This week, I finished reading The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory by Marilyn Frye, a text I had not encountered in my studies of feminism (in literary theory, psychology, philosophy, or theology) until now. In some ways, I wish I would have read it sooner. In other ways, I am grateful for this more recent rendezvous. From my current position and perspective – theoretical and personal – I was, I think, more able to hear the core message Frye conveys than I would have been years ago. I have less to protect now, and my ego is less fragile. In the text, she names the mechanisms around which Western – and patriarchal – cultures are founded. Her argument is fluent and cogent, even as it threatens the stability this culture offers. Our lives are embedded in it, even if our personal ethics point to alternative, feminist ways of living. Frye pushes her readers to live alternatively, so that we can recognize the times that we conspire/feed into/comply with patriarchal messages and clean the residue of servitude off of our skin.
For the purposes of this post, I engage two opposing concepts Frye presents in the text: the arrogant eye and the loving eye. Located in the chapter entitled “In and out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” Frye investigates how men in phallocentric culture exploit and enslave women. The opposing, contradictory eyes of arrogance and love directly relate to the experience of shame which effectively serves to subjugate women in patriarchal culture.
Shame functions within what I call a logic of exposure. Shame relates intimately to the concept of being seen. Affectively, shame results from our interest/excitement being partially truncated. For instance, we are drawn to someone (real or imagined); we are interested in their response to us, and somehow something interferes with the desire to connect. Contact is cut off, and interest/excitement partially halted. Shame ensues. We experience that someone (real or imagined) seeing us as other, different, foreign, maligned, wrong, or worthless. We are seen wrongly. This misperception alleviates joy and relates to the gaze of the arrogant eye under which (as the default gaze of phallocentric culture) we often find ourselves seeking approval.
The arrogant eye operates under the assumption that all of nature exists as a resource for man’s exploitation. Coherent with the Western myth that women’s creation is tied to her role as the helper of man, this view of the world leads to an internal logic that “everything is either ‘for me’ or ‘against me’” (67). An example of this is readily available for analysis living in the White House. The arrogant eye is coercive, manipulative, and dishonest. Embodied in the character of the oppressive man, this eye “tries to accomplish in a glance what the slave masters and batterers accomplish by extended use of physical force, and to a great extent he succeeds” (67) – to subdue and control. Shame, a response that leads women to hide, withdrawal, enact violence on themselves, disappear, be quiet, follow the rules established by patriarchal culture – the list is endless – is an effective means for the arrogant eye which, instead of viewing women as agents in their own right, sees women as tools to fortify very particular ends.
Alternatively, the loving eye sees a person for who she really is: valuable, worthy, and capable. “The loving perceiver,” Frye writes, “can see without the presupposition that the other poses a constant threat or that the other exists for the seer’s service…One who sees with a loving eye is separate from the other whom she sees. There are boundaries between them” (74-75). Boundaries disenable the engulfing of the self by the arrogant eye which desires that others function in service, enslaved. The loving eye is not afraid of boundaries, strength, and agency, and, rather than shaming, restores interest. This loving eye appreciates, knows, and accepts the independence of the other. This eye contradicts shame because rather than imposing expectations or demanding certain behaviors, this eye “look[s] and listen[s] and check[s] and question[s]” (75). The loving eye is thus both generous and accepting. The loving eye understands the complexity of the other. This simple understanding contradicts the debilitating message of unworthiness of shame conveyed by the arrogant eye.
Frye ends her book with the theme of “seeing” running strong. Her text provokes me to see women and see them rightly, as worthy. This seems an easy task. But I have employed it recently. I hesitate to admit this, but every time I get on a train to New York City – usually mostly among white men who travel for work – I find myself classifying the few women around me…I won’t go into details. It’s enough to say that I judge them, compare myself, and categorize, deciding what they are doing and why. Recently, I have changed this posture and have employed the loving eye. In a funny turn of events, I feel that this strategy has softened me a little. Maybe helped me like myself more. I am understanding what Frye says that “attention is a kind of passion. When one’s attention is on something, one is present in a particular way with respect to that thing. This presence, among other things, is an erotic presence.” (172). For me this relates to the idea of loving women – regardless of the choices that they make and how they chose to survive in patriarchal culture (for me this is a stretch sometimes, but I have found it a valuable exercise). Frye defines lesbians, “as woman seers” (173), a political definition which incorporated into feminism establishes the notion of seeing as removing the ugly shroud of patriarchal culture established under the gaze of the arrogant eye, to unveil the very valuable self that lies beneath it. Here is to living and seeing through the loving eye.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).
14 thoughts on “Resisting Shame and Choosing to Live through the Loving Eye by Stephanie N. Arel”
I believe the loving eye is the source of healing in any sort of therapy. No matter what training or techniques a healer has, what matters most is to be able to hold that gaze, boundaries intact, until someone is able to see herself with the loving eye or at least receive the loving gaze of others. Thanks for this clear elucidation of what it feels like to see and be seen by the loving eye.
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I totally agree with this. Incidentally there have been studies about treatment for PTSD which shows that this capacity to hold the gaze – interpreted as empathic connection – creates beneficial effects whether the “therapist” is clinically trained or is not. That gaze can make all the difference…
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Totally agree! I couldn’t agree more. I’m successful at creating safe college classrooms because I made a pact to see the divinity and light in every student. It’s my secret way of trying to bring them healing.
“We are seen wrongly. This misperception alleviates joy and relates to the gaze of the arrogant eye under which (as the default gaze of phallocentric culture) we often find ourselves seeking approval.”
Oh, this is so true which is why it is so important to expose “the arrogant eye” for what it is – a real killer. Sad to say I raised two sons as a single mother who have both become men who embody the arrogant eye and attempt to fasten its gaze upon me.
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Sara, I understand this. I also raised two sons. The structures in our society that support patriarchy (the arrogant eye) undergird all our institutions that heavily influence our progeny. Can we REALLY counter all that influence? It takes a village and that village, in many ways, remains unenlightened.
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Reading this, I was prompted to recall Kierkegaard’s theological account of the loving eye – versus Sartre’s interpretation of shame related to what he calls “The Look.” I wonder if one can answer the other…in theological terms, the loving eye regards the beloved and loves him/her boundlessly so as to foster the evolution into a better person…I can imagine that this is already a means of mothering…but interesting maybe to think about in these terms.
Esther thank you for the validation… I think many of us raise children that end up being held hostage to patriarchy BUT no one talks about it – I know how much shame I have carried for so many years about not being “a good enough mother” – I still fall into it and then hate myself – and have to go back and reverse directions. This is hard to do when you think that you are the only one… thank you again. Patriarchy is bigger than us and it seduces men with power.
Brava! I agree that it’s important to look through loving eyes and, especially,to look at women and men around us who are survivors of the arrogant, phallocentric, patriarchal culture. The Troll-in-Chief seems to be giving permission for any sort of bad behavior. Lots of arrogant eyes, so to speak, giving themselves permission to see arrogantly and act on their arrogance. Thanks for writing this post.
Thanks Barbara…I always chuckle at the Troll-in-Chief. As per my response above, I wonder about turning the loving eye to him…I hold him to responsible, so if I would do that it would need to be also holding him accountable. Just a thought.
Very well articulated — contrasting shame/love judgment/empathy
This is a fantastic review. Thanks for your comments at the end. I’ve always been a supporter of women, but I get discouraged when I’m met with judging glances—either dismissal or jealousy. I want to scream “I want to empower you. Please see me and love me to women.”
Anyway, great points about the “….Western myth that women’s creation is tied to her role as the helper of man, this view of the world leads to an internal logic that “everything is either ‘for me’ or ‘against me’” (67). An example of this is readily available for analysis living in the White House. The arrogant eye is coercive, manipulative, and dishonest. Embodied in the character of the oppressive man, this eye “tries to accomplish in a glance what the slave masters and batterers accomplish by extended use of physical force, and to a great extent he succeeds” (67) – to subdue and control. Shame, a response that leads women to hide, withdrawal, enact violence on themselves, disappear, be quiet, follow the rules established by patriarchal culture – the list is endless –….”
Yes, yes, yes…we need healing and more loving gazes whether we are 9 months old or 99.
I appreciate your scholarship, Stephanie, finding it helpful for considering my own understanding of being human. Your discussion of the arrogant eye and the loving eye will definitely find its way into the Christian anthropology I teach in my course on the Theology of the Human Person. There are some hermeneutical differences I have with your reading of Scripture, but I trust I will learn more in how to resolve them as I continue to read more closely your book, “Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation.”
Hello Stephanie, I’ve translated into french your awesome article :) Cheers, Fabrice from Bordeaux/France.
The link: http://www.wikipratiquesnarratives.fr/index.php?title=R%C3%A9sister_%C3%A0_la_Honte_et_Choisir_de_Vivre_au_travers_de_l%27Oeil_d%27Amour