Staring: How We Look

Staring: How We Look

Staring: How We Look

Staring: How We Look


Drawing on examples from art, media, fashion, history and memoir, cultural critic Rosemarie Garland-Thomson tackles a basic human interaction which has remained curiously unexplored, the human stare. In the first book of its kind, Garland-Thomson defines staring, explores the factors that motivate it, and considers the targets and the effects of the stare. While borrowing from psychology and biology to help explain why the impulse to stare is so powerful, she also enlarges and complicates these formulations with examples from the realm of imaginative culture. Featuring over forty illustrations, Staring captures the stimulating combination of symbolic, material and emotional factors that make staring so irresistible while endeavoring to shift the usual response to staring, shame, into an engaged self-consideration. Elegant and provocative, this unique study advances new ways of thinking about visuality and the body that will appeal to readers who are interested in the overlap between the humanities and human behaviors.


Staring raises questions. Who stares? Why do we stare? When do we stare? What do we stare at? Why can’t we stop staring? What do we do when we are stared at? Should we stare?

We stare because we are curious, and we are curious about staring. Staring: How We Look aims to scratch that inquisitive itch by thinking carefully about the stare. It explores staring’s possibilities and shows that staring is more than meets the eye.

Everybody stares. Staring is an ocular response to what we don’t expect to see. Novelty arouses our eyes. More than just looking, staring is an urgent eye jerk of intense interest. Mike Ervin calls it “the car wreck phenomenon” (2005 interview). We stare when ordinary seeing fails, when we want to know more. So staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story. the eyes hang on, working to recognize what seems illegible, order what seems unruly, know what seems strange. Staring begins as an impulse that curiosity can carry forward into engagement (figure 1.1).

Spectacles elicit wonderment, but when we stare at one another something more complicated happens. We don’t usually stare at people we know, but instead when unfamiliar people take us by surprise. This kind of staring between strangers, this book suggests, offers the most revealing instance of the stare: how it works and what it can do. An encounter between a starer and a staree sets in motion an interpersonal relationship, however momentary, that has consequences. This intense visual engagement creates a circuit of communication and meaning-making. Staring bespeaks involvement, and being stared at demands a response. a staring encounter is a dynamic struggle—starers inquire, starees lock eyes or flee, and starers advance or . . .

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