Saving Face

The Invisible Man, Part 1

(c) Matthew

For all the trouble it brings, the omnipresent watchful gaze of the relational world does have its benefits. You get noticed, for one thing. This is a significant benefit of an intersubjective existence – no-one dislikes anything more than to remain invisible in a social world dependent on attention, acknowledgement and recognition. To be noticed by others by whom one desires notice is as human a need as food and shelter, and its absence can be a reason for real stress and anxiety. Even the experience of someone ‘looking right through you’ at social events (like you’re not even there) leaves people disoriented, hurt and disrespected, a painful experience that cuts right to the bone. For what’s worse than a dirty look than no look at all?

The craving for attention, in one way or another, affects everyone to some degree, not just the endless procession of celebrities whose fame, glamour and attention seeking grab the headlines and the public imagination (some of it). But people are right to assume that celebrities protest too much at their visibility when they clearly find it difficult to live without it. The endless morality tales about the rich and famous suggest that the need to be noticed, to be seen, is at best a double-edged sword, giving in one hand while taking away in the other.

Sadly, a lack of wealth, fame and glamour is no guarantee of invisibility either, the double-edged nature of the relational world affecting everybody to a greater or lesser extent. To be visible is a prerequisite for acknowledgement, and to be acknowledged is to be valued. To be valued is what one really wants – to be valued, however, by other people. And therein lies the rub. The people whose acknowledgement one so craves and desires, can of course, change their minds. On a whim, the source of value can be taken away, the cloak of invisibility once again returning to do its damage.

The core premise of Dirty Looks is that the gaze of others is inescapable – there is no hiding place. But while people sometimes say they want to escape the gaze, deep down, they don’t really mean it.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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