Eyes possess a curious omnipotence. The gaze they represent and permit is at once a well-known symbol and a mystery across human culture. Even Lacan admits to “the ambiguity that affects anything that is inscribed in the register of the scopic drive.” (Lacan, Loc 1213)
Sight colours a great deal of the human condition, permitting for the creation and experience of the visual spectrum, the man-made and the natural. “Historically, the eye is the classic example of cumulative evolution in the living world…” (Jablonka et al, Loc 298)  And much like art, Lacan’s discussion of the Gaze quickly departs from the parsimonious, leading to ontological queries: “...we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world. That which makes us consciousness institutes us by the same token ...” (Lacan, 1107) 


Lacan’s discussion moves fluidly through various visual experiences and their roots.  Early on, the biological function of mimicry and ocelli (‘eyespots’) in nature is debated. This leads to a largely psychoanalytic discourse on the infinity effect of “seeing oneself seeing oneself” (Ibid, 1072), an ability that is associated with intelligence and self-awareness, in both science and religion. The “Cartesian cogito” (Ibid, 1115), Descartes’ famous premise for existence, “I think therefore I am,” which served as a foundation for his theism, is regularly addressed. This brings religious iconography to the fore:  “What makes the value of the icon is that the god it represents is also looking at it. It is intended to please God… the Christ in Triumph … or the admirable Byzantine mosaics - undoubtedly have the effect of holding us under their gaze.” (Ibid, 1661) These three broad areas, ocelli in nature, ‘seeing oneself seeing oneself’ (SOSO) and religious iconography are of lasting import to popular culture and are reflected and complexly interwoven within current scientific inquiry and popular entertainment.

To begin, “must we not distinguish between the function of the eye and that of the gaze?” (Ibid, 1089) The eyes, the organs of sight, create and enable the gaze, a major component of an observer’s “total intentionality”: “…his expectations, his movement, his grip, his muscular and visceral emotion – in short, his constitutive presence…” (Ibid, 1054)  For the purposes of discussing Lacan’s theory of the Gaze, the word is capitalized. The Gaze exists both as a function of the eyes and also independently of them: “The eye and the gaze – this is for us the split in which the drive is manifested at the level of the scopic field.” (Ibid, 1072) To illustrate this discrepancy Lacan later refers to the paintings of Goya (Ibid, 1238). Knowing that eyes of paint and canvas are responsible for the discomfort caused by a Goya doesn’t detract from their unnerving power. 

The confidence with which some animals employ ocelli (referred to within the text as “the stain”) as either camouflage, mate-attracting mimicry or both, conveys a certainty about their function and appearance. Lacan rejects adaptation as the means by which ‘the stain’ develops. He also believes that “there is no need for us to refer to some supposition of the existence of a universal seer. If the function of the stain is recognized in its autonomy and identified with that of the gaze, we can seek its track…” (Ibid, 1097). However, if the ocelli are not achieved through natural selection and need not be attributed to God’s grand design, what can we hope to discover if “we can seek its track”? On popular culture’s path, there is no shortage of breadcrumbs.


The function of ocelli on animals is still debated in evolutionary biology today. Lacan intimates “that the facts of mimicry are familiar, at the animal level, to what, in the human being is manifested as art, or painting.” (Ibid, 1475) The male peacock spider in particular corroborates this intentionality. If his display, supposedly intended to attract a female, fails to impress, he could become her prey. In this sense, a stain whose purpose appears to be Gaze-mimicry has the effect of alluring and threatening the Other, in this case the female peacock spider. As per the scientific method, Lacan reminds us that in nature “we should be very careful not to think too quickly of the other who is being imitated.” (Ibid, 1475) 
Much the way human camouflage references animals (see Madison Stewart, previous), these peacock spider displays have the appearance of referencing symbols meaningful to humans. That they provoke our Gaze is undeniable. Seeking the track of these displays is a bit like reading Rorschach plates. One spider’s display gives it the appearance of dressing like a Spider Man. Other are reminiscent of specific West African Adinkra symbols. While we can’t assume the spider’s “total intentionality” is directed towards us, we can recognize these displays as an appeal to the Gaze.

Biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake writes extensively about scopaesthesia, a supposed phenomenon in which humans detect being stared at by extrasensory means. He theorizes that beyond being uncanny and common, our experience of often knowing when we are being stared at is a legitimate “seventh sense” (Sheldrake, Loc 365: “Biologists working on the electrical and magnetic senses of animals have already claimed the sixth sense.”).  He details intriguing research which continues today. His experiments often confirm that when eyes are concealed behind a hidden or far-off telescope or camera there is as high a statistical probability that the observed person can sense the Gaze as when the eyes are unconcealed. That which Lacan refers to as the “total intentionality” of the viewer is proven as alluring as their look. 
Interestingly, in describing the apprehension of the Gaze in the Cartesian cogito’s thought experiment, Lacan notes that while there is a bodily sensation associated with warming oneself “in the/see myself seeing myself, there is no such sensation of being absorbed by vision.” (Lacan, 1177-1186) Sheldrake’s research indicates that quite often there is a sensation associated with being under another’s Gaze. People are observed touching or looking directly at the point of observation and frequently the eyes are met head on, even if the Gaze is coming from behind (Sheldrake, 906-1071). Certainly none of the conventional five senses describe the ‘sensation of being absorbed by vision’; however, just as being watched by a hidden observer can sometimes prompt a seventh sense, revelations about a universal seer can provoke an intellectual and existential sensation that is deliberately appealed to by a great deal of popular entertainment.

If the eyes weren’t the only organ that could see, would this diminish their symbolic power? Recent research in neuroscience may dilute their assumed monopoly over sight. Joe Dispenza in the book Evolve Your Brain talks about the interchangeability of our senses: “Dr. Bach-y-Rita (neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison) …teaches people to see successfully with their tongue. We do not see with our eyes, we see with our brain, he states. The senses are, therefore, just inputs that provide information to our brain.” (Dispenza, Loc 2859)  And yet the notion of being observed by someone’s tongue is more novel than powerful. The eyes hold relevance that exceeds their function: they are the official symbol of the Gaze.

That we experience the power of a disembodied Gaze, whether in a Goya or once in a while as a debatable seventh sense, begins to describe the broad, ambiguous infinity effect of ‘seeing oneself seeing oneself’ (SOSO): “…something slips, passes, is transmitted, from stage to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it – that is what we call the gaze.” (Lacan, 1072)  

The SOSO effect is central to the narrative structure of the beloved classic film The NeverEnding Story, reiterated throughout at crucial turning points in a quintessential Hero’s Journey or monomyth. The theme of being observed is present throughout.  Simply put, we watch Bastion read a story that is aware it is being read. The film is about the unfolding of this awareness in such rich symbolic form that it warrants its own essay. There are, however, three key moments unambiguously centred about SOSO, moving swiftly from cognitive dissonance to disbelief, from revelation to action. These moments are crucial to undoing the destruction of Fantasia, the land of human dreams, by The Nothing. 
First, the Magic Mirror Gate creates a test where Atreyu, the book’s protagonist, is challenged to confront his true self. He sees himself as his observer, the film’s protagonist, Bastion, who is so overcome by the moment that he almost stops reading (below).
Second, Atreyu arrives at a ruined city, amidst which his journey has been depicted as frescoes, in a classical style reminiscent of The Triumph of the Name of Jesus (referred to as 'The Christ in Triumph' by Lacan, an example of trompe-l'œil). Here he sees himself portrayed, observed and finally, anticipated, where his imminent confrontation with Gmork, who has been stalking him throughout his journey, is already depicted. This indicates that he has no free will and his journey has been predetermined, a fate he grieves upon reaching the Princess in the ultimate display of SOSO.
Finally, the Princess confirms that Atreyu had to undergo trials in order to bring the ‘earthling child’ to her in order to give her a new name and rekindle the new land of Fantasia, which has by this point crumbled to nothing. She then reveals the hook of the film which has arguably made it so famous, explaining that others, meaning the audience, have been following Bastion, just as he has been following Atreyu. At the height of Bastion’s disbelief, the Princess looks at the camera/audience/Bastion, pleading for faith and action, forcing Bastion to look back.
Her Gaze, this iconic performance, provokes such an existential thrill from the audience that it recalls Lacan: “At this level, the artist is operating on the sacrificial plane - he is playing with those things, in this case images, that may arouse the desire of God.” (Ibid, 1661). If we have been observing Bastion observing Fantasia, and he is being forced to confront this reality, could someone not be observing us and would this not have similar demands on our sense of reality? This style of confrontation in art and entertainment doesn’t simply accuse us of voyeurism, it challenges our ontological status, much as an animal’s eyespots seem to both attract and then threaten a prospective predator.

A great deal of the Gaze’s power can be traced to the symbol of the eye. Humanity has required the Gaze of God to account for its surroundings throughout recorded history. Eyes have been used to symbolize the sun, moon and other celestial bodies which are themselves symbols for intellectual power and divine attributes, specifically omniscience and omnipresence (Hall, Locs 853, 2243, 2562, 4341, 4447):
“The Avestan Mithra, the yazata of light, has ’10,000 eyes, high, … strong, sleepless and ever awake...’ The supreme god Ahura Mazda also has one Eye, or else it is said that ‘with his eyes, the sun, moon, and stars, he sees everything… It will be evident that here we have origins in abundance for the Freemason’s Eye and ‘its nunquam dormio’.” (Ibid, 853) 
Freemasonry, a well-known secret society, has gone mainstream (Haaretz, 2018), possibly in an attempt to salvage its much debated reputation and function within human history. Its logo, famously featured on US currency, is a symbol very much in vogue and ubiquitous in popular entertainment and advertising, often accompanied with religious iconography and themes. Like many other secret societies, Freemasonry’s teachings and degrees of ascension through its ranks marks the supposed acquisition of enlightenment, to know what God knows, what humanity at large doesn’t, the answers to all of our ontological questions. This is the unocculted relevance of the All-Seeing Eye.

Even while humanity’s purpose and origins remains unknown, openly debating God’s existence and whether or not secret societies know something about it is mostly an invitation for incredulity. Like the Magic Mirror Gate, the comprehension of SOSO in this context represents a paradigm shift that few would happily make without overwhelming evidence: Fantasia has to crumble first. The ubiquity of the All-Seeing Eye is a reminder of this condition. Subliminally, it catches our attention because it fills a lacuna in our own vision, our contentious ontology and the perpetual discomfort it represents. This powerful emotion isn’t reserved for the online’s community’s fringe groups, but central to a great deal of current entertainment and advertising.

As humanity steps into the position of Grand Designer with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a new theism could potentially emerge, particularly when combined with current evolutionary discourse that strongly suggests our DNA appears to be intelligently designed (Axe, 2018). Within entertainment, popular and critically-acclaimed science fiction falls in line with our current reality in which important public intellectuals speak openly about the likelihood that we are inside of a simulation (The Guardian, 2016). If this were the case, it would be natural to conclude that we are being observed by a universal seer, possibly a scientific genius, much as Lacan’s discussion of the Gaze refers back to the Cartesian cogito regularly for the same reason. 
HBO’s futuristic series West World tells a complex story centred about the awakening of two AIs, Dolores and Maeve, in a theme park called West World, created by a scientific genius, Robert Ford. The park caters to the extremely wealthy, offering an immersive environment teaming with artificial humans whose actions are restricted in the form of narratives that are programmed and orchestrated park-wide. We can “seek the track” of this concept to Descartes’ Evil Genius hypothesis and the Cartesian cogito. The Bicameral Mind, Season 1’s final episode, implements a great deal of concepts and imagery that are relevant to Lacan’s discussion of the Gaze. 
Dolores’ burgeoning intelligence is closely monitored and hidden by Ford. Attempting to coax self-awareness from ‘the hosts’ (the park’s AIs), he creates an ontological puzzle in the form of a maze with a single eye at its centre. 
Dolores is regularly quizzed on its meaning which finally results in a paradigm shift in which she becomes conscious of her inner voice. Her condition, that she is a deliberately created object within a grand design, becomes immediately clear as her interviewer explains: “Consciousness is not a journey upward, but a journey inward. Not a pyramid but a maze. Every choice could bring you closer to the centre or send you spiraling to the edges, to madness. Do you understand now Dolores, what the centre represents, whose voice I have been wanting you to hear?...” (Westworld, 2016)  This is relevant to Lacan, who emphasized the “sleight of hand” required by the consciousness that permits it to “turn back upon itself – grasp itself…as seeing oneself seeing oneself” (Lacan, 1097) This moment is particularly debated within fan circles. As in the NeverEnding Story, the haunting effect of SOSO defines the crucial turning points of the narrative.  
It takes more than the maze to facilitate Dolores’ awakening. During one of their meetings, Ford points out a poster of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam to further explain her reality: “It took 500 years for someone to notice something that was hidden in plain sight. It was a doctor who noticed the shape of the human brain. The message being that the divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds.” This is an interesting moment for audience members, as it was certainly the first time many of us saw this for ourselves. This experience is akin to John Berger asking us to re-evaluate Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Crows after learning that it was his last painting (Berger, Loc 241). The context in which an icon is created is essential to appreciate its meaning, especially as it is replicated across culture, repurposed and decontextualized repeatedly.
Two years after The Bicameral Mind aired, Russel Brand uses the poignant description of his daughter’s birth as a segue to the same imagery: “…the child, her eyes open…Whew! She goes online! ...It rushes into me like a divine flashlight, that thing, the Michelangelo finger thing. You know that thing, everyone fucking knows it… And that is why God on the Sistine Chapel is depicted as being a dissected brain… The awakening, the experience of the moment itself, the very essence of awakeness is God.”
The iconic painting is re-used that year by popular singer Ariana Grande in ‘God is a Woman’, less in the context of divine awakening and more as a tongue-in-cheek revision of the creative myth in a neo-feminist spirit. Neither the song nor video provides sufficient fodder for a serious SOSO paradigm shift. Its use is nonetheless relevant to this discussion.  The fresh eyes with which we now view the Creation of Man have revitalized its power and popularity, so that even amidst alluring, sensuous imagery, it even holds the Gaze whose attention span has been significantly reduced and diluted, if for a moment.
To understand the Gaze as an expression of an observer’s “total intentionality” leads to a fresh understanding of the eyes, their true function and their symbolic importance. Rejecting both adaptation and God as responsible for ocelli on animals, Lacan instigates a stimulating search for the track of the Gaze, largely characterized by humanity’s uncertainty about the origin of its own consciousness. The confident behaviour of animals using mimicry and ocelli, such as the male peacock spider, can be extrapolated to human behaviour, questioning whose Gaze is being elicited and repelled and why. Research showing that we see with our brain rather than our eyes and the possibility that we possess an uncultivated but legitimate seventh sense both deepen the mystery of the Gaze. That we can see ourselves seeing ourselves and puzzle over the effect this has on us is perhaps the ultimate window to resolving the mystery and allure of the iconic Gaze’s ontological j’accuse.


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