The Privilege of Looking Back

Recently in class, we spent a good deal of time discussing the sensation of looking at something that cannot look back at you, whether it is the bodies of the dead turned from subject to object, or characters in novels who only have the subjectivity we give them. I’m currently in another class on 17th Century Literature, and today our discussion centered around Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which is a description of Bacon’s ideal science-centric society, written in the form of a fable. Three or four pages in the middle of this fable describe a ceremony, called “The Feast of the Family” in which men who have more than thirty children participate with their families. The entire feast is based on hierarchy and order, and emphasizes the relationship between the patriarchal society and the natural order. In this two-day ceremony, the mother is mentioned once:

“And if there be a Mother, from whose Body the whole Linage is descended, there is a Traverse placed in a Loft above, on the right hand of the Chaire, with a privie Doore, and a carved Window of Glasse, leaded with Gold and blew; Where shee sitteth, but is not seene” (Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, 283).

That’s it. Never spoken of again. This resonated with me in terms of our discussion of looking at things that can’t look back, and the privilege and power that exist in that structure. This passage made me wonder, however, where the power is for the Mother? She is the looker in this scenario. No one else can see her. Sure, they can look at the box in which she has been placed, but she cannot be seen. And in this, it seems, she has not been given power, but rather has been deprived of it. In the context of this ceremony, the father’s power comes from being made highly visible – from being looked at. The mother’s lack of power originates in her only being able to look without being looked at in return. She is inconsequential, immaterial, and contained. The people who cannot return her look have chosen that dynamic – chosen to be unable to glance at her, or acknowledge her presence. So, while she looks, without being seen, she is still the object.

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