Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Experiencing of the Eyes


Yeu, Hae-Ryung


It was a steaming hot summer day afternoon. The airport was crowded with the people who were going to leave, their families, their luggage, huggings and farewells.The plane was going to take off about in half an hour.The last moment of “being together” was coming to us.We became quiet in that very last moment, having too much to say to each other. My mother’s hand was still holding my hand in a sweat. I avoided looking at her face, I was trying to escape from the look at her pain. Sending her “little child” alone in a foreign country again, she rather became calm against thousands of words that she might have desired to give me. She lost the ways of expressing herself, and began to submerge in a deep silence. I could feel, I could feel the bottom of that silence at which she had reached and suffered.”… don’t skip your meal …” She stopped, she stopped speaking. She stopped uttering the words. But she was speaking in a different way.I could hear every sound and its meaning she was sending to me. I read in her eyes, which were full of tears, her wish, her infinite care, her endless prayer for me. There was the truthin her eyes, the divine truth of her being my mother and my being her daughter.It was nothing but our undeniable attachment to each other, our mutualbelonging to each other, our knowing and sharing each other’s world. Looking ather eyes was re-assuring my connection with her, re-calling the blessed name, “Mother.” There was my mother, there was my mother, sending me off in her tears, at the summer airport.


Remembering her eyes is thinking of her, her warmth, her smell, the wrinkles on her face,her going to church every dawn to pray for me. Remembering her eyes is listening to the sound of raining, smelling the breath of autumn in an empty street, being aware of the moonlights behind the window after the midnight, noticingan airplane with small red lights flying in a dark sky, being alone surrounded by native English speakers in a classroom, checking the mail every day and readingher letter in a street, being far away from home but still being at home, and receiving full support on my back.
What makes the mother’s eyes so painfully powerful? What makes a person’s eyes speak more than the lips do? What is it like to experience others’ eyes? Ultimately, what is the meaning of experiencing our very human eyes?


Eyes in a mechanical world

I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility … I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, – manoeuvering in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. … My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you (Dziga Vertov, quoted by J. Berger, 1977, p. 17)


If eyes are referred to as the “window of the soul” through which we meet the person and encounter her inner self, what is it like to meet a person throught the mechanical eye? Watching television is wearing the glasses, the mechanical eye, on our faces, on our eyes. What is it like to experience different persons and their eyes through these glasses?


We see the people on the screen, who are news readers, who are news reporters, who are performers, who are advertisers, who are politicians, or who are audience members. Each person comes to us in a much different way from our face-to-face contact. A news reporter’s neutralized face, a serious and heavy tone of a politician’s voice, a hurrying voice and exaggerated gestures of an advertiser, bursting laughters and deafening cheers of the audience in a show program-these are taken for granted. They are typified performers all together.What do their eyes communicate to us? What do we sense in their eyes?


Advertisers do not try to convey the meaning through their eyes but throughtheir mouths. They have too much to speak with the lips, so that they are not able to let their eyes talk.The urgent and impetuous speed of speaking breaks down the meaning of the eyes intopieces. We watch the furniture ad, that announces “… Tuesday 10% off, Wednesday 20% off, Thursday 30% off, Friday 40% off, and Saturday 50% off!”(How dare the person talk that fast without any sense of shame!) His horrifying speaking tempo may continue up to the point, “Finally, your whole life 100% off!” By pronouncing thousands of syllables, words and sentences in a second they abolish even the meaning of what they speak.


What do we experience in Nicky’s car advertising? He is supposed to be a country man with the hurrying but halting way of speaking, the clumsy gestures, the casual clothes, the cap on his head, the glasses on his face and the mustache under the nose. He looks hicky, frivolous, silly and at the same time naive. He tries to give us a sense of intimacy. But what do we feel in Nicky? Too much pretended personality does not leave any room to his eyes to keep his own personality. We hear his voice and see his clothes and gestures.But we do not see anything in his eyes. Are there any human eyes on Nicky’s face? These are absent, empty eyes. We feel blank.


We know the eyes, a politician’s eyes appearing on the screen, which are full of tensions and cautiousness. We see him as a politician, a publicized man.His serious low voice, the ready-made smile, and always well-prepared slippery answers. He knows how to make up the seriously-sounding voice, how to smilein front of the camera for public and how to keep his wits about answering difficult questions. While he looks like a deep-thinking person and a man of justice, his eyes are not able to talk. These are unfocused, impoverished and impersonal eyes. They are neither his own eyes nor mine. The disguised eyes, objectified eyes.

Eyewitness News starts with demanding heavy eyes. We are seriously demanded by the news reader to be informed,to listen to what she is reading, to trust her eyewitness. A certain kind of authority is embedded in her eyes, therefore they are heavy for us to look at and to receive. These eyes are stubborn to be taken by us. The authoritative eyes do not reside within the story she speaks of, so thatthere is no dialogue at all. These are objectifying eyes which make us mere objects for their looking,the objects for their act of sending the messages. We feel reduced, atrophiedpassive “things.”


We may be able to remember countless cases of meeting indifferent, disinterested eyes which see “the other” as an object of their act of seeing. Reluctant eyes, denyingeyes, hiding eyes, alienating eyes, suppressing eyes, pretending eyes, boring eyes.What do we really experience in those eyes?



Eyes in the World of Primordial Intimacy

I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions. (Barthes, 1979, p. 119)


A baby learns the world through the mother’s eyes, the mother’s caring eyes. Mother’s staying with her baby means not only physically being present with him, feeding, singing a lullaby, cuddling him or changing diapers, but also looking at him. Her own baby! The mother keeps watching the baby, the movements of the small chubby arms and legs. She listens to the incomprehensible sounds that he makes. She sees the half-open eyes and curly eyelashes of his sleeping face. When the mother looks at the baby’s eyes, the baby’s eyes come to have the mother’s reflected image, and the baby’s own reflected image appears in the mother’s eyes.This eye-contact between the baby and the mother is the sharing of each other, a dialogue between the two, the affirmation of their trust, and their dependence on each other.


Being looked at by the mother’s eyes is being loved, being cared, being kept warm, being protected, being relaxed, being in peace, and being at home.The mother’s caring eyes are the footstand for a child. When there are the mother’seyes watching him, he can find the firm ground of existing in and being connected with this world. As long as the child is watched by the mother, he is confident, encouraged, and ready to go out for an adventure to the unknown world. So the mother’s eyes are the condition of security for going into the world, experiencing the world.


“Love is the incessant watching over of the other,” says Levinas (Kearney, 1984, p. 66). In lovers’ relationship, talk is only a small part of their dialogue.Intimate dialogue between lovers lies in a pause of conversation, in their breathing, in their gestures,and in their “talking” eyes. They read the meaning that lies between the words they speak. Before the lover’s eyes, everything belongs to the other,begins to talk at every moment and becomes the language of meaning. A Korean poet, thus, sings that “I read a sign/ the sign appearing on his shoulders/ that was the despair …” Even our shoulders or backs can talk in their unique languages. There is a flood of meaning, for example, the flood of quivering glee of participating in the other’s pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow. Between a married couple who have lived together long, one can read at a single glance the other’s mood and feeling. In these cases, words become redundant or very often debase the quality of the dialogue they share.


Degrees of intimacy appear in lover’s eyes. We might remember how much we could be sensitive to the changes of meaning that her or his eyes expressed, how much we could be digested in delight by the lover’s look that was full of concern and full of appealing, and how marvelously we could share each other simply by staring into each other’s eyes. Between lovers, one can read in the other’s eyes, the joy of sharing, the joy of loving and being loved. Giving and receiving each other through the slight zone of eye-contact, lovers are given the bottomless delight of confirming their presence in each other’s world and the wonder of possessing their sharedworld. Being captured by one’s lover’s eyes is happiness itself and joy itself.


If we have a really close friend, we do not every time feel the need of saying “Hi,” “Goodmorning,” “How are you?” or “How is it going?” Because “seeing” each other is enough. Because “looking at my close friend” and “being looked at by my closefriend” are more than enough. In this case, “seeing-the-other” also means “being-seen-by-the-other.”The other comes to me not as an object of my seeing but as a subject who is also seeing me. Therefore, “I” and “the other” co-exist in each other’s world as both subjects and become fully “you” and “I.” In this case, “I” may look at “you” in a different way from looking at grass or a desk.

What makes eyes I’s? What makes I my eyes, the very human eyes?


Eyes in an absolute world

from whatsoever quarter he regardeth it, it looketh upon him as if it looked on none other.And it shall seem to a brother standing to eastward as if that face looketh toward the east, while one to southward shall think it looketh toward the south, and one to westward, toward the west…. he walk from west to east, he will find that its gaze continuously goeth along with him, and if he return from east to west, in like manner it will not leave him.Then will he marvel how, being motionless, it moveth, nor will his imagination be able to conceive that it should also move in like manner with one going in a contrary direction to himself. (De Cusa, pp. 4, 5).


They are one-directional eyes, but not always one-directional. They are omnivoyant eyes, but not only omnivoyant, but also one-sided and one-directional. They areboth direction-specific and omnivoyant.They take diligent care of each of us. However, we, find ourselves as if the eyes cared only for “me,” and for no other. They regard our single behavior even as they regard all together. They are hidden eyes to us, but never really hidden to any of us. They are secret and private eyes but still open eyes to every one as well. They reside in the divine darkness where too much light is hidden, but they also reside in everywhere. They are omnipresent eyes. They are the eyes of God, God’s vision, “the icon of God” (De Cusa, p. 3).


This omnivoyant and omnipresent gaze makes us uneasy because it is too watchful, because it is an ever-lasting gaze.These incredible eyes make absolute knowledge of good and evil and absolute care and love come to life. It is the gaze which makes us look back to our origin, which makes our eyes wide open to look at our zero-point, the point of confronting ourselves in the mirror, the point of reading our hidden selves. It is the gaze which empties and deconstructs our whole being through guilt and shame, in order to re-construct itto the fulfilled true self.


The power of the divine gaze lies in its own paradox, it is illogical in its perfect logic, it is dis-harmonious in its full harmony, and it is incongruous in its complete congruity. This paradoxical power is the power of love, divinelove, which discloses every hidden thing and makes us look into beyond our hiddenness. These are absolute eyes, divine eyes.


Openness of the Eyes

Is it possible for us to talk about eyes which are closed? When we describe eyes, whether they are the mechanical eyes, our loving person’s eyes, or the divine eyes of our faith, we always assume the open state of the eyes. The word”eye” itself literally means “the organ of sight,” “sight of vision,” or “an attentive look, close observation or watch” (The Random House Dictionary, 1980, p. 308).Thus, it can be said that the word already includes in itself the assumption of “being open to see.”Then, what do we mean by the open eyes? What is true openness of human eyes?


An open door or window in our houses allows us to get into the house and atthe same time to get out of it. In other words, the “openness” of a door lies in its capacity for two-way passage. This may be the dual characteristicof the possibility of the true openness. To have one’s eyes open means enablingthe eyes to give oneself into the other’s world and to receive the other into one’s inner world. Our mother’s eyes, our lover’s eyes, our intimate person’s eyes allow this “giving-and-receiving” as thetruly open place where we can “see” and “meet” the other, where we can encounterher or his further and further invitations of us, that leads towards endless dialogue between us. In this sense,the openness of the eyes embodied in giving-and-receiving is primordial intimacy itself, which ensure the very relationships between mother and child, between lovers and between close friends. This intimate openness exists before we make it verbal, even beforewe learn to use the term, “my mother,” “my friend,” or “my sweetheart.”


An open door before us allows our free passage, whether we are the young or the old, whether we are women or men, whether we are the poor or the rich. The openness of the open door means that it is open to everybody without any strings attached. Through our loving person’s open eyes, our giving-and-receiving can take place without any demanding and without any hiding or self-protecting.The mother’s eyes, watching over her own baby, make no attempt to hide her weakness and protect herself, or to ask the baby to be good in order to be accepted. The mother comes to enter the baby’s world as she is, the baby is received intothe mother’s world with his innocent vulnerability. In our lovers’ relationship, we meet each other, as we are, as she or he is, admitting each other’s differences and inevitable human incompleteness. Levinas says that the “very value of love is the impossibility of reducing the other to myself, of coinciding into sameness” (Kearney, 1984, p. 58).What makes these eyes human eyes is that their openness allows us the access to each other’s innocent and honest selves.


The eyes in the mechanical world are the closed eyes in a sense. Disguising and protecting themselves behind the mechanical glass, they screen their own flaws and weakness. Therefore, they are indeed “looking good.” They do not come to us with their total beings as the imperfect human beings. This is why we do not feel being given or being received in front of the eyes on TV.


Mirror sunglasses show us the extreme case of this type of self-hiding.They reflect our images on the surface. We may feel shrunk at these “exact copies of ourselves” as if our naked bodies were exposed to others. Instead of being received by the other, we feel actively rejected against the complete hiding of a self behind the mirror sunglasses.


The eyes in the absolute world, the divine eyes, make us feel uncomfortable and uneasy. We come to look too imperfect and partial before these perfect and absolute eyes. Compared to ours, there seems to be no room in these eyes to tolerate our flaws and shortcomings. So we often feel alienated from His absolute and complete world.


However, recognizing our imperfectness makes our eyes open to the other and invite the other’s participation in our worlds. Indeed, it is our innocent incompleteness and vulnerability which enable us to be humble enough to long for mutual dependence, yearning for a co-existence through giving and receiving our imperfect selves. This mutual sympathy is based on the primordial humanity which resides in the openness of the lovers’ eyes, the mother’s eyes, and our friends’ eyes.Therefore, if we feel our intimate person’s eyes to be human eyes, this may be because we see “being togetherness” in those eyes, the existenceof both you and me in those open eyes.


While writing this essay, my mother’s eyes I saw at the summer airport have been more and more vividly alive to me. I do not know in what way I can explain clearly the power that those eyes have exerted on me. I do not know how much the connection between her and me has been reinforcedby her eyes since then. And I do not know why her eyes come to dwell in my mind so definitely. The only thing that I know clearly is that those eyes were my mother’s eyes and that I become still nothing but her little child whenever the eyes come to my mind.




Barthes, R. (1979). A lover’s discourse. London: JonathanCape.

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.

De Cusa, N. The Vision of God or the Icon.

Grumet, M.R. (1983). My Face is Thine Eye, Thine in Mine Appears:The Look of Parenting and Pedagogy. Phenomenology + Pedagogy. 1 (1).45-58.

Kearney, R. (1984). Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Manchester & New Hampshire: Manchester University Press.

The Random House Dictionary. (1980). New York: Ballantine Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and nothingness: A phenomenological essay on ontology. New York: Pocket Books.