Check Out This Video of What I Saw: https://youtu.be/rRjAgbcN1aU
Windows to the Soul: The Weirdness of Eye Contact
By Amber D’Oliveira
Every day, without fail, I have realized something so peculiar: the lack of eye contact. I walk down the sidewalk, naturally scanning my surroundings, and happen to lock eyes with a stranger walking opposite to me, within the same second they look away. I am not a threatening person, my intent is not to intimidate, I am merely making eye contact and observing, yet it is almost never reciprocated. Strangely, I found that my friends and family were more willing to make eye contact with me, unlike the random strangers I see on a day-to-day basis.
I started thinking, and recalled how people called the eyes the ‘windows to the soul,’ and immediately thought of Alaimo. Windows are transparent and can be opened from both sides, and as Alaimo would put it, it can be considered one of the most permeable points in the body, which explains why it is so protected. The instinct to looking away, and shying from the eye contact must then be a way of protection; a form of saving oneself from the harm a stranger or other scarring sights could inflict.
The act of believing that glancing away can protect oneself from the harm of the outside world is simply a myth of the modern body. The modern sense of body severs the links between the human body and its environment, and merely ” implies both purity and the ability to fend off harmful organisms and substances” when in truth the body is undoubtedly permeable to so much more, including organisms and substances(Alaimo). By recognizing the body in the ecological sense, one can see how easily our sense of sight can harm our brain and consciousness, demonstrating the futile nature of trying to close ourselves off to our harmful environment.
Practically, one cannot wear a high-grade gas mask to filter out all the pollutants in the air, nor only drink the purest of water, nor protect against every element that may do harm, nor protect our minds, the control center of our fragile bodies. People can be destroyed with a glance. People who go to war, witness 9/11, or other traumatic events come back in one piece and ‘healthy’ (according to the modern body), yet they are never quite whole again because of a single glimpse of their environment.
Eye contact is intimidating, it is meant to show confidence and comfort. A confident person makes eye contact, because they are not afraid of what they may see, they are strangely undaunted. The average stranger tends to look away, refusing eye contact, due to their unwillingness to invite a stranger in, a risk. Without eye contact, a casual passerby will not engage in non-verbal or verbal communication because a wall is put up, rather than the open window of eye contact. But, what are people really protecting themselves from?
Although the modern body is widely believed, the act of refusing eye contact shows that people know their ecological bodies are porous to outside factors. The eyes are the windows to the soul, a site that is not only viscous, but also porous; Viscous or not stable enough to keep out the damaging sights one may experience, and porous enough to allow those sights to flow through the barrier of the eye into our fragile consciousness. This porosity of our eyesight is what allows us to see the beauty in the world and enjoy its magnificence, however “porosity often does not discriminate against that which can kill us,” allowing beauty and horror indiscriminately (Tuana). Thus, we are pushed to protect ourselves from the potentially toxic environment to protect our bodies so that the virtue of our porosity does not poison us.
The Bigger Picture
The once rude behavior of not making eye contact has become a sort of norm. Turning against the unspoken consensus, the lack of eye contact and the open dismissal of a person’s advances can be considered taboo. However, when walking or scanning from a distance, rather than up-close personal conversations, the taboo of a lack of eye contact has been blurred and accepted. A taboo is a “spontaneous device” that “protects the local consensus” and attempts to reduce disorder by defining explicitly what is considered taboo (Douglas). However, the ‘taboo’ of eye contact has become ambiguous by only being respected in intimate conversations with trusted persons, rather than a simple rule to apply to all interactions with other people. The danger of this taboo-breaking practice of accepting the lack of eye contact, is that the practice spreads lie a contagion throughout the community. Not only is the act of not making eye contact being used as a shield to protect against our toxic environment, but is also becoming a behavioral norm.
People avoid eye contact to protect that fluid window of their eyes because if they are harmed, they are harmed without return. A paper-cut can be mended, a scraped knee can heal, but a damaged mind can never be whole again. What is seen cannot be unseen. To make eye contact, is to welcome a stranger into your world, a possible risk. To make eye contact and see something; something you can never unsee, is dangerous. It is strange how, almost instinctively, we protect the most permeable part of our body because it is utterly defenseless.
In the video attached, I walked around videotaping. I caught some people who were keen on avoiding eye contact, people who would only spare a quick glance, people that chose to distract themselves and completely close off the outside world, and a few who really did not mind locking eyes.
PS: Sorry about the shakiness, it was hard to keep the camera still while walking.
Alaimo, Stacy. “Material Memoirs: Science, Autobiography, and the Substantial Self.” Bodily Natures, Indiana University Press, 2010, pp. 85-112.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. Routledge, 1966.
Tuana, Nancy. “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina.” Material feminisms. Indiana University Press, 2008, pp. 188- 218.