In this book, Garland-Thomson focuses on the interactive aspects of staring. She is interested in why we stare, what happens when we stare, and how staring affects both the starer as well as the staree. First, she breaks down what happens when we stare, noting that at its core, “Staring is an ocular response to what we don’t expect to see” (3). More importantly, she observes that “We stare when ordinary seeing fails, when we want know more. So staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story….This intense visual engagement creates a circuit of communication and meaning-making” (3). It is the narrative and “meaning-making” aspects of staring which intrigue me most, as that seems to be at play in the southern texts I am looking at. The ugly women in these texts grab our attention in ways that the more conventional-looking women do not. They ask us to consider why they look the way they do, what has scarred them or pushed them outside of normativity.
Garland-Thomson spend the first half of the book focusing on images of the freak, examining the kinds of stares which occur and why, as well as the social and cultural meanings of the stare. Garland-Thomson does distinguish the stare from the gaze, which she defines as “an oppressive act of disciplinary looking that subordinates its victim” (9). She then goes on to further distinguish different kinds of stares: “the blank stare, the baroque stare, the separated stare, the engaged stare, the stimulus-driven stare, the goal-driven stare, and the dominating stare” (9). Each of these, she claims, has at its heart “the matter of appearance, of the ways we see each other and the ways we are seen” (9). Despite the issues of power at play in staring, she is most interested in what she describes as staring’s “generative potential” (9).
Garland-Thomson explains how in the midst of a riot of sensory input, the brain works through the process of visual recognition called “orientation”: “Orientation is the attempt to impose a frame of reference on the chaos of a visual field by integrating what is unknown into what is already known….[requiring] scrutiny to impose a logical narrative on what at first glance seems to be random visual stimuli ” (20)
In the second half of the book, she focuses on specific body parts which are most likely to induce stares: faces, hands, breasts, and bodies in general. Faces, hands, and breasts are particularly charged locations on the body—faces and hands because of their key role in expression, interpretation, and primary bodily functions, and breasts because of their dual role in maternity and eroticism. Breasts are unique in their object position in the stare, as they are an acceptable object of staring when erotic breasts, but inappropriate objects of the stare when maternal, scarred, or absent. Faces, hands, and bodies, when non-normative, are potentially generative sites for narrative construction and information, as Garland-Thomson highlights in her discussion of photographs of handless victims of war and limbless war veterans and how they have been used to bring attention to important political issues.
Garland-Thomson quantifies the claim that Scarry makes, that beauty gives life to the beholder and the beheld, by making the heart beat faster: “The staring encounter arouses us as well. Our heart rate increases when we are stared at; being subjected to a stare even registers on a cortical EEG. So viscerally potent is the staring encounter that we can even feel stares directed at us. In fact, humans from infancy can detect unseen stares. We not only believe that we can tell when we are being stared at, but repeated experiments dating as early as the late nineteenth century suggest that in fact we do” (17). So, contrary to Scarry’s claim that staring and gazing do no harm to the object of beauty, according to Garland-Thomson, they do have a palpable quality to them. Whether harmful or harmless, though, I suppose is up for debate, and whether the heart-pounding is elation or palpitations is equally up for debate.