November 10, 2011

Downcast Eyes

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In his book Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay traces the rise and fall of “occularcentrism” in France. Occularcentrism, or, positivist seeing, prioritizes vision as the dominant sense through which to experience and know reality. While occularcentrism reigned in the Enlightenment, Jay claims that by the twentieth century new visual realities had “undercut the self-confidence of the human viewer.” The  medium of photography, as it grew more sophisticated, demonstrated the superiority of the mechanical eye over the human one. At the same time, photographic tricks like double exposure, alongside special effects and editing in early cinema showed how easy it was to manipulate vision — to force audiences to see something that was not really there.

While this timeline is convincing, I could not help but question if such a “denigration of vision” has happened universally. Ironically, it only took one look around to make me wonder whether, according to Jay’s trajectory, our campus is stuck somewhere in the Enlightenment with regard to positivist vision.

I would bet that anyone who’s read Foucault or Bentham at Cornell is immediately struck by the panoptic structures that grace our campus (Uris Cocktail Lounge, anyone?) But even for those of us who are (semi-consciously) aware of the manipulation of vision in the service of knowledge/power on our campus, is this awareness enough to debunk vision’s mystique? Are we, as students, teachers, and faculty on a university campus in 2011 still prey to the false self-assurance that vision provides?

Recently, I came upon a startling example that suggests we are still fallible:

a room in the ILR bulding. This room has a few, small items out on trays that can be purchased through an “honor system.” As it turns out though, it’s not much of an honor system. A sign on one of the cabinets warns that the room is being monitored by a video camera. Those who take without paying will be seen, and, it is implied, caught.

Whether or not there really is a camera is unclear, but it doesn’t ultimately matter. Your behavior changes because you fear that your theft will be documented for posterity. So the actual presence of a camera is irrelevant.

This is clearly a textbook example of Foucauldian surveillance. But what had me even more shocked was the tenuous “knowledge” such a camera would provide were it actually installed in the room. Even if there were a camera, what would it actually show the ILR administrators? Would it really show them exactly who I was? Would I be identifiable, or merely white, brunette and female?

There are also all sorts of underlying issues that question the basic notion that a surveillance camera could provide some sort of visual justice. The sight of me taking coffee offers no explanation for the “crime” committed, or its motivations. Was I thirsty? Just plain malicious? Or was I taking it to give to a poor, under-caffeinated orphan? In short, was I noble or selfish?

For a more serious example of the problems of vision as a source of knowledge with regard to crime I suggest looking to Fritz Lang’s film M. Or, think back to the notorious “Forcible Touching” emails that Sun writer Sam Dean wrote about back in September. With each “forcible touching” email we find a detailed description not only of the attacker (his/her physical traits, car, clothing etc.), but also a detailed description of the incident itself. To give an example, I turn to the email from November 2010 which Dean referenced in her article. The bulk of the email is the following: “A female victim reported […] a male perpetrator grabbed her by the hair from behind, spun her around and slapped her across the face, then forcibly touched her breast.”

As a careful reading of the emails reveals, Crime Alert complies with the Jeanne Clery Act, which states that universities must “disclose information about crime on and around their campuses.” However, nowhere in the description of the Act, or in its actual paragraphs, could I find anything mandating that the details of a crime must be laid out in such a visual, almost photographic, manner.

Though the illustrative detail — both in the “forcible touching” emails, and all Crime Alert email in general — serves no ostensible purpose, something about an image gives us a greater sense of security. Something along the lines of: if we can visualize the crime, then we can understand it and prevent it in the future. I do not mean to criticize the good intentions of campus security, but merely to underscore the centrality of the problematic vision/power relationship in our daily lives.

Vision, it seems, permeates our entire campus. Ho Plaza is a site of constant visual stimuli — neon quarter-cards, posters, chalking. Even my library carrel, a niche supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge (but mostly Facebook and Gmail) is plastered with little images.

But what am I really learning at that desk — the concepts I memorized, or that, as written on the wall “Lance <3(ed) Jaslyn”? College is not only a place for learnng, but also a place for learning how to learn, how to think. What lessons will I take away? Am I really learning, or just seeing?

And moreover, as a soon-to-be graduate of Cornell, how will I leave my legacy? (If a senior studies in a lone carrel but doesn’t leave a scribble, will the said senior be seen?)

I don’t have any answers. And until I do, I think I’d better buy some sharpies.

Original Author: Hannah Stamler