the economics of the gaze

shelter island.jpg

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 don’t use the term much, but that’s 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.)

Let’s 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 don’t 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 children’s 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. (“That’s my boat out there, you know.”)

Let’s 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. Let’s 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 aren’t 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 don’t 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 senior’s home. (And I’m not above this sort of thing, believe me. That’s how I know.)

But in fact, a senior’s home as no “buzz.” We do not feel like we are somehow at the centre of something. (At least, I don’t, and usually leave the senior’s 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 senior’s 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 d’s, 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.

20 thoughts on “the economics of the gaze

  1. Marshall

    Grant: Maybe you are almost invisible in space-and-time. But you take your revenge. For we GAZE at your daily journal. Long globules of time. Your precarious social identity could get a much need boost by using a site meter that measures not only the number og hits but also the time used. Maybe you could hitch all the way up to… group 3?

    I suspect that you at the same time have exposed why blogging has taken off.

    Starved of the GAZE we DISPLAY on the screen.

  2. Ennis

    How does this change when one goes from straight to gay areas of shelter island? Is it the same? There is also the strange, somewhat liminal status of being highly seen yet not seen at all, like in Ellison’s “Invisible Man”.

    Random point as well: as a non-white person in Africa I experienced several of these layers at once. Americans would look through me (Brits would assume that I was british and seek me out), but local children would sometimes follow me around for blocks, like the pied piper.

    There’s also an amusing … subversion? of all of this that happens — as you walk down the street, people will call out to you in the native langugage. If you don’t know it, you don’t realize that you’re being gazed upon, once you pick up some of the local tongue you realize that people are calling out “hey foreigner, where you goin’? bring me back some food” and laughing at you, but not revealing this through their body language. I thought they were just talking to each other. Once I knew the language (a few phrases) I could break the fourth wall by responding to them in kind, which always produced gales of amused language.

  3. Grant

    Marshall, thanks, and yes, you’re right. I am in my own geeky way looking for a transition from 4 to 3. Grateful for all gazes and comments! Thanks, Grant

    Ennis, nice point about cultural differences. I would guess the gay community has its own grammar of the gaze. And, yes, cross cultural differences make for a new set of calcuations, (what is too little, too much) and every outside gets a new gaze status, not all of it, as you point out, entirely kind. Thanks! Grant

  4. steve

    Two econ points:

    1) You might want to take a look at Robert Frank’s book Choosing the Right Pond. I haven’t read it myself, but it is generally well-regarded as an economic analysis of when people decide to be big fish in small ponds or vice versa or somewhere in the middle. It’s pretty much a generalization of your gaze problem.

    2) My first instinct is to think that the benefits of gazing are at least as high as the benefit of being gazed at. I’ve always felt that beautiful people provide a public good which largely compensates for their various “unfair” advantages. Your group 5 dork could be thought of as a free-rider, not putting forth any effort to make himself gazable, but enjoying the benefits of others’ good looks. This puts the club bouncer/rope line system into perspective as a way of internalizing this externality–no one can get in to look at the pretty people without first trying hard to look good himself.

  5. Grant

    Steve, thanks, I will look for Frank, I hate his book on conspicuous consumption but I always try to keep an open mind. As to the symmetry of the gazer and the gazed upon, isn’t the first an outsider position, and the second an inside position. Wouldn’t we all rather be the object of adoration, not the agent. As to free riders and the logic of the punishment of being kept in line, that’s a very nice way of looking at it. It turns out the club has an entrance fee if when it doesn’t have a cover charge. Thanks! Grant

  6. Tom

    This post brought to mind Sartre’s comments on “the other’s gaze” as the mechanism which throws me back on myself in the most profound moment of existential anxiety. When I find myself fixed in the other’s gaze, Sartre says, I see myself as pure object and consequently experience what he called “nausea.”

    Whatever any of us think of Sartre’s precise formulation, we all know intimately the experience of reductionistic judgment (in whatever terms any particular form of reduction takes place: beauty, wealth, fame, hip-hopness, buffness) that sits at the heart of the gaze, and mocks the complexity of our humanity. This was what Sartre meant when he said (roughly), “hell is other people.”

  7. Sarah

    Just to throw this in the mix – perhaps being an object of attention takes on a quite different meaning when it’s not the object’s choice. The acceptance of the gaze is another political (economic?) moment. Think of veiling, to invoke a gaze ‘Group’ of an obviously different source. There’s a book by Orhan Pamuk, “Snow”, which imagines a group of Turkish schoolgirls forced to remove their veils, and the suffering it causes. Think also of the increasing protection of one’s privacy in this world, given the increased surveillance. I think, Grant, that you’ve observed the dynamics of the Gaze well in your situation. It’s a powerful tool – and one that has many uses.

  8. Liz

    Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom plays with a related concept–reputation as currency:

    Nicolas Nova defines it:

    you earn whuffie as people credit you out of respect, gratitude, pity, lust, love, or any other motive for popularity. Problems:
    First, whuffie is undifferentiated. Respect ain’t cash. Depending on the context, my having accrued whuffie for accomplishment at badminton shouldn’t translate into whuffie for neurosurgical accomplishment.

    Second, respect is barely transitive. I respect A, and A respects B, so I may respect B by association. But only so far. Add a few degrees, and the referral is useless.

    Third, mutual respect is respect squared. I care if people I know and respect and love reciprocate. Whuffie from strangers matters less to me.

    Fourth, I take pride that some people hate me. Know me by enemies. I’d rather have modest respect from those I respect in turn, than modest respect from a much larger crowd.

    There’s another blog that explores topics in reputation currency, Whuffie

    Then there’s Shirky’s blog index, here’s the first article

    Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

  9. Steve Portigal

    The shocking change of gaze when we go to other cultures mentioned above is excellent. One moment out of many I liked in “Lost in Translation” (Sorry, Grant, I’m certain that you hated that movie for some reason) was when our two white protagonists were in the elevator filled with more-alike-than-different-to-Western-eyes Japanese and they had a moment of recognition.

    My first trip to Japan was filled with challenges to gaze defaults – did I meet the eyes of oncoming pedestrians? What was appropriate culturally? And what was appropriate culturally given that I was a gaijin? And when I walked down the street and heard English, why did I have the urge to say “hey! I speak English too!” or give the “nod” to a fellow whitey walkin’ down the street. (The “nod” was something I discovered when I began riding – I mean motorcycles – even though I had an already out-of-date Honda Elite scooter and NOT a ‘cycle – I still got the “nod” from grizzled guys on Harleys and fat old men on tri-wheeled geezer-carts)…and as my time changed the foreign EVERYTHING reaction began to settle, my own feelings about myself as invisible began to shift slightly.

    As with a lot of those things, I don’t think I ever came to any resolution, but it was just fun to have all these “normal” behaviors brought to the surface and challenged.

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  11. Steve Portigal

    Correction – the motorcycle thing is a wave, not a nod. It’s been a while, I guess. It can be an arm and hand extended far out from the handlebars, or a lifting of the palm while the heel remains attached to the bars.

    Miata drivers will (sometimes) flip up their lights – the pre-99 models could pop the headlamps up and down, without turning the lights on – sort of blinking at each other. These, I guess, are the gazes of acknowledgment and recognition…

  12. Grant

    Steve, I liked Lost in Translation, but I felt it could have used more car chases. This is the way Goffman would have done it. Want to know the rules of the gaze in Canada or the US? Go to another culture and watch them spring into view. It is odd that people in the same cars exchange acknowledgement but people in the same clothing are embarrassed. I guess it depends on whether your individuality is being affirmed or effaced, or something. Thanks! Grant
    p.s., I am a little nervous about what you as a fellow Canadian are going to say to the post of Catherine Parrish.

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  14. kathy

    Don’t know that you’ll be notified of this tardy post, but I just have to ask how you would respond to something like William Hung’s performance on American Idol (she bangs)–everyone in the states has seen it (over and over and over) even if they never watched the show. This is a category five leaping (if only temporarily) to category one status, when his awful rendition of a song was actually recorded and released as a single.

  15. Kerry

    Sarah and Tom’s comments resonated.

    The desirability of gaze needs to be considered but also I think the dynamics. Being habitually gazed at is qualitatively different from being gazed at when one isn’t used to it. Likewise, being gazed at in a different way from what one is used to.

    Personally, I think a distinction between gaze and stare is needed. Or perhaps a distinction between an exhibit and an object that one wishes connection with (or not?)

    When I was 18 I had my lower jaw shortened considerably to reduce my overbite, which changed not just my looks but also my ability to speak fluently (the ess sound having previously been impossible to create). Prior to that I always felt that I was stared at to some extent as an exhibit. Yet afterward, this didn’t feel like it changed and overtime I’ve come to the realisation that this was largely an internal construction which has (almost) faded away over the past almost 2 decades. It wasn’t entirely negative – I think it helped develop in me a model of myself as exceptional which has remained fairly ingrained.

    All this has left me a bit ambivalent about the gaze. I know my own gaze is fairly direct and some people find it unsettling.

    Getting back to the idea of capital: I like Bourdieu’s conceptions of the different types of capital and their interrelatedness which I sense you are channeling a little with the bit about identity capital, etc. Now, are the gaze getters the only ones who are gaining? Perhaps the giver of the gaze gains by not having their gaze spurned? (A win-win perhaps? If I let my training as an economist loose I’d probably start on about game theory here and speculate on the social prohibition against staring being a sub-optimal Nash equilibrium in a Prisoners’ Dilemma type game). The length of the gaze offers its own possibilities: perhaps a stare could be defined as a gaze extended too long in time, thus offering an in-group vs out-group marker that serves to demarcate a social group, ie the in-group can gaze longer than the out-group before it is noted as a stare and ‘invites’ a negative reaction.

    (Note to myself: I must read Mulvey’s work – all the above is written in complete ignorance of it.)

    Enjoy (I must also reread Proust along these lines – especially Within A Budding Grove for the whole Gilberte infatuation and The Guermantes Way for the interaction of identity and social capital in his insinuation into the lives of the Guermantes family).

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