Saturday, October 10, 2009

Performing is Being

First we get we're somebody: self-awareness. Later, we get that who we present to people isn't completely who we are: 'the social face' as different from your 'true self.' How discrete are the two, though? I believe that what we choose to project is still part of our true selves - both separate and part of who we are.

What separates me feeling something (anger, say) and the actor performing that same feeling/experience is primarily the reason is was prompted. The difference is just the catalyst for the experience - me feeling anger is the same as the actor feeling angry. What is different is that I was betrayed (prompting anger), and the actor was not, but is compelled by the situation (and their choice) to feel betrayed and angry.

Of course there are other aspects that effect the actor's performance - which I say to concede a difference in the 'amount of anger felt;' a real-life outburst has effects that reverberate into your memories, relationships with others, etc.) - but are they feeling angry at that moment? The actor is in turmoil, gnashing his teeth - his body is expressing anger.

How to Feel Repulsed

To snarl a phrase at someone, you have to (Well) snarl it. Your snarling (TRY IT!) - even you beginning to pull up the side of your lip to snarl a word while reading this - that motion makes it notably easier to say the word in a way that makes it sound like you are repulsed. The movement triggered the feeling: external action prompted internal feeling.

This ties in with research that choosing to express something - even a facial expression - moves that individual's mood/feelings in the direction of what was expressed - smiling, frowning, frightened - whether or not it was prompted by a legitimate event that caused the expression.

Which brings me back to the difference between me feeling angry and the actor expressing/feeling anger: what caused it. The difference is outside of the individual's experience at that moment.

You, Even if it Isn't

        'The social face' we put on is a performance. Though we might hold our cards close to our chest, we still experience what we express. Even if we're not feeling particularly genuine in what we're expressing it still affects us at that moment, beyond the presentational self.

        The fact that (1) what we choose to express nonetheless still affects us, and (2) serves to be the means that we express ourselves to others, seems to show that 'the social face' we put out is, at least in part, our "true selves."

        Expression is one of the few things we can attempt to control - but even that is thoroughly effected by who we are, and we're affected by how we do it. Who ho we express ourselves to be is part of our true self - performing is being.

I apologize for any and all misuse or reversal of the correct usage of 'affect' and 'effect' in the above. Here's MJ singing Man in the Mirror as recompense.


  1. Bordering on the philosophical here, bro.
    No problem-o's with "effect" and "affect" as there is a great deal of overlap.

  2. Well played with the MJ, well played.

  3. Thanks for this performance, Brett. It leaves me wondering about lots of things.

    As I have studied in some depth, emotions such as anger are messengers to prompt us to appropriate action in the theatre of life. They are physical, that is they are not thoughts (those come after) but swift chemical changes to make us feel something, which requires to be discharged in action.

    A performance is to communicate, using any medium. In an actor, body language is to convey emotion so that the audience can feel what it is.

    However, in the theatre of everyday life the actor, that is you or I just living, may not to reveal our emotion to any audience. I walk down the street and know little of what's happening in most of the passers-by, for it's not their aim to share it with strangers.

    When I watch a movie, I'm struck by the histrionic expressions of shock and grief necessary to convey feelings to the audience. I often feel that in real life the same feelings would be accompanied by silence and immobility, withdrawal from the outside world, at any rate in some personalities. There are actors who can convey this too. In movies, background music is often used instead of body language, so that the camera can zoom out to a long shot where body language has less impact.

    Relevant or not, these are a few thoughts inspired by your post.

  4. I believe there are physical 'tells' that speak to ones current state, even with a strong deliberate choice to not reveal any emotion or give off any signals. Even when not facing or speaking to someone, one can still pick up signals (consciously and subconsciously - the latter perhaps speaking more to one's 'gut feeling' about a situation) of the state of the person they are near.

    Agreed that the performance intention is communication; the example given (paralleling a movie reaction to that of in real life), it is almost 'part of the package' that a story being presented would involve greater expressions/communications than those necessarily in real life. Though, some programs (Ricky Gervais' The Office, for example) present much more of the clammy bottled-upness and decorum of these times.

  5. In the spirit of conversation, I'd like to question your statement that the actor's anger and the everyday person's anger differ only in that they are differently caused. All emotions, it seems to me, are complex mixtures of arousal and thought, with the thought feeding back on the arousal (and vice versa). So when two emotions are differently caused, they are different. We may group them together as members of the same species ("anger"), but that does not mean that there is something that is the same in the two nervous systems. In other words, you seem to be assuming that there is an actual coherent entity called "anger" and I am not sure that's true.

    This matters because, although I am in sympathy with your argument here, I guess I take it to a more radical conclusion. Just as there is no pure anger, there is no pure self. What we perform is what we are, end of story.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, Peter. Agreed that the difference between the actor/everyday person's anger does have shades beyond just the catalyst (as i put in the blog post, concessionary-style, "a difference of degrees in the amount of anger felt," etc.). I don't feel that framing the two examples in the same family/species (named "anger") undermines this framework, and indeed for the intents of the post is probably a better way of framing. I don't believe there to be separate, coherent entity termed 'anger' (if indeed the complex mixture that makes an emotion could ever be fully defined).

    Ultimately we do agree, even if my reticence didn't take me far enough in making my argument (though further in my post-titling and ending). If the performance affects all aspects of the supposed true self, then they are not separable to any extent. (An allowance I would give is: what we perform is what we are, but we are not able to control all aspects of 'what we put out there' - in many ways we unwittingly 'perform' outside of our control, by way of our development, histories, etc.)

  7. About three years later to the month- articulate and insightful comment Peter, thanks for posting.