Alienation and Bad Faith

Finally, where there are norms, there can be infringement. Role- distance is no exception. One corollary of the normative aspect of role-distance is the possibility of departures, in both directions, from the distance appropriate in enacting a role: a parent may be detached from his role, whereas a telephone operator may identify with his. This draws attention to the relationship between role-distance on the one hand and two terms that figure prominently in the social philosophy of the recent past, alienation and bad faith, on the other. I consider these notions in partial isolation from the bodies of thought within which they occur, and only to the extent that they can be said to characterize attitudes toward roles. Both notions have a negative connotation and are used to convey disapproval. Of what? Within the picture I’ve presented, alienation and bad faith can be interpreted as signifying the kind of departure from norms of distance just illustrated, resulting in two contrasting modalities of inappropriate role-distance: alienation marks distance from a proximate role, whereas bad faith marks identification with a distant one.

The notion of bad faith, which I consider first, is mostly due to Sartre, a prominent proponent of the idea of human self-creation.17 Linking bad faith to the notion of a role is easy, since Sartre introduces bad faith through what has become a classical discussion of enacting a role, that of a waiter in a cafe. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, within the broadly hermeneutic tradition on which I draw, the strand most directly relevant to the role-atomistic picture of self I’ve presented uses a dramaturgical imagery in which the theater serves as a template or metaphor for human life. And as we’ll see momentarily, Sartre’s discussion of bad faith does indeed use a theatrical imagery to elucidate social roles and their relationship to self. However, Sartre’s depiction of the waiter is too tendentious, and his analogy to the theater too impoverished for the example to be able to sustain the conception of bad faith that it is designed to illustrate. Again, in examining Sartre’s discussion of this example I don’t intend to engage with his position as a whole. My aim is to extract the notion of bad faith from Sartre’s ontology and adapt it to the picture of roles as constituents of the self.

Sartre begins his discussion of the waiter by describing in some detail the waiter’s demeanor: “His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid”; and he concludes that “All [the waiter’s] behavior seems to us a game. ... [h]e is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.”18 Sartre then comments on the futility of the waiter’s efforts. Speaking now in the first person on the waiter’s behalf, Sartre maintains that enacting the role of waiter

is a “representation” for others and for myself, which means that I can be only in representation. But if I represent myself as him, I am not he ...

I cannot be he, I can only play at being he; that is imagine to myself that I am he.. In vain do I fulfill the functions of a cafe waiter. I can be he only in the neutralized mode, as the actor is Hamlet, by mechanically making the typical gestures of my state and by aiming at myself as an imaginary cafe waiter .19

Now the charge of bad faith is made against the waiter, whom for convenience I will call Jacques, on the ground that he clings to his role in an ontologically spurious way. Sartre juxtaposes the waiter to an inkwell on Sartre’s desk. The inkwell, argues Sartre, is an inkwell, whereas Jacques is not a waiter. Why? The answer that is pertinent to our present concerns points to contingency: whereas the inkwell could not have been a desk, Jacques might have been a carpenter, a gardener, or a judge. To avoid the paradoxical view that Jacques might have been someone else, we must conclude that being a waiter (or, counterfactually, a carpenter, etc.) is a mere contingency regarding Jacques’ identity; it is not what Jacques truly is.[1] So when Jacques purports to be a waiter, he ascribes to himself a kind of existence appropriate to the ontological order occupied by such things as inkwells and desks/ He fails to acknowledge that rather than being a waiter, he merely plays at being one, in the way that, say, Laurence Olivier only plays at being Hamlet. Jacques exhibits bad faith by being dishonest with himself about what he truly is. The description of the waiter and the theatrical analogy are designed to vividly demonstrate the inherent limitation of the category of role as a potential source of human identity. On Sartre’s view, the imagery of roles can take us only as far as the idea of playing at something or other, rather than that of being it. And for the reasons just given, denying Jacques the identity of a waiter (in the deep, constitutive sense here at issue) would leave him in an ontological abyss, buttressing the apparently paradoxical choice of nothingness as the stable metaphysical baseline relative to which everything about a human being turns out to be contingent. But a closer look at the example and the analogy suggests a different lesson, a lesson that will allow us to qualify the notion of bad faith and cast it in a different light.

To begin with, as described by Sartre, Jacques’ performance of his role, like an adolescent’s, is marred by excessive self-consciousness. However, no such awkwardness characterizes Laurence Olivier’s enacting Hamlet. In contrast to the waiter, all of Olivier’s Hamlet-motions are smooth and flowing, and his Hamlet-speech is rendered with eloquence and ease. Sartre’s depiction of Jacques does not demonstrate that in enacting a role one is no more than an actor, but merely that Jacques is simply a bad actor. Secondly, pace Sartre, an actor who plays Hamlet does not represent him, since for all we know Hamlet never existed; never having been present, he cannot be re-presented. Nor, in enacting Hamlet, is Olivier mechanically making the typical gestures of Hamlet. Even assuming that doing so is a meaningful option, Sir Laurence would not have been the great actor that he was had he done so. When Olivier performs the role of Hamlet, and for that matter when Jacques performs the role of waiter, they each engage wit, ingenuity, emotions, and other such human resources and traits in the service of expressing and realizing, through movement and sound, a stretch of meaning. Once we have this picture of acting in mind, we can extend it to the case in which the role played is of an actual figure: nothing in Olivier’s performance would change if it turned out that Hamlet did exist and had the biography the play depicts. All that this circumstance would suggest is that the range of resources of the kind just mentioned that are deployed by Olivier in enacting Hamlet resembles the range of resources originally deployed by the real Hamlet in enacting for the first time the meanings Olivier enacts once more. In neither case (of a fictional Hamlet or a real one) does Olivier represent Hamlet, in the sense in which, say, a drawing of an elephant represents an elephant. Rather, Olivier can be said to transcribe Hamlet, similarly to the way a copy of a painting transcribes a painting, or a movie made of a novel transcribes the novel.

Third, when Olivier plays Hamlet, he does so in his capacity as an actor. Playing Hamlet is one of the ways of discharging the social role of actor, but not the only way. As an actor, Olivier also plays Othello and Uncle

Vanya, as well as doing a host of other role-related things, such as attending rehearsals and taking voice lessons. And whereas we are not tempted to say that Olivier was Hamlet (in the strong constitutive sense), we do commonly say that Olivier was an actor, in quite the strong sense Sartre is concerned to deny through the example of the waiter and the theatrical analogy.[2] What is the relationship between Olivier’s two roles, the social and the theatrical? The theater provides a striking contrast between the two by separating them in time and space. Suppose you’re telling a friend about having watched Hamlet on the stage, and the friend inquires about the time and location of the play. The inquiry is ambiguous, making two replies appropriate: mid-twentieth-century London or sixteenth-century Denmark. What is the relationship between the two replies? Plainly, the goings-on on the stage in mid-twentieth-century London signify goings- on in sixteenth-century Denmark. The same applies more specifically to Olivier’s enacting of Hamlet: Olivier performs a sequence of actions in mid-twentieth-century London, which signify a sequence of actions by Hamlet in sixteenth-century Denmark.

By creating a salient spatiotemporal gap between these two factors in regard to the enactment of the theatrical roles, the theater helps draw our attention to a similar duality that pervades human life as a whole. In “real life,” however, this duality is effaced or goes unnoticed because the two spatiotemporal frames coincide: the content conveyed by movements and sounds by virtue of which the movements are deemed actions and the sounds speech is reflexive, in that the content pertains to or signifies the time and location in which the movements and sounds take place. So, for example, in performing the role of waiter, Jacques’ gestures and sounds signify his own demeanor and utterances in serving at the very same cafe and at the very same time in which those gestures and sounds occur. But though such spatiotemporal coincidence between performance and content is necessary to render the role of waiter constitutive of Jacques, it is not sufficient. The spatiotemporal gap between Olivier’s performance and Hamlet’s shenanigans only serves to dramatize the possibility of performing a role in an impersonal way, that is to say without the role being integrated with the rest of one’s self. As applied to Jacques, the theatrical analogy thus allows for the option that waiting is indeed a detached role that does not form part of the answer to a question about who he is. But the analogy also suggests that the opposite may be the case, and that just as being an actor defines in part who Olivier is, so also being a waiter defines in part Jacques’ identity.

There is, finally, another figure that is central to the analogy between the waiter and Hamlet and that Sartre ignores: Shakespeare. Here too we need to recognize a duality. Shakespeare not only created Hamlet, but in doing so he engaged in self-creation as well: by constituting himself as an author, specifically (among other things) of this particular play. And although Hamlet’s travails do not define Shakespeare’s life, being their creator does. In this way the theater offers yet another bimodal template in terms of which we can construe what appears to be a unitary ordinary reality. This bit of reality appears unitary not because the division between author and text has no application to it, but because, once again, the two coincide: in serving the cafe’s patrons, Jacques exhibits the reflex- ivity of self-creation by constituting himself at once as both author and protagonist of (among other things) a waiter’s life. And this coincidence incorporates the two spatiotemporal frames, which in the case of the theater distinguish creation and content but which in the case of Jacques merge into one.

As these observations suggest, the perennial appeal of the theatrical imagery lies in the fact that by displaying and amplifying a separation between a number of factors it provides an articulated template that allows us to identify certain aspects of human life that otherwise remain entangled and invisible.20 Outside the theater, the three factors that are distinct in the theatrical situation—author, actor, and role—and their separate spatiotemporal orientations coincide. Or, stated in reverse, the theatrical analogy points toward this tripartite distinction that we can unravel within the perceived unity of ordinary life. The lesson the theater teaches, accordingly, is not about an ineliminable gap between us and all our roles. By enacting a cluster of roles with which we identify, we become who we are. And in this process we constitute ourselves not only by the resulting content or meaning of our lives, but also as the authors of that content or meaning. Just as Olivier would not display bad faith in pointing to the role of actor as providing (part of) the answer to the question of who he most fundamentally is, Jacques’ corresponding attitude to waiting need not be a display of bad faith either. Whether it is depends on the further distinction between proximate and distant roles. Only if the role of waiter is a distant one would Jacques’ conceiving of it as partially defining who he is amount to bad faith, since only in that case would his excessive clinging to the role reveal a failure to realize that he anchors his identity in a bit of meaning that is unsuitable for this task and would not contribute to the creation of a stable, coherent, and autonomous self.

This reconstruction of bad faith suggests a corresponding conception of alienation as a contrasting notion. Alienation has been used widely, including by Sartre, to designate a wide range of phenomena, not all of which are relevant here. But two principal forms of alienation, selfalienation and social alienation, are. Again, I limit my comments to the light that the role-atomistic approach can shed on these notions. The first beam of light concerns the adjectival part of both expressions, and so also illuminates the connection between them. Alienation from self is detachment from a constitutive, and so a proximate, role;[3] and when that role is an affiliation-role, detachment from it involves social alienation as well. These considerations link up with another theme in the literature on alienation. Like bad faith, alienation is a negatively charged evaluative term. Why? One salient answer points to loss of meaning. There is an obvious connection between this concern and the meaning-conception of self. Within the role-atomistic variant of this theme, roles are the repositories or sources of meaning, and so detachment from a role results in a meaning deficit and an impoverishment of self.

But again, and in contrastive symmetry to bad faith, not every failure to identify with a role and integrate it into the self carries a negative charge and amounts to alienation. For consider George. He never votes in the American elections, does not serve on juries, nor does he ever file income tax returns with the IRS. He doesn’t care about baseball or football, and when it comes to soccer, a sport he does like, he never roots for the American team. Moreover, George not only speaks ungrammatical English and makes many spelling mistakes, but he is quite indifferent to these shortcomings. George, you may conclude, is as thoroughly alienated as can be. But you’d be wrong to draw this conclusion, since George is actually a Frenchman residing in France. Noting George’s failure to live up to the requirements of the role of American has no negative overtones and so does not amount to alienation. The lesson is simple but instructive. Not just anyone can be alienated from any role. For one thing, one has to be an incumbent of a role in order to be able to be alienated from it. So in order to know whether George can be deemed alienated, we must attend to the predicate role, of American in this case, and specifically to its incumbency conditions. This much is obvious, but not trivial. What makes one an incumbent varies greatly from role to role and can be quite a complicated issue. For instance, it wouldn’t make any difference in George’s case if American law were to endow him with U.S. citizenship because, say, his grandparents happened to be American. Such purely de jure circumstances would not affect our judgment that without so much as having ever visited the United States, George is not a candidate for alienation from it. In order to be alienated, George must first satisfy more substantial, and less clearly defined, incumbency conditions of this role. But the incumbency conditions are not alone among the role’s norms that set preconditions for alienation to be an option: so do also the role’s distance-defining norms. In order to retain its critical edge, the charge of alienation cannot be made with regard to distant roles, where detachment from the role is the proper stance.

We can summarize these comments regarding alienation and bad faith in terms of the examples of parent and AT&T operator I’ve used earlier in this chapter. Given some background assumptions I make regarding the role-distance suitable for these roles, identifying with a parental role (in the strong sense targeted by Sartre’s waiter example) does not amount to bad faith, whereas a similar stance by an operator does. Conversely, a detached parent is alienated, whereas a detached operator is not.

  • [1] In denying that the inkwell could have been a desk, Sartre does not imply that a whiteinkwell might not have been painted black. The view that Sartre imputes to Jacques, andthat Sartre impugns, is that being a waiter stands to Jacques in the way that being an inkwell(rather than being white) stands to the inkwell. On Sartre’s view, bad faith inheres in thepervasive, commonsense attitude, according to which we at once want to affirm this strongersense of “is” in depicting our relationship to certain roles while also acknowledging the possibility that we might have occupied very different ones. f In following Sartre’s way of setting up the example, we are dealing with an implicit com-monsense ontology, and with the kind of humdrum, ordinary beliefs Jacques supposedlyshares. This relieves us of the need to engage with the notoriously thorny issues associated ingeneral with modal claims, and specifically saves us the need for the now-fashionable journeyto alternate universes that dealing with these issues would otherwise require.
  • [2] It may appear that ascribing to Olivier a social role of actor aside from his role as Hamletbegs the disputed issue. This is indeed the case. But this is of the nature of an analogy: allanalogies beg the questions they are designed to help answer by assuming the validity ofthe premise in light of which the analogy is drawn. An analogy, if successful, illuminatesby clarifying the premise and making it more vivid and more compelling; it doesn’t proveor establish the premise. In drawing an analogy between the waiter and Olivier’s playing ofHamlet (thus ignoring Olivier’s being an actor), Sartre is making a symmetrically circularuse of the same strategy.
  • [3] But can’t one identify with a distant role, and at the price of bad faith make it nonethelessconstitutive of one’s identity? Yes, in a sense in which one obviously can add two and twotogether and obtain five.
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