Everything changes when people look at us
It’s a beautiful day in the park and there’s no one but you. Having a moment, the particular kind of trick we all have, you start jumping up and singing a baby song. It’s wrong, and the lyrics are half forgotten, but you don’t give a damn. You experience a dance of pure joy. It is a moment that exists between you and the indifferent universe.
Suddenly you notice that there is a man sitting on the bench in front of you. He tries to look away, to spare you the embarrassment of witnessing, but you know he saw you. He saw you in all your crazy glory. You turn scarlet. Your dance becomes a respectable march. You try to hide your song in a cough.
The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called this moment Le Regard. It’s a great introduction to the key ideas of “in itself” and “for himself– ideas that resonate with most people and are central to the philosophy of race and also feminism.
live for me
Sartre’s great work, Being and Nothingness, is a curious mix of dense philosophical analyzes playing alongside extremely readable anecdotes. The book is a wealth of ideas, many of which figure prominently in modern sociological commentary. A key element of his work is the distinction between something that exists “in itself” (in itself) and “for-itself” (for himself).
In short, in itself refers to all those things that are fixed, passive and definite. Most often these are the objects we encounter in the world, from cutlery to gerbils. For himselfhowever, is our dynamic, personal experiencee. It is our conscience turned towards the world. It is the “I” who does things and who “is”. It’s you, right now, wherever you are, looking at things.
For Sartre, Le Regard (sometimes translated as Regard) is when “The Other” forces us to see ourselves not as for himself corn in itself. It is when we, the subject of our life, are transformed into an object or a background accessory. When someone Regards at home, we are obliged to see ourselves as from the outside. As Sartre wrote, “I see myself because someone sees me”.
Seeing me through your eyes
Sartre’s idea of The Look is not just about being self-aware. The gaze of another will often create “modifications in my structure”. It completely changes the way we see ourselves. We do not see ourselves as ourselves, but as through the eyes of another.
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A huge offshoot of this is how intensely we become aware of our bodies. When we are alone, our body is something we largely ignore. It’s just an extension of me. When another sees us, however, our body comes into existence as an object. It is something to be examined and judged — as in itself.
When this happens, we find that we flatten our hair, wipe our mouths, or sit a little straighter. We present ourselves rather than live ourselves. We are a trait to display, and our attention (always so resolutely outward) comes to look at itself. It’s navel-gazing and self-awareness, and it’s inevitably human.
Black skin, white masks
Sartre’s ideas (along with his frequent public lectures, appearances, and publications) came to dominate much of the intellectual zeitgeist in postwar Europe. His exploration of The Look had huge application, in large part because it’s so relatable. But Sartre’s idea has also become central to the philosophy of race.
Frantz Fanon, French Martinican and black existentialist, revisited and examined the idea of The Look in his book, Black skin, white masks. For most white people, the color of their skin is not a characteristic, but rather the default or the norm – born both of prejudice and of centuries of majority and power. The black person, however, is made very aware of their skin by the gaze of others. The skin color of a black person is a characteristic of their being that it’s not for the white person. As Fanon writes, “When people like me, they like me ‘despite my color’. When they don’t like me; they point out that it’s not because of my color. Anyway , I am locked in the infernal circle.
In many cultures, darkness is something else. It is foreign, abnormal and minority. The problem, according to Fanon, is that this sense of the Other becomes internalized, becoming the way people begin to see themselves. They are aware of their black skin in a way that their white friends or colleagues simply are not. As he writes, “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no opportunity, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others.” However, constantly being seen as black will stare and trap the subject (our for himself) in objectivity (in itself) – but also an inferior, lesser one. He goes on to write, “I sit by the fire and become aware of my uniform. I did not see him. It is indeed ugly. I stop there, because who can tell me what beauty is?
Working and writing alongside Sartre (as well as inspiring, editing and probably developing his ideas) was Simone de Beauvoir. The idea of The Look figures prominently in her great feminist work, The second sex.
In her sections on Childhood and the Girl, de Beauvoir argues that very early in a woman’s life, they learn that their role must be guarded. They must be ogled, judged, chosen and finally taken by a man. It is a cruel and terrifying moment in the development of a young girl, when, around puberty, she realizes that she no longer exists as a person in herself, but as an object to be seen. As de Beauvoir writes, “The [pubescent] the girl feels that her body is slipping away from her, that it is no longer the clear expression of her individuality; it becomes foreign to him; and at the same time, it is grasped by others as a thing: in the street, the eyes follow her, her body is the subject of comments; she would like to become invisible; she is afraid of become flesh and afraid to show his flesh. (I underline.)
De Beauvoir goes on to say that the matter is further muddled in how women come to accept that “being watched” is their lot. At this point, she writes, some women seek out and enjoy even catching others’ eyes — but only in a way that preserves an element of it. Most women can easily tell the difference between a look and the To see. The first is something relatively benign, something (according to de Beauvoir) that even women want.
But the latter is much more pernicious. It’s an invading, predatory, objectifying and ogling thing. It is both frightening and dehumanizing. As she writes, “[the girl] would like to be seen only insofar as it shows itself: [but] the eyes are always too penetrating… male desire is as much an offense as a tribute.
The Look is everywhere
The Look is something that alienates, judges and reduces minorities or prejudice groups around the world. But it’s also something we all know and can appreciate. It’s the shame of being seen doing something stupid, rude or wrong. It is the self-awareness of being judged and then of judging yourself. It’s the moment when we stop living life the way we want and start living it at the pace of another.
The Look is where our private selves are dragged into a public domain to be examined and repaired. It’s when we realize that the eyes are far more powerful than we knew.