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  • The Gaze and the Fray
  • Tzvetan Todorov (bio)
    Translated by Marilyn Gaddis Rose

In “Living Alone Together,” I defend two theses. One concerns the need to think through all our anthropological categories, both explicit and implicit, in light of the constitutive sociality of man: the interhuman is the basis of the human. The other thesis deals with the forms of social interaction. I contest the dominant role habitually attributed to the relations of resemblance, which also means of rivalry and combat, and I recall that a role comparable in importance, indeed more important, is played by the relations of contiguity and complementarity, an exemplary incarnation of which is the gaze we turn toward one another and hence, at the origin, the gaze exchanged by the infant and his mother (or whoever is serving in that capacity). The gaze, not only the fray. This text, I should point out, is taken from my book La Vie commune (Life in Common) which appeared in French in 1995 and where I develop these theses in more detail.

My critics, in their responses, illustrate the two models of interaction that I meant to describe. Most of them (six out of seven) choose the way of the gaze, of mutual, not conflictual, recognition. They use one or another element of my argument to develop their own thinking in diverse directions, according to their own interests. One of them (Robert Wokler), however, chose the way of fray. His truth can be validated only at the expense of my error. In my commentary on the commentaries and to illustrate once again the difference between these two models, I shall follow the same strategy: the fray with the one and the complementary gaze with all the others. I will group the following remarks into two thematic sections, separating the questions relative to the interpretation of ancient authors from the conceptual analysis of human sociality.

Intellectual History

My premise in this text is not strictly historical (the two theses I have just summarized do not contain a reference to history). Nevertheless, I chose to illustrate it by a brief analysis of three celebrated authors and by a still briefer review of the prior philosophical context. My hypothesis [End Page 95] here is that a qualitative change occurred in the thinking of Rousseau, who sees the act of birth of the human species proper in man’s gaze upon his fellow man.

The history of ideas is a frustrating discipline. The more one reads the books of the past, the more one has the impression that there is nothing new under the sun. But we must overcome that disappointment. As Borges explained à propos of Kafka, we can always find predecessors for a new work, but we could not have predicted that work from its predecessors. There really is novelty. The same holds true for Rousseau’s affirmation of human sociality. On the one hand, ancient philosophers, and notably Aristotle, certainly affirm our constitutive sociality. But that sociality is not analyzed as a relation of complementarity. It is simply that man, unlike gods and beasts, must live in the midst of his fellow creatures. On the other hand, ancient philosophers and moralists are perfectly aware of our need to be acknowledged by the gaze of others. These are—whether positively or negatively marked—our desires for fame, honor, approval, flattery. But these desires are not conceived as constitutive of the species. They can also be absent. Some say this is the way of the wise. Others say this is the way of ordinary men, as opposed to heroes ready to die for fame. The novelty in Rousseau would therefore be (and it is not diminished by this) to have joined these two affirmations and to have seen the origin of our sociality in the complementarity of gazes rather than in our resemblance.

We must also bear in mind the difference between the dominant philosophical thought, the doxa and underground or marginal thought which is expressed in literature, myth, or religion before being transformed into dogma. As René Girard has shown, the narratives of myths and novels often contribute very different and much more penetrating theses than those of philosophers. Girard’s...

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pp. 95-106
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