Dr. Maria Walsh

A Cartography of the Gaze: Diffuse and/or Curious?

In a recent discussion with feminist film theorist Martine Beugnet on haptic and optic visuality, Laura Mulvey suggestively reformulates her position in her infamous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ as historically evolving. While optic visuality, a position Mulvey called ‘the male gaze’, can be instrumentalised to objectify and control the on-screen ‘feminized subject’, it does not necessarily have to be deployed in this way. In discussion with Beugnet, Mulvey adheres to her investment in optical visuality as it contains within it ‘both the inquiring pleasure of curiosity and the investigative critical gaze’ she associates with feminism. Her response is in reaction to the loss of historical specificity in the current turn to theories of haptic visuality in film which tends to prioritise how film generates sensations and affects over and above situated knowledge.

In my paper, I want to return to feminist film theorists Mary Ann Doane and Teresa de Lauretis, who responded to Mulvey’s essay in the 1980s, and productively re-read them in the light of the recent turn to the haptic.

Mary Ann Doane reconfigured Mulvey’s infamous assertion: ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’ to think about a female subject of desire as both subject and object of the look premised on what she called ‘the accoutrements of femininity’. Looking at the image of Marlene Dietrich for example, ‘accoutrements’ such as hats, gloves, veils, etc. might function as prosthetic devices that give the woman both the distance necessary to survey herself and the pleasure of extending her gaze into objects close to her body. Here we might glimpse the value of clothing as an autoerotic prosthetic that might generate another kind of looking that resists objectification.

In recent fashion photography by women such as Petra Collins, for example, there is an interest in situating the female body in narrative contexts that are also intimate and sensual. Aligning with this kind of practical ethos, my paper will further trace the 1980s reception of Mulvey by feminist film theorist Teresa de Lauretis who reconfigured the gaze in terms of visual icon and narrative employment, in other words, in relation to how the female protagonist carries the look through space. This double act potentially resists being fetishistically objectified.

What will emerge from this historical cartography is a haptic optics, the gaze as a diffuse and curious mode of engagement with the world that is captured by visual media such as film and photography.

Dr. Maria Walsh is a writer and art critic. She is a Reader in Artists’ Moving Image at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London. She is the author of Art and Psychoanalysis (2012) and co-editor of the anthology Twenty Years of MAKE: Back to the Future of Women’s Art (2015). She is an Associate Editor of MIRAJ: Moving Image Review & Art Journal and was Guest Editor of the Special Issue: Feminisms: Women artists and the moving image (2016). She is currently researching a monograph on the ‘screen’ as a critical site of therapeutic encounter.


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