You know the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching”? According to the philosopher Sartre, that’s easier said than done. In his piece The Look, he describes that when we perceive someone to be looking at us, we suddenly become self-conscious of our own behaviors.
Usually, each person is in a non-thetic state of self-awareness, meaning we are aware of our consciousness, but not particularly paying close attention to it. For example, you might notice that the window is open in a room you’re in. If a gust of wind suddenly slams the pane shut, you’ll suddenly be highly aware of the window. Sartre writes that being gazed upon has a similar effect. Instead of passively perceiving yourself, you become conscious that you are being looked at (234).
People have the power to be subject or object in this relationship looking. Sartre says we perceive someone else as an object when we look at them. If they instead start looking at us, we become the object of their gaze. But we “can not be an object for an object” (233). The relationship must include an observer and an object of the gaze. When we think we are being watched, we sense this objectivity, and our transcendence (freedom, possibility) disintegrates. Trying to move like you mean it on the dance floor becomes embarrassing as you resort to doing the sprinkler instead of some super-smooth dance move that you might’ve come up with in solitude. The person watching might not even be judging you, but the act of feeling stared at makes us feel vulnerable (235).
I’m unconventionally going to compare humans to silly putty. The relaxed semi-viscous state of the goo is full of possibility to mold into any shape, but once handled by someone else (in this case, by being looked at) it becomes limited to one configuration. Paradoxically, this fluid relationship, and the fact that we are cognizant of and affected by someone looking at us, means that humans are not simple in-itself objects.
So whether you’re dancing through life or molding your consciousness like a silicon polymer putty, say hi to your consciousness the next time you become keenly aware of it.