Ways of Seeing

Being envied is a solitary form of assurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest — if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.

Glamour cannot exist without widespread personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion.

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be.

Either he becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives compounded with his sense of powerlessness dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.

Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.

Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world. The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1977)

2 Responses to Ways of Seeing

  1. w&w says:

    this may be silly, but i’ve been enchanted by the etymology of ‘glamour’ (and the implications thereof) since I found out that it’s connected to witchcraft.

  2. Gavin says:

    Not silly at all, I love etymology, though I didn’t know this one. Makes sense, as it has to do with the power to bewitch, to make something seem as other than it is. Wiktionary says it shares the same root as “grammar”!

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