More on gaze economies


More on gaze economies

Yesterday, I had a look at the gaze economy in a little beach bar on Shelter Island.

Gazes are costless in the moment of production, but we seek and distribute them with care. I imagined a hierarchy of 5 gazing groups: those who get but never give gazes, those who get more gazes than they give, those who get as many gazes as they give, those who give more gazes than they get, and the dorks who give but never get.

I imagined that most of us (Groups 2, 3, and 4) look for gaze markets in which we trade off the most gazes we can get against the value of the gazes on offer. Gazes assume still more value when they are converted into identity capital (self confidence), social capital (skill in creating relationships and networks) and financial capital. In sum, gazes are, perhaps, scarce, traded, and fungible.

Friends of ‘this blog sits at” weighed in and things got interesting. Fouroboros offered a wonderful phrase: the “elasticity of the Lizzie Grubman curve.” Ennis made the characteristically astute observation that gaze economies probably change according to the community in question. Leora offered this interesting observation (by email) on gaze economies in the gay community:

just read your economics of the gaze post. most interesting. i have learned from my gay male friends that there’s a 1-2-3 to the gays’ gaze. this is how they manage to deal in volume. the first is a “did we both just make eye contact”? look, followed by a 2nd quick check, hoping the person doesn’t catch the other one, and if there’s a 3rd look, seen by both, acknowledging the first 2, verbal communication (and other things) follow. they even let me watch this happen. and it does. i was stunned.

So gaze economies may have an addition pragmatic function: to communicate expressions of interest, to establish contact and, perhaps, to negotiate the terms of contact. In this case, presumably, asymmetry of gaze (how much gaze is given and received) helps to propose and negotiate the asymmetries of the relationship to follow. In other words, the general economy of gazes has within it little tidal pools in which particularly relationships are being fashioned. (I am assuming that what Leora noticed in the gay community applies to the straight community. The stereotypic case in point: the beauty at a bar indicates by gaze first whether she is prepared to accept the advances of a “suitor,” and then, by the quantity and quality of her gaze, how hard he is going to have to work to win her attention.)

Leora made a second point.

in the unusual summer heat of vancouver this year the gaze game (the hetero variety) has been interesting to graze, though ultimately disconcerting. The ones whose gazes I garner are never the ones whose gazes i want to garner. And then I feel like I’m refusing a “gift” or something. So it might be time to opt out of this economy.

This moves the gaze economy from the set piece of a beach side bar to the sidewalk where we find ourselves moving through crowds of people and a constant stream of gazes given and reciprocated or refused. Who am I looking at? Who is looking at me? Am I more often gazing at or being gazed upon. And then Leora’s crucial issue: am I getting the gazes that I want.

As we walk, we are the recipients of a social assessment that works a little like stock price. Our “value” is being set dynamically in real time. Naturally, we can change the price by seeking out markets that are more responsive (the senior’s home of yesterday’s post). We can also engage in what Goffman called identity repair when our present market proves a little stingy. (And in this case we are resorting to the identity capital we have built up on other occasions and extracted from other sources, including, as Marshall suggests, blogging.) It is also true that we are the recipients, as Sarah points out, of unwanted gazes that “construct” us as social actors we do not wish to be.

In a perfect world, we have enough self esteem (identity capital, again) to resist even the stingiest markets (the lobby of a very exclusive hotel, the line up at a very exclusive disco). In my case, this usually leads to a pathetic recitation of the Stuart Smalley line, “I’m smart enough, I’m good enough, and gol darn it, I blog.” But there is always a shadow here: the suspicion that I am precisely what people think I am (here the nod goes to George Herbert Mead) and there is, perhaps, something darker still: Sartre’s nausea (with hats off to Tom).

Jerry Seinfeld has a famous routine in which he offers to tell us “what men are really thinking.” What are they thinking, Jerry? “Nothing. They are just looking around.” If only it were so. A celebrity culture is, in this view, steeply and cruelly hierarchical. There are those we are eager to look upon and others from whom we withhold the gaze. The celebrity culture is a scarcity culture and the gaze economy is one of the ways we rank the community, determine value, and fashion identity, social and financial capital.

A happier view comes from Steve who suggests that the gaze economy is a kind of public theatre in which the poorest players are not benighted creatures but free riders. I like this view, but I’m not sure it’s true. Perhaps Liz is right when she creates the possibility that this isn’t an economy after all.

Whew! I would much rather go back ‘to just looking around.”

9 thoughts on “More on gaze economies

  1. LK

    hi grant and blogreaders

    LK = the leora grant referred to in this post, and i guess that
    now i’m totally outed as substandard gaze recipient. a few things occurred to me reading this…maybe the gazes we get are the market speaking to us. we may think we’re in a certain league when in fact we’re in altogether different one. and how would we know, i.e. be able to get outside of our own valuation, without the chorus of gazes.

    additionally, my hunch is that the gay gaze is different from the hetero gaze (gay readers please chime in here) in that with the gay male gaze i get the distinct feeling there’s an implied ‘high turnover’. certainly this is the case with some hetero gaze trading but outside the contingent of the ravenous samantha jones of sex and the city i suspect the majority of women are looking for more from their male gaze givers.

  2. greg

    there is also the gazes that one’s partner receives when walking along, that seem to boost confidence as the partner’s ‘gaze value’ increases… nothing like making the neighbourhood jealous.

  3. LK

    so does this mean that loudmouth US talk radio host tom leykis ( is right? his big thing is that the male/female dynamic can be reduced to the following: women get the richest, most powerful men their looks can buy them, and men got the most beautiful women their money/power can purchase. i hate to think he’s right, but…

  4. fouroboros

    Great thread, Grant. Makes me want to go read some Wharton or something

    * Carrying it in the left hand: desirous of an acquaintance
    * Carrying it in the right hand: you are too willing
    * Carrying it in the right hand in front of the face: follow me
    * Closing it: I wish to speak to you
    * Drawing it across the cheek: I love you
    * Drawing it across the eyes: I am sorry
    * Drawing it across the forehead: we are being watched
    * Drawing it through the hand: I hate you
    * Dropping it: we will be friends
    * Fan with the left hand in front of the face: leave me
    * Fanning fast: I am engaged
    * Fanning slow: I am married
    * Letting it rest on the left cheek: no
    * Letting it rest on the right cheek: yes
    * Open and shut: you are cruel
    * Open wide: wait for me
    * Placing it on the right ear: you have changed
    * Shut: I have changed
    * Twirling it on the left hand: I love another
    * With handle to the lips: kiss me

    Now, if only I could figure out what a full Kate Spade tote to the groin means.


    “Collateral Gaze. The “Gazebo Effect”?

    I love it. My wife is stupefied when I mention this concept to her when we walk malls, etc. After 15 years, I believe her when she says she doesn’t notice. Guess that makes her a 2. If so, maybe that makes my 0.5 a 0.75? Probably not. I’ll keep saving for the Viper and some Puka Beads.

  5. Ennis

    Grant: is there a difference between attention and approbation? Between a stare and a gaze? Is attention a partial good, which is why teenagers do audacious things, because notoriety is erzatz popularity? Is this why people go on talk shows — to be regarded?

    I’ve got more thoughts on the subject, but I’ll stop here for now.

  6. Baird Brown

    Was just introduced by a friend – Susan Snider – have enjoyed it greatly.

    Wondered why you called gazes an economy? Like puka shells, money can’t buy it. Like everything else in culture importance arises from collective judgement. (But so do the economist’s “preferences,” which is why they are so clueless.) You chose a variety of fairly hierarchical venues. There are other venues that are flatter and where the underlying “currencies” are different.

  7. Grant

    Baird Brown, Money can buy them. Plastic surgery, the latest fashion, a really good hair cut… Thanks, Grant

  8. prashanth

    What fouroboros has posted?Are those gestures displayed by the one whom i look at or i do while looking at someone?How authentic the meaning behind these gestures is?Is it same or applicable to other countries or at all places

Comments are closed.