Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don’t Feed the Beast II: Dissolving Face

(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.


Malagodi said...

Terrific stuff.

You've set me thinking now about the idea of 'face', which I previously associated with shame; obviously it's much more complex than that.

The custom of 'tipping' has puzzled me a bit in relation to a larger question of the role of gratitude in an economy. We call a tip a gratuity, an expression of gratitude, but in society is it generally done in conjunction with specific roles like food server, cabbie, porter, barber, shoe-shine, stripper and a relatively few others. This cannot simply be explained by where these occupations fit into the wage system strata. So for instance, it is customary to tip a person who brings food to a table, but not one who hands food across a fast food counter, though both may be paid roughly the same overall. Some supermarkets post signs prohibiting the tipping of baggers.

I have been forced to examine my own motivations in trying to sort this out; when I leave a tip, am I doing so as a gratuity - out of gratitude - or out of social shame? I suggest it is out of shame, of maintaining face. Yet it is a social custom that must have arisen out of some sort of gratitude, or at least from some sense of compensating for an unfairness.

My overarching query was the idea of a culture that emphasized the "thank you" over the "fuck you."

So you have given me another angle to explore.


Toby said...

Thanks Stephen, and you're welcome.

You might find Graeber's "Toward a Theory of Anthropoligical Value" interesting for your ponderings and research on gratitude:

For what it's worth, I'd say that the anomolies you've identified here in the area of tipping are probably simply a result of how far away we are in the rat-race and in the heat of consumerism from the origins of gratuity/gratitude/debt.

As for shame, maybe it's as linked to gratitude as positive feelings of indebtedness and thankfulness are. Maybe its another piece of evidence that non-psychopaths want to contribute, want to return favours. And maybe money muddies the whole shebang of community cohesion...

Debra said...

On tipping...
For the past several years, I have got air put into my tires by the same employee of a local garage.
He checks the pressure and adds air regularly for me.
Over time, I seek him out to do this... service for me.
And over time, our ballet around tipping/money has evolved.
I initially started out giving him money for a tip as a form of.. payment ?, considering that this money was for him, over and above his salary.
It is a way of saying.. with money... that I appreciate him, and his service. (But not just with money, because we have evolved a regular relationship. We are... ALMOST friends. We are friends in that particular context, and not necessarily beyond. We exchange... words, smiles, small talk, and the money is not "payment" for his service, because there is no official, social equivalence between the gesture or the amount of giving money, and the "service" he offers me. Nothing has been formalized. No salary. No FIXED amount.)
Over time, I have occasionally, and from time to time, felt money getting in the way.
As though our relationship were going beyond the money stage ? As though we all... feel guilty about taking ? asking ? for money where our feelings of attachment are involved ?
So, sometimes, I put the money into a collective box for coffee.
There is a lot in life where we need to keep our minds open, sensitive, to try to intuit what someone is saying, how he is behaving, in order to adjust our actions for things to go... smoothly.
I find it very challenging to do this.. in real life situations. Unfortunately... Internet is not really a real life situation, and I feel very little motivation towards doing this over the Internet.
Some people might even believe that over Internet, I behave like a psychopath, whatever the hell that means...
You know, Toby, that I don't believe in psychopathy.
And I also believe that too much empathy can be a very noxious thing, too. My feisty grandma used to talk about killing people with kindness. So... it CAN be done. And I have seen people killed with kindness.
End of spiel for today.

Tao Jonesing said...


Excellent post. I will need to review a few times to fully understand all the nuances.

I did want to address one thing you said, though: unearned superiority. This is a very loaded term on a multiplicity of levels. What does it mean to "earn" superiority, for example? You "earn" superiority when you are born smarter? Work harder? Both? Neither?

I would posit that the proper term is "a false sense of superiority." The problem is who gets to determine the metrics by which we identify the best among us? Most people, most of them good people, could care less about who is the best. They just want to live and be left alone, and we should let them do that.

Oddly enough, I have to agree with Debbie in that I don't believe in psychopathy. That's because the psychopaths make the rules to exclude themselves, and the very concept of psychopathy assumes that people who don't follow the rules are psychopaths. Societal norms are the honeypot of the people, not their rulers.

Toby said...

Debbie, I think your observations are spot on and very interesting. Money does get in the way. Imagine tipping your mother for cooking the evening meal...

Tao, good spot on unearned superiority. In my mind I simply meant Hierarchy rather than hierarchy, that is, enforcing respect and obedience via the force of institutions/organisations rather than personal qualities of 'natural' authority (which may be unearned in some way, but still seem healthier to me).

On psychopathy quickly: there is such a thing, like the ego. In order for it not to exist at all, it would need to be missing from our lexicon, completely missing as a concept from our culture. that said, we most likely do misunderstand psychopathy, which means one ought to be skeptical about prevailing definitions. However, we probably misunderstand everything!

On empathy: it does not imply kindness per se, merely the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they feel. Kindess is only one possible consequence of that ability. I know personally that my empathy often seals me off from others, because mostly I know I can do nothing to 'help', and even that the very idea of 'helping' is often misguided or inappropriate. And sometimes help is a slap in the face, or harsh words, or even well-timed anger, all arising directly from empathy.

Anonymous said...

Ha! That interview by Anima is wonderful!

The idea of 'saving face' doesn't resonate with me. The biggest barrier for transformation I experience is simply personal habit and the comfort of my current circumstances.

I take psychopathy to mean that a person is not bothered by harming others, however the person(s) experiencing discomfort may define it. There are many forms of personal harm that can be inflicted where societal norms are not relevant. It's a bit perplexing how someone could say that sort of behavior does not exist. Hmmm... that's just the sort of thing a psychopath would say! Fess up Tao!

Tao Jonesing said...

"On psychopathy quickly: there is such a thing, like the ego."

I both agree and disagree. The problem, as always, is the words we have to express ideas.

To me, psychopathy is a label that attempts to describe a real phenomenon (i.e., a general lack of a sense of responsibility to other people), while ego is a label that seems completely arbitrary.

On an entirely different topic, I met with my CEO today and discussed arranging a graceful exit from the company. I am looking into celebrating my freedom with a trip to Europe in Spring 2014, probably April/May.

Toby said...

Hi Karl, I'm glad you enjoyed the Hörmann interview. I find it kind of refreshing hearing him talk in English, because it confirms my sense of him as a brave and humble seeker after truth, one who's prepared to make mistakes and risk face. The red nose adds to that effect.

Interesting that you say you have no sense of social face. I believe Kate Winslet is similar, in that she claims never to be embarassed. I wonder if this means impermeable pride, or something else. I'd be interested to hear you go deeper into that.

Tao, that's great news! Congratulations. I always look forward to spring in Berlin, which is, like in many European cities, its most beautiful time of year. It would be great if you could visit.

And a general apology about my tardy replies: my plate is extraordinarily full right now, and will be until 2014.

Toby said...

Tao, if you visit, we'd have an opportunity to discuss the ego in greater depth!

Debra said...

On the larger level of France, things are pretty hot right now.
Our good president François has got himself in a bit of a mess. (You know, the one who served us the word "service" at least 10 times in accepting his election as President. The one who, I must admit, looks a little bit like... Louis XVI right now.) François definitely is not a psychopath according to modern, convenient definitions of the word. François... courageously initiated a fiscal reform that even had the gumption of targeting... the middle class saver(among others, among others...) !! can you believe ? That man or woman who is absolutely convinced, in true... egoist fashion ? that he is an absolute victim of the dealings of the Rich and Powerful in government (yes, well.. François ?? you must be kidding...).
Let us pause a moment to remember how, among other complex reasons and circumstances, Louis XVI managed to get himself axed by not feeling entitled to HIS position as one of the rich and powerful (but I think he did have a certain sense of just how... responsible he was to the People. Hell.. he even identified with Jesus towards the end of his reign.).
François is not in a position to realize to what extent the perfidious French people actively look for, and NEED a bad guy to dump on, to blame for all the Evil that befalls them in their daily lives. He is not in a position to realize how much the French people need to have a Ruler who puts them in their place from time to time, and even... looks down his nose at them. Put down firmly. Because.. underneath all the posturing, the blustering, many people of the French People are looking for somebody in power to reassure them, and to Take Things in Charge. (The ones who do not need or want to be reassured ? They are busy doing something else.)
Being in power presents enormous risks.. François... could have (almost...) got his head chopped off for fiscal reform, but... once you've announced the color, as we say here, if you back down on your bluff/bid, you look like a wet noodle. President or King, looking like a wet noodle is Not Good. And definitely not reassuring, either...
So... would François be a psychopath for pushing through his reform, stepping on some toes, and breaking a lot of eggs ?
I think.. not.
I really should pull out "The Prince" and reread it.
I'm looking forward to meeting you, Tao. You have made a courageous move...

Debra said...

Tao and I both said... that we did not believe in psychopathy.
Does that mean the same thing as saying that we don't believe that it EXISTS ?
The "psyché" words get a big boost in the 19th century, and arrive in a context which is medical and scientific. Initially, "psychopath" means someone who is mentally ill in French (circa 1894), and can be understood by sticking it next to... nevropath, somebody whose nerves are diseased ? ( a neurotic has manifestations that cannot be pinned to specific organ disfunction, or lesion.)
Personally... when I think of Psyche, I like to remember the myth I learned as a child, where Psyche was... allegorized to mean "soul". But the story itself still appeals to me. It is very... poetic.
So maybe you can understand why the "psy" words... get on my nerves now ??
I see no reason why "psychopath" should be motivated and "ego" should be arbitrary ? I missed the reasoning here.... perhaps somebody would like to fill in what I did not understand ?
I have nothing against "ego" is not on my blacklist.

Toby said...

Interesting info on François, Debbie. I don't follow French politics, or any politics really, except for the broader brush-strokes. You comment sounds like another take on the relevance of face, on the way we become the face we project – in this case in the form of a profession – and get lost in it. Perhaps this is reminiscent of our modern sense of psychopathy, in that the individual is trapped in a situation – whether congenital or societal – that prevents honest and sincere expressions of empathy. Assuming for a moment modern definitions of psychopathy have any (lasting) validity. ;-)

And I take your points on psychopathy from your second comment. My own position is always flexible, always aware of the historical/cultural nature of perception and understanding. Change is the only constant...

Anonymous said...

Toby, it's not that I don't feel shame from time to time, but that the views of others don't really play a role in my larger life choices (such as where I live or work or how I spend my free time). There are positive changes I could make in my life, but simple laziness and inertia seem to be the biggest obstacles.