Facing Forward

Once upon a time I was an 18th-century scholar, and I imagined that I’d spend an inordinate amount of classroom time trying to reconstruct the historical considerations that shaped the literature of the era, ideally while wearing a monocle and a periwig. The Long Eighteenth Century (1660-1837, by my nefarious, grabby reckoning) is a pretty perky frame of inquiry, what with the rise of the British novel and the Gothic and the various what-have-yous. For a variety of reasons I don’t get to delve down in those mines very much anymore, but today I’m thinking (as I do with uncommon frequency) about the olde-skool idea of countenancing, which I think is just as relevant as ever.

The subject pops up in my noggin for a number of reasons. ‘Tis the season, for example, for letters of recommendation. Some folks are applying for positions in M.A. and Ph.D. programs, some others for jobs and scholarships, and to nudge those doors open they generally need a reference or three from someone who’s already walked down comparable corridors. That’s countenancing in the most conventional sense, pairing my name and my reputation with my professional evaluation of a student in the hope that doing so will open the way for them. In some cases it’s incredibly straightforward, as when I write a letter for a historian who plans to pursue a doctorate and wishes to establish that he’s a strong writer and skillful researcher. I’m nicely positioned to add my face to his case. In others it’s a little more elusive, as when a former student who works as an academic administrator asks me to serve as a reference for bigger, better gigs. I have no doubt that she’ll excel in just about any context, but to countenance her I’ll need to write a very different kind of recommendation, one that downplays particular sensibilities that most ac-admin critters don’t find particularly valuable. I’ll leave off there, less I inadvertently reveal any of my spicier opinions on the subject.

Countenancing, however, seems increasingly relevant in the virtual realm as well, occurring for social media users in a variety of slippery yet significant ways. What happens in those areas of operation feels to me a little bit wilder, in part because it more openly acknowledges that every one of us is a constellation of personae, not a singular, all-purpose, head-mounted human face.

At the most localized levels it’s not hard to witness the power of the countenance. Have you ever mistakenly liked or hearted or starred a photo that a friend (or, more appallingly still, a past-tense paramour) posted a couple of years ago? That frisson of apprehension–how will that positive regard be read? will attempting to undo it only compound the problem of acknowledging my acknowledgement?–speaks to the power of the countenance. It involves owning up to something, an impulse, at least, and potentially affection or admiration as well, that admits all sorts of reading and misreading. Just yesterday, having not visited one of my social media sites in awhile, I liked a photo that was posted in early November. And here I am, about three weeks later, wondering if doing so might be improper somehow, amounting to something like a confession of stronger feeling than I intended. One begins to wonder how one’s face looks in context, how the admission that I looked and admired affects the complexion of being seen.

And at times it feels like an even more tricksy business. Generally speaking I’m kind of a trollop when it comes to liking stuff. Posted an accomplishment? I’m gonna like it. Posted a good joke? I’m gonna like it. Posted an adorable picture of your cat gone goblin? I’m gonna like it. But there are times when my clicking finger hovers above the mouse, trying to decide what my wanton liking might imply. It’s an awkwardness we recognize most easily when it comes to affixing a simple heart or a star to someone who confesses a worry, grief, or loss. In some regions of social media we can convey our sense of support with a special emoji, but in others we can only crudely acknowledge our commiseration. And what to do when an acquaintance posts a semi-scandalous entry in the Feeling Myself genre of photography? One would like to think liking the photo amounts to a statement of support, a gladness for that good feeling, but one does not want to own up inadvertently to anything more. Given my tendency to speak on strange and sordid subjects in my own feeds under various guises, I often come across a phenomenon I think of as a dynamic of discouragement. Post on literary topics or mention achieving some writing or gaming goal, and I’m apt to garner a like or three; post something more indelicate or unseemly, however–a weird recreational application of hypnosis, for example, or some other indication of my wickedness or naughtiness–and folks will quite reasonably veer off. Even in the realm of casual, incidental operations we don’t want to be seen acknowledging (and tacitly accepting and supporting) positions and perspectives that might seem to us discreditable. It’s a variation on the theme of benign neglect, a gentle pressure to reform. Avoiding any statement on those unsavory matters protects our own reputation and gently discourages the poster, informing them that we’d really rather not be put in that difficult position again.

That’s the core function of countenance culture: our readiness to attach our good reputation to some stuff, which makes our refusal to do so in other contexts more meaningful. You see it a lot in romances and novels of manners, where it’s incredibly important for the good and the virtuous not to countenance the bad behavior of various rakes, scoundrels, and similar folk who are too loose in their manners or free in their affections. To acknowledge them, whether that involves admitting them into polite company or writing them a letter of introduction (the sort of all-purpose reference that openly asserted one’s endorsement of the good character of a critter back in the day), is to risk one’s own status or standing, the good name we’ve earned over time. Like it or not, our faces are all too often on the line.

These days we’re experiencing a particularly acute bout of countenancing, given the instability of some of our legacy social media platforms. Facebook seems to be becoming obsolete, serving as the haunt of older social media users. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of the folks still on that site are only lingering there because they don’t want to lose touch with the far-flung friends who’ve yet to give it up and migrate to Instagram, TikTok, or some other mod, happening, and switched-on site the kids are into these days. And of course the spectacular implosion of Twitter is obliging plenty of users to examine their own positions critically, which involves a whole world of awkwardness.

To remain on Twitter, at one level, feels like countenancing some utterly repellent behavior, both from the new owner and from the throng of bad actors that’s been allowed back inside. Many folks want to express their scorn and their disgust, as remaining on the platform feels like a kind of complicity. It’s not exactly facing, but it’s facing-adjacent: we users have to acknowledge that our revolting host is not the sort of person we’d normally allow to make use of our good reputations. But for a number of reasons it’s difficult for people to simply disconnect, to migrate to another site, no matter how many contenders old and new might be out there. It’s a space where a number of forces–ideology, commerce, activism, access, and influence–merge and converge. A critter like me, with indirect connections to just a few hundred people, can climb up on my very tall and decidedly noble destrier, the highest horse I can find, and ride away. I mostly use Twitter to find calls for submissions and identify publishers (for which it is valuable but not indispensable) and to keep abreast of breaking news and cultural happenings (for which it is all too often critical but increasingly unreliable), so for me the losses would be nominal and could perhaps be recouped on Hive Social, Cohost, Mastodon, or some other site. But for writers and game-makers who’ve earned followings in the tens of thousands, or who rub elbows with folks who can spread word of their creative projects near and far for the sake of promotion or fundraising, it’s a resource that’s far too valuable to relinquish. Until some viable replacement emerges–and until a goodly crowd moves in a single, determined direction–it’s simply not a resource they can abandon without suffering significant losses. It’s what we in the countenancing industry call a proper pickle, as we don’t want to associate (or be associated) with some of the company we currently keep but lack the authority to turn them away.

Right now it feels quite like those awkward tables at the holidays, where spending time with our family, friends, and loved ones too often involves acquiescing to the presence of folks we’d rather not acknowledge, much less validate. That’s something of a sour note to end on, I confess, as it feels like a circumstance we cannot avoid. But I find a bit of comfort in the fact that, at least when it comes to countenancing, the openness with which we face toward some things and face away from others can become a powerful kind of action in its own right.

The Disconnected Self

There’s something rather magical about social media, at least in its more rarefied forms. After I logged on to Facebook for the first time I reconnected with friends from high school in a matter of weeks, and (as a sort of legacy platform in many way) I’ve been able to watch some of my former students grow over time, earning terminal degrees, writing and publishing themselves, becoming parents. After I joined Twitter I was more readily able to give shape and scope to my writing career (at least on the creative side of things). I found a writing community, found calls for submissions more routinely, and was able to support emerging initiatives for LGBTQIA+ writers, for BIPOC writers, for subjects that always struck me as criminally uncovered. I occasionally made contact with creators I admire, even if only incidentally. And of course there has been news and The Discourse, all the stories out there in circulation that one gains access to when people on the scene of major events can fire their observations off into the aether.

The darker side, of course, has reared up with irritating frequency, no matter how aggressively I curated my feeds. Like most folks in These Uncertain Times I rise each day with a little more weight in the downwardly-dipping side of the scales, so a couple of bad stories or grim predictions about the future can be enough to send me off on a sour note. And to feed various appetites I found myself breaking things down and diversifying in spite of myself, curating some feeds for my work, others for my private life, and others for my many, many niche hobbies. The current state of affairs, which seems to involve little more than vindictiveness dressed with all the trappings of free speech has me consolidating some personae and closing down others. The theories about why a billionaire would so aggressively and publicly undermine the foundations of his reputation are fascinating, but ultimately I’d rather be playing or making games, writing fiction and poetry, and hanging out with my partner and friends. I’ve been keeping tabs on Discord more regularly, and I opened up a Mastodon account so that I can hopefully keep a hand in, as the Brits say, but it’s one of those moments of existential whiplash: I need to make an array of changes, and while it’s pretty easy to see what I need to move away from, it’s harder to figure out what I need to move toward.

What I’m ultimately trying to do is make change in the right spirit, which can be elusive even with a witching board. One of the bedrock facts of hypnosis is that it’s incredibly difficult to change anything you don’t actually want to change, so at least part of the problem is mustering the determination to live a bit differently. The good news for me, at least, is that I have ready reference to a positive example in my partner. She’s in the process of launching her own business, which is a heady, anxious, exciting time. It’s not hard to understand why all those mingled feelings are hard for her to manage, but each day she navigates that maze of possibilities and settles on excitement. There are plenty of concerns she has to entertain, plenty of considerations she has to take into account, but at day’s end what she holds onto is that excitement–the thrilling possibility of being her own boss for the first time, of earning for herself rather than someone who inherited enough money to buy an existing business or purchase a sizable share of an already-successful partnership, of doing the sort of affirmative, self-determined work that she’s wanted to do so long. It has me thinking of bigger projects, of more involved work, of stretching my legs a bit to see how fast I can move and how far I can go.

It is, alas, lurching, awkward movement, like exercise my body is unaccustomed to doing. But I can see the shape of change taking place, since one departure from the usual order of things usually catalyzes changes in other areas. I’m a creature of habit, and it’s amusing to see old habits falling like dominoes, ceding ground to experiments with new ways of doing things. Whether or not those changes will also yield new ways of being is always a little uncertain, but I have enough faith in the process today to hold me over.