To be is to be
To his credit, Sartre systematized the philosophy of Existentialism in a real sense.
Objectification and the other
According to Sartre, our consciousness is not alone in the world. It must accommodate itself with other minds/consciousness. We cannot view/get to know ourselves as separate from other people. Our self is inseparable from others. Our main relation to other people is a lived (first persona experience of them as subjects). People view us as objects. They describe and label us in any way they choose. We become aware of ourselves through them and see ourselves as objects of others’ gaze. As we become aware of the labels that other people attach to us, we apply these labels to ourselves and lose awareness of our freedom.
Suppose you are at a public park doing morning walk and you find no one around you; you start singing. It is out of tune, and the lyrics are half-remembered nonsense, but you do not care in the slightest, because you think there is none to notice you.
Suddenly, you notice there is a man sitting on the bench up ahead. He is trying to look away, to save you from the embarrassment of his being witness, but you know he has seen you. You try to hide your song in a cough. You feel embarrassed. Sartre calls this moment “The Look” or “The Gaze”. The others force us to see ourselves not as the way essentially/naturally we are as free agents; rather, we are made an object of their look.
When someone looks at you, you are forced to see yourself as if from outside. The Look of another will often go on to create “modifications in my structure”. It changes the entire way you see yourself. You experience yourself not as yourself, but as through another’s eyes.
One huge consequence of this is how we become acutely aware of our body. When we are alone, our body is something we largely ignore. It is just an extension of me. When another sees us, though, our body comes into existence as an object. It is something to be examined and judged. When this happens, we find we flatten our hair, wipe our mouth, or sit up a bit straighter. We present ourselves rather than live ourselves. We are a feature to be displayed. From this comes the feeling of Shame.
1. Objectifying others
Suppose: In your home, there is no one but you. You suddenly hear some noise from a room where there is your father’s drawer (your father puts all his money in that). Upon hearing the noise, you secretly get there and peep/look through a keyhole in the room. You see your little brother there doing something fishy. As you are watching, you are totally absorbed in what you are doing. You are not aware of yourself. Your look/gaze objectifies your brother.
2. Being objectified by others
But suddenly you realize that someone else is watching you from behind you (For example, your father comes and finds you secretly peeping inside the room). Now, you become aware of yourself as an object for someone else and their objectifying gaze. As you negatively labelled your brother doing something fishy, so, in turn, the person/your father, who has caught you spying/standing by the door, labels you.
The notion that as soon as we are in the presence – real or even imagined – of another person, we begin to see ourselves through his/her eyes and this is the end of our freedom.
“Hell is other people”: Sartre on personal relationships
Sartre paints a bleak picture of human relationships. Human relations are naturally conflicted. They are given to inherent contradictions. They are not smooth and friendly in the long run. Sartre says that the relationships involve a constant struggle over freedom, which is the only thing that really matters. This tension arises because we either treat other people as objects (which undermines their freedom) or we allow ourselves to be treated as objects by them (which undermines ours). He asserts that conflict is an inherent feature of any social relationship. A relation requires me to see the other as object to recognize my own freedom again. Yet, others will, of course, resist this and try to assert their own freedom by seeing me as an object. All relationships are conflicts over freedom which cannot be solved.
Can there be love in human relations? Sartre believes “No!” Love leads in the long run to the conflict, for it involves the compromise of freedoms of either of the two parties. Love is not happy ending, nor something of mutual respect. In love, one person must have to be a subject and the other an object. Love is not something of a possession. Relation cannot be a relation of belonging. It is the challenging arena of contrasts and conflicts. In love, we risk becoming an object, adapting ourselves to the desires and choices of the other person. Love is submission and slavery. It involves compromises and compromises damage the very idea of freedom.
Either we can try to make ourselves something for the other person or we can try to turn them into something for us. Our freedom will always bubble up and we will resent trying to be what others want us to be, or we will grow weary of another person who has turned themselves into an object for us, because they will no longer have the freedom that we were originally attracted to. Sartre believed that love is doomed to fail.
The writer is an author and a faculty member at the Begum Nusrat Bhutto Women University, Sukkur.