The strange death of emotional authenticity

We learn how to experience and express emotions and every society in every age has its own style of doing so.

Emotional styles are easier to recognize in the distant past. There is even pleasure to be derived from it. Jane Austen’s characterization of the culture of sensibility among the lower reaches of the English landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park still pulls in readers and viewers. 

The drama, of course, lies in detecting real feelings beneath a veil of sentiment. In real life, for women especially, much depended on being able to distinguish between truth and lies, realities from appearances.

For a counterpoint to Jane Austen, consider Dangerous Liaisons, a 1988 movie staring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. It is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Lacios, first published in 1782, i.e., during the last years of the Ancien Régime.

Via a series of exchanged letters, it tells the story of the two rivals and ex-lovers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. They seduce and humiliate others and then glory in their manipulative skills. Their favourite victims are the virtuous and innocent.

In the movie, Glenn Close, as Merteuil, spells it out. She paid attention to ‘whatever it was that people were trying to hide’. She became ‘a virtuoso of deceit’:

The movie, like the novel, runs the gamut of emotions, from jealousy and revenge to guilt and grief. Both of the main protagonists come to a sticky end. Valmont dies following a duel, but not before revealing the letters which destroy the reputation of Merteuil. She retreats to the countryside where she contracts smallpox and loses sight in one eye. It is a morality tale about the depravity of the Ancien Régime. And the moral is?

Pride and Prejudice and Dangerous Liaisons have one thing in common: For those who cannot distinguish between appearances and reality all liaisons are potentially dangerous.

And today? What is the emotional style of ‘modern’ society? How will it be depicted by writers and artists of the future?

This is an age of simulation. Whatever can be simulated is. This includes emotions. This includes emotional authenticity. We feign the emotions we sell at work (emotional labour) and we consume the simulated emotions we buy (emotional branding).

It is no longer a matter of being able to distinguish between faces and masks, reality and appearance, for simulation dissolves these very distinctions. In Western, capitalist societies, simulation is the new reality—and it’s not much of one.

The characters of Jane Austen and those in Dangerous Liaisons were acting, dissembling, pretending. Now face, now mask. They thrived or perished on their skill in deceiving and detecting deception in others.

But simulating is not pretending, it is not acting. It is something else entirely.

‘To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence’ (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 3).

To simulate an illness, for example, can produce some of its symptoms. Hamlet simulates madness. ‘If he’s this good at acting crazy, it’s because he is’ (Baudrillard, ibid. p. 4). In the same way, to simulate emotions can produce some of their symptoms. But that doesn’t make them real or authentic. Where feelings used to be there is just an inner emptiness.

Emotional authenticity is dead. We no longer deceive and are deceived. This simulated society deceives us all. To paraphrase Trotsky on the dialectic: ‘You may not be interested in simulation, but simulation is interested in you.’

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