The objectification of women is generally a problem of the Other in philosophy. Many philosophers, idealists and realists both, attempt to generate the Other from the self or began their analysis by assuming the existence of the alter ego. The former tries to erect an epistemological bridge from consciousness to consciousness, and the latter tries to assert that one consciousness is already “in touch” with another within the social reality of human existence.
But either way leads to an impasse because they are limited by the assumption that knowledge is the sole means to the discovery of the other. Rather, there is a third alternative: instead of knowledge, being is the ground of our relationships to others. Ontology, not epistemology is the appropriate level of discourse regarding the Other.
The Other is a term for another person, especially a person who looks at me, sees me, and judges me. The Other is a subject that I experience as such by experiencing myself as an object for the Other. The term “other” helps explain the various aspects of the phenomenon of being – for- others and the complicated interplay of objectivity and subjectivity that takes place when one person encounters another. When I am looked at by the Other i no longer am a free transcendence of the world, and instead become an object in the world of the Other. My free transcendence is transcended by the transcendence of the Other.
Let’s suppose I’m looking at a photograph of a beautiful woman on the computer. I’m completely absorbed by what I’m looking at. This is me on the non-reflective level, and I am alone. But once I hear a noise behind myself, and I suddenly realize that I’m being watched. I’m caught red-handed! My entire situation has changed radically. I am now aware of the presence of someone else – another consciousness who is watching me. The difference between the two situations, before and after, is the difference between an isolated consciousness all by its lonesome and a consciousness in the presence of others. This sudden realization of being watched does not necessarily mean I shift to the reflective level. I will soon get there, but the awesome moment that I realize I am being watched, and before I begin to reflect.
Let’s say I’m at a strip joint, relaxing with my 10 dollar drink. Everything seems cool. Up on the stage, there’s a performer, going through her routine listlessly. It seems normal, and the entire world is constituted by my consciousness, including that other writhing human body, and arranged to refer to a certain point of view – my own. Everything refers to me; everything is organized around me – the eye of the camera is always present but not considered as a phenomenon on the screen. The entire situation is a matter of my phenomena, something perceived or experienced.
But suddenly, that other person, the performer, stops in the middle of her routine and looks at me, staring directly into my eyes. I am startled; I become unnerved. It is because the entire world has come on to me differently. There’s something threatening about this woman’s ominous stare. I’m not afraid that she will leap from the stage and attack me, or anything like that. Let’s say she is petite and svelte, so there’s no question of any physical danger in the situation. Yet I am completely unnerved by her stare.
Jean-Paul Sartre says that she is threatening me not with bodily harm, but something far more serious. She is a threat to the order or arrangement of my entire world. The fact of recognizing that there is another consciousness behind those impenetrable eyes, I recognize that there is another point of view on things, a point of view on principle i can never occupy. The world has come on to me, but no longer referring to just my point of view, but to another one too, another camera. The world is no longer comfortably ordered and arranged around my view – it is now arranged around hers.
Everything else remains the same – the same cheesy music, the poles are greasy, the bouncer is still standing there trying to stay awake. But the world is now profoundly different, and there’s nothing reflective here yet. All things are the same, yet something has been lost. The world is now her world – a foreign world that no longer comes from you but from her. The value that appear in the world are suddenly her values – values I can never get in a position to perceive.
Moreover, I suddenly recognize that I can see that certain perspective that I am. In other words, she can see me. That private point of view that is mine – which I am always but can never accurately see – is now seen by that other person. This isn’t reflective – it’s almost as if in my movie, another movie camera came up and stared into the lens of my movie camera. I still don’t see my movie camera on the screen, but I am definitely aware of being seen. Does that woman approve of what I am doing in the strip club? Is she secretly condemning me? Does she find me ugly, awkward, out of place? I can never tell. My world is now haunted by the other’s values, of which I have absolutely no control. There is another freedom turned loose in the world and one that does violence to my own.
The realization that the other person sees me as an object, a certain viewpoint that I occupy but can never see, that POV I try in bad faith to turn into an inert object, the Other succeeds in seeing all that as an object. I can never see myself as others see me. The attempt to do so, the attempt to see myself as an object, is bad faith. But the other sees me as an object. I am for others what I never succeed in being for myself. So, I am exposed, I am vulnerable. I try to be noble, but I can never make myself noble. I can never define myself that way. But the Other can do it to me. She decides whether I am noble or not. She passes judgment by projecting her values on things, including me. She sees me as I really am.
Sartre claims that it is impossible to be ashamed alone. The feeling of shame puts me in touch with other people and their values, even if they’re not there at the situation. Therefore I recognize myself in the Other’s judgment of me, even if I am ignorant of what they are. Her judgment cuts me to the core. Why should the stripper’s judgments be able to wound me unless I recognize myself in them? Yet they are utterly beyond my control. I try to reach the real me, but that will always be in bad faith. I can never succeed, for I am forever separated from myself as I am. The real me is a goal I cannot reach but the Other does it for me, whether I like it or not, with a single action – by a single glance. She makes me what I am. She defines me as a john. Despite this labeling, I remain separated from myself. I have no control over what she makes of me. I am still separated from myself as I am. I can try to win the Other’s approval by being generous, complimentary, behaving in a way I think will win her approval. IOW I can try to manipulate her freedom to get her to judge me in the way I would like. But it’s still her freedom. She may approve of my efforts, or she may see them as sycophantic, cheap manipulative attempts to win her approval. I cannot control which of these alternatives she will choose.