acting from integrity vs acting as performance

· 3415 words

as an experiment, i’m crossposting this over on substack. i’m never going to make you go over there - i’ll always post things here too, and it might never get used again, honestly - but this is part of me working out how to spread my writing a little bit further, and be a bit more serious about it. there’s also an audio recording of this piece over there too, which is nice to not have to self-host, tbh. i still recommend subscribing here via RSS than getting an email newsletter over there, but you do you.

how does capitalism alienate us from each other and ourselves? an introduction to my system which articulates the contemporary condition as a layer of performance vs a layer of action and integrity.

lately i’ve found myself sharing the link to the original version of this text more and more often. it feels like it crops up in almost every conversation - about art, politics, kindness. at its core is a construct i’ve been building to understand why so many people act in ways which don’t serve them: the layer of performance, vs the layer of integrity.

the layer of performance 🔗

also known as the layer of recuperation, or a signifier-based existence

the layer of performance is any act, statement, or move which is solely motivated by how it is perceived by others. generally, this will be things which are intended to portray the do-er in a positive light, identify them as part of an in-group, or otherwise affirm their identity as a Good Person. things in the layer of performance may have absolutely no bearing on any actual needs, wants, or ideals of the do-er.

examples of the performance layer 🔗

  • reposting political things so people will see that you are very switched on and correct
  • getting really angry about stuff that you don’t actually understand
  • delighting in sharing things which exposes another as a Bad Person
  • buying a piece of clothing because it’s trending, not because you like it
  • telling someone (even a child) to ignore their needs and ‘suck it up’ because it’s ‘just how it is’

the performance layer cares for aesthetic progress only.

history of the performance layer 🔗

in 1960, the situationist international coined the term ‘recuperation’, meaning ‘the phenomenon by which anything that is radical, transformational or truly oppositional to a dominant oppressive structure will be absorbed aesthetically by that structure as a means of neutralising its radical intent, & even using it to further its own cause’.1 this, to me, is an origin (or at the very least a motivation) for the performance layer’s existence. capitalism needs a performance layer (which is detached from meaningful action) in order to neutralise its opposition.

baudrillard too, spoke of the artificial, simulated space ‘hallucinated’ by forces of power in order to reaffirm their own position:

[P]olitical opposition, the “Left,” critical discourse, etc. - a simulacral contrast through which power attempts to break the vicious circle of its nonexistence, of its fundamental irresponsibility, of its “suspension.” Power floats like money, like language, like theory. Criticism and negativity alone still secrete a phantom of the reality of power. If they become weak for one reason or another, power has no other recourse but to artificially revive and hallucinate them.2

acting through the lens of the performance layer merely serves to prop up the dominant systems which flung you out there in the first place. it neutralises anything you might wish to do, politically, progressively, if you’re still doing it for the same motivations by which someone might buy a slogan tee. it encourages us to find meaning in the signifiers we attribute to ourselves, to build our sense of self around external forces. when we are in pursuit of meaning purely through shallow, aesthetic symbolism, said signifiers never actually connect with the action they imply. they remain an echo of an intent which is never materially fulfilled.

the layer of integrity 🔗

also known as being unalienated from oneself, or the layer of action

the layer of integrity is an embodied, grounded position from which to act.3 it’s rooted in experience, sensation, and listening, and motivated by meeting the needs of yourself or those around you, even if it means doing something ‘socially weird’ or unpopular. it’s not acting for any kind of external gratification, simply the furthering of material goals.

examples of the integrity layer 🔗

  • not using tools or services which go against your beliefs
  • being kind and empathetic to everyone, even if you’ve heard something bad about them
  • not assuming something’s unilaterally good just because it’s using all the right buzzwords
  • being able to receive complicated situations with nuance
  • not feeling the need to always have a ‘take’

the integrity layer is connected with meaningfully principled actions.

it’s kind of hard to come up with robust examples for acts emerging from a position within the layer of integrity, because it’ll look different for everyone, depending on their own moral compass and value system. mostly, it just looks like ‘not doing something which is out of line with the values you claim to uphold’.

the layer of integrity can also be referred to as the layer of action, because things done from a position within integrity are real things that can make tangible moves against the otherwise automatic, dominant structures. they don’t simply prop up the societal norms of capitalism, because to recognise and honour one’s own integrity is a radical, anti-capitalist act.

a metaphor 🔗

visualise a skin over an earthen surface. the skin floats above the surface, occasionally drooping down to make contact, but mostly suspended. it’s stretchy, alive, full of conflict and juicy gossip. the surface is moist, harder, but supportive, like a good memory foam mattress. the integrity layer is the surface, and the performance layer is the skin.

the skin grew in symbiosis with a parasitic fungus, which you can see writhing on the underneath of the skin, if you’re looking up at it. the fungus likes shelter - if it could, it would want everyone to live on the skin. if you’re on the skin you can’t see the fungus, but occasionally it will eat a hole through the skin by accident and you’ll fall through, making the whole fungus/skin/surface dynamic apparent. there are entities living on the skin, and entities living on the surface, and entities falling through, trying to climb back up, and generally just all over it. you are one such entity (and the fungus is capitalism, duh).

in on the privilege of alienation i talk about how my lifelong fatness liberated me from capitalist conceptions of success.4 this liberation is the process of falling through a hole, onto the earth; the process of becoming alienated, or removed, from success in the eyes of capitalism, or the fungus. this alienation revealed the fungus to me, and while it hurt just as much as suddenly finding yourself on the outside of something always hurts, it freed me from the delusion that success on the skin was the only way to be fulfilled.

when positioned in the integrity layer, you are alienated from the performance of capitalism, but not alienated from yourself. you are free to check in and make decisions which genuinely benefit you. you can see how the fungus likes to invade, and get in your food, and feel the ripples of discourse cascading from the skin, causing a breeze.

while generally you will speak from one layer or the other, there is the possibility for times of transition and conflict. during such times, you may not be wholly anchored in either perspective and so feel the tug between them. often, this conflict manifests as trying to resist the lure of gravity, with your nails digging into the skin, and spidery rips forming around them, as you dangle ever closer to the integrity layer.

success on the skin, the performance layer, looks like fighting everyone off for the toughest, thickest patch on which to build a home. it looks like making enemies by making promises you could never keep, because you can’t trust anyone on the skin, and they’re just doing the same thing behind your back. it looks like believing that a thick skin is the best you can get. it looks like ignoring that you’re hungry, or tired, or lonely, or cold, because you’ve been fighting on the skin for so long that you don’t think that there’s anything else.

what is there to do on the surface? 🔗

it’s easy to think that it might be sad, or lonely, to be cast down to the earthen surface, away from all of your ‘friends’ on the skin. it certainly can be lonely, but it’s a different kind of lonely to the ‘alone among so many others’ kind of lonely you felt up there. as your eyes adjust, you start to notice the fungus, and how it seems to get bigger every time a wave of discourse passes through it. you also start to notice that you’re not entirely alone down here. there are other entities, slowly building homes on the stable and comfortable ground beneath you. not only that, but some of them are actually working together.

there’s certainly not any chance you’ll be able to climb back onto the skin any time soon. it looms above you, mostly blocking out the sun. you realise that you never really noticed the sun when you were up on the skin, even though it must have felt warm and bright. you only really notice its absence. there were a lot of things you never noticed during your time on the skin.

something that’s very freeing on the surface is the lack of pressure to define yourself in any particular way. everyone on the surface greets each other with respect and compassion that almost feels unconditional. it makes sense - everyone fell quite a long way to wind up down here. up on the skin, entities would only express positive feelings towards you once they worked out how you defined yourself, and plenty of entities had conflicting preferences about which identities were okay to be. to have. to.. present?

and back up 🔗

extracting ourselves for a moment from that intoxicating fungal metaphor, let’s talk for a second about why the skin performance layer grew to be so all-encompassing.

as alluded to, the performance layer exists in service of capitalism. it’s better for capitalism if none of us feel safe to trust one another, or the very ground we’re walking on. it’s better for capitalism if we feel coerced into taking part in a competition with everyone we meet, and framing the other as always a threat. this happens in the performance layer - nothing is grounded in reality, only in the lies others have already told.

it used to be a bit easier to fall through the cracks of the performance layer. before widespread lip service5 to gay acceptance (bear with me), to discover one’s own queer identity was to discover one was no longer able to find success in the eyes of wider society (capitalism). with no models to aspire to, success must be redefined in one’s own terms.6 we now reckon with a society which has expanded to include queer success as a viable path under capitalism, rather than necessarily outside of it. queer people are now free to signify themselves silly, without ever needing to reconcile with an inherent alienation from dominant society.

in lily alexandre’s video essay, millions of dead genders: a MOGAI retrospective, she compares contemporary discourse around micro-identities to the way that language for queer groups evolved in the past - which saw new terms emerging to describe as-yet-undefined aspects of lived experience. when prioritising performance over action, signifier over integrity, there is no longer a need to ground language in lived experience. if you experience a sense of alienation from even the broader queer community, you simply need to invent a way to relate, rather than sitting with that alienation and working out where it might actually be coming from.

Where for the bisexual community, language was the first step to achieving their goals, it seems that in the MOGAI community, language was the goal. A vocabulary for every possible experience of the self or the world.7

to me, this phenomenon is a manifestation of the impulse to run away from things when they get hard. MOGAI is, in some ways, capitalism’s recuperation of queerness - the language of identity, belonging, community, has been distorted and warped to the point that it no longer becomes about finding commonality but about identifying difference. it’s no longer a way of connecting over shared, lived experience, but a way of hypothesising about one’s specific feelings in public (which are feelings which can 100% be shared in the context of more ‘traditional’ identities). most importantly, it provides a neutralisation for the radicalising force of all-encompassing alienation. it strengthens the skin, and keeps you suspended, out of touch with action and integrity, distracted by skin-deep bickering.

MOGAI couldn’t have happened without the internet. one of the most pressing factors in the expansion of the performance layer, in my opinion, is widespread commercial social networking.

when young queer people were coming up with MOGAI gender descriptors, they were engaging in a kind of performance of morality. not only is it performative to employ and enforce a specific micro-identity, itself almost entirely consisting of a whole bunch of signs and signifiers, but it invites others to signal their commitment to the game by how faithfully they can navigate the conversational parameters you’ve set for them.

isn’t alienation bad, though? 🔗

obviously, feeling Outside of society is an overwhelming, exhausting, and painful experience. it goes against every human desire to not feel at home in a community, to not have an affinity group in which to confide. when the dominant mode of society, however, is directly contributing to the destruction of the planet, the subjugation of the vast majority of its inhabitants, and furthering the wealth of a select few - it can be useful to be able to get some perspective. full participation in the society we have constructed requires total disconnection from one’s own morals, wants, and needs.

traditionally, the groups within which we make our communities would be formed with those who were physically proximate to us, who shared a workplace or trade. naturally, these associations require overcoming a certain level of dissonance between one another, in service of a more functional solidarity. following the development of consumer communications technology, it has become far easier to share ideas and perspectives across long distances, with people who don’t form our communities of proximity but instead begin to form communities of interest and identity.

this has had a two-fold impact on the ways in which we feel comfortable communing with others. for one, it has raised the bar for the level of innate affinity we need to feel with someone before we can consider them part of our ‘in group’. we require much stronger bonds before we’re able to sustain meaningful connections with those around us - reducing the functional solidarity in communities of proximity. it also means we are able to experience much deeper and involved connections with those who do share our specific perspectives - an addictive pursuit which now dominates the ways in which many people go about forming bonds with others.

communities of identity vs communities of proximity 🔗

the prioritisation of communities of identity and interest over communities of proximity both increases our sense of alienation from those materially around us, and fosters a deep sense of connection to our distant brain-twins in its stead. where previously we may have stood in solidarity with those in materially similar circumstances to us, we now stand in solidarity with those who embrace the same superficial labels as us, ignoring the difficult task of actually embracing the people who can materially support us, in favour of virtual support networks which can only be there ‘in spirit’ in our times of need.

this virtualisation of community ultimately serves capitalist ideals. it reduces resilience, weakens material opposition to (and even awareness of) local injustices, in favour of larger, ideological and semantic battles - most of which define their success in capitalist terms. campaigns for better representation in elite boardrooms, for blockbuster films about those from marginalised groups, for universal usage of specific language in publicity and advertising copy, are hollow agendas ignorant of the material conditions which need to shift in order for everyone from the working class to have a higher standard of living.

increasingly, these hollow goals are the only metric by which we are expected to oppose mass oppression under capitalism. this reflects the MOGAI condition - where defining language itself is the goal, rather than the first step in a more grounded campaign for material change. these goals are a performance of a radical politics which pretends to champion those whose struggles it aesthetically redresses, while in actuality contributing (via the reinforcement of capitalist ideals) to the continued subjugation of the mass working class.

bolstered by the pleasing divertissement of our long-distance ‘found family’, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to fall from the skin of performance to the surface of action and integrity. these opportunities are what i was referring to in on the privilege of alienation - opportunities to reconvene with oneself and start to figure out what’s actually wrong.

disincentivised solidarity 🔗

as i alluded to in the exploration of the metaphor of skin/surface/fungus - the machinations of the layer of performance reward a factional pettiness which does its absolute best to replace solidarity across difference with solitarity inside sameness. the cardinal sin of the performance layer is to express solidarity with anyone who’s signifiers are considered anything less than perfectly in alignment with your identity-based affinity group, regardless of any similarity in material conditions.

the contemporary rollbacks on legislation which protects women, gay and trans people are permitted by this lack of solidarity. the dominant image of those who are concerned with feminism and liberation for LGBT people is one of petty bickering over terminology, rather than one of a unified coalition against restrictions on bodily autonomy. the contemporary right recognises this discord, and uses it as an opportunity to cut through and introduce measures intended to control, frighten, and disenfranchise anyone it perceives as ‘weak’. a movement so successfully distracted with semantics, so wholly alienated from anyone not already indoctrinated, with little recourse for material, on-the-ground mutual aid, is a ripe target.

so yes, alienation in general sucks - but when we misattribute our feelings of alienation to ‘capital just needs to recognise me as i am’ rather than ‘i am fundamentally not valued as a worker, have no real agency, and live my whole life to financially prop up the ruling class’ we become alienated from ourselves.

when we seek solutions to alienation which are not building solidarity with those who are meaningfully proximate to us, who can materially support us in times of need, and instead seek solutions in those who are physically and experientially distant, we only amplify feelings of distrust and suspicion of those who form our material environment. this weakens our collective resilience to oppressive forces, and all but guarantees we’re going to be spending a lot more time wondering why we can never seem to escape a society which is entirely misaligned with our values and desires.

  1. resist recuperation!, honor ash,, may 5th 2023 ↩︎

  2. simulacra and simulation, jean baudrillard, 1981 ↩︎

  3. clementine morrigan often uses a phrase which i love, which i think comes from 12 step teaching, referring to ‘acting in line with one’s integrity’, and this has influenced my usage of the word ‘integrity’ in this piece. ↩︎

  4. on the privilege of alienation, honor ash,, september 5th 2022 ↩︎

  5. and it is lip service - do you think they would do it if it wasn’t profitable? ↩︎

  6. of course some saw this as an invitation to become those role models, in an effort to protect those coming after from the pain of alienation they had to endure. i don’t wish to minimise the enormity of the hurt experienced by one who is alienated from all of those around them - however i do think that this effort, in the end, only ends up serving the dominant oppressive structures which created such conditions in the first place. ↩︎

  7. millions of dead genders: a MOGAI retrospective, lily alexandre, january 11th 2021 ↩︎