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 Leoras 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 seniors home of yesterdays 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, “Im smart enough, Im 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: Sartres 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 Im not sure its true. Perhaps Liz is right when she creates the possibility that this isnt an economy after all.
Whew! I would much rather go back ‘to just looking around.