Friday, 18 February 2011

Polishing Turds

Is it not the case that a performer, of whatever kind, who pays more attention to their audience’s expectations than their own performance, is likely to find it significantly more difficult – perhaps impossible - to give a convincing performance? Isn’t self consciousness the very enemy of good acting? The more a performer becomes disentangled from this feeling of being under scrutiny, the more they are likely to be able to be fully immersed in their role. Therefore anything that emphasizes the presence of the audience should be minimized and anything that encourages the performer to inhabit their role should be enabled. Perhaps this might explain why so many of the most interesting artists are not in the least interested in fishing for recognition but are simply getting on with what they love for its own sake. It’s that intrinsic motivation thing again.

In a response to a previous post, Sean writes: “in most professions, performance is everything.” Probably, but is this a good thing? - cars perform, stocks and shares perform, chemical compounds perform, trained elephants perform, actors perform, musicians perform. I’m mixing the two senses of the word “perform” here deliberately to make a point about how easy it is to confuse them. Certainly Sean means perform in the sense of “to carry out an action”, but the two senses of the word are so conflated in so many areas of contemporary life that something vital seems to be getting lost in the process. ‘Being’ is gradually becoming eclipsed. As society becomes ever more fascinated with celebrity over substance there appears to be an increasing valuing of performance over being; of ‘acting’ over doing and this preoccupation is spilling over into so many aspects of life that “performance is everything” or at least is seen as everything, which amounts to the same thing, which is to say appearance is everything.

One of my employers has recently changed the name of the annual staff Career Reviews. Previously these were called OSCRs (Objective Setting Career Reviews), whereas now they’re called EPRs (Employee Performance Reviews). We can all benefit from a little clear headed critical reflection sometimes, but the more emphasis is given over to appearances as opposed to actualities, the more we are likely to be tempted to cut corners, to embellish and even to deceive ourselves. As Sean himself has pointed out, it is indeed possible to polish a turd.

So should we be encouraging students to ‘perform’ as artists, doctors, engineers etc. or should we rather encourage them to fully inhabit what they choose to become? I don’t doubt that there’s a competitive, materialistic world out there with a few more egotistical posturing charlatans than we’d ideally like. In many ways that’s my whole point. But if this means encouraging students to become a bunch of narcissistic, competitive, selfish, careerist posers just to compete, you can count me out.

“It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of "culture." -John Cage


Seán said...

It's on oldie but:

“To be is to do”–Socrates.
“To do is to be”–Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra.

Tamsin said...

I think this is what Barry Green is talking about in 'The inner game of music'. There's a self which is watching the performance, judging it, trying to work out how other people are seeing it. And then there's another self which is simply doing it, which is in the music, focussing on and doing/being the music (the state most musicians are in when they're practicising, and think no-one can hear them). He calls these two selves self 1 and self 2, I can't remember which is which. But the observing self inhibits the activity of the immersed self, reducing its possibilities. You have learn to blank out the voice of the observer - I remember an story about someone who was about to faint from nerves before playing a solo who then settled their mind on a particular spot on the bald head of the conducter, and was then able to go on....

J. Hamlyn said...

@Sean, Here's another relevant one also by Mr Vonnegut: "Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be."

@Tamsin, "observing self and Immersed self" I like that. This is making me think of Herrigel again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

I thought Vonnegut just borrowed that matched set of quotes from a shithouse philosopher?

To return to flow experiences, here's another from the same ultimate source: "There's nothing so underrated as a good shit, and nothing so overrated as a bad fuck"

Vonnegut's idea embodied in your quote is missing two words between "because" and "you": they are "to others," Are we only what we appear to be to others?

The sources that you and Tamsin are quoting seem to be paddling in the shallows of Zen. A good shit would be more informative than this toilet-paper.

J. Hamlyn said...

Paddling in the shallows eh Sean, how very British of us!
“one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’ It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.” -Slavoj Žižek

Anonymous said...

I'm just teasing here, Jim, but isn't it more French than British to say "Eet works een practice, but does eet work in principle?"

To return to the distillation of your original point, there is a level on which I agree with every word you say.

Rather than the oblique pointers I gave above, I will attempt to explain what is missing.

As a practitioner of a couple of dark arts(Engineering and Cooking), I note that most of my fellows in Education clearly lack the practice-based subjective insights of the most lowly practitioners.

They attempt instead of acquiring these things in a straightforward manner to substitute a partial, purely intellectual understanding of these things gained from a second-hand account of an unreliable observer of the phenomenon in someone else.

This is of course playing to their strengths - they are good at reading stuff, and synthesising it in a way which is rewarded by the educational system.

There is a commonly held delusion in HE (especially in the humanities, and subjects contaminated by ideas from this source) that a process in which purely intellectual abilities were fostered and tested has somehow also increased wisdom.

The points you make against turd-polishing are essentially that we should be fostering wisdom instead of cleverness, but to academics there is no wisdom, only "wisdom", the idea of wisdom, rather than the thing itself.

Since you like it quoty, try some Lao Tsu:

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired

In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped

So drop some shit-then you'll see.

J. Hamlyn said...

Sure, but this relies on agreeing on what exactly needs to be dropped lest we lose what’s useful. It seems to me that in order to understand anything unfamiliar it’s important to examine it closely, whether it’s fools gold, chanterelle or education theory. If someone tells us that we’re on the wrong track then it might help sharpen our wits but should it terminate our enquiry? Well that depends… but on what? Their authority? Experience? The persuasiveness of their argument? Or the vehemence with which they make it? And if we follow their advice, what will we have learned? That also depends, but only on how informative their advice is. If a change of course doesn’t grow our understanding it will have stifled it and that is no use to anyone.

Anonymous said...

There's no track where someone will not tell us we are on the wrong track, especially in academia - "opinions are like arseholes...", to quote the shithouse philosopher again.

A person's claimed authority or experience, their personal persuasiveness or vehemence should not sway us, and following their advice will teach us nothing, as you suspect.

You are exactly right when you say we need to examine it closely. But our subject should be it, not "it", the thing itself, not the opinions of others about the thing.

There is no requirement in such personal inspection for any reliance on agreeing anything with anyone else. If we are seeing into our own nature, outside opinions are worthless. What do others know about being us? How might we be expected to agree with someone else about the nature of our personal realities when they are each uniquely different?

"That which comes through the gate is not the family treasure”- Mumonkoan

If we are seeing into the nature of the physical world, we can demonstrate a sound finding without any claim of personal authority, experience, persuasiveness or vehemence.

Facts speak for themselves, but authority,experience, persuasiveness and vehemence are not necessarily correlated with accuracy.

I covered this subject in a previous post:

Tamsin said...

Mmmm, back to paddling in the shallows of zen. Does zen have the monopoly on insights into direct experience? Having said that, Barry Green wrote the book with Timothy Gallway, who wrote 'the inner game of tennis', which was based on insights from Eugene Herrigel (as Jim spotted) who was a occidentalist learning archery in Japan. So there you go.

J. Hamlyn said...

"But our subject should be it, not "it", the thing itself, not the opinions of others about the thing."
That’s the whole problem of language and communication right there in a nutshell Sean.

Anonymous said...

Zen has no monopoly on these commonplace direct experiences, but it is the thing it studies, and they have been doing it for a millennium or so.

As Tamsin generously acknowledges, and bringing in Jim's point: with the imperfections of human communication, how correct can an understanding of Green's understanding of Gallway's understanding of Herrigel's understanding of his Zen master's take on directly experienced reality be?

Wouldn't it be better to go to the source, the direct experience itself, and cut out all of the middle-men?

J. Hamlyn said...

You’re absolutely right Sean, we need to be careful not to mistake the particular for the general. But without wanting to dilute the crystal clarity of that conclusion I’d like to suggest that there’s also something to be gained by examining the ‘report’ of an experience too, so long as one is fully aware that this is the case ie: we’re dealing with what it means to be an apprentice under Awa Kenzo, in the case of Herrigel, rather than a report on the nature of Zen, of which Awa Kenzo was not, in fact, a proponent (

Anonymous said...

Now that's interesting, thanks Jim. Maybe Zen and the Art of Archery is as reliable a source as Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenace.

I'll rephrase, assuming Professor Shoji's opinion is as you think a fact.

"With the imperfections of human communication, how correct can an understanding of Green's understanding of Gallway's understanding of Herrigel's misunderstanding of his non-Zen master's take on sport archery be"?

Not very, to answer myself.

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