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The New Aesthetics of the male gaze

Since Bruce Sterling’s excellent post at Beyond the Beyond covering “The New Aesthetic” panel at SxSW ’12, a lot of other entries have sprung up talking about it. I thought I’d round some up:

Personally, my favourite has to be POSZU’s, just for this:

The New Aesthetic reeks of power relations. Drones, surveillance, media, networks, digital photography, algorithms. This is largely about the technology of “seeing”, and how we see this new technology of seeing. But the technology is also for watching. The ability to watch someone is a form of power. It controls the flow of information. “I know everything about you, but you know nothing about me.” Or, “I know everything about you, and all you can do is make art about the means by which I know things.”

As someone who wrote a Master’s thesis on border security, and who earned some money from a project on the intersection of the digital and the physical, you can see why I’d be interested in the sudden codification and definition of this type of thing.

What concerns me about the links I’m seeing is that they’re mostly written about men, by men. Part of this may have to do with the predominance of men in tech reporting, but it’s also likely symptomatic of the way girls can be shut out of hacking practises because they have the temerity to be interested in haptic fashion. When guys do it, it’s an “art movement.” When girls do it, it’s “arts and crafts.”

But that power differential, while disappointing, should not be surprising. To build on POSZU’s statement, if the New Aesthetic is also about the politics of the gaze, that gaze has usually been male — ask Laura Mulvey or Carol Clover. Moreover, the massive expansions of NSA surveillance facilities are less likely to include women, because universities are failing to entice women to study computer science. The people wiretapping you without a warrant? Most of them are men.

What intrigues me about this is that just as the New Aesthetic is flush with women hacking their information and taking control of the messages they present, the NSA is training a generation of men to take up habits that were once considered stereotypically feminine: eavesdropping, curtain-twitching, and gossiping. The NSA is funding a generation of Mrs. Grundys, and they just happen to be men. These two dynamics feed each other. We share more and more information, and They pick it up, but We know They’re picking it up, so We share more creatively, but They take that as evidence, so We wear ugly t-shirts….and on, and on, and on. It’s a conversation.

The fact that it’s a conversation between artists and the forces observing them is nothing new. We’ve been through this before. We used to design cathedrals so grand God had to notice. Now we print the pattern of faded denim jeans on linen pants so cleverly the Internet has to notice. We crochet masks so facial recognition-enabled cameras won’t notice. Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.

If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.

Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.

Gentlemen of the New Aesthetic, I suggest you listen to the ladies in your life as you design for the emergent properties of security technology. They’ve been dealing with unwanted attention for a lot longer. Ladies of the New Aesthetic: keep on keeping on. Keep making. Keep creating. Keep lilypadding. And remember to demand better. Most of the time, you’ll get it.

*Charlie is not one of those guys just waking up to this phenomenon. He takes it up beautifully in his novel Glasshouse, which I recommend highly.

10 thoughts on “The New Aesthetics of the male gaze

  1. Glad that my post stimulated some thoughts.

    First, I would like to acknowledge “Joanne McNeil, who was one of the contributors to the panel at SXSW”, and in my mind, one of the major thinkers of internet culture and the NA out there.

    For me anyway, it was Luce Irigaray that introduced me to the preponderance of the gaze, not CCTV. But the arrays of surveillance cameras in the world are indeed, just more of the same in a certain respect. Without reverting to gender essentialism, I would agree that there is something to the experience of femininity, in that subaltern position you describe “as watched”, that does theoretically open up the notion of subjectivity-as-technologically/semiotically-controlled.

    But what I wonder is, what are the techniques from the experience of femininity, so described, that might combat, say, a surveillance state? My experience in feminism is that most of the real work is not done in the streets, so to speak (though feminist marches and organized protests are important). Instead, I find that the work is done in the bed room, the living room, and the kitchen. In other words, it is as much about negotiating a re-evaluation of sexual subjectivity with our friends, family, and sexual partners, as it is about politics, in the standard “get out and fight” sense. Countering mental patterns so insipid as sexual privilege and rape culture take a lot of hard, personal work to overcome (speaking “as a man”, who would personally identify as continuing to combat his own mental patterns).

    The reason I bring this up, is because it doesn’t seem like the surveillance state is something to be talked out in the bed room (though the idea has some intrigue). In the effort of trying to figure out what the New Politics aspects of the New Aesthetic are, I tend to think that they are not reducible to feminist criticisms of the gaze–though clearly they would not be cause for an interrupt of the continuation of that critique. The radical new interventions that the surveillance state is making in our personal lives, while not separate from gender politics, would not necessarily be symmetric, either.

    So I guess this is an open question: what new technological components does the NA bring to our subjective sense of politics? It could indeed stimulate use to recall previous and ongoing re-evaluations of political subjectivity, but is there anything new here? I wonder as a person, looking for new, potent tools.

    Anyway, I hope this conversation continues.

    1. Hi there! I apologize for not replying to this earlier; Good Friday is celebrated in Ontario, and I’ve been hither and yon.

      To answer your question, I don’t think that the politics of surveillance and gender are perfectly symmetrical, either. However, I find it interesting that just as technological surveillance is increasing in intensity and ubiquity, the surveillance of women’s bodies and rights is also increasing. Abortion rights are being eroded all over the US, and ironically enough, much of that erosion has to do with new imaging technologies that grant doctors and other medical professionals the ability to observe the female body (and its contents) more closely than ever before. I’m not saying that these parallel tracks are in any way intentional, but simply that our contemporary culture understands observation as power and legislates accordingly. I also admit to borrowing a bit from Anne Balsamo in my thinking — her book “Technologies of the Gendered Body” was pretty influential for me as someone studying both cyborg theory and feminism.

      As for whether the bedroom (and the household in general) are the places feminism works “on the ground,” as it were, and whether those techniques can still work in the twenty-first century, I think they can — with the caveat that the Internet has created a thirdspace which is just as useful for protest and action as it is for communication and fun. These are the spaces that women can gather, too, often with more potential to change culture on a broader basis. Rhiannon Bury has discussed this at length, but I think her work and that of others in the field has new meaning in the New Aesthetic context.

  2. Adam and Madeline, my politics tend towards libertarianism (both male and female)! I’m not a fan of the current administration. Or any administration for that matter.

    The concept of new aestheticism is something I’ve been waiting for, and I’m incredibly excited to see some tentative steps taken here to begin a political discussion on a completely different plane to the usual tropes and memes. To me NA is a trailing edge of the future, pulling us forward if only we can grab on to it. And it also, I hope, might help germinate a redefinition of current cultural stereotypes that will allow people to transcend traditional political differences and coalesce around new needs, truths, realities, and ideas. I actually believe that might be possible.

    As a libertarian I have mostly contempt for and fear of our almighty government apparatus. The war of the future might well be us v them. The watched v the watchers. Do I believe the watchers are only men? No, that’s nonsense. The biggest expansion of the NSA happened on a woman’s watch. And anyway it’s irrelevant. What’s coming will be too important to worry about sexual politics. Or (oh my word I hope) identity politics of any kind.

    One more thing. As a libertarian I’m also an optimist. Technological breakthroughs are expensive and typically tightly controlled, but it’s stunning how quickly tech is disseminated to the masses whether deliberately (for profit), or criminally (for profit). One way or another we will gain the means to protect ourselves and fight back. Where any of this leaves democracy is anybody’s guess.

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