Catherine Peng

What happens in a gaze? A plea, a question, a wordless letter. The weight of a tear. A second glance — all subtext. Things happen when we look at each other: lovers, strangers, mothers and children. Our eyes speak when we don’t: “I’m fond of you/ I’m tired/ You hurt me/ I see you.” A gaze is power. A gaze gives.

In Hegel’s dialectic, two beings encounter each other. A brawl for power ensues as each fights to be recognized. Ultimately, one receives recognition — he is the lord. The other gives recognition — he is the bondsman. In this dialectic, one has to be recognized to be free. The lord is free.

What do they say about eyes? They are entrances into something deeper, to the me behind these clothes, this flesh, this artifice. When we meet someone who sees us, really sees us, our eyes blush. We stammer and flush. We are more ourselves than ever. There’s nothing sexier than a gaze. At first sight, we tremble before our beloved, naked and wet, our bodies a dripping fruit husk of want.

In the swollen ecstasy of your spotlight, everything is illuminated. Here, I can see myself. I am a ballerina in a music box. You see me and I need you. I hate that I need you. Before you, I was free. Now, I am not mine. Isn’t romance but a constant brawl?

Herein lies Hegel’s paradox: As recipients of recognition, we are fully seen, yet, we are dependent. We rely on our partner for self-definition. Without our antithesis, we are nothing. We are caught in a bind, shackled to those who love us. We are no lord without our bondsman. We are no ruler without the ruled. We must be reliant to be free. We must be seen to see ourselves.

***

There’s another kind of bondsman. They, transient people, float on the peripheries of airports, skirting the spaces between somewhere and nowhere. She, mother, holds her baby tucked in cloth, eyes searching past security checkpoints, imploring. He, father, waits on the other side of an invisible line that means nothing and everything. They are the citizen’s other. Silent, they wonder: do you see me? Do you see me now?

He — coiffed blond curls, lips a sulk — sits behind a wood-panelled table in a house of White. He, lord of all, sits on a singular truth: What am I, the powerful, if not for the powerless? How can I be someone if not for the no-one? Who am I, human, if not for the sub-human?

A woman in hijab enters but does not see him. She walks through him. He grits his teeth and steps on a flower. The flower bleeds and the woman crumples to the ground. In her last breath, she meets his gaze. You’re my voodoo, he says, and laughs and laughs. A boy from the rubble taps on the window, eyes wide and beseeching, face covered in dust and red. All he asks is for you to look at him. But Donald Trump purses his lips, raises a hand to stop him from speaking and closes the blinds.

***

How do we decide who we look at and who we see? How do we decide who is subject and who remains invisible? A gaze is political. What we don’t notice is no accident. We all want to be the center of the universe.

Somewhere else, we aren’t embodied. In this place, we unzip our skins and climb out of our egos. In this place, there is no horizon, no boundaries, no in and no out. We are energy constantly becoming. Here, we wander, unseen and not looking.

Another appears. I watch her and she watches me. There’s a spark of something. She looks like a flower and something familiar. She looks a little like me. As she approaches me in empty space, our gazes meet. Do you see — she begins to ask, and stops herself. She need not even ask. I see you. I see you now.

Contact Kit Lea Cheang at kitlea.cheang@yale.edu .