In my last post, I focused on the idea of "watching without seeing" and alluded to how we collectively tend to objectify in our culture and resort to passive bystanding rather than engaged witnessing--that is, bringing our hearts into what we see happening around us rather than treating it as something that serves to entertain or simply shock us.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explores this theme--and its relationship to Medusa the Gorgon of myth--in Being and Nothingness. He sets the scene by urging the reader to imagine looking through a keyhole. In this scenario, from my vantage point behind the door with the keyhole, whatever I see outside becomes the object of my attention. In this position, I am the center of consciousness, the “doer”, the subject who wields the power by directing my gaze to the objects of my regard. There is no need or call to reflect on myself. Then, however (via Barnes), I am prompted to listen to oncoming footsteps behind me in the corridor! I turn and look up to meet the eyes of another who has already been regarding me as I was busy looking through the keyhole.
In a cataclysmic reversal of roles, I suddenly realize I have become the object of someone else’s gaze. Without warning, I am forced to take into account that I am also an “other” for others. The tendency of assigning other people their place in the world in order to maintain my own controlling position is turned on its head by sudden (self) awareness. The look of another threatens me, taking away my free subjectivity, and making me an object of their actions.
My natural reaction, Sartre suggests, is to respond to this perceived danger by neutralizing the Other before he neutralizes me, taking away his agency by rendering him into a powerless object without autonomy or feeling that I can control at will. If I can manage to treat this other as a thing without feelings, or who is different from me, it allows me to maintain my position of power.
I'm reminded that labeling others works this way as well--becoming a convenient way of establishing the order of things in a way that is convenient to me and my way of knowing. One example might even be that labeling someone as pathological or mentally ill gives me a way out of taking responsibility for any contribution I've made to the collective culture that enables pathology, that doesn't prioritize or provide sufficient or appropriate care for those that are mentally ill, or that shrugs when someone goes on a shooting rampage and says, "Well, of course. He wasn't right in the head, he's had problems in the past, and no one did anything about." Sound familiar? I know I have been guilty of this and I think many of us can relate.
Cultural historian Richard Tarnas explains the shift between an ancient earth-based worldview held by many (though not all) indigenous communities in which everything was seen as alive and ensouled--to a world that in contemporary culture we continually attempt to de-soul in order to manipulate it. By imposing our own beliefs, desires, and values onto another that we deem devoid of soul gives us the feeling of having the upper hand and makes us feel safer.
This tendency toward objectification exemplifies the growing sense of isolation and alienation which is increasingly common among us. Ungrounded and removed as we are from a web of interconnection and trust, how else can we survive except as disconnected bystanders in a world that is increasingly intolerable, where 24-hour newcasts deliver horrific stories of violence, torture, starvation, disease, and man-made crises that affect the earth and humanity?
Sadly, the act of disregard or asserting control leads to an irrevocable contagion, a chain reaction which perpetuates objectification throughout a given environment or culture.
This illustrates an important point. Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman (Toward Psychologies of Liberation) claim there is “a collusion between bystanding and perpetrating that is often difficult to discern” (p. 80). As an unengaged bystander, am I in fact perpetrating damage on another? Conversely, it is significant to note that Medusa is actually both a perpetrator and a victim of objectification. Though she unquestionably commits a terrible and destructive act when turning mortals to stone, Medusa was in fact the casualty of a terrible curse that transformed her from a beautiful maiden to the monster of myth. Legend has it that Medusa was a Libyan queen serving the goddess Athena who caught her lying with Poseidon in Athena’s sacred temple. Angered, Athena abruptly cursed Medusa with the hideous face and head of snakes.
In fact, on closer regard, we can see that Athena, an ancient vestige of the Great Goddess, herself was objectified by the modern Greeks who remade her into a staunch, rational goddess of wisdom and warfare, closer to a female Zeus than the instinctual, powerful feminine deity from whom she evolved. And that Athena, object of the Greeks own urge to control, was threatened by Medusa with her deep femininity and powerful instinctual connections to the body, the senses, and nature. This fear incited Athena to cast Medusa out. Medusa, then, objectified and violated by Athena’s willful and deadly dis-regard, had no say in the tragic events that followed as she turned everyone who met her gaze to stone.
In current day, I see strong evidence of that same archetypal pattern emerge. With our collective capacity for disregard, we have effectively created a common experience of the zombie archetype. In horror films, a zombie must turn others into a zombie at all costs in order to prevent being killed himself. Once achieved, that new zombie must do the same, and so on and so on until every new threat has become properly disabled and is no longer a threat. Soon, the entire population has become soulless zombies, disregarding life and turning everything they see into dead objects so they won’t be alone, won’t fear, won’t be alone in their fear.
I know this may seem extreme, and perhaps some might argue that it's reductive--but I think if we each begin to pay attention to how we respond to news of a crisis--such as recent shooting rampages, hate crimes, crimes against women like we've recently seen in India with the young woman gang-raped on a public bus, in Pakistan against 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai for girls' rights to education, or acid killings of young girls by their own parents for "dishonoring" the family--not to mention the war and corresponding atrocities in Syria, Mali and so many other places--it's literally almost too much to bear. How DO you respond? Even if you feel empathy, shock, sadness or distress over these and similar incidents, how long can you sustain that overload of emotion before you simply have to shut down, categorize, or diminish it so you can literally live your life and respond to your own (sometimes very challenging and difficult) life?
Depth psychology has provided me with a lens through which I can view this phenomenon--my own capacity for objectification and coping through "zombie-ism." It doesn't mean I can totally prevent it, but, as they say, "awareness is the first step." I hope, if you are reading my thoughts on this right now you will also feel that awareness and begin to acknowledge where it lives in your life.
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychologyand hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.