Walking down Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn this week, I came upon an altercation between a parking cop and a double-parked driver. The latter was clearly in the wrong but was being pig-headed. Told to start his car and move on, he sat stubbornly behind the wheel, argued with the angry policeman and collected the ticket. Given my morbid interest in police encounters and possibly my Indian genes, I paused to watch, then realized that I was quite alone in my curiosity. Civically shamed, I crossed the street, walked back and forth and tried to look discreet – to hide, in other words, my desire to stare. Eventually I got a grip on my naturalized self and walked on.
This is an essay on cultures of staring, which are not identical. In public spaces, it might be suggested very generally, some cultures do not encourage gathering around to stare; others evidence no such reservations. The willingness or reluctance is interpreted (by the reluctant) as a civilizational and geographic statement: non-staring publics are modern/western, whereas staring shows a failure to recognize the boundary between public and private. This failure comes attached to corresponding moral flaws, such as the failure to be embarrassed by unexpected intimacies, excessive curiosity, and an insufficiently Weberian attitude towards work and time. But what else drives the crowd that gathers to stare? Why is their staring immune from embarrassment? Perhaps more pertinently, is it really not nice to stare?
To answer these questions, it has first to be acknowledged that cultures stare at different things. In an era of ‘reality’ television and tabloid consumption, we in this country are well acquainted with the phenomenon of gawking. Every other traffic jam on the freeway is caused by rubberneckers who find a road accident an irresistible occasion to slow down for a glimpse of mangled parts and dazed survivors. In India, on the other hand, rubbernecking is rare, largely because road accidents are not. You see the overturned truck out of the corner of your eye and keep going, with a grimace and a click of the tongue.
Yet India is notorious as a staring culture, and justifiably so. A police-on-citizen incident like the one I witnessed would have attracted a crowd within seconds. I once got a ticket for smoking on the platform in Kachiguda railway station in Hyderabad surrounded by at least fifty people, who materialized as if by magic just to watch. It was a good-natured crowd, quite impartial. They were mainly intrigued; this was in the early days of the regulation of public smoking in Indian cities. Instant crowds watching the functioning of the state on Indian streets are not always so relaxed. They constitute a third force that can take sides, violently and unpredictably. The crowd materializes as a sudden precipitation of autonomous political will in the public space of the street, which is only contingently and precariously within the formal space of the state. It was precisely to preempt such precipitation and the consequent alienation of the street from the state, Foucault suggested, that modern European societies moved away from public spectacles of punishment. Yet unless the spectacle is indeed spectacular – the threshold is surprisingly high – a properly acculturated modern citizenry continues to grant that public space, too, is constituted by ‘private’ boundaries, even when the state is involved. I once saw police at a Metrolink station in St. Louis shackle a black teenager to a tree while commuters went about their own business. It would probably not occur to an Indian policeman to tell a crowd that whatever they were staring at was none of their business. Transactions conducted in public are everybody's business.
The staring, loitering, fast-gathering crowd may be inevitable in an overcrowded country with high unemployment. But that crowd is more than people with too much time and not enough space. By its very existence, it generates specific kinds of public space, with their peculiar dynamics of power. Domestic dispute? Face the crowd, screaming lady and shouting gentleman. Writing a check, or filling out a form at the post office? Be prepared to have the crowd look over your shoulder and practically nibble on your earlobes as you fill in your ‘private’ information. Taking a photograph, or better yet, being photographed? A grinning multitude will inevitably and unembarrassedly crowd the background. Indian television news crews rarely record ‘location’ footage without a backdrop of craned necks and faces determined to be included. ‘Visible’ foreigners – usually white people, but sometimes others will do – can become the target of staring in ways that range from annoying through disconcerting to traumatizing, even in cities where foreign faces are not all that uncommon.
This behavior carries latent political initiatives: the quasi-rural impulse to regulate the social lives of neighbors in a way that restricts the autonomy of the individual as well as the efficacy of external agents, the repudiation of the photographer’s prerogative of staring while his subjects and their space become docile, the desire to put privileged outsiders in their place by denying them camouflage and inflicting a measure of discomfort. In a society like urban India in the era of economic liberalization, the insistent stare of the crowd is also a direct challenge to the equally insistent blindness of the wealthy, who step over sweepers in Khan Market and beggars in Greater Kailash as if they did not exist, determined not to meet their eyes. It is, in that sense, the deployment of sight as a rejection of invisibility. The stare of the crowd is not Foucault’s gaze; it is inconsistent, unpredictable, unconcerned with orderly lines and antithetical to normative arrangements of power. It is itself powerful, but it derives its potency from its tendency to materialize and vanish suddenly. Whereas Foucault emphasized the steady gaze of the Panoptic tower, the jostling, giggling crowd supplies as the gaze of the guerrilla.
As in Foucault, however, power produces an undeniable element of pleasure. Staring crowds are sometimes angry, but more often they are pleased: pleased to be staring, pleased to be a crowd, pleased to be out in public constituting a public. These are active, invitational pleasures. The crowd is invited – or at any rate, expected – by those at the center of the spectacle, who count upon the presence of referees, mediators, protectors and allies, and are unwilling to allow the state a monopoly over these roles. But the crowd also invites. One of the most bizarre aspects of doing street photography in India is that not only do people crowd insistently into the frame, they demand to be photographed – not with their own cameras as tourists often ask, but with the cameras of strangers they will not see again and who will never send them the images. Staring at the Nikons and Canons of passersby and intruders becomes an alternative ritual of technological modernity and an alternative way of traveling: instead of the photographer ‘capturing’ the crowd and bringing it ‘home’ to a world of privilege, the crowd hijacks the photographer and goes home with him. Such movements are usually beyond the confidence and capability of individuals, but are accomplished automatically by the crowd staring in unison. When the individual stares back at the appropriating camera, the result is pathetic and devoid of pleasure, as in this image by Steve McCurry, which must count as one of the more appalling examples of photographic assault published.
There is an erotic component to this pleasure: the tamasha of instant entertainment, the smells and sounds of the crowd, the press of body on body, misogynist and racist fantasies, a voyeurism that is not voyeurism because it refuses to acknowledge – or at any rate, severely curtails – a right to privacy in public space. The staring crowd thus pleases itself by engaging in a theater that aggressively denies a basic premise of modernity. This is not pre-modern behavior either; quasi-rural curiosity in the conduct of neighbors is not so much a rustic hangover as an adaptation to urbanity. There is nothing ‘traditional’ about inverting/subverting the rituals of photography, or watching a policeman dispense a ticket. In a well-known essay, S. N. Eisenstadt described the postcolonial world as an alternative modernity. The phenomenon of staring is an essential part of this alternative, generating possibilities of public action and intervention that have largely been forfeited in the global west.
The street-as-theater – a space for spectators who are also the actors – is a concept that has, for the most part, become incompatible with American modernity (which is, of course, not limited to America). It is not just punishment that has migrated from the body to the soul; citizenship itself has shrunk back from the body, so that the erotics of being a crowd have become embarrassing. We prefer to be atomized within automobiles, and to stare at the television or the computer screen at home. As the public has become virtual, the street has been effectively colonized by a pseudo-privacy that only the state and its closest allies can legitimately (and compulsively) violate. This is not entirely a bad thing; the staring crowd is undoubtedly a tyrant and often a thug. But it is not entirely a good thing either. It has cleared a very large space – the normatively modern street – within which it has become an act of good citizenship to not look, to just keep walking, to accept prescribed and proscribed lines of sight.
The ongoing campaign against Wikileaks is an example of the operation of this space that is not quite private but has nevertheless been sanitized of eyes that ‘have no business’ seeing. The unregulated media is not unlike an Indian crowd: it is neither pre-modern nor properly modern, it has no fixed location, it is destabilizing but also bracing, and it complicates the creation of secret zones and black sites within public spaces. The staring crowd and the pirate Internet will probably not bring down the edifice of modern society; these are not fully separate and hostile spheres, but rather, the same people in shifting modes. But they generate a necessary and desirable dialectic between power and exposure that is vital to the possibility of political action.