THE CULTURE’S RESPONSE
Estrangement from display, from feeling, and from what feelings can tell us is not simply the occupational hazard of a few. It has firmly established itself in the culture as permanently imaginable. All of us who know the commercialization of human feeling at one remove—as witness, consumer, or critic — have become adept at recognizing and discounting commercialized feeling: “Oh, they have to be friendly, that’s their job.” This enables us to ferret out the remaining gestures of a private gift exchange: “Now that smile she really meant just for me.” We subtract the commercial motive and collect the personal remainders matter-of-factly, almost automatically, so ordinary has the commercialization of human feeling become.
But we have responded in another way, which is perhaps more significant: as a culture, we have begun to place an unprecedented value on spontaneous,“natural” feeling We are intrigued by the unmanaged heart and what it can tell us. The more our activities as individual emotion managers are managed by organizations, the more we tend to celebrate the life of unmanaged feeling. This cultural response found its prophets in late eighteenth-century philosophers like Rousseau and its disciples in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth-century; but widespread acceptance of the view that spontaneous feeling is both precious and endangered has occurred only recently, in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Lionel Trilling, in his classic work Sincerity and Authenticity, there have been two major turning points in the public evaluation of expressed feeling. The first was the rise (and subsequent fall) of the value that people put on sincerity. The second was a rise in the value placed on authenticity.4 In the first case, the value attached to sincerity rose as its corresponding flaw, insincerity or guile, became more common. In the second case, I think the same principle has been at work: the value placed on authentic or “natural” feeling has increased dramatically with the full emergence of its opposite—the managed heart.
Before the sixteenth century, Trilling says, insincerity was neither a fault nor a virtue. “The sincerity of Achilles or Beowulf cannot be discussed; they neither have nor lack sincerity.”5 It simply had no relevance. Yet during the sixteenth century, sincerity came to be admired. Why? The answer is socioeconomic. At this period in history, there was an increasing rate of social mobility in England and France; more and more people found it possible, or conceivable, to leave the class into which they had been born. Guile became an important tool for class advancement. The art of acting, of making avowals not in accord with feeling, became a useful tool for taking advantage of new opportunities. As mobility became a fact of urban life, so did guile and people’s understanding that guile was a tool.®
Sincerity for its part came to be seen as an inhibition of the capacity to act before a multiplicity of audiences or as an absence of the psychic detachment necessary to acting. The sincere, “honest soul” came to denote a “simple person, unsophisticated, a bit on the dumb side.”7 It was considered “dumb” because the art of surface acting was increasingly understood as a useful tool. When mobility became a fact of urban life, so did the art of guile, and the very interest in sincerity as a virtue declined. Modern audiences, in contrast to nineteenth-century ones, became bored with duplicity as a literary theme. It had become too ordinary, too unsurprising: “The hypocrite-villain, the conscious dissembler, has become marginal, even alien, to the modern imagination of the moral life. The situation in which a person systematically misrepresents himself in order to practice upon the good faith of another does not readily command our interest, scarcely our credence. The deception we best understand and most willingly give our attention to is that which a person works upon himself?’8 The point of interest has moved inward. What fascinates us now is how we fool ourselves.
What seems to have replaced our interest in sincerity is an interest in authenticity.9 In both the rise and the fall of sincerity as a virtue, the feeling of sincerity “underneath” was assumed to be something solid and permanent, whether one was true to it or betrayed it. Placing a value on guile amounted to placing a value on detachment from that solid something underneath.10 The present-day value on “authentic” or “natural” feeling may also be a cultural response to a social occurrence, but the occurrence is different. It is not the rise of individual mobility and the individual use of guile in pleasing a greater variety of people. It is the rise of the corporate use of guile and the organized training of feeling to sustain it. The more the heart is managed, the more we value the unmanaged heart.
Rousseau’s Noble Savage was not guided by any feeling rules. He simply felt what he felt, spontaneously. One clue to the modern-day celebration of spontaneous feeling is the growing popularization of psychological therapies, especially those that stress “getting in touch with” spontaneous feeling.11 Consider them: Gestalt, bioenergetics, bio feedback, encounter, assertiveness training, transactional analysis, transcendental meditation, rational-emotive therapy, LSD therapy, feeling therapy, implosive therapy, EST, primal therapy, conventional psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis. Therapy books, as the linguist Robin Lakoff has said, are to the twentieth century what etiquette books were to the nineteenth. This is because etiquette has itself gone deeper into emotional life.
The introduction of new therapies and the extension of older ones have given a new introspective twist to the selfhelp movement that began in the last century* To that twist is
* The significance of the growth of new therapies cannot be dismissed by the argument that they are simply a way of extendingjobs in the service sector by creating new needs. The question remains, why these needs? Why the new need to do something about how you feel? The new therapies have also been criticized, as the old self-help movement was, for focusing on individual solutions to the exclusion of
now added the value on unmanaged feelings. As practitioners of Gestalt therapy put it: “The childish feelings are important not as a past that must be undone but as some of the most beautiful powers of adult life that must be recovered: spontaneity, imagination.”12 Again, in Born to Win, two popularizers of transactional analysis collapse a more general viewpoint into a simple homily: “Winners are not stopped by their contradictions and ambivalences. Being authentic, they know when they are angry and can listen when others are angry with them.”13 Winners, the suggestion is, do not try to know what they feel or try to let themselves feel. They just know and they just feel, in a natural, unprocessed way.
Ironically, people read a book like Born to Win in order to learn how to try to be a natural, authentic winner. Spontaneity is now cast as something to be recovered; the individual learns how to treat feeling as a recoverable object, with ego as the instrument of recovery. In the course of “getting in touch with our feelings,” we make feelings more subject to command and manipulation, more amenable to various forms of management.14
While the qualities of Rousseau’s Noble Savage are celebrated in modern pop therapy, he did not act in the way his modern admirers do. The Noble Savage did not “let” himself feel good about his garden. He did not “get in touch with” or “into” his resentment. He had no therapist working on his throat to open up a “voice block.” He did not go back and forth between hot and cold tubs while hyperventilating to get in touch with his feelings. No therapist said to him, “Okay, Noble Savage, let’s try to really get into your sadness.” He did not imagine that he owed others any feeling or that they owed social ones and for legitimating the message “Look out for Number One” (Lasch, 1976b). This critique is not wrong in itself, but it is partial and misleading. It is my own view that the capacity to feel is fully analogous to the capacity to see or hear; and if that capacity is lost or injured, it is wise to restore it in whatever way one can. But to attach the cure to a solipsistic or individualistic philosophy of life or to assume that one’s injury can only be self-imposed is to contribute to what I have called (with optimism) a “prepolitical” stance.
him any. In fact, the utter absence of calculation and will as they have become associated with feeling is what nowadays makes the Noble Savage seem so savage. But it is also—and this is my point—what makes him seem so noble.
Why do we place more value now on artless, unmanaged feeling? Why, hopelessly and romantically, do we imagine a natural preserve of feeling, a place to be kept “forever wild”? The answer must be that it is becoming scarce. In everyday life, we are all to some degree students of Stanislavski; we are only poorer or better at deep acting, closer or more remote from incentives to do it well. We have carried our ancient capacity for gift exchange over a great commercial divide where the gifts are becoming commodities and the exchange rates are set by corporations. Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines might add to his eighteenth-century concern for the faceless soul beneath the mask a new concern for the market intrusion into the ways we define ourselves and for how, since his day, that intrusion has expanded and organized itself.