The Others’ Gaze

The gaze of others defines us.

So long as we are alone, we do not possess an outside vision of ourselves to which our acts can be referred; we exist within our inner being, which has no identity and no characteristics. But when others enter the picture, we suddenly obtain “an identity.”

No other philosopher has spent so much energy studying the effect the gaze of another has on a human being as the twentieth century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He actually came to the conclusion that this gaze gives rise to a new kind of being, which he termed “being-for-others.” Our sense of self and of how we view ourselves in society is irrevocably connected with the way we feel the others’ gaze upon us. He gave the example of someone who spies through a keyhole: Suddenly he hears footsteps down the hall and feels the gaze of another person on his back. At this moment, from being a conscious free being immersed in the experience of viewing, he becomes an object within someone else’s world. He is now a person with an identity – that of a voyeur. His being-in-itself, the term Sartre uses to describe the experience of pure being, becomes an object in a world, a being-for-others.

We need not go deep into Sartre’s philosophy here, but only take this idea of the gaze of another and relate it to our everyday lives. I’m sure Sartre would have been elated to be living today, in order to discover how well his theories fare, by observing the behavior of people on the web and especially on social media. The whole world has become the field of testing for Sartre’s theories. In the twenty-first century, most human beings not only strive to obtain the gaze of as many people as possible, but define themselves in an almost absolute manner by and through that gaze. Suddenly, all of us need not be voyeurs peeping through keyholes: the lives of others, every little detail of what they do, is out there in the open. Now we are all not only voyeurs, but also exhibitionists. The personal Facebook page becomes not a tool for self-expression, as many would have us believe, but rather the template upon which modern man strives to build his being-for-others. Unlike Sartre’s voyeur, who was in the state of being-for-himself before he was caught (a mode of being with which he could still reconnect later), the modern individual willingly consents to surrender this to “the multitude” – to use Seneca’s favorite term. We all watch and are constantly being watched. And while we feel this gaze of others, we form our own identities, our own personas, having as a guiding principle the opinion, the values, the (gossiping) interests of others. We consent to conform to what the multitude wants and expects from us, that we may have more Facebook likes, more YouTube views, more website visits. So, slowly but steadily we end up constructing an artificial entity, which we mistake for ourselves, an entity that lives and breathes and moves and acts, not for itself, but in order to comply with what it understands as being the desire of the others’ gaze.

The woman who works out at the gym and uploads a dozen pictures every day of her toned body to the cheers and likes of her “followers” (the contemporary respected unhidden voyeurs of Sartre!); the young man who uploads strange videos; the professional who shares what he thinks would be liked by his peers, all unwittingly create themselves, or rather a vision of themselves, through the others’ eyes. Through “posts” and “sharing,” by exhibiting one’s loves and tastes, personal stories, photos, and more, each “curates” a public image of oneself to which one then continually strives to conform. Personal identity becomes one’s reflection in the others’ eyes. One’s being-on-Facebook has become the ubiquitous reality of Sartre’s being-for-others.

What is even more disturbing is that the being-for-others has begun to extinguish altogether the being-for-oneself (the equivalent of Sartre’s being-in-itself). The modern exhibitionist, for whom the rest of the world is voyeurs, ends up being only this artificial and constructed being-for-others. Whatever he thinks and does and shares becomes permanently embedded in, and thus guided by, this gaze. The exhibitionist (who is also himself a voyeur) becomes permanently estranged from his own being. He exists only for the others’ gaze; he is constantly preoccupied with this gaze, and works only for the preservation of his public persona. There is no personal anymore. No private life. No peeping alone through the keyhole. All is there for all to see. Most disturbingly: what is seen by all becomes what each person also sees in the mirror when he sees himself. The others’ gaze, but also the others’ values, opinions, and judgements become one’s own. The person identifies with the image the others have created of him, and this image in turn guides his life and actions. One comes to believe that his Facebook persona, his public image (with the comments underneath it) is who he is. Some even “peek through” their computer screens to see themselves as others see them, in order to be sure of who they really are. In effect, they have become self-voyeurs! They reaffirm their personal identity (or rather identification) by referring to their public image. The gaze of others defines them, and they accept this definition of themselves. In this way they are forever lost in the vast expanses of public space, where all is created and defined by the multitude.

What was first termed as estrangement or alienation by the existentialists of the twentieth century has now become the reality of twenty-first century man. Yet, because this reality is all around us, or rather envelopes us and we move in it, we do not see it. We are estranged in the midst of a greatly enlarged world, and we do not even know it, because the gaze (and clutter) of others keeps the wheel of our lives moving. We exist as long as we can keep the interested gaze of others directed at us. For it is this that gives us the sense of our identity.

Or rather, our multiple identities! For another offshoot of all this is that we have ceased to be a singular self. We create through the others’ gaze multiple identities (in equivalent digital platforms) by being the social Facebook guy, the serious LinkedIn professional, the playful YouTuber – all at once. If there was ever a hope of returning to our being-in-itself, to finding our center and our true freedom, now this is forever lost, for we cannot even conceive of our self as a singular entity. We are as many as the different groups of eyes that gaze upon us. We are all multiple personalities moving unconsciously in many different digital worlds…with a lost center and many faces.The others’ gaze lies at the heart of modern man’s alienation. And the first action to take towards escaping its far-reaching effects is to stare back and discover the utter emptiness of this gaze.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis