene witnessed in the advertisement is shot in a ‘private’ setting, with no other characters; the audience’s gaze becomes a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to their emotions, culminating in the kiss, which in itself is categorised as an intimate and therefore private act.  “As Jonathan Schroeder notes, ‘Film has been called an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from a male point of view’ (Schroeder 1998, 208).”[7] The FCUK advert could definitely be categorised as a portrayal of male sexual fantasy, although ultimately the advert is supposedly aimed at women who would buy the clothing collection.

However, the lesbian element of the advert cannot be ignored, and brings us into the idea of the ‘homosexual gaze.’

“A useful account of ‘queer viewing’ is given by Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman (1995). Neale argues that ‘in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explictly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated, its erotic component repressed’ (Neale 1992, 281). Both Neale and Richard Dyer (1982) also challenged the idea that the male is never sexually objectified in mainstream cinema and argued that the male is not always the looker in control of the gaze. It is widely noted that since the 1980s there has been an increasing display and sexualisation of the male body in mainstream cinema and television and in advertising (Moore 1987, Evans & Gamman 1995, Mort 1996, Edwards 1997).”[8]

The homosexual gaze has been addressed more intensively as gay culture has made its way further into the mainstream. As can be ascertained from the FCUK advert, lesbianism, for example, is now an accepted idea which can be shown nationally and during peak viewing hours rather than ‘post-watershed’.

“The emergence on the gay scene of rockabillies coincided with a general interest in the 1950s. Interest in James Dean and Marlon Brando as icons grew, and advertising nodded a nostalgic head towards the fifties, with adverts such as the Launderette [Fig 3a] and Bath advertisements for Levi’s jeans.”[9] These adverts were part of campaigns in 1985, showing a clear admission of the homosexual gaze. However, the televised version of the ‘Laundrette’ advert showed women as the active viewers in the scene [Fig 3b], not exclusively homosexual men, suggesting less acceptability of such areas of human sexuality than is apparent in more straightforwardly subversive adverts of today, such as the previously explored FCUK advert.

 

However, “with the increasing visibility of gay men in British Society it was almost inevitable that gay images would appear in the press…new style magazines…were published in the 1980s… Aware of their gay readerships, I-D and Blitz along with Face featured articles, features and photographs that would appeal to this market…an explicitly homoerotic style developed, consciously or unconsciously aimed at and appealing to a gay audience…inviting heterosexual men to view gay-inspired images and to question the assumptions of the male gaze.”[10]

Mulvey’s original theory of The Gaze is centred on that of an active male and passive female; the heterosexual male is always the one who is looking at or objectifying the passive female, who exists to be looked at for pleasure, in a position of submissiveness. One may argue from a position of hindsight that Mulvey expresses some proof of naivety by neglecting to address the existence of the homosexual gaze, and even of the heterosexual female gaze. Similarly as one may argue that sexually provocative images of men, for example, are an appeal to the female gaze, they may also stimulate the homosexual male gaze, and equally as one may argue that the images of sexually precocious women in “Playboy” are aimed at the heterosexual male gaze, they may also be seen as examples of female sexual liberation, and also as attractive to the lesbian gaze.

Conversely, it would be irresponsible to the debate not to assert that images portrayed in media and popular culture do not have to appeal to any aspect of gaze on a solely sexual plane –images of women in clothing advertisements that grace the pages of Vogue, for example, are in fact targeted at a heterosexual majority of women. They are not encouraged to buy the clothing advertised on attraction to the model, but because of a desire to be the woman in the advertisement. This brings us into another area of scopophilia: ‘narcissistic scopophilia’. This is defined as seeing other people, people you feel an admiration for, as a surrogate for yourself. For example, one may identify with a character in a film, and seek to project their own self onto this character, or vice versa –they may wish to empathise with the character on screen. Freud identified an early idea of this in his exploration of the ego and the id –“when the ego assumes the features of the object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too –I am so like the object.’”[11] Narcissism is no new idea as is the concept of ‘self gaze’, the action of looking at and actively objectifying oneself. It is an idea given greater credence through art and mythology to signify actual human ideas. Benvenuto Cellini’s Narcissus [Fig 5] “remains transfixed by his image in the pool, neither eating nor drinking, ‘perque oculos perit ipse suos,’ consumed by his own eyes.”[12]

 

There is a tension between ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ and ‘narcissistic scopophilia’, between the pleasure from narcissistically imagining ourselves as the object of the gaze, and the sense of power wrought from being the director of that gaze.

“Popular culture for women has conventionally been concerned with representations of women (the female protagonist of romance fiction, the cover girl on women’s magazines). In this respect it is both like and unlike popular culture for men: men are invited to look at women (e.g. in ‘girlie’ mags), and so are women (e.g. in women’s mags); but obviously these invitations to look are different, and we may assume that the resulting experiences of looking are also different.”[13]

However, one has to wonder how the gaze should be dealt with when it comes to ideas of androgyny. How can one apply the theory of the gaze if they are uncertain of which sex they are looking at? The 1992 film “Orlando”, directed by Sally Potter, has a protagonist played by Tilda Swinton who evades death by living one life as a woman, then again as a man, and so on alternatively. It is a complicated idea because it displaces the gaze between gender and sexual preference, resulting in unease for the audience. As a man, the character is portrayed in a very feminine manner, which disrupts the stereotypical perceptions of Gender. Orlando also has the role of simultaneously being the protagonist, and the object of the gaze, which brings confusion not only to the viewing audience, but also for the minor characters.

Another example of androgyny misplacing the gaze may be witnessed in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” with Hilary Swank portraying a girl who attempts to pass herself off as a boy in order to escape her own sexuality. [Fig 4] Swank makes a very convincing boy, in so much as one could be mistaken for thinking she actually was a boy if one had completely no inkling of that film before viewing. The character’s ambiguous gender and sexuality is psychologically unsettling because of the indecisive nature of the gaze –who should be attracted to this character?  The confusion of this in itself stands testament to the fact that the gaze is still an integral part of the way we relate to film.

 

“The question of whether a female gaze exists in contrast to the male one arises naturally in considering the male gaze. Mulvey, the originator of the phrase “male gaze”, argues that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze…”.” Mulvey’s reluctance to explore the idea of a female gaze could be construed as a fear of subversity and sensationalism. At the time of writing she could have been on the receiving end of some anti-feminist criticism if too much assertion was placed on women in the active position of looking, and men taking a passive role.

“In 1978 Margaret Walters argued that women were still estranged from their own visual pleasure: ‘But even today, a woman is expected to take a narcissistic pleasure in fullfilling male fantasies rather than in exploring and acting out her own. There is still a rigid distinction between the sex that looks and the sex that is looked at. The dichotomy is bound to breed perversion in both sexes, in the man voyeurism, hostility and envy, and in the woman masochism, exhibitionism and hypocrisy. Both men and women are deprived and impoverished.”[14]

This view was suggested only three years after Laura Mulvey first published her concept of the male gaze. However, some feminists argue that although the concept of the male gaze is still dominant in popular culture, such as the rise of ‘lads’ mags’ and the further accessibility of pornography through the internet, the women who choose to exhibit themselves to men in this manner are choosing to do so of their own free will, which is in itself a feminist expression of sexual liberation.

The concept of the male gaze is clearly still relevant to one’s understanding of our cultural production, yet it can be used as a tool for the exploration of other gazes and the psychological exploration of the strands of scopophilia, which dictate the way we view others and ourselves. In fact it could be argued that these concepts are all the more relevant as our society progresses in the acceptance of gender equality and the exploration of human sexuality.

(Please note this is the work of Catherine Lucas and may not be reproduced although citations are welcomed)


[1] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[2] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[3] “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”, Ariel Levy, p 10. Pocket Books Current Affairs 2005.

[4] Concepts of scopophilia formed in the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey 1975.

[5] “Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing”, Diana Crane p205. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[6] The video of this advert can be found at http://www.fcuk.com/campaign_06ss_video_film.html

[7] “Notes on ‘The Gaze’”, Daniel Chandler. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[8] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[9] “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century”, Shaun Cole p171. Oxford New York, 2000.

[10] “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel” p177.

[11] “The Ego and the Id,” Sigmund Freud, p24. W. W. Norton, 1960.

[12] “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 29. Thames and Hudson, 2003.

[13] “The Female Gaze,” edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment, p 4. The Real Comet Press, 1989.

[14] “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 226. Thames and Hudson, 2003.

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(May 2007, Catherine Lucas)

An Analytical Perspective on the Cultural Phenomenon of Internet Blogging Through an Understanding of Haraway’s Theory of the Cyborg.

 

In her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Haraway outlines a definition of a cyborg as a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”§ (Haraway; 1991) Where the concept of blogging is concerned, writing one’s thoughts, opinions and desires into the anonymity of the Internet could be categorized as a progression of ourselves becoming cyborgs, particularly in the social sense. For bloggers, sharing one’s ideas across the Internet has become even more of a second nature than holding a face to face discussion of their beliefs and judgements. In this manner, technology becomes an extension of the human brain and its faculties. One may now even enter an actual virtual universe to interact on this level.

Haraway theorises that we are all now “chimeras theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism,” where our natural movements flow easily into that of the machine without us giving much realisation to the action, and so in short, “we are cyborgs.” (Haraway; 1991) Blogging is a cultural phenomenon that is centred on this idea of an extension of the brain, imagination and our human expression; rather than discussing or debating our ideas and fantasies, we now record them on a universally accessible database of information.

While this phenomenon is certainly relevant to the exploration of the cyborg, it may also be linked to Arendt’s theories of alienation, as blogging, while a useful tool for purveying information, is also a solitary technique of interaction if one considers only ‘physical reality’ as the real sense of a reality, and ‘virtual reality’ as one which can only be accessed on a solitary level, where one is not communicating physically, and relies on an imagined state to convey one’s own thoughts and ideals. Therefore, although blogging is for many seen as a social activity, this social interaction may be viewed as merely superficial, and as a shield that distracts us from our own ‘real life’ alienation, by inhabiting a fictional reality to console ourselves of our own sense of loneliness. By using blogging as a defence mechanism in this manner, one is effectively succumbing to the idea of a growing epidemic of human-roboticism.

Haraway examines the rise of roboticism throughout her manifesto, unfolding the idea of “boundary breakdowns” between human and machine, which are expanded on by Schaer in her article on a “Life Less Ordinary” (Schaer; 2007) as she explores the entire ‘online world’ of Second Life. These boundary breakdowns have been met with abject criticism from many theorists and journalists who see the exploration of the virtual as a rejection of natural reality, and as a psychological retreat into an anonymous and fictional existence where one can be ‘safe’ from the outside world and also shun ‘true’ human interaction, which is described by Middleton as an “amputation” or betrayal of our cultural heritage, stemming from the rise of the blog (Middleton; Australia –undated). As Schaer puts it: “Don’t these people have real lives? Why make a whole bunch of fantasy friends…when you could be outside in the real sunshine…?” (Schaer; 2007)

This rise of roboticism is for many seen as dangerous, as the concept of blogging emerges as a new media type; Johnson and Kaye’s study of blog users’ reliance on blogs for information on politics, for example, shows an embracing of robotically conveyed media. If cyborgs are designed to exist through futuristic or technological advances, bloggers can record their opinions for access by Internet users for generations to come, however due to inevitable Internet ‘skewing’ (explored by Drezner and Farrell; 2004) the same opinions would retain their popularity and readership by internet users and so could create a biased image of the world detailed and discussed within them. Cyborgs are seen as having lost some human characteristics such as ‘feeling’ due to being a ‘technologically altered’ human hybrid, (Haraway; 1991) in which case bloggers who use blogging as a facility for an extension of human interaction could theoretically turn more cynical, more ‘robotic’ in their world outlook, and more passive to the real world as it happens around them, only viewing it through an analytical brain. Haraway offers a chilling perception of this, in that “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” (1991)

However, O’Donnell constructs theories on how “the blogosphere might challenge or enhance current theories of teaching,” (O’Donnell; 2005) as a more positive side to this argument. If, as Haraway suggests, we are all cyborgs, our communicative ideas using online technology may only become more technologically advanced, an idea already explored by Schaer as she interviews Angela Thomas, a lecturer at The University of Sydney, who uses the virtual world ‘Second Life’¨ to teach classes and hold meetings within a ‘virtual reality’. Thomas states, “I don’t like to distinguish what I do in Second Life as unreal because, for me, it’s very real to be paid to teach my classes there.”(Schaer; 2007)

Whilst one argument may suggest that understanding a virtual reality such as Second Life as ‘very real’ is proof of the possible dangerous nature of integrating oneself too far into a cyber world of blogging and other technological methods of communication, others could argue that such advances can only help broaden our intellectual horizons, with the vast, infinite possibilities of the Internet “seen as a place to give and share information,” by Thomas (Schaer; 2007). From this viewpoint, discourses expanded through online blogs could improve access to education and interaction with the rest of the world, to those in underprivileged countries, or those who find themselves housebound or with social interaction difficulties.

It would be naïve to simply dismiss the growth of the cyborg in our society as dangerous and objectionable, when it could bring relief to many others. When an anonymous blogger in his own home can make his political voice heard without the requirement of ‘traditional’ and ‘human’ methods of physical demonstration and revolt, but through a concise documentation of ideas and opinions, surely such an extension of one’s thought processes can only enrich a world of opinions by providing bloggers with the tools to voice these hopes. However, Dr Adriane Vromen (University of Sydney) poses a very important question of “whether it [virtual environments and the internet in general] can go beyond communities of shared interest… The Internet has become indispensable, but whether it can create a real sense of debate… is another question altogether.” (Schaer; 2007)

In exploring the references of this essay, it is apparent that Haraway’s theories of the cyborg have maintained their relevance and even exceeded their original readings; as our community becomes progressively more reliant on technologies and the invention of newer, faster and more efficient methods of mechanising daily life, the “Manifesto for Cyborgs” begins to look more prophetic than speculative. As a society, we have collectively taken the ideas of a cyborg culture to new levels as technology continues to evolve and impose itself on our culture, leading one to rely more heavily on it as the ‘technological age’ continues, even to the extent of a progressive reliance on blogged opinions to influence our own perceptions of political climate, which is an area of most fundamental social discourse, being an indefinite and under no circumstances a static state, as explored by Drezner and Farrell (“The Power and Politics of Blogs,” 2004).

However, if cyborgs are the point of conjunction between imagination and material reality, (Haraway; 1991) how can one regulate this possible intrusion of the imagination as it is expressed in blogs and the sphere of virtual reality? If one cannot distinguish the ‘false’ from ‘real life’, then surely this would result in a social and cultural deflation, though initiated, presumably, in good will and with the intent of exploring new technology and it’s devices. If, as Haraway asserts, “the cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity,” (1991) then one cannot help but wonder what might happen should these ironies distort within the impersonal void of the cyber world. 

Notes:

  • § Haraway: “A Manifesto for Cyborgs…” 1991. In this manifesto, Haraway seeks to define the Cyborg and also puts forward the theory that not only are humans becoming like cyborgs, but that we are actually part cyborgs already due to the prevailing intake of how technology increasingly influences our lives, and the readiness with which we have come to accept it as second nature, for example in a contemporary sense I am using a Word Processing program to ‘write’ an essay, rather than using the traditional method of writing words by hand, and this method of communication has become second nature, has become ‘normal’ to me.

 

¨For more information about ‘Second Life’, please see my additional informative essay (below) exploring this program in further detail, or go to http://www.secondlife.com

References:

 

PART 2


“Second Life”: An Informative Exploration.

(Note: this information piece although written to further inform the Marker, is not a part of the above essay.)

Although my essay was not primarily based on the phenomenon of ‘Second Life’, I found that it raised for me many parallels not only with Haraway’s theory of the cyborg, and that we have become a cyborg culture, but also with Arendt’s theories of alienation –has society become so ‘lonely’ although over crowded, as we have so little time to interact with each other in our ‘real’ lives, that we are forced to retreat into a whole other ‘virtual world’ when we get home, so that we can allow ourselves to live another life we wish we had but know we will never achieve? The following information explains what Second Life is in more detail, and expands on how it is being used in particular by academics and businesses for further financial gain –a true world of cyborg…

According to its tag line, Second Life is a “3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents.’ It is a complete other continent found in a virtual cyber reality, in which people can recreate themselves a new appearance, personality and lifestyle for a preliminarily free membership, or by purchasing a premium membership for $9.95/month (US$).

The advantage of paying for a premium membership is that as an online ‘person’ you can purchase and develop on your own virtual plots of land –the availability of land is infinite, due to the infinite nature of virtual reality. With the free account, users are not allowed to ‘own’ land. Land can be rented or bought for various amounts of money, as well as private islands for the wealthy. These purchases are bought through the ‘Linden Dollar,’ which is the Second Life currency.

This currency already has a recognised exchange rate with the online secure payment method ‘Paypal’ which is used by Ebay users, for example, to pay for purchases using credit cards. The Linden Dollar is also recognised with an exchange rate by some American banks. It is important to note that although paying with a virtual currency, the money really does come out of your ‘real life’ bank accounts! However, this also means that one can invest, and sell products and services through Second Life, which gives one the opportunity to make real money through a virtual stock market…

Second Life has millions of members, including academics and businessmen, some of whom even use their ‘avatar’ presence (one’s online personality) to be able to conduct ‘business meetings’ with their colleagues in other countries, which many find preferable to video conferencing or cross-audio conferencing, as they have a greater sense of ‘being in the same room’ and less far away from the people they seek to interact with –in utilising Second Life in this manner, they are making use of a virtual reality in order to make their actual world seem smaller, and so feel closer to others.

If this was an opinion piece, I would definitely wish to ask: how can the phenomenon of Second Life be a good thing when it is encouraging us so far into the cyborg that we are constructing full online lives, masquerading as the person we wish desperately to be? Should we not be encouraged to accept out own selves and our own reality, and to make more communicative efforts to meet real people, flesh people who don’t look like cartoon characters? However, on the other side of the coin, surely the advent of Second Life must be a blessing for those who cannot interact with others on a personal level through psychological or phobic issues, and especially for those suffering from any number of severe disabilities which would render them house bound or bed ridden –Second Life gives them an opportunity to explore the world, even if it’s not the world the rest of us inhabit. With a huge increase in online or virtual reality methods of education, which could certainly benefit those who cannot for whatever reasons, attend conventional means of educative institutions, it would not be that surprising if we saw a Second Life University crop up in the virtual world in the near future.

References:

http://www.secondlife.com

Arendt, Hannah: “The Human Condition.”

Haraway, Donna: “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.”

Schaer, Cathrin: “A Life Less Ordinary.”

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