(This post is my promised counter-position to my previous post. It does not represent my true and final position, but is rather a reflection of my desire to avoid too-stark binaries, too divisive either/or positions. See it instead as an alternative perspective that enriches and is enriched by its chronological predecessor.)
Charlie Kaufmann gave a beautiful speech a while ago, in which he implores himself, and by extension all of us, to be honest about our vulnerability, our shame, our prejudice, to somehow wear our souls on our sleeves, warts and all. In a sense, he uses his speech to put his social face on the line, to unmask himself. While listening, I loved both the man and the message. Why?
As I see it, sincere and courageous admissions of feelings of vulnerability, displays of humility in the sense of knowing It’s Not About You, indeed all displays of this sort, help dissolve face. They facilitate a kind of authentic intimacy, even if transmitted across time and distance. There is something about honest nakedness and sharing its attendant feelings of ugliness and unworthiness that deeply connects us with others. While this cannot have universal appeal nor apply to all situations and people, I suspect the broad hunger for authenticity most of us feel is assuaged by such displays, however temporarily. It can be very refreshing to get to know the human behind the face.
I should point out that sustained or permanent dissolution of social face is impossible; this is no call for 24/7 guts-out honesty. That would be too intense and would anyway generate face of a different flavour. Social face seems to be an unavoidable emergent phenomenon of particular social animals, entangled, I suspect, in the social value generated by personal contribution to the group. I was once walking our now deceased dog, Hamish, across the Gloucestershire countryside near our home. We took our normal route, part of which crossed a narrow plank of wood that bridged a deep brook. Hamish knew the route well by then, and leaped onto the plank from a distance as I was stepping onto it. He mistimed his effort and fell into the clear water. As he sank upside-down to the brook’s stony bed, our eyes met. His expression was the purest picture of shame and embarrassment I think I have ever seen, his very canine reaction to loss of face. He also hated to be picked up and coddled. And as parents we clearly see the slow emergence of face in children as they become increasingly self-conscious, increasingly aware of social expectations.
The question I am playing with in this post is the degree to which this unavoidable aspect of social life can be identified and sufficiently known with a view to handling it ever more wisely as time passes. In posing this question I presuppose a progress-like process of Universe that implies something like cumulative wisdom, however bumpy and irregular, one in no way limited to humans. In the absence of this, a Zen-like (or Zen-lite) shit happens philosophy is probably all you need, whereupon everything I do here becomes moot.
What I’m trying to bring into relief in these conjoined posts is what I see as an insoluble and inevitable organic link between, on the one hand, an anonymous and quasi-real beast that emerges via the social activity of all members of a society, and social face on the other. The nature of any particular beast depends on multiple and – very importantly – largely uncontrollable circumstances: environmental, biological, cultural etc. These factors co-create and continually recreate the particular society or organisation (though with change present as the only constant), within which face plays an important role, both positive (supportive) and negative (destructive).
Society, its organisations and institutions, and human beings alike are probably best thought of as web-like processes that are interdependent in both visible and invisible ways. One interface in this complex of interdependencies is face. Finally, whether or not a beast is perceived at any particular stage also depends on a mix of visible and invisible factors. And all of this is neither good nor bad per se, but does have positive and negative aspects, as just suggested.
So if there is a beast to be starved – in our own case one that has its roots in something like elitism and capitalism – it must be because some imbalance is in play, an imbalance that somehow renders to our perception as ‘evil’ a system (organisation, social mode, etc.) that was once relatively ‘unbeastly’. This is not to imply that perfect balance is possible; as with utopia, the pursuit of some pure perfection, some perfectly balanced system, heralds the beginning of totalitarianism, at whatever scale. To repeat, if there is a beast to be starved, it is because an imbalance is stressful enough to a sufficient proportion of people to render something to them as a beast. A scattered handful of malcontents cannot be enough to bring about meaningful change, even though meaningful change probably always starts with these folks, and starts out small.
I assert, therefore, that starving a beast with a view to allowing a different social system room to grow and settle in requires, in part, a mature and conscious relationship with social face, a wisdom which requires a humble sense of our own unique contribution to the beast’s continuing existence. Humility, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, is key, as is a keen awareness of face.
I have come to discern a beast in Perpetual Growth, primary driver of insatiable elitism, which is extractive and exploitative in its core dynamic. Rapid growth is as natural as steady state growth; a quick look at the rest of nature confirms this. Rapid growth becomes a beast to be dealt with once it has outlived its usefulness but continues anyway, with grand delusions of immortality. At the scale of civilisation, I believe we are now at a very difficult and precarious juncture: the transition from rapid to steady-state growth, a juncture no prior civilisation has survived. Because present institutions emerged from the paradigm of endless growth, they have become beasts incapable of perceiving and embracing this challenge. Their constitutions compel them to carry on as before. This is when face becomes destructive; admission of error is impossible. They are thus doing more harm than good. However, they are not separate objects ‘out there’ that can be starved as one might starve a prisoner in a cell. They are emergent phenomena of a larger process that we too constitute and consist of. They are parts of us and we are parts of them, as I have repeatedly asserted.
To create viable alternatives, then, we must first become people capable of establishing and sustaining them. Part of this is humble honesty about our relationships with our social face, our pride, our fear, etc., and awareness of our deep entanglement with the out-of-date paradigm we are trying to change. In part, this entails acquiring cultural wisdom regarding the enormity of the challenge, but primarily is about dissolving face. Now that this has haltingly begun in various areas, new ways forward will become clearer and clearer. Their viability will depend to a large degree on our collective ability to stay humble, honest and courageous: to dissolve face and keep it real.
We starve the beast by reducing our investment in its aspect of our own lives; we become the change we seek in the world. The beast we all constitute seeks to sustain unearned superiority and empty elitism, defensive pride and the ephemeral pleasure of material acquisition. Such fears and desires are in all of us. Not feeding them is part of understanding how to develop rounder, fuller and more meaningful modes of being, a very slow and awkward process. Not feeding them requires dissolving face and establishing lasting authenticity and authentic relationships, private and public. From an emotional, cultural distance, these attempts can look pretty strange. Many will prove to be dead ends (if there is such a thing), but experimentation is like that. And of course, there can be no guarantee of success.
This has been a very difficult post to write. I suspect I have not done very well getting my points across. In my defence, this is a subtle issue, but one I believe to be important and thus worth the effort.