catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 3 :: 2014.02.07 — 2014.02.20


The eyes of the beholders

Beauty, we are told, is “in the eye of the beholder.” But so are other less noble human attributes — things like greed, contempt and jealousy. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, what then lurks behind the metaphorical visages of the anti-human technologies that purportedly exist to help us get to know one another better?  Do they perform as intended?  And what does it mean to “see” — to really see, or to “behold?”

As human beings, sight is more than mere visual capacity.  The attribute of sight is multi-dimensional, and connotes a sense of understanding and appreciation for the things perceived in the world.  Seeing is more than believing; seeing is a way of being and relating to the world.  To get a glimpse (pardon the pun) of how sight frames one’s very existence, watch the movie At First Sight, starring  Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino.  In the movie they portray the real-life couple Shirl and Barbara Jennings as the characters Amy Benic and Virgil Adamson.  Amy and Virgil, a blind man, mutually explore life and romance through Virgil’s brief reprieve in vision.  At the start of the movie, Amy learns, in an awkward exchange, that Virgil is blind, and as they agree to meet again, they each say, “See you tomorrow.”  Seeing, in this regard, is a way of making connections, building relationships and being with someone else.  That kind of “being with” is really a beautiful thing, that is when the “seeing” is consensual, and when you are “seeing with” someone else.

Being with and “seeing with” are very different than being seen, or rather being watched.  Most human beings, those with healthy ego, devoid of excessive narcissism, don’t tend to enjoy being watched.  There is something quite a bit disconcerting, disturbing, even agitating about the notion of being watched by someone else when we are not in relationship with them. The act of watching is something that can trigger anxiety, fear or feelings of inadequacy — sensations that make us feel less loved and less loving.  Being watched often means being objectified, reduced in our humanity, because we lack a meaningful relationship to the person or thing doing the watching.

The eighteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a new kind of imposing correctional facility: the panopticon.  Named for the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, Panoptes, this innovative prison would contain inmates in the typical way — by physical walls — but would control them in a startling new way, through prisoners’ own perceptions of being watched.  Although it was physically impossible for one watchman to see every prisoner and every cell of the panopticon simultaneously, it was the uncertainty, the gamble in whether or not one was being seen at any given moment, that was credited for prisoner’s self-surveillance and subsequent obedient behavior.

Philosopher Michel Foucault, in his ground-breaking analysis of penal systems called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), applied principles of Bentham’s panopticon to understandings of power and control in society.  He describes the plight of the modern prisoner, who is "the object of information, never a subject in communication.”  The prisoner is constrained by a great power structure, but constrained through complicity, and becomes the object “of his own subjection.”  The prisoner is bound not by physical chains, but by a nebulous “other” with whom there is no natural and mutual relationship.

Bentham and Foucault were clearly ahead of their times. Modern electronic communication is a vehicle for panopticism. Technologies that have the capacity for bringing people together — like cameras and video-transmitted electronic imagery — more often serve not in supporting human relationships, but as constant reminders of the dangers and erosion of human relationships in society. Go to a bank, go to the grocery: there they are, the video cameras.  They’re meant to catch criminals — and that’s a good thing, so maybe we don’t notice too much. We’re complicit in a good way in maintaining order in society.  But what about what we say and what we write?  Put those words in an electronic document, and, well, maybe it will be there when you need it — but, Ahh! You don’t want for your brief pique of temper to trail you, and you didn’t hit the “send” button. Sigh a sigh of relief…but…wait! It’s still out there somewhere, and if someone else — whom you do not know, and probably don’t have any meaningful relationship with — wants to find it, with sufficient skill, THEY CAN

Panopticism abounds.  It’s a topsy-turvy world.  Things that should last in the digital universe often don’t and those that shouldn’t do. Go figure. 

Perhaps Foucault was a miner’s canary for the digital age. As electronic surveillance increases by societal authorities, our personal liberties become increasingly threatened.  The power in the panopticon would be nothing to fear, though, if the watcher is one with whom we have a good and meaningful personal relationship.  Saint Paul taught that such power is nothing to fear, because rulers are to exercise power to ensure good works (Romans 13:3).  But how much has changed since Saint Paul penned that letter to the Romans?  Do we even agree, as a society, as to what constitutes good works? Whose definition is enforced through the power of panopticism?

As Christians, even if the notion of panopticism as an operating force in society upsets us, we can be assured of the loving gaze by One even greater than the hydra-like techno eyes of digital communication. “Behold, He who watches Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121: 4). Jesus reminded us that God the Father watches over even the small almost insignificant things, like sparrows, and that even the hairs on our heads are counted! (Luke 12:7) “We are worth many sparrows!” (Luke 12:7) God beholds each of us in a very special way.

So what does it mean to behold? It’s a very sensual and very spiritual way of seeing and being seen within the context of a love relationship.  To behold is the antecedent of past tense “beheld” — and that’s just what God does.  His loving gaze reaches down to grab us with zeal, with abundant mercy and joy — we are beheld, that is being held, in a penetrating embrace of ultimate LOVE.  When we are aware of being beheld, we can let go of the past tense, that is the past with its tensions and burdens, having a blessed assurance that, when asking for forgiveness, sins and errors are washed away in the “see” of God’s intentional holy forgetfulness.  The response to being beheld by God is being “beholden to” — to recognize the insurmountable debt of gratitude we owe to the Source of our very being.  When we behold, we grasp, we see with our hearts, that is we engage in profound interpersonal communication, with a love that goes deeper than words or even non-verbal signals.  We come to experience relational love in a way that we may not understand with our minds, but that we see in our hearts.  We gaze in wonder at the focus — a person, not merely an object — for our affection.  His love attracts magnetically, and we want to return the gaze. The peering of love is unlike the cold stare of panopticism, by which we are repelled. 

Love binds. Panopticism blinds. 

Panopticism distorts the gaze of the human heart, that should look interiorly only so long as is necessary to assess and maintain purity.  It can turn a gaze that should be reaching out in love to others in toward the self, creating preoccupation, worry and deceptive aggrandizement that blocks an honest view of the self and the world around it.  When we are so worried about being watched by others, we watch ourselves more than necessary — almost incessantly — in such a way that it’s almost a form of subtle idolatry.  When we are focusing too narrowly on ourselves, we can lose sight of the very most precious things in life — the people who make a difference.

When John the Baptist heralded the arrival of Jesus, loudly proclaiming, “Behold! The Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 1:36) he was saying so much more than “Look! The Messiah is here!” He was calling those who would hear to look with love upon the Savior of the World, to enter into a personal relationship with the One who forever “keeps”  (Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 121: 4), the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). He, too, keeps watch over His flock (Luke 2:8) — and not just at night!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, when the Messiah is in view.  When we keep our eyes on Christ (Hebrews 12:2), we can be less concerned about the disconcerting aspects of the panopticism in society that surrounds us. We can pray confidently for the grace of “one thing…to dwell in the house of the Lord always, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4).  

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