Staring by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson

Garland-Thompson is interested in the cultural status of the stare– what it does, and how it can be used. Staring, she argues, is a social taboo, which is seen as isolating, dominating and othering. However, staring can also be seen as a moment of connection. If we stare at human variation, then “staring makes things happen between people” (33); if modernity is all about rushing us towards sameness, then difference is what we stare at; in other words, we are pushed towards sameness, but stares show us that we want novelty.

In a similar way to Lennard Davis, Garland-Thompson evokes the idea of the “hypothetical average”- the abstaction of data that combines to form a person who is not real, but who is a combination of many different people. This, she says, is what we aspire to and yet will never be able to reach. This reminds me of Julie Orlemanski’s argument about the use of the zodiac man in Symptomatic Subjects: an aggregate of wounds and bodily differences that is of use to everyone, potentially, but is actually no one. This sense of an average is where she begins to speak about disability. Visible disabilities invite staring because they are different from the norm. She uses the example of the Allison Lapper statue in Trafalger Square, a statue that has featured in another essay I read several years ago about film and visual art (I can’t remember the author, but she talked about female bodybuilders too…  I will see if I can come back and add this). What the other essay mentions that Garland-Thompson doesn’t is that Lapper’s statue might not be a wholly pure victory for disability rights; it is an example of visibility but not necessarily representation. However, Garland-Thompson’s point is that the statue is stareable and forces us to re-think what we value as worthy of being on a pedastal and looked at.

The history of staring runs counter to the history of controlling one’s gaze or one’s seeable-ness. What she calls “baroque staring”, an unashamed look for aesthetic reasons that refuses legibility, is unlike our usual reason for staring: getting information. “Ugly laws” and anti- sex work laws exist less to protect people from being stared at, and more to protect the staree from having to see something “disgusting”. The fact that these laws exist categorizes the stare as a judgement (what’s being stared at is gross, or inappropriate) and reflects on both people involved. Modern people also have what she calls “consumer vision” (29), which corresponds to Sontag’s discussion of photos as consumable objects. If staring is our main way of engaging with the world, we make ourselves vulnerable to the repeated sameness of consumerism, “accumulations of identical items that at once deaden and draw our visual attention” (30).

The question is less so whether we should stare, she concludes, but how we should stare. She xplicitly brings up another book of Sontag’s, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she determines that looking at human pain and suffering from a distance is immoral, much like the war photography she condemns in On Photography; the only good way to stare is through ethical engagement and activism. Garland-Thompson asks what ethical engagement is when starees are alive; she lands on Elaine Scarry’s idea that both beautiful and repulsive things demand engagement, and in doing so become ethically stareable. At stake here is whether the staree has agency. She uses the example of Harriet McBryde Johnson’s 2003 NYT cover, in which Johnson recounts becoming comfortable in her own skin and having been subject to stares for her entire life, before “teaching” the readers how to look at her by voicing her own self-confidence. I don’t think Garland-Thompson is saying that disabled people should be obligated to do this, but I’m also not sure what else she’s suggesting. If the best way for disabled people to engage with ethical staring is to put themselves in the public eye, what about people who cannot do that– and how is the valence of the stare not almost totally dependent on how the starer reacts? Perhaps this is her point, that ethical staring needs input from both parties, but if that’s the case I am not sure why the address is towards disabled people rather than non-disabled starers to engage ethically. She emphasizes the importance of the disability community she credits with helping starees to be more authentically themselves, but I am still unclear about what she thinks a perfect ethical staring relationship looks like concretely, and how exactly the onus in on the non-disabled starer instead of just the disabled staree. Disability visibility expands the concept of human variation, but this seems– to return to her criticism of capitalist ocularcentrism– to be an example of representation that is geared toward affecting the starer more than the staree, and doesn’t take into account, at least in detail, the danger of interactions where staring occurs, for disabled people and also POC, trans people, etc. This may be too narrow a reading of this book, but I have trouble taking visibility/representation as an ending point rather than a starting point.

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