I've recently been reading The Making of Americans the way Gertrude Stein says she wrote it: little by little, day by day. Stein loves to teach, and some of my favorite moments are when she shares bits of wisdom, practical and artistic, in her witty, hypnotic fashion.
The other day I came upon a passage which makes the point that a person's facial expressions don't necessarily reveal his or her moods:
"Sometimes the boy had a way with him, and it would show clear in spite of the fair cheery sporty nature he had in him, a way of looking sleepy and reflecting, and his lids would never be really ever very open, and he would be always only half showing his clear grey eyes that, very often, were bright alive and laughing. Later such a way of looking could be of great service to him. It would not matter if he never really could have wisdom in him, this look could help him always in his dealings with all men and be of much service too to him with women. He will listen then, and with his veiled eyes it will be as if he were full with thinking, and with himself always well hidden, and so he will be wise; or for a woman it will be as if he were always in a dream of them. Wisdom and dreaming, both good things when shown at the right time by a young grown man, who wants to be succeeding, always, in every kind of living."
Even though we know that a person's demeanor doesn't always reflect his or her state of mind, as Stein's passage indicates, we often assume it does. So much so, that she suggests her character can potentially use this assumption to his advantage: if he cultivates his tendency to "look sleepy" he can make himself seem more wise or romantic than he really is.
The cognitive cultural critic, Lisa Zunshine, attributes our habit of reading outward expressions as indicative of inner states as the result of what she terms "the myth of embodied transparency." This is the traditional belief that not only the eyes, but the face and bodily attitude, are windows to the soul.
In Zunshine's view, our tendency to make this assumption -- almost like a reflex -- says something about our lives as social beings: we are constantly compelled to try to "read people's minds" by hints like facial expression because we need to guess at others' thoughts and intentions in order to make our way in society.
Is James Franco Bored or Stoned?
One of the reasons why I found the Stein passage amusing is that it brought to mind an actor known for his sleepy look: James Franco. It seems much of the irritation surrounding him has to do with whether he "embodies transparency" or not. His detractors claim he does; they read his demeanor as signifying boredom or intoxication. But Franco claims his face doesn't mean what it appears to; he says it's the result of a medical condition.
Whatever the truth is, the ambiguity of his look seems to fascinate. On a recent Comedy Central Roast, it was a touch point for many of the jokes. "If at any point James fully opens his eyes tonight, there will be six more weeks of summer," said one roaster. And another: "I've heard of a lazy eye, but that left one is collecting unemployment."
But despite the habitual pull of the idea of embodied transparency, there are moments, Zunshine argues (in her book Getting Inside Your Head), when our belief in it evaporates. As she puts it:
"As soon as a culture becomes aware of an established niche for representing embodied transparency, this niche is vulnerable to subversion and parody."
One "niche" where this occurs in our times is Reality Television. As a genre, such programs promise a raw look at the inner emotional states of their characters. As Zunshine writes, because the people on such shows are not professional actors, "the assumption...is that participants...are not good at faking or concealing their feelings."
Yet, because the emotive situations and gestures seem overdone (and are repeated with such regularity on so many reality shows), the genre is frequently mocked for being "stagy." As a result, though Reality TV aims for authenticity, it's often written off as artificial or manipulative.
But then, to make things even more complicated, there are also times, as Charles Bernstein has described in his now classic essay, "Artifice of Absorption," when literary or artistic works can actually heighten their emotional impact precisely by making us aware of their aesthetic devices; i.e., when creative work gains authenticity by admitting to its artificiality.
More on this fascinating twist in the next post...