I've been reading Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's book, Staring: How We Look (2009). Garland-Thomson, a scholar of disability studies and feminism at Emory University, examines how we react--both politically and psychologically--to the sight of others, particularly when those others appear very different from ourselves.
Garland-Thomson argues that "staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what's going on and demands the story"--it "begins as an impulse that curiosity can carry forward into engagement" (3).
What I find really compelling about Garland-Thomson's book is that she takes a gesture we take for granted--the "what the...?" that we do as we walk or drive by someone or something on the way to work in the morning, for example--and analyzes the nuances of what it means to do and to think this.
She examines staring as an act of reading. Garland-Thomson argues that "Stares are urgent efforts to make the unknown known, to render legible something that seems at first glance incomprehensible" (15). The act of staring inaugurates an interesting interpersonal interaction--as she points out, "we prefer to stare for our own reasons and on our own terms rather than be forced into a stare by something or someone stareable" (19).
Being stared at ourselves can be bad... or it can be good. And while we're the object of that stare, we experience an awkward moment of indecisiveness as we decide how to react.
Unless, of course, we're individuals with noticeable physical differences. In that case, as Garland-Thomson notes, we need to learn how to negotiate staring on a daily basis--how to grapple with the looks of others and their reactions to (and occasionally judgments of) our appearance.
In this case, staring is perhaps a reminder of something human beings would rather not know:
The functional and formal conditions of our bodies that are termed disabilities are one of hte most unpredictable aspects of life. Like death itself, disabilities come to us unbidden as we move through a world that wears us down even while it sustains us... This inconvenient truth nudges most of us who think of ourselves as able-bodied toward imagining disability as an uncommon visitation that mostly happens to someone else, as a fate somehow elective rather than inevitable. (19)"That could never happen to me." "Thank god that never happened to me." These are often the thoughts that accompany the stares at people with disabilities and, as Garland-Thomson argues, such looks force their recipients to navigate a complex exchange.
How do you respond to a total stranger--someone who knows nothing about you-- who nevertheless looks at you and thinks, "I would never want to be you"? How do you navigate this on a daily basis? How does it affect your sense of self and your relationship to the world?
Garland-Thomson also analyzes the cultural history of staring--the injunction, "Don't stare!" that Americans are all raised with, a prohibition that operates side-by-side with a world of selfies, viral videos, rubbernecking, and Looky Lous.
In particular, I found her analysis of the role of appearance in American history interesting. Garland-Thomson notes that, as the American middle class emerged and capitalism and egalitarianism shaped our organizing social structure, we "required new ways of looking at one another" (66).
European aristocracy relied on appearance to communicate social status: you knew "who" someone was and "where" s/he "belonged" by the way they dressed and behaved.
Citizens of democracy, in contrast, supposedly had the opportunity to change their status at any time. Appearance needed to reflect this ideal of equality. To realize this promised social fluidity, people's appearances should not lock them into a particular status but should accommodate aspirations toward social mobility. (67)In short, "What you looked like... should suggest who you were to your anonymous visual interlocutors but not reveal enough information to trap you into any particular fixed identity" (67).
Garland-Thomson also examines how appearance has shaped the cultural landscape of the contemporary United States. In particular, she notes a significant paradox that underwrites American culture: corporations market "individuality" even as they sell us mass-produced fashions.
I find this point really interesting. Because if you think about it, if we each made our own clothes--the way most people did in the 18th and 19th centuries--our individual appearance would be far more distinctive than it currently is.
Instead, we all crave Armani, in order to show the world "who" we are--and express our individual sense of self and preference. I think Jordache's old slogan encompasses this paradox amazingly well: by telling us, "You've got the look" ("the Jordache look"), it suggests an approval of our appearance. If we've bought "the look" that they're selling us, then of course we "have" it.
And yet, the commercial side of the exchange is muted. Everyone will like our look, if we buy their product and wear it. And of course, they're telling us this because they're trying to convince us to buy their product.
Garland-Thomson cites the observation of philosopher Charles Taylor: "The need to have our individuality validated through civic recognition of our uniqueness is in conflict with our need to be similar to our fellow citizens" (74-75).
Garland-Thomson's work, in my opinion, is always provocative and always intriguing. She makes you think about subtleties of human perception and social interactions that you might not otherwise have even noticed--her scholarship encourages her readers to look, to think, and then to look again.
Staring is no exception.