Western culture is marked by a privilege of the gaze, to such an extent that we can speak of a Western ocularcentrism which modern science has intensified through what psychoanalysis called scopic drive of science. This privilege of the gaze contributes to slant the way we perceive and represent primordial cultures and non-Western cultures which never knew it.
Western culture is marked, since Classical Greece, by a privilege of the gaze expressed, namely: in metaphors of such widespread usage and immediate meaning as the one that identifies truth with light, to the extent that one can speak of a Western ocularcentrism; in an organization of human perception that, in the modern age, has increasingly centered itself on vision, and that intensifies it, at the same time it subjects the other senses to narcosis; in the exponential growth of visuality and visual culture, following the development of the current communication technologies that record and manipulate the image, and do no more than prolong what psychoanalysis called the scopic drive of modern science. This privilege of the gaze contributes to slant the way we perceive and represent primordial cultures and non-Western cultures that never knew it.
Marshal McLuhan had a critical role in clarifying this issue when he developed his thesis according to which it is impossible to build a theory of cultural change, without knowing the changes in sensorial relationships that result from the several exteriorizations of our senses, i.e. to a change in the communication medium (human body, printed text, image in photographic medium, cinematic medium, etc., and digital image) corresponds a reorganization of human perception, and to the latter, in turn, corresponds a general cultural change. Accordingly, human societies would have known three great cultural forms, corresponding to other communication media: the primeval, synaesthetic and audio-tactile tribal culture, based on the abilities of the human body, among which speech; the typographic and verb-conceptual culture which culminates with Gutenberg's typography, but which had already begun being prepared by phonetic writing since Ancient Greece, based on a perceptive organization focused on the hyperaesthetic gaze, and having the text in printed characters as its medium; and finally, the post-typographic culture - enabled by the emergence of electronic media - that creates a new synaesthesia and simultaneously promotes the global village and the retribalization of urban cultures. McLuhan also observed that the perceptive visual organization of peoples without a written language differs largely from that of peoples used to reading written texts. While the former perceive images in mosaic form, moving their gaze horizontally upon them, we "read" a visual image (written text, photograph, film, painting, etc.) "in depth", i.e. in consecutive frames, as a form over a background, with an image center and periphery.
Besides the fact that ancestral peoples did not isolate visual perception from the other senses in a specialized way, it is also known that their image representations - as is the case of the rock engravings of the Côa Valley - usually took on a sacred and ritual symbology that granted them an exceptional and inaccessible meaning for the non-initiates in a certain culture or mythological belief. Primeval man tends not to represent what he simply "sees", from a point of view which today we would say is merely empirical. Instead, he paints, engraves or represents what he believes in, or what he saw in dreams or in a state of trance, possibly induced by psychotropic substances, within the context of magic rituals aimed at allowing the mystical experience, i.e. the communication with supernatural forces, as it was possible to observe in the shamans and medicine-men of countless cultures. The world thus represented is as, or more, real than daily, profane reality. Therefore it is not uncommon to see (as happens with anthropological field research) these people claiming that an image shows "nothing" if it represents no more than an ordinary fact from daily life, with no supernatural meaning.
For them, the literal content of an image is often - not to say invariably - indissociable from its symbolic content. This content is usually expressed as clairvoyance, illumination or "interior vision", often only accessible to the initiates in shamanism who, so to speak, died for profane sensibility, only to be reborn with a new, mystical sensibility. The gaze of the shaman, thus metamorphosed, acquires magical properties that grant him the power to visualize things that are occult or distant from his presence. The possession of this power, among others, is taken as a proof of the shamanic ability to overcome the human condition and participate in the condition of supernatural beings, gods and spirits, without ceasing for that matter to exist while carnal being. The experience of ecstasy is seen as the highest stage men can achieve in this world, as a way of knowing through one's own senses the original, paradisiacal condition before its fall. However, as ecstasy does not allow to effectively reintegrate the primordial condition in Paradise, but only to accede to it "in spirit", frustrating man's desire to participate in the sacred with the whole of his being, we thus realize that the mystical experience of present, fallen mankind cannot but be inferior to the perceptive experience of the primordial ancestor characterized, namely by omnividence. In this sense, to see would ultimately mean, not to contemplate a truth, but to participate fully in the very being of what is seen.
Eliade, Mircea - Mitos, sonhos e mistérios. Lisboa: Edições 70, 2000
McLuhan, Marshall - La galaxie Gutenberg, 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1977