Saturday, October 16, 2010

the self as performance

Dramaturgical consciousness becomes almost a necessity in a complex, interconnected, high-speed civilization. If life is the acting out of countless personal and collective social dramas, then the more complex the economic and social networks in which one is embedded, the more diverse roles each person is called on to play.

In the dramaturgical way of looking at human behavior, the self is no longer a private possession of an individual but, rather, a sense given to a person by the very people he wishes to share it with. The self then, is not an entity, but rather a kind of fictional, constructed, consensually validated quality that results from the interaction and communication between people. If so, then one’s very being in the world depends on acting out scripts onstage with other players, each of whom validates a part of one’s selfhood. This view is quite different from Hegel’s notion that each person’s unique self is both imprinted in and manifested by the possessions he or she acquires over a lifetime.

The dramaturgical perspective places communications at the heart of human activity, redefines the self in relational terms, makes experience itself a theatrical affair, and transforms property into symbols that help people act out their many dramatic roles as they flit in and out of networks of lived experiences, each representing a different aspect of their life story. The dramaturgical perspective is, in the final analysis a vivid description of the state of mind that accompanies a generation that is continually shifting identities, roles, scripts, and stage settings, as it toggles between social and commercial networks, both in virtual and real space.

Dramaturgical consciousness raises the troublesome question of authenticity. Whenever the question of performance comes up, it inevitably leads to the related question of pretending versus believing.

In the age of mythical consciousness, being heroic was the measure of a man, while in the age of theological consciousness, one was expected to be pious, and in the age of ideological consciousness, men of goodwill were expected to be sincere, rational, and of good character. In the age of psychological consciousness, being personable and open-minded became an obsession. For the generation growing up in a dramaturgical consciousness, however, being authentic becomes the test of a man or woman.

If human beings are, by their very nature, dramaturgical, then how do we establish the idea of authenticity? If everyone is always consciously, or even unconsciously, playing out multiple roles with different scripts and on different stages, how do we know who the authentic person is behind all of the masks?

The question of authenticity is brought up whenever the dramaturgical theory of conscious behavior is used to describe how people act in social situations. Quite simply, there is the disquieting feeling that human behavior, if it is truly dramaturgical, is not very honest. After all, in one sense, theater without deceit is an impossibility. In another sense, however, taking on different masks—personas—in different situations might be an authentic expression of one aspect of a person’s identity. That is, if each of us is in fact a composite of multiple personalities, then the question is if we were true to the specific role we played at the moment.

Again, the theater offers a way to distinguish between pure deceit, on the one hand, and active imagination on the other hand. While deceit is universally disparaged, active imagination is lauded as essential to creating a sense of self and world and forming mature bonds of empathy. Theater theorists like Constantine Stanislavski talk about surface acting versus deep acting. The first relies on the art of deceit, the second on the art of imagination. Surface acting is form over substance, while deep acting emanates from deep inside the performer’s subconscious.

With surface acting, the performer uses grand gestures, modulated tones, and exaggerated movements to “portray” a character, but puts nothing of his own life into the part…it’s all technique. Stanislavski says of surface acting,

[its] form is more interesting than its content. It acts more on your sense of sound and sight than on your soul. Consequently it is more likely to delight than to move you…Only what can be accomplished through surprising theatrical beauty or picturesque pathos lies within the bounds of this art. But delicate and deep human feelings are not subject to such technique. They call for natural emotions at the very moment in which they appear before you in the flesh. They call for the direct cooperation of nature itself.

In other words, with surface acting, the actor is acting as if he had feeling but not really feeling as he is acting. True deep acting, by contrast, which Stanislavski terms method acting, comes about when the actor reaches into his own subconscious and semiconscious memory and searches for an analogous past emotional experience that he might draw upon that would allow him to feel as if he were experiencing the emotional state of the character he is playing.

Stanislavski cautioned actors not to simply try to evoke a feeling de novo, saying that is not the way emotions are generated in real life. He writes,

On the stage there cannot be, under any circumstances, action which is directed immediately at the arousing of a feeling for its own sake…Never seek to be jealous, or to make love, or to suffer for its own sake.

Stanislavski points out that all feelings have a history—they are the result of past embodied experiences. Therefore, deep acting requires the actor to induce his own subconscious and remember how he felt and the emotions he conjured up in similar situations.

The aim of the actor’s preparation is to cross the threshold of the subconscious…Beforehand we have “true-seeming feeling,” afterwards “sincerity of emotion”.

Remembering experiences emotionally is important in calling them forth in the future. Stanisiavski asks his actors to train themselves to think of their feelings as an object as well as an experience, with the thought that they might be called up and used at a future time.

The memory of a past feeling, however, only becomes valuable to an actor if he can harness it with his imagination and act as if that feeling were happening again in the execution of his role. He must feel the role he is playing as if he were that person. With deep acting, an actor becomes transformed for a brief period of time and emotionally becomes what he is portraying. But when his performance ends, the part ends as well. In real life, we all engage in deep acting as well, but with a different modus operandi—affecting the reality of our relationships with others. In real life, deep acting has real-life real consequences.

In her book The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild reports on her study of Delta Airlines flight attendant training courses, where personnel were instructed in the proper emotional engagement with passengers. While the flight attendant training was purely instructional and did not involve attendants in deep acting, the attendants themselves reported that they often did so, on their own, when on the job.

A flight attendant might psych herself up before putting on the “happy face” by conjuring up past experiences that made her feel happy and bring those feelings to the job. One flight attendant told Hochschild that conjuring up a happy feeling and taking on a happy demeanor invariably has a positive feedback effect.

If I pretend I’m feeling really up, sometimes I actually get into it. The passenger responds to me as though I were friendly, and then more of me responds back.

Another flight attendant said that when she’s dealing with a passenger who’s been drinking too much or getting obnoxious,

I try to remember that if he’s drinking too much, he’s probably scared of flying. I think to myself, “He’s like a little child.” Really, that’s what he is. And when I see him that way, I don’t get mad that he’s yelling at me. He’s like a child yelling at me then.

Hochschild raises the very legitimate concern that acting is increasingly being used as a training technique to prepare a service workforce on how to manage their feelings to optimize commercial relationships in an experiential economy. That’s true, but it is also true that deep acting provides a theory and technique to help train individuals to be more mindful of their own feelings, to keep a firm memory of them, and to improve their ability to conjure up those memories from their subconscious and to harness them to their imagination when the occasion arises, so that they might experience another’s plight as if it were their own. Deep acting, when used for the appropriate pro-social ends, is a powerful mental tool to stimulate empathic feelings. And empathy is the means by which we participate in deeper realms of reality, for reality is the shared understandings we create about the world by dint of the relationships into which we enter.

Deep acting, then, can prepare people to extend the empathic bond and, with it, deepen one’s sense of reality--a far cry from surface acting, which conjures up only facsimiles in form and deceit in execution.

Meryl Streep, arguably the world’s greatest living actress and a master of deep acting, once remarked that “the great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”

- Jeremy Rifkin

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