Nothing Goes Over, Nothing Comes In: The One Way Gaze of American Media
By: Sarah McCann
May 5, 2004

In America, we have the dehabilitating privilege of being able to experience the world through the lens of the media, without actually being a part of it. This occurs because Americans as viewers are never faced by the reality of what they view. Think about billboards, magazines and the evening news; in all of these forms of media, the viewer is confronted with an image-person whose gaze is directed back at them, but who is not seeing them. The “other” in this context denotes any person outside of the viewer’s self. The viewer first sees the other as an object, but is then able to identify a man or a woman when the gaze is returned. The requited gaze also allows the viewer to recognize the self. When there is no gaze or the gaze is not penetrating, none of these recognitions occur. How does the viewer react to this experience? Has the gaze ceased to function? In America, the viewer is bombarded with an image-other. Through images, an illusion of a reciprocal gaze is given. The media (those in control of what we see and hear in newspapers, television, radio, etc.) is the creator of this illusion-gaze. By producing something that gives the appearance of confronting the viewer, the media also begins to shape the viewer’s reality.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre addresses the phenomenon of observing the other as more than object, rather as a “presence in person.” This experience is important in human development because of the way in which it affects one’s perception of the world. “The appearance of the Other in the world corresponds therefore to a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting.”[1] The viewer will always see things from the same point of view and, as long as the look of the other is not acknowledged, will remain central to their own world. Sartre calls it a state of “being-for-self”. As soon as the other’s gaze is noticed however, it must be conceded that the universe is also radiating out from the other’s location. Everything is not only measured and seen from the viewer’s position, but also from the other’s position. This new view is mind-boggling. The viewer understands that there is anther point from which to see the world, but will never have the opportunity to see things from the other’s view, or as they are seen by them. Without this realization, the viewer is unable to consider the way in which others are affected by their own gaze as well as their actions.

“The unreflective consciousness can not be inhabited by a self.”[2] A person in action does not have the ability to think about that action, unless they become aware of being observed. This “being-for-others” happens when the viewer, upon being confronted, accepts the other as a presence and also that this is occurring in reverse. The other’s new role as viewer acknowledges the original viewer’s “presence in person” and causes the viewer to acknowledge their own presence as well. The viewer is now aware of his actions. This leads to a greater understanding of the self. Sartre writes:

The look which the eyes manifest, no matter what kind of eyes they are, is a pure reference to myself. What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I can not in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense – in short, that I am seen.[3]


The nature of mass media does not allow the opportunity to observe the gaze returned. The position of the viewer is never questioned, shifted or even realized. The viewer becomes passive in the action of looking. The viewer becomes the act of looking. Not only are observers able to look without being looked at, the media also creates a perspective from which multiple viewers may all observe the same spectacle from a nearly identical point of view. This is the collective act of watching television. There is a common bond between people who watch the same television programs, for the half hour of the program they are joined together and become a single viewer. The public suddenly becomes one. Watching an object that shows images of the other – without an active gaze – creates the illusion of a reality in which each viewer lies at the center of their own world. There is no shifting of the universe, no identification of a perspective they will never see. It is difficult to question the image-object because they are unaware of the self that would have the ability to question. If there had been a gaze back, the viewer would be forced to question the differences between how they saw it themselves and how those outside of themselves saw it. By grouping individuals into a single observer the television weeds out all acts of questioning.

Disney World, being the ultimate mediated experience, is an informative example. The creation of the reality that is Disney World allows for a very limited interaction between people by destroying the returned gaze. Children’s looks are met by the eyes of oversized animals and cartoon characters. Inside this animatronic fantasyland, nothing that is interacted with is entirely human. Those who created this seamless version of a shiftless universe did so in order to have people completely immersed in the event. As long as the visitors are running from ride to ride, buying Mickey Mouse ears and forgetting about the real world they can be content. The visitors want to forget themselves and the reality of their presence as much as the creators of the theme park want them to. At a recent lecture, the artist Paul McCarthy related Disney World to his own work, which often critiques the culture of America’s fantasy-reality. He told the following story: A family at Disney World saw a man in a squirrel costume with the head removed. The family assumed this vision would be so detrimental to their children’s development that they sued for damages. The effect of seeing the man behind the costume was so appalling that the family felt they had experienced some irresolvable trauma (worthy of compensation). I do not know whether the case ever went to trial or what the outcome was, but the fact that someone would feel the need to sue because they were witness to reality is a scary thought. Is reality that dangerous or is America so accustomed to its own constructed version that the world as it actually exists is shocking?

Americans no longer wish to view others as anything more than objects, as a mask with no man behind it. By refusing to look at a man that is able to gaze back people are no longer establishing the crucial relationship between themselves and others. Paul McCarthy also showed one of his videos at the lecture. This video was the antithesis of the experience of Disney World, almost literally. The artist, wearing a giant George Bush mask and no pants, walks around a set built to replicate the basement of a bank in London (where more of the video and performance took place prior to this filming). Two actors wearing Queen of England masks are also wondering around the set. During the section of the video shown, “Bush” saws a hole in a table, puts one leg through it and places a false leg on the tabletop, giving the illusion that he is sitting on the table. The two queens begin to chop at the leg with an axe. A red liquid squirts and oozes everywhere as one “Queen” starts to use a screwdriver to puncture the leg. Eventually, after much exertion, the foot is hacked off. The queens revel in the pool of crimson ooze before collapsing, exhausted. “Bush” then pulls his real leg from under the table and walks off for more adventures.

McCarthy is fully aware of the blockade America is currently surrounded by. Nothing goes over, nothing comes in. It is as if the country were surrounded by a mountain range. The kind of gore shown in the video is happening. It is happening to the president and to the people. The president however continues to walk around as though he is unaware of anything that is occurring. Just as the Bush in the video continues on his way after having a foot chopped off, the real Bush continues with the war on terror regardless of how many innocent people die in the process. And just as the bank basement is fabricated so are the places within America. The public is unable to view the outside world because the media is putting up a perfectly acceptable façade for them.

America, seeking a better (not more accurate) view of the world, watches the world through a television screen. The country is in a state for-itself – it is still unaware of anyone observing or regulating its actions. America is only action (with no retrospection) and as we watch the current political situation unfold we see a state of America as action without self-awareness. Thus America now has an unchecked ability to act, much in the same way that President Bush does. For example, by his own admission, Bush is acting as a war president. He is within the action of leading a war and is unconscious of the shame of self, which would force him to consider others’ opinions of war. Instead, he dismisses protesters as a “focus group” and Iraqi civilians as “enemy combatants”. President Bush is powerful enough that he can conceivably act without thinking too much about whom he is acting against. He does not allow the public’s gaze to linger on him long enough to shift his perceptions. The 9/11 Commission examined him behind closed doors.  He hardly holds press conferences unless he is able to read his answers off of a cue card. This is the reason the President has been able to claim no responsibility for his actions – he is the action; no self exists that is aware of acting.

The public has not fared any better in identifying with the other. In fact it is the reason America has been able to fall into a second era of colonization. The other is relegated to objecthood. This is accomplished through the censorship and shaping of reality. If people were exposed to the conditions that others are encountering each day – for instance, those who are experiencing the war in their own backyards – they would be forced to address the sources of those problems. People cannot experience what others do however, but the effect of the mass media is to make them believe that they are experiencing everything. Because of mass media we now know what is going on all over the world all of the time. There is a collapse of physical space. This creates a feeling of inclusion, but our knowledge really ends at the image we saw or at the caption that accompanied the image. We do not know what is happening to those outside of our physical space, regardless of the amount of images we see. The only way to even come close to understanding what others experience is through conversation. Another trap people fall into with the mass media is that very often the fact that images are selected and captions are created is overlooked. The news is supposed to be a neutral explanation of current events, this is virtually impossible to accomplish because of the high level of involvement/money of private/corporate interests. In order to make a profit, it is beneficial for the public to believe certain things and behave in a certain way, by manipulating the media it is much easier for corporations to reach this result. By controlling what the public sees and hears, they also control to a certain extent how the public will act.

The current war would be a much larger issue for public debate if images of the civilian casualties in Iraq were broadcast on television. The effect of seeing the civilian casualties in Iraq (although the gaze would still be conveniently absent) would be to begin the process of seeing the other as object. Once this first step is taken, it creates the feeling of the uncanny. Freud writes that the feeling of the uncanny stems from a fear of losing one’s eyes, which for him equates the fear of castration. I wish to take it one step further and equate the loss of the eyes/vision with death. Once one has died there is no hope for seeing (at least in the way we know it in this life). If the American public were to see those men, women and children in Iraq who have lost the lives, limbs and vision, the uncanny would be unavoidable. Seeing people with two thirds of their bodies burnt, children missing arms and legs, many of the living appearing as though they should be dead, begins to break down the media’s construct of reality. On the uncanny and death, Freud wrote, “There is scarcely any other matter, however, upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death.”[4] Being faced with the reality of the situation would force Americans to address their repressed fear of death – the one event commodity culture cannot sell, the inexplicable fact in a world of explanations, the incurable condition in a country of cures. Death is the ultimate reality that Americans do not wish to acknowledge. If the confrontation of death and its issues held a place within the media we would be in possession of the tools to understand more clearly what the other is experiencing now.

The media coverage of the war follows the pattern of censoring the other out of the American experience. Why else would the POW’s that Iraq held at the beginning of the war have caused such a scandal? It was not the fact that there were prisoners it was the fact that footage of them was being broadcast on television. Why were the slain bodies of the four American mercenaries the first bodies to enter into any kind of American media coverage of the war? I would argue that it is the role these individuals can play in shaping popular American support for the war. Saddam Hussein and his sons’ images can be printed in the media because they already have a place there. Saddam as an other does not exist and neither do his sons. He had become the image of evil, the enemy in the story that is this war. His image functions much in the same way as our celebrities do, they are the image of a person, but not human. They cannot return our gaze or instill in us the feeling of the uncanny. The American prisoners of war however, are something different altogether – they do not blend into the steady stream of images filtered through the television. Instead they are part of America’s self and seeing them outside of the American reality, makes the other’s truth all the more authentic. They are the familiar and they represent the repressed. Suddenly Americans across the country understand that something awful is being experienced. The mass media tries to hide this actuality. The bodies in Fallujah on the other hand speak to the spectacle. The four bodies were hardly recognizable as human. This creates a feeling that it is only the other that is acting badly – the four Americans are the victims, but because the corpses cannot be related to one’s self the repressed feelings do not rise out of the unconscious.

The fact that America’s soil has never seen modern war puts the event outside of its realm of experience. Even the World Trade Center Attack was not experienced directly by most people, the majority of Americans watched that day on television. The tragic events of the day became a single collective experience that was mediated by a corporate-owned mass media. “We prefer the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real.”[5] The media’s version of the war resembles a video game or a baseball card. The news gives us more information on our weapons than on what those weapons actually do to the human body. Statistics appear along with pictures in a baseball card format. Without having experienced the events for themselves, Americans become sheltered within the media’s representation of them.

It is problematic to think about Americans reproaching Iraqis for continuing this war after the American military has declared it over. America began in a very similar way: to free our country from a foreign oppressor, we fought. Now, to free themselves from a foreign oppressor the Iraqis fight, but who in our media coverage is going to take up this position? Who is going to question in an environment where questions would make the entire structure crumble to the ground? Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw? I do not think that any of these men would risk their comfortable positions (and salaries) to get people to think about each other, to question what the talking heads convey.

If Americans were forced to look at images of reality, they would be forced to acknowledge the other. All the Iraqi civilians would not have died in vain, they would have made it essential that America examine its actions and this self-examination would identify something maybe more gruesome than death through war. It would have to be admitted that the country had allowed itself to act without being. It would have to admit that it had disregarded life, both that of the other and itself. To right this situation, it would require a dialogue, to be started by America, inclusive of all those that had been shut out in the past and inclusive of life in conjunction with death.

Avoiding the reality of death, America creates an alternate reality in which death is false. It is the ultimate repression. In The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, an essay on the increasing virtual reality of wars, Jean Baudrillard proposes that war cannot be real unless there are bodies. Speaking of the lack of bodies during the Persian Gulf War, he writes: “at least the dead would prove that this war was indeed a war and not a shameful and pointless hoax . . ..”[6] He also says that because of this virtual war, we would not be able to identify a real war if it happened, “the day there is a real war you will not even be able to tell the difference. The real victory of the simulators of war is to have drawn everyone into this rotten simulation.”[7] I believe that we are now at that point, in a real war without admitting that it is happening. Regardless of whether we were already in the simulation or have been drawn into another, the fact is, the “war” has already ended. Where does that leave us now that we have more casualties than during the war? Why else would there be a ban on photographing soldiers’ coffins on their return to the country? Why has the president not attended a single funeral? We have entered a new phase of non-war. It is a denial of war. In the Persian Gulf War a clean war (for America) was established, now we are returning to the idea of real war, a war in which there are mass casualties (even for us). But if all the resistance in Iraq can be silenced, then those experiencing this war through the lens of the media never have to admit that a war occurred.

Silenced not only through death but also through the gaze of the media, the dead are not allowed a self. Photographs become the eyes and the gaze when people are interacting with others in a separate location. But a camera is a machine, not a man. It produces a gaze far too removed to create the intricate interaction between two people looking at each other. The result of this action would be conversation. Speaking, trying to understand through words how the other views the world is the closest we can ever get to seeing the world as they see it. Without the questioning inherent to this conversation we are alone, totally within ourselves, living for-ourselves. If those outside of this phenomenon are not given the opportunity to voice their opinions, how is anyone within it expected to consider an alternate point of view? The mass media unfortunately encourages this lack of communication. In order to control the discussion it must silence the questions – it operates for its own survival. Can we as humans survive the mediated life this leads us into? Watching the world through the television we are given the illusion of experiencing life, but without the other, we experience nothing.


[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984) 343.

[2] Sartre 349.

[3] Sartre 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’,” The Norton Anthology, ed. Vincent Leitch, et al. (New York: Norton, 2001), 945.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Bloomington: Indiana 1995) 28.

[6] Baudrillard 72.

[7] Baudrillard 59. 

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny’.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent

B. Leitch, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 929 – 952.

McCarthy, Paul. Lecture, Tuesday Night Talks, Public Art Fund, John L. Tishman Auditorium, The New School, 27 April 2004.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.