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The Eyes Don’t Have It

“What I realize now is that although everywhere the world is the same as
itself, landscape is nowhere the same as itself: you have to show landscape
by example, because as a subject, it won’t reduce to fundamentals; it won’t
trivialize”.1
“Usually I get in by a port of entry, as I call it. It’s often a face, through whose
eyes the picture opens into a landscape, and I go literally right through that
eye into that landscape”.2
“A horror story, the face is a horror story”. It is in these bleak terms that
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari declare their critique of ‘faciality’. According
to these pop philosophers, faciality constitutes a powerful system of
representation that is constructed through the dynamic interplay between the
frame of falsely generic white skin and the focal points of the eyes that
puncture it; between what they identify as “white walls and black holes”. For
Deleuze and Guattari, the apparatus of faciality operates to translate
physiognomy to ideology, raising geometric Caucasian masculinity into a
template against which all others are measured. More than this, the elevation
of the face as a symbolic standard reinforces the value attached to two of the
face’s sociobiological functions – those of signification and subjectification,
functions which Deleuze and Guattari have, as might be anticipated, very
little time for.
As with much of their writing, what is initially experienced as awkward
abstraction evolves over a process of repetition and reflection into a mindaltering insight into the realities of lived experience. Nowhere is this concrete
insight more clearly corroborated than through an investigative immersion in
the mediated environment which surrounds us. The face, entreating yet
ultimately indifferent stares back from the pages of magazines, from the
billboards, the flyers and the screens. Within these faces, it is the eyes that
have it, the eyes that judge, the eyes that implore, the eyes that constitute,
irrespective of their place within the pictorial border, the gravitational nexus
of the image, into which attention is initially drawn. It is interesting to
consider that in the pseudo-public media spaces, it is these same eyes which
frequently bear the brunt of the delinquent viewer’s interventions, providing
a target for chewed gum, scrawled biro and the tearing or smearing fingers.
Of course, it is not only within an age of advertising that the eyes and face
are rendered pervasive and persuasive. Deleuze and Guattari, for example,
trace the origins of the system of faciality, in which the eyes are so centrally
positioned, back to the conventions of Christian iconography. In this regard, it
is interesting to consider the work of neurophysiologist Christopher W. Tyler.
Tyler has conducted archaeological investigations – documented in detail at
various web addresses - into the portraiture found in successive layers of art
1

Paul Shepheard The Cultivated Wilderness: or What is Landscape? (London: MIT Press, 1987)
p. xiv
2
William Burroughs reported in Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in
Paris, 1957 – 1963 (New York: Grove Press, 2000) p. 156

history. Among the conclusions of Tyler’s research is the claim, corroborated
by various statistical analyses, that not only do the eyes constitute a
compositional device frequently relied upon but that the proportional location
of the eyes within the frame is remarkably consistent, with position, distance
and relative height from the horizontal for the left and right orbit all
possessing very similar values that cut across period, material, genres and
isms.
For Tyler, accounting for this phenomenon involves having recourse to the
operation of the unconscious, yet other explanations might bear
consideration.
As far as some critics are concerned, the presence of the eyes in figurative
media is hardly a surprise, possessing as it does a powerful relationship to
the very mechanics of those media. “The eye, however, is another matter.
With the exception of the hand, which is invested with almost magical
associations of character and identity, it is the most photographed of all
bodily components. That hand and eye enjoy a privileged status among
photographers is not surprising; they are after all, at the root of the art and
craft of photography”3.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger suggests that explaining the dominance of the
depiction of the eyes is not exhausted by a reflexive coincidence of creative
process and creative subject. Instead, the significance of the eyes in the
image world can be related to processes of interpersonal identification. As he
writes, “[s]oon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The
eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we
are part of the visible world … The nature of vision is more fundamental than
that of spoken dialogue”4.
In many ways, Berger’s suggestion has some parallels to the much earlier
analysis developed by Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the
Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Burke isolates the eye
as an organ which “has so great a share in the beauty of animal creation” and
goes on to contemplate several facets of this beauty, including its clarity, its
motion and its proportion. Yet “[b]esides all this, the eye affects, as it is
expressive of some qualities of the mind, and its principal power generally
arises from this”5.
Perhaps, after all, Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretations are right. Maybe the
prominence of the eyes in visual representation is a matter of their
connection to processes of signification: they provide many of the
paralinguistic resources that support the meaning of uttered speech - ‘His
words were banal enough, yet the narrowing of his eyes suggested other, less
comfortable, intentions’. Maybe, indeed, their prominence is also a matter of
3

William A. Ewing The Body: Photoworks of the Human Form (London: Thames and Hudson,
1994) p. 37
4
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972) p. 9
5

Edmund Burke A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the
Beautiful (1757) (Oxford: O.U.P, 1990) p. 108

their connection to processes of subjectification: they are assumed to provide
evidence of the authentic presence of Self – when colloquialisms like ‘look
into my eyes’ are inserted into dialogue there is an invitation to locate the
sincere person behind a statement. This latter claim finds its fullest
expression in the idea of the eyes as ‘windows of the soul’, a turn of language
that derives from Marsilo Ficino’s fifteenth century translation of Plato’s
Phaedrus.
In this brief survey of potential explanations of the prominence of the eyes in
visual media, some see their alleged elevation as simply a reflection of the
facts (of life, of the unconscious or of the operation of the media itself);
others welcome the eyes’ representational elevation as an engagement with
a wider humanist project of interpersonal empathy or expression of “some
qualities of the mind”. For Deleuze and Guattari, there is nothing natural nor
anything positive about the glaring of the eyes from the field of faciality.
It is possible to remain agnostic in front of these contrasting statements of
faith and move instead to consider where photography might find
alternatives to the orthodox iconography of the eye.
One response may be to close the eye itself. An evocative example here
would be the montage that adorned the publication of La Revolution
Surréaliste. There, Magritte’s painting of a female nude, anchored with the
cursive inscription, “Je ne vois pas la cachée dans la fort”, is surrounded by
sixteen photographs of surrealists, all with their eyes firmly shut. At first, this
montage would seem to suggest a way of resolving the tensions which arise
from the parallels between the photographic portrait as artistic and
administrative venture. Although the closed eyes of the surrealists may well
confound our expectations of the image under faciaility and, indeed, relate to
the more vernacular resistance of prisoners or school-children refusing to
meet the official camera’s gaze, this particular montage is compromised to
the extent that its composition seems more closely related to the surrealists’
refusal to envisage woman except as imaginary. The closed eyes are symbolic
of the surrealist subject, "who does not need to see the woman in order to
imagine her, placing her at the center but only as an image," thus excluding
any actual woman from the picture 6.
At the other end of the twentieth century, the inhabitants of Aziz and
Cuchar’s Dystopia series find their eyes shut too, this time by a sheet of
digitally engineered skin that is smoothed across their orbits. While perhaps
more politically viable in its creators’ intent than that supposedly behind the
surrealist montage, nevertheless the image has not travelled too far from
faciality. Indeed, the very disturbance of Dystopia’s blank sockets depends
upon the viewer possessing a strong enough sense of normative faciality for
the contrast to work. Moreover, despite the images’ synthetic manipulation,
the portraits’ poses and formal qualities would not seem to depart radically
from the compositional strictures identified by Tyler.
6

Susan Rubin Suleiman. "A Double Margin: Women Writers and the Avant-Garde in France" in
Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990) p. 21

Where else might the photography of the eye go? One potential direction
could be to trace a point where portrait and landscape collide, where the
represented eye no longer functions as window into the musty confines of
faciality - whether a faciality that draws out the positive elements of beauty
and empathy or Deleuze and Guattari’s negative elements of signification
and subjectification. In this direction, the eyes that dwell in the portraitlandscape would not draw the viewer inwards but would instead transport
them ever outwards. From my perspective, Edgar Martins’ recent
photographs The Reluctant Sitter succeed precisely in these terms.
In Martins’ images, the eyes are prominent. They could qualify as the
repositories of beauty, empathy, expression and identity which we have
heard of before. Further, the pictures are suffused with a formal quality that is
reminiscent less of the expected reference points of photographic
documentary or photographic portraiture and more, indeed, of the
Renaissance painting so provocatively analysed by Christopher W. Tyler.
True, Martins’ images are not pitched, I concede, at the apocalyptic level of
the philosophers’ strident “[y]es, the face has a great future, but only if it is
destroyed, dismantled”7. Yet, I would argue that The Reluctant Sitter goes
someway to answering Deleuze and Guattari’s critique. This achievement is a
consequence of the fact that the eyes in Martins’ images do not lock us into
the closed circuit of representation that is the hallmark of faciality but instead
lift the viewer from the face and on to a more open terrain. The sitters’ eyes,
sometimes shut, sometimes open, sometimes direct, sometimes oblique take
us out into the landscape, whether that landscape is mapped by the folds and
crevices of a clothed body, by the furnishings and arrangements of rooms or
by the blasted yard under the sky. Intriguingly, explored in these terms,
Martins’ work shadows Deleuze and Guattari’s own conviction that “[a]ll faces
envelope an unknown, unexplored landscape; all landscapes are populated
by a loved or dreamed of face, develop a face to come or already past. What
face has not called upon the landscapes it amalgamated, sea and hill; what
landscape has not evoked the face that would have completed it, providing
the unexpected compliment for its lines and traits?” 8.
Returning to the second quotation which began this account, Edgar Martins’
The Reluctant Sitter makes of the eyes neither a window of the soul nor the
locked door of faciality, but a “port of entry” through which we can travel to
landscapes beyond.

7

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus (1980) (London: Athlone, 1987) p. 171

8

Op cit pp. 171 - 172