Sunday, September 22, 2013

Feeding the Beast II: Saving Face

(What follows is a look at a social phenomenon from a particular perspective. At some point I will follow this post with a look at this same phenomenon from a different perspective – Don’t Feed the Beast II:Dissolving Face.)

A few weeks ago I had the educational honour of discussing guaranteed income (in German) to a live audience as one of a panel of three ‘experts’. The polite host asked gentle questions, and the three experts responded, agreed and disagreed. Why is this relevant to Econosophy?

There were cameras, lights, and expectations. Before the discussion started, the host asked me some questions about my position, my past, my present, what sort of a human I am. He was to introduce his guests and so needed to know something about them, and seeing as the whole affair had been allotted a mere hour, the introductions had to be brief (sound-bite conditions). After our short chat, his introduction transformed me into an economist and philosopher. I had asked him to announce me as a simple blogger, but he probably wanted to lend me – and by extension the panel – a certain gravitas. I did not correct him on stage during his introduction. Not only was it my first time as an ‘expert’ on stage, I am by nature polite and did not want to cost him any face.

Nor myself, for that matter.

Social face is incredibly important. Its import seems to intensify with age, more so when you are seen as an expert for whatever reason, then even more so when you are on a stage with lights and cameras on you, with anonymous but expectant folk looking up and listening to what you say. Public loss of face hurts and can have real consequences for career and thus lifestyle. We are imaginative social critters suspended in a society of one kind or another by a web of interconnected meanings and layered value judgments. Sever too many strands of your personal web and it can be as if society has ejected you. (The direct links between face and money should be obvious enough, especially if I quickly point out the parallels between face and capital.)

Anyway, the discussion was cordial and probably not all that unfruitful. But what I felt most keenly during that intense hour – and why I wrote “educational” in this post’s first sentence – was how I had been effortlessly slotted into a societal pigeonhole, so as to be more easily dealt with, digested, neatly positioned somewhere clear and fixed in society’s lexicon. I was suddenly granted a social face I wasn’t aware I had a right to don. It was so automatic. The evening just powered forwards and dragged me along with it, changed me, obliged me to behave a certain way. I can now imagine what it is to be a politician, a mouthpiece for something NotYou. People become mouthpieces and lose ‘autonomy’ as a consequence of powerful social forces (I’m ignoring ego-ambition and sociopathy here for the sake of brevity). It’s how all this works, how complex society of highly specialised careers works. This vast dynamic is not easy to change, to put it mildly.

Social face also happens to have an inverted Janus aspect; it points both outwards and inwards; ‘escaping’ it is therefore far from easy.

I happen to have been my family’s primary breadwinner since forever. My wife has concentrated on the (in my eyes) far more noble role of housewife and mother to our two daughters. This is our family situation. For various reasons and against that particular backdrop, I quit my job in October 2011 with a sketchy plan for both my wife and I to earn money, for me to earn and ‘work’ less than before so as to free me up to study and write more and to be the change I want to see in the world. In short, to stop feeding the beast.

In other words, I turned our family’s then 16 year old dynamic around on a dime. It was my attempt at a small leap forward.

I ‘failed’, and that ‘failure’ hurt (there’s far more to it than this simplistic rendering, but time and space don’t allow …). So I am at work again full time, now for an even bigger corporation, having hated the constant uncertainty of freelance translation work (for corporations). And I was struck too by my daughters’ need to save their faces in their public arenas: to appear in certain clothes, own certain gadgets, live a certain lifestyle. Even though I am their father, who am I to ask them to believe what I believe, to faithfully represent my philosophy as their ‘own’ social faces develop and are woven into their lives?

My life does not belong to me. It cannot. Such a concept makes no useful sense. It ‘belongs to’ (is caught up in and a part of) my social face, both inward facing (to self, family and friends) and outward facing. Not completely, but very much so. Attempts to change it have consequences not only on you, but on those around you. The entire web of your life is affected.

Be the change you want to see in the world. If we attempt this, we attempt it for the world, for society. In doing so we create a new social face and slowly turn into it, perhaps unknowingly. In some ways we become leaders, which is an obvious consequence if we want our example to inspire others. One consequence of this is that we become indebted to our task, a servant of it, owe it and others our time and creativity. And it becomes a source of pride, of positive identity. How then do we stay objective, how do we maintain our posture of service? To what do we stay true? Pride or principle? To those flesh and blood people who depend on our leadership or to something more abstract? Changing face, changing direction sets up dissonant forces that upset existing elements of our lives; the conflicting demands are difficult to balance. Where does I end and Face begin? An unanswerable question, but what is certain is that balancing the new with the old is not easy. Emotions and pride are powerful, as are the needs to belong and contribute.

This challenge to fundamental change magnifies as we scale up the type of living system that can be said to have a social face. Numerous institutions have co-evolved with society and increased in complexity since we began our civilizational journey many millennia ago, each institution with its own face and representatives (with their own faces) tasked with upholding their respective institution’s face (be it ideology, money system, political party, etc.). Oh what a tangled web we weave…

Institutions cannot just be stopped, smashed, changed; they are emergent consequences of underlying social forces and beliefs, just as our personal faces and identities are. Until we have transcended them, ‘destruction’ of any institution will simply cause its recreation, with a new name perhaps, but with the same general dynamic.

As I have repeatedly said, we are the beast. The beast is the comfort we have become accustomed to, our habits, the social and cultural momentum that is greater than us as ‘individuals’, the face we have invested in. The beast is ugly when we defy it, go against its grain, go solo, march off out of step to Somewhere Else, or when we have nothing of ‘value’ to feed it with. To fight the beast you need to have a certain robust insensitivity coupled with a fine sensitivity, buckets of patience and stamina, and the freedom to fight. Only a very few people are blessed (cursed?) with these traits and circumstances, and thus knowingly construct a social face which, if only in part, has its roots in a slightly different dynamic. Ralph Boes is one (on whom more in a later post), Franz Hörmann is another.

And yet none of the above means Perpetual Growth can ‘work’, it just touches on one aspect of human social life that goes some way to explaining why profound change is profoundly difficult, why we are entitled to a little forgiveness, why we need both patience and passion. The mighty forward momentum of this paradigm will grind down in the end; nothing lasts forever. Not one of my experiences alters the fact that paragdigms grow old and die, that now, in this complex and tightly global world, profound change is afoot, change brought about by the odd calculus of civilisation, and by the stirring emergence of empathy and brotherly love as it reaches outwards across borders and out to other species, in fact to all life everywhere. And beautifully, as it reaches out, it cannot understand the eddies it creates in the global mind as they task us with letting go of the old and beginning with the new, however we ‘choose’ to go about this work.


Debra said...

Lovely post, Toby.
I am really impressed. With your writing, which is vibrant, and has images, and with the shadowy.. "meaning" behind.
I pursue my shadow life.. behind the stage ? (on the stage when acting, behind the stage while being)
I am very excited that you feel the incredibly powerful forces at work in what I call the social body, and our interaction with it as individuals, and the extent to which much of this interaction escapes our attention.
On being the breadwinner... my husband and I have... produced ? two children, a boy and a girl, one is moving forward in the Enlightenment paradigm, to the tune of social success, and the other is... moving back, searching, slipping, hestitating, and definitely marching to the beat of a different drum.
My husband has found a way to win bread which allows him great freedom from social expectation, but he has also seized on this freedom, in part with my encouragement. He COULD HAVE won his bread while having his eyes fixed on his status, and the way he appeared to others, even while having a profession which gave him great liberty from this. He would rather isolate himself from that world. And his children did not suffer from that. Nor did I.
I hear from far away that Barack Obama wants to consult the people about declaring war or not ?
Is this necessarily... progress ?
Doesn't the buck have to stop somewhere, sometime, and.. on someone ?? Someone who owns up to being in charge, and.. responsible ? A flesh and blood person, and not a linguistic abstraction ?
In France we say that in the course of making an omelet some eggs have to get broken.
This may make us want to turn our eyes away from such detestable "violence", but...
You get the point, I hope.
I like the way you think from the bottom up, Toby.
That has me very excited.
Cheers, Debbie

Toby said...

Thank you, Debbie.

I want to get to that place where 'freedom' is maximised. My own situation, biology, biography seems to require a good deal of material security projecting forwards, otherwise my 'freedom' seems to me a prison and inhibits my self-expression. This aspect of my situation is something I'm still working on.

Does the buck have to stop somewhere? I wonder... Do we simply find it easier pointing the finger at Someone Else? Asking for permission to go to war sounds right to me, especially if it includes a genuine sense of co-involvement. That, though, is complicated by the problem of the firing squad; if everyone's shooting, no single person is actually doing the killing. Whether or not this aspect of 'democracy' is progress is another story, and a very subtle one.

As for making omelets, yes, eggs get broken. Personally, I don't have the stomach for it, but it does seem to me that all this social complexity and convolution 'require' war. My struggle in this department is in part a process of justifying my emotional rejection of that necessity. On the pragmatic side of my being, there's all sorts of reason and logic going on, but in the end, it's just what I do. The world will turn without me.

Empathy is as real as anything else, though. It would cite it as the primary reason why we turn our eyes away from violence. Where this takes us civilisationally is anyone's guess, but as I suggest, I see potentially exciting change as being within cultural reach (more or less).

Tao Jonesing said...

Institutions cannot just be stopped, smashed, changed; they are emergent consequences of underlying social forces and beliefs, just as our personal faces and identities are. Until we have transcended them, ‘destruction’ of any institution will simply cause its recreation, with a new name perhaps, but with the same general dynamic.

Quite right. Fundamental to all our social institutions is a false and abiding belief in a static, ascertainable Truth, which renders anything else its opposite. Everything then devolves into an argument about whose opinion of the Truth is the correct one. Whether your Truth is Socrates' Truth, God, or the Market, the social institutions you spawn will be basically the same. So, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Tao Jonesing said...


Obama is engaged in political theater. He doesn't care about what the people think any more than his predecessor did. In any event, only Congress has the right to declare war under the U.S. Constitution, not Obama or the people.

Whether or not somebody objectively must be in charge, you seem to believe that humanity requires hierarchy. As a practical matter, I agree that humans naturally develop hierarchies for themselves, but I don't know if it is actually necessary for somebody to be "in charge." You only need somebody to be in charge if you want to make "progress" as a collective, to continue to scale and grow. Demanding that somebody be in charge seems to be the opposite of Uncivilisation, as the Dark Mountain Project terms it.

Debra said...

Toby, three nights ago, I watched "Thousand and One Nights", the Pasolini film of 1974.
It is a beautiful film that I highly recommend.
What surprised me was my reaction to the film.
I was jarred by the nudity, and the discreet violence in it : many scenes of couples together, and one elliptic scene of a castration.
This makes me stop, and take stock of the Disneyland phenomenon in our lives.
What is remarkable in the film is how the men and women are represented as being naked, and not ashamed of their nakedness. It is... "natural" ? to them. As natural as their attitudes toward sexuality, which come from, in part, observing animal fornication, and human fornication ? in their society. (Yes, I realize that this is a tale..)
Didn't our uncitified ancestors perhaps manage to have this un neurotic attitude towards what we share with the animals ?
Idem for the violence.. I have decided not to turn my eyes away from violence, which is not the same thing as avidly looking for it on immaterial supports. Not at all...
On hierarchy : I happen to believe that every human being comes into this world as a helpless infant dependant on people who are less helpless in order to achieve greater "autonomy" (not absolute...).
I believe that every baby and child looks towards his elders with starry eyes, towards the promise of what he could become.
This natural condition is behind the pressure of idealization in every culture. Looking for role models.
And the.. logical result of this natural condition is the emergence of hierarchy, in one form or another.
To the extent that every human being carries within himself the seeds of what he once was, and also what he will be, he remembers his initial condition in ways that escape his self consciousness.
This natural condition determines the limits of human freedom.
The freedom... trap has been the motor of our civilization for a long time. We have not realized how much the word "freedom" is concomittant with what we call the "CONSUMER" society, but which is also.. the society that glorifies freedom as an absolute good.
I don't believe in absolute "goods". I believe in "goods" that generate their accompanying "evils".
As for Dark Mountain... I am a devil's advocate (a very Jewish position...). I don't totally agree.. or disagree with anyone. I agree more with certain people than others, and have more affinity with certain, than with others.

Toby said...

On violence: I think there are multiple uses of this difficult word in our conversation here. I've wrestled with this word in the past and caused consternation with my musings. The violence I have a hard time dealing with is the type that rationalises the bombing of innocents in the interests of some ideology or other. I really cannot tolerate mass, anonymous violence, even more so now that our weapons have nasty ingredients in them like depleted uranium. We cause horrors with such stuff that are far beyond what our uncitified ancestors could have imagined. This sort of violence -- rooted in patrician dehumanisation of the Great Unwashed -- is, in my eyes, wholly abhorrent (due to empathy?). This is the violence I turn my eyes from and want to end, no matter how impotent I feel.

"I believe that every baby and child looks towards his elders with starry eyes, towards the promise of what he could become."

I agreee that this is inescapably true, but what this means for social forms is far from clear. Look at the lives lead by the Piraha, or the Lamet. There are likely 'leaders' of a type therein, but formal hierarchy? I'm not so sure. It would depend on how we define hierarchy. Is a jungle hierarchical because a tiger has greater physical strength than a spider monkey or a parrot? Because some trees are bigger than others? I think there is plenty of space for intellectual exploration here in human society, but suspect complexity and plain old busyness (a.k.a. the rat race) gives rise to hierarchy as we experience it. From that cultural atmosphere we project out on to nature, perceiving that which we have been socialised to believe is the 'natural order'.

Debra said...

Question, Toby :
Why is our civilization focusing so much on "hierarchy" ? Why is "hierarchy" being attacked in such a violent way at this time ?
Method : before attempting any form of analysis, return to an etymological dictionary, to see where the word comes from, and how it has evolved (its history as a unique individual...)
From the O.E.D., the word "hierarchy", in its first definition : Each of the three divisions of angels, every one comprising three orders, in the system of Dionysius the Areopagite. Also, the collective body of the angelic host. (Dates for Dionysius the Areopagite ? The O.E.D. does not specify.) 2) : Rule or dominion in holy things ; priestly rule or government ; a system of ecclesiastical rule. Citation Whitlock, 1564 : "To reform Hierarchy by Anarchy, a Remedy worse than the Disease." 3) The collective body of ecclesiastical rulers ; an organized body of priests or clergy in successive orders or grades. Citation, Emerson, 1856 "When the hierarchy is afraid of science and education, there is nothing left but to quit." 4) a body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above the other, specifically in Natural Science and Logic, a system or series of terms in successive rank (as classes, orders, genera, species, etc) used in classification. (First appearance around 1643)

Debra said...

Commentary :
The word "hierarchy" in the vernacular (in the Greco/Roman civilization, it will probably appear in a different context, and the O.E.D. is a dictionary of the English language ; it will not give me a history of the word as it appeared in other languages, living or not) finds its place in a sacred context, and refers to religious ORDER.
The word "hierarchy" is associated with a form of order, and is opposed to "anarchy" in the quote I stuck down.
"Hierarchy" refers to the organization of the religious institution of the universal Catholic Church, and the way in which this institution is governed. By an episcopate (the meaning of the Greek word "hierarch".)
The last O.E.D. definition shows how this word referring to a RELIGIOUS ORDER is transferred from the religious context to a scientific one, in a movement of generalization. Hierarchy in the last definition introduces new elements : SUCCESSIVE, and ONE ABOVE THE OTHER. Little by little, the word "class" imposes itself too, as in... "classification", for example. It is absent in the older definitions.
We see how the "new" scientific ideology is slowly but surely displacing the legitimacy of religious order and power, as the SAME words change meanings.
My theory ?
The word "hierarchy" is attacked because of its religious origins. It is attacked by people who often do not know anything about what I just stuck down.
They do not know the... struggle, and opposition that has been created between "knowing" and "believing", and the attempt to make this couple antagonistic. As though it were not possible to know.. certain things, and believe activities that are complementary, and not antagonistic.

Tao Jonesing said...


To be clear, I am not attacking the concept of hierarchy. Indeed, I admit that humans tend to create them from the bottom up, even more than they do from the top down.

I merely question whether somebody needs to be "in charge." Being a leader, being "in charge", mostly means filling a vacuum left by the apathy of others. The fact that the masses left somebody to care about the stuff they don't care about doesn't mean they've consented to being told what to do, doesn't mean they've consented to somebody else being the boss of them.

And you can have ORDER that does not place one above another but has everybody as equals. ORDER takes many forms.

Again, however, human beings have a habit of setting up forms of ORDER that place one above another. That I can neither deny nor impugn.

Tao Jonesing said...


"My life does not belong to me. It cannot. Such a concept makes no useful sense. It ‘belongs to’ (is caught up in and a part of) my social face, both inward facing (to self, family and friends) and outward facing. Not completely, but very much so. Attempts to change it have consequences not only on you, but on those around you. The entire web of your life is affected."

As I think you probably know, I've been struggling with similar thoughts. I am actually getting to the point where I'm reaching a somewhat different conclusion. My life is my own, and the only reason why my family is where they are now is because of the choices I made to attain my goals. I need to trust my instincts and do what is right for me. But I also need to focus on what I want to accomplish and not on countering what others seek to do.

I don't believe the change you seek can be accomplished by rejecting the world we live in. It can only be accomplished by accepting it and its limitations, and then by exploiting those limitations while showing others how to do the same. Every system creates its own blindspots, and the blindspots of our neoliberal world are enormous.

Debra said...

Tao, I think that the problem of having somebody in charge is subservient to the problem of finding out what the words mean.
And I think that in order for us to find out what the words mean, there have to be flesh and blood people.
Government and power are subservient to maintaining linguistic differences which give rise to meaning.
On "above" and "below", think about all the mind blowing possibilities of opposing heaven and hell, the sky and the earth, man and woman, master and slave, head and feet, just for a start.
Above and below is one mind blowing opposition...
I think that much of its importance for us comes historically from Latin/Roman culture, by the way, and the way the Latin language organizes order.

Tao Jonesing said...


Alan Watts once observed "A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other."

I have adapted and generalized his statement to be: the Truth is a not a fixed thing but a flowing event.

Even the meaning of a word is a flowing event. To dwell on what a word means today necessarily will change its meaning tomorrow. Trying to arrest the flow by forcing our will upon the language used to describe it will only make it more difficult to discern the flow itself.

So, I choose not to see opposites but vectors. Every "opposite," in context, describes a vector, i.e., an indicator of the magnitude and direction of the flow. "Above" and "below" are relative, not absolute. While heaven and hell are posited as opposites and absolute, they just stand as proxies for reward and punishment, and between them they indicate the magnitude and flow of the social order they were designed to impose.

Interesting observation about the influence of Roman/Latin culture/language on modern culture/language. Did Greek culture/language have a similar influence on Roman culture/language? Modern culture/language?

Toby said...

Hi Tao,

"My life is my own, and the only reason why my family is where they are now is because of the choices I made to attain my goals. I need to trust my instincts and do what is right for me."

This is not strictly true. Your family members also made decisions, and beyond that other decisions and events have ocurred that were instrumental to you and your family being where you are now. Nevertheless, your life is indeed your own in the sense that you make your decisions, but it is a non sequitur to assert from that that your life belongs to you. Just because there is choice does not confer or result in ownership (ownership as defined by control and the right of disposition (among other things)).

"I don't believe the change you seek can be accomplished by rejecting the world we live in. It can only be accomplished by accepting it and its limitations, and then by exploiting those limitations while showing others how to do the same."

Yes, but this is not a binary. I do not reject the entire system, I do battle with parts of it and, by extension, with myself. There is a good argument that battle is unnecessary, but I'm not so sure. If I am to 'just be myself '(or follow similar advice to do with acceptance) I must accept battle/rejection, too. What I happily accept is that the process is intricate and endless, and that the boundaries between Me and Notme are very blurred.

Toby said...

Hi Debbie,

"the problem of finding out what the words mean.
And I think that in order for us to find out what the words mean, there have to be flesh and blood people."

I'm with Tao on people as systems that are ever-changing patterns or processes that include single-point perception (ego) which gives too strong a sense of separation. However, I just read a fascinating lecture on language and agency which I think you (and Tao) might enjoy:

Here's a quote to whet your appetites:

"Finally, we turn back to Shakespeare and find that he may have understood the connection between language and agency all along. Nancy Christiansen points out that Othello is trapped because he can only see one interpretation of events at a time. We could say that he loses some of his agency by getting trapped in a domain. Iago, on the other hand, is acutely aware that multiple interpretations of the same facts are possible, but denies some part of his agency by denying any connection between ethics and choices. Shakespeare, meanwhile, sits back and sees all sides. He recognizes agency (which is ethics in action) as the basis of language. I wonder what would have happened if Shakespeare had been chosen as the linguist of his day. Perhaps everyone would be convinced that agency is needed for human-like translation. This effort to balance agency and determinism would then be much ado about nothing. Shakespeare saw the wave of determinism that has engulfed our generation, and saw beyond it. Great literature was never taken in. Further dialogue with Christiansen on agency and language is in order."

Toby said...

Debbie and Tao:

Borrowing from John Holt's "School" and "school" differentiation to distinguish between Schooling that is compulsory and schooling which is freely chosen, I'd like to propose that Hierarchy and hierarchy might serve us well in our discussions of this hairy topic.

Hierarchy = authority rooted in compulsion and force

hierarchy = leadership freely subscribed to

(The former has negative and the latter positive connotations.)


Debra said...

I am not sure that I really understand Barker's points about agency.
I agree with Tao about trying to say things simply... but I will modify his idea to suggest that words that convey powerful and precise ? images speak to us more than the words that have come out of Enlightenment ideas.
What is agency ? Is it similar to the idea of free will ?
What happens to Othello in the play is that his consciousness is overwhelmed. His mind... is altered, if you like.
It happens in "Macbeth" too. Macbeth's mind is altered. His consciousness/perception dissolves when something that he has previously imagined corresponds to something that happens to him. The inner screen meets the outer screen, and the screen itself dissolves.
And Macbeth can say "nothing is but what is not".
Very interesting the idea that only ONE interpretation is allowed (think "mono", or "the Truth".
Which brings me to your second comment. Capital letters turn ideas into Ideas...
Right ?

Toby said...

That agency is required for the creation and creative use of language. In other words, the existence of language plus the inability of machines to understand it as evidenced by the failure of machine translation after some five or so decades, is proof of human agency (a.k.a free will). Further, that when (or if) we (ever) construct artificial intelligence, we will have created a living being with free will, or agency (that's my exptrapolation, though not my idea).

As for ideas and Ideas: yes precisely. But my question was whether this distinction helps us in our ongoing discussion(s) of the naturalness of hierarchy and the negative consequences of Hierarchy.

Debra said...

Whether we manage to create another.. LIVING BEING (because that is what we are talking about, creating living beings, with the spark of life), if we do so, we will mess with our status as creature, living being who RECEIVES life from elsewhere, and does not generate it.
This distinction is very important to me, and it is important in creating the conditions in which differential meaning is possible in our language.
On the distinction between living beings, and machines, for the time being, we are incapable of ressuscitating that spark in living beings which, when it goes out, turns them into dead meat.
Will we get to the point where we can ? Something in me hopes like hell that we will not, because I don't want to live in a world where we turn our efforts to the monumental task of ensuring our immortality 24h/24. That would be a colossal bore, or.. non life, if you like. We are already pretty fixated on ensuring our immortality by the way. That's why our civilization has become so increasingly... boring, in my book.
Why is machines' inability to understand language proof of HUMAN agency, or free will ? Can machines any more predict the actions of any living being to a tee ?
Unfortunately, from my standpoint, one way that we can make it possible for machines to machine like, translate human language, is to turn that language itself into a system of signs, and a code (which it is NOT, from my perspective). A system of equivalences, for example. We seem to be trying to do that more and more. I happen to believe that we are doomed to failure in this attempt, but we can sure create a lot of angst and suffering along the way.

Debra said...

I just realized something mind boggling yesterday. I mean... it sank in, for the first time.
Do you realize that in English, the word we use for acquiring something without monetary compensation is... "free" ??
That word sure takes us far, doesn't it ?
It is a major motor for our civilization... unfortunately, I believe.
It would be nice if we could take our eyes, lips, mouths away from it for just the time to take in a few breaths of air...

Toby said...

I don't think I understand your last two comments Debbie. We may or may not create computer-beings that are 'alive' or sentient, but the degree to which this may or may not mess with our status as creature is lost on me. Whatever status we perceive ourselves as having may be falsely assigned due to our ignorance of the nature of reality anyway, which is always changing to boot. Sometimes in ways we hate.

The second comment about 'free' is a bit brief. Maybe if you could expand on it a bit?