Sunday, August 06, 2006

On Relevance

I talk a lot about “relevance” amongst confidants. Sadly, I frequently employ it in a pejorative sense, as in “He’s a relevance hound”, or “She’s a slave to relevance.” Yet my confidants know (I hope they know) that I don’t think ill of relevance per se. Far from it. I’ll explain.

Lust for relevance can, unaddressed, easily harden into second skin. A shell that thick suppresses core essence in favor of persona. I’m not speaking academically; I offer this as someone who has firsthand knowledge of the black side of the mirror.

Personas are acquired and cultivated projections. They are generally more accessible and palatable to others then the mystery of this elusive “Self”. Understandable. Utilitarian, even. I’ve no more issue with that than I do with wearing a snazzy coat and tie to a job interview.

No, it’s the identification that gets you.

Generally, the more intelligent and empathetic the person, the more nuanced and convincing the persona, especially over time. If you keep at it long enough, you may eventually meet others similarly traveled, the kind of people who delight in unmasking others even as they refasten their own facades. If they succeed at dismantling and exposing most of the myths you have woven around yourself over the years, they have earned enough credibility points to secure their “Thirst for Brutal Truth” personas for years to come. Learn from the poignant example of the late Anton LaVey. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.

In short, the more refined and practiced the persona, the greater our temptation to identify with it.

It is this state of ill-identification that turns people into the “hounds” and “slaves” I speak so derisively of. If you habitually look to others to measure your self-worth, you’re only as strong as the company you keep. Some people are okay with this, whether they are conditioned to be, “consciously” chose to be, or simply lack the capacity to be anything else.

In a Jungian/Gurdjieffian sense, I can recognize the type because, again, I’ve been there too. I’ve tried on a variety of masks: “family guy”, “squared away guy”, “bar guy”, “homewrecker” (I still smile that one, but it has a dark side as well, as all masks do), and “downward spiral guy”. Each attempt taught me something valuable about myself, the three chief lessons being: 1) Masks are effortless to create, 2) Their enchantments produce results in double-quick time, 3) Masks will necrotize your real face if you leave them on long enough.

When you’re a relevance addict, whether to be adored or feared, accepted or rejected, it’s vital to be seen. To be heard. You need audience participation and cooperation, especially if you’re looking to buy your own bullshit. That’s why we pull personas out of our head like rabbits. We can, and often do, become one with our performance. The theatre becomes the norm while the lonely head that hits the pillow each night encases an incomprehensible alien blinking in the dark.

The paradox of human existence is that we are, in essence, alone amongst many. The psyche is isolate. We are not.

How to effectively balance those two realities is a lifelong challenge for all humans. The quest for relevance is the quest for identity. In a strong identity we hope to find meaning. In meaning we hope to find purpose. In this era, looking to the psyche for identity is, well, just “crazy talk”.

Yet in spite and often because of these risks, relevance is nevertheless an intrinsic part of the human experience. Religion defines it. Science dissects it. Society circulates it like coin. The question of relevance permeates nearly everything we say, think and do.

Relevance, like all great forces in the universe, is neither intrinsically “good” or “bad”. It just is. It is the subjective interface between the core self and all else (= “the objective universe”), one that encompasses the whole of our often confused quest to make such distinctions.

I call this interface Horus in the honor of the ancient Egyptian god of the same name: a contentious, fitful, yet ever dynamic, soaring embodiment of what it means to be a human being in this World of Wonders, a place of discovery without equal – that is, for those with the eyes, heart and venom of Will to see it for the precious opportunity that it is.

The manner in how we choose to invoke Horus from within ranges from spending a moment to gaze at your reflection in a well to making it your life’s mission to cut new channels into the ocean. There are sublime experiences to be mined in-between the extremes of divine isolation and social alienation, but you need to constantly apply the balance factor to fully see and appreciate it. Balance isn’t static; it’s dynamic. As such, balance requires perpetual vigilance and adaptability. Consciously maintaining balance from within is how your remind yourself that even the most comfortable mask still feels like a mask.

The terrible irony of seeking self-definition only to later sell it to the highest bidder shouldn’t be lost on anybody who has peeled off a mask or two in his lifetime.

We learn early on that the familiar is readily trusted. In the present business climate, lip service is given to ‘diversity’, ‘individuality’, and ‘unique skills sets’, but let’s face it: in most cases, you are expected to typify a personality template that is readily familiar to your employer, and thus manageable. Whether the operative descriptor is “human resource”, “team player” or “valued contributor”, you are a cog. A paid cog, perhaps, but a cog nevertheless. Without exception, cogs are expected to “fit” - and fitting isn’t always a matter of simple cooperation.

Small wonder that we equate relevance to our very livelihood.

So, if there is indeed an individuated Self that exists beyond the conditioning influence of others, is it even worth knowing? What good is it, really? It can’t be seen. It can’t be shared (not directly anyway). What’s the point of actively seeking it out?

We could live primarily through our families and be “devoted”. We could habitually put the concerns of others before our own and be “selfless”. We could live through our place of employment and become a “vital, indispensable member of the team”. What does the experience of aloneness - true Isolation that transcends physical proximity – bring that could favorably compare to the feeling of self worth we gain from any of those things?

It’s easy to take the smug way out: “The answer’s in the question.”

I beg to differ, chiefly because relevance addiction is alive and well, even amongst the most noble and well-intentioned of us. To duck the question is to risk the persona of “Well, I don’t do that.”

Sure you don’t.

Personas are a necessary tool. Like it or not, agree with it or not, yes, like attracts like. Familiarity (often mistaken for Understanding) engenders trust (later, contempt). We seek a common language with shared semantics. We desire accessible (= safe) appearances. Frankly, I find nothing ill-gotten in that. Again, it’s the identification that possesses you, and it’s your addiction to relevance – the ease of identification – that keeps the possession strong.

Some forms of identification are so advanced, so well practiced and cultivated they have become archetypal. What follows a sampling of some of the more common relevance-fed personas I’ve encountered over the years. Let’s see if you recognize at least one of them (the list is hardly all-inclusive).

“Right On” Guy

“Right On” Guy generally favors inclusion – of others, by others – often at the expense (i.e. systematic dulling) of his own intuition about people. “Right On” Guy wants to be regarded and remembered as tolerant, receptive, even-tempered, unflappable, and generally an easy going pal that you can’t wait to see at the party.

You’d be hard pressed to find something too weird or “off” for “Right On” Guy. That’s part of his superhuman receptivity. That’s why he punctuates everything with the affirmative “Right On”. He “gets” it, dude. He “gets” you. He wants you to open up to him. After all, he readily grasps attitudes, practices and orientations most people, *sigh*, show ignorance of and hostile intolerance for.

“Right On” Guy replaces intuited capacity and motivations with their ideal counterparts – that is, his ideal counterparts. These ideal traits can be drawn out over time with a gentle, reasoned voice and a little applied psychology, or so his misguided ego tells him.

“Right On” Guy is quick to offer up resources related to your unique interests in order to gain your trust: books, films, witty t-shirts, whatever. He’s very network oriented. He’s the guy most likely to know a friend of a neighbor of a cousin who can get you more of what “you’re into”, perhaps a rarity of some sort. Granted, he may not be into what you’re into but, hey, he’s got your back all the same.

Above all things, “Right On” Guy needs to be needed, be it for comfort, companionship, resources or to be routinely pumped for knowledge and experiential wisdom. His ear is always available. His cell phone is always on, a third ear even. It says “I’m in constant demand.”

Signature slogan: “Well, _____ isn’t my thing, but if it makes you happy, cool.”

“Disappointed” Guy

Alas. “Disappointed” Guy.

He regrets to inform anybody who will listen to him that, frankly, he’s saddened by the most recent sequel(s), follow-up(s), modification(s), adaptation(s) and other unnecessary, formulaic, substandard alterations to works that once held his interest and enjoyed his (hard-won) approval.

“Disappointed” Guy (or alternately: “Above It All” Guy) is disappointed because to be routinely disappointed (if not outright disgusted) is to be distinguished. Discerning, to be sure. As he is discerning, he is “unique”.

“Disappointed” Guy is a man of taste, integrity and high, uncompromising standards, and you damn well better acknowledge that. He’s a purist, by trade, which affords him plenty of opportunities to soberly, detachedly, articulately, reasonably lambaste “corporate greed” for defiling, white washing, dumbing down and otherwise “butchering” the almighty Original™ – subtle, noble, nuanced and generally superior creation that it was (and remains!).

There’s a career path tailor-made for “Disappointed” Guys: the Media Critic. Media Critic is essentially paid to play upon the insecurities of others, the kind of people that simply can’t trust and defend their own taste – to like what they like and stand up for their right to like it, heedless of whether or not it rates one star or five in the eyes of, well, more discerning folk.

Media Critic is a propagandist of some talent. The usual review technique involves faintly patronizing, bloodless kudos for the few things (very few, mind you) that were “reasonably well done” (translation: that the majority of the people you’re addressing will transparently really, really like, and thus too dangerous to slam without hurting your credibility), interspersed with the fun stuff of “do the dirty” journalism: calculated, scathing remarks about “wooden” acting, lack of character development, plot holes like “swiss cheese”, mindless entertainment (“eye candy” is usually the preferred phrase to describe an over-saturation of special effects, often at the expense of “substance”, yes?), “uneven” pacing, and so forth.

It’s easy to play Media Critic. The most accessible and oft used recipe is to target something mega-super-popular (e.g. the Star Wars films); especially if it’s transparently high in idealism and/or sentimentality, and simply turn you nose up at it. Voila! Instant credibility. You’re not susceptible to franchise sap and slick merchandising tactics. You’ve flexed your cold “real world” grit for all to see and be intimidated by. Your very presence causes others to feel ashamed of their lapses into idealism and sentiment, their thirst for wonder. Their gullibility amuses you. Visibly.

In time, you will gradually emerge as the credible standard by which they will secretly measure their likes and dislikes, and by extension, their own real world aspirations (if you doubt this, I pity your naiveté).

Again, anyone of moderate intelligence can do it, and many do because there’s hardly a quicker way to make a name for yourself as the “go to” guy for a credible opinion. Who hasn’t tried their hand at the “Disappointed” Guy motif at one time or another?

Sound bites: “Their old stuff is better.” “Can’t compare to the original.” “You should have read the book first.” “Watered down version for mass consumption.”

“Turkish Coffee” Guy

So dubbed by an old friend of mine to describe a guy whose calling card of pomposity was a well-advertised taste for “Turkish Coffee”.

“Turkish Coffee” Guy is usually a disaffected, socially inept American acting out his rather pedantic notions about what it means to walk and talk like a European (a European professor, no less). Affected blinking, nose elevation and obscure quotations are standard fare for “Turkish Coffee” Guy. He has positioned the fireside chair at just the right camera angle and, appearing deeply engrossed in a dusty, gilded volume of unknown origin, feigns polite surprise when someone else appears in the room.

“Turkish Coffee” Guy is a soft-spoken aficionado of refined things: art house films, dog eared, massively highlighted postmodern texts, obscure Latin tomes (a dubious compliment to Johnny Depp for his portrayal of Dean Corso, a slick and shrewd Euro-trekking “book detective” from The Ninth Gate, which “Turkish Coffee” Guy assures you describes him “to a tee”), marble chess sets, and only the “choicest” of pipe tobaccos.

“Turkish Coffee” Guy is usually too deeply invested with his role to properly see his true reflection: a pompous ass in a smoking jacket.

Books are “Turkish Coffee” Guy’s most important props. There will be lots and lots and lots and lots of books in his personal library, prominently displayed, semi-obscurely arranged. If you can’t help but assume that nearly every waking moment outside of his day job is spent thumbing through one of those delightfully dusty tomes, then “Turkish Coffee” Guy has done his job.

What’s in his library: Foucault’s Pendulum. A Xeroxed scan of Malleus Maleficarum. Anything that carries “postmodern” credibility. Handsome first edition hard covers with faded gold lettering are a plus.

Email signature file: Latin maxims; the more obscure it is, the better. Nietzsche is often combed for impressive quotations. Whatever the source, the goal is to nail a properly academic-aggressive tone.

“Cite Your Sources” Guy

You know him: the tireless bore, a walking compendium of eye-crossing quotations (few of which reflect his own unique thoughts, although is he is certainly not above quoting himself, the cited author being “Me”), and loudly current with the latest scholarly data – a control freak who won’t rest until he has the last word in any debate, especially one that calls his objectivity or education into question.

In the modern era, “Cite Your Sources” Guy takes up a considerable chunk of bandwidth breathlessly arguing his case, or scampering to patch breeches in his debate ability with impressive Latin phrases like mea culpa, ad hominem, a priori and Q.E.D. – as though, through some linguistic sorcery, Latin utterances can restore bits and pieces of his sagging credibility.

“Cite Your Sources” Guy suffers a small horror of losing control of the latest thread, or fresh dents in his overall standing amongst his chosen audience. He’ll lose sleep over missteps in his last post. His persona demands constant projection of an up to speed, well-informed, watertight intellect. Mind you, not too rigid (oh no, never that). Comically, even his mistakes must be acknowledged as bearing some personal nobility, typically through confessional statements to the tune of “When I’m wrong, I’ll say I’m wrong.” We should all be so gracious.

“Cite Your Sources” Guy is almost always an undergraduate student gone bad. He’s a newlywed on the college scene soaking up all that raw, argumentative zeal and wearing it as a badge of distinction. He’s current on the academic arguments of the day and can’t wait to prove it to you. Recollection of his favorite lectures, and the various debates that swarmed angrily around them, will give him enough social cachet to fill up web forums for weeks. He will quickly attract other “Cite Your Sources” moths as groan-inducing verbose and stick-up-the-butt silly as he is.

Ironically, it’s never long before your data is questioned, as well as your personal composure in articulating it (beware, friend, you run the risk of unleashing an “ad hominem attack”), and that’s where the hull breaches in “Cite Your Sources” Guy really begin to appear. His affliction began with a need for control (or the illusion of it), and so it must end, with no visible loss of control. This way, he can save face and retreat to the shadows to gather more current, credible, brow-beating data.

“Cite Your Sources” Guy could just as easily be redubbed “Last Word” Guy, because exiting an exchange with a respectable last word is key to his ability to stay audience-approved. If his sources can’t do the talking for him, he’ll be forced to retreat with the lame but passable “We’ll just have to agree to disagree”, or bolder still, “I respectfully disagree.”

For “Cite Your Sources” Guy, the only thing worse than having the currency of your data questioned, or being scolded for rigidity (which is inevitable; someone will see this and call him on it), is to be ignored. Irrelevant.

“Irreverent” Guy

“Irreverent” Guy works off the power of accentuation. He spends years crafting his sense of humor like a metalsmith. He tests, adjusts and refines at living laboratories like school, parties, bar-b-ques, whatever. He shares the magician’s appreciation for good timing – understands, in fact, that timing is vital to his success. Timing, and impact.

In this context, impact suggests an unexpected force. (“I sure sure as hell didn’t see that coming.”) Impact elicits awe. Mining awe is “Irreverent” Guy's method for creating the void appropriate for transmitting his most potent messages.

First, he softens you up with the familiar: the jokes – a whole, breathless, belly-jarring string of them. If he’s already proven himself as a credible comedian, he can usually get a lot of mileage off the mere promise of a joke – the anticipation, the mystery of what he’s thinking, of what he might say at any moment to send everyone into gales of laughter. He could simply look at you, deadpan expression well-established, and set you off.

And then he yanks the rug out from beneath you. He expresses something distinctly un-funny. Something of substance. Something crafted with signature intelligence and subtlety, not too unlike his humor, but darker, infinitely more mysterious.

Because of this contrast, “Irreverent” Guy has surprised you. He has your undivided attention. He has impact. He is distinctly relevant in that moment. Anything that disrupted his usual, easy-going nature must be important. His mystery gradually expands, and so does your investment in what he has to say. Unexpected revelation can create the illusion of intimacy, and thus exclusivity. Armed with this knowledge, "Irreverent" Guy hands out private invitations to his sub-comedic insights like roses.

This is where “irreverence” is distinguished from simply acting the clown. "Irreverent" Guy understands the appeal of the “anti-hero” (hence the clichéd ‘he’s not evil; just misunderstood’ motif). “Irreverent” Guy hails from that rare family of shadow-sides that actually have something substantial to say. A clown is just a clown; a buffoon with limited shelf life. We’ll keep the clown as long as we feel like it.

“Irreverent” Guy keeps us as long as he feels like it, just as it should be.

“Unwashed Masses” Guy

He’s the misanthrope personified, sentenced to share the planet with hordes of willfully ignorant, inelegant, predatory, knuckle-dragging know-nothings that (let’s speak candidly here) really should “carry licenses to breed”. He enjoys life just enough to endure it, but not enough to treat the “Unwashed Masses” with anything less than the flesh-stripping sarcasm their bovine stupidity has earned them.

Everything “Unwashed Masses” Guy says, wears and listens to is cherry-picked to provoke. Ambiguous t-shirt slogans are typically “over their heads”, which “Unwashed Masses” Guy is eager to don in public without pro-offering explanations (the answer’s in the question, right?). Musical tastes largely run the gamut of steel toe head blows to middle fingers (the best is reserved for car stereo purposes – the bull horn equivalent of “Please, just give me an excuse to remove your spleen”).

For “Unwashed Masses” Guy, The Onion isn’t just online satire, it’s a “fresh breath of air” for disillusioned souls just.like.him. The Matrix metaphorically hits a little too close to home to describe the sleepwalking union of corporate brownie hounds, soccer moms, and other uninformed plebes stealing his oxygen. Not surprisingly, “Unwashed Masses” Guy is a strong proponent of eugenics and makes no apologies for it.

The difference between “Unwashed Masses” Guy and the prototypical Hermit is a matter of visibility. For all his vitriol and calculated mystery, “Unwashed Masses” Guy still needs to see and feel his displacement in the eyes of others. He’s never truly alone. His hatred is fuelled by his close proximity to others, and his secret, unerring dependence upon them to return the sentiment.

The Hermit, having crossed the bridge between misanthropy and asceticism, has effectively retired from the human race and has found genuine contentment on his side of the bridge. He understands that the clarity of hatred is insular. Hatred is defined by and sustained within the confines of hatred – anything that steps beyond those boundaries runs the risk of becoming something different altogether.

In short, “Unwashed Masses” Guy remains a slave to relevance-seeking (i.e., urban notoriety), while the Hermit has holistically reframed what, exactly, he is relevant to.

Hermits are correspondingly rare. Misanthropes are everywhere. They linger in target rich environments, where all the other people are.

Enlightened authors: Nietzsche, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Crumb, Ragnar Redbeard

Catch words & phrases: “Sheep”, “(Unwashed) Masses”, “Meatbags”, “Clouseaus”, “The Herd”


And so forth.

I’ve left out a number of mutations and cross-class fusions from various subcultures both mundane and esoteric (“Voice Of Reason” Guy, “Kung-Fu Free Spirit” Guy, “Obscurum Per Obscuris” Guy, “Do What Thou Wilt (So Long As Crowley Said So)” Guy, “Gothier Than Thou” Guy, “I Only Read Non-Fiction” Guy, et al). The constellation of personas is dense and wide, but the sampling above is only useful insofar as it illustrates that for all their signature calling cards and corresponding neuroses, the owners of these personas all share one thing: an addiction to relevance.

Is there a positive, constructive facet of relevance in my world view? Of course there is.

I take justifiable pride in a job well done. I enjoy the personal and professional plateaus I bust my ass to reach to life (my favorite example is Don Webb’s “office with a window view”). My goals should substantially increase beauty and bounty, and I’ve learned how to graciously and gratefully enjoy the gifts I’ve been given. I make time to smell the roses, both literally and figuratively.

I take pride in reaching people. If you found something of yourself in something I created or said, well, that just makes it all worthwhile. I’ve shared something of myself, made an attempt at substantial communication, imparting some small portion of my essence to you, and disovered a resonate note between us. The pleasure I take in that has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with the satisfaction that comes from working hard enough to form a common language between us for mutual exchange and inspiration.

And, yes, there is sharp distinction to be made between healthy pride and vanity (= false pride). Do you indulge the elegance of a smoking jacket (for the record, I happen to quite like them) for its own silken comfort and beauty, or to advertise yourself a la “Turkish Coffee” Guy? What about the romance of a dusty tome? A dark, pulsing piece of musical composition? Be honest: for who and what purpose did you acquire it for? Half for you, half for the “others”? It never occurred to you that someone else might be watching?

But no view, no well-earned accolade, no transformation – no state of pleasurable Being - will ever be so complete, so conclusive, that I stop looking for catalysts for further Becoming.

Through self-Balance, you can wield and weave it all: Being and Becoming, victory and struggle, desire and Need, Relevance and Runa - Runa embodying the Mystery of the isolate Self, of other Selves, and the hidden, faceless, primal source of it all.

But for all that you may share with others in this lifetime, for whatever purpose you choose to share it, the Grail, your gift of Self, is indwelling – accessible to you and you alone. Unmasked, you are a Mystery unto yourself.

Sic Itur Ad Astra.



  • Wow! Nicely observed! I can think of a publication that this should be published in, can't you? ;) It frightens me how much I look like "Turkish Coffee Guy", dammit, I even *like* Turkish Coffee!

    By Blogger Apotropos, at Tuesday, August 08, 2006  

  • I agree with Apotropos. This would be a most useful piece to inspire comtemplation on identity, the persona, and false I's. Very enjoyable.

    By Blogger Afagddu, at Thursday, August 10, 2006  

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    By Blogger melvinerickson5872912137, at Monday, October 02, 2006  

  • are you saying people take on only one of those masks at a time?

    Because it makes a lot of sense, but more from a moment to moment basis, fluctuating between different roles and masks and ways of reacting and being reacted to.

    Maybe that's my proximity to adolesence though. Not old enough to have picked an "identity".

    When I was younger I wanted to so badly embody only one pure aesthetic with nothing else attached. But everything I tried was impure, could never keep it up, other aspects of myself kept overflowing into the image I was trying to project making me embarresed. So I had to just go with the impurity and accept that I can't embody some static image. Which is for the best really.

    By Blogger Sophia, at Wednesday, June 13, 2007  

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    By Blogger barb michelen, at Sunday, March 30, 2008  

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