The Authentic Expression of Human Emotion
Pt. 1: Those Who Perform
Some time last year, a video surfaced online. A smartly dressed woman with short hair and glasses sat there in her car, talking to the video camera in her phone, which would then transmit her message to her audience of potentially anyone via social media. Starting quietly but then gradually getting louder until she was finally screaming, she told us,
Listen, kiddo. I get it. I don’t like the two-party system. I think our country is corrupt, and, quite frankly, I don’t want to vote for Biden. It feels like voting for a Republican. But I’m gonna do it. You want to know why? Because the alternative is a fucking fascist. A fascist. It’s a fascist. Maybe we can have the conversation about dismantling the two-party system when a fascist isn’t running. Maybe we can do that later, kiddo. Champ. Chief. Maybe we can talk about it later.
Every time she said the word “fascist,” she would shriek it especially loudly and zoom the camera in on her face. And all the while, she was smirking. The video went viral.
Many found the video off-putting; yet another example of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” rearing its ugly head. The popular conservative commentator and convicted white collar criminal Dinesh D’Souza did a response to it explaining that (what else?) liberals are the real fascists. Others mostly pointed and gawked at the woman’s frantic disposition. But this response was largely tone-deaf. She was attempting to do comedy with screaming as part of the humor. True, it wasn’t particularly funny, but the intent was obvious. All the signs of attempted humor were there. She undoubtedly thought that Donald Trump was a fascist and was signaling her frustration with the situation, but there was also the smirk; the deliberately placed colloquialisms; the tone of knowing condescension to some clueless rube trying to remain “principled” while allowing obvious tyranny to thrive. This young woman’s audience was watching a sort of political comedy, whatever her mental state may have been at the time.
But then, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg, another video surfaced of someone in her car screaming. In this one, a woman with glasses and a fashionable nose ring informed us,
Holy fucking shit, you guys. I’m driving a car, but I just got a notification that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Fuck. Could this year get any fucking worse? Ruth: you just had to make it to 2021. Waahhhhh.
The response to this video was largely the same, only this time it was more justified. The woman was having some sort of emotional meltdown, as she screamed through the whole video and her face turned red. Yet when you watch it carefully, particularly the first few seconds, there is a distinct absence of real anger in her eyes, even though the screams are just about to arrive. And then there is the strange, “Ruth: you just had to make it to 2021,” which betrays some self-awareness and irony, however scrambled in the delivery. After all, there she is, talking to the ghost of a Supreme Court Justice as though she were a football fan frustrated with a player who just sprained his ankle before the second half of an important game. It may be awkward and even somewhat disturbing, but there is a faint ludic element buried within her delivery. So what exactly is going on, here?
While some didn’t seem to perceive an attempt at humor in the first video, most recognized it immediately even while considering it deranged. I largely got it because I remembered that there was an unfortunate trend in the 1980s for comedians to scream out their jokes. The most successful was Sam Kinison, whose screaming resembled the inner-voice of the repressed id (or something like this) repeatedly fighting its way to the surface. Then there was Bobcat Goldthwait, who had a “crazy person” gimmick. Then there was Gilbert Gottfried, who had an “annoying Jew” gimmick. Then, later on, you had Lewis Black, who used screaming for political commentary, and this is when things really went downhill. Back when Kinison used screaming for comedic effect, a device he had appropriated from his background in evangelical ministry, it was all quite new. At the time, no one had encountered a big fat guy screaming out the evil, prurient inner-voice found in every man sitting there at the venue. But by now, the earth-shattering confrontational power of this once-fresh style of humor has disappeared, while “coaches” who offer instruction on stand-up comedy tell their pupils to avoid it altogether. It is considered passé, at least in that type of comedy, and we’re all a little bit better off as a result.
Given that Kinison spent most of his time on stage screaming about how awful women are, I somehow suspect that our two subjects were not directly inspired by him. They were probably not inspired by anyone in particular. Both of these women were performing their own authentic emotions, which they filtered through a sort of theatrical vocabulary pieced together by watching other successful outbursts on video. We can think of some possible examples: comedic screaming in Hollywood films; screaming in other social media videos that went “viral” but with a warmer reception; screaming in sitcoms from the 90s and 00s (black actors such as Will Smith would use this often); comedic screaming in the many popular primetime cartoon shows written by Ivy League grads; and so on. Though the pathways of influence for each aspect of this theatrical vocabulary are incalculably complex, the basic pattern is one of top-down transmission from the “legacy media” in its past and present state to social media — and then eventually, yes, to real life: the way people behave when no camera is present.
Some old but influential theoretical work on artistic expression might help us understand what is happening. In E.H. Gombrich’s Art & Illusion, Gombrich argues that visual artists never simply “copy down what they see,” because the transmission from the natural world to the paper or canvas requires far too many changes to account for what is essentially nontransmissible. The artist’s head never remains completely steady, so the perspective constantly changes; the brightness and darkness of the natural lights can never be adequately rendered through paint or graphite; there is always some artifice involved in the depiction of depth because of its subtleties; and so on. Therefore, the artist must constantly negotiate between the raw information his eye gives to him and some schema that he has mentally constructed based on what is visually familiar to him. A schema is a psychological aide to help the artist filter and map out the prominent visual features of the object he has encountered as he renders it onto his medium.
There is plenty of room to quibble with Gombrich’s account of perception psychology and his understanding of draftsmanship following the Renaissance’s revolution in perspective, but his account of the schema as an artistic tool remains inarguable. For both pre- and post-Renaissance work, he provides numerous examples that suggest the longstanding usage of schemata that artists would use as filtering devices when looking at or thinking of something and attempting to reproduce it via illustration. For instance, the medieval artists who drew manuscript illuminations are infamously quite bad at drawing animals, often amusingly so, as the tumblr blog “Discarding Images” demonstrates. But why? The likely answer is that these illustrators were often tasked with drawing animals that they had never seen, so they would rely on a schema corresponding to a different animal altogether. A sketchbook album of Villard de Honnecourt contains plenty of these schemata, which usually take the form of simple shapes to help himself reconstruct various things including animals and also types of faces (students are still taught to use these aides to this very day; instructors usually tell them to reduce what they see down to simple geometric shapes). In one particularly bad drawing of a lion viewed head-on, Villard writes down that this lion was drawn from real life. He must have meant that only the schema had been reproduced from a prior encounter in real life, because had he not written that, we all would have assumed that it is a work of pure imagination. It doesn’t look much like a lion.
In another example, a German woodcut from 1556 depicts some locusts. The drawings combine the then-familiar schema of a locust, assembled from a long line of depictions of the plague of locusts found in the Book of Exodus, and the schema of a horse (yes, in this woodcut, the locusts each look like a combination of an insect and a horse). According to Gombrich, the likely reason is that the German word for locust is Heupferd, or hay-horse, which prompted some creative experimentation from the draftsman. This example in particular demonstrates why the use of a schema is so valuable: it allows us to substitute the unknown with the familiar, even at a purely conceptual level, in order to trudge along and allow our visual representation to materialize despite all difficulties in transmission.
We are dealing, of course, not with visual art but an altogether different kind of art. Social media videos like these ones are a kind of performance art. The participants are also not at all “acting” in the traditionally understood sense. In method acting, the player spends some time trying to place himself psychologically in the position of his character. He draws upon his own memories and experiences; he sometimes tries to simulate the day-to-day life of the character during his free time; and one day he eventually finds himself able to relate to the character as a fully rounded, three-dimensional person with his own complex and unique psychology. Here, we are dealing with more or less the opposite situation. Here, the people do not need to plunge themselves deliberately into a soup of buried emotions to exhume for some scripted contrivance. Their emotions are absolutely real and in need of some form of pointed articulation. The theatrical vocabulary of the entertainment industry serves as the conduit through which these outbursts can be redirected, while “the political” is the currency through which their inmost feelings achieve moral legitimacy. During more innocent times, when Chris Crocker went “viral” for his video in which he tearfully pleaded for everyone to be kinder to Britney Spears after threatening to kill himself if anything ever happened to her, people did not know how serious he was. So he assured them that he was serious on an episode of Maury, in which he also pranced about in leopard print pants while the crowd whooped and hollered with joy. But does anyone think that the media’s treatment of Britney Spears was really the source of his misery at the moment of the recording?
The late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper once said that acting is an art of implosion, whereas professional wrestling is an art of explosion, and this disjunction explains why wrestlers seldom make good actors. In these videos, the women are “exploding” via the recruitment of already-present intense emotions. Like the sources of inspiration for the delivery, the sources of their emotions are unfortunately too complex to catalog here. The men and women of WEIRD societies are regularly beset by a thousand daily frustrations, difficulties, and inconveniences that humans do not seem to be psychologically equipped to withstand very easily, and the purpose of this short little essay is not to speculate on the reasons for the increasing agitations of 21st century modern life. (Though I will gently advise anyone who wants to explore the question to ignore straightforward political issues altogether and consider biological, chemical, and ecological reasons first and foremost.) But whatever these reasons might be, these women must emotionally explode and at the same time conform to the rough-hewn grammar of a recent and still-developing video-based political performance art.
When the moment arrives to record the video, the schema that simplifies and draws a common pattern from the various kinds of comedic screaming they’ve watched in other videos starts to kick in. It provides a general sense of how to gesticulate, how to move around, and how to convey facial expression. Just as the schema substitutes the unknown with the familiar, here it fills in the gaps during the transference of intensely felt emotions (whose origins are mysterious and profound) to a performed outburst solely focused on an abstract political concern. This impromptu political performance rationalizes the emotions and provides them with a sense of coherence, and the social media video, its final product, legitimizes them. The use of the schema is essential to this transference.
Beyond social media videos, one can easily find the deployment of these sorts of schemata when encountering an emotionally effusive, often pop-culture-obsessed person in real life. Maybe it is someone who calls herself a “nerd” and goes to conventions; maybe it is one of those young men who poses with action figures or various knicknacks while smiling with his mouth agape. It has been common to discuss the dramaturgical aspects of everyday performance since the 1950s, and academic theorists have discussed the “performativity” of categories such as gender since the early 1990s. These theorists are certainly onto something. But the proliferation of video media and recording instruments in the 21st century has led to an entirely new refinement of behavior when people feel as though they are being not only seen but recorded for posterity. At the Disinfo.Con, a counterculture event held in New York City during the year 2000, the comic book writer Grant Morrison said,
Back home in Britain, Tony Blair is putting up cameras in every street corner. And he’s talking about putting cameras in people’s homes. He’s gotten rid of trial by jury. This is, like, fascist Britain 1999, y’know? But the more he does this, the weirder things get. The more cameras you put up, the more people will start to act like movie stars. The more people start to act like movie stars, the weirder things get. And then the more cameras they put up to try and deal with it — and the weirder it gets! So let ’em bring the cameras; I’ll fucking act the shit out of these bastards! Let’s have the cameras. Let’s have cameras everywhere. And we’ll show them what we can do.
Unfortunately, he was pretty much right. As surveillance technology has become increasingly invasive and commonplace in everyday life, things have gotten weirder, and people certainly have taken it upon themselves to “act the shit out of these bastards,” as he put it. But although they have been acting like movie stars, it hasn’t been the same kind of acting that movie stars do, as I’ve tried to show.
There is still one more important point that we must cover about the nature of the schema, and that is the manner in which it can condition and even distort our own perceptions when we encounter these sorts of situations. After all, semiosis is never a simple, unidirectional process; the sign’s recipient always must play an active role in interpreting it. Regarding the John Cassavetes film A Woman under the Influence, for instance, a number of people have told me that they found Gena Rowlands’s performance of a crazy person unconvincing. To them, she is guilty of “overacting.” The way she rolls her eyes, lurches her jaw, engages in pantomime, and so on, seems too on-the-nose; too much of an approximation of what a crazy person ought to look like. These people have cited the climax of the film, the scene in which she nearly has a total meltdown, as the most conspicuous example of this overacting. Yet if one spends enough time with the disabled or mentally ill, it becomes rather clear that they, during certain fraught moments, will resemble a Hollywood actor who is overacting. Which is to say, if one has enough emotional distance from the situation, and if one has constructed enough schemata from his own exposure to a large quantity of video media productions, an authentic display of emotion can look inauthentic.
As the proliferation of video media continues to compel the refinement of how we portray ourselves even during our most authentic moments of emotional intensity, the line distinguishing between the authentic and the inauthentic will continue to blur. There is an old episode of Baywatch (S6E14) in which a schizophrenic murderer with multiple personalities is trying to kill one of the male lifeguards. He conveys all of his personalities through celebrity impersonation: he effortlessly jumps from Robert de Niro (as Travis Bickle) to Jean Stapleton (as Edith Bunker) to Tony Curtis impersonating Cary Grant in Some Like it Hot et al. Bizarrely, in this episode, three of the female lifeguards (Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, and Alexandra Paul) — imagine themselves to be the heroes of the old TV series Charlie’s Angels (Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson, respectively), and about two thirds of the episode depicts them collectively having a fantasy about apprehending the villain as the Angels, even though the villain remains the same within both the main story and the fantasy that intrudes upon its plot. I haven’t checked, but I suspect that some budding young academic has already written a perfectly useless paper about this episode and its correspondence to Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality. Now, obviously, the villain’s behavior is not how schizophrenia actually works, but I suspect that the episode points to where our future is headed nonetheless. The lifeguards reveal themselves to be just as overwhelmed by pop culture iconography as the killer, and the intrusion of their fantasy onto the plot raises serious questions about point-of-view and the neutrality of the episode’s narration. What I’m saying is, even if we were to one day encounter some deranged man who is not engaging in these kinds of wild impersonations or filtering his behavior through a schema or cacophony of schemata, we might interpret it that way anyhow based on how the intrusive shadows of the video world have affected our own perception.
For this reason, I believe that the most ethical way to approach these kinds of emotionally volatile situations is through the cultivation of a deliberately tone-deaf compassion. Or, in other words, through the trained abandonment of any associations with other media forms and patterns that we may have encountered — perhaps even the refusal to acknowledge that some emotional performance might be a put-on or a “troll” if it involves a significant display of distress. There is enough likelihood that the trolling is rooted in authenticity to risk looking uncool for a moment. When a female member of the Lyndon LaRouche cult attempted to prank the Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by pretending to be a crazy person who thinks we ought to eat babies to solve the climate crisis, Ocasio-Cortez decided to ignore the substance of her proposal and treat her as someone suffering a breakdown, feigning compassion through her facial expressions and body language while delivering a canned verbal response. This, my friends, is the way forward. We have reached a point in which it has become needlessly cruel to mock others just to win an imaginary skirmish in some irrelevant “culture war,” and we are rapidly approaching a point in which there will be no shame whatsoever in failing to acknowledge the irony of some trickster. Far from being the fertile wetland of philosophical possibility that Schlegel and Novalis saw in it, irony has instead become a tattered veil barely obscuring a world of primaeval discomposure. We can afford to forget about it from time to time.