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.