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.’

Reading faces: Before, during and after battle

Let’s set aside books for a while and read these faces in Lalage Snow’s ‘We Are The Not Dead‘:

A series of portraits of British soldiers over a period of eight months, before, during and after their operational deployment in Afghanistan. The portraits are captioned with the thoughts and feelings of each individual. They speak of fear, being injured, losing a brother soldier, missing home, excitement, coming home, and what life is like on the frontline

As the body count of British servicemen killed or wounded rose and the political ramifications of the British army’s presence in Afghanistan became increasingly convoluted, more and more soldiers felt like they didn’t have a voice, or at least, weren’t being listened to. ‘We Are The Not Dead’ is an attempt at giving the brave young men and women the chance to speak.

It’s important to read the captions.

Photographer, journalist and film maker Lalage Snow is from Belfast. She has a degree in ancient history. Visit her web site here. Follow her on Twitter: @lalagesnow.

For the story behind the images see Lalage Snow Gives a Voice to the Faces Behind the War.

Before the effect one believes in different causes than one does after the effect. (Nietzsche)

Fast Love: Emotions on Wheels

We live in an age when our emotional connections are predominantly with things, rather than other people. A cell phone, a hand bag, a car. We seek commerce with brands and commerce is driven by envy. We want it. We deserve it. We’re going to have it because we’ve got credit. This is one reason personal indebtedness is at record levels and many people are but a few pay cheques from the street.

Emotional energy has passed from people to brands. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. We sell our emotional labour to our employers. We suppress what we do feel and feign what we don’t. We buy our emotions, they come attached to brands we consumer.

Consider our love affairs with the automobile. ‘Auto’, from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’. ‘Mobile, from Latin ‘mobilus’ meaning ‘to move’. Auto-mobile is Self-mobile: to be able to move or be moved freely or easily.

Behind the wheel of a car is the best way to experience modernity, regarded as a built-environment of roads, bridges and buildings, driving along those roads connecting ‘here’ with ‘there’, effectively brings them closer together. The line of infinity of the open road is analogous to the arrow of time. We drive into the future, not just to a destination. The horizon endlessly recedes just as we never quite arrive at the future.

There is no better illustration of the relationship between the automobile and the modern than the short movie (8:39) of Claude Lelouch’s famous fast drive through the streets of central Paris at 05:30 one August morning in 1976, C’était un rendez-vous. [Above] The camera located just beneath the Mercedes’ front bumper, gives a thrilling sensation of speed.

It starts in a tunnel of the Paris Périphérique at Porte Dauphine, speeds along those famous boulevards created by Haussmann between 1850-1870 and weaves through the narrow streets of Montmartre. Here the journey ends. Lelouch gets out of the car just as a young blond woman runs up some steps to greet him. They embrace against the backcloth of all of Paris in the distance, to the sound of the bells of Sacré Cœur. This is Lelouch’s appointment or date.

That’s modernity right there.

It’s a love story—the love between a man and his car as they speed together through central Paris to rendezvous with a woman.

Such is the close identity between car and driver that there is a bio-mechanical intertwining of the two. Driving is an aesthetic, kinesthetic, emotional, in short, a visceral, experience.

The thrill of speed

The sensation as the car swings around a curve

The changing view

The sound of the resisting air moving against the car

The pleasure of whizzing down hedge-lined lanes, through sun-dappled woods.

The growl of the exhaust

The pleasing click of a gear-stick slotting into place

Driving can be hopeful, angry, sad, pleasurable or boring. It is the sensation of our motion, or lack thereof, that brings different feelings. It is the, or rather a, sensation of being alive.

Or am I being nostalgic here, because driving is like this only in car commercials and the life of Mr. Toad of Wind in the Willows. In both there are hardly any other people.


For the most part, cars are mobile living rooms which we use to transport us through the urban environment. The commute. The school run. The car mediates between work, family life and networks of friendship.

Most experience ‘nature’ via the car, as a ‘vista’ (the name of a car), a view, a landscape; some thing to be looked at and admired, not traveled through on foot. It is a visual, not a sensual, pleasure. Most visitors to the Rocky Mountains here seldom venture more than 300 metres from a road.

The car journey itself—getting there—is the adventure. Hence the names of cars: Ford Escape, Ford Ranger, Volkswagen Toureg, Volkswagen Tiguan (a mixture of ‘Tiger’ and ‘Iguana’), the Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler Voyager or Dodge Caravan.

But in this postmodern, homogenizing world, if ‘here’ is dead and everywhere is ‘now’, aren’t they all on a road to nowhere?


Fortunately it comes at the end of life

Death by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove

At recess, in the ring;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;

The dews grew quivering and chill,

For only gossamer my gown,

My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

The Will of Angelina Jolie


When I heard that Angelina Jolie had decided to have a preventative double mastectomy, upon discovering that she has the ‘faulty’ gene BRCA1, I was reminded of this:

‘You tremble, carcass? You would tremble a lot more if you knew where I am taking you.’

The words are attributed to the French General Turenne (1611-75). Sometimes during battle his body would tremble with fear and so he command it with words, as one would a servant. (That’s him above at the Battle of the Dunes June 14th, 1658).

The Turenne quotation appears in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (first published 1887), in the section in which he examines human will.

Nietzsche is unimpressed by modern ‘man’, for whom the ‘will’ exists mostly to justify guilt, as something to blame. Against this, Nietzsche argues that the will is the energy of the feeling of life. It is itself an emotion, the emotion of command over oneself. We are at the same time the commanding and the obeying parties.

For Nietzsche, the will of the modern human is broken; it no longer commands anything.

The same, it seems, cannot be said of Angelina Jolie. She did not succumb to self-pity or hopelessness. She ruled her emotions, they did not rule her. Her decision to have her breasts surgically removed is impressive precisely because it suggests an enormous strength of will. Not fearlessness, but courage, i.e., not an absence of fear, but an ability to overcome it.

One must need strength, otherwise one will never have it. But one never knows whether one has it, or not, until after one acts. Hence courage.

But there is more to this than meets the eye.

Perhaps it was the triumph of one kind of fear (the fear of leaving her children motherless) over another kind of fear (the fear of losing two attributes of femininity.)

And then there is the power of the ideology of DNA and the biological determinism it entails. I’ll examine this in the next post.