On that awkward moment when you are caught peeping through a keyhole, and other adventures with Otherness in Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Look" (Being and Nothingness pp.252-265).
This week's podcast examines Sartre's thoughts on our encounter with Others. Although we mostly fail to see Others whom we encounter casually in public as anything other than objects, reflection on the apprehension of these Others reveals that we actually assume they are not objects - the voice we hear is probably not a record player, nor is it probable that the man we see walking down the street is a robot.
Sartre goes on to describe, in his phenomenological narrative, what happens when we see an Other across the way in a park. Unlike objects, this Other exhibits a "distance-less spatiality" in so far as they are absorbed in the world of their concern. Also, the green grass offers another face to the other, an experience of that green to which our hero Sartre does not have access. The world that had been there for Sartre, organized around his intentionality, now springs a leak in the form of the Other.
Even if the stranger is absorbed in a book, Sartre explains, simply apprehending the other as a present presence (i.e., the Other as a subject, as transcendent being) effects this shift. To further illustrate his meaning, Sartre now turns to the perspective from which we not only see another, but we see them seeing us - "the Look" after which Sartre names this section.
What follows is one of Sartre's most well-known descriptions: Imagine that our hero Sartre, moved by jealousy, curiosity, or a vice (we normally call it voyeurism), crouches down to peep though the keyhole of a door. He does so without reflecting on what he is doing; he is simply following his drive to see what is going on on the other side. Then he hears footsteps behind him and realizes that he is being seen by an Other. This is like two mirrors facing each other, and infinity opens up: you see the other seeing you seeing them seeing you seeing them...
Caught, Sartre feels shame, but this is not what we colloquially refer to as shame. It is fan existential shame felt in having one's autonomy and freedom challenged. Shame makes Sartre consider running away to hide in a dark corner, but the Other "transcends his transcendence" and outstrips his possibilities by shinning a flashlight there, in the darkness. In the end, Sartre is caught by the Other, his desires frustrated.
My hope is that this brief summary of the pages we look at closely in this podcast will help you to follow the podcast, but I do still recommend that you download the quotes that I will be reading:
Reading this section of Being and Nothingness ("The Look" pp.252-265) and/or looking over these quotes as you listen will greatly enhance your understanding.
As to why, according to Sartre, hell is other people, you'll find that out in this Tuesday's podcast when I take this up explicitly. But can you guess after having listened this week?
The Provocations of Existentialism - Part 2 of Our Discussion of Sartre's "Existentialism Is A Humanism"
Existential Angst & How Existence Precedes Essence in Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existentialism Is A Humanism"
But Would That Still Be Me? Anthony Appiah's Thought Experiment On The Meaphysics of Personal Identity