The Singular Gaze in the Plural

Bernhard Waldenfels


Standing in front of the wall of images by Roland Fischer, we are confronted by roughly a thousand photographic portraits of students from Israel. This is not a group portrait in which individuals might pose together, but a collective portrait, juxtaposing individuals without relation to one another. Each faces the viewer separately. The lack of interconnection between the sitters, without which the reference to Israel would remain merely a verbal one, makes the question of the social bond all the more important. Who or what do we see? [1] Who or what is looking back at us? Is it just a multitude of faces that become a whole only by their being counted and supplied with a narrative? The artist has already created similar series taken in the US and China under the title Pool-Portraits. In those, we encounter busts emerging from the water that conceal nothing but the pure look. Can this mode of presentation be explained in terms of a contemporary form of de-subjectivisation, objectification, neutralisation – of pure presence? Before I lose myself in theories I prefer to heed the admonition Maurice Merleau-Ponty once bestowed on his Phenomenology of Perception: ‘Nothing is more difficult than to know precisely what we see.’ The constellation of gazes and looks we are dealing with speak for themselves, albeit less clearly than we may hope. Art is not meant to unravel the mystery of visibility but rather to highlight the enigma.

So what or who are we seeing in this array of portraits? If we keep to the strict grid of the visual field that corresponds to a piece of Minimal art, then we will discover a multitude of faces. No face carrier is himself, however; each one is determined by the relation of holding spot x in row y, where the rows can be read from left to right as in Latin or Greek writing, or indeed from right to left as in Hebrew or Arabic. Either way, everyone is someone else simply by virtue of the different position they take up within the system.

Yet this serial identity reaches its limit in the case of human facial features. Each face is that of a certain other person on account of gender, age or skin colour. It is different from others in its own particular way. Each individual appears as a man or a woman, as a black or a white person, but still as an interchangeable variable, if we remain rooted in this particular perspective.

Moreover, we find a mark that departs from the positional identity of the grid, namely the discretely supplied name. The carrier of a name owes it to someone else; he answers to his first name before he utters it himself. The personal name is, at its core, someone else’s name, the mother and father’s name. The name is more than a label, more than a brand name; it stands for something singular: if you are called Moshe or Martin, Rabin or Sadat, then you call yourself that and nothing else, even if others carry the same name. In his own name a person bears responsibility, votes in an election, breaks laws or falls in love. He is called by that name, even caught by it: ‘Cain, where is your brother Abel?’ The decontextualisation of experience reaches its limit here. The name has a narrative. This is particularly distinctive in the Jewish tradition where a name like Isaac (‘he will laugh’) or Ishmael (‘God answers’) contains a promise.[2] But the narrative of a name also leaves traces in secular forms of life, such as when Polish immigrants in Germany or Moroccan immigrants in France are not only designated but also marked by their names. Even K., the protagonist of Kafka’s novel The Castle, does not descend into pure namelessness. The plain K. is an expression of the unfamiliarity the intruder meets upon arrival. The name Nobody (outis), adopted by Odysseus, is merely a subterfuge. Since the faces we meet on the tableau have been given names they do not just stand for anybody who plays the role of somebody and plays on his status; they refer to a particular human being, to this-someone, who, by showing and appearing, touch on things that cannot be said.

Now the question we face is this: What does it mean to see a collective portrait? Do we simply see a collective that corresponds to a mathematical number, like the population of a city, or do we rather see these-there as members of a collective? The answer depends on the nature of our gaze, namely whether the gaze incorporates the singularity of the members of a collective or not. To the impersonal gaze of someone taking the salute at a military parade, overseeing a gang of workers at a prison camp or merely conducting a company audit, what matters is that everyone has reported for duty. The controlling gaze falls on the totality as if from a bird’s-eye perspective. If we, however, look at our exhibition wall then we will not be able to prevent our wandering gaze from coming to rest in one place or another. Singularity does not only mean that everybody take their place, their topos; it also encompasses an atopia, a placelessness amidst the placing. Where am I, who am I? Is it not true that every person carries a Socratic spark? One’s own gaze alienates itself just as one’s own speech does, whenever something slips our grasp and someone else provokes our gaze or speech.

Faced with the unfamiliarity of the other, our viewing of the image reaches a point of inflection. Is the face we see before us primarily something I see or does the image rather open up an alien field of vision such that I know myself to be gazed at by unfamiliar eyes and to be spoken to by a stranger’s voice, whether I want this or not? Only a dialogic fallacy transforms the alien gaze into a mutual gaze: I see you as you see me so that in the end I see no one else in you other than me – and the same would hold for you. Hegel was the first to describe this subliminal process of mutual appropriation as a struggle for recognition. The unfamiliar gaze and the strange word find themselves cancelled out in a common logos, which erases all alienness. The spirit has already won the struggle: ‘Ego that is “we”, a plurality of Egos, and “we” that is a single Ego.[3] While the other is thought in this dialectic interplay between ego and alter ego, one is still not exposed to the experience of the alien. Even mutual love can, psychoanalytically speaking, peter out in a ‘narcissism in pairs’.[4] Jacques Lacan resists this along Freudian lines by conceding an importance to the other that cannot be balanced out by any dialectic. Thus he declares in one of his later seminars: ‘You never see me where I see you’, and the inverse is also true: ‘What you see is never what I want to see.[5] The gaze as the event of becoming visible never coincides with the contents of our acts of seeing. The alienness of the other, its alterity, evinces only in answers to the strange appeal, to the unfamiliar desire, in a reply in which the answerer begins precisely at the place where he never was and never will be.[6] The gaze comes from afar. It contains a blind spot, which cannot be transposed into the mirror view of one’s own seeing. In the gaze that answers to the challenge of the unfamiliar gaze we surprise ourselves.

We have now reached a point at which the European culture of the senses, which is anything but homogenous, drifts apart. Ancient Greek thinking took the alienness of myself and that of the other to be contained in a common, all-encompassing logos. Everybody partakes in it insofar as he draws, in the autopsy of his own gaze, on ‘the things themselves’ (auta ta pragmata), while knowledge, like the testimony in a court of law, is mere hearsay (ex akouēs, ex auditio) for those who are not present and is therefore nothing more than second-hand knowledge.[7] In that case the face or countenance (prosōpon) with which someone looks at us plays a subsidiary role. We see by the light of the sun, not by its countenance. In Jewish, however, the strange countenance (panim), culminating in the divine countenance, is a sight that strikes us in a manner similar to hearing ourselves being addressed. Emmanuel Levinas has transposed the primal scene of the great Other into the sphere of the human Other. The strange face that presents itself to us by eluding us is a talking face: Le visage parle. It sets an ethical resistance against all attempts at seizing: ‘Thou shalt not kill (tu ne commettras pas de meurtre)’.[8]

Let us return to the beginning. There is an ambiguity in the human face where the strange gaze becomes visible while remaining invisible. The unfamiliar gaze can only be grasped by passing through a seeing that takes in as something that which is not something, like a telling that talks about someone who is more than something that has been said. The pictorial representation becomes suspect if it verifies what Paul Klee ascribes to painting, namely to render the invisible visible, which can only be achieved in a form of ‘indirect painting’. [9] The art of photography, at least as described by Roland Barthes in his notes on photography [10], attempts something similar in its own way when it crosses over from the isolated effect of an impression, the punctum, to the studium, as an informed engagement with that which has been seen, without being able to forget the pathos of the initial impression. Barthes illustrates this with the example of a photograph depicting his late mother, which, like every photograph that aims to be more than a simple – or even to be a sophisticated – representation, intimates the absence of death. Without the artistic processing of what has been seen it would be, at best, a shocking image or visual fast food. However, pictorial art, and specifically photographic art, walk a fine line if they engage with human experience. Images lend themselves as documents, capturing and rendering things past or far away. Yet they also reveal traits of testimony, allowing the alien and the exotic to stay live and fresh by proxy in the memory or in view. The witness is more than a reporter. One becomes a witness by being involved with the experience that is to be witnessed. This is true of everyday violence in the street but also, to a higher degree, of portentous events such as the Holocaust, whose victims have a claim to recalling and representing it beyond all artistic organisation and historical research. Something that is certainly not the same but is similarly incomparable can be found in the Aghet of the Armenian people. There is a propensity to cover the ‘nakedness’ of the alien face, which goes beyond the scope of every cultural and historical cognitive context, with masks and pictures.[11] Levinas counters this with a ‘concrete abstraction’,[12] which does not simply divest itself of concrete circumstances but instead wrests the absolute singularity from the worldly and social conditions without losing sight of what it disregards.

We close with the manufacture of a picture, which puts something in the picture that is more than an image. At the same time, the singularity of the gaze we meet in the picture baulks at the search for a we that monopolises all strangeness in a totalitarian manner. The fact that individuals say ‘we’, each in their different ways, constantly yields new constellations of gaze. Every singularity is a singularity in the plural.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London 1962 (orig. 1945), p. 58.

[2] Cf. L’Éros et la Loi. Lectures bibliques, Éditions du Seuil, Paris 1999, chapter 7.

[3]  G. F. W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, transl. J. B. Baille, © 2001 Blackmask Online., p. 64

[4]  Translated after: Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Nach Freud, Frankfurt/M. 1968 (orig. 1965), p. 49.

[5] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI (orig. 1964), transl. Alain Sheridan, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 109.

[6]  That is the central idea of my book Antwortregister, Frankfurt a. M. 1994.

[7] Cf. Plato, Gorgias 459b and Theaetetus 201c.

[8] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Extoriority, transl. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh 1969 (orig. 1961), pp. 87, 285. A summary of Totality and Infinity under the title ‘The Face of The Other’ can be found under (last access 24.01.2016). The opposition between Athens and Jerusalem should not be overestimated, as Lev Shestov certainly did. There are many hybrid forms on both sides, to say nothing of the traditions of the Eastern Church, Islam and the Far East. However, different emphases generate an intercultural tension that finds emblematic expression in the contrast of gaze and voice.

[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind (orig. 1964), transl. Michael B. Smith, in: Galen A. Johnson (ed.), The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, Evanston, Illinois, 1993, pp. 121–149, here p. 143.

[11] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York 1981 (orig. 1980).

[12] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, see note 8, p. 86f.

[13] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), transl. Alphonso Lingis, Dordrecht – Boston – London 1998, p. 205.

Bernhard Waldenfels
was born in Essen, Germany, in 1934, is emeritus professor of philosophy at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. His particular area of expertise is phenomenology of which he has developed his own form that is grounded in responsiveness and the body.
Bernhard Waldenfels, The Singular Gaze in the Plural
in: Roland Fischer “Tel Aviv – Israeli Collective Portrait”, published by Hirmer, Munich 2016