Tuesday, July 7, 2009


In the past couple of days The New York Times' Op-Ed section has featured two interestingly opposing views of the widely lambasted displays of Governors Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin. Stanley Fish, whose contrarian instincts were clearly at work here, argued that the emotional rawness exhibited by both figures should be honored as expressions of authenticity, and as refusals to play along with the artifice usually expected under the political microscope. In his view, the punditocracy viewed the two episodes with incomprehension precisely because they were not politically calculated. Omnia vincit amor.

David Brooks, while not condemning the two governors, saw their behavior as symptomatic of an age that has totally eschewed what used to be (at least in the days of the Founding Fathers, he suggested) a cultural ideal of decorum, dignity, and self-mastery. George Washington did not view his calm and relatively detached public face as some kind of mask--rather, it served the purpose of shaping (and not merely advertising) his moral and political conduct. The passions, whatever good they may do, are inherently potentially hazardous and must be curbed.

These positions more or less correspond to Romantic and Classical visions of the good life as consisting chiefly of feeling and order, respectively. I found myself agreeing with both of them, which suggests that the best life entails a balance of the two. Ages and cultures inevitably tilt more toward one or the other, and we have been in a Romantic age for quite a while now. The George Washingtons of the world just don't get the bloggers buzzing...

Is there some kind of parallel, even if not a simplistic one, between these two visions on the one hand and liberalism vs. conservatism on the other?


Retriever said...

Wrote you a hasty response this lunchtime, but Bloody Blackberry browser messed up again and comment wouldn't post(I have DEEP suspicions that the kid got pancake syrup in it when obsessively checking the net on it when we were up north with no landline or broadband).

Anyway, very good post. Wish I could say as much in so few words...:)

Will have to ponder your final hypothesized correlation...The most romantic figure I know is conservative...

I go along more with Brooks. Our parents raised us with stoic, and spartan values. Plus Puritan lectures about service to God, country, and family, work ethic, frugality,ascetism, and MASTERING one's passions, or they would master one. Also that famous lady's remark about public displays "don't frighten the horses". As far as public life goes? Raised to be dignified, reserved and shun publicity. to give anonymously and avoid the limelight, in the papers at birth, marriage and death only, No extremes of piety or licence. Moderation in all things. Classical. Needless to say, I delighted in thumbing my nose at all of the above in youth...

I found the structure stultifying in youth, but a comforting guideline in middle age.

Anonymous said...

Unrestrained eruptions of emotion and passionate expressions of feeling are strictly for revolutionaries. Garden variety politicians are the janitors of broken-in ideas and tar-less roads: they snuff out spot fires, remove rubble/lay fresh bitumen, and bury political corpses.

Dr X said...

Sorry, not much time to pull my thoughts together, but some quick reactions.

Not responding to your question, but taking a step back to challenge a premise behind the two alternatives.

How did Stanley Fish become the arbiter of authenticity? How does he distinguish authentic from inauthentic emotional expression? Was Jimmy Swaggart's vigorous weeping during his public confession of sexual sin raw and authentic or was it manipulative?

Does Fish believe that disorganized, emotional expression automatically indicates an absence of defense and an absence of manipulation and calculation?

Consider the histrionic personality. Should we regard the dramatization, the defensive incoherence, the emotional outbursts, and the avoidance of sustained attention and self-reflection as authentic?

I recall an earlier post of yours in which the idea that we live in a histrionic age came up. I wouldn't take that to mean that we are more authentic. If we do, indeed, live in a histrionic age, I would describe this as a period of attention-seeking, non-reflection, emotional superficiality and inauthentic expression.

Dr X said...

I should clarify that I am not, in the least, suggesting that we should regard all or even most disorganized emotional expression as inauthentic. Rather, we should not assume that all emotional expression represents some sort of purity of expression or that it is somehow honest and real to the core.

Novalis said...

Good points. I suppose that emotional response reflects our attachment to people, objects, and experience. I make no reference to Sanford or Palin in saying it, but one can lie emotionally just as one can lie semantically, and the most "effective" lies are the ones one believes oneself.

Anonymous said...

People under excessive stress have a diminished cognitive guard, and so truths ordinarily masked, or carefully manipulated projections of reality start to filter through in their undisguised/authentic forms.

On the other hand, amplified emotional states can also cause people to blurt out things they 'really don't mean' in the heat of the moment. But do they REALLY not mean those things on a deeper subconscious level? Who knows...

THe same question of truthfulness can be asked of things said in the inebriated state, which in part, has a more authentic claim on truth, having been stripped of self-conscious reserve.

Novalis said...

I think of course of Dickinson:

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true --
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe --

However, it is a Romantic prejudice to hold that only the look of Agony is true, or that it ought to be casually on display. After all, dirty laundry is inescapably true as well, but one needn't parade the fact (or the article) unnecessarily.

There is a difference between discretion and denial--the one chooses to disclose only part of the truth as appropriate to the situation, the other attempts to warp the truth.

I think of the way in which Freud's theories developed in a (Classical) culture of repression, and since the 1960's have had to be re-engineered for a (Romantic) culture of relative self-indulgence.

Anonymous said...

Of course! --

Death throes can't be simulated. Although death can be: think of Haitian zombification.

Emotions can't be simulated perfectly. Emotions can't be concealed perfectly: microexpressions betray the true state of internal affairs.

...ANd fake smiles: awful things that deny the truth every time, and are pathetically indiscrete.

Novalis said...

Well, Emily--well-read though she was--may not have been aware of pseudoseizures, those unconsciously feigned "throes."

Dr X said...

"There is a difference between discretion and denial--the one chooses to disclose only part of the truth as appropriate to the situation, the other attempts to warp the truth."

Well said.

On alcohol and disinhibition, I'm not convinced drunk people are more authentic in their expression. Drunks can tell some astonishing whoppers. The fact that higher order inhibition is impaired might mean that people feel freer to lie.

The tendency to regard inhibitory and regulatory activity as somehow less authentic seems questionable to me. Should we consider diminished reality testing a state of enhanced authenticity?

Inhibitory neurological activity is ongoing and as necessary as ongoing growth and pruning of neurons. Why would we regard such fundamental processes as 'inauthenticating?'

Novalis said...

As it happens, the ever-relevant NYT had an article on inhibition and the id a couple of days ago:


Dr X said...

How about that... thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

Nasty 'imps of the perverse' in the form of implicit biases tend slip out under distractive influences which tax the brain's cognitive reserves.

Dr X: 'Inhibitory neurological activity is ongoing and as necessary as ongoing growth and pruning of neurons. Why would we regard such fundamental processes as 'inauthenticating?''

- I think any inhibitory activity that can be attributed to 'conscious will' (in the common everyday experience of the phenomenon) would be considered as an act of inauthenticity. Neuronal pruning & other unconscious fundamental processes are not directly 'caused' by the 'will' and thus are exmpt.

What's more inauthentic: a lie of omission (inhibition) or a lie of commission (disinhibition)?

I think a little alcohol loosens the truth; too much coagulates it into a lie.

Novalis said...

Anonymous, any conscious inhibitory influence is inauthentic? You must make an interesting houseguest (or perhaps herely an honestly inauthentic one).

If I think about it, here are a few things I will NOT be doing this morning: driving at 100 mph, robbing a bank, and groping at some random attractive woman on the street. Is it "inauthentic" of me to refrain from these acts? Of course, most of the time such inhibition is unconscious, automatic, and socialized--does that make it less inauthentic?

Will as epiphenomenon...such determinism, Anonymous. How do you get out of bed in the morning? Oh that's right, "you" don't, your brain does...

Retriever said...

Re: authenticity. When envying the final parental chomp of a papa crocodile, as one tries not to bare fangs at a teenager who does not want to get up, study, bathe, or do much of anything besides play computer RPGs and who cheerily intones "You can't tell me what to do!" while one is writing out checks totalling 47,000 for their college, the following thoughts come to mind:

Feelings aren't facts (an AA saying, I think?)
I could make the kid, but civilizing them is a process of brainwashing...er...helping them internalize parental and societal values
Restraining from doing illegal, immoral, fattening or stupid things is often essential (agree with your examples above, Novalis), but authenticity is also about the extent to which we raise ourselves from torpor when the alarm goes off at 5:45. What we exert ourselves to do despite ourselves. All kinds of things worth doing aren't things we initially WANT to do, but MAKE ourselves do: pay taxes as the price we pay for living in a halfway civilized society, obey orders given by stupid bosses so as to hold onto a job that feeds our family, hugging or saying kind things to loved ones we are still mad at because they hurt our feelings by their own "authentic" expression of feeling (yes, you do look fat in that, this dinner is awful, no, I won't help you , etc.). Or think how a fireman goes into a mass of flames to save a child (masters a sensible and instinctive inhibition in the service of altruism, aided by training, habit, and desire to do the job they are paid for. Or a draftee like a terrified juvenile delinquent (who survived to grow up into my former boss) in the Vietnam War. He didn't want to go, but something in his upbringing made him, and years later he still talks about how it took him away from a life headed for crime and probably certain death thru dangers, yes, but also lessons that helped him become a decent worker and famly man and devoted youth worker in his church, especially good at reaching young brats like he used to be...

Sorry to be verbose and write sloppily in haste to get back to dragging teenagers out of the beds of sloth... (need a better internal editor!) but old fashioned things like delaying gratification, work ethic, and sharing nicely with the other children improve us and make human society far better than a bunch of people doing and not doing what they feel like or calculate to be in their own narrow self-interest.

Dr X said...


Even if we treat the exercise of will as a binary, on-off phenomenon (a mistaken view, I believe), I still don't see why a willed action is categorically less authentic than an unwilled one? If I force myself to tell the truth, when I'm tempted to dissemble, am I being inauthentic?

Dr X said...

I do think I understand where you're coming from, Anon, and there is a very long post in it--really, a book--but I don't think I have it in me today—the book or the post. I'll throw out a chunk of it and perhaps others will add their own thoughts to the mix.

Deception requires higher order, later evolved functions. Deception requires a theory of mind and perhaps some degree of self-awareness, intentional inhibitory activity and some capacity for rudimentary abstract thinking. If we locate inauthenticity at the level of these higher order operations, then we might be tempted to say that lower level limbic activity is authentic until it is processed by higher order systems. But higher order functioning isn't always deceptive. It can organize, inhibit and selectively assign primacy to certain aspects of experience, but does that render experience deceptive or inauthentic? If so, then we are hopelessly inauthentic creatures, as are all creatures with sensory and perceptual systems.

That's because sensory and perceptual systems automatically organize experience--ignoring some inputs and give primacy to others. The phenomenon of attentional blindness illustrates that at the most basic level we have lying eyes and lying perceptual-sensory systems. Perceptual systems have evolved in this way because selective perceptual systems have favored species survival over many millennia. In a sense we tunnel through a massive amount of sensory data creating adaptive but highly distorted, unstable internal representations of reality. (See Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel http://tinyurl.com/m82hck )

When we consider that higher order processing always organizes and distills lower order processing, we run into problems with our assertions about raw and authentic experience. Is there any such thing as raw experience? Terms like raw and authentic seem more like figures of speech than clear-cut mental phenomena.

Novalis said...

I suppose deception is ubiquitous in organic nature--think camouflaged moths, stick and leaf insects, etc. Language just took the phenomenon to a new level. Somewhere in the mists of time some wily hominid achieved the first consciously intended lie, sending shockwaves through some paleolithic community perhaps.

There is also the problematic postmodern view that inasmuch as language has limited potential to create reality (inasmuch as reality is a product of shared perception), lies (or perhaps exaggerations) can create new "truths." Thus marketing and spin, but also the justifiable self-improvement technique of "fake it until you make it."

The concept of authenticity is arguably like the concept of literature, that is, not an empirical or experimental term, but rather a reflection of achieved concensus. Indeed the two may have a lot in common inasmuch as authenticity is a biographical narrative with sufficient stability and integrity.

Shen said...

An incredibly fascinating blog post, followed by a number of knowledgable comments. I was going to say something, but I think I will only say that I am glad to have found your blog, and will sit and listen for a while.

I have to say that I find Novalis said to be jaw-droppingly on target, in my opinion.

Shen said...

And... it may be interesting to note that I tend to lean toward the right, in general, so this admission says something.

Anonymous said...


In the RELATIVE context of this statement: 'Inhibitory neurological activity is ongoing and as necessary as ongoing growth and pruning of neurons. Why would we regard such fundamental processes as 'inauthenticating?'', I would regard conscious inhibitory activity as MORE inauthentic than unconscious activity on a hypothetical spectrum of authenticity.

'..most of the time such inhibition is unconscious, automatic, and socialized--does that make it less inauthentic?' Well more inauthentic in terms of my hypothesis because such inhibition is not consciously planned/calculatedly 'willed', but rather activated by unconscious paradigms.

So, I'm not absolutely declaring a dichotomy between authentic unsconsious inhibition and inauthentic conscious inhibition - I'm merely saying that the method of conscious inhibition may utilise artifice/contrivance, and therefore would qualify as 'inauthentic' in the social usage of the term; whereas the unconscious doesn't plot/plan so it expresses itself purely as it is, not as it wants (probably because it actually doesn't have the ability to want) to appear through inhibition.

'..How do you get out of bed in the morning? Oh that's right, "you" don't, your brain does...' My predetermined alarm clock wakes my brain up, and the rest of my physiology follows suit.

Dr X,

'..If I force myself to tell the truth, when I'm tempted to dissemble, am I being inauthentic?' Yes if you're consciously inhibiting the expression of a wishful lie which would be your truthful want, but you actively desist because of social expectations.

Everything you said about sensory and perceptual systems that distort/manipulate our experience of reality is irrelevant because their effects occur unconsciously and thus, are not actively planned by conscious will. Unsconcious systems can't conceptualise and don't understand the social significance of deception; they act mechanistically, automatically.

Simply put, authenticity in the above tortured usage is linked to control: an act of inhibition controlled by conscious will is inauthentic; uncontrolled 'authentic'. This usage has been relative and should probably be ditched right here and now because authenticity is a holistic term used by humans (not sub-systems inherent in these damn humans with all their post-modern relative/ambiguous nonsense!) and only applies to representations of socially constructed ideas of truthfulness and breaches thereof.

Anonymous said...

All this talk of authenticity....enough, already!

I'm dedicating myself to artificiality for the rest of my life...(that's what my brain's telling me I should do, honestly..)

Dr X said...

Were it only the case that there is nothing between conscious will and totally non-conscious processes. In the space between these two extremes, we get into the a muddy territory where we do in fact, have to struggle with questions about how to understand the notion of authenticity. In some cases our language falls short. When Helene Deutch coined the term "as if personality," she was referring to a kind of inauthenticity that falls outside the realm of conscious, intentional deception. We should not ignore the question of authenticity in this 'middle area' merely because it is linguistically inconvenient.

Anonymous said...

I think I'll meet you half way there Dr X, and agree somewhat.

As much as we'd like to see black and white, we're condemned to infinite shades of grey. But if you squint your eyes, sometimes you're lucky enough to catch life blur into what looks like colour - and it feels real just for that fleeting moment. That's enough.