An eye-snagging stare of intense attention opens a social relationship between two people. The kind of visual scrutiny leveled by a stare is both impersonal and intimate… Staring affords a spontaneous moment of interpersonal connection, however brief, during which two people have the opportunity to regard and be known to one another. So while social rules script staring, individual improvisation can take the staring encounter in fruitful directions.
– Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Staring: How We Look”
It may appear almost common-sense in its analysis, but this book went against my grain. Thomson is a engaging, erudite and humane writer, and she has written a non-fiction page-turner, but often I found it hard to read. Why? Was it because I disagreed with her? No. It was because I didn’t want to. Staring: How We Look forced me to admit I had lived a lot of my life focussing on only half of the dynamics of staring.
Thomson’s premise is this – there are two sides to staring – not only the starer and staree, but the two competing impulses – the irresistable physical impulse that drags our attention onto an unfamiliar sight, and the cultural injunction, with all its immense strength, to grant each other “civil inattention”. When staring happens, starer and staree make meaning together.
Of course, there are different kinds of stares – blank stares, staring as dominance behaviour, the intense “baroque staring” prompted by scenes of death or decay, affectionate curious staring, confused bewilderment staring, sexual predatory staring, and many more. It’s complex terrain, but Thomson navigates it with intelligence and compassion – she never flinches from our conflicting, very human instincts for violence and for intimacy, for “othering” and for love.
She also emphasises that that meaning-making is never determined in advance but depends on the goodwill of the starer and the staree, the process they engage in, their ability to shift the interaction from staring at an extraordinary aspect of someone’s appearance towards an attention that recognises that person’s broader self. Not that their difference disappears (that happens when people look away); in fact, it finds its proper place.
Staring: How We Look reminds me that the circumstance of staring holds great ethical responsibilities and opportunities. Deep inside me, I do not want it to be inevitable – to find myself as staree or starer can be uncomfortable, even upsetting – but that’s precisely the point. Our sense of what and who is normal or beautiful, or what lives fit into the recognisably human, can too easily become rigid and narrow. We need surprises. We need unusual sights to jolt us out of ourselves.
Thomson uses the term “visual activists” to describe those people who have stareable bodies who make it their business not only to be seen, but to take charge of that encounter. They are the people who broaden our humanity, who move us towards the hard work of attentiveness, of mutual recognition.
It’s hard work. I’m rarely in the mood for it. But it can be worth it.