Thursday, 16 September 2010

How Weak Are You?

How appearance becomes being. – Even when in the deepest distress, the actor ultimately cannot cease to think of the impression he and the whole scenic effect is making, even for example at the burial of his child; he will weep over his own distress and the ways in which it expresses itself, as his own audience.  The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite; for example priests, who as young men are usually conscious or unconscious hypocrites, finally become natural and are then really priests without any affectation; or if the father fails to get that far then perhaps the son does so, employing his father’s start and inheriting his habits.  If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else.  The profession of almost every man, even that of the artist, begins with hypocrisy, with an imitation from without, with a copying of what is most effective.  He who is always wearing the mask of a friendly countenance must finally acquire a power over benevolent moods without which the impression of friendliness cannot be obtained – and finally these acquire power over him, he is benevolent.  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When I wrote about masks, and their power of manipulation, it appears I went too far[i]….  The masks we wear, and the roles we play, are not so easily controlled. They can, it seems, bend us to their will.  Can they break us too?

Nietzsche has collapsed two different kinds of appearance, the mask we create and the role we accept, into one; and has given them a force of their own.  But are these appearances free-floating identities with their own motive power, which can determine our character, our very being; and can they do this all by themselves?

In I Found You! I suggested that true identities exist in the phenomenal world and are created either by ourselves, or by people close to us.[ii] And although this empirical identity exists both for us and for others it is nevertheless separate from the core of our being, that existence of which we are aware but cannot represent; or even understand directly.  That is, our identities exist in the world, while our being, what Kant calls the pure self, lies outside of it.  Nietzsche agrees with this distinction, there are appearances and there is our being, but he doesn’t accept that the latter has a metaphysical existence, to which we have no access.  Being exists in the world, and ideas can change it, they can transform the core of our character; like words, perhaps, can change a tree.

Of course, our words can change a tree!  We want firewood and we order a tree to be chopped down; or we arrange for it to be part of a house or sailing boat….  This may not be the meaning here.  The passage suggests that ideas can directly alter the character; that they can, perhaps without assistance, change it.  Do ideas have this power?

Nietzsche alerts us to the social construction of our identities, of how we must adapt to our environment and its social conventions; of how we must take on its forms, and follow its codes, in order to live.  He reminds us that we are not isolated individuals, hermits in our caves or all-powerful kings safe in their own forts, but social creatures; and this is built into our very being. For in order to be sociable we have to be adaptable; we must be able to compromise, we must learn to bend in the wind.  Thus the flexibility of the mind, its ability to shift and change; its openness to influence, and its susceptibility to control.  Think of our thoughts, of how much they are influenced directly by other people’s ideas – most of what we talk and write is coloured by what we see and hear.  Likewise our identities: mental constructions in their own right, they are open to outside influences; and in part they are created by the community (I Found You! for extensive discussion).

We can also use our conscious mind to create masks for ourselves: to create fictions to hide our real selves, to distance us from those communities.  Or to give greater scope to our natures, to extend the creative powers, our inmost potentialities.[iii] For the source of Nietzsche’s ideas on the mask is his aesthetic approach to life.  The great men, the artists of the spirit, can create worlds from out of themselves; their minds and personalities the material to make their own lives into great art works.  Of course, he didn’t think this was possible for everyone: often the role or mask is imposed upon the person, either from within or without, because of their inherent weaknesses.

But can we go too far?  After all, we are not blank slates for a community to inscribe upon (and masks require an underlying character).[iv] The largest and most powerful parts of our being come from within ourselves; the structure of our minds, the ineluctable character, all grow inside the body; and have at least some independence from all outside influence.  And this appears the crux: Nietzsche does not appear to accept Kant’s distinction between the unknowable thing-in-itself (or Schopenhauer’s Will), and the world of phenomena.  The Will (or Will to Power as he later called it) enters the world, and is part of it.   This seems related to his aestheticization of life, of the self-generating man who creates his own reality, and his morality, a balance of power between individuals (and cultures). The Will to Power is at the root of all our actions, and is part of them; it is part of material reality itself.  If we accept this we can also accept it can be shaped and formed by ideas and appearances….  Or to translate the discussion into modern day terms: how much of our biology, the mental equipment we are born with, can be determined by environmental factors; and our society’s ideas?[v]

I think he goes too far.  Kant’s distinction between our pure self, of which we can only experience (we know that it is), and the conscious awareness of our being (which we know only as an object), is an important one.  His point is that we can never know the thing-in-itself, that kernel of ourselves.  If this is true it follows that we can never know the effect of the world upon this pure self; it will always remain a mystery.  Schopenhauer qualified Kant and said we can get a sense of this ultimate reality, although he too believed we cannot know it directly.  If we accept his interpretation, at the very least, we cannot be certain that the outside world affects our true character at all; we can only guess and speculate…  If Nietzsche is right and we can know our being (otherwise how would we know the affect appearances have) it follows that our innate character is open to introspection.[vi]  I don’t think this was his intention, after all he describes our being as full of drives and forces, of which we are hardly aware…. This may mean we can only understand it in an intuitive way; or that all our being is will to power, those drives and emotional forces are our true selves.[vii]  But then what is this Will to Power, this true character, this pure self?

To try to understand what influence the outside world has on our innate character we have to separate out that spark of individuality we all have, and that, as Schopenhauer writes, is always with us,

…the identity of his person… rests on the identical will and on its unalterable character; it is also just this that makes the expression of the glance unalterable.[viii]

From its inherent force; the strength of its will.

The power of ideas is often exaggerated. The often (unstated) assumption is that ideas have their own motive force; their own independent will.  A good recent example is Richard Dawkin’s meme, which supposedly explains societal change – eg. the rise of religions. But how does an idea translate into action?  You think Tony Blair is a war criminal.  How does that idea turn into a prosecution of him in The Hague?  Will the idea alone suffice?  Hardly.  For it needs a carrier; it needs people, ultimately, to bring it into effect.  And what are their motivations, the activists who will put him there?  If it is simply the idea itself, why is it only them that act, not the others who share it?  If Blair is a war criminal has its own motive force surely it would compel all who possessed it to act; we would all be forced out into the streets and into the MPs surgeries.  The reason this doesn’t happen is that there is a borderland between the idea and the action, and it is here we have the causes which translate words into deeds.   An idea itself cannot change things, it must first be transformed into an act; and this will a complex of values, understanding and outside forces: the idea must have some meaning for us; it must chime with our values, which in turn must have some motive power; and there must be physical conditions that prompt action – in this case the magnitude of the Iraq war.  For an idea in itself has no power, it depends on some other force to be effective in society.

Our inmost character is something we may never know, completely; and if this so we can never be certain that the outside world has any effect on it all.  Nevertheless, like our organs, which in part are also independent of the environment, our character will be affected by where we live and by what we consume….  For whilst we may never know the environment’s effect on our unique individuality we may be able to gauge the strength of that character, and its relationship to the rest of the world.  That is, we have to make a distinction between our being and its functioning; the latter almost certainly influenced by our surroundings.  In our character this functioning will be its force and power, its strength of will; this heartbeat of our personality.  When describing our inmost being Schopenhauer writes of it as something that wills or not wills; it is a force which also has individuality.  How that individuality is created is still a mystery (like consciousness, that holy grail of modern science), but that it is fused with the Will at conception is almost certain.  Our personality, therefore, is made up a certain innate decoration and energy; the latter determining the force of our personality; and its degree of independence.

Though we must be careful: a powerful personality is not necessarily an independent one – ideas, culture, the desire to conform – are not fused with the Will, but related to it; the mix will vary across individuals.  Thus someone who doesn’t have an independent mind or a charismatic personality may become a disciple in order to exercise their strong will.  While Bertrand Russell writes of weak personalities who join movements in order to be given the strength to dominate others…  and thus a strong independent mind can be defeated by an organisation of the weak and poor.[ix]

A good example of these complexities is the British public school system that trains its ruling class.  Here they are given a common culture, but also the confidence to rule; their different identities less important than a cluster of shared values and common ideas; and the power to command.  You submit first in order to rule later (and you learn to take orders in order to give them). For it is the ability to rule within a given community that counts; the ideas are mere adjuncts; they use dependent upon their efficacy.[x]  Murray Kempton, in his Part of Our Time, shows that for many people, and especially leaders, the content of ideas are not important; they are merely a kind of tool. And think of the poor quality of much of the stuff that comes out of the business management schools; of all that advice on how to create a mission; on how to engender a sense of belief and purpose in a company’s staff.  All that fun that we must have![xi]  The poor quality of these ideas testifies to the CEOs lack of interest in their content: they are concerned only in their efficacy; the ritual of their implementation.  And if one set of words doesn’t work, there will be another management consultant with a set of equally banal phrases.  Their content is almost irrelevant, only their effect is what counts: the simple messages that tie staff into the company.

So why do people get angry when you question them?  We have to separate out the core ideas in our society from their periphery; the latter tending to belong to the individual, and thus unimportant to the culture at large.  The core ideas validate the society, and are intimately connected with a person’s status within it.  Thus to attack the idea is to attack the organisation of society; and the individuals themselves.  Though one has to be careful.  The people who are most exercised about ideas are the intellectuals; and those intellectuals who serve the institutions are also the ones that have the most stake in their validation. This can lead to great irrationality.  Witness the 1960s where the influence of the Power Intellectuals in the American government meant that their status was dependent on the success of their advice; thus creating a tendency to maintain it despite their defeat on the ground. This may be another explanation for the quality of ideas used in corporations – the senior management have little interest and knowledge about ideas in themselves, and thus rely on “experts” and “gurus” to provide them; who overrate their influence.[xii]

Ideas are important, they help create our identities and structure our experiences.  What they are, and what we do with them, will depend on the depth and strength of the conscious mind, and the power of the Will; though the two are not necessarily the same.  Bryan Magee has an interesting discussion where he makes a clear distinction between the creative thinkers and those that however clever can only organise what is already known; manipulating existing knowledge but not creating it.  That is, the former make the furniture, the latter merely distribute it.  The difference, he believes, is in their apprehension of the phenomenal world, though the power of their impressions and their understanding, and which depend on the strength of their respective wills, from out of which new knowledge is created.[xiii]

Schopenhauer dismisses the majority of the population of having no personality: they are too nondescript to have one!  But this is too easy: we all have our own innate character (thus beware the generalizing tendencies of philosophers and social scientists). The real question is why are some people able to resist the roles placed upon them; while others submit, often willingly. The power of the Will may be the explanation. This may also determine how the tension is resolved; between our own desires and the demands placed upon us.  For all roles include a measure of force – from other people, the community or organisation.  And it is towards that force, rather than the ideas themselves, that we respond.  If our will is weak we will submit, but if our character is at variance with the role, we will submit with difficulty; thus the problem of work.  How much do we moan!  Because for most of us we make large compromises in order to be company employees.  That said, the tension can be resolved quite easily: we accept it, but look for fulfilment outside the work environment; and we complain about it, of course, endlessly. That is, our identity is not so strong and individual that the role is too burdensome.

Social scientists in the Fifties didn’t seem to realise this distinction, or the tension between the two: they took the role for the being!  They believed individuals were being turned into Mass Man; everyone was losing their personalities – we were all wearing uniforms in those days. Obviously this is not the case, but is something that an intellectual can easily miss; for living in a world of ideas they find it much harder to escape the workplace - they are the ones who go to bed in the company logo.  Supposedly writing about society in reality the intellectual class were projecting their own experience onto the rest of the population.

For in regard to the misery of alienation, who is a greater victim… [of] the split ‘between the individual as he is and the role he is called to play’ than the member of the intellectual caste newly enlisted en masse in carrying out society’s functions?  As a writer, artist, social scientist, he is one with his talents and his education for creative work; in playing his part in the service of the organization he must eliminate any thought of functioning for himself… he is the most dependent of wage earners and the most anxiously conscious of his dependence…

The intellectual employee also accepts a more total identification with his role than other workers, in that the editorial director, the designer, the copywriter etc., sells himself more completely in terms of psychic energy expended and number of hours worked.  With him the division between work and leisure, discipline and freedom, has truly been erased.  If the free artist or the founder of a great enterprise builds his life exclusively out of the substance of his work, today’s intellectual unbuilds his life to live his job. (Harold Rosenberg.  The quote about the split between individual and role is from William H. Whyte).

We will always be individuals, for the essence of us can never be completely sublimated into a role. How we exercise that character will depend upon the force of the personality; and to a degree, its uniqueness. In his Part of Our Time Murray Kempton writes about the Pullman Porters and the successful struggle to form a union (which led to better conditions, and later equal access to the weapons industry in WW II).  At that time every porter was called George. What more extreme example can we get of the merging of the role and identity?  In this case the individual identity is erased, completely. But it would be a mistake to translate this servitude into a person’s innate character; as Kempton shows with his discussion of Thomas Patterson.

By day, as a union official, courteous and resolute, he argued with the railroads.  After hours, as a negro, just as politely he sued them…  [travelling in part of a train reserved for whites he was put in jail]… The next morning, the police judge gave him the smallest fine possible and set him loose, almost with an apology, for it is the terrible strength of Thomas Patterson that it is so difficult for a white man to talk to him and not to feel the shame of a Negro’s 334 dark years of life in America.

The particular feel of his character, and its strength: these exist outside the identity, and can transcend it.  Others are not so lucky, though how many people were Pullman Porters all the time?  Very few, I would imagine.  For there is always some freedom, there is always some gap, between our experience and our being; although there will always be a tension. How that is resolved will depend on a person’s strength and feel; that Will they were born with.

[i] A significant part of this discussion relies on the previous post.
[ii] Other identities, based simply on prejudice, and which are ignorant of the person entirely, can also exist.  They are often used to manipulate and control; the thesis of Edward Said’s Orientalism.
[iii] Likewise with a role: by narrowing down the focus of our endeavours we can be more creative and productive – think of any science or bureaucracy. 
[iv] Why would someone want to hide behind a mask?  What propels us to do so? It must come from somewhere in our very character: thus the very desire to have a mask will emanate from our being, and will be a function of it.
[v] Although we have to be careful: we cannot reduce our current understanding of the material reality to the thing-in-itself; to the ultimate cause.  For there is our biological endowment and its relationship to the environment; and then there is the relationship of our biological endowment to that underlying reality.
[vi] Which is Freud’s position - our unconscious is our character, which can be accessed by psychoanalysis.
[vii] We must also be aware of his style, a cross between literature and philosophy, allowing for great insights, but a little slippery with regard to precise meanings.  See J.P. Stern for a good discussion.
[viii]  When does this identity actually appear in the child? And how much does it mutate to become a mature adult?
[ix] In a more abstract discussion Nietzsche saw the defeat of the Greek ideal in these terms: a strong culture defeated by a weak one; Christianity his slave morality
[x] This is more of a modern phenomenon, as life as become more functional and instrumental.  In pre-modern times fixed ideas were more entrenched, and linked to more stable social systems.
[xi] I once worked for a company that changed the name of its induction day to… Fun Day!  Thomas Frank in his One Market Under God has many insightful things to say about all of this, as well as documenting some of its strangest products:

Tom Peters (naturally) has come up with an even more frightening aphorism.  “DESTRUCTION IS COOL!” he announces in the opening pages of The Circle of Innovation.  He suggests that corporations create the position of “Chief Destruction Officer” and tells readers to learn this line: “DESTRUCTION IS JOB NO.1.”  A little later he informs his long-suffering students of his new “B-I-G IDEA”:

“It’s easier to kill an organization than to change it.  big idea: DEATH!”

[xii] And in turn can lead to strange misunderstandings.  It is the fashion to employ management gurus to give presentations on how to change a company’s culture; as if one or two talks is enough to create this transformation; to instil these cultural changes in the workforce. Thus we have yet another misconception about ideas and their independent power.
[xiii] A number of writers have commented on the work rate of great artists or intellectuals (eg Newton, Popper, Chomsky…), and have linked the two together; arguing that their capacity for work makes them, together with their inborn talent, a genius.  This seems me to be the wrong way round.  It is their Will, their boundless energy, that allows them to apprehend the world creatively; that enables them to register strong impressions and to translate them into art or philosophy. But that energy also gives them the power to work for such long hours.  That is, the capacity for work is a by-product of their inbuilt energy.

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