The Sartrean Account of the Look as a Theory of Dialogue

by Steve Martinot

The Look and its Conflicts

At the center of his ontological treatise, Being and Nothingness,1 in a section called "The Look," Sartre creates a small narrative moment of dubious virtue from which he is able to resolve one of the truly vexing problems of phenomenology up to that time. That is the problem of the other; how is it that one can apprehend the other as subject? Previously, philosophy had sought to understand the other through reflection or attribution (and Sartre deals in particular with the Hegelian and Heideggerian accounts). But to regard the other as a reflection of oneself ends in an obvious solipsism; all others would be only reflections of oneself.2 To simply define the other as a subject because one saw a person standing there reduces subjectivity irretrievably to object status. And to attribute subjectivity to the other as an extension of experience with oneself as a subject renders one a source of mere doctrine through which to see others. Yet, to proclaim the other to be unknowable as a subject leaves no basis upon which to speak about personal and social relations.

In the context of 20th century EuroAmerican society, characterized by alienation and a closing down of public or political space, each of these possibilities (reflection and attribution) become egregious in providing a mechanical solution to the question -- a collaboration with that sense of alienation. Hence, the importance of Sartre's argument. A coherent response to the question of the other as subject that avoids the classical traps renews the necessary sense that in others there is someone there, and that one has the possibility of real interaction.

Sartre's account of the look, of one's visibility to another, reverses the terms of the problem. For Sartre, the Other-as-subject is not a subject known through oneself, but as a disruption of oneself. One confronts the other in a space that is both one's own, and not of one's choosing; and in that space, one apprehends the other as subject in one's becoming an object for that other, i.e. through the other's effect on oneself (BN,259). It is this sense of becoming an object for another that decenters the egocentric emphasis of traditional western phenomenology, and opens an exterior space between persons, where dialogue becomes possible.

A sense of what dialogue is has become an important question, in the US especially. Priding itself on maintaining the 18th century notion of "freedom of speech," which resides at the heart of the concept of civil liberties, and thus of the modern nation, the "US ethos" has lost sight of the fact that "freedom of speech" is a monologic concept. It does not provide for social interaction, nor for the existence of a political space of cooperative participation through speech. It simply says that one may say what one likes (with certain exceptions). In an era in which the means of dissemination of speech and information are themselves monopolized by corporate structures and commercial interests, the guarantee of a freedom of speech does not extend to a guarantee of channels of expression that matter. Indeed, the corporativization of the media has in effect rendered the freedom of speech an empty right -- that is, an empty rite that may seek solidarity, but only within the sound of one's voice.

It would serve us well, in that case, to revisit and examine Sartre's ontology of the look, and in particular, his extension of it to what he calls Being-for-others, in order to approach an ontology of dialogue, and the ethics contained in it, on Sartre's account, as relevant to our relation to public space, and thus to political life. If, as Wilfred Desan has said, Sartre's philosophy represents "the most extreme form of freedom the history of philosophy has ever presented," (TF,160) then it behooves us to see if it will provide a mode of freedom beyond that of ritualistic "freedom of speech."

Yet Sartre's account contains an obvious problem, which has already served to obstruct just such a project. If one apprehends the other as a subject through having been rendered an object for the other in the look, when one reciprocates, retrieving one's own subjecthood by returning the look, one thereby renders the other an object for oneself in turn. And the ensuing oscillation of successive objectivizations signifies an unending conflict as the originary nature of this process of interaction. An uneasy balance of subjectivities can be achieved as a contingent mutuality; but it is an unstable structure, continually on the verge of breakdown. Each individual lives in peril of the other's re-objectivizing look; both stand ready with a pre-emptive look in order to preserve their own autonomy, subjectivity, and freedom -- a kind of ontological Cold War. This contingent mutuality is what Sartre calls one's being-for-others.

As a pragmatic intersubjectivity (or what Levinas would call an example of "philosophy's ontic style"), being-for-others "appears as a pure irreducible contingency;" one makes the other be, and at the same time apprehends the other in situation as who one has to not be (BN,296). But in that sense, Being-for-others cannot be an intersubjectivity, since each subjectivity exists only through the cancallation of the other. To reveal oneself as a subject implies reducing the other to an object in order to do so. For the other to be a subject to whom to reveal oneself, one must submit oneself to becoming an object in turn. As a project toward ontological intersubjectivity, being-for-others is self-defeating. Being-for-others "represents the negation of any synthetic totality," a seemingly irresolvable arena of disunion between individuals (BN,300). As Sartre puts it, "conflict is [its] original meaning" (BN,364).

For an array of commentators, the irreconcilability of this conflict, inplicit as it is in the absoluteness of Sartrean freedom, presents a political problem. It appears to render social solidarity or collective responsibility all but impossible.3 Wilfred Desan, for instance, argues that because Sartrean freedom is absolute, one is confronted with an essence of human reality that is not preceded by its existence. In Sartre's discourse, this would amount to defining what he is suggesting is undefinable in the absoluteness of its freedom. (TF,162) If freedom has no essence, as Sartre desires, and has no bounds, then nothing is definable. (TF,168) Not only does consciousness take on the limits of definition, but it is a source of ultimate separation from all others, in the sense that there is no necessity for connection across the disparity between separate freedoms.

Thomas Flynn notes correctly that what Sartre calls the "we-subject," the sense of acting together with someone else in a common project, remains in the realm of the psychological. Because the look cannot be plural, "relations of solidarity or equivalence are simply a translation into the plural of quite individualistic phenomena" (SME,26). And he points out that ultimately subjective or psychological relations are not social at all (SME,25). And Ronald Aronson argues that if no ontological foundation is provided for superseding the adversarial essence of one's being-for-others, then each person remains the "relentless enemy of each and every other" (PW,133). "A society of free men treating all other free men as free is thus impossible" (PW,132). In effect, Sartre's notion of freedom works against itself; in its absoluteness, it becomes "so sweeping as to be meaningless." 4

Sartre argues, of course, that the "us-object" (possible even for a large group, such as an exploited class), can establish itself as a collective consciousness, but only contingently, only in the continued presence of an enemy (BN,512ff). In The Critique of Dialectical Reason, however, where Sartre describes a collective subject, it is still situationally produced in response to an external threat.5 That is, even the collective subject, the group-in-fusion, marks the eviction of solidarity from the realm of the communal, where Aronson wants to locate it, to the realm of the confrontational. In his article, "Materialism and Revolution", Sartre allows the possibility of a solidarity based on the "recognition of other freedoms" and the demand for reciprocated "recognition on their part."6 Aronson adds, however, that Sartre's sense of solidarity still contains a disguised adversarial bargain; if one asks, 'solidarity in the face of what?', an enemy seems again implied (PW,138). Aronson seeks the ontologically collective, and he concludes that Sartre's ontology of individual freedom does not provide for a subjectivity that could support true solidarity for its own sake, as a humanization of society (PW,270).

Nevertheless, there is a confusion of ontological and ontic freedom that catches up many commentators. For Sartre, though one is confronted with constraints in the everyday, and social relations that are oppressive, or alienating, the positionality one can establish for oneself between acquiescence and rebellion, between passivity and the invention of forms of resistance, is undetermined. Though in a situation not of one's choosing, it remains contingent precisely with respect to the absoluteness of the freedom that can apprehend one's situation as one of constraint, which is part of one's determining who one is to be in that situation. (BN,702ff) When Desan says "our freedom is grounded in our concrete situation," (TF,171) he is speaking of ontic freedom, where ontologically, for Sartre, the for-itself has no ground. Freedom cannot be reduced to ontic constraints. Constraints become constraints only to the extent that freedom is absolute in its ability to choose to transcend them or not. What is grounded in our concrete situation is our worldly existence, in which we must choose who we are.

In terms of this confluence of problems, let us take another look at the look. It is possible that a confusion has arisen between the concept of solidarity and a "collective subject" as an ontological intersubjectivity the rehearses the difference between ontological and ontic freedom. It may be that solidarity, whether against an enemy, or toward a process of cultural transformation and community construction, resides at a different level of ontological praxis, and presupposes a different moment of value.

I will argue that because Sartre's account of the look, his vision of the interpersonal as a subject-object relation, is couched within the realm of the visible, it takes the form of conflict. It will be my contention that being-for-others takes on a different character when articulated in terms of the spoken or "audible." And this difference will have certain socio-political ramifications.

The Look

Sartre begins his account of the look with the other as object. The Other, seen in the distance, is an object for me, yet different because the things of my world are also objects for that Other. The Other "sees what I see;" my world is present to the other's eyes without distance (BN,314). Seen as seeing, the Other presents an animal center (complete, like an object, yet hidden in its autonomy) that decenters my own relation to the world. My world "flees" toward the Other, precisely because the Other sees and appropriates it; its immediacy to myself is replaced by an immediacy to the Other (BN,312).

The Other is defined not as the absence of a consciousness in relation to the body which I see but by the absence of the world which I perceived, an absence discovered at the very heart of my perception of this world. (BN,314)

Thus, "an element of disintegration" is added to the world. Though nothing has changed, and the world still exists, it now has other meanings. The objects of my world drain away, not into a future (because they are already past), but to a temporal elsewhere. The Other-as-object transforms a world written by and for myself into what must now be read; and I am transformed in turn from a writer of my world to a reader of a world.

In Sartre's account of the look (which is again, in his text, a first person narrative), the visual relation is reversed. One enters the real or imagined perceptual field of another, and becomes oneself "present to the eyes without distance" (BN,330), like an object. In Sartre's famous example, he is peeping through a keyhole, wholly and pre-reflectively engrossed in this act. When he hears footsteps and realizes he has been seen, the object of his own attention becomes the Other's look for which he is the scene. He finds himself the shameful object of the Other's attention. And in thus becoming an object for the Other, he grasps the Other as a subject, a freedom (BN,322ff). That is, rather than apprehend the Other-as-subject through an attribution of subjectivity, one encounters and knows the Other in oneself as an attribution by the Other -- not through the attribution's content, but through its enactment.

Three transformations occur to the self-as-object. First, one is given a nature, an "outside;" the self (the "I") finds its foundation beyond itself, in the Other-as-subject. Second, there is a loss of project, of instrumentality in the world; one understands oneself as the Other's project. And third, there is a loss of mastery or autonomy; the once autonomous self finds itself no longer self-determining. Its foundation is elsewhere, lost to the Other's hidden apprehension. Through loss of self, one gains a knowledge of an unknowable Other because one becomes the Other's knowledge (BN,320). One is transformed from person to personage, and becomes an aspect of a situation that is by and for the Other.

The Other's look makes me be beyond my being in this world and puts me in the midst of the world which is at once this world and beyond this world. (BN,320)

One is given (twice): by the Other as the content of the look, and by oneself through the Other; and withheld (twice): in losing one's apprehension of oneself, and as the Other's hidden knowledge and project. One is written by the Other as the Other's knowledge in the act of being read. And in reading the Other's look, one is transformed from being a writer of one's world to being part of the world written. The self becomes a form whose content is elsewhere, and a content whose form is absent.

The look is always accompanied by shame -- the shame of having been rendered an object. However, it is important to understand that by this, Sartre means an existential rather than moralistic shame. Existential shame is the situation of being stripped of one's autonomy as an object for another; it names a formal relation. The content of this relation may indeed be morally shameful, such as being caught peeping through a keyhole, but it is not restricted to such situations. Sartre conflates them in his example, perhaps for purposes of starkness; but other examples are instructive. One might be speaking to another intensely, and suddenly encounter the other's look as one of longing, or intimacy. Intimacy is as legitimate a content for the look as reprobation at discovering a peeping tom. One discovers oneself to be the object of that intimacy or longing, as a knowledge whose content (project) remains hidden, yet directed at oneself as its object. One might blush, though not because it is a morally shameful situation. Rather, it is the loss of subjectivity as existential shame that would produce the blush.

In such a circumstance, to return the look of intimacy does more than reciprocate its objectivization; returning a look of intimacy is an undertaking under the aegis of the other's apprehended intimacy, a desire to maintain a tenuous balance within one's being-for-others, to preserve the aura of desire or closeness as a project, without descending into "originary conflictuality."

Indeed, this tenuousness suggests why subtle social phenomena, such as love relations, for instance, require such elaborate discursive and narrative extensions; the love stories of novels and romance magazines, the formulation of marriage rituals, methodologies of divorce, etc. The ephemerality of longing looks require prior narrativization to insure commonly understood significations, that is, to be made mutually experiencible as events that defer the conflictuality of alternating objectivizations to a detente.

Though Sartre devotes some attention to conflictual or non-mutual cases of desire, mapping a spectrum from masochism as the project to be an object for the Other (BN,493), to sadism as the project to render the Other an object for oneself (BN,484), there is a difference between such cases and the desire to maintain a mutuality of desire (or intimacy) in the exchange of "looks." The former obviate mutuality as a project, while the latter projects a contingent mutuality; but it does so only with certain assistance from beyond the signification of that exchange. In the former, subject-object relations are worked out in their immediacy. In the contingency of mutuality, there must be mediation, a structure of discourse and narrativity that adjoin the interaction, perhaps rendering it non-concrete in its social interactivity.

Three questions are thus raised that must be more carefully elucidated within the purview of Sartre's account: 1) the nature of the project for mutuality; 2) the role of narrativization in that project; and 3) the relation between the ontological project for a mutuality in Sartre's narrative, and the role of narrativity in Sartre's ontology.

The Structure of Mutuality

In apprehending the other as subject by having become an object for them, it is not the other one encounters, but rather the look of the other that one apprehends. The Other becomes "the one who delivers me to myself as unrevealed but without revealing himself." The other's subjectivity is thus not a metaphor for oneself (as Hegel or Heidegger would have it).

In being delivered to oneself, in becoming a knowledge for the other, one obtains an outside, a nature, in exchange. But the interchang is not unidimensional. Though retrieving one's subjectivity by returning the look, and transcending the other's transcendence at the expense of the other's subjectivity, something else is exchanged. There is one aspect of the other that does not belong to the other in all this: his/her character as other. The other's otherness is one's own unavoidable and necessary contribution to the other. And the other embodies the meaning given him/her in that contribution, as an aspect of one's own being.

The appearance of the look is apprehended by me as an upsurge of an ekstatic relation of being, of which one term is the "me" as for-itself ... and of which the other term is still the "me" but outside my reach, outside my action, outside my knowledge. (bn,329)

Within one's oscillation from object to subject and back, between the other's possibility as a for-itself and the contribution one makes to the other's otherness for which one is responsible (which Sartre represents as the facticity of two "me's"), one lives two possibilities of one's own (and not just one) for responding.

To transcend the Other's transcendence, or, on the contrary, to incorporate that transcendence within me without removing from it its character as transcendence -- such are the two primitive attitudes which I assume confronting the Other. (bn,443-4)

While the first generates the aforementioned oscillation of mutual (and possibly hostile) objectivizations, the second owns itself as a Self-as-object, a mode of being that, "in order to be would have to experience itself as made-to-be by and for a consciousness which it has to not be if it wishes to be." (bn,367-8) That is, rather than refusing the other being, one refuses to be the other, apprehending the other as a being-in-situation, for which one is, oneself, the situation. That is, one chooses oneself as a freedom (bn,347-8) while remaining the object one had been for that otherness. This means one acts as having to be oneself as not being the other in detaching oneself from the Other who one makes be a Not-Me-not-object. In effect, one recovers oneself as a subject that apprehends itself as having been given a nature, but also as having been the situation in which there is another who one must refuse to be.

"The Other whom I recognize in order to refuse to be him is before all else the one for whom my for-itself is."

In short, one's own infinite possibilities, and the transformation of the other into what is not-lived-by-me, become each other's context. (bn,347)

Being-for-Others thus has two parts; the existence of one's own factical "oneself" as a responsibility for the other; and one's responsibility to the other that one lives as a "oneself" retrieved as subjectivity; it is the boundary of an internal division that is both separate and inseparable. Avoiding oscillating objectivizations, and embracing the other as subject as a choice of possibility, one adopts the project of maintaining the other as the subject one apprehended in the other's look, but now as one to whom one turns as such. That project shifts one's apprehension to the situation of the other being-a-look seeing oneself, and grasps the other as the center of an alternate, reintegrated world. (bn,363) Through there being Being-for-Others, one can confront the other as subject. In this face-to-face encounter, which is an internal mode of being (I-and-the-other) rather than an external relation, one grants the other their subjectivity apprehended through their look to them as a project for oneself as a subjectivity that had discovered itself as a facticity, a "oneself" through the other's look.

But the granting of subjectivity to the other is a gratuitous (contingent) grant, whose return cannot be other than the subject-subject encounter itself. For the other to return the look would not be to re-objectivize oneself, but rather to reenact and reconfirm the project of being-for-the-other through that look. (bn,359) As an abandonment of oneself to the nature given to oneself by the other, as well as an abandonment to the other for whom one's for-itself is, in reciprocity, being-for-others remains a gratuitous gift. It is not a question of solidarity, since it does not arise out of an agreement that would make a conceptual object of the interchange, wholly enacted within factical mutuality. It has its limitations; each individual is a limited and limiting consciousness for the other. But these limits, as mutuality, are like a dance, a sense that it occurs as something the other does for which one is responsible and which one does oneself for which the other is responsible. Or, as Sartre puts it, to adapt oneself "to the human order" (the order of meanings), one "set[s] up a dialogue with the Other." (bn,522)

It is this unspoken dialogue that is plumped into the air between persons in the exchange, perhaps at a cafe table, within looks of intimacy and desire. In Sartre's invocation of this dialogue, he is telling a story of silence and recognition (it is actually about responding to meanings and directives already inscribed in social space). Nothing need be spoken, because the look is recognized, and the project of relating to the other as subject, of embracing the objecthood the other has bestowed upon one as a gift, that is itself desirable, becomes a project that enacts its mutuality simply out of familiarity with the nature of intimacy, while being at the same a choice to adopt it toward the other. It is not a common project, but a mutuality of recognition and choice.

But the question of recognition brings us to the question of the source or origin of recognition. In Sartre's invocation of dialogue, he is himself recognizing the signifying nature of interaction, which then must include the trace of the sources of those significations, as well as of recognition itself. It is the signifying nature of an interaction that will encompass the mode of mediation that relates a "dialogic" interaction to Sartre's description of exchanges of the look.

The Role of Narrativity

Narrativity plays an important role for Sartre beyond being merely exemplary. As he says in one interview, philosophy misses the singular, what transpires for or happens to the individual. Sartre turns to drama and fiction to resolve or investigate questions that cannot be investigated in the generality of the philosophical.7 Narrative preserves the specificity of the subject, while at the same time signifying what is generalizable (including the necessity of narrative to preserve that very specificity). In that sense, the vignettes used throughout Being and Nothingness do more than serve as examples; they function philosophically in form, formally describing the subject in his/her particularity, and signifying that the subject is always particular, always an individual.

Not only is Sartre's account of the look centered around a narrative of discovery, its inner structure can be read as a highly complex structure of narratives. In Sartre's exemple (of the peeping tom), the "story" is of a man looking through the keyhole, hearing footsteps, and discovering himself discovered by a (real or imagined) Other. Juxtaposed to this is the ensuing formal arrangement of the dramatic situation, consisting of the fact of the Other's look, and that this "look" is one of discovery, for which the man at the keyhole becomes the object, and thus apprehends himself as an object. If the mise en scene is a discovery of voyeurism, the protagonist of the "story" is the voyeur who discovers himself as discovered with a sense of moral shame, as the substance of the story. Sartre's ontological interest is the formal transformation in the voyeur, insofar as he apprehends his discoverer as a subject by finding himself the object of the discovering look. But the formal arrangement breaks down without an additional narrative dimension, that is likewise formal, and whose actual terms do not matter.

At the moment of discovery, the other has not spoken, nor does s/he need to speak. The voyeur, as discovered, tells himself what the the Other is telling him/herself has been discovered. If the voyeur feels reprobation as the object of the Other's knowledge, that knowledge, which contains reproach as its content, is the link that gives the discoverer subjectivity. Yet that knowledge is also the content of a narrative about the discovery that the voyeur tells himself about the discoverer. Similarly, the longing look that renders one an intimate object for the Other is a story whose substance, as the Other's longing, one tells oneself at the moment of discovering oneself as its object; that is, one tells oneself that one is being looked at with a sense of longing, or that the other's look is one of intimacy.

Let us abstract this structure a bit. In Sartre's story, told in the first person, there is a narrator (an "I") who is caught at the keyhole, and a character, an Other (real or imagined) who comes upon him there. Though the narrative of self-discovery as an object is told in the "same" first person, the center of consciousness for it shifts to the "eye" (the "I") of the other, for whose freedom the first "I" has become an object. The narrator's existential shame (the same for both reproach and intimacy) arises from being seen by that Other (as an other-as-subject, a character in the narrator's narrative) who, in making the discovery (seeing) has a secret unplumbable knowledge of what he has discovered.8

Nevertheless, the narrator tells us in part what that knowledge is. It is himself as an object for the Other; yet an object "as" something (a thing of moral reproach). In the eyes of the Other, the narrator enacts that Other's knowledge. The "I", narrating having been discovered at the keyhole and being appropriated by the Other's knowledge as an object, is at the same time enacting the narrative of what the Other has discovered -- as a (ethical) meaning. Thus, where the first narrator had narrated a character discovering him, he now becomes a character in turn in an appropriative story of reprobation in which the Other is the narrator. Yet this second story, whose narrator is the discoverer, is told for the discoverer by the first narrator. In effect, the first narrator arrives at knowing the Other as a subject by rendering the Other a narrator in turn, whose narrative provides the content of the objectivization of the first narrator in the first story.

In other words, the "cover" story of being discovered is a meta-narrative. The character (Other) in that meta-narrative is the narrator (Other) of a second narrative in which the first narrator ("I") becomes a character ("I"); and the story the Other (as character) narrates is the enactment, with its ethical value, narrated by the "I" as narrator, through the other -- that is, through a narrative given to, and told for, the Other (character) by the first narrator. The "I" and the Other are narrator and character at the same time, two narrators and two characters that are distinct and conflated, doubled and changing places -- each becoming the other's narrator and the other's character. What reveals the Other's subjectivity is not his being, nor the fact of being a character in a story, but rather by being given the character role of storyteller in which the "I" as meta-narrator is a character (object). The meta-narrator (the "I") is written by the Other's apprehension (discovery), while writing that Other's apprehension himself; in the look, one losses authority as an object for the Other only through one's own authorship.

And now, we see that Sartre's account of the look does contain a moment of attribution to the Other. One's own shame appears to oneself in the form of the Other's narrative, but one attributed to that Other; and one feels the shame narrated by the Other because one meta-narratively attributes to oneself a characterhood in that Other's narrative. Thus, the meaning of one's action is at once an attribution to oneself through the Other, and an attribution to the Other through oneself. It is not an attribution of subjectivity, but an attribution of meaning to oneself through the Other-as-subject.

To that extent, however, Sartre's account deconstructs. Its meaning is not where he places it. It is an account whose self-assumed meaning is non-attribution, but whose form is a story of attribution. Though the specific content of the other-as-subject's discovery (and objectivization) is immaterial to this double narrative structure, the fact of narrative is not immaterial to Sartre's account of subjectivity.

Furthermore, the discursivity of this ontological "scene" overflows. While the meaning given to the "I" (as object) by the Other-as-subject is a story the Other tells in a story the "I" tells, the source of the story the "I" tells the Other telling comes from beyond the ontological relation. To discover oneself in reprobation or intimacy is to have already known and recognized that meaning from elsewhere, and to discover it "here" in "this" double narrative. That elsewhere, as the general source for the narrative's (contingent) content (whether reprobation, longing, etc.), as the source of recognition, is a certain social givenness that, in appearing as the content of a double narrative, is never the object of an intention.9 As the meaning of an experience, it comes from elsewhere, and is then given back to an elsewhere (an Other) in order for one to submit oneself to it. Indeed, it must come from a narrative elsewhere insofar as it is assumed to be a common experience (reprobation or intimacy can be given to the other as narrator only through the assumption that the other feels it in common with oneself).

Only a narrative can render experience a common experience, because only narrative can purvey the hiddenness of consciousness to others. Neither activity nor mere gesture can present experience or feeling to others, without their having been narrativized in common first. Hence, the social necessity of narrative as the epitome of social discourse. And in this inversion, the look then becomes a special case of tacit dialogue, unspoken, yet doubly narrativized in terms that are given by the social order, to which one adapts oneself in order to interact. Adapting oneself to the social order, and entering a dialogue with the Other, are two sides of the same coin, for which the account of the look, and an apprehension of the other as subject, is both an abstract case, and a special case.


Having adumbrated the look in this fashion, can we still say that conflict is fundamental to the look? Or must it now admit to an alternate trajectory? Let us look at a Lacan's version of Sartre's account of the look, his own notion of the gaze, not as offering an alternate trajectory, but as providing a differing, mismatched account, whose difference might elucidate this question.

Lacan juxtaposes two accounts of the look in his text.10 For him, the gaze, like the look, is centered on "being seen." But rather than be something to which one submits, it is a prior condition. The gaze is the "pre-existence to the seen of the given-to-be-seen" (FFC,74). It is an element of how one is already given to the eye of the other -- a moment of Heideggerian fore-having -- rather than how one is discovered.

[The other's] eye is only the metaphor of something ... prior to his eye. What we have to circumscribe ... is the pre-existence of a gaze -- I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides. (FFC,72)

For Lacan, the subject is not passive; the gaze is solicited (FFC,84). There is a desire for the gaze, a desire that the other's eye be the eye that gazes at one and sees one in a particular way. As an activity of the imagination, the gaze engineers being seen through an already desired form of recognition (and thus self-recognition). It is a function upon which the subject depends (FFC,83), an "I" embodied as the eye of another, rather than in an encounter. For Sartre, the effect and the knowledge incurred from the look is wholly immediate, while for Lacan, the gaze abandons the immediate for a past and a future (a pre-existence and a desire). That is, in Sartrean (ontological) terms, the Lacanian gaze would appear as part of one's project, while in Lacanian (psychoanalytic) terms, the Sartrean look would participate in the imaginary. Beyond the disparity between ontological and psychoanalytic language, the gaze is not the Sartrean look.11

But, in fact, Lacan does use the structure of the look, not with respect to seeing or being seen, but as fundamental to dialogue. He begins his account of speech by discussing what he calls "empty speech" (as Sartre begins with the other-as-object), a theoretic opening of permissibility.12 In the psycho-therapeutic situation, a subject engages in "empty speech" when addressing someone who is not there, but whom s/he desires to address, because s/he desires their recognition. In such situations, one's speech double's itself. One speaks to an other (the analyst) who is there, and to an Other (the imaginary) who is not there. By addressing a present other, one discovers the meaning of the desire to address the imagined (absent) other. One says things that are heard, in actual statements, and things that are to be heard, which constitute the (linguistically unconscious) content or truth behind one's statements.

For Lacan, "the unconscious is that part of the concrete discourse ... that is not at the disposal of the subject" (E,49). It is what one "wants to say" (vouloir dire), the language in which one speaks one's real meaning, rather than what one actually says. Indeed, to speak is already to imply that there is a truth somewhere, and that the subject's speech has somehow, whether positively or negatively, invoked it. "Even if it denies the evidence, [the subject's discourse] affirms that speech constitutes truth" (E,43). Similarly, to subject oneself to the other's look, in discovering oneself in it, the truth of who one becomes, the nature one is given in the content of that look (given narratively by/in the "social order") is incontestible. Lacan calls this therapy-speech empty because "the subject seems to be talking in vain about someone who, even if he (the analyst) were his spitting image, can never become one with the assumption of his [the subject's] desire" (E,45).

However, for Lacan, speech produces its meaning because there is also a reply -- even if that reply is not forthcoming (E,40). In conveying the subject's truth, the subject's speech "always subjectively includes its own reply" (E,85). If the subject solicits a response already contained in his/her speech, it is a reply pre-existing its solicitation (the unconscious as "elsewhere"). In addressing the other, one discovers the meaning that one's speech already had (the prior unconscious truth) insofar as the other hears and responds, sometimes preferably in silence. (Indeed, should the analyst respond in speech, it would only be to an actual statement, rather than to the subject's unconscious truth.) For the subject to confront his/her hidden truth, there simply has to be an auditor, an ear. Through listening, the analyst allows the silent reply to give the subject's speech its meaning as addressed to the imagined absent other.

For Lacan, this gets generalized (in social situations) in the following way. When I speak, the other hears me twice: in my concrete discourse and my hidden truth. The other is doubled between the symbolic other to whom I speak (objet a), and the imaginary Other from whom I seek recognition (objet A). As other, the one who hears, the one whose response I solicit, the other "hears what I say;" and as Other, the one spoken to, the one to whom my hidden truth and desire are addressed, and whose recognition and desire I desire, the Other "hears what I hear." The symbolic other gives my speech the meaning it has contingently, and the imaginary Other gives my speech the meaning it already has, and must have. When Lacan says, "man's desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other" (E,58), it is in this sense of response as prior meaning: e.g. the desire to be recognized by the other. Speech is the desire for a response, not a reaction; and desire is speech for recognition as desire. The enactment of speech constitutes the subject as who and what is to be recognized. In speaking, the subject is referring him/herself to the response and the recognition of the other.

On the other hand, in hearing me, the Other (objet A) becomes the one who catches me in the pre-reflective moment (at the keyhole). In apprehending my truth, my meaning, the Other's ear (at the moment of hearing me) renders me an object of recognition, the object of the Other's desired desire, the desired desire subjectively implied in having spoken to the imaginary other (E,50). Speech, enacted to constitute the subject as who/what is to be recognized, also constitutes the subject as an object of recognition for the other, through the response solicited from the Other. The Other's ear, by hearing, makes me an object for it, as does the Other's eye by seeing. It is analogous to Sartre's look; having-been-heard is structurally the same as having-been-seen (E,50). And similarly, there is a loss of autonomy, of project, to the other's silent apprehension of my "truth." As Lacan suggests, I identify myself in language in order to lose myself in it -- to become what I will have been for the response (E,86).

Furthermore, in finding myself discovered at the auditory keyhole, in speaking in order to produce the other's discovery, I discover myself as the self given by that speech, but one already imagining (narrating) the condition for its self-objectification through the other. The object I become in the other's hearing is the myself, the object I as subject have called forth for myself by speaking (by manifesting my desire for the other's desire, for the other's response). That is, the meaning of my concrete discourse lies between myself as subject (soliciting a response from the symbolic other) and myself as object (of recognition by the imaginary Other). Thus, there are two different narratives, in which I find myself narrator and character; the first (the desire for response) is contained in the act of speaking, and the second (the desire for recognition) is imagined for the other in which I find myself a character. That is, the Other who hears becomes the "character" from whom I desire a response, and the other whose recognition I desire is already a narrator of that recognition of which I am the object. Thus, the overall narrative structure is the same as Sartre's look.

However, one speaks not only to be heard, not only to solicit a response, but to receive one in fact (E,40). One must speak in order for the other to capture and recognize one's being in one's speech, as an ear; but the Other must reply in order for one to "realize ... what I shall have been" by speaking (E,86). For Lacan, one speaks to the other as an act of bestowal upon them, as well as an act of becoming for oneself.

If I call the person to whom I am speaking by whatever name I choose to give him [an object], I [a subject] intimate to him the subjective function that he [becoming a subject] will take on again in order to reply to me [an object], even if it is to repudiate this function. (E,86)

That is, I address the other (thereby rendering myself an object for him) in order to give him/her the subjective function of responding in speech to me, an object, even though thereby repudiating his/her subjectivity and becoming an object for "I" who hear him/her. I speak in order to confer a subjectivity, and in order to hear a response that will return my subjectivity to me. Reciprocally, my hearing the other's response becomes a recognition and abolition of the other as a subject, and my response to the other a restitution of subjectivity for the other. Each response to the other simultaneously becomes a recognition and a constitution of the other as subject; each act of listening becomes the objectivization of the other, a reciprocated "look." One speaks to be heard at the same time one engenders a subject to hear; and one listens to become again a subject. This continual exchange of speech constitutes the structure of concrete dialogue; and in its reciprocity, it has the structure of being-for-others.

The structure of the look straddles the gap between Sartre's ontology and Lacan's psychoanalytics. Sartre uses it to solve the existential problem of the other as subject; and Lacan uses it to solve the psychoanalytic problem of the other's desire as the meaning of desire. Both are governed by doubled narrator-character relations, and both rely upon an elsewhere, in social givenness for Sartre, and in the unconscious for Lacan.

In sum, dialogue is homologous in form to being-for-others. That is, Lacan invokes Sartre's notion of the look in his own account of the gaze, but the element of Lacan's discourse that is most homologous to the Sartrean look is in fact Lacan's account of dialogue. And if Lacan has transferred Sartre's structure to a theory of dialogue, it is a transformation not alien to Sartre's own thinking.

Language is not a phenomenon added on to being-for-others. It is originally being-for-others; that is, it is the fact that a subjectivity experiences itself as an object for the Other. In a universe of pure objects language could under no circumstances have been "invented" since it presupposes an original relation to another subject. (BN,455)

Yet, in what sense are these two separable? If (in the Sartrean structure) I become an object for the other's discovering or longing look, it is ultimately I who choose the narrative content of that look, and thus I who desire that choice. If I speak to obtain a certain recognition from the other (in the Lacanian structure), as an object for him/her, from whence did a recognizable sense of recognition come if not from a prior interaction, or prior social experience? Thus, there is at least a realm of overlap. Yet, at the same time, there is an inversion between the two. For Sartre, one seeks to reveal oneself as a subject to the other-as-subject, and instead becomes an object; for Lacan, one desires to become the object of desire for the other spoken to, but only has one's own subjectivity returned in the other's speech. But if the Lacanian structure is homologous to the Sartrean, than that inversion must also find itself inside the Sartrean structure as well. That is, the Lacanian homology suggests that Sartre's being-for-others contains the desire to confer subjectivity as one of its possibilities.

The Sartrean Dialogic

In the Sartrean paradigm, one is seen when one speaks, and one is caught in the look by speaking in the presence of others; in the Lacanian paradigm, one speaks to be seen and rendered an object by the one who listens. Insofar as speaking is an intentional act, and speaking is purposive, whose purpose is to be beheld, to be seen and heard, we confront a situation in which Being-for-others represents more than the project to maintain the other's subjectivity; it is a relation of Being-for-others engendered intentionally for that purpose. The intentionality to appear contained in the act of speaking to others envelops the situation. One's words represent intending the situation in which one seeks (intends) to be objectivized in the look, to be beheld by the other, as a matrix for their meaning.

In other words, beyond being the situation in which the other is granted being, or refused being, as a being-in-situation, one intends that situation through speech, as a structure accompanying speech; to grant the other being as a project and to refuse objectivization of the other in order that there be a subject there. To speak is to take responsibility for being the situation in which to apprehend the other as a subject, before the fact.

The meaning of what is spoken remains what it is, the discursive or semiotic dimension of the situation, its interior. But around it, the look as listening has provided a different priority for a subject to subject relation. Ultimately, what one's words mean will be discovered in the other's response, to whom one returns the look in listening. When the other responds, the look goes the other way. One is seeing the other in the other's intentionality to be seen.

Sartre approaches these two questions, the semiotic and the ontologic of dialogue in his dialogues with Benny Levy in Hope Now, but he does so from the other direction than we have taken.13 Having hired Levy as a secretary, the blind Sartre (no longer able to "look") found himself immersed in the generation of thought that was not his, yet not not-his, through Levy's full participation as co-thinker.

Hope Now surprised a number of people because it seemed to represent a departure of sorts from some of Sartre's former political thinking; replacing the cathartic sense of violence which Fanon had theorized with a recognition that neo-liberal strategies of debt-starvation, paramilitary terror, and gratuitous police violence left no clear target, and violence no longer presented itself as liberatory. But the political thought of those dialogues came from two sources, and ended as a single discourse that had its own trajectory. Having approached each other in the seriality of a business arrangement, the dialogic substance of the interaction between Sartre and Levy created an affinity transcending seriality. For Sartre, it represented a "reciprocal abandon" to a "thought created by two people." Sartre found himself the recipient of a thinking from beyond himself and Levy both.

Sartre then characterizes dialogue as "a plural thought," one with a meaning that "each person approaches in his/her own manner," and produces on "different bases, premises, and preoccupations." (HN,73) Each participant determines only a share of its substance, leaving the dialogue to produce its own character, independent of the specific intentionalities that compose it. The plurality of the thought is not the dialogue itself but the process emerging from relinquishing control over one's meanings. As it proceeds, a participant must coordinate three disparate moments continuously: his/her own thought, the thought represented by the speech of the other, and the substance of the dialogue itself as a detotalized (and self-detotalizing) totality. Each person enters the dialogue as serial (speaker), as being-for-others (listener), and as a (micro)group-in-fusion -- a group of two (or more) brought together defend themselves collectively against forgetting what had transpired between them, and lapsing again into seriality.

In that sense, though Sartre approached the structure of dialogue in Hope Now from a direction other than that of Being-for-others, it contains the latter. He began with its semiotic content, and moved from that toward what the ontological basis upon which it unfolded might be. The confluence of ontological states he positions in it contain a mutual sense of autonomy of its participants, a mutuality of recognition as engaging the same project toward his/her Being-for-others, and a sense of responsibility toward the dialogue as an entity. But it is already a self-detotalizing totality toward the other through that entity, arriving at an acceptance of the other as subject in having listened in order to preserve that subjectivity in the other by speaking in turn. The confluence of these three aspects guarantee the singularity of each dialogue, within the exchange of (listening) looks in response to speech.

Finally, it is also the acceptance of a knowledge emergent from the elsewhere of the dialogue itself that removes the possibility of a proprietary relation to what one knows, by entering that knowledge into the public space of the dialogue. Freedom of speech has been corporativized to the point where a proprietary relation to what one says lurks behind each saying. Yet to speak in dialogue is to have one's knowledge, as a contribution to the dialogue, changed by being recontextualized in what had preceded, and what others will respond to what one has said. A proprietary relation to one's own knowledge is shown to be an imprisonment in one's own alienated thought to the extent it obviates dialogue; and dialogue proceeds as precisely the transformation of each knowledge brought to it by recontextualization in itself.

The Social Dimension

To see Being-for-others as dialogue in which one has a sense of responsibility, a mutuality of recognition, and a mutuality of autonomy that guarantees its singularity, then requires a reevaluation of the conflict central to being-for-others. Being-for-others is a failed project of the subject if it is understood as an ontological moment. But in its narrativity, it takes on a different character. While the object one discovers oneself to be in the look is a meta-narrated character, the subject to whom one loses it is a character narrated by oneself -- in both cases deploying narratives from one's social context or environment. In a dialogue, with its particular content of speech and response, speech itself becomes a boundary across which both see each other as characters mutually narrated within one meta-narrative; and in this case, it is a meta-narrative that does not have a socio-cultural content (as does reproach or intimacy).

What gives content to the meta-narrativity of the dialogic situation is the existence of spoken language itself -- that is, the very foundation of cultural being, including the totality of narratives that provide the social meanings of the language spoken (not just natural langauges, either: the narratives of interpersonal relations in NYC are quite different from those of the Virginia piedmont). Within the realm of dialogue, conflict is no longer an original meaning. The desire to bestow subjectivity upon the other ceases to be a special case of Being-for-others and becomes a more general matrix, precisely because both the look and the dialogue depend upon a meta-narrativity that precedes specific socio-cultural attitudes by engaging Being-for-others in the exchange of social meanings through language itself.

Though one's objectivizing look engages a conflictuality, each objectivizing act of listening engages a project of mutual subjectivization because speech, which has semiotic meaning, already implies a response in its having obtained semiotic meaning through responsiveness in the first place. Each act of speech is both autonomous and singular, yet not separable from the historicity of language the interlocutors speak, with its multi-narrativities and vast cultural background. If response is the general case, that by which meaning is heaped upon the present by its cultural past, then the project within the structure of Being-for-others of retrieving one's subjectivity in a way to preserve one's having been an object for the other as subject becomes the general case of one's Being-for-others, for which the conflictuality of a returned objectivizing look is a special case. That is, if metanarrativity is a concomitant of subjectivity, and a condition for a factical (as opposed to ontological) intersubjectivity, a certain priority is given the structure of dialogue, as more than merely one of the possibilities of being-for-others. The ontology of dialogue, which repeats the structure of being-for-others in terms of being-heard rather than being-seen, reverses the priority of the visible and the discursive, and transforms the Lacanian priority of desire into the desire to confer subjectivity.

This is perhaps the great attraction in Sartre's overall ontology, that it contains, within its individuated investigation into subjectivity and intentionality, a sociality that constitutes the lurking general case, the ocean in which Sartre's specific narrativities of the subject and its ontological states, are the fish. Or, as Levinas has said, "the relation to the other is ... not ontology ... [it is a] bond with the other which is not reducible to the representation of the other, but to his invocation" [voice].14 Levinas uses the term "religion" to name this "bond," but he characterizes it as indicating "the relation between men (sic), irreducible to understanding, [that] is by that fact distanced from the exercise of power." (EN,9) He is looking at what ontologically precedes power, and conflictuality, in a relation to an event in which the other is indispensible, as the very being of that event. The dialogic structure of responsibility is not simply a "relation to the other." Representation takes on a form of materiality that is not its meaning. It is a relation with the other under the aegis of responsibility rather than toward a telos.

Within the Sartrean framework, all interpersonal relations, including those of solidarity, must differentiate (or individuate) themselves through chosen narratives. The narrative of solidarity need be nothing more than an indexical ("here", or "are we together in this?"); but situationally, solidarity is always already a discursive phenomenon: solidarity for what, against what, in the name of what, must be specified. As such, it must entail more than just speaking in solidarity (as one can speak intimately) but speaking in a sense that brings the narratives of solidarity into the meta-narrativity of the dialogue, as an enactment. Each must become a character in a narrative of solidarity that the other can recognize, in order to be recognized as such. One becomes an object in solidarity by grasping the other as a subject in that solidarity, a narrator of a common performance, in such a way that one can be recognized as in solidarity, as and by one's response.15

In what besets us politically, the relation of intersubjectivity, as facticity rather than as ontological category, is a necessary transcendence of the "right to free speech," which becomes meaningless in the context of a monopolized and corporativized public space. It is at the very fundamental level of dialogue, and an understanding of dialogue as containing a sense of responsibility, responsiveness, and recognition, without the necessity of preserving proprietary hold on what one has said, that reveals an essential dimension wherein to begin to reconstruct a form of public space, a political space counterposed to its having been shut down.



1. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Lib, 1957); p. 310ff. Hereafter BN.

2. Cf. Sartre's critique of Hegel and Heidegger in BN, p. 282ff.

3. In particular, Thomas Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism (Chicago: Univ. of Chi., 1984). Hereafter SME. Ronald Aronson, Philosophy in the World (London: NLB, 1980). Hereafter PW. Wilfred Desan, The Tragic Finale. Hereafter TF. See also, Dominick LaCapra, A Preface to Sartre (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1978); and David Detmer, Freedom as a Value.

4. This approach to Sartre's politics is on-going. In a recent article, Philip Knee claims that "Sartre's politics can be characterized as a monumental attempt to think against oneself, that is, to engineer the collectivization of his philosophy of contingency and individual freedom." Knee, Philip; "Sartre and Political Legitimacy;" in International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 31(2):141-152, 1991. Knee argues that in Sartre, political legitimacy is constantly sought and excluded, because Sartre defines his political project on the basis of a critique of all political institutions as such.

5. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Verso); p. 345ff. Hereafter CDR.

6. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Literary and Philosophical Essays (New York: Criterion, 1955); p. 250.

7. Sartre: "I use fiction ... to explore. ... My hypotheses are Thought;" in Sartre, Jean-Paul; Between Existentialism and Marxism (New York: Morrow, 1974); p.49. See also, "The Purposes of Writing," op. cit.; and the interview with Alain Koehler in Perspectives du Theatre, no. 3 (March 1960): p. 18-23; and no. 4 (April 1960): p. 5-9.

8. The male pronouns are more than artifacts of patriarchal language. The look itself should be understood as masculine. As de Beauvoir has pointed out, the male gaze sees the woman as image, as representation. In general, for the patriarchal mind, a woman is a male-generated portrait of herself, something which she as a subject must begin to live up to as its object. She understands herself as other in that portrait; and though this portrait is different from her identity, it is constructed as an attributed sameness for her as her representation. She thus encounters the aporia of the same standing in conflict to identity. And when she sees other women, she sees herself over there, in that object of the male other's freedom, having lost her own autonomy to that other woman's image in the male look. Other women become her mirror-image, the self she must become as the scene, the object of the male demand that she (as subject) give up herself and her project. In the sense that Sartre described the look in terms of an other not already looked at, his account of the look is gendered masculine.

9. Sartre would not deny this. One lives the stories that provide meaning to comportment, feeling, etc. in passivity; one is beset by them, as indirect means of making oneself who one already is (CDR,234). See CDR, book I, chap 3, secs 3 and 4.

10. Lacan, Jacques; The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981); p. 84. Hereafter FFC. Lacan invokes but distinguishes his description from Sartre's as psychoanalytic rather than ontological.

11. This distinction is problematic, and a number of commentators have fallen on both sides of the issue. See, for instance, Jacqueline Rose; Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986). Juliet Flower MacCannell, Figuring Lacan (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska, 1986). Betty Cannon; Sartre and Psychoanalysis (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas, 1991).

12. Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977). Hereafter E. Cf. "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis;" in particular, p. 40ff.

13. Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Levy, Hope Now: the 1980 Interviews, trans. Adrian van den Hoven (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996).

14. Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous: on thinking-of-the-other (London: Athlone Press, 2000), p. 8. Hereafter EN.

15. Flynn develops a similar picture. He posits what he calls the universal freedom conditional, that one is not free unless all are free, as the way Sartre extends ontological freedom to the level of the ontic. The additional implication, in the conflictual nature of being-for-others on the plane of the visible, is that one is not free unless all are subjects. Flynn recognizes that solidarity would involve the bestowal of necessary subjectivity upon others in order that one be free, in order that others grant one subjectivity (and freedom) in turn (SME,33). But because he leaves unquestioned the residence of being-for-others in the realm of the visible, and it cannot ground a solidarity for him.

Ultimately, the ability to break solidarity is as important as its construction. One is reminded of Richard Wright's story of his decision to leave the south and go to Chicago. Cf. Wright, Richard; Black Boy (New York: Harper and Row, 1945); p. 279ff. The whites who had disparaged him all his life suddenly start suggesting that he shouldn't leave, that he was better off there with them. These whites did not recognize, as did Wright, that their narratives toward Wright were not dialogic, but impositional -- self-meta-narrating, and at all times speaking for both sides. One would want to "break solidarity" in such situations.