Something that has bothered existentialist philosophers—a worry first articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre and that has been exemplified and magnified by the ubiquitous use of social media—is centered on something Sartre called ‘the look’. Indeed, in Sartre’s play No Exit, Garcin’s line, “Hell is other people”, is an argument for this.
Existentialist Philosopher? I Don’t Know What That Is
To understand what this means, it’s important to understand a bit about Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre dominated French philosophy between the 1940s and the 1960s, and he’s considered by most to be the central figure in existentialist philosophy.
It’s important to say ‘most’ because Sartre himself once exclaimed, “Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” Indeed, trying to put all the philosophers that are usually identified as existentialists—like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus—all into one category does stretch things a bit.
Generally, however, existentialists concern themselves with the nature of the human condition—things like anxiety regarding death, the meaning or absurdity of life, and the extent and nature of freedom.
And what they say about these things can be notoriously difficult to explain. Indeed, unlike analytic philosophers, who aim specifically to present logically precise and clear arguments, existentialists often make their points in long expositions with undefined terms, or even by telling stories or writing plays.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Objectifying ‘Look’
To illustrate ‘the look’, Sartre asks someone to imagine themself jealously looking through a keyhole to find out what is happening in the next room. They concentrate on who is in the other room, rather unaware of themself and their own actions. The people in the other room are the objects of their perception.
But the moment they hear footsteps behind them and realize that someone is watching them, their perception shifts. They are suddenly aware of themself as an object of someone else’s perception and are now preoccupied with how ‘the other’ sees them—likely as a voyeur or a Peeping Tom. In this way, Sartre argues, ‘the look’ of others objectifies someone, changing even the way they see themself.
Perhaps smokers know ‘the look’ the best. There’s a look a person gets standing outside an office building as people pass by when they are smoking. The person is seen not just as someone who is smoking but as ‘a smoker’. Not as a father, or mother, or humanitarian—just a dirty, filthy smoker. And the person is directly aware of this dehumanizing objectification.
Of course, the person may deny their evaluation—but Sartre says, in a certain way, they can’t. In what he calls their ‘facticity’, they are a smoker; it is a fact about them that they smoke. But they can also transcend this; they are not just a smoker, but a father or mother—a musician, a humanitarian. But ‘the look’ of ‘the other’ threatens to squeeze them into that box and reduce them to an object.
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‘The Look’ of Social Media
Of course, ‘the look’ can occur anywhere—at work, at home, in relationships, during sex. And, especially in this day and age, someone doesn’t even need to be physically around others to feel the look.
And this is where social media comes in because it might be said that Facebook and Twitter exist merely to facilitate someone’s attempts to ‘look’ and be looked at by others.
People try to make others look at them the way they want to be looked at, to define how others objectify them. That’s why they post clever comments, share certain memes, and criticize particular views.
And people want to shape others into the way they see them. For Sartre, this is what almost all relationships are: a constant back and forth of people trying to objectify each other. This doesn’t hinder anyone’s freedom; people are not bound or forced to be what others think they are.
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Hell Is Other People
Sartre believed people have radical freedom, literally the ability to do or be anything they want. But this constant fight for someone to be themself, to not succumb to the expectations of others and make others into what they expect, is a miserable dehumanizing process. That’s why “Hell is other people”.
Sartre illustrated this in his play No Exit, in which three people find themselves locked in a drawing-room in Hell, awaiting the arrival of their torturer. As the play unfolds, what each of them did to deserve Hell is learned.
One abused his wife, another seduced a friend’s wife, and another murdered her own daughter. But they slowly realize that there is no torturer. Their torture is being locked in a room with each other for eternity. And this is torture because of the ‘objectifying looks’ that each bestows on the others.
Garcin, for example, who didn’t fight in the war, sees himself as a principled pacifist, but Inez sees him merely as a coward. As one of the only two people he will ever see again, Garcin needs her approval so badly; he vows to devote an eternity to convince her otherwise.
And, of course, the implication is the condition of these three poor souls in Hell is essentially the same condition everyone is in, here in the real world: People are surrounded by others, ‘looking’ at them, trying to gain their approval.
Common Questions about the Existential Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Social Media
Generally speaking, existentialist philosophers are concerned with the nature of the human condition—things like anxiety regarding death, the meaning or absurdity of life, and the extent and nature of freedom.
Sartre argues that ‘the look’ of others objectifies someone, changing even the way they see themself. However, thinks this doesn’t hinder anyone’s freedom—people are not bound or forced to be what others think they are.
Sartre believed that the constant fight for someone to be themself, to not succumb to the expectations of others and make others into what they expect, is a miserable dehumanizing process. That is why “Hell is other people”. For the three people in the play, their torture is being locked in a room with each other for eternity.