Glancing & Gazing

Matt Webb has been working on a social software application to replicate ‘glancing‘ – the kind of low-level social interaction we use to confirm the social status of a group, or as a precursor to more attentive communication. Having been exposed to critical theory when I was far too vunerable (ie, as an art student in the early ’90’s), I couldn’t help comparing Matt’s ‘glancing’ with the Lacanian ‘gaze‘.

Glancing is proposed as a way of technologically representing signifiers of assurance – the nod, wink or sly look that passes between members of a social group to let someone else know you’re with them. As Matt uses IM infrastructures as the base of the ‘glancing’ protocol, it is asynchronous, so the ‘glances’ have a prolonged life, starting intense and gradually falling after an hour or so. This way, people who are not at their desktops can see the recent history of glances and respond, perhaps encouraging other group members to glance until there is a quorum of attention for an IM chat.

Lacan’s concept of the ‘Gaze’ is similarly concerned with reassurance and identity. Its root is in the ‘mirror stage’ of child development, when the infant first recognises the image in the mirror as itself, and so enters a symbolic order in which the ‘real’ is lost in a ‘screen’ of signifiers and representations. The confusion between this screen of our idealised projections, and the intangible ‘real’ is the heart of Lacanian Psychoanalytic theory, and was productively used in the feminist film theories of Laura Mulvey, amongst others.

But the Gaze has an uncanny element – look too closely and you realise that the screen of your projected desires looks back – it has a presence (the trace of the ‘real’) that destabilises your position as the centre of your projected universe. Lacan illustrates this with a pretty bizarre anecdote involving a sardine can bobbing about in a harbour – better to use his other example, Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, an almost uncanny illustration of the concept. In this painting, the two ambassadors are pictured with objects that represent their wealth and status, a literal ‘screen’ of their desires. At the bottom, the anamorphically distorted image of a skull represents morality, a sideways glance at the ‘real’ behind the ‘screen’ of their life achivements.

Will Matt’s Glancing elide into this uncanny territory? Will the soft throb of the glance icon invoke the warm glow of friendship, or will it feel more like the goosebump sensation of someone staring at the back of your head? Matt suggests that the glance is a form of empty communication, like the blank SMSes sent between Japanese schoolchildren. Lacan tells us that there is no empty communication, that even the shiny surface of a sardine can ‘looks back’ at us by participating in the forest of signs that make up our symbolic order. For Mulvey, the gaps between film frames reveal the fetishised world of cinema as nothing but a ‘screen’, and reminds us of the unbridgeable gap between our desires and the ‘real’.

Even empty communication carries a message, like a seat still warm from the last person who sat there. By introducing a half-life to the split-second glance, Matt is opening up an uncanny world of absence as well as a new protocol for presence.

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