Hearing From Our Fellows: Ways of seeing and being (seen)
I’m a music PhD student at the University of York, focusing on history, representation and cultural identity in music from the Baltic states. I do some writing about music and discourse, some teaching, and a bit of singing as well, but I don’t creatively MAKE as much music as often as or in the ways I’d like to. I’ve also struggled over the last few years with changing feelings about what knowledge means, what the purpose of research is, and whether it’s all a huge evil lie. Then there’s the ways that new understandings have changed me and the questions they raise about the way I live: how can anyone morally bring themselves to turn lights on ever? Surely the only ethical lifestyle is to subsist entirely on wild nettles? How do you cook nettles if you can’t cook? …And the kinds of standard things lots of people might have a bit of a philosophical PhD breakdown over in addition to whatever other life stuff they have going on. These shifts have sometimes made it hard to feel connected to the subdisciplines that I’ve been studying in for some time, which have been quite analytical, and I realise that I’ve been skirting around the fear of being really openly, visibly, vulnerably creative for a long time.
When the opportunity to work with Invisible Dust and came up, I knew I had to apply even though it seemed like a shot in the dark since I hadn’t worked on climate change before. Invisible Dust’s Fellowship offers training, mentorship and the opportunity to creatively and logistically support the ‘Under Her Eye’ summit and arts festival on women and climate change at the British Library. Strong feelings about the relationships between patriarchal misogyny and other kinds of power-loaded abuses, including of non-human beings and things, were combined with a growing desire to do more with sound as a medium that could lessen the obstacles of verbal or visual language for collectively imagining difficult ideas. I had worked through some things before by creatively engaging with ambient sound after reading about theories of different musical temporalities and the kinds of ‘identities’ that are assigned to them.
Reading about trauma’s relationships with space and time, I came across Julia Kristeva’s theory of ‘women’s time’ – which admittedly has problematic aspects, but which at the time felt like an incredibly healing concept. Kristeva said that ‘women’s time’ is more spatial, ecological, circular, eternal, or repetitive (what she called ‘monumental time’), while historical time is linear, masculine, goal-oriented, obsessive, violent, colonizing, rational, etc. The capacity for sound as a temporal medium to express/reflect time in different ways than language or visuals is an important part of the relationship of these ideas to music.
In many ways this imaginary binary is exclusionary, dangerous, and outdated; when celebrating the contributions women can make to discourses of progress and change (or anything else) there should always be a focus on which groups of female-spectrum/non-male people are more and less privileged within that widest definition – and also on the reality that the gender binary is a violent, reactionary, economically-motivated construct that it can be harmful to reinforce. Having said that, I think that applying some of these ideas about time, space, and different subjectivities abstractly to creative ambient sound-play – while rejecting the idea of their universal relevance as symbols of identity (or limitation) – could be an empowering way to engage imaginatively with ideas about different perspectives on real-world issues.
I guess PERSPECTIVE is the key word for me here. John Berger talked about perspective painting as a kind of originating moment for a particular, objectifying way of looking at/understanding things (particularly art) that has become culturally normal in many ‘Western’/Global Northern/historically imperialist societies. He said this:
‘Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. […] The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God. According to the convention of perspective there is no visual reciprocity. There is no need for God to situate himself in relation to others: he is himself the situation. The inherent contradiction in perspective was that it structured all images of reality to address a single spectator who, unlike God, could only be in one place at a time.’ (Ways of Seeing, 16).
A very narrow way of looking at things has attained a ‘God-Like’ authority in many spheres, and is framed as being rational, normal: the only set of conclusions a reasonable person could make if they only used their intelligence and common sense. In fact, the ‘one place’ that the fictional spectator-as-God usually looks from is a predictable combination of white, male, middle class, globally-Northern, and other markers of socially dominant identities. The experiences I’ve had as a woman have made me feel quite crazy about this idea, and it was a while before I realised it was not me that was crazy – it was the fact that some really messed up things had happened and the world around me was just trundling on, everyone apparently still pretending that ‘common sense’ had any kind of value whatsoever and that ‘we’ were all reading from more or less the same page.
It’s important to say that I’m still an extremely privileged person, and if I can feel this INSANE about the gap between how people with (more/different) power say things are and how I have experienced them to be, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have still more facets of my identity and experience erased and marginalised. This picture, included shortly after the above quote in Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, made me feel a bit sick. The vivid way in which it highlights the imbalance of power and action between seeing and being-seen is exacerbated by the fact that all the lookers seem to be aristocratic, mobile, able-bodied, dynamic (and presumably white/Western?) men, with all the casual power and confidence those markers can afford – while the looked-at (looked-down-on, in this image) is passive, static, helpless, undetermined, only having an identity or meaning in the context of this gaze. The place of my own identification is in one of those blank squares on the floor, which look to me like virtual prisons or holding pens for the looked-at to await judgment and sentencing (what will the looker decide to do this time?).
(Berger, Ways of Seeing, 17).
A few pages on, there’s a million pictures of paintings of (young/white/thin/apparently able-bodied) female nudes – few words, just a sea of naked women posed to look vulnerable, passive, inviting, etc. It’s a pretty difficult read emotionally, but Berger condenses the idea of the male gaze and its impact on female subjectivity in a really graspable way. The reason I’m going on about this is because thinking about profit-driven, venture-capitalist, neoliberal, neocolonial, economic rationalism as a driver for climate change is inextricable in my mind from the idea of the POSSESSING gaze, of the looking-at and objectifying of something/someone, valorizing and quantifying ‘its’ significance and worth as a commodity for exploitation. This is how I feel when I walk around in public often – NOT because anyone is necessarily genuinely looking at me in an aggressive, evaluating way (although that does happen, and it’s got a lot more to do with the assertion of power than with anything about the way you look), but because my mind has been shaped by a combination of growing up under the male gaze and the consequences of multiple experiences of that aggressive, possessive, dehumanizing gaze being taken to its violent end point.
Berger paraphrases this about the impact on female subjectivity of the omnipresent male gaze:
‘A woman must continually watch herself. […] Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. […] Every one of her actions – whatever its direct purpose or motivation – is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated. […] If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake. One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.’ (Berger, 40-41).
Women tend to look at themselves as though from outside even when there is no one else there to scrutinize them. This means they are never not being looked at, even when they are alone.
In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams says that ‘cultural images of sexual violence, and actual sexual violence, often rely on our knowledge of how animals are butchered and eaten’, and that ‘similarly, in images of animal slaughter, erotic overtones’ imply the image of women. She says that this ‘indicates that we distance ourselves from whatever is different by equating it with something we have already objectified.’ Adams explains that, historically, framing socially-disadvantaged groups (young, black, poor, female, Irish, actually or allegedly mentally ill) as being more like animals meant they could be treated as not-human – alongside reinforcing the assumption that animals already deserved to be treated less well than people. (The Sexual Politics of Meat, 68-9.) When I walk down the street I sometimes feel like I am also a pig to be killed for meat or a tree to be cut down for paper or some land to be seized for profitable new builds, and I think that people who are made to feel this way have a particular opportunity to cultivate, develop and expand on their capacity to empathise with the position of non-human ‘resources’ that are exploited, as well as with other people.
That might sound weird, especially since lots of those ‘resources’ are either non-sentient (as far as we know) or non-living – but I think you can identify with the position of being a passive commodity if you have been made to feel like one (and also that you’re much less likely to consider that perspective in any given situation if you haven’t had those kinds of experiences). This obviously doesn’t only apply to women, or to looking – there are so many groups of people and animals who are exploited, oppressed, violated and killed for essentially economic gains – but I think the distinction between the (stereotypically) masculinized concept of looking and the (stereotypically) feminized concepts of listening and being-looked-at can be useful jumping-off points for collaborative participatory explorations of different perspectives on an issue which I believe is bound up with objectification, commodification, and exploitation.
I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced the amazingly positive, supportive, & fertile atmosphere created by Invisible Dust and everyone involved with ‘Under Her Eye’, and am hugely grateful to the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities for supporting this fellowship. I applied because, apart from the issue of climate change’s real effects, the other important connection for me comes down to a fundamental historical issue of power. Val Plumwood said that contemporary feminism needs to consider nature alongside race, class and gender. I wanted a chance to be more creative – and having met this amazing group of women, I feel even more like I want to contribute whatever I can to this project. I’m looking forward to helping deliver and support events in June.
Claire McGinn is a musicology PhD student at the University of York, funded by WRoCAH and based in the West Midlands. Her work currently explores the politics of representation of art music from the Baltic States.