Rosemarie Garland Thomson explores how staring can be a generative experience.
She explained to us why we feel inclined to stare. Although there is a symbolic order to sight—our mothers teach us as children not to stare, and we are aware of how much eye contact is too much eye contact -- we stare when we are incredibly curious about something new/novel. Our eyes linger or get stuck because we are desperate to make sense of a thing. We are looking for clues and explanations about why this sight – this person, does not conform to or appear the way we understand that people should. Thus, it’s a natural desire resulting from interest/desire to know.
Thompson’s work focuses on disabilities – visible disabilities. She calls the person with a visible disability the staree, and she examines their coping mechanisms, or their strategies of dealing with constantly being stared at.
What she said which interested me particularly was how starees quite often assume the responsibility of consoling the starer. Or they have to take it upon themselves to diffuse the tension or unsettlement of the situation. It reminds me of another segment of the What Can the Body Do? exhibition at Haverford, which was a poetry reading by a group of visibly disabled poets. One of the poems was titled “An Amputees Guide to Sex” and it was all about how the amputee has to/has learned how to navigate the experience of sex so that their lack of limb is completely unperceivable to their partner – to make it a non-issue. To feign confidence, while hiding much of her inner and outer self.
What Thompson described of her work -- making the experience of staring a generative experience – focused on how the staree can make it generative, placing much responsibility on the staree – who already had to learn to exist within a society which was not built for them. However, she did explain how she has different management strategies depending on how she’s feeling or how much time she has, etc. Ergo, when she isn’t in the mood, “fuck off” might be her management strategy.
This has me thinking about our experience in the Prison – and the ethics of subjecting these women to our stares. Of course, within the prison, there is a reciprocal relationship – Bryn Mawr women are both starers and starees just like the Cannery women. However, we are going into the prison by choice, with autonomy, with goals in mind. While they simply have to cope and acquiesce to our goals/stares. Of course, it is a learning experience for us. But is it an ethical one? Especially the Prison tours we took – during which we develop no relationship, we offer them nothing – but rather subject them to our curious eyes. I imagine, having no privacy they are not particularly struck by us (we’re nothing new), but still. Isn’t it sort of like we are visiting a zoo? I’m sure there are ways that the starees could make the experience generative, but it feels wrong that they have no place to escape our stares.