Unreal Nature

October 30, 2013

The Skilled Liar

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:15 am

… the skilled liar — a person who can make a convincing face — knows he is lying but feels he is telling the truth.

… humans are able to absorb and learn behavior so thoroughly that the new “performed” behavior knits seamlessly into ongoing “spontaneous” action.

This is from Performance Theory by Richard Schechner (1988, 2003):

… A depiction not merely of emotions, but of emotions that can easily be recognized, that can be composed and communicated — the raw material of theater wherever it is found — is also the stuff lies are made of. As Ekman points out the face is not only a truth-teller but a liar without peer. And lying, as much as truth-telling, is the stock in trade of theater.

The face appears to be the most skilled nonverbal communicator and perhaps for that reason the best “non-verbal liar,” capable not only of withholding information but of simulating the facial behavior associated with a feeling which the person is in no way experiencing. (Ekman 1972)

Here the Ekman of 1972 does not yet know what the Ekman of 1983 found out: that the “mechanical” construction of a face in the configuration of a “target emotion” elicits an ANS response, i.e. an “experience.” Thus lying is a very complicated business in which the skilled liar — a person who can make a convincing face — knows he is lying but feels he is telling the truth (see Ekman 1985). Exactly Nair’s (and Brecht’s) response. The half actor who “does not forget” himself is the knower; the half who “becomes the character itself” is the feeler.

… This would suggest, even, that a skilled performer has “three halves.” Both the ergotropic and trophotropic systems are aroused, while the “center” of the performer, the “I,” stands outside observing and to some degree controlling both the knower and the feeler. Clearly a complex operation engages both the cognitive and the affective systems simultaneously, without either one washing out the other. A similar “triple state” accompanies some kinds of trance, while in other kinds of trance the feelings may be so powerful that they blot out entirely both the “knowing half” and the “observing / controlling” half of the performer.

… The elephant bowing at the end of “his” act [in the circus] is not saying “thank you” although the spectators receive the elephant’s behavior as such and applaud even louder accordingly. But how is what the elephant does different from what Laurence Olivier did when, in blackface, as Othello, raging “Down strumpet!” he takes up the pillow to murder Desdemona? The difference is that Olivier’s knowing half knows he is just acting and as such controls his gestures so that he does not injure the actress playing Desdemona. Even more, Olivier feels and does not feel rage against that actress. Olivier is absorbed in the task of “performing the actions that communicate to himself and to his audience the emotions required.” The whole bundle is necessary in order to understand this kind of acting. The Balinese dancer in trance is in a middle position. She might not know at the time that she has been dancing, that the dedari (gods) have possessed her. But before and after dancing she knows what trance is (in her culture), what the proper gestures are, what behavior is acceptable while in trance (even how far “out of control” to get).

… Performing artists are forever playing around — not only with the codes, frames, and metaframes of communication — but with their own internal brain states. Although artistic and scientific creativity have long been thought to be similar, there is this decisive difference: scientists focus their work on external phenomena; even a neurobiologist works on somebody else’s brain. Performing artists — and, I would say, mediators, shamans, and trancers too — work on themselves, trying to induce deep psychophysical transformations either of a temporary or of a permanent kind. The external artwork — the performance the spectators see — is the visible result of a trialog among: 1) the conventions or givens of a genre, 2) the stretching, distorting, or invention of new conventions, and 3) brain-centered psychophysical transformations of self.

… Human communication systems are not reducible to the static model of “sender-channel-receiver,” or any variation thereof, that assumes the existence of discrete parts. The human system is an extremely subtle multiplex-feedback one in which the originator of feelings is also affected by the emotions s/he is expressing — even if these emotions are a lie. That is what Ekman’s experiment, and good acting, are saying: the doing of the action of a feeling is enough to arouse the feeling both in the doer and in the receiver. Olivier need not work himself into a jealous rage against the actress playing Desdemona; but neither is he devoid of feelings; performing the actions of Othello will arouse Olivier. The so-called surface of emotion — the look on the face, the tone of the skin, the tilt of the body, the placement and moves of muscles — is also the emotion’s “depth.”

… Performativity — or, commonly, “performance” — is everywhere in life, from ordinary gestures to macrodramas. But theatricality and narrativity are more limited, if only slightly so. Differences in degree of magnitude do lead to differences in kind. Aesthetic genres — theater, dance, music — are framed theatrically, signaling the intentions of their composers to their publics. Other genres are frequently not so clearly marked — but this does not make them any less performative.

… There is a continuity of performance magnitudes, from interior brain events to bits of training and the making of signs and scenes — the deconstruction / reconstruction process of workshops and rehearsals — on to public performances of varying scales — the end point being performances of worldwide or even cosmic dimensions, such as the Olympics, the shooting down of KAL 007, or Lowry Burgess’s Quiet Axis. Some of these are media events, some social dramas, some artworks. We have entered the epoch where a performance can be both a social drama and a media event, for example, the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. However limited their magnitude at their points and moments of origin — a lone 747 trailed by a single fighter, an artist conceiving an artwork — they soon catch a larger audience. Some net hundreds of millions of people in narrative and symbolic macrodramas unique to our own times and technologies.

… To what degree does our very survival as a species depend on how peoples and their leaders “act,” not only in the sense of comportment but also in the theatrical sense? Exactly how a crisis is “handled” — played out, performed — becomes a matter of extreme importance. This brings me back to a basic paradox: humans are able to absorb and learn behavior so thoroughly that the new “performed” behavior knits seamlessly into ongoing “spontaneous” action. Performance magnitude means not only size and duration but also extension across cultural boundaries and penetration to the deepest strata of historical, personal, and neurological experience.

My  most recent previous post from Schechner’s book is here.



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