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A Stolen Gaze Returned: Erik Mueggler on technology as cultural mediator

by Robert Emerson

Posted: February 15, 2008

Beginning two years ago, the Paul and Mary Ho Distinguished Lecture in China Studies has augmented the Humanities Institute's Distinguished Visiting Lecturers Series by inviting a speaker who ties the yearly theme to Chinese history, society, or culture. This year's theme, Imagining the Human, delves into how humans have constructed and understood themselves and their relationships with a myriad of things. This year's lecturer was Erik Mueggler, who presented a lecture entitled ""A World of Slobber and Slime": British Imperial Botany, Technology, and Bewilderment in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands."

Erik Mueggler, who received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University and is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, lectured on the botanist Joseph Francis Charles Rock's experience in southwest China and eastern Tibet. In keeping with the theme of "imagining the human," Mueggler creatively uses the two modern technologies at Rock's disposal—the gramophone and camera—to illuminate his mediation of the relationships between himself, native inhabitants, and the natural world. Mueggler is primarily concerned with Rock's own diary and photographs from his botanical expedition.

Under the gaze of the natives of southwest China and Tibet, Rock felt that his control of his own visceral, corporeal being was being challenged. Mueggler posits that in the filthy awestruck faces of the Sino-Tibetan people, Rock felt the heterogeneity of social existence—one can only see oneself through the perspective of another viewer, which serves to revoke the primacy of the one being viewed. In other words, Rock was being forced to see the world through the reflection of other eyes, rather than observing the world from his own personal stage. Seeking to resume control of his sociality, Rock employed his camera and gramophone to redirect and control their collective gaze.

The gramophone, as Mueggler recounts from Rock's diary, drew the undivided attention of anyone within his vicinity. This perfectly suited his effort to manipulate situations, as it served to amass the inhabitants. With the crowd gathered around listening to his opera recordings, Rock was in control. It was the local inhabitants who were being collectively gazed upon, and who played the part of the audience. At the same time, the camera provided him with a vision of his own body as seen by the experience of the crowds. Unlike the unwanted stares in a market place, which forced Rock to return the gazes of the locals thereby forcing him to assume the gaze of the "other", the gaze of the listening audience, contrarily, was experienced as a return of Rock's own gaze.

Thus, Rock used the gramophone and the camera to control the gaze of others, and establish the primacy of his own gaze through self-definition. Mueggler's lecture successfully elucidates the tensions felt by an insecure modern man in a pre-modern space and his attempts to use modern technology to lessen those tensions by means of mechanistic control.

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