Sartre’s The Look
Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. I am alone and on the level of non-thetic self-consciousness… But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean?… First of all, I now exist as myself for my unreflective consciousness… I see myself because somebody sees me. (Sartre, 259, 260)
This passage in Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, illustrates a very simple problem which all of us face routinely: the problem of self-consciousness. Say, you are reading a book, like Being and Nothingness for example, while traveling in the bus. You are deeply engrossed in the reading, trying to make sense of what Sartre is saying through all that thick prose. Now there is some jolt in the bus and you lift your head momentarily and then get back to your reading. However, now you notice that you cannot continue reading as you have been doing till now, because you just saw someone a few seats away intently staring at you. That makes you awkwardly conscious of yourself. This is what Sartre is talking about: “I now see myself because somebody else sees me.” You become uncomfortably self-conscious. In other words, from being a subject, you become an object; you become objectified, you become constrained. Nevertheless, you try to ignore the stranger staring at you and get back to your task. It is not easy, it takes some effort. You will look up again after a few minutes to ascertain whether the stranger is still looking at you, and if he is not you feel relieved. The stranger’s look has absolutely no implications for you, it is not that he is a spy and is following you or that you are afraid of being caught for some crime you did, there are no such issues whatsoever — it is simply the abstract look per se that caused you so much discomfort.
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is a study of human consciousness and the nature of reality. In Sartre’s philosophy, the conscious mind of man is characterized as “being-for-itself” as opposed to the unconscious mind, “being-in-itself.” The “being-for-itself” is an amorphous entity, it has no definite essence, it can become whatever it wants to become. Since it has no set identity, its being is a question for itself. And it is seeking for an answer. However it usually gets a false answer, owing to the presence of others all around it. The presence of others makes us keenly aware of our own existence, this would seem like a good thing but unfortunately there is a bad thing associated with it. The scope of our existence becomes narrowed down because of others’ presence. We see ourselves as finite objects, whereas in the absence of the others we would have still remained essentially free, brimming with infinite possibilities. Sartre says that the gaze of the other freezes our flowing self into a narrow form. We are deprived of our essential freedom. When we become watched, we become peculiarly cognizant of our own presence. Not that earlier we were not aware of ourselves, because to be human necessarily implies self-awareness; but we were aware of ourselves in any airy manner, there was freedom in it and scope to it. However, the scrutiny of others makes us aware of ourselves in a rigidly definite manner. The freedom and scope is gone. Things become constrained.
Sartre’s observation is related to something all of us have consciously experienced so many times in our lives. There is nothing esoteric or deeply philosophical about the experience itself, it is part of day to day lives: when we are alone we are a different person, in the presence of others we are not the same person anymore. The gaze of the other presents a particular problem. The gaze – what to do about it? How to deal with it? Normally, in the civil society, we encounter the other’s scrutinizing gaze only fleetingly and only on occasions, so we do not consider it to be a major problem. In philosophy, however, we cannot let go of even a small problem so easily, because any apparently small thing could lead us to deeper truths upon investigation. So why do we feel awkward, embarrassed and constrained when being scrutinized by the other person’s intent gaze, even when there are in all probability no practical implications to it? And is there any way not to be influenced by the staring we receive from others? This is the problem we will try to tackle in the rest of this paper.
Let us first magnify the problem in order to understand it more clearly. Let us suppose that, to begin with, I am living in a room all by myself. But now let’s say that owing to certain circumstances I am required to accommodate the mentally challenged brother of a friend of mine in my room. And so my friend’s brother is living with me now. Since he is mentally handicapped, he does not go about his affairs like normal people do. Most of the time he just sits there and keeps staring at me intently, as I study or work at my computer. He just does not stop staring at me, and this makes me terribly uncomfortable. Of course I could ask him to stop looking at me or get away from the room, but I do not do it because it would be rather uncouth and also because I myself am very much puzzled by the situation. The intriguing thing about it is that my friend’s brother is not making any noise, not distracting me or disturbing me in any tangible way, and it is not that there is some kind of power emanating from his eyes. The stare has got nothing to it, so why should it be bothering me at all? It is not even that I am concerned about what this person is thinking about me, how he assesses me and such things, because I know that he is mentally retarded and no concrete thought processes are going on in his mind. It is just a blank, empty stare, but it is still bothering me to no end. This is where I realize that the problem is clearly not with the stare, but it is with my own attitude about it.
With this insight that the problem is not in the gaze of the other person but in my own attitude, half the problem is solved already. Nothing is happening because of the other person’s gaze, everything is happening because of my obviously wrong interpretation of it. Another discovery I would shortly make in this situation would offer a tremendous insight into the nature of the problem. So let us go back to the situation. I am sitting there studying while the fellow is sitting opposite to me staring at me with his piercing, crazy eyes continuously. I try not to be bothered about it at all, because rationally I know that there is nothing to it, in fact I have to try to be more compassionate toward the other person — mentally deficient as he is — and allow him to do whatever he wants. I try not to think about the stare and concentrate on my work. However, I feel increasing discomfort as time passes on. So instead of fighting with myself in trying to cope with the stare, I adopt a simple trick and turn my back to the person and continue studying. I feel somewhat better now, but I am still not able to ignore the fact that the fellow would keep looking at me with that crazy look of his. After half an hour or so, I still feel the discomfort and it feels as if the stare is becoming more and more intense. Just curious to see how this crazy fellow is doing, I turn around suddenly. To my surprise I see that he is actually gone over to the bed many feet away and is sleeping silently. He might have done this quite a while ago in fact. However, the strange thing is that I have been feeling the impact of the gaze till just now, and in fact I felt like it was increasing — all the while when the fellow was not even sitting around. This is where I realize that the whole thing has been purely a result of my imagination. I was alone and nobody was around, but since I assumed that the fellow continued staring at me, I went on feeling more and more at unease. I can feel objectified, constrained even in the absence of the other person’s acute gazing, simply by assuming that I am being watched. An interesting inference we can draw from this observation is that if I can feel at unease as if I am being watched merely by thinking that I am being watched, then the opposite too would be possible; it would be possible to feel quite at ease even when I am actually being watched just by thinking that I am not being watched. This whole thing has to do with me and my perceptions and not with the other person or objective reality.
The above point can be better illustrated if we consider a scenario where I am staying at a hotel room which has possibly a tiny spy camera installed somewhere and it is hard to detect. It could be camouflaged as any miniscule object at so many vantage points in the room, and I am unable to determine its presence or location upon a casual survey. Still I know that it could be very much there, and somebody could be watching me through it. I could feel intensely uncomfortable thinking that I am being constantly watched. All my movements and behavior would have something artificial to them, though outwardly I may be acting or pretending to be at ease, going about things naturally. This may go on for a whole day, and let’s now suppose that the next day I learn from a reliable source that there is absolutely no spy camera in the hotel room; this would mean that nobody has been watching me all through yesterday, nevertheless I was all the time laboring heavily under the misapprehension that I was being watched. I felt all the classic symptoms of being objectified, terribly constrained — and all this for nothing. This scenario clearly demonstrates that the whole phenomenology of being observed is largely determined by an individual’s own attitudes and assumptions rather than any objective facts.
Let us go back to Sartre’s scenario. Sartre unnecessarily complicates it by attributing some negative motives to our act of looking through the keyhole. Then so many other considerations such as shame, guilt, and punishment pop up when we are caught in the act. These are purely practical considerations and have nothing philosophical or existential about them. I am doing something wrong and if I get caught I have to worry about the consequences. To simplify the situation, let’s imagine that I am looking through a keyhole for some practical reasons, and there is nothing wrong in it. Let’s say this is the room in which I am going to live and since I have not seen it earlier, and the door is locked, I am now gazing inside to see how exactly the room is. If some one notices me peeping through the keyhole, I would not need to feel any shame or guilt. So, to begin with, I am the looker, peeping attentively into the room. Suddenly from the corner of my eye I notice that some stranger from the window of the opposite house is looking at me. I am in a spot now. The looker (me) is being looked, the watcher is being watched. I am being objectified. I feel at unease. Of course I continue peeping inside because I am doing nothing wrong, but my focus is disturbed now. I try to finish it quickly and get away from there.
This is the original situation, but we can create versions of it by adding details and changing the identity of our observer. This is something that Sartre did not do. Let us say, my observer is a dog and not human being. Would I feel so objectified even when I notice that a dog is intently staring at me? Most probably I would not even give a thought to it and continue staring through the keyhole. An animal staring at us would mean nothing to us even if we are standing there all naked. Nevertheless the possibility of the dog owner coming to the window and looking at me might disturb me, and can make me feel objectified, just the possibility. For the sake of convenience, however, let us just assume all the people in the neighborhood have gone out for the carnival and I need not be bothered about any person watching me. Therefore a dog’s stare does not bother me. Let us not create another version, where I notice that a 3-year-old child is watching me as I am peeping through the keyhole. This too really does not affect me much or make me feel objectified. Now let’s say that an old lady, an octogenarian, is watching me. I may feel a little uncomfortable but not too much.
But let’s say that a young person of the opposite sex is watching me from the window, now I would feel terribly self-conscious and uncomfortable. My objectification is complete. So far in the argument it is clear that my reaction to being watched depends on by whom I am being watched. As for me, I would like to be as comfortable as I am when being watched by a dog even when I am being watched by a young person of the opposite sex. Is it possible? It is definitely possible because this whole situation is based on my assumptions, and on the personality I attribute to my watcher. Now, extending the same scenario, suppose I start living in the room and subsequently get acquainted with my neighbors. To my surprise, I find that my watcher in whose gaze I felt so completely objectified the other day is actually a blind person. This means that she was staring blankly from out of the window that day, and I assumed that she was keenly observing me!
We have repeatedly seen over the course of this essay that the other person or his or her gaze is not the problem at all, and need not be the problem. It is my own attribution of certain personality and reality unto the other person that is creating the problem. Our objectification can also occur simply by the possibility of the other person watching us even when in reality there is nobody watching us.
The only solution to Sartre’s problem of ‘The Look’ is possible when we develop a worldview where we remain the watcher all the time. I always remain fixed in my own vantage point and observe the world, instead of tending to slip into the other person’s vantage point and see myself from there, which is what creates the whole problem. This can be illustrated by an extremely simple example: I am sitting in a slow-moving bus while watching the pedestrians walk about. I am the observer. But suddenly I notice that one of the pedestrians is watching me back. At this point, I need not shift my vantage point and look at myself from the pedestrian’s angle. I can still remain the observer and keep on observing — as if the pedestrian is not a real person but just part of moving image on the screen I am looking at. Just in the way I need not feel objectified or embarrassed in the presence of a picture where the person is looking in my direction, I need not feel objectified when I come to know that what I am looking at is just an appearance and not reality. To understand the concept that the world is or could be just an appearance (a phenomenon) without being based on an objective reality (noumenon), we have to explore the first chapters of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. By cultivating an appropriate philosophical outlook toward the world, we can lead an authentic existence unencumbered by the presence of others. Too much importance we attach to the reality of the world and the others is the factor that creates the problem. But if we realize that the whole world could be just an appearance, we would not be too much troubled by it. In an existential sense, the watcher can never become the watched.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” New York : Routledge, 1999