Du Bois, Sartre, and the Double Conscious Gaze of the Other


I often hear people say they don't care what "others" think of them. For some, I'm sure that's true. I don't know if it's a testament to their journey of inward discovery or if it's just the Paxil talking, but some people truly don't care. The rest of us are left with doubt, stress, and the task of finding our place in a world eager to dish out judgement.

The major theme of my writing has been ideology and the role ideology plays in our lives. The ramifications of many of our interactions aren't tangible, but in our hearts we know how real they are. Everyday we have interactions that are shaped by the way "the other" views the world and our position in that world. Even if we (on a personal level) are able to overcome the prevailing ideologies of our time, we still have to deal with their effects on those around us.

I'm going to focus on negative Ideology, and the power stereotypes and expectations have on our psyche. I'll introduce some language and ideas, and then attempt to relate them to our time. This being black history month I feel it's fitting to start with W.E.B. Du Bois and his notion of Double-Consciousness. Then, I'll move to Jean-Paul Sartre. I want to finish with the role men have played in forcing the notion of ideal beauty onto women.

Here's a quote from Du Bois:


It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. 

Du Bois, who wasn't educated as a Philosopher, eloquently laid out the struggle for sanity under conditions in which a person's humanity is called into question. Although his double-consciousness is given from the perspective of a black man in 19th century America it transcends time and race. Waking up everyday and negotiating life from an assumed position of inferiority is a reality for many. These assumptions are based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or class. The "otherness" of a classified existences is a crime that strips us of our individuality and places us in a box to be labeled based on the experiences of another.

Jean-Paul Sartre developed a concept he called "Bad Faith". This concept is rooted in the idea that not only are we often classified by our Job, religion, race, sex, and other socioeconomic identifiers, but that some of us actually start living out stereotypical traits associated with the existence we've been associated with. Sartre felt we had to break out of the roles society put us in; if we didn't, we could never separate our humanity from our social functions. 

If we don't draw a distinction from our social functions and classifications we will never find our authentic self. We can overcome the way others make us feel, but we can't negate the original phenomenological exchange in which we were subject to those presuppositions. In other words we can't change the ideology of another, so the goal should be to accept the shortcomings in people and work around them. This isn't a default position; of course on an individual basis we can alter the way some people think about us, but every new encounter places us back in the gaze of the other.

Here's a passage from Sartre:


I rule the space around me but when my environment is intruded upon by another person I have to share it with this Other in an indeterminate manner. The freedom of the Other destabilizes my own freedom and disintegrates the preconceptions I had previously existed in. As a human being, I naturally tend to objectify the world around me but I must also presume that the Other also objectifies the world as well, including me in it. I have now become an object in the Other's vision and, because I realize this innately, I have become an object even in my own opinion. I am imprisoned in the Other's vision and, therefore, pass judgment on myself as a mere object. This causes a shameful feeling similar to if you were to spy through a keyhole and became surprised to see another eyeball staring back at you. If you privately do something so natural as to pick at your nose, for example, and come to realize that someone was watching you the whole time - you are inevitably reduced to shame.

The idea of the "gaze" is something Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Cornel West have written about. They weren't alone. Many feminist have talked about the male "gaze" We can't escape the constant judgment of those around us. Am I tall enough? Am I thin enough? How am I being received by the other? This line of questioning is more commonly found among women- especially young women who may still be unsure of their place in the world. 

Men have created and sold women our fantasies about beauty. We've imposed this ideology on our women starting at a young age. I'm not sure, (and don't feel like researching it) but I bet a man decided how Barbie should be shaped. Men are somewhat responsible for the eating disorders in our women. We've been complicit in the destruction of the female psyche. I know women are capable of making their own decisions, but how can we expect young girls to overcome the images that fill their smart phones and iPads? If society tells you beauty consists of blond hair, long legs, and big breasts, how do we make the women who don't possess these attributes understand that these traits are a type of beauty, but not constitutive for the presence of beauty? 

All of us are susceptible to snap judgments. We can acknowledge them or avoid them, but either way they are still there. Many societal problems can be linked to the power we place on the gaze of the other. I know people who are in debt for the sole reason of living up to an unreasonable expectation placed on their life. We all know people who live in paralysis because they find themselves on the outside of societies normative gaze. (A phrase coined by Dr. Cornel West) The sooner we overcome ideology, the sooner we start living the life inside of our life.