Lek and “the social”

Yesterday, talking with a friend about the current generation of youth’s terror of being awkward or inappropriate, I realized I’ve somehow managed to never write about the concept of lek on this blog, much less in connection with Buber’s social versus interhuman/interpersonal distinction. I’d imagined this linkage so vividly I assumed I’d written about it already.

So what is lek? I learned about it from Clifford Geertz: in his paper “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: The Social Nature of Thought”:

The concept of “shame,” together with its moral and emotional cousin “guilt,” has been much discussed in the literature, entire cultures sometimes being designated as “shame cultures” because of the presumed prominence in them of an intense concern with “honor,” “reputation,” and the like, at the expense of a concern, conceived to be dominant in “guilt cultures,” with “sin,” “inner worth,” and so forth. The usefulness of such an overall categorization and the complex problems of comparative psychological dynamics involved aside, it has proven difficult in such studies to divest the term “shame” of what is after all its most common meaning in English — “consciousness of guilt” — and so to disconnect it very completely from guilt as such — “the fact or feeling of having done something reprehensible.” Usually, the contrast has been turned upon the fact that “shame” tends to be applied (although, actually, far from exclusively) to situations in which wrongdoing is publicly exposed, and “guilt” (though equally far from exclusively) to situations in which it is not. Shame is the feeling of disgrace and humiliation which follows upon a transgression found out; guilt is the feeling of secret badness attendant upon one not, or not yet, found out. Thus, though shame and guilt are not precisely the same thing in our ethical and psychological vocabulary, they are of the same family; the one is a surfacing of the other, the other a concealment of the one.

But Balinese “shame,” or what has been translated as such (lek), has nothing to do with transgressions, exposed or unexposed, acknowledged or hidden, merely imagined or actually performed. This is not to say that Balinese feel neither guilt nor shame, are without either conscience or pride, anymore than they are unaware that time passes or that men are unique individuals. It is to say that neither guilt nor shame is of cardinal importance as affective regulators of their interpersonal conduct, and that lek, which is far and away the most important of such regulators, culturally the most intensely emphasized, ought therefore not to be translated as “shame,” but rather, to follow out our theatrical image, as “stage fright.” It is neither the sense that one has transgressed nor the sense of humiliation that follows upon some uncovered transgression, both rather lightly felt and quickly effaced in Bali, that is the controlling emotion in Balinese face-to-face encounters. It is, on the contrary, a diffuse, usually mild, though in certain situations virtually paralyzing, nervousness before the prospect (and the fact) of social interaction, a chronic, mostly low-grade worry that one will not be able to bring it off with the required finesse.

Whatever its deeper causes, stage fright consists in a fear that, for want of skill or self-control, or perhaps by mere accident, an aesthetic illusion will not be maintained, that the actor will show through his part and the part thus dissolve into the actor. Aesthetic distance collapses, the audience (and the actor) loses sight of Hamlet and gains it, uncomfortably for all concerned, of bumbling John Smith painfully miscast as the Prince of Denmark. In Bali, the case is the same, if the drama more humble. What is feared — mildly in most cases, intensely in a few — is that the public performance that is etiquette will be botched, that the social distance etiquette maintains will consequently collapse, and that the personality of the individual will then break through to dissolve his standardized public identity. When this occurs, as it sometimes does, our triangle falls apart: ceremony evaporates, the immediacy of the moment is felt with an excruciating intensity, and men become unwilling consociates locked in mutual embarrassment, as though they had inadvertently intruded upon one another’s privacy. Lek is at once the awareness of the ever-present possibility of such an interpersonal disaster and, like stage fright, a motivating force toward avoiding it. It is the fear of faux pas — rendered only that much more probable by an elaborated politesse — that keeps social intercourse on its deliberately narrowed rails. It is lek, more than anything else, that protects Balinese concepts of personhood from the individualizing force of face-to-face encounters.

Lek is clearly an artifact of what Buber calls “the social”, where “each individual existence is enclosed and contained in a group existence.” The role one performs (and in lek, fears performing poorly) is a role assigned by a culture for the purpose of smooth social functioning.

My suspicion is that the combo of social media and inadequate liberal indoctrination has brought lek to dominance in today’s youth culture, in the form of anxiety about awkwardness and inappropriateness, endangering intimacy and solidarity among individuals.

Lek combined with the devastating consequences of digitally amplified public shaming the stakes of performing one’s own individuality, which is individual to the degree that it deviates from the norm, are simply too high to risk. People play out their individual deviance in isolation, without company, language or light. We have taken more and more of our singing birds back into the cellar and locked them up with the wild dogs, transmuting gold to lead, virtues into vice. Shame is back, with a vengeance.

Love is profoundly individual. Only an individual loves. An individual loves only an individual.

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