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By Joe Block 

Around the Block


July 19, 2018

Teething and Nothingness

It’s not an exaggeration to say Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of The Gaze in his seminal work “Being and Nothingness” revolutionized not only philosophy, but the way we view ourselves and others. It is even more important today with the rise of things as varied as Instagram and feminism.

The Gaze is very simple: the existence of others makes us an object. We become aware of others looking at us, and we view and understand ourselves as a thing for them. We also, in understanding others, make them into an object. It is not just ourselves and others as a body. We also objectify them as people—people with rigid ideas, beliefs, and opinions.

In the past 25 years the idea that we objectify ourselves and others has come to the forefront. It is present in concepts such as body-shaming, slut-shaming (based on a woman’s dress), and even the “hotness” of college professors on ranking websites. Just a few days ago, removed “hotness” rankings—measured in hot peppers—from its website.

We all have this experience of becoming an object, whether through the sudden awareness that someone—or everyone—is looking at you, to our social media presence, to the insecurity we all feel in public. Even simply looking nice or dressing up involves becoming an object for others.

I’ve recently had the experience of The Gaze impressed upon me even more than usual. If you’ve seen me in the past month, you probably know why.

I’m a bit of a grillmaster, taking great pleasure in painstakingly creating rubs and sauces for my barbecued ribs. It’s one of my guilty pleasure. And despite my doctor’s unhappiness with my diet, I try to have ribs once a week in the summertime.

Last month, having prepared a delicious applewood rub, I massaged it into a rack of ribs and slow-cooked it. I then sat down to a delicious meal, and indeed, it did not disappoint. About halfway through I bit into a meaty rib and something unusual happened: only a small bit of meat came from the bone.

I was confused, and bit in again. The same. Then I noticed something felt weird in my mouth. I thought I had something stuck in my teeth, so I reached into my mouth and felt my front teeth. My left front tooth was sticking out at a 45-degree angle.

I ran to the bathroom mirror and gazed in astonishment. There was no pain, no blood, just a partially broken tooth, still partially attached, sticking out of my mouth. I gently grabbed the tooth and it fell out into my hands.

The panic began.

It was after 5 p.m., so the dentist was out of the question. I wasn’t in pain, so I didn’t think I needed an emergency appointment. I put the remainder of the tooth in a bag and wrapped up my ribs. I hoped I could eat them tomorrow.

When I went to the dentist the next morning, the dental hygienist, upon seeing my half-tooth, said “That’s a doozy.” The dentist then said, “I have bad news.” Needless to say, no crown was possible, and I’d need an implant. In the meantime, I’d be fitted with a denture.

Dentures are expensive, so much so that I’d have to wait about 6 weeks to get it. So, since then, I’ve had a gap-toothed smile.

The first few weeks I was horrified when I met people. I didn’t smile. I tried to talk in a way that my lips didn’t expose my teeth. That’s not possible. Eventually I resigned myself to looking…well, bad.

People had three reactions: one group would not even miss a beat, talking to me as usual. A second group would take a glancing look and continue on unabated. The third group, however, would unabashedly stare. It’s easy to notice: they would talk to my mouth, and not look me in the eye.

And this is where The Gaze comes in.

I became excruciatingly aware that I had become an object for them. I had become that missing tooth; nothing else was there for them. It was their focus. I can only hope they actually heard what I was saying.

Likewise, I was pulled away from myself and I became an object for myself. I was the missing tooth, or the guy with the missing tooth, or why on earth does this guy have a missing tooth? I couldn’t think of anything else.

Over the past month I’ve come to identify with my tooth and The Gaze. I feel like it’s my defining characteristic. I’m aware of it all the time. And I dread talking to people. I know this gap has, in many ways, become who I am.

But the great thing about The Gaze, even though it pervades modern society, is that you grow used to it. I’ve posted my gap-tooth smile on social media. I talk about it. Perhaps that’s a way of drawing attention away from it: yes, I know it’s there, here’s why it’s there, let’s get it out in the open. And no doubt this column is a coping mechanism as well, couched in a philosophy lesson.

However, I think it’s an important lesson. The Gaze is ever present. We all have our missing tooth. We have to take ownership of it and understand that it’s okay.

It’s just a tooth.


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