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The Interrogator, The Mouse and the nature of Gaze

The Interrogator Motif

The motif was taught to me by an African man called Jean, who had worked in the security service of President Mobutu of Zaire. Jean had been trained as an interrogator by western security staff and, he explained to me, the motif was the single most important aspect of an interrogator's training. The motif is simple to understand. A stylised human face has huge eyes, huge ears, and a tiny, vestigial mouth. The interrogator's role is to watch and listen.

For those not trained to be this way, something else inevitably presses in: 'the interrogator's role is to watch and listen, and say very little ...', or somesuch. That is already too much.

'The interrogator's role is to watch and listen as the suspect ...', is also too little. The persona of the interrogator is not simply present in the interrogation room, or in the course of a particular active investigation. It is at this point that the real nature of the motif begins to emerge. It is not a technique to be applied in specific situations, but a persona which has to entirely consume the original personality of the interrogator so that, eventually, nothing else is left.

That is to say, the face which we might initially conceive across the table from an individual suspect becomes the only face the interrogator presents to the world; to colleagues, friends, family; to political allies and to opponents. He has no other face.

At one level this dictates rules which govern the way an interrogator lives among other people. Certain kinds of relationship are simply not possible, others operate only with more or less explicit rules which those close to the interrogator have to respect. More fundamentally, the interrogator exchanges one set of capabilities, those of a 'normal' person, for a different set.

This was always evident with Jean, and my own impressions at this point were confirmed by the very few other people I ever spoke to who had come to know him at all. Jean had an ability to read people which I have never met in any other person. I remember, for instance, shortly after meeting him he was able to tell not only that I had experience with firearms, but also what kind of firearms I had used. When it came to revealing information about himself, however, he was almost physically incapable of doing so; questions always somehow missed him ... they were deflected ... they seemed to sway effortlessly past him ... to pause just long enough to forget their goal ... or to return and pose themselves at the questioner. It was clear that in some cases there had been learned conversational tricks, but also that this elusiveness had become instinctive and involuntary, even, at times, unwanted, a source of wry, slightly saddened amusement.

One of the most interesting aspects of the motif is its contrast with the traditional persona of the interrogator offered in fiction and in filmed or televised drama. Here the interrogator is typified by speech, by asking questions, by being either forceful or creative and clever in the way that questions are constructed and the suspect is confronted with what is known. I can think of only one instance in fiction or drama where an interrogator is presented who at all corresponds to the persona I learned from Jean, and that is the psychologist, played by Max Von Sydow (not, interestingly, a police or military figure) in Citizen X (directed by Chris Gerolmo, 1995).

In fact, the text which most clearly corresponds to the interrogator motif, of those I have come across, is in a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, called Intimate Parnassus , and it is the poet himself whom Kavanagh places in a similar role. The poet's main purpose is to be 'Passive, observing with a steady eye', as the poem concludes, and this requires him to take a godlike, unconcerned view of the world of human endeavour and struggle; 'his authority is bogus if the sonorous beat is broken by disturbances in human hearts - his own is detached, experimental, subject matter for ironic analysis, as for some stranger's private problem'.

Of course, Kavanagh's own text is full of ambiguities, none more striking than 'passive', which, writing in Catholic Ireland, Kavanagh knows well to be rooted in the Latin patior , to suffer, as in 'the passion' of Christ. In some cases, however, 'ambiguity' does not do the situation justice, and we should perhaps speak instead of paradox, as in a passage from Rilke which also addresses the role of the poet, and which parallels, I believe, Kavanagh's poem.

Ach, that abiding sin of poets
who always moan instead of simply telling,
always trying to assess their feelings
instead of shaping them; forever going on and on
about whatever in them might be sad, or happy,
as if that were what they knew or could use
for a poem, to establish it or make it famous.
Like invalids, they use a language full of pain
to write down where they think they hurt
when they should be turning themselves into
solid words, as a stonecutter in a cathedral
doggedly turns himself into cool, calm stone.

It would have rescued you. If you'd once realised
how fate could go into the lines and not return,
how in the lines it could become a picture,
nothing but a picture, nothing more;
an ancestor who, when you stop to look at him,
sometimes seems just like you, framed,
and sometimes seems quite different

Rainer Maria Rilke, from "für Wolf, Graf von Kalckreuth", translated HWS.

The point here is that the passivity of the interrogator is actually what is most terrifying. Even where torture is not practised, or not practised by the interrogator himself (which is usually the case: as Jean often pointed out, there were always people willing to take that particular role) the interrogation usually takes place in a context where conflict and violence are endemic. Torture, in the context of political repression, is not typically a means to obtaining information, it is a means of intimidation, providing an object lesson particularly for those who are not being tortured in the value of maintaining a silent and subordinate way of life.

The interrogator's gaze, then, is not that of someone who looks the other way, or turns a blind eye to violence and to the vulnerability or pain of the powerless; the interrogator's gaze takes in the pain and distress, and registers it purely analytically, that is, without sympathy or 'com-passion'. It is this merciless quality of gaze which invites a word such as 'inhuman', and this is a word which I take to have more than mere rhetorical function, pointing in fact to a fundamental contradiction in being not easily accommodated to Aristotelian ontology.

This is not to disregard the interrogator motif as a valuable symbol of the intrusive gaze. The motif serves, I believe, as a valuable device around which notions can be organised of the gaze as intrinsically interrogative (although I retain a belief that the interrogation can be invited as easily as it can be intrusive or invasive ... the 'in-' suffix is to be given its full potential). But the motif does inevitably connotations of violence or abuse. The interrogation as object-lesson to third parties is also a useful thing to bear in mind when thinking about the gaze: gaze has a social function as well as a private.

For this reason, I would like to close this discussion of the interrogator motif by making a connection between the gaze of the interrogator and the German word 'Blick' ... typically translated as 'view', but having an 'impact' stronger than the English words 'gaze' or 'view' which is inseparable from the phonetics of 'Blick' ... a hard edged, plosive ending which gives the word a phonically percussive quality. This is used to powerful effect in a poem, Ihr Zuschauenden ('You Onlookers') by Nelly Sachs, reflecting on the Holocaust:

Ihr Zuschauenden

unter Deren Blicken getoetet wurde.
Wie man auch einen Blick im Ruecken fuehlt,
So fuehlt ihr an eurem Leibe
Die Blicke der Toten.

(You onlookers, under whose gaze the killing happened. The way you feel someone's gaze on your back, like that, you feel in your own body the gaze of the dead.)

The repeated 'Blick' falls like a series of hammer blows, or like a judge's gavel, and the use of the passive voice ... 'getoetet wurde' ... literally almost 'it was killed' (I say 'the killing' because there is no question of the singularity of the killing-event to which Sachs is referring, and because English has no directly parallel construction) both underlines the quasi-judicial character of the situation, and ironises the onlookers' standard defence that somehow this 'just happened' without them realising. There is also, for modern German readers, an unavoidable universality and ongoing currency achieved by the poem's title and opening phrase, which so closely echoes the 'Liebe Zuschauer' (Dear viewers) on the lips of every German television presenter.

What it does for me, however, is also to point inwards, taking the almost comical, Mickey Mouse-like shape of the interrogator motif and adding a dimension of depth. It invites, in effect, a gaze into the interrogator's face, seeing the huge dark circles not merely as symbols for the eyes, but as openings into a void which is the emptied, dehumanised persona of the interrogator. Instead of a 'void', however, we might well talk of a 'chamber', and see the interrogator motif as a pointer into the 'dark chamber', that is, the 'camera obscura' of the human soul.


The Mouse

Mickey Mouse first appeared in public in 1928 in, Steamboat Willie, the first animation with sound. Plane Crazy was actually the first Mouse film, a silent short which was only released after the success of Steamboat Willie had established the character's popularity. 'The Mouse', as the character is known within the Disney organisation, was commissioned by Walt Disney to replace an earlier character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whom Disney had lost control of on contractual grounds. The person commissioned by Disney was Ub Iwerks, Disney's leading animation artist. Iwerks had actually been a joint founder with Disney of a small company, Iwwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, in 1920, when both artists were at the start of their careers (and Iwwerks had still to simplify his name).

Iwerks chose to use a mouse as the basis for the new character, although a widely-repeated story from Walt Disney's own earlier career has Disney as a junior draughtsman befriending a mouse which used to visit him as he worked at his easel. In fact, although the earlier character was nominally a rabbit, Oswald and Mickey bear a striking resemblance to each other.

"If you take Mickey Mouse, stretch out his ears a bit and give him a little bigger nose and a little larger body, you basically have Oswald."
Patrick A. Malone, The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts.

The same wide-eyed character, only loosely based on an animal, can be seen in Flip the Frog, a character created by Iwerks after he left Disney. See Early MGM Sound Cartoons.

Although the Mouse evolved in later years, the early Iwerks drawings clearly show that the head is based on overlapping circles. Later versions move the shapes of the ears towards ovals, for instance, and add modelling around the mouth, nose and eyes, but retain the fundamental morphology of Iwerks' drawing. The Mouse is simply impossible without the exaggerated eyes and ears, in their essentials exactly like the morphology of the interrogator motif. As the Mouse evolves, and with it the Disney organisation, the smiling face becomes more and more prominent. In his earlier form, however, Mickey had a sinister streak. As far as Mickey's personality was concerned, Iwerks himself claimed to have based it on Douglas Fairbanks (Senior):

He was the superhero of his day, always winning, gallant, and swashbuckling. Mickey's action was in that vein. He was never intended to be a sissy, he was always an adventurous character.

Iwerks & Kenworthy, p. 54.

It is hard to see how the Mouse could be more rooted in gender stereotype. In Plane Crazy he plays the role to the point of forcing himself on an unwilling Minnie Mouse. His treatment of the farmyard animals he encounters before climbing into the plane is, in the terminology of Iwerks and Kenworthy, 'cruel'  (Idem p. 57).  The same gender stereotyping can be seen in Iwerks' Flip the Frog, where a 'through the keyhole' scene puts the frog into the voyeur's role, spying on a surprisingly nubile and scantily covered woman. And one reads with some incrdulity of Oswald that, 'most often the object of Oswald's attention was a female rabbit named Fanny'. (Idem p. 43).

The summary of Mickey's early character by Iwerks and Kenworthy focuses on the cruelty.

You could tell what he was thinking - and it was not exactly nice. Funny, yes. Endearing, of course. Nice? - hardly. Roy Disney comments on Mickey's actions: "He was feistier earlier. I think in those early cartoons, he ws quite a different guy from what I think most people now think Mickey is." The early Mickey had a cruel streak as long as his malleable tail.

Idem p. 58.

Gaze in the Interrogator and the Mouse

Mickey's large eyes have exactly the same role as the exaggerated eyes in the interrogator motif. They emphasise an aggressive, intrusive quality of observation. The Mouse is always quick-witted and observant; ol' Mickey never misses a trick. Oswald and Flip have the same eyes. One of Mickey's characteristic moves is 'eyeballing' Minnie, and it is clear in the earlier stories that we are dealing with uncomplicated sexual attraction; the anodyne contemporary notion of the Mouse as 'affectionate' is simply not present at all. 'He was never intended to be a sissy'. Contemporary Mickey characters as performed at Disney resorts make stereotypically effeminate gestures. The early Mickey is stereotypically masculine. Flip's explicitly eroticised voyeurism is entirely in keeping with the Mouse's early character. We are firmly in the domain of scopophilia.

If we leave to one side the psychoanalytic connotations of 'scopophilia'  - a term which Laura Mulvey acknowledges she takes from Freud - we are still faced with the basic physiology of sexual attraction, of which enlarged pupils are an involuntary indicator. The inevitable implication of both the Mouse, and the interrogator motif, is that the observed subject is facing a very direct sexual challenge. In both contexts, whether it is the prisoner facing an interrogator, or Minnie fighting off Mickey in Plane Crazy , coercion is a basic feature of the scenario.

One key difference between the two faces, the interrogator and the Mouse, is in the mouth. In the one case the mouth is essentially closed, in the other it is gaping in an apparently uncontrollable grin. Both are sinister. In fact, the forced 'smile' of the modern Mickey is almost more sinister than the original, reminiscent of the psychotic character, The Joker, in the Batman stories, or of the stereotypical psychopath who laughs insanely as he kills or maims. The other point of contrast is at the point of activity: Mickey is hyperactive, demonstrative, while the genuine interrogator is, for all the confrontation, strangely and frighteningly calm.

Of course, in the cartoons, the maiming is temporary. The victims recover and join in the laughter. In the case of the interrogator, things often end less happily. Jean used to speak about 'La deuxieme Cite' in Kinshasa, a large property where the interrogations of senior politicians or military figures who had fallen from favour were carried out. The name of the last room that the prisoner would visit was the abattoir . It was situated at the rear of the property, overlooking the Zaire river which, just below Kinshasa, passes through colossal rapids. The rapids stretch for many miles and act on flesh much as a garbage disposal unit disintegrates the organic material which is tipped into it, allowing it to be flushed away without a trace.

The Mouse and the interrogator are both profoundly dysfunctional. The persona, in both cases, is incapable of genuine relationship with an other. The sexuality which they represent is intrinsically coercive and stereotypically male, and it is asserted, in both cases, by the eyes.

This, it seems to me, roots the scopophilic male gaze more securely in dysfunction than does Mulvey's analysis, or for that matter, Freud's. The empirically-grounded analysis of the physiology of sexual response is a more evidentially robust basis for assigning meaning to the gaze than any psychoanalytic reading (though it is not, of course, necessarily in conflict with psychoanalysis). Similarly, the history of the last hundred years provides a mass of documentation of the impact of 'interrogation' on those who are interrogated. This is not to say that interrogation is always carried out with violence, of course, but it is often so carried out. The literature on torture is extensive, and shows, sadly, the disintegrating effect it has on the torturer as clearly as it shows the destructive impact on the victim.

The nature of gaze?

It would be going too far to take this reading of the interrogator and the Mouse to the point where we characterise all gaze as intrinsically dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we have a context here in which the position of a heterosexual male photographing a naked female is, at the very least, problematised. It should be enough to give pause for thought that there are such clear structural parallels between the role of the photographer and the persona of Mickey or of the interrogator. Quite apart from the enlarged pupils of the photographer (which, of course, may simply be enlarged because the viewfinder presents a dark image) we have the lens itself as an eye-surrogate. Quite apart from the camera and lens as a phallic surrogate we have the lens' wide iris. Parallelism is not guilt, but the parallelism should at least indicate that the scenario has the potential to become dysfunctional. In plain language, not every photographer jumps his model, but some do, and others consider it.

However, the scenario of a photo shoot takes place with the participation not of a crudely drawn 'Minnie', but of a self-aware subject. Apart from instances where the model is coerced, we have to assume that the model chose to be photographed. This does not mean that the model chooses to be the victim of dysfunctional sexuality ... although she might choose to be a participant in transgressional sexuality. I would suggest, however, that there is a parallel between the decision to be photographed, and a sort of chosen interrogation.

That is to say, we cannot, on the basis of this reading of the interrogator motif and of the Mouse, construct a complete theory of the gaze. The material does not provide for a comprehensive analysis of gaze. But it does, I believe, allow us to assert that interrogation is a component of gaze. The act of photographing is an act of interrogation, it does genuinely gather information; it is a concentrated, deliberate, intent process of observation (for all the rapidity with which, given automated cameras, it can actually happen). The process is characterised by willed looking and direction by both parties, photographer and model. (It is a rare photo shoot where the model is not invited to 'look', in both the transitive and the intransitive sense of the verb). 

This is not to say, either, that to model is to be an exhibitionist. The interrogating gaze is not necesssarily dysfunctional or 'voyeuristic' (if that word does indeed carry an unavoidably negative connotation) and the self-revelation of the model need not, correspondingly, carry the pejorative overtones of 'exhibitionism'. We can extend the notion of interrogation to encompass not only the security apparatus of the state, but also, for instance, the work of a therapist. This is typically probing, often painful, but functions as a Heilmittel. It requires skill on the part of the therapist, and courage on the part of the person undergoing therapy. Learning is typically bi-directional (it certainly ought to be). It seems, then, not unreasonable that someone should choose to be photographed with a view to gaining a degree of self-understanding, just as someone might choose to go into therapy. Between the coercive context of a security interrogation and the elective context of much therapy there is also, of course, a huge middle ground, of choice where there is little alternative.

Which is to say, in effect, that coercion and consent are themselves exceedingly slippery constructs, but that they are unavoidable. I would argue, in fact, that it is only in the context of a realistic appreciation of the power of compulsion, of tradition, of education and indoctrination that we can hope to meaningfully 'read' what is going on when a man photographs a naked woman. And nothing changes when the scenario involves a man photographing a man, a woman photographing a woman or, perhaps most problematically, an adult photographing a child. The roots of the word 'interrogation' are Latin; they are the verb rogare, to ask, and inter , meaning 'between'. For all its unfortunate and well-deserved associations, the word 'interrogation' need not presuppose anything more sinister than a searching conversation between two partners in the interests of a better understanding of each other. Which is, of course, the really difficult thing.

Harry Smart, January 2004



I append here, by way of explanation, a little more of the circumstances in which I got to know Jean.

When I met him he was a refugee living in London, having sought political asylum from Zaire, which was at the time still ruled by President Mobutu. Through Jean himself, and by background reading both in the history of Congo / Zaire, and in the role of Western Security institutions in Africa, I came to understand something of the history of Zaire from around the time of its independence (from Belgium) in the early 1960s. I also became involved in a very minor way in Jean's attempts to extricate his wife and child from Zaire, where they were effectively held by Zairean security.

Jean, although still in his early thirties at the time I met him, had held a high rank in Mobutu's security service, and was continually courted by exiled politicians who hoped to recruit him to 'governments in exile', where they hoped he would take a leading role in reorganising Zaire's security services.

Although Jean had had a wide military and security training, interrogation had been his special area of expertise. He had studied interrogation, effectively as a degree subject, at a college maintained in or near Cairo. The college was jointly staffed and operated by the principal Western security services (France, the UK, the US, Israel and South Africa) with major interests in Africa, and this was in line with what is generally known about Western Security activities in Africa, namely that the training of security staff from pro-Western regimes is undertaken collaboratively by these particular Western services, just as much general security work is carried out under a complex set of contracts and sub-contracts governing a strangely collaborative-competitive process.

What I learned about Jean and about Zaire became the basis of a book, Zaire, published in 1997. Much of the detail of security operations which the book describes was taken from reports in the public domain ... historical accounts going back to the 1960s, and including newspaper reporting up to the 1990s. I was often able to read between the lines of contemporary accounts, and Jean would confirm my reading, or indicate where I had gone astray. Jean also supplied details which were not in the public domain, but which would be recognised by serving security officers, or by people with particularly good local knowledge of particular places or events in Zaire. It would be fair to say that, in the reviews which followed the book's appearance, and in the years which have followed, the accuracy of the book's account of Western security operations in Zaire, or of its account of Mobutu's security service, has never been challenged; in fact the book has been commended as a useful guide to recent political history in Zaire. And a cracking read.

I say all this because the central motif of the interrogator which appears in the book, and which I learned directly from Jean, discussing it with him on many many occasions, has nowhere, to my knowledge, appeared in the public domain other than in my novel, and it is therefore difficult to reference it in keeping with traditional academic citation practice.

My contact with Jean came to an end shortly before Mobutu was ousted by Kabila, and from details I was able to observe of the process whereby Kabila's forces occupied Kinshasa, I strongly suspect that Jean may have been killed when that happened. On the other hand, he may be alive and well and have chosen simply to withdraw from our friendship. This would be entirely in keeping with his character and, of course, entirely in keeping with the character of the interrogator: non-communication ... in the sense that one withholds any sign of one's own thoughts from the 'dialogue' ... is actually the essence of the interrogator's personality. And to be an interrogator is, essentially, not to acquire technique, but to become a persona.


Iwerks, Leslie and Kenworthy, John, 2001, The Hand Behind The Mouse: An intimate biography of Ub Iwerks, New York, Disney Editions.

Sachs, Nelly, 1991, Das Buch der Nelly Sachs, Muenchen, Suhrkamp.

Smart, Harry, 1997, Zaire, Cambs. Dedalus.