“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ekman addendum

“I did not know the Fore language, but with the help of a few boys who had learned Pidgin from a missionary school, I could go from English to Pidgin to Fore and back again.” – Paul Ekman

There was some ... strenuousity ... about LI’s big post yesterday. I re-wrote the damn thing several times to make it clearer My point is not that there are no emotional universals. I expect that there might be – although the universals might well be of form, the way emotions are assembled, rather than content. But one can be neutral about the universality of the emotions and still find the method by which these universals were ‘discovered’ in the 1960s a very curious, and yet very familiar, concoction. We have seen experts discovering ‘homosexuality’ in the face before. We have seen experts pondering the meaning of drawn or photographed faces before, too. In fact, there was a physiognomic literature in Babylon.

What is curious is that, in spite of using Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson as his (imaginary) interlocutors – his version of Descartes demon - Paul Ekman seems to have never questioned why the emotional universals were best expressed in Western languages and customs. He never seems, even, to have been puzzled by the fact that among scientists themselves, there have been and there continues to be strong disagreement about what emotions even are. If the rather small social cohort of psychologists are divided, even, on such basic questions as the origin of emotion – do emotions begin as a physiological stance and result in a feeling, or is the line of causation just the opposite? – then it would seem a very bold step indeed to simply ignore questions of affective sense making among the population one is taking photos of and questioning.

Anna Wierzbicka, in Emotions Across Languages and Cultures, makes a nice remark here:

“Until recently many scholars refused to believe that the categorization of ‘emotions’ can differ from language to language and insisted that at leas tsome ‘emotions’ must be linguistically recognized in all languages. There can no longer be any dobut, however, that this is not the case. Although much more is know about this diversity now then twenty or thirty years ago, the basic fact that in principle “emotion words” don’t match was known at that time too. Even an extreme ‘universalist” like Paul Ekman, who has claimed for decades that the same “basic emotions” (i.e. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise, cf Ekman 1973 219-220; see also Ekman 1993, 1994a and b) are recognized in all cultures, acknowledged more than twenty years ago that the Dani people of the New Guinea Highlands, whose faces and “emotions” he had studied in the field, “don’t even have words for the six emotions” (Ekman 1975: 39)

There is a certain deep ... smugness about this whole enterprise. Why are we to think that the cut and fit of the English affective vocabulary turns out to exactly match universal emotions? What if it had had turned out that, say, the Ifaluk vocabulary was a better match for the emotional universals? That we would have to carve out, as our universal, a little bit of greed and a little bit of anger to express the universal emotion x, say. Or that a bit of anger, a bit of fear, a bit of surprise – something like awe – is the real universal emotion y. But no, English by a great stroke of luck has carved out exactly the universal emotions we as human beings are all equipped with. Congratulations, you Anglo Saxons and Norman invaders! Excellent job. We are all so proud.

One should note that surprise isn’t universally accepted among psychologists as an emotion at all. Jerome Kagan, for one, rejects it as an emotion. It is included by Ekman, however, because surprise does have a distinct facial expression. That facial expressions express emotion, for Ekman, means that emotion can be defined by way of facial expression – and thus, if there is a surprise face, there is a surprise emotion.

Well, I’m going to leave Ekman for a bit and return to physiognomy.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

More Ekman: from facial expression to emotion




Paul Ekman’s account of his decision to go to New Guinea is related in his book, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication.

Ekman and Wally Friesen were working, at that time - in the late sixties - on the initial conceptualizing of a research project that could pick out universal emotions. To do this, Ekman decided he needed evidence of the passional life of some culture remote from Western society. He knew Carleton Gajdusek, “a neurologist who had been working for more than a decade in such isolated places in the highlands of Papua New Guinea...” And he knew Gajdusek had taken film of the Fore group. Gajdusek was working on kuru – a disease that literally creates holes in the brain. Gajdusek's work was crucial to the discovery of the prion, and he won a Nobel Prize for it after the same kind of disease - Mad Cow disease - turned up in the West.


“The films [the one hundred thousand feet of motion picture film shot by Gjdusek among New Guinea’s Stone age cultures – who, he realized, “would soon disappear” ] contained two very convincing proofs of the universality of facial expressions of emotion. First, we never saw an unfamiliar expression. If facial expressions are completely learned, then these isolated people should have shown novel expressions, ones we had never seen before. There were none.

It was still possible that these familiar expressions might be signals of very different emotions. But while the films didn’t always reveal what happened before or after an expression, when they did, they confirmed our interpretations. If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly.”


Ekman thus recognizes that there is a two fold task before him. However, at the very beginning of this project, we already see an omission in the way the research is constructed that hints at a system of omissions. We begin not, as in a psychological experiment of the classical type, with the person on whose face the emotion is imprinted. That person is not only absent, but their own self reports are not even under consideration. The first person aspect of emotion is, as it were, cut off in the same way that the face is cropped from the film, and the film crops the practices of everyday life. The images, cropped and then re-cropped, circulate not as commodities, but rather figure as curiosa - exotic objects that become the objects they are once they have entered into the domain of science. Thus, we begin this research on the universality of emotions by excluding the question of the feeling, the interpretation, of the person whose face is expressing the emotion. The question becomes: can I take the look on the face of this native as an objective cue that the native was experiencing this or that emotion. Having cut away the first person, who is at best the uncertain standard by whose testimony the classical psychological test goes forward, the two researchers then set themselves the task of translating the language of facial emotion as they see it in the film. The language of the face is already more than a metaphor, here. But it is a strange kind of non-verbal language, insofar as it is seems to precede the understanding of the "speaker" - the person across whose face expressions play. Yet, there is a deeper level of assumption here, which is that the viewers have the background knowledge simply to read this language. That such is their own self-positioning vis a vis the faces presented before them in the film seems to already presuppose that universality which they seek.

So: this research project has a twist. If Ekman and Friesen can read these cues successfully, they will prove that they are universal. And, as universal, that they are natural, innate, a language that the speaker can't help but speak. It is the helplessness of the speaker that allows us to omit the testimony of the person who is making the face. The facial expressions are not only almost a language, they are more than a language, they are a language in which intention is overriden. This isn't an exaggeration, but a precise description of the methodological assumptions followed by the two researchers.

Yet still, having made the necessary assumptions, how do the two researchers confirm their reading of the faces?

At this point, another move is made, and another omission emerges. One of the major issues in emotional ethnology is the evidence of the language on the ground – the vocabulary of emotions, and how they translate, or don’t, into English. By vocabulary, we are not simply speaking of a listing of words, but also of the affective schemas that organize the pathic words. Karl Heider uses the example of ‘love’ in English, which, he claims, is close to “happiness”, whereas the Indonesian ‘cinta’, which could be translated as love, is close to “sadness”. But it isn’t only location on the cognitive map – there is also the question of objectification. It is perfectly possible, in English, to say such things as: my life is happy. This utterance does not mean that my life has been a series of continuously happy feelings. it doesn't even imply that the speaker is is happy at the instance of the utterance. Rather, it assumes that there is an affective tone about a life, or about a long period of time, which makes sense in the affective vocabulary. That affective tone statement is distinct from the report of actual feeling, such as: I’m so happy. Thus, in English, the affective vocabulary can describe an actual mood, - it can describe an appraisal about how one ought to feel – and it can even, thus objectified, be detached from particular feelings to give a sense of a feeling tone over a long period of time. Why should we expect to find these particular conceptual practices in another culture? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how would we discover that this schema, or something different, is in operation? This is the kind of move one would especially expect in the sixties, the era of the linguistic turn. Yet instead of addressing the question of the native language that subtends the natural language of the face, Ekman avoids it. Instead, his next move is very peculiar:

It was still possible that these familiar expressions might be signals of very different emotions. But while the films didn’t always reveal what happened before or after an expression, when they did, they confirmed our interpretations. If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly.

I tried to think how Birdwhistell and Mead would dispute this claim. I imagined they would say, “It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any new expressions; the ones you did see really had different meanins. You got them right because you were tipped off by the social context in which they occurred. You never saw an expression removed from what was happening before, afterward, or at the same time. If you had, you wouldn’t have known what the expressions meant. To close this loophole, we brought Silvan from the East Coast to spend a week at my lab.

Before he came we edited the films so he could see only the expression itself, removed from its social context, just close up shots of a face. Silvan had no trouble at all. Every one of his interpretations fit the social context he hadn’t seen. What’s more, he knew exactly how he got the information. Wally and I could sense what emotional message was conveyed by each expression, but our judgments were intuitively based; we could usually not specify exactly what in the face carried the message unless it was a smile. Silvan walked up to the movie screen and pointed out exactly which specific muscular movements signaled the emotion.

We also asked him for his overall impression of these two cultures. One group he said seemed quite friendly. The other was explosive in their anger, highly suspicious if not paranoid in character, and homosexual. It was the Anga that he was describing. His account fit what we had been told by Gajdusek, who had worked with them. They had repeatedly attacked Australian officials who tried to maintain a government station there. They were known by their neighbors for their fierce suspiciousness . And the men led homosexual lives until the time of marriage.”


As I said, this is a peculiar move. Think of it. We have a film of facial expression. Assuming facial expression is universal, one could grant two observers, who have no contact with Fore culture, may correctly read the face. But notice how this is confirmed - by social cues. In other words, by scenes of Fore social life with which, admittedly, the two observers are not familiar. Thus, the confirmation of their facial readings is validated by the lesser certainties of their readings of the social context.

So, one wonders, what about that context?

Which brings us to the first tertiary person in this project: Gajdusek. When Ekman and Friesen talk about a "disappearing" people, the term, as they use it, seems to be projected onto Gajdusek. This is the reason he made his films. Now, of course, the notion that a people disappear, like magicians assistants or fairies, instead of being disappeared, like people who are slaughtered, have their land stolen, are cajoled by missionaries and sellers of alcohol, are force to assume habits and ways of living they don't want to, watch their children being kidnapped for education elsewhere, etc - is a not so fine piece of colonialist hypocrisy, very reminiscent of the old sixties days in Vietnam. My own assumption about what Gajdusek assumed, and what he told Ekman and Friesen, would have been that it was Gajdusek who told the researchers that the people were going to 'disappear' - but this assumption changed as I learned more about Gajdusek. The man not only won a Nobel prize, but he spent a year in jail for pederasty - being investigated originally for accounts that were published in professional journals of his diaries of the years among the Anga. Here’s the Guardian account of the case, from 1996. It is a couple of pages long. Sorry. But a long quote is necessary.

“A Nobel prizewinner is studying a faraway tribe. He describes how boys routinely and willingly have sex with their elders. He shares a bed with the children, then takes some home with him to continue his research. When he wins the Nobel, there they are, on the stage next to him. Has he committed a crime? QBY:Peter Martin
On 4 April last year, as Dr Daniel Gajdusek was flying back from a conference on BSE in Geneva, FBI agents were raiding both his office and his home in Maryland, USA. They took away files, disks, photographs, film, and notebooks. That same evening, when he drew into his driveway with a doctor colleague, a dozen FBI agents leapt from cover and arrested 72-year-old Gajdusek at gunpoint. Charged with paedophilia specifically, two counts of sexual assault on teenage minors, plus two counts of violating a Maryland law prohibiting oral sex then as now, he protests his innocence. He told the Washington Post that he was as much a paedophile `as Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa, who are also unmarried and love children'.
Scheduled to begin at 9am on Tuesday at the County Court House, Frederick City, Maryland, the trial is a considerable cause celebre for the FBI. Alleged paedophile cases are notoriously hard to prosecute and even harder to win, let alone get right. Remember Cleveland and Orkney? In America, too, most cases brought are either lost or abandoned. The McMartin `satanic abuse' debacle is still the US benchmark: ending in acquittals all round in l989, the case had taken five years and $15m to prepare and, at two and a half years, remains the longest trial in American history. Spearheaded by the FBI, the favoured strategy now is to go after individuals, and targets don't come much more high profile than Gajdusek: head of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Maryland, and a Nobel prizewinner besides.
His closest colleagues, including the eminent Aids researcher, Robert Gallo, who stumped up part of his $350,000 bail, insist that Gajdusek is merely the latest victim of America's raging preoccupation with child abuse. Maryland state's attorney Scott Rolle, who'll be prosecuting come Tuesday, said he's not surprised at the denials and the disbelief. `It's a common reaction to paedophile charges. But most paedophiles aren't seedy-looking men in trench coats. If it's a disease, it can afflict anybody doctors, lawyers, even Nobel prize laureates.' Whatever the trial's outcome, Gajdusek has longed admitted to a love of children in particular, children from the Stone Age tribes of New Guinea and Micronesia where, back in the Fifties, he started his ground-breaking researches into rare diseases, including kuru, a variant of CJD. Since then, figuring he owed a debt to the communities he worked in, he has `adopted' no fewer than 56 such children, most-ly boys, and paid for their education in America. Typically, when he collected his Nobel prize, he took eight of `his' children on to the rostrum with him, and promised to use the $80,000 prize to send them to college. But that was 1976, a more liberal and, in some ways, a more naive time, and nobody thought much about it.
The sequence of events which led to Gajdusek's arrest last year tells a good deal about how the times and temper have changed. Because of his importance as a scientist, the NIH had been publishing his working journals at intervals since the mid-Sixties. Full of wild and woolly fieldwork surgery carried out in primitive up-country conditions, treatments, epidemiology, trading beads and salt (often with dedicated cannibals) for native corpses in order to carry out postmortems they're quite a ripping read. The journals also contain a number of passages describing the traditional homosexual practices of several of the tribes Gajdusek worked and lived with. According to the NIH, much of this material had been in the public domain for 30 years. But it wasn't until l995 that an outraged citizen alerted a member of a senate committee who, in turn, suggested that the FBI check out the journals as possible evidence of a paedophile tendency in their author.
Several entries concern tribes in New Guinea whose young boys achieved manhood through oral sex with older village men. Local belief has it that while females are born `complete', boys cannot grow to proper manliness without ingesting semen. Although Gajdusek is not the only scientist to have described such customs, the FBI was made suspicious by the undetached candour of his writings.
4 August, 1962: `The young boys do not hesitate, as a mark of affection, to indicate that they would like to suck one's penis, and in private they expect that this favour will be instantly accepted as a sign of their friendship... There is obviously a good deal of jesting and shaming associated with this sexuality when it is not carried out `just right'. Modesty and shame are evident in any public reference to it. What is `just right' involves knowledge of the `style' of the relationships.' 27 December, 1969: `Ekoro, Yewei, Mbondo, Awamu and Sengo and [blank space] slept with me last night and I find the children as gentle and kind and playful as at the start of my sojourn. I love them.' 9 November, 1971: `Whenever I respond to the overtures of one of the young boys by letting them cling to me, by hugging them or walking with them hand in hand, their adult relatives, often their fathers, knowingly smile and without ambiguity indicate that I should let the boys play sexually with me, and the suggestion is only made slightly more seriously and with but a bit more levity than would accompany a suggestion that one accept a gift of food.' For all the physical and emotional intimacy they express, the journals contain no evidence or description of Gajdusek engaging in sexual activity. So, next, the FBI set out to interview his adoptees, past and present. Although some were far flung, the FBI tracked down over 20 individuals and asked each of them: had Gajdusek ever done anything to them of a sexual nature? Most were reportedly horrified at the suggestion, but one man a 23-year-old Gajdusek was still putting through college in Maryland said yes: as a teenager, he'd suffered numerous assaults by his guardian. Through this witness, the FBI then located a 14-year-old who has made similar charges.
And then there's the tape. Prosecutor Scott Rolle says he's also in possession of a recorded phone conversation, taped by the FBI last March, between the 23-year-old student and Gajdusek. On it, he alleges, Gajdusek admits to the assaults on both boys, apologises, and begs him not to tell. At one point, Rolle says, the student asked, `Do you know what a paedophile is?' To which Gadjusek is alleged to have replied, `I am one'.
Nor is that all. Back in 1989, police in nearby Montgomery County investigated allegations of sexual abuse by Gajdusek made by two local youths, not adoptees. According to the police: `The investigation was suspended because we were unable to uncover any current victims.' On Tuesday, it is unlikely that the jurors of Frederick County will know what to make of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. The eccentric's eccentric, the odds of him finding a collar, tie and matching shoes to turn up in are not good. Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet an early mentor and a Nobel prizewinner himself once described his `exasperated fondness' for the young Gajdusek, adding that he had `an intelligence quotient in the 180s and the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old'.
Born in 1923 to poor first-generation immigrants from Slovakia, who'd settled in Yonkers, New York, the boy Daniel was precocious in the extreme. A keen entomologist while still in short trousers, he collected bugs of every sort and, to kill them, he synthesised a poison which later became the basis of a weedkiller patent. At his high school graduation, he was summoned to the stage 10 times to collect scholarships. `By the tenth one,' as his younger brother Robert recalled, `the audience was on its feet for a standing ovation.' Next, he took a biophysics degree at the University of Rochester, then finished Harvard Medical School in three years instead of four with a degree in pediatrics. Restless still, he moved to the California Institute of Technology, under the tutelage of Professor Linus `Vitamin C' Pauling, who would later win a brace of Nobels. Finally hooked by a passion for virology, Gajdusek then went in search of rare diseases and plagues in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey: a bootstrap and backpack explorer-scientist out of the nineteenth century. In Australia, he worked for Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, who wrote of him: `He apparently has no interest in women but an almost obsessional interest in children, none whatever in clothes or cleanliness; and he can live cheerfully in a slum or a grass hut.' But Gajdusek's career proper started in 1957, when he first fetched up in New Guinea. There, the local Australian medical officer, Vincent Zigas, told him of a strange, invariably fatal disease, called kuru, that was common among the tribes of the island's interior. As Zigas later wrote of Gajdusek's keenness to know more: `I was machine-gunned by his numerous questions. I had barely answered one when another would be asked.' Zigas showed him a few victims some with the shakes and a stumbling gait (ataxia), others in paralysis and nearer to death. To Gajdusek, it seemed to be a degenerative brain disease like CJD; but whereas CJD mostly struck the over-fifties, kuru could affect children as young as 13.
Machetes in hand, Gajdusek, Zigas and a few helpers set off for the interior, where they eventually located the Fore tribe. At first making no connection between the fact of their being cannibals and the high incidence of kuru among them, Gajdusek set about trying to treat and to investigate the disease there and then. A team of Australian scientists who'd planned to study kuru were elbowed out of the way, and within 10 months of clapping eyes on his first kuru case, Gajdusek announced the discovery of this hitherto unknown disease in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In the way of these things, a British scientist, William Hadlow, then suggested that kuru was very similar to sheep scrapie, which at that time was thought to be a viral disease. In turn, picking up on the idea that kuru might be viral, too, Gajdusek set about determining how it might be transmissible. Then it struck him: cannibalism: people eating kuru-infected corpses. It certainly fitted the local pattern: kuru mostly afflicted young women and children, and whenever the Fore set about ritually devouring a body, the brain the most infective part was usually left to the women and children. Proof of kuru's transmittability came when Gajdusek successfully infected some lab chimps with brain material taken from kuru victims. What won him the Nobel prize, however, was his conceptual leap about what he called `slow-acting' viruses, which anticipated Aids, and his work on brain degeneration, which radicalised the scientific approach to the likes of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Since then, a whole other series of connections has opened up: linking scrapie-infected cattle feed, BSE and `new strain' CJD, which typically strikes young people. Another ghastly symmetry is that kuru, BSE and `new strain' CJD are just about identical short incubation, ataxic shakes and staggering, eventual loss of limb function, same area of the brain attacked. Which is not how Messrs Dorrell and Hogg have ever chosen to put it.
True, Gajdusek's assertion that spongiform diseases are viral has lately been overtaken by a new orthodoxy that the culprits are rogue proteins, called prions. But the matter remains moot: neither school has yet managed to isolate the actual disease agent. It turns out, too, that the Fore probably didn't get kuru simply by eating diseased brain. The thinking now, as for BSE, is that you need a blood-route lesion for the agent to get in: an ulcer, a cut, or open gums as when children loose their milk teeth. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food consulted Gajdusek a few times about BSE and CJD but, as its actions before and since have demonstrated, Maff needed the connection to be impossible.
But let's rewind to the early Sixties, and Gajdusek's growing sense of debt towards the communities he was working with; that's in the journals, too. Prior to his arrival, the Fore believed that kuru was a consequence of sorcery, as practised by the hostile tribes that surrounded them, but Gajdusek convinced them that kuru was a disease. And since he cured other ailments dysentry, yaws and so on the Fore came to believe that he might cure kuru, too.
But he felt obliged to disabuse them a delicate thing to attempt, given the Fore's precipitate sense of betrayal and quickness to murderous violence. He also told them that the only hope of a cure was if they would allow him to continue to study them, including cutting up their corpses. The Fore agreed. They also apologised for their frequent angers with him, explaining that it was the kuru their dread of it, that they were dying, and that their village was getting smaller as the jungle reclaimed it which made them behave so badly. Gajdusek began `adopting' children from his research communities around 1963, bringing them to America, and paying for their education. Some were orphans, but most came with their parents' permission. Today, many are lawyers and civil servants in America and elsewhere, and a good number are pursuing successful careers back in their native countries. A few subsequently sent their own children, or their nieces and nephews, into Gajdusek's charge. According to neighbours, Gajdusek's was a rambunctious household, the kids often running quite wild when he was away on field trips. But it was also a stimulating household, with Linus Pauling and the anthropologist Margaret Mead among the regular visitors.
At the the time of Gajdusek's arrest, four children were living in his Maryland home, three boys and a girl, now all taken into state care. His journals suggest that Gajdusek has long been torn between America and his life on the tribal islands. `To be part of this is rewarding,' he once wrote. `To escape it and come back to it in small but intense doses is like cheating, and I know that, on both sides of my life, I can be accused of fraud and unfair involvement.' This neither-one-nor-the-other sense of undeservingness, coupled with a sexual ambiguity, is shot through his writings, as in this 1961 journal entry, made at the end of an arduous field trip on Falalap Island in the Ulithi Atoll: `The children trusted me without much hesitation, gave themselves to me, and many individuals gave me a personal share in their lives, their passions, their sensuality, their aspirations, which I but little deserved and for which I tried to give all of myself in gratitude.' From Tuesday, it will be for the jury to decide on Gajdusek's guilt or innocence, based on the testimony of two witnesses and the FBI's tape recording. As for content of his journals, who could say for sure? For the defence, attorney Mark Hulkower insists: `The journals add nothing to the case. They're reports of what Dr Gajdusek observed in foreign cultures, and contain no evidence of inappropriate behaviour on his part.' Prosecutor Scott Rolle insists that they're `nothing but the musings of a potential paedophile. It was something that he was obviously flirting with.' Back on 4 April last year, as Gajdusek was taken into jail, reporters asked him point blank if he was a paedophile. He replied, `No. Not in the way that you are using the term, so I say no.'


Hmm. One wonders what to make of the juxtaposition between Ekman’s original claim – “You got them right because you were tipped off by the social context in which they occurred” – and Gajdusek’s journal entry - `Whenever I respond to the overtures of one of the young boys by letting them cling to me, by hugging them or walking with them hand in hand, their adult relatives, often their fathers, knowingly smile and without ambiguity indicate that I should let the boys play sexually with me..” Was this one of those social contexts he guessed, from the film?

I don’t think so. I think Ekman’s notion that the social cueing he saw in the film was enough for him to infer the meaning of the facial expressions, and from those facial expressions accurately describe a phenomenon that is a compound of feeling and appraisal, the latter of which is couched in the language and the conceptual schemas of the Anga, seems methodologically unlikely.

I’m not, of course, finished Ekman piece, yet.

Isabel Marant, fall 2008

Thousands of people have been emailing LI, asking one and only one question: who are you looking at in fall fashion this year? We have, of course, been remiss in not linking to more fashion blogging, but to answer the questions that keep pouring in: keep you eye on Isabel Marant. If Santogold is Summer, 2008, Isabel Marant is fall, 2008. Now, people like to say that Isabel is not fashion forward, but is – watch for the patronizing tone! – wearable. Marant is anything but hieratic, having an intuitive feel for the accepting line, for the energy produced by the moving body. No, she isn’t loading the fashion system on the shoulders of her girls, or vying to produce some intergalactic silhouette a la Martin Margiela. There is a reason that this year, her show was in a big tent at the foot of the Eiffel Tower with a long long walk – acceptance is all about movement, as you can see here.
So, I hope that satisfies LI’s many, many many questioners.

Marx, Gramsci and Honour Penury

A curious thing happened to Jane Ellard in 1738. Ellard was walking in Grosvenor Square when – well, this is her account:

... two Women came up to me from the other Side of the Way, and told me I had a mighty pretty Gown on; - pray, says one of them, what did it cost a Yard? I informed them what I gave for it; Oh! 'tis a sweet pretty Thing they said, - pray which Way are you walking? I told them I was going to look after a Place; they said I should have the Refusal of two or three very good Places, and if I would tell them where I liv'd, they certainly would come and give me Directions about them. I told them that I should be very much obliged to them, and that I lodged at Mr. Pullen's, in George-Alley , by the Ditch Side. The next Day as the Bells rung Eleven, they came up Stairs; I am very positive to the Prisoner; the other Woman that was with her pass'd for the Prisoner's Mistress. I asked them about the Place they were to help me to, but they told me they were Apprentices to Sir Isaac Newton , at Turnham-Green, and that they must first calculate my Nativity; so out they pull'd a great Book with Heads and Hands in it; they told me a vast deal out of the Book with the Heads and Hands in it, and said I must bundle up all the Things I had, - Rings, Money, and Cloaths. I have but little Money, says I, and I don't Care to bundle up my Cloaths, that can relate nothing to my Fortune, - that's quite silly, and if any body should hear this Business besides our selves, they would laugh at us. Well, they argued with me a great while, and said it must be done, and began to be angry because I would not do it. Why, - says one of them, suppose you were Sick, and a Physician comes and prescribes Physick for you, - if you won't take it, what Good can he do you? 'Tis all the same Thing, we can't pretend to do you any Good, unless you'il do as you are ordered. At last I bundled up all my Cloaths, and they went away, but they returned again, and asked me if I had done as they bad me? I said I had, and that I had put them in my Trunk. Then now, says the Prisoner's Mistress, - with the Blessing of God take them out of your Trunk; I did so: Now, says she, with the Blessing of God, get a Ha'p'orth of Brown Paper. I did not care to go for the Paper, so she went herself, and did up all my Cloaths, telling me they must be done up very close, and not a Breath of Air must come upon them. When this was done they bid me down upon my Knees and say the Lord's Prayer; I refused at first, but by fair Means and foul they made me at last say the Lord s Prayer. Then they bid me turn about and open the Windows, which we had shut, for fear any body should see what we were about. I opened the Windows, and in the mean Time they chang'd the Bundle, and left this in the Room of it, - 'tis full of nothing but Hay and Straw; my Bundle was made up exactly like this Bundle, and they carry'd it quite off.”

I find that a fascinating account. In my post last week disputing the simple outline Marx gives of ideology, viz, that the dominant ideas of an era express the ideas of the dominant class, I wrote that, on the face of it, this notion gives us no idea of how, exactly, such a thing would happen. Ideas aren’t communicated via telepathy. Rather, they have to be materialized in symbols and distributed in some material way. Now, this interests me for the following reason: I, too, am dealing with hegemonic and subordinate ideas as I outline a theory about r how a shift in the passional norms in a society came about at the end of the early modern period. In particular, I think the shift towards happiness as a feeling/goal legitimating social and political action made its appearance in Europe in the eighteenth century not only in the writing of political economists, but across the board in the writings of novelists, poets, doctors, philosophers, naturalists, etc. Still, this is a writing culture, and the question is, how was this rooted in the everyday life of the masses?

This is a question that has long tormented historians. Gramsci, in the Prison notebooks, devoted long passages to the relationship between “intellectuals” [which he defined like this: “By intellectuals, one must understand not [only] those ranks commonly referred to by this term, but generally the whole social mass that exercises an organizational function in the broad sense, whether it be in the field of production, or culture, or political administration: they correspond to the noncommissioned and junior officers in the army (and also to some field officers excluding the general staff in the narrowest sense of the term) (133)] and the people. He tried to reshape the Marxist notion of ideology in more palatable sociological terms, find roles and social locations for intellectuals in this broader sense, although – as is apparent from the army comparison – he still toys with a vertical idea of the intellectual, who receives ideas coming on high and transmits them to people lower on the chain. However, Gramsci sets up the relationship so that one can infer, here, a horizontal plane as well. This would be the “psychological” attitude, as Gramsci puts it, to his class. But on the horizontal plane, there is also, necessarily, an interchange that is not simply the relay of ideas from on high. Rather, even the teacher who listens with contempt to some superstitious talk by his charges is absorbing information about attitudes. One of the effects of the social unconscious is just this: that one never quite knows what one has absorbed, or from who, or how it affects what one thinks. And if we remember that, instead of single chains of commands, in reality, in the field of production, culture, political administration, etc., there are struggles and rivalries between different groups on every level – then we have a sense of how ideas from the horizontal can influence ideas from the vertical.

This might seem pretty far afield from my last post, which was about Ekman. But before I go into Ekman’s theory, I thought I’d defend, a little bit, my assumption that the pattern revealed by that theory has a relation to various ‘programs’, as Derrida calls them, that have organized passion, temperament, and national and racial identity in the modern era. It isn’t true that the programs just work through intellectual texts – rather, they also work upon popular culture, whilst at the same time absorbing conceptual schemas from popular culture.

When Honour Penery and her associated decided to gull Jane Ellard, they claimed to be assistants to Isaac Newton. This claim is pretty extraordinary in that it implies knowledge of Isaac Newton in a social scene where one wouldn’t expect that name, in 1738, to have a lot of resonance. But it does. Elite cultural icons, here, substitute seamlessly for the icons of colportage – for Nostradamus, say. And that substitution is relatively quick – it isn’t spread, for instance, over the centuries by a church, the way the name Aristotle was so diffused through European culture by Catholic teaching that his name ended up as the author of a best selling, rather smutty book of pseudo-gynecology. Another oddity here is that, indeed, just as the Enlightnment was sanctifying Newton and conveniently forgetting the man who devoted years to astrology and numerology, his ‘assistants’ with their “great Book with Heads and Hands” accidentally – by a poetic chance – were closer to the spirit of the great man than many a French philosophes.

So if, in my next post, God willing, I make certain assumptions about the physiognomic roots of Ekman’s otherwise structuralist-age theories, I do so in the spirit of Honour Penury.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The 'language' of emotion




Paul Ekman, in an interview here, traces the path that led him to his famous tabulation of emotions articulated in a universal “language” of facial expressions. It was a path composed of two parts. One was Cold War circumstance: like many a human sciences researcher in the fifties and the sixties, Ekman was able to pretty easily squeeze money out of the Defense Department for his project, which was to go to “an isolated area of New Guinea” and film ‘stone age’ people. The point of the filming – and this is the intellectual path – was to settle a dispute between the Boasians – Margaret Meade and Gregory Bateson – and the Darwinians – which were represented by Silvan Tomkins. Tomkins claimed that emotional expression on the face was innate, so that smiling, for instance, meant the same thing across humankind. Tomkins theory was a bit more complicated than is allowed by the term “expression”, since, in a gesture to the James-Lange hypothesis, he believed that the face fedback emotion – smiling not only is a universal expression of happiness, but a happiness-maker. In Ekman’s essay on Sylvan Tomkins in Exploring Effect, he repeats the claim that, as far as he knew, Tomkins was unique in his empirical research about the face, although he concedes that other researchers had tried and failed in using photos of expression to evoke, in random, unconnected observers, responses that read the expression. What is odd, here, is that, of course, there was a whole science, or pseudo-science, that made very strong claims about the face: physiognomy.

Of course, there is a reason for that: physiognomy was associated, in the sixties, with racial science. With the measuring of noses, foreheads and ears by Nazi doctors. Although behind those Nazi doctors was the revival of physiognomy in the Weimar era – as the Sinngebung der Sinnlose, as Theodore Lessing put it – that was pursued not just on the right, but on the left as well. Lessing, like his friend Ludwig Klages, was fascinated by physiology, but unlike Klages, he leaned left, being a well known socialist and fellow traveler of the Marxists. Rudolf Kassner had his own philosophical mystical physiognomik. All were influenced by the romantics. But all differed in that they rid themselves of the demon of analogy that insisted on macrocosmic meanings in the microsphere. Physiognomy assumed an atomic emotional base, but its main goal was to read temperament from the face. How that temperament is imprinted on the face is the question.

It is worth reproducing Ekman’s list of the points the Tomkins facial theory, since my next post is going to be about Ekman:

· The face is central to emotion and has priority over visceral changes because of its speed, visibility and precision.
· The face informs the self, not just others. Feedback of the facial response is the experience of the affect.
· Emotion is guided by innate inherited programs.
· We learn the language of the face partly through correspondence between what a face looks like and what it feels like.
· Every face has a predominant expression which shines through poses and spontaneous expressions
· Individual differences in the interpretation of facial expression reflect the personality of the perceiver, which resulted in the idea of examining affect sensitivity contours.
· Particular emotions are commonly confused because of shared neurophysiology, shared situational contexts, response overlap and the likelihood of occurring together.”

We are gonna do a couple of posts about this.

Monday, May 26, 2008

amnesia day

On Memory Day, Americans of every creed and color try hard to forget the wars that have brought us to this moment. This year, amnesia is tough – but our politicians are tougher, and are doing a fuckin’ ace job of forgetting our men and women in uniform, and even more, the hundreds of thousands who have died in the past seven years in Afghanistan and Iraq. We appreciate this heap of victims who make our amnesia the strongest in the world. Other countries may have a hard time forgetting their casualties, but we Americans have been working at this day in and day out. This page, showing pictures of The Great Fly’s cabinet -is all about people who are on the frontlines, making no sacrifices and remembering no names or details. All will live comfortably, without an IED-ogenic brain injury or a noticeable lack of limbs, while having helped, in their own small way, to make so many American lives complete living hells. And let us not forget Congress as we enjoy the greatest Amnesia in the world this memory day. Bless their hearts, year after year, defying the will of the American people, Congress has gone along for the ride with a merry heart. Oh, there was a bump in 2006 when it looked like the majority Democratics would actually remember the war, its horror, bestiality, pointlessness, and even that it victims were selected almost exclusively of the children who live outside the great Gated Community that is the sum total of our oligarchy’s world. The world held its breath. And did the Dems remember why they had been elected? No, they immediately and resplendently forgot. They, too, can be folded into the great amnesiac embrace that we all remember to forget on Memorial Day.

And yet, memory does exist out there. In the NYT Magazine yesterday, memory seems to be haunting Gail Ulerie, the mother of Shurvon Phillips. Except haunting is not the word - it has a talon like grip on her whole life, which has come to one point and one point only:

Gail Ulerie, Shurvon’s mother, had already received his O.K. — a painstaking raising of his eyebrows — on a pair of jeans. Mostly, Shurvon can answer only yes-or-no questions. The slightly lifted brows, a gesture that stretches his eyes yet wider, signify yes. A slow lowering of his lids indicates no. Now, with tomorrow’s clothes decided, Gail, a Trinidadian-American, reclined Shurvon’s bed for the night. He wore a hospital gown and tube socks pulled up tightly on the twigs of his caramel-colored shins. The socks were immaculately white, as if Gail believed that if everything were properly and precisely attended to, right down to the cotton that sheathed his toes, her son’s brain could recover.

In Iraq’s Anbar Province, in May 2005, Shurvon, who joined the Marine reserves seven years earlier at 17, partly as a way to pay his community-college tuition, was riding back to his base after a patrol when an anti-tank mine exploded under his Humvee. The Humvee’s other soldiers were tossed in different directions and dealt an assortment of injuries: concussions, broken bones, herniated discs. Along with a broken jaw and a broken leg, Shurvon suffered one of the war’s signature wounds on the American side: though no shrapnel entered his head, the blast rattled his brain profoundly.

Far more effectively than in previous American wars, helmets and body armor are protecting the skulls and saving the lives of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Defense Department and V.A. organization, about 900 soldiers have come home with serious traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., which essentially means dire harm to their brains; it can be caused by explosions that deliver blunt injury to the helmeted skull or that send waves of compressed air to slam and snap the head ruinously even at a distance of hundreds of yards from the blast. (The 900 also include injuries caused by shrapnel or bullets that have managed to penetrate.) Some of these veterans have been left — for protracted periods and often permanently — unable to think or remember or plan clearly enough to cope with everyday life on their own; others, like Shurvon, have been left incapable of doing much at all for themselves. (A recent Rand Corporation report estimates that, additionally, 300,000 soldiers have suffered milder T.B.I., frequently including brief loss of consciousness, disorientation or cognitive lapses.)

Now, the question may be posed on this Memory day about who is worthy to remember Shurvon Phillips. Perhaps the amnesia and indolence, the spiritual laziness, the deep corruption that lines every American soul with a cankering rust as we, a supposed Democracy, lay down and let the power be taken from us, lay down and let the torture cells blossom across the face of the globe, lay down and let Shurvon Phillips be swept up in a paroxysm of violence that serves only to placate the vanity of our D.C. kleptocrats – perhaps all this strips us of our right to remember Shurvon Phillips. Or maybe we will skip ahead to the end – we aren’t going to remember him anyway. Not on Memory day. Not on the day dedicated to remembering to forget. Not on any day. This is who he was:

“Before his injury, Shurvon was, as his younger sister, Candace, recalled, “a big kid” who liked to come home from his job at Wal-Mart, stocking shelves and counting cash, and curl up with his older sister’s son to watch Spider-Man cartoons. Short and slender, he squirmed through every tunnel his nephew slithered into at Chuck E. Cheese. But he was “the brains of the family,” Candace said, and Gail added that, besides being something of a ladies’ man, he had a 3.4 G.P.A. at college and was on his way to an associate’s degree in computer science when he was called up.
Her round face framed by overlapping brown, cream and white headbands, Gail remembered the military doctors at the National Naval Medical Center stopping by her son’s bed in the weeks after his injury and commanding: “ ‘Sergeant Phillip! Sergeant Phillip! Give me a thumbs up!’ ” His hands remained still. “When I called his name,” she said, “sometimes he fluttered his eyelids a little bit.” And his eyes seemed to focus on her, at moments. Those were about the only signs of awareness. And even those may have been her imagination. Col. William O’Brien, then the director of the Severely Injured Marines and Sailors program in the Department of the Navy, visited Shurvon in the hospital during that time. “She was a true believer,” he said of Shurvon’s mother. O’Brien saw no purposeful fluttering of eyelids, no responsiveness whatsoever. He saw a man with a misshapen head, his mouth open, staring vacantly into space. But as Gail recounted to me, she would plead with her son, in a voice infinitely closer and quieter than those of the staff, “Shurvon, give me a thumbs up, please give me a thumbs up.” One day she saw the tiniest shift of his right thumb.”

How can we remember this scene and have any respect for ourselves? Americans will not shirk, then, from the hard decision to forget it utterly. For those interested, Shurvon Phillips was finally taken, after pleading from his mother and letters from the military lawyer she had hired, to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago run by Dr. Felise Zollman. There, some things changed for Shurvon Phillips:

For more than a year before his arrival at R.I.C., Shurvon was treated by the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, sometimes as an inpatient, when infections and a crisis with his feeding tube imperiled his very survival. And Zollman is careful not to critique the work of the Cleveland staff. But she suggests, as many doctors and advocates for wounded soldiers have argued, that the military medical system just wasn’t prepared for the prevalence of brain injuries among its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and that T.B.I. units like hers have gained a complex understanding of the brain’s capacity for healing through long concentration on civilian injuries. Traci Piero, a nurse practitioner at the Cleveland hospital and the coordinator of Shurvon’s care there, both before and after his time at R.I.C., told me that in the spring of last year, the Cleveland staff considered reducing Shurvon’s physical therapy to a maintenance level. This would have meant abandoning the attempt to help him toward some degree of autonomous movement and focusing simply on preventing bedsores and keeping the muscles in his inert limbs from tightening more than they already had. It was a consideration born of futility. Piero and Dr. Clay Kelly, the hospital’s chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation, explained that Shurvon had hardly progressed from when he first arrived at the Cleveland facility after five months at the V.A.’s Minneapolis polytrauma center; he remained in a nearly vegetative state and was seen as having, in the words of an evaluating neurologist at the Cleveland hospital, “little hope for improvement.”
But by a system of nostril-flaring mastered with his speech therapist at the Cleveland facility, Piero recounted, Shurvon became able, last spring, to respond reliably to yes-or-no questions; Piero said that this breakthrough dissuaded the team from diminishing his physical work. Commander Bailey, Shurvon’s advocate, told things differently. The decision against cutting back Shurvon’s physical therapy was made, he said, in response to desperate pleading from Gail and some urgent lobbying of Bailey’s own.
When Shurvon came under Zollman’s care, he was taking a narcotic painkiller, Fentanyl, prescribed for him by the Minneapolis center and by the Cleveland team. Fentanyl suppresses the function of the brain, Zollman said, and may stunt recovery in T.B.I. patients. Kelly, the Cleveland chief of rehabilitation, who is closely involved with Shurvon’s treatment now but didn’t work with him before his months at R.I.C., referred to case notes and told me that Shurvon’s grimacing (or what grimacing his frozen features allowed) had indicated pain and that the narcotic had been necessary to address it. He compared caring for someone as noncommunicative as Shurvon to a veterinarian’s guesswork. But Zollman managed to communicate with Shurvon well enough to determine that he could do without the Fentanyl and weaned him from it. She weaned him, as well, from the Valium he’d been given, partly for anxiety, by the teams in Minneapolis and Cleveland — Valium, too, dulls the workings of the brain. She prescribed a drug to enhance alertness and cognition. And she started to direct a program of therapy that, she hoped, would give him some fraction of a full life.”

Mainenance level. Some fraction of a full life. Veterinarian’s guesswork. Words to remember – to forget – as we celebrate our national capacity for oblivion today.