Aesthetic Play and the Freedom of the Glance (dr. casey article)

Posted by art2/daniellelenhard at 2:03 AM EST Updated: Saturday, 28 June 2008 5:29 PM EDT

In The World at a Glance (2007), Edward Casey undertakes a fascinating phenomenological investigation of the act of glancing. Through a detailed explication of his own multifarious experiences of glancing, Casey illustrates the import and primacy of the glance, which he calls the “scopic scout”, the “slingshot of the look”, the David to the gaze’s Goliath. Indeed, glancing happens first and foremost, from the first time we ever opened our eyes; it is the first horizon of our visual experience.

For Casey, the glance is symbolic of our ultimate freedom: no matter how confined we might be, we are always free to glance away. As such, the glance is freedom, the here and now, the ultimate fleeting moment. The glance is symbolic in that, by its very definition, it defies fixity, defies our tendency to cling: “In its egoless ecstasis[TB1] , the glance refuses to succumb to the grasping that is so endemic to any settled sense of self and that is, for classical Buddhism, the essence of samsara, human suffering.” (Casey, p5)

Casey suggests that much suffering, discomfort, or boredom could be alleviated by a change in perspective, an openness to new ways of thinking and being in the world, particularly as exemplified by our ability to glance: “A glance takes us out of ourselves, out of our formally defined, defensive egoic identities. It suspends these identities as surely as it dissolves the apophantic[TB2]  obsession with identification itself.” (Casey, p5) Rather than grasping for certainty, or for some essential or fixed self, the glance is indicative of our ability to be open to what Casey calls “the surprising”. We are most flexible and adaptable when we are open to the unexpected. In practice, can we approach ourselves and others in this way? Can we allow ourselves and others this kind of freedom, coupled as it is with so much uncertainty? In doing so, we follow Emerson and resist that “foolish consistency,” or, like Nietzsche, acknowledge that our constant overturning of the old self may result in our making enemies: “I no longer trust myself…and nobody trusts me any more; how did this happen? I change too quickly: my today refutes my yesterday.”

Too often consistency of character is overprized, whereas the constantly becoming, evolving self would seem to be more ideal. In Kierkegaard’s Rotation Method from Either/Or (1843), the aesthete describes your coming upon friends or acquaintances after time apart: “You do not share the fear of the crowd that they will be altered so that you do not recognize them; your fear is rather lest they be wholly unaltered.” Like girls who write insipidly in high school yearbooks “Don’t ever change!” the crowd clings to a foolish consistency of identity.

Kierkegaard’s aesthete is primarily concerned in this essay with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of boredom: “The eye with which you look at reality must constantly be changed.” In the realm of aesthetic experience, one can choose to take an aesthetic attitude towards objects and experiences in one’s own environment, rather than escaping through excessive consumption of commodities or succumbing to the spectacle of consumer capitalism. Kierkegaard’s aesthete describes how the prisoner delights in the spider that crosses his path, or how he himself can find unlimited entertainment in the sweat dripping off the nose of a tiresome lecturer. He describes this as an intensive rotation or self-development rather than an extensive one, the latter being one in which we physically remove ourselves from a place of boredom or discomfort. Rather than escaping, we can choose to be present in a different fashion, finding endless pleasure while thwarting that pesky ennui. He compares this to the way children often think inventively and can amuse themselves in myriad ways with the most mundane ready-at-hand objects. In moments of discomfort or boredom or despair, we are always free to change our perspective.

Like the prisoner with his spider friend, we can play with the environment around us, in any surrounds. With a simple shift in focus, we look through the puddle rather than at it. The bottom drops out and we enter the reflected world inside. When there is no music, pretend you’re in an Eric Rohmer film. They’re so pretty and filled with natural sound, John Cage would be proud. Similar is the effect of losing oneself in the natural play of light and shadows – circumstances almost always available if one is open and attentive to them. After reading an article in December on light therapy for sleep disorders, now whenever I first wake up I open the shade above my head so that the morning light dapples through; sometimes a patch of light reverberates on the ceiling, sometimes it plays across my cocoon-like body. I could watch this play of light for an hour, finding it infinitely more appealing than leaving my bed.

In that case I could be accused of gazing rather than glancing, but Casey explains that the gaze actually consists necessarily of numerous glancings: “I glance as I gaze; I am glancing in my gazing…The reverse cannot happen…I cannot gaze while glancing. The gaze spells the death of the glance; but the glance can insinuate itself into the interstices of the gaze, becoming part of its perceptual infrastructure as it were.” (Casey, p163) This seems especially true in aesthetic play. We might glance suddenly at something that catches our eye, and, if it lures us further, this closer examination need not be a fixed gaze, but rather can be filled with exploratory glancing. At the Lucien Freud show at MoMA recently, I was entranced by the engraving Woman with an arm tattoo – getting up close, running my eyes over the surface of her flesh and the delicious texture of the line – an experience not fixed, but instead filled with glancing.

Key to Casey’s account of glancing is its aspects of freedom and play. Attentiveness to glancing as a form of play is timely in relation to recent scientific interest in the function and value of play. In “Taking Play Seriously” (New York Times, February 17, 2008), Robin Marantz Henig recounts the January 29th lecture at the New York Public Library with Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California. The debate over the importance and even necessity for play in our lives hinges on the seemingly unseen benefits of play, from interpersonal bases for community, to risk-free practice/roleplay, to physical-spacial and even cognitive development. As with glancing, play makes us more flexible and open, more adaptable, more open to the unexpected, the surprising. Evolutionary Biologist at the University of Colorado Marc Bekoff, describes what Henig calls the flexibility hypothesis: “I think of play as training for the unexpected. Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.” (Bekoff, cited in Henig, para. 40) Unlike Kierkegaard’s aesthete-playboy of play, scientists like Bekoff discuss play in terms of adaptation rather than merely the avoidance of boredom.

It seems silly that anyone would require scientific proof for the benefits and necessity of play, but perhaps that is just what is needed to effect real change in the school systems today. Not only would the arguments for play reinstate the importance of recess and physical activity, but they would potentially argue for a reconfiguration of the classroom structure across the curriculum.

Through the reevaluation of undervalued activities like play and glancing, we open ourselves to the new, the unexpected, in ways that forever change us: “After being surprised, I can’t go on glancing in the older manner, as if nothing has happened.” (Casey p129) Likewise, after playing, we can’t go on living in the old manner. Perhaps most importantly, play and glancing keep us connected to bodily wholeness and to a greater feeling of interconnectedness. Their subversive potential lies in their fleeting quality, when removed from ends, productivity, and fixity.

 [TB1]The Neoplationist Plotinus used the term ecstasis to describe mystic transcendence, the “flight of the alone to the Alone”;


An assertion (as opposed to a question, a doubt or a more expressive sense) is apophantic. It is a statement that covers up meaning and just gives us something as present-at-hand. For Instance, “The President is on vacation”, and, “Salt is Sodium Chloride” are sentences that, because of their apophantic character, can easily be picked-up and repeated in news and gossip by ‘The They.’ However, the real ready-to-hand meaning and context may be lost.