the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Double Vision

This past Wednesday, 19 year old Ryan McFadyen became the first (and, to-date, only) member of Duke’s lacrosse team to be disciplined, following revelations that he had written an e-mail expressing an intention to invite strippers to his drm room, then kill and skin them:
[…] all are welcome.. however there will be no nudity. I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off [….]
Even as McFadyen was being suspended, however, large crowds were attending the “Bodies the Exhibition” exhibits in New York, London, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. Combining pedagogy with prurience, these exhibits consist of actual human cadavers which have been skinned, partially dissected, and then mounted in a variety of athletic poses. In a short editorial in today’s NY Times, Francis Clines describes one what might imagine to be a typical reaction:
“Guy was alive, a whole person,” said a wary teenager as classmates checked out the thinker. “It’s not my place to stare.”
But the lad did. The cadavers—22 of them—pretty much stared back.
Juxtaposed together, as if on a split screen, the parallels between these two scenes of flayed flesh are rather startling. Just as Cline’s New York teenager is split between a pedagogical imperative to watch, and a socialized proscription against gazing at that which is deemed improper or obscene (at least in proper company), he struggles not to stare (“It’s not my place to stare”), but at the same time cannot tear his eyes away. Similarly, the Duke teenager explicitly disavows an explicitly erotic scopophilia (“there will be no nudity”), precisely in order to replace it with a more ob-scene scopophilia—of skinning, or making visible that which should be hidden from sight.

A similar splitting of the gaze can be found in a climactic moment near the end of Zhang Yimou’s debut film Red Sorghum 紅高梁 (1987), in which Japanese execute two Chinese as all of the townspeople of the rural Gaomi township in Shandong province are forced to observe. The first of those executed is the bandit leader “Spotted Neck,” whom the Japanese have ordered be skinned alive by his own butcher. In an act of mercy, however, the butcher first stabs the bandit leader in the stomach, thus killing him instantly. The Japanese then bring their second victim, a respected local known as Brother Arhat who had run off to join the Communist underground, and instruct the butcher’s assistant to skin him alive. Unlike his (now-dead) master, the terrified young assistant does follow the Japanese’ orders, but his first cut (just before the camera itself cuts away) is also a merciful one: a deliberate slicing though Uncle Arhat’s closed eyelids.

Evocative of the famous eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), this merciful slicing of the eye/lids represents not only a challenge to the physical integrity of the human corpus, but also a challenge to the viewing subject him or herself. Clearly intended to spare his victim from having to watch his own skinning, the sliced eye/lids at the same time also suggest a bifurcation of the gaze, whereby the viewer is figuratively split between a partial identification with the victim put on display, on the one hand, and a position of more distanced spectatorship, on the other hand. In other words, what is at stake here is effectively a crisis of suture, a challenge to the viewer's ability to suture over the "cut" introduced into his or her ostensibly unified field of vision.

In somewhat more practical terms, the slicing of the eyelid in this scene is allegorical of the splitting of the work’s authorial gaze, as director Zhang Yimou 張艺谋 appropriates and adapts Mo Yan’s 莫言 novel by the same title from earlier that same year. In fact, the eyelid slicing was added by Zhang Yimou, as Zhang took Mo Yan's novel and adopted parts of it to suit his point of view.

This splitting of the authorial gaze, in turn, came to provide the premise for Mo Yan’s 1995 novel Republic of Wine 酒国 —in which Mo Yan’s authorial persona is figuratively split into two halves, with one have appearing as an establishment author (by the name of “Mo Yan”), and the second appearing as Li Yidou, a free-spirited doctoral candidate in liquor studies who idolizes Mo Yan (particularly on account of his Red Sorghum). Like Mulberry and Peach and Farewell China, this theme of split personality speaks directly to the way in which the subject is torn between competing societal expectations.

While the sliced eyelid/eyeball scene in Zhang Yimou’s film does not occur in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, Mo Yan nevertheless integrates a rather similar scene into his more recent novel The Sandalwood Sentence (2001). Set in the same Gaomi township as Red Sorghum, this latter work takes place some three decades before Red Sorghum—in 1900, during the height of the Boxer Rebellion. The novel revolves around a young woman by the name of Meiniang, and her relationship with three different father-figures, on the one hand, and their respective positions within a geopolitical power struggle between the Empress Dowager Cixi, the governor of Shandong province (and future president of the Republic) Yuan Shikai, the German imperialists, and the Boxers, on the other hand. More specifically, Meiniang's biological father is Sun Bing, a star in the local "Cat melody" opera tradition, while her father-in-law is Zhao Jia, a retired imperial executioner. Meanwhile, her "god father" is Qian Ding, the County Magistrate, on whom Meiniang develops a perverse crush even as the magistrate is threatening her own father with death.

At one point, Magistrate Qian Ding's brother, Qian Xiongfei, was executed by Zhao Jia (Meiniang’s father-in-law) for having attempted to assassinate Governor Yuan. The method used is the classic "lingchi," or "death by a 500 cuts," and the narrative describes in considerable detail how Zhao ritualistically cuts off each progressive body part, solemnly names it, and then feeds it to the dogs (all the while carefully insuring that the subject remains alive until the very end).

Near the end of the execution, Zhao Jia notes that he has the option of removing either Qian’s eyes or his lips. Zhao ultimately opts for the eyes, and is privately relieved when Qian closes his eyes before Zhao excises the first eyeball. With the second eye, however, Qian adamantly keeps the eyelid open, forcing Zhao to cut it out with Qian staring back at him. This moment represents a crucial point in the execution, where the gaze of the audience (and of the executioner) is directly challenged by the gaze of the victim himself.

Reminiscent of the “Bodies the Exhibition” scene which Clines describes in his Times editorial, this moment of returned gaze is challenging in part precisely because it undermines the presumptive unity of subject’s own gaze. This question of the potential detachability of the gaze (and it is significant that Lacan cites the gaze as the quintessential “partial object,” or potentially detachable bodily appendices), in turn, has important implications for issues of self-perception and cultural identification. Given this thematization of the detachability of the gaze, it is certainly not coincidental that Sandalwood Sentence concludes, as does Republic of Wine, with an elaborate splitting of Meiniang's father Sun Bing's consciousness (while he is on the receiving end of an extraordinarily long and traumatic execution).

These issues of detachable gazes, in turn, are developed very explicitly in a remarkable scene near the end of Jia Pingwa’s 1993 novel Fallen City. In a suggestive intertextual play on the infamous canine penile transplant scene in Li Yu's Qing dynasty erotic novella The Carnal Prayer Mat, the character Ruan Zhifei has, not his penis, but rather his eyes surgically replaced with those of a dog. Later, Ruan asks the protagonist Zhuang Zhidie if he can see any difference between his old eyes and the new ones (he can't), and goes on to observe that:
I originally thought that changing my eyes would make me look bad, but I subsequently realized that all eyes actually look alike. The eyes of those pretty girls may be attractive, but if you extract them and place them on a table, you could claim that they were human eyes or pig eyes and it wouldn't make a bit of difference on way or the other. The question of whether a pair of eyes is good-looking or not, is really dependent on the face which contains them.
In asking whether the new eyes are good-looking (haokan) or not, Ruan is asking whether they are attractive, but the Chinese, like the English, is ambiguous on this point, insofar as the phrase “good-looking” could also be interpreted to mean “seeing easily or well.” Underlying this grammatical ambiguity, meanwhile, is a more substantive question regarding the nature of sight itself. What is the precise linkage between oneself and what one sees? To what extent are one's gaze and one's image located at the boundaries of the Self, and consequently potentially transplantable? To what extent is one's awareness of one's "own" image itself contingent on a fracturing of one's gaze, on the ability vicariously to appropriate a gaze which is always-already located outside oneself?

Although the eye transplant scene in Fallen City is clearly fantastic (resonating in interesting ways with Spielberg’s more recent Minority Report), it nevertheless evokes the burgeoning practice of cosmetic surgery (not to mention shows about cosmetic surgery like Nip and Tuck ). Most cosmetic surgery is motivated by a kind of split gaze, wherein the subject perceives his or herself though the gaze of implicit societal norms and expectations, and therefore it is appropriate that one of the most common surgical procedures for Asian women are blepharoplasties, or the creation of a fold of skin in the upper eyelid (to produce a more "Occidental" appearance). Literally a cutting of the eyelid, this procedure reflects a pre-existing “cut” at the level of the gaze, wherein Asian women come to view themselves through the normative eyes of their Caucasian peers.

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