Hell is Other People, But Must Other People be Hell?


April 22, 2005

Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit has just finished a run at Imago Theater, right across the street from Kboo. The play’s three main characters arrive in hell and discover that their fate is to spend a sleepless eternity together in one small room, and that they are well suited to be each others’ torturers. As one of them says after a while, Hell is other people. But Sartre also said,


…“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us. (From the Imago playbill)


The characters in the play quickly discover that they cannot really be alone in a room where there are others; whatever any individual does, thinks or feels is shaped by the gaze of the others. Moreover, even when I am alone, the way in which I evaluate my actions, my desires, and my character are taken from the categories and habits of others. We learn from our culture what it means to be a hero or a villain, a man or woman—just as we learn the rest of our language which teaches us to call things by their names. So I am never really alone; I am always in sight of others. This means, as Sartre says, that the kinds of relations we have with others is supremely important.

Politically, this insight can be interpreted in a grim and pessimistic way, but there’s also a more positive way of looking at it. Let’s look at the darker side first.

Learning how to see ourselves as others do is what makes us self-conscious. It gives us a soul. Michel Foucault, another French thinker, argues that the modern soul “is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.” This sense of being always judged and condemned to eternal guilt if we step out of line comes from being disciplined—supervised, trained, and corrected, at home, at school, in church, in prisons and courtrooms, and in the workplace. Our identities were waiting for us at birth. The moment we emerge from our mother’s wombs, we are assigned our names, kinship relations, nationalities, gender, race, and class. As we participate more and more in the on-going social whirl, we accumulate other identifiers—educational achievements, criminal records, credit ratings, buying patterns, employment histories, and so on and on. We are thus gradually drafted into an organized and ongoing game of exercising and submitting to authority. The expectations of friends, co-workers and families combine with the laws and rules of institutions to ensure that the demands that others make of us become the demands we make of ourselves.

So how can there be a bright side to this story? Well, the story leaves something out. It doesn’t tell us why the child agrees to cooperate in its own socialization. Social forms, names and the rest of language, are not imposed forcibly upon us; children are eager to learn the names of things and to participate in the lives of those around them. They like joining in the games we play. Learning language and learning to see the world, including themselves, as others do is as natural as learning to walk on two feet.

What do we gain from accepting our social identities, for playing the games people play? If there is one word for this pay-off, it is recognition. There is nothing worse for any of us than to be invisible, to go unrecognized, to count for nothing in the eyes and the lives of others. So to be recognized as players in the game of social life requires us to play the games that others play, to use the forms of exchange that are already in use. The pay-off for sociality, in other words, is to exist, to be recognized. The need for recognition is as basic as any of our needs; without it, we die or go crazy.

Recognition is not just an individual need, it’s a mutual need. It’s impossible to receive it without giving it. What good does your recognition do me unless I recognize you as well? If I have no respect for you, your respect for me is meaningless to me. So I can be confident in my own existence only to the extent that I recognize the existence of others.

Now to recognize someone in a way that affirms her existence is not just to know her social identity; it is to acknowledge that she has a will of her own. My self-confidence, my sense that I really exist, depends on my intentions being received by others. But that can happen only if those others are real for me; I can exist only if I recognize others. So there’s always a tension, an on-going contradiction we have to live with, between our need to assert ourselves as individuals and our need to belong to the community in which we can be recognized as individuals. Growing up is a matter of learning to balance these two imperative needs: asserting one’s own will and recognizing the will of others.

Unfortunately, as we grow up in this world we encounter shriveled and unsatisfying forms of recognition that leave us always hungry for more. Institutions and their servants see us only as functions—workers, consumers, soldiers, competitors. The language children use to playfully explore their world becomes a means of regulating the world, controlling ourselves and each other. Individuals are recognized according to their power, and communication is reduced to negotiation: I recognize you only enough to get out of you what I want. You are nothing but an instrument of my wishes. But if that’s what you are, then your recognition of me is nothing to me. In a world where most of our encounters with each other are instrumental, we are rarely recognized as individuals, dreamers of our own dreams. The result is a deep insecurity, a sense of not existing, and of not really being present in the world. If I exist, as Sartre says, in the gaze of the other, then if others fail to see me, I fail to exist. R.D. Laing called this state of mind “ontological insecurity”.

What kind of a world would it be in which mutual recognition was the norm, where we all knew that each of us depends upon the recognition of all the rest? To understand this would be to understand that we are the individuals we are only in a social body that supports our individuality. Paradoxically, we can be different only because we are all one. Think about what kind of politics would practice and build such a world!

I’m Clayton Morgareidge for the OMV.

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Created by clayton@lclark.edu
May 27, 2005