Social semiotics: a theory of gaze

What was most surprising about a recent ‘interdisciplinary’ LSE workshop on Attention, organized by the Anthropology department, was the absence of sociology as well as media and communications researchers; most participants were either anthropologists or psychologists.

You would expect that media and communications which is primarily concerned with media industry, media text, and media audience would be interested in the notion of attention as a prerequisite to any act of mediation or communication. Also, if sociology is ultimately about meaningful social action, attention must be seen as the first phase of any social action.

The truth is that there is no social account of attention developer by social theorists; an account which can explain the initial orientation which makes any social action possible. Can we speak, listen, read, write, love or hate without an orientation toward another person or institution? Is it possible to imagine a social act without an orientation toward a social actor?

This initial orientation, also known as attention, is the foundation for any relation between social objects, i.e. actors, institutions, or artefacts, which we call social action.

Before any social action, there is a relation between an attender and an attendee which we call attention. This foundational notion to the social world can be called social semiotics.

Gaze capital

Here I would like to propose a different concept instead of attention to extend this idea of social semiotics. A concept which will be particularly useful within media and communications but can also be applied to sociology.

Gaze is a an inherently relational concept referring to the link between a gazer and the gazed. What gives gaze an advantage over attention is its critical nature. Gaze is already theorized as a theory of power relations by various scholars such as Lacan, Foucault, and Mulvey. While they mostly see gaze as negative, a disempowering or rarefying relationship, they open up the possibility of a positive kind of gaze which empowers and enables the gazed.

It is the power dimension of the notion of gaze which makes it a perfect tool to theorise media and communications. All communication is gaze, I claim. Gaze in this sense is not limited to what eyes do when they look at something or someone; it is a a focused attention embedded in a power relation. Thus, it includes any act of focused listening, smelling, touching, etc. Ironically, humans and other animals with vision, usually accompany gaze when using other senses. When we hear someone calling our name, we immediately and unintentionally look at the direction of the sound. That’s also true when something touches us or when we smell something; we always orient our vision toward our perceived source of that sense. Even blind people always orient themselves toward the source of sounds, as if listening is impossible without gazing.

If the media text is built upon relations of meaning between symbols, reception of that media text happens in a gaze relation. When you read or watch or listen to a media text, you establish a gaze and at the same time a power relation with that text.

Here I need to introduce the idea of gaze capital to be able to explain negative or positive gaze.

Gaze capital is the sum of all negative ot positive gazes a person or even an object have accumulated. For instance, celebrities are those who have received millions of gazes from other people with little gaze capital. That’s the very essence of their power. By the same logic, a popular website is a website which has received a lot of gazes from other websites through hyperlinks. So is a viral social media post. Viral means a media text which is continuously gaining gaze capital.

Negative and positive gaze

Now the tricky question is what differentiates negative from positive gaze. When does a gaze disempower the gazed and when does it empower it?

I propose that a negative gaze happens when the gazer has immensely more gaze capital than the gazed. Positive gaze then will be when the gazer has vastly less gaze capital than the gazed. In other words, it is the inequality of gaze capital which determines the nature of the power relation underlying the very gaze relation.

With this definition, when an ordinary man in the streets gazes at a female celebrity it will not objectify or disempower the celebrity. However, when an ordinary man gazes at another ordinary woman with roughly the same gaze capital in the metro, it will make the woman uncomfortable and objectified and powerless.

On screen, a female actress will not be disempowered by millions of film viewers whose individual gaze capital is massively less than the collective gaze that the actress on the screen is accumulating. But she will feel disempowered if a more famous male director gazes at her on the set. the same disempowerment will not necessarily be the case when the cameraman gazes via the camera lens at her

This may explain why major celebrities do not bother much if their sex tapes or private photos are leaked as long as they are not gazed at by more powerful gazers such as the law enforcement institutions.

A complex example of negative vs. positive gaze happens online. The difference with the offline world or non-interactive media forms such as television is online gazes are multifaceted. For instance, when someone leaves a comment or clicks on the Like button, they leave a trace of their gaze which can itself be gazed at by others.

The gaze theory can still explain this: Hurtful comments that ordinary people (i.e. people with low gaze capital) under other ordinary people are often painful to the original author, especially when they are algorithmically given more visibility, which means more ordinary people gaze at them.

That is also the case when famous online figures, with major gaze capital, face thousands of hurtful comments under a post. They often do not care and sometimes they somewhat enjoy the attention, despite its malign nature. But when one of these comments gains more gaze than others through the platform’s algorithmic intervention, the authors may feel threatened so they either erase or hide or reply to that comment.

Quoting other tweets creates similar but more complex dynamics. With this theory of gaze capital and gaze relations, quoting is a two-fold gaze: first is the gaze of the quoter at the quoted tweet, second is the author’s invitation to her followers to gaze at that tweet by another author. Each of these sorts of gazes generate a different power relation whose mutual impact ultimately determines the final power relation.

Gaze and platforms

Having introduced concepts such as gaze relation and gaze capital, I can now define mediation as gaze relation and the media as systems where these gaze relations are negotiated and ultimately regulated. A newspaper is where gaze relations between the producers, audiences, and texts are negotiated, configured, and regulated.

If conventional media are systems (or figurations) of gaze regulation, the digital platforms add data relations to this figuration. The data relations which platforms systematically establish between users, producers, advertisers, etc. through surveillance and classifications will be used to regulate the gaze relations between them. Thus, platforms can be seen as where data and gaze relations are regulated through complex automated technologies.

Conclusion

Communication, and thus media, is a social practice which has so far been mostly theorised around psychological accounts of signs and thereby semiotics. The transmission model, including its more advanced versions such encoding/decoding, still views mediation as a semiotics system between signs and interpreters of signs. The gaze theory, proposed in this article, generates a social account of communication which happens between human subjects; thus I call it a social semiotics. Concepts such as gaze relations and gaze capital can enhance our understanding of media and explain the complexities that are emerging in the platform society.

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*Hossein Derakhshan is a PhD researcher at LSE.