Usually, come weekend nights, I enjoy the solitude of my house. As a result, I don’t usually see the gussied up throngs poised to part-ay. This weekend, however, I found myself in North Beach on Saturday night — a mecca for all sorts of folks. At some point, a bus-thingy filled with drunken, imbibing 20-somethings drove by me. The girls were in these short skirts doing some kind of dance and hooting and gyrating. What struck me was how familiar and contrived the dancing was. I’d seen it before. I’d seen it on the screen.
It felt like a staged event in which the young ‘uns were play acting the images of young people we see in movies and TV and such. They were on some open aired bus-a-mabob, quite literally a roving stage. I was watching a spectacle of a spectacle.
Now, I have no desire to belittle their experience. I am not suggesting that their fun was not real or that me, in my flannel and glasses, is somehow more real. That is not my point at all. What popped to me, what stopped me dead in my tracks and has had me thinking for days, was the palpable presence of what was conspicuously absent: eyes. They were performing for eyes that were not present.
But whose eyes? In some sense, sure, there were my eyes along with the eyes of everyone on the street. But they weren’t dancing for me. Even if they actually saw me, no 20-something girl in a short skirt on a party bus is doing her best jiggy for my big nosed, skinny, nerdy jew ass. This was not a dance of seduction for me or for the crowd. No, they were dancing for another set of eyes, eye more mysterious and strange than my bespectacled ones.
Living for ubiquitous, invisible eyes is not a new thing. We used to call it God. God sees all, they say. It’s not that God knows all; not that God judges all. No, those come after an initial claim upon which the others turn: God sees all. You are being watched at all times. And, yes, by a dude who knows shit and is super judgmental. Presumably, this is why we don’t do certain things even if no one, or no one who matters, is watching. My mother might not see me sneaking an extra Oreo but God does so, well, I better not. My actions, when alone, are still seen.
These party girls — party women? I don’t mean to sound condescending, truly — were not dancing for God. And they weren’t dancing for me or other people on the street. And I feel pretty confident when I say there were not dancing for themselves. What’s the line — Dance like no one is watching? We’ve all seen people do that, people lost in a private ecstasy as they feel the universe, or the Dead, flow through them. These party women were not that.
They were dancing for the always on camera of the world. They were dancing for the might-be snap of smart phones, for the future Facebook posts, for the Instagram hashtag #partyallnightSF (ok, I made that up). And, in its way, the interweb is more judgmental and merciless than God. God will put you in Hell for all eternity but the right Facebook pic ensures your place in the social hierarchy here and now, confirming with clear evidence that you are not a loser.
What’s amazing about this is the way virtual eyes are internalized. There doesn’t need to be a camera there because the world has become a camera. As Bergson wrote 100 years ago, we all have a little camera and processing studio in our heads. But Foucault noted that this camera is not just in our heads but in the world. In Discipline and Punish, he points out the way this internalization of an all seeing eye becomes a disciplining and control of our bodies (the panopticon). Who needs the Gestapo when we’ll police ourselves? Media so thoroughly infiltrates us in this very odd way. Not only are we seen: we are always already broadcast wide and far. And so we always act for the eyes of the world.
There were plenty of times in my 20s when I’d head off to the woods and, alone with my thoughts, reckon my place in the universe. During a period of these episodes, I’d smoke a cigarette — Pall Mall, unfiltered (I liked the tobacco in my mouth and filters felt like a corporate nipple). While surely alone and feeling what I was feeling, I was also thoroughly enmeshed in the gaze of invisible eyes: I was performing a character before the audience of the world, even if no one was there. I was the contemplative loner. Staring out at the ocean, I felt tragically epic. Somewhere, somehow, there was a panning shot from a helicopter framing me just so.
Look around and you’ll see what I mean. See some dude leaning against a wall nonchalantly, alone and smoking a cigarette. He may very well be having a private, beautiful moment. But he holds himself as if others are watching, invisible others, would be others. His alone time, like my 20-something alone times, is witnessed by invisible but palpable eyes.
We lead our lives, always, before the eyes of others who might or might not be present. And they all ask something different of us. The eyes of God have us fearing sin. The eyes of the State have us fearing retribution. The eyes of Michael Bay have us fearing the banal. The eyes of the interweb have us fearing a certain kind of humiliation: anonymity, so-called loserdom.
Now, in some sense, I experience the humiliation of modern life all the time — the indignities of travel, of public bathrooms, of PowerPoint presentations. But I remember one experience that was different, more immediate and resonant: I was cuckolded. I went to see a woman I believed was my girlfriend only to find her with another man. I felt nauseated throughout my entire body; my heart was pounding; I screamed once alone. And while she was the transgressor, breaking our social contract, I’m the one who felt terrible, who felt this thing I wasn’t used to. It took me a day before I could put a name to this horrible feeling. I felt humiliated.
Humiliation is strange in that it feels so private, so internal. But, in fact, it is the experience of being lowered in the eyes of others. It is a private sensation of a public event. This horrible feeling I had in my gut, in my whole body, didn’t come from me. It came from the eyes of another. But why, in this case of my cuckolding, was I humiliated? I was hurt, sure, but why humiliated? Before whose eyes was my standing lowered? Hers? She’d transgressed so why was I humiliated?
I suppose I was humiliated by her in that she emasculated me. In a way, she castrated me, rendered my penis useless and insufficient. And I was humiliated, as well, by this one man, a man I do not know, will probably never see again, and could care less about. Which is strange. I was humiliated by the eyes of a truly irrelevant human being, someone I couldn’t pick out of a line up, someone I didn’t know, respect, or fear. And yet I experienced an excruciating private sensation that owed its potency to his eyes. Weird, right?
But this all turns on my letting myself stand naked before their judging eyes. Once I realized I could step to the side, slide into the shadows, the humiliation at their hands subsided. After all, why was I suffering anything above and beyond the suffering of loss? Somehow, for a moment there, I made something ugly and stupid my own and suffered the pangs of humiliation for it. I was only humiliated if I let my sense of self be lowered in the eyes of some horny, scruffy guy and some soon-to-be random chick. From another angle, before other eyes, he was just some random dude with a boner feeling up some woman he’d gone on a date with. Power to him. Power to her. Power to me. Power to all.
Because my humiliation came not as much from them qua them — who the fuck are they but horny irrelevancies — but from my internalizing the sexual economy in general. The world flows through us. Althusser writes that we are hailed by cultural ideology before we’re even born. We are defined by terms that exceed us — boy, girl, straight, gay, gifted — and that we believe our own. I am a boy, I think and believe even though this concept was given to me from someone else. Our most internal sense of self is, in some sense, witnessed by others who may or may not be divine.
So my humiliation came because I felt like I lost my standing in an external sexual hierarchy, a hierarchy premised on a certain notion of male possession of women. With a smirk on his face, this guy had casually sullied what I imagined was a private place of intimacy. In what I took as some primal sense, he’d violated me — which not only sounds terribly sexist but is terribly sexist. This is why the media is so important and powerful: the circulation of images, of stories, become the images and stories of our most private selves.
So much of our a sense of self derives from where, and how, we imagine we are perceived within the psychosexual-social hierarchy (pace Michel Houellebecq). This is what The 40 Year Old Virgin captured so well and what Kevin Smith continues to wrestle. For me on that day, as this dude passed me leaving my girlfriend’s apartment while she was half dressed, I wanted to pummel him senseless. But when I questioned my own reactions, I realized: Who cares? I was hurt and angry and justifiably so. An important contract had been broken between her and me. But whatever humiliation I felt stemmed, finally, from me.
All that happened was a woman slept with a guy. No doubt, somewhere, she’s reading this and still protesting: I didn’t sleep with him!So goes the new social order in which we bare our lives for all; we live our lives multiple times in the social sphere, as witnesses rather than participants. This post itself is an experiment in humiliation: Am I to be judged before your eyes? Anyway, sleeping or not sleeping with someone is her prerogative. We broke up, of course, but the experience of humiliation turned on me — not on her, not on you, and certainly not on him.
Before whose eyes do I stand? In whose eyes am I, I? In whose eyes are you? In whose eyes are we?
We are run through with eyes, some more visible, some more potent, some more merciful. We don’t always have the luxury of choosing. As John Berger argues in Ways of Seeing, women are looked at more and in aggressive, possessive ways.
This is why critical thinking is so important. Eyes pervade our every fiber, our most private sense of self. To be able to note in whose eyes you act, and what those eyes ask of you, can be liberating. Because, sometimes, you can shift audiences. Sometimes, you can return the gaze. And, sometimes, you can disappear into shadow, obscuring the gaze of others.