Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Characters in search of sensemaking, and vice versa

This post is about narrative sensemaking and play at the level of society. It will take a circuitous course, so come and stroll with me.

The grand charade

To start with, I've been watching how people are contributing to Haiti lately, for some reason. I've been amazed by the "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon (and similar previous ones). If you didn't know, the actor George Clooney gathered more than a hundred celebrities to answer telephones or perform. The effort has so far generated $57 million. What amazes me about this event is what people are saying about it. Listen to this glowing account of the "restraint" shown by the event's participants, from the New York Times TV Watch column:
More than 100 of the most famous actors and music stars in the world went on stage pretending to be nobody.... Friday night’s event, shown on dozens of networks and streamed across hundreds of Web sites, was a case study in giving it all while holding back.
This made me laugh out loud:
[The] stars wore varying shades of brown and black and studiously avoided the “I” word. Beyoncé, Madonna and Sting, sang without being identified; stars like Mr. Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio (who have each already donated $1 million) were not introduced.
The reason they "sang without being identified" and "were not introduced" is because they knew they don't have to be identified! To pretend that they modestly refused to be identified is beyond funny (and way into sad, really). Here's George W. Bush on Leonardo DiCaprio's $1 million donation, quoted in a glowing tribute at rightcelebrity.com:
"I salute Leonardo DiCaprio for his extraordinary generosity," President George W. Bush said. "This donation sends a clear message to the people of Haiti that America’s commitment to helping rebuild their country is strong. I thank Leo for setting a wonderful example for all Americans of helping a neighbor in need."
The part of this that astounds me is that people can say such superlatives as "giving it all" and "extraordinary generosity" when the opposite is so glaringly obvious. Though George Clooney gave $1 million himself, his net worth is supposedly over $80 million, and he made $25 million just in the last year. The fact is, Mr. Clooney could have donated $57 million by himself -- without having to give up a lifestyle of luxury. The same can be said for most of the people who "pretended to be nobody" during the telethon. I can't find a definite figure for Leonardo DiCaprio, but it sounds like it's over $100 million.

Is giving a million out of a hundred million "extraordinarily generous?" I'd say giving a million out of two million is extraordinarily generous. I'd say giving five thousand when you made twenty five thousand and have to turn down your heater to do it is extraordinarily generous.

My point is not to bash these people (well maybe just a bit). My point is that the disparity between reality and fiction -- what these people could really do, and what people say about what they actually choose to do -- is breathtaking. I'm tempted to call it doublethink. Attracted by this curious pattern, I've been poking around the web looking at comments on sites with glowing reviews such as the one I quoted here. Some few people do raise the point, but usually they are shouted down by the majority of people saying essentially, awwww, aren't they cute. And people are talking about George Clooney like he is Mother Teresa. I find this baffling. What could cause such a disconnect?

Villagers and dowagers

So I've been going on a little reading journey (very little) through sociology, psychology and evolutionary psychology on the subject of the celebrity phenomenon and celebrity "worship." There seem to be three main threads on this, and one of them connects to stories.

I'll get two of the threads out of the way quickly. One is that we pay a lot of attention to faces, because in almost all of human history seeing a face meant that its owner lived nearby and was important to your life. Today, a we see on a frequent basis the faces of people who don't live nearby and have nothing to do with us. That triggers an instinctual interest, as though they were actually our neighbors. Says this useful article by Erica Harrison in Cosmos magazine:
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, there was a much stronger evolutionary advantage to knowing who was an 'enemy' and who was a 'friend'.... [G]ossip in those days was a matter of life and death - it was a means of reinforcing social bonds while keeping track of who could be trusted. Anyone with a familiar face had to live nearby - so they were the ones worth keeping tabs on.
As cave painting has given way to more pervasive media, including print, television, film and the Internet, faces have been delivered, transmitted and downloaded to our living rooms from all around the globe. Familiarity is no longer a sure sign of proximity, but our neural hard-wiring has been slow to catch up. So, on some innate level we might feel as if the Neighbours we watch on television, are actually our own.
The second reason has to do with power. People are attracted to celebrities because they have money, and in today's world money means power. This is evidently such a deep instinct that the same pattern can be found in other primates. This article in the on-line newspaper The Register says:
A team from Duke University Medical Centre, led by neurobiologist Dr Michael Platt, offered 12 thirsty adult male rhesus macaque monkeys a choice between their favourite drink (Juicy Juice cherry juice, ABC News notes), and the chance to view pictures of their pack's dominant, "celebrity" monkey. Surprisingly, the monkeys eschewed the juice in favour of a bit of celeb-watching, but had to bribed with extra refreshment to look at ordinary "rhesus riffraff".
So, another instinctual trigger: being close to power. So paying attention to celebrities is no different from worming your way into the entourage of the town's wealthiest widow, a favorite pastime of snobs from time immemorial.

Societal sensemaking

Now, on to the instinct that interests me the most, because it has to do with storytelling. In reading about celebrity through the ages, two quotes stuck out. The first was in this review of the classicist Tom Payne's book Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney:
The ancient Romans made celebrities out of their gladiators, cheering when they killed and weeping when they died. Later, they made celebrities out of the Christian martyrs who were gored by them. The ancient Greeks gossiped about their gods' love affairs – and far from being wholly mythical, the gods appeared among them all the time. As Payne says: "You could invite gods to dinner. The god Serapis [or rather, somebody posing as him] would hold parties at which he was once 'host and guest'.... You could even have sex with a goddess." The tyrant Pisistratus typically found a gorgeous woman, put her in a chariot, and announced she was the goddess Athene. The crowd howled and whooped like anyone at Wembley.
The second was in this article by David Giles and John Maltby in The Psychologist:
This bizarre state of affairs – a small group of human beings idolised by a much larger number – has existed in most societies to some extent through history. Very often those idols are never seen by their admirers because they only exist as legendary figures in oral narratives, so it doesn’t matter whether they’re real or not. Or they may be known, like monarchs or great military figures, largely through their representation on money or portrait paintings. For most people, the idols are just part of the cultural fabric, some of them superhumans to emulate, perhaps with moral significance.
It doesn't matter whether they're real or not. Celebrities have inherited from heroes and gods the mantle of societal sensemaking through narrative play. People use these characters as elements in collective narrative play, to negotiate issues such as what is required, what is "hot or not," and what is taboo.

This explains the disconnect between what people say about celebrities and what they do. These unfortunate people are being used by society to play out scenarios, and what they actually do, when it is inconsistent with what they are needed to represent, is passed over. In this article, Guillermo Jiminez mentions how dopamine is released when we watch celebrities, and how that creates a quandary:
Michael Jackson's fans have to some extent been tricked by evolution. Watching the Gloved One's uncanny gyrations and masterful crooning released entire oceans of their cerebral dopamine, but that did not change the fact that their hero was a very weird man. Indeed, Michael Jackson's life represents the very opposite of wisdom, the opposite of what one should admire or seek to emulate in a role-model.
When there is too great a disconnect between role and behavior, people choose another needed slot with a better fit. My guess is that Michael Jackson may have started out as a garden-variety hero but that he transitioned into a trickster figure at some point, so that his bizarre behavior could be accommodated.

The flip side is that people talk as much about celebrity "trashing" as worship. That explains all the "they have cellulite too" pictures in the supermarket tabloids. When a celebrity falls (sometimes through a series of accidents) into a needed negative role, every good thing they do is similarly ignored. Choosing a web site at random, popscribe.com, where "gossip is an artform!" mixes positive elements ("Celebrity Award Shows") with the newsworthy ("Celebrity Update") and the downright nasty ("Celebrity Scandals," "Celebrity Stupidity").

For the most part, celebrities have little control over how they are portrayed and used by the public. They take on a role and assume a positional identity according to what society needs, though it is probably more appropriate to say that the roles choose them. They try to exert what control they can, but it sounds like it is a constant and often losing battle.

The difficulty today is not that people use characters in societal sensemaking. That is part of the normal societal immune system. It keeps us healthy. The difficulty today is that the required characters used to be wholly fabricated (as with gods), conveniently dead (as with folk heroes) or conveniently far away and unavailable (as with folk figures like Napoleon). These characters could be easily manipulated to meet the demands of societal sensemaking. Real celebrities cannot be so easily managed. It reminds me of the old saw, here in John Ploughman's pictures (an 1896 collection of proverbs and stories):
A bachelor's wife is always well managed, and old maids always bring up their children in prime style.
The whole thing also reminds me of the excellent play Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello. In this play, six "living characters" arrive at a play's rehearsal searching for an author to finish their story. The theatre manager and actors cannot understand that the characters are not actors:
The Father. You will understand, sir, born as we are for the stage . . .
The Manager. Are you amateur actors then?
The Father. No. I say born for the stage, because . . .
The Manager. Oh, nonsense. You're an old hand, you know.
The Father. No sir, no. We act that rôle for which we have been cast, that rôle which we are given in life. And in my own case, passion itself, as usually happens, becomes a trifle theatrical when it is exalted.
The Manager. Well, well, that will do. But you see, without an author . . . I could give you the address of an author if you like . . .
The Father. No, no. Look here! You must be the author.
The Manager. I? What are you talking about?
The Father. Yes, you, you! Why not?
The Manager. Because I have never been an author: that's why.
The Father. Then why not turn author now? Everybody does it. You don't want any special qualities. Your task is made much easier by the fact that we are all here alive before you . . .
In other words, we are all the authors, collectively, of the stories we play with. Later in the play there is a nod to why people need these characters in our great sensemaking plays, and how they need to be both manipulable and long-lasting:
The Manager [determining to make fun of him]. Ah. excellent! Then you'll be saying next that you, with this comedy of yours that you brought here to act, are truer and more real than I am.
The Father [with the greatest seriousness]. But of course; without doubt!
The Manager. Ah, really?
The Father. Why, I thought you'd understand that from the beginning.
The Manager. More real than I?
The Father. If your reality can change from one day to another . . .
The Manager. But everyone knows it can change. It is always changing, the same as anyone else's.
The Father [with a cry]. No, sir, not ours! Look here! That is the very difference! Our reality doesn't change: it can't change! It can't be other than what it is, because it is already fixed for ever. It's terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow . . . who knows how? . . . Illusions of reality represented in this fatuous comedy of life that never ends, nor can ever end! Because if tomorrow it were to end . . . then why, all would be finished.
People engage in societal sensemaking in order to connect to the larger story, the grand story of human existence. If they didn't, "all would be finished." Connecting people to a larger story used to be the role of religion, and it still is for many people. In fact, it's unlikely celebrity "worship" would have developed before religion lost its firm grip on society. There has even been research done, most notably by the psychologist John Maltby, that shows the more religious a person the less likely they are to "worship" celebrities. But telling everyone to become more religious tends not to have any affect, and besides, religion -- organized religion, at least -- was never the whole story.

Growing new celebrities

The prevailing wisdom in the articles I've seen about this has been that a little celebrity worship/trashing is harmless, as long as we keep it under control and don't all turn into stalkers. But that answer makes me uncomfortable. I don't think it is harmless entertainment.

What I see is that, as is spectacularly displayed in this Haiti telethon issue, when we push real people into the roles of characters in our great plays, we run the risk of changing the plays themselves. Recasting rich people giving trivial amounts of money (to them) as "extraordinarily" generous has to have an effect on the characters they are playing, eventually. The strain has to have some effect, on something, somewhere, and I fear the effect may be on our own behavior. If celebrities can give a trivial amount and still be extraordinarily generous, we can keep buying useless things while giving trivial amounts to people in desparate need. Doublethink can't be far away.

I can't help but wonder if there might be some way to bring back the more fictional, or at least more easily shaped, characters we used to have, and remove the stress (on all sides) of trying to fit real people into the narrative. We need a a way to redirect societal sensemaking into more fitting characters.

I don't have any giant answers for humanity, but I do have an interesting personal perspective on this. I stopped watching television on September 11, 2001. At the time we lived near New York City, and our house was one of the many that got most of its TV signals from the top of the twin towers. After what happened we went from four or five good channels to one or two shaky ones. We had the option of paying for cable or going without. I'd love to say I was enlightened and noble and chose the better way, but the fact is that I whined and complained, and my nasty miserly husband dragged me kicking and screaming out of the television world (that wonderful man).

But after I gave up TV a few amazing things happened. First, I noticed that when I went out to stores to shop, I started buying exactly what I wanted and then leaving. The urge to buy more stuff for no reason at all disappeared, and shopping started to seem more like the chore it is and less like wish fulfillment.

Secondly, I stopped caring about celebrities. I stopped being interested in seeing the movies they were in; instead I read reviews and found out if the story was any good. I stopped finding out what celebrities were doing and what they thought. Even Sting, who had previously been my hero, now seemed just like a nice guy who was going bald. Nine years on, when I poke around on the web I have no idea who most of the beautiful people are, and what's more, I don't care. It's enormously freeing, both in time and in the ability to have my own thoughts. It's like that episode in Star Trek where the empath is overpowered by the colliding thoughts of all the people on the ship, and then he goes to live with the giant living space thing, and he is enthralled by the peace of communing with only one mind. It feels better. Once in a while I go on hulu.com to find out if I'm missing anything, and guess what, I'm not.

The third amazing thing that has happened is that I've grown new celebrities, even without trying. I'm not going to tell you who they are, but suffice it to say that they are very cool and powerful, as well as entirely mutable to suit my purposes. They are all either dead, fictional, mythical or non-human, and so perfectly fitting. I share some of them with like-minded people (both living and long dead), and some with family members and friends; but others are mine alone.

So, if you are tired of the contradictions of the world of mainstream celebrities, or you just want to try a new way of letting your instincts flow towards narrative play, my advice is to try your hand at choosing (and designing) your own characters. Some might claim this is not a societal, or even social, response, and that I advocate hiding from society. But again that's an illusion of mass media. There has never been only one society, one theatre. Making sense of the world together is much too important of an activity to leave it at that.

[EDIT: The next morning I realized that I made a point about not watching television by referring to a television show. This might strike some as odd, but it isn't. When I was a kid, we got channels 2 (okay), 4 (usually snowy) and 6 (nearly always visible), and every once in a while a vague channel 11 would suddenly become visible for a few hours. The little black-and-white TV we had was broken half the time, and nobody bothered to fix it. That's the way I saw most of the Star Trek franchise, because even after leaving home I rarely could afford the firehose of cable. I don't think people realize how much TV has changed. If it was a Mus musculus before, it is a Tyrannosaurus rex now. It doesn't make sense to use the same word to describe it. The commercials have changed from "We make this product and we think you'll like it" to "If you buy this, beautiful people will magically prefer you, and your life will be full of meaning." Even the way people arrange chairs in the social spaces of their houses has changed. Instead of the chairs facing each other for conversation, now they all face the altar, oops, I mean entertainment center, that enshrines the TV. So yes, I referred to a tv show, but not to a TV show.]

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