Essay: The Law of Observation
Everything changes when it is seen
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The act of observation changes both the subject being observed and the observer. Observation is a powerful and dangerous tool and it quietly rules everything within the reach of humanity.
Sit with that for a moment and then let’s keep going.
Watch and Learn
The first thing newborns do once their critical needs of food and warmth are satisfied is to search for a face, specifically a pair of eyes. We’re genetically hardwired with this imperative to be seen. Our survival depends on it. Once we establish this connection, we know we’ll be taken care of, and we can turn our attention to wiring up the rest of our operating system by observing. Within a year, we learn to smile, laugh, cry, sulk, and rage.
The adult holding the gaze of this whirring little brain is equally changed. The tonality, cadence, and inflection of their speech are different. When they hear a cough or sniffle, they wake out of a dead sleep on high alert. When they get on an airplane, they experience anxiety they never felt before. This is not revelatory I know. The relationship between parent and child is singularly profound so it’s not a stretch to say that this two-way observation changes both individuals in a fundamental way. But I started here to make a point. The law of observation is baked into our DNA and everything that follows in our lives whether we live for one year or a century will be dictated by what we see and how we’re seen.
A note here. I’m using “seen” as shorthand for all the ways we observe. A blind person is subject to the same law even though their primary sense might be hearing.
It’s through observation that we learn how to do everything. Some things we learn at a conscious level like reading, throwing a curveball, fretting a guitar, whistling, doing calculus, or matching an outfit. Some things we learn subconsciously like obsessively apologizing, or when faced with a conflict, puffing out our chests or folding in our shoulders. The millions of reps we do of observing and being observed on the way to adulthood make us who we are.
This brings me to the heart of what I want to explore here. How do we reconcile the many contradictions that the law of observation creates in our lives?
Dance Like No One’s Watching
Those of us in the entertainment business are fully conscious of how we exploit the law of observation. Writers, musicians, artists, dancers, bloggers, vloggers, trollers, substackers, influencers, philosophers, preachers, teachers, politicians, and basically anyone who’s ever performed something within view of another living being are in the entertainment business.
If you’re not entertaining, you will be ignored, and your performance will not be received. When your performance is rejected, what will you do? There are only a couple of options:
1. Stop performing.
2. Change your performance.
Regardless of what you choose to do next, the god-damned inevitable law of observation has dropped its gavel of judgment and changed you. It’s brutal and cruel and when it happens to you, it feels personal. But what happens in the opposite scenario when your performance is entertaining and as a result seen and praised by millions? Here there’s really only one option: keep performing that thing that worked until the wheels come off.
In either scenario, the way you perform this sacred expression of yourself is not just influenced but changed by how it’s observed by others.
Anyone who tells you something different is not being truthful. This feels horrid, right? Especially when it comes to art. We want art to be a singular, pure expression that does not pander or bend to the will of an audience like a monkey dancing for peanuts. But it does. It must change if it wants an audience.is a writer and teacher I admire greatly. In his recent office hours post, he wrote at length about what it means to write with a natural voice and if such a thing even exists. The student who posed the question was struggling with the downstream effects of the law of observation. They want to write prose that feels natural, meaning not obviously influenced by all the rules they’ve been taught to make it more appealing to a reader. The student held Hemingway aloft as the gold standard for writing spare, effortless, pure prose. George basically said, ‘fuck that,’ in his kindly, professorial way pointing out that Hemingway absolutely crafted the living shit out of his prose because he was trying desperately to be entertaining. To my point, everyone changes their performance when someone is watching.
The great trick is to make it appear that no one is watching. That’s the conceit. That’s the suspension of disbelief we strive to foster in any audience who observes us. It’s infinitely cooler when you don’t hear the clanging of the apparatus in the back room. When you don’t hear someone trying so hard.
Art Becomes Great When It’s Observed
The law of observation is not limited in its power to change us humans, it also has dominion over what we create. Some might argue it has even more power. I challenge you to name one completely unknown artist whose work is considered great. The work is only considered great when it has been observed and championed by another.
You may ask, did the work actually change? Van Gogh’s paintings magically transformed after his death. How is this possible? The same paintings that hang in the Louvre today are the same ones that were moldering in a barn before his sister-in-law made it her mission to make them known. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories might have lined cat boxes in his home if Max Perkins had not decided there was greatness there.
A work of art only crosses the threshold of greatness when it is observed. It’s a bit maddening if you think about this for too long. How many other Hemingways and Van Goghs have lived and died in anonymous squaller over the years simply because no one ever truly observed their work and, in that observation, lit a candle so bright that the rest of the world could see its brilliance?
This miracle of transformation you can (and may already have) witnessed for yourself. Pick a songwriter, a painter, or a novelist you really don’t like or even understand but whose work is beloved by others. Seek out a fan of that work and give them your full attention for a while. Listen to what they say. See the work through their eyes. Pay attention to the details they obsess over. In this exercise of guided observation, that artist’s work will change before your eyes. You may not become a fan, but you will begin to see it as something formidable, something of value. Such is the power of observation.
Can We Be the Observer of Our Own Work?
Like most good questions, the answer to this one is both yes and no. Let’s start with no, only because I’ve learned as a performer never to end a show on a bummer.
When our work is not observed by others it is an object in a dark room. It has dimension and volume and color and texture but in the absence of light, it is hypothetical. When I work on my great American novel for over a decade, squirreled away in my office, the pages accumulating like layers of sediment in a trunk year over year, that novel is only potential. It is everything and nothing. It is the greatest book ever written, a stroke of brilliance by an unknown author. Simultaneously, it’s also the mad ravings of a shut-in. Only when another soul reads it, does it become. Will it become the same thing for everyone who turns its pages? Absolutely not, any more than two people will see the color red in the same way. You must find that person, that champion who will observe your work. Within their gaze, your work will be realized.
Finally, you are without question, the first observer of your work and for this reason, the most important. Creating anything can be seen as a vane act of hubris or a life-sustaining act of loving-kindness. It depends on what you observed and how you were observed from the moment you first drew breath. I was graced with the most loving audience in my mother and father. They were and continue to be my biggest fans. Every song I’ve ever written I’ve played for them first. Every story, novel, and essay I’ve ever written, I read to them first. It’s an embarrassment of riches to have parents like mine. They gave me a huge advantage.
If you have the courage to create anything, the first observer of your creation should be loving and kind. You must find a way to become that loving and kind observer if you are not already. Your work will be changed when you observe it. It’s a natural law. Under your withering scrutiny, nothing will ever grow but gilded in the light of your loving gaze, your work has the potential for greatness.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear about the role observation plays in your life and work.
What’s something that you hated initially, but came to love after observing it more carefully?
How do you observe your work and how does your observation change it?
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