The economics of the gaze
I was on Shelter Island (far end of Long Island) this weekend and I went to a little beach bar there called the Sunset. It sits on a road that borders a beach that looks out on a bay. The Sunset is open and breezy, with a patio below and a Caribbean style deck above. Everyone was dressed for the beach, bathing suits and casual wear.
There was a subtle air of surveillance about the place. Everyone was quietly looking at everyone else. My friends told me that this is one of the places to be seen this summer, with people bring large boats from the Hamptons which they then moor in front of the Sunset bar that everyone might look upon them in wonder and gratitude. The crowd was mostly young, tanned, and beautiful. Even the relative absence of clothing could not conceal their wealth. It was the kind of scene that gets Americans reaching for the term “Euro trash. (Canadians dont use the term much, but thats because, well, no one young, beautiful, wealthy and European ever goes to Canada.)
Thanks to the work of Laura Mulvey, we have been encouraged think about the politics of the gaze. Who looks at whom, in what way, with what consequences? Feminists have suggested that men sometimes look at women in a way that plays out the power asymmetries of a sexist society.
But if there is a politics of the gaze, I wonder if there is not also an economics of the gaze. After all, gazes are exchanged. Some people give more gazes than they get. Others get more than they give. The gaze is desirable and scarce. We might even say that the gaze getters get something fungible, to the extent that the flattery of the gaze funds their “identity capital, making them more self confident, self possessed and successful as social actors, and this makes them more successful as economic actors. (We would need some way of modeling how identity capital is converted into social capital, and how this, in turn, is converted into financial capital, a topic for another post. One datum: that scene in American Beauty where Annette Bening, as Carolyn Burnham, stands in a garage and wills real estate success. This might be a conversion moment, or not. I thought the movie was idiotic, more collective self loathing, and recall it imperfectly.)
Lets begin with the assumption that we are all of us monsters of vanity and in a perfect world, everyone would look at us, and only us, all the time. I dont have any data here except internal evidence of my own voracious ego. We could also reference the fact that everyone wants to be a “star despite the fact that it would spell the end to their privacy and force them to suffer, eventually, a fall from stardom that makes Icarus fate look like a childrens ride at the country fair. Yes, we all want everyone to look at us and it is to improve our chances as gaze recipients that we engage in a lot of consumer activity. (“Thats my boat out there, you know.)
Lets say that there are three groups: those who get more than they give, those who get about as much as they give, and those who give more than they get. Lets include two more groups, one at the top and bottom of our hierarchy: those aristocrats who always get and never deign to give, and those poor bastards who always give and never get.
The top group (Group 1) was represented by the hostess, a woman of sterling beauty who turned every head, but replied, when she was obliged to look at someone, with a cool, thoroughly professional, entirely indifferent gaze. The bottom group (Group 5) was represented by a poor dork at the bar (I use this term in its anthropological sense), who gazed about wolfishly and shamelessly and was fastidiously ignored by all for his efforts. Your faithful anthropologist? I notice for a living, so I am always giving more than I get, but truth be told I would consigned to Group 4 in any case.
I fell to thinking about how these economies form. Where do we go looking for gaze exchanges? What conditions need to be satisfied for different economies to take shape?
If you are in Group 5, presumably you want to be present at the hottest exchange that will take you. You are accustomed to being ignored. Your expectations are thoroughly asymmetrical. You are, like the dork at the bar, just glad to be there. (And in the case of a half decent disco, of course, you arent there, but standing in a line, in the rain, in the diminishing gaze of the bouncer.)
If we occupy Groups 2, 3, and 4, we dont necessarily want to occupy the hottest exchange. After all, the hotter the spot, the greater the asymmetry, and the less we get. We can actually reposition ourselves on the hierarchy through the judicious choice of exchanges. Those of us in Group 4 can vault to Group 1 by going to a seniors home. (And Im not above this sort of thing, believe me. Thats how I know.)
But in fact, a seniors home as no “buzz. We do not feel like we are somehow at the centre of something. (At least, I dont, and usually leave the seniors home with a great show of indignation.) So we can reposition ourselves but it will mean forgoing something we want as much or more than gaze. I am not sure how to think about this one, but I am tempted by a Mount Olympus model (topical reference points!). Everyone wants to be at far enough up the mountain slope to feels ourselves included in its majesty, power, exclusivity, or, to use another anthropological term, whatever. To use the once contemporary turn of phrase, we want to be within shouting distance of the “beautiful people. We want to be something place where gazes are relatively scarce, hard won, and therefore valuable. (Gaze is cheap at a seniors home.)
Most of us strike a balance, perhaps. We look for the place where we will get at least enough gaze that we stay well clear of dork status, and put ourselves in a position to capture that identity capital that will someday convert to social and financial capital. But we must trade this off against a gaze quality. In other words, we choose our market so that we get as much gaze as possible in a place where the gaze is as valuable as possible. (We can tune this trade off according to the demands of our particular egos, our emotional needs at the moment, and the gaze exchanges to which we have access short and long term. Datum: the scene in Soap Dish where Sally Fields, as a fading actress in a moment of crisis, goes to a local mall, where she can be “discovered by fans she would normally ignore.)
Naturally, this model would have to include as assessment of gaze worthiness on several dimensions: youth, beauty, gender, wealth, social standing, dress, and sometimes skill (at dancing, say). In a status society of the kind that existed in the 16th century, social standing was it. Low standing gazed upon those of high standing, who quite often refused to reciprocate. In a post modern society, there are lots of dimensions and the exchange becomes more complicated. Some people are gaze worthy because young and beautiful, but they have no standing or wealth. Others are riveting because famous or powerful (but would otherwise would not qualify). Studio 54 in its day might have been a good place to do the research, with diverse groups of New Yorkers having to make these complicated calculations on the fly. We might also interview club owners, maitre ds, and door men who are obliged to do the same.
These are preliminary thoughts and I look forward to the havoc shortly to be wreaked upon them by my economics readers.
Hoffman, Michael. 1991. Soap Dish. Paramount Pictures. (gross: 36.5 m.)
Mendes, Sam. 1999. American Beauty. DreamWorks (budget: 16 m. gross: 336 m.)
Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.