There is seeing and then there is looking. I like to think of the difference between the two as a quick readjust of the lens so that everything that was slightly blurry and soft beforehand is now clear. A subtlety of focus. Closely related is the difference between hearing and listening, which is an argument we’ve all been on one side or another of at some point. ‘I know you aren’t listening!’ one person protests, a second before the other looks up from whatever it was they were really paying attention to.
Observing is different once again; zooming in and out, changing the focus as you go. Looking, but noting what’s significant, what isn’t, what might be one day. And, at the same time, it involves pulling everything you’ve ever encountered into the front of your mind and filtering most of it back out again, until you’re left with just the things that are, or might be, relevant. It’s one of those skills that gets undersold by a word, misrepresented, too facile for what it really involves.
Critical thinking in the moment, I suppose, prompted by what’s in front of you. The problem with observing though (if you can call it a problem) is that – once it’s on – it’s not one of those things you can just turn back off at will. On or not at all is closer. On until you find yourself in the middle of an epistemological crisis, wondering if you really ‘knew’ anything before you noticed this pattern of events, this sprawling ownership, this cross-referencing amongst a group of thinkers and theorists, which turns out, in fact, to be a friendship group. It leaves you with more questions than answers.
Another problem with observing: it starts to catch you off guard. Watching television, unable to follow a storyline after it’s revealed that the serial killer falls into that problematic trope of having mental health issues. Watching a film and internally performing the Bechdel test. Realising that, not only do the women on screen rarely talk to one another, they’re usually identikit version heroines – white, button noses and eyes wide and full of awe, gazing up at their hero.
Or, rarer, reading a chapter of a book:
❁ A man.*
✌︎ Definitely a man.
❂ Oh really? I thought it might be a woman. I sort of thought it might be Sontag…
Fiction or non-fiction, words sit on the surface of the page waiting to be read positive, understood as exactly what they say they are; there’s a history of saying that reading must be done objectively. Subjective interpretations are usually left to literature and, when it comes to canons, have a habit of being explained away, dismissed as ‘too’ subjective somehow. I don’t think that’s what they meant. I’ve think you’ve misunderstood.
❁ I don’t know – whoever it is, they don’t seem to like women that much…
✽ What makes you say that?
I spend my life ‘misunderstanding’. A recent example: after picking up a copy from a charity shop – I’d seen the cover on the Man Booker finalists list – I read David Szalay’s All That Man Is last summer. It had rave reviews. Szalay, I was assured, was a keen observer and, as I hadn’t (still haven’t) read any of his other works and so had nothing else to go on, I trusted the reviews. Nine short stories of masculinity; ‘unsparing’ it was called. Five stars.
And of course, now that I look back on them, I realise that these stellar reviews were all written by men. Not that that matters, necessarily, but the univocality within that fact missed an entirely different reading. I made it to the end, just about, and figured out why it had been donated to charity; at least it raised a few quid. In short: it’s a book about nine tedious (and often dull) straight white cis European men, selfish and objectifying and trapped inside their own heads. There’s a statement in there, maybe – is this really all that man is? – but if it’s written into the pages with intent then it totally passed me by. According to Andy on Goodreads: Men will recognise elements of themselves in each character while ladies, well, if you ever really wanted to know the sort of things going on in the male brain…. this is your guide.
Thanks for the advice, Andy! Except we don’t really need a guide, actually, and to think that we might says a lot. It’s a collection of stories that any woman already does know, has already experienced being on the receiving end of. Could have written herself after a day of being filibustered at work or after a hideous date. Nine versions of the same stereotype, flattening out all the genuine emotional complexity of other men, or the ambiguity of being both a nice guy and accidental sexist, or the experiences of men who don’t fulfil the criteria for homogeneity, who have been neatly left out despite the titular All.
(Another Goodreads reviewer wondered if the Man Booker judges might have been high when they shortlisted it.)
It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what it was; something about the phrases, the syntax, the confidence… things that lay just through the printed words as I read, mixed in with things I knew experientially. But reading All That Man Is I never forgot who my author was, I knew – unequivocally – that I was a woman reading a man, a man of the characters within; the first time I’d experienced such a thing with clarity and intensity, which tells you as much about me as it does him.
And I wondered how many times I’d done that before, without realising, and in what contexts. In not knowing how to look and observe beyond words and their surface meaning, how much I’d missed about the person responsible for them.
❁ I think the language…
There are eight of us sat upstairs in a pub across town. Copier paper is scattered across the table in front of us like confetti and, in between the laser printed sheets are wine glasses and pints, sometimes on top, pub paperweights expecting a sudden and unpredictable gust of wind to turn the room into a chaotic snow globe of recycled A4.
Chaotic because none of the sheets are named or titled, left that way to be read and interpreted freely; an anonymous Author, deceased. The identity-less text is famous enough, though, that I check beforehand if it looks familiar to anyone (it doesn’t) because it’s the sort of piece that repeats its way through art school reading lists. But it’s a lot and not an easy read at 18, 19, 20 – to be honest, even now – and so like many of the other “essentials” that appear on these inventories, it stays there, unread.
And so we play Guess Who?: Reading Edition, trying to establish the sort of person our author might be, looking for clues in their story and drawing lines under and rings around the details. Observing them, through their words. We read an account of an omnipresent narrator, distanced – never I – writing under the guise of objectivity, suggesting transcendence beyond those human flaws of agenda and privilege and bias. They write about decorated object-women, striptease, the Moulin Rouge and places just like it. A myth about sex created as a kind of inoculation against it.
❁ …There’s the first parts that are really concerned with linking striptease to “evil” and sin… and then there’s the bits that talk about women as being objects – “establishing the woman right from the start as an object in disguise”… And it never gets beyond that. He never “unobjectifies” them or talks about them as being humans, too. They’re never the subject.
Reading about women, sort of like you and context-less, used for an exercise in semiotics is… weird. They quickly becomes he. There’s a general agreement that, like Szalay, it’s he-type writing. But also a he-type interpretation of what happens; watching, afar, focussed only on the girls on stage there to entertain and titillate, never looking back at the audience he’s part of.
Afterwards, we’ll read Gloria Steinem’s A Bunny’s Tale, an ethnographic record from inside Manhatten’s Playboy Club so vivid and real to us that the words pinch, nipping at the skin like a zipper yanked up on a too-tight costume. Different and limited too, but with a shared subject matter – near naked women as entertainment for men – what each writer chooses to observe is fascinating. The Bunnies, when away from the Club, go to their day jobs, to college classes, take their costumes to be dry-cleaned. Are scintillating maybe only about 40% of their time. Have hair colours and voices that distinguish one character-person from the next. A diary of events that goes behind the scenes, into coat check and out to serve drinks to lecherous men is interrupted with a body of proof, a collection of ephemera – a name rosette, meal ticket, ID card – that shows that Marie Ochs, the fake name of a real woman, was there experiencing these Bunny things alongside them.
But in our anonymous text, the girls in the Moulin Rogue pause, frozen in time somewhere offstage, become nonexistent when not performing for an audience. There aren’t enough words for holistic context, nor is it the point – or, apparently, of interest.
✌︎ It’s quite – clinical considering the subject matter…
❂ There’s no eroticism at all…
❁ He’s obviously well educated –
➶ – and wants everyone to know!
✏︎ – and French, maybe? He talks about Parisian and French striptease, specifically. I can’t work out if that’s just because that’s the specific show he visited or whether it’s intentional. And he’s white. He singles out Chinese women and Spanish women as being somehow different to women generally.
✌︎ Oh, yeah.
Is it possible to know someone by what they choose to notice and recount? Can you read blind spots, implicit bias and -isms, wilful ignorance of a subject or guess at a life story by the kinds of references written in?
As it turns out, the group manage to be pretty precise.
Nationality is an easy one to pin down. White and able-bodied privileges too, an unwritten ‘normal’ that shows itself in casual othering. Intelligence – a very specific kind, without humility or empathy for the reader – gives itself away in pompousness and obfuscatory prose. But how exactly we read ‘man’ through the 80gsm membrane I never quite get a handle on. Instinct, maybe? Or maybe the eight of us – all women, by the way, privilege and implicit bias manifesting itself in other forms – have just become accustomed to it; the tone of voice, the cadence, the patter that comes with decades of advantage and assertion taken for granted, not always obvious to its beneficiaries.
The name stays just out of reach. But our author reads familiar, like the other historical greats that are (usually) white men, too. The ‘knowledge’ producers; another kind of homogeneity. A mass of similar names that are called upon time and time again. Have you read X? Oh, you should! Voluminous in number, not exactly through fault of their own, but that create ideas and ways of thinking that take on three dimensions, become solid and bear weight nonetheless.
✽ Wait, so are we all in agreement then that it’s a man?
✏︎ Yeah, I think so. Definitely a man. Definitely white. Probably older. Some kind of “intellectual”.
I’ll tell the group in a minute that it’s Barthes and be met with a chorus of Oh!s and Of course!s. But we don’t really need to know his name, or his body of work, because we already know enough. About him, about the value systems we exist within that have made Barthes into an Of course! instead of a Who?
❂ ‘If it’s not Sontag then she definitely got a lot of inspiration from this person!’
It’s funny, isn’t it, that Barthes was the one who called for the death of the Author, became one himself over time? Those capital As hang over me, constantly.
I’m not sure I’m allowed to ‘misunderstand’ as much as I’d like. Noting what’s significant about the author and their writing, what isn’t, what might be one day – it usually happens for us, on our collective behalf. Crowd sourced should-reads, short-lists and itineraries with an identity Author watermark showing through. I almost never get the chance to just stumble across something, left to myself to observe words on a page, the words that lay just underneath, and let them weave themselves under and over my own knowledge. Warp and weft. For things to not unravel and fall apart, you need both.
In fact, I regularly I worry that I might be mainly weft, that I’ve assimilated too much and, at the same time, lost the threads of my own that hold it all together. Or that three-dimensional and heavy ideas have filled my brain without me noticing. Whether I’m interested in or can relate to them is beside the point. My subjective experiences, things I know to be true , crumple under their weight. There isn’t enough like them out there, with form and weight themselves, to give the permission to be right, too.
Maybe the alcohol helped. Our cheeks are sort of pink and flushed, brains softer than normal and caught off guard. The almost-beginning of intoxication, when our subconscious takes the lead and those niggling internally-held truths have a habit of slipping out.
*The conversation in this piece is a retelling of a discussion that happened on 13/12/18 as part of the Observations workshop. I’ve tried to get it as accurate as possible. Thank you all for being brilliant ♥︎