Looking and Seeing: Responding to Our Tent City


“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” So says John Berger in Ways of Seeing, his acclaimed book about how we look at art.


Seeing involves perception whereas looking is merely turning one’s eyes at another person or object. Seeing and being seen is, according to many therapists, the way in which humans connect meaningfully.


But seeing involves more than just looking, and Berger hints at that when he refers to the child recognizing as well as merely looking. Berger goes on to speak about our developing awareness of the fact that we can also be seen: The eye of the other combines with our own eye, he says, “to make it fully credible that we are ourselves a part of the visible world.” We are not alone. We are seen and recognized.


But sometimes the eye of the other may block us out. I know a man who can look a person in the eye in a way that prohibits any connection as he withdraws himself from the other’s gaze, his eyes a blankness, his face a mask. This demeanor is not a conversation starter and usually results in his companion speaking inanely or falling into silence. And I know a woman whose eyes turn black and glittering and dart from side to side when she is angry. The recipient of this gaze will often find a reason to apologize or excuse herself.


These are both ways of looking, but not of seeing. And they are powerful. It is not for nothing that we have the expressions like If looks could kill!


Such cruel looks are frequently directed at homeless people or the residents of our Tent City. The city has now issued an eviction notice, ordering these people to move on. but the residents say they will not leave.


Dickens gave us a vision of a similar situation in his novel Bleak House in which the policeman who holds the arm of Jo the crossing sweeper complains that he has told Jo to “move on” and Jo won’t go. The homeless boy responds as follows:


 “I’m always a-moving on, sir,” cries the boy, wiping away his grimy tears with his arm. “I’ve always been a moving and a moving on, ever since I was born. Where can I possibly move to, sir, nor more I do move!”

Dickens, journalist, novelist and social reformer, reflects on this problem through the voice and vision of the empathic narrator:

“Do you hear, Jo? It is nothing to you or to anyone else, that the great lights of the parliamentary sky have failed for some few years, in this business, to set you the example of moving on. The one grand recipe remains for you — the profound philosophical prescription — the be-all and the end-all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights can’t at all agree about that. Move on!”

Throughout his life Dickens wrote about the problems of the poor and the need for social reform. He is often credited with having contributed to major social reforms at the time.

Bleak House was written one hundred and sixty-five years ago, yet much of it still feels quite current.

His is a voice we need today and, with the decline of good investigative journalism, we feel the lack of it.



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