In late 6th century Athens (BCE), it was all the rage. Introduced by Thespis, “play-acting” quickly attained widespread popularity among Athenians who, like most people, were looking for diverting forms of entertainment to fill the evening hours. On one such evening the aged patriarch Solon, celebrated lawmaker and civic founder, was persuaded to attend a performance. His reaction?: indignation and an angry rebuke to Thespis, who blithely responded that such “play” was harmless, merely a novel pastime. “No!” Solon retorted angrily (here paraphrasing Plutarch’s account), “It is dangerous. Such a tolerance for pretense and deception will end up infecting all our commerce and civic life.” But Thespis merely shrugged — and, some 2500 years later, we now find ourselves enmeshed in a media-sphere of garrulous, deceitful “actors,” all clamoring for our attention as they exhibit their base arts of “persuasion.” Aristotle, in his book on Rhetoric, had warned presciently that the “base” variety of rhetoric seeks to undermine our self-directed judgment in order to manipulate and control our decisions. Much later, in the mid-18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau followed Plutarch’s account of Solon by writing an angry polemic against the establishment of a theater in his beloved Geneva.
Consulting the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, I find that there are some 70,000 “professional actors” in the U.S. (compared to, for instance, 3000 sociologists). Quite obviously, the requisite job skills require playing different roles, displaying (false) emotions, and “sincerely” persuading us to buy sundry products, “lifestyles” — and candidates. With their omnipresence in all performing media, actors have by now become absurdly over-valued as role-models in everyday life. Writing back in the 1940s, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had already critiqued the rise of a new American character-type: the “marketing personality” — whose looks, smiles and jokes would be “selling points,” not only in politics, but infiltrating all aspects of social engagement. In short, not the real person and his values (if any), but a simulacrum or image fashioned to display pleasing, if insincere, demeanor, attitudes and opinions.
Sociologist Erving Goffman extended this much further, theorizing that social interaction is inherently “dramaturgic” (read: deceptive), and that those engaged in skillful “impression-management” would “get the job” (no matter how incompetent), and “successfully” persuade others (“leadership”) — into, one can now recall, disastrous debt, blood-drenched wars, and “national security” profiteering. Forty years ago, journalist Lou Cannon wrote his aptly titled book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Hitler once boastingly called himself “the greatest actor in Europe.” As media critics from Marshall McLuhan to Jerry Mander have noted, the visual experience of the television-image has further blunted critical faculties, enabling even poorly skilled thespians such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George W.Bush to nonetheless persuade most viewers of the veracity of their outrageous lies. (This, in part, can also be attributed to the relative credulity of most viewers, who are unlikely to conceive of the magnitude of brazen, cynical insolence exhibited.) Of course, the triumph of pleasing “image” over something called “truth” has long been normalized and accepted. Which candidate “performed” better in that debate (“fact-checks” notwithstanding)? A histrionic, rabble-rousing “performer” — now matter how ignorant, dishonest and uninformed — can provide sufficient entertainment to be elected president (read Trump). By now, movie and TV “celebrities” are often given equal-weight with scientific and scholarly experts, in the “court of world opinion.”
Social media? If mere persons increasingly perceive themselves as commodities to be marketed — whether in “dating” or “employment” — then Facebook ad nauseam were, of course, the logical outcomes of this insidious trend. An artfully contrived “presentation” — looks, “likes,” hyped-up “accomplishments” — may allow for successful competition in the all-encompassing marketplace which is mistaken for the reality of real individuals, struggling and sometimes despairing (behind the figurative mask). Yes, as Solon sadly foresaw, “acting” (aka, dissimulating) would come to infiltrate all social encounters, from hypocritical “concern” to simulated sexual response. Where then, can the individual find nurture and cherish his authentic values and qualities? In the freedom of solitude: self-awareness and rational judgment — with carefully chosen boundaries against unwelcome “media” intrusions.The post A Nation of “Thespians” first appeared on Dissident Voice.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by William Manson.