Opting out of the gaze economy

As friends of this blog have pointed out, there is a good deal of work left to do on the gaze economy. So far we haven’t said anything about the exchange of words and gestures that sometimes pass between strangers.

There is lots of variation here. Southerners are more inclined to offer greetings to perfect strangers than Northerners. I was surprised to see women in Atlanta grace me with greetings I would never receive in the North. They were not flirting, they were just being gracious. Rural people are more inclined to offer hellos than city dwellers. The former will even put a sign on the lawn so that no passer-by goes unacknowledged. “Jenny and Johnny Robinson welcome you!” I never expect to see a New York brownstone so adorned. I’ve noticed that men over 35 are inclined to nod when passing (a kind of highly abbreviated bow) and men under 35 are inclined to lift the head upward (as if saying, or while saying, “zup”).

But something tells me that while these exchanges enter into the economy they are more formal, ritualized and governed by rules of reciprocity than gazes are. These are what we owe the perfect stranger and to this extent we are less free to choose what we give, and less able to draw conclusions from what we get. Greetings are like exchanges in a traditional economy, governed more by trust than incentive. They are, as Granovetter would say, imbedded in a larger set of social rules. What makes gazes interesting is precisely that they operate much more like a Smithian economy. This makes them more dynamic. They are more revealing of achieved than ascribed standing. They are more revealing of emergent value than fixed values.

The follow-up strategy here is to wonder whether the gaze economy resembles more conventional ones. Does the gaze economy, to the extent that we understand it, help illuminate things about the conventional economy? Does the conventional economy give us new ways of thinking about the gaze economy? But I am short on time and this will have to wait.

One note in closing. Remarks from Ennis today and Sarah yesterday made me think we could expand this treatment of the gaze economy to include the outliers.

Guys who wear “wife beater” t-shirts (a singlet preferred, perhaps, because it exposes bulging muscles) are a case in point. Somebody must find this look attractive, but the term “wife beater” suggests most of us regard it with disdain. Punks (see the post below) take this a step forward by violating the rules of self presentation. Bobby pins, Mohawks, leather, spiked neck collars and wrist bands, tattoos, are designed to outrage our expectations. Both confront us with an act of visual intimidation. Both would have us look away.

These players make it clear that they are not soliciting our gaze. The simplest strategy here is to simple withdraw or as Hirschman would say “exit” the economy. But, perhaps because exit is not possible, or because they have deeper intentions, both parties go a step further and say, “advert your gaze.” In effect, they force exit upon us.

In the process, they drive us out of the economy, as it has to do with them, and leave themselves in a zone in which they cannot be judged. Clique theory says that minorities within a culture that are judged and found wanting have two choices. They can accept the judgment, or they can cultivate a new set of values that approves their minority position and scorns the majority one. In this case, they are more proactive, actually destroying the exchange on which their value would otherwise be set. They make us look away. Thus does one form of commerce help create and enable one form of culture.

Thoughts only.

Post script:

Congratulations to Fouroboros for the funniest line on this blog. See his comment on yesterday’s post.

6 thoughts on “Opting out of the gaze economy

  1. Marshall

    Maybe all this gazing doesn’t matter so much. I am not always counting my pennies. I am not always stroking and being stroked. I am not always in contest. And sometimes I just like being invisible and “looking around”.

  2. LK

    hi grant,

    i completely disagree that safety-pinned, mohawked, torn everything punks do not want to receive our gaze. i know you hate most cultural studies discourse but in this case i think their ritual of resistance is a way of making their invisible selves (invisible in terms of status, economy, attractiveness, etc) aggressively visible. i will MAKE you look at me. and it will *not* be pleasant. and you will not just gaze you will stare. and you will hate yourself and me in the process. and in that way s/he with the face tattoos and tattered everything “wins”. how else do they participate in the urban economy, unless they hijack it in this way?

    ps was greg’s admired line the one about the meaning of the “kate spade to the groin”? if so, i concur, it’s a keeper.

  3. Virginia Postrel

    It’s amazing no one has mentioned sunglasses–the touchstone accessory of glamour and a highly effective way of rationing gazes. I once saw Julia Louis-Dreyfuss at LAX. She first caught my eye because she was was wearing sunglasses indoors. She might as well have held up a sign saying, “I am a celebrity.” At first, it seemed like a stupid thing to do if you’re trying to be anonymous. But, on second thought, I realized that it works. Sunglasses create an implicit wall of protection. You may recognize her more quickly, but she keeps her essential distance.

  4. Grant

    Fouroboros: my deepest apologies, you grace us with the funniest line of the blog, and what do you get in reply, a misattribution. Sorry, sorry, sorry (as we say in Canada). And thanks for the extended passage from Streetcar. Very apt. Best, Grant

    Marshall, I share your sentiment, it’s often better to unplug and be an unnoticed noticer. I find that aging helps increase one’s invisibility, even, if as Martin Amis, it is sometimes hard on the ego. This is why I sometimes wear a giant alarm clock like that guy in Public Enemy. Thanks.

    Virginia, precisely right, dark glasses are a great way of withholding the gaze. It prevents that first condition of contact, “catching someone’s eye.” I believe that some women wear walkmans for the same purpose. It says, “I am engaged.” I know a Torontonian who has a fall back “wall of protection” when the sun glasses and the walkman fail her. She looks at her “suitor” with abject gratitude and begins to sign as if deaf. Works every time apparently. When I was working on the big hair book, I decided that “cross blonde with dark glasses” was a species of Toronto street life, a respite both from the sun and the obligation to be sunny. Anyhow, very apt. Thanks. Grant

  5. Steve Portigal

    While in University, I lived in residence (or, for Americans, while at college I lived in the dorms) with a woman who would go into sleepiness every time she was approached in the cafeteria by a (regular) unwanted suitor. The sleepiness was an amazingly instant transformation that allowed her to practice gaze avoidance while maintaining some social norms – masking the slight which was deliberate in a behavior that was more tolerable.

    It didn’t fool anyone, and I think even encouraged the guy who probably enjoyed the reaction.

  6. fouroboros

    Don’t apologize, Grant. The seed material makes it easy. Stanley and Stella did seem perfect, if a bit long — my turn to mea culpa. [/bigfoot]

    Thanks for the great topic.


Comments are closed.