Looking and Power (Reading Response: Practices of Looking)

What’s the relation between power and looking? To understand it, we need to first understand the relation between the sign, the observer, and the controller of the medium. I find myself disagreeing with Barthes (and agreeing with Peirce) in his conception of a ‘sign’ as a container of interpretation. The creator(s) intend to evoke some meaning for a piece, but it is not up to them or to the piece how it is finally perceived. Under Barthes’s view, there can be potentially endless amounts of signs derived from the same signifier, because there are potentially endless interpretations of any given signifier. What’s interesting is how those interpretations are constructed: they come from fundamental social stimuli that, in one way or another, are defined by political and/or cultural structures of power. We (generally) know what they want us to know, and we interpret new messages through the filters that they taught us. But we also have some degree of control over this process (to the extent that we are aware of these external structures of control, at least). We can decide to process signifiers critically, seek out contrasting ones, or, if we’re lucky, ignore them. That’s where the role of the medium comes in. In an open, unregulated, and freely navigable medium such as the web, the observer can escape to or from signifiers at will, but in public open spaces, the regulators have all the cards. A politician might perform a blitz-campaign where no living citizen could escape their imagery, thus inciting them to vote for them almost through sensorial saturation (which happened in Chile in 2009), or a brand might embed itself in the landscape of any and all businesses related to itself (the way Coca-Cola has), thus inserting itself in consumer’s minds in a very much subliminal fashion. On the other hand, regulators can deny the exhibition of any signifier they deem unfit, thus exerting their power over the visual landscape that we inhabit daily.

Leave a reply

Skip to toolbar