But the real situation is this: a human being does not externalize himself
directly and immediately in conformity with his own nature; he invariably does
so by way of some definite form; and that form, style, way of speaking and responding,
do not derive solely from him, but are imposed on him from without - and the same
man can express himself sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, bloodthirstily
or angelically, maturely or immaturely, according to the form, the style presented
to him by the outside world, the pressure put upon him by other men.
- Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz, Grove, page 81
We began the review of form by considering it in the abstract, and in the broadest
sense possible: that of any organization or structure. Then, in the last chapter
we shifted the discussion to human form, to our form of organization, initially
by considering our physical characteristics and appearance, and then by examining
the determinants of our behavior. Among such determinants we reviewed the idea
of behavioral form: all of the environmental influences to which we are exposed
and which seek to shape how we think and act. Now, in this chapter, we will extend
the discussion of human form a bit further by considering it in the context of
identity, and also look at the complex interplay that exists between our efforts
to create our identity and the social forces that we are subject to along the
When we refer to identity you should think of your identity, of who you are.
Who are you?
Well, in a practical sense you are the person reading this book, but by way of
a broader definition, you are:
- your appearance: your physical characteristics.
- your self-image: who you think you are, including your beliefs, dreams, aspirations
- your influences (if you have accepted them): who other people think you are,
or want you to be.
- and, finally, your actual behavior: what you have done.
This is your complete form, or identity: all of your characteristics, all
of your beliefs, all of your influences, and everything you have thought, said
and done for every second of your life.
Now, we can contrast this, your identity, your complete form, with the concept
of being formed, all of the ways in which you are shaped, conditioned, persuaded,
socialized, manipulated, indoctrinated, programmed, controlled and brainwashed,
all of the techniques by which you are influenced to think and behave in
a particular manner. This comparison can be characterized as form
versus to be formed; form as a noun and subject - you; and form as
a verb and process - people affecting you.
The basic point of this book is that it is distasteful, and unacceptable, to be
programmed in any way. What is important is that you be the master of your life,
that you choose - you create - your own identity, who you are and what you do,
through your own free will. Of course, as was mentioned before there is the problem
(or opportunity!) of chaos, of trying to design and construct a life in the context
of continuous, unexpected events, to which you must respond. Also, there is the
related issue of striking a balance between your will - your desires - and the
desires of the other people with whom you interact.
As a blunt example of the latter, you can pretty much do anything you want in
life, but one thing you can't do is make someone love you. This can only
come from them.
So, you can pretty much do anything you want in life. The question, then, is what
do you do? This is in fact the most important question in your life: what form
do you take? How do you decide who you want to be?
This is the big question, but we will postpone considering it for a moment and
instead continue with the discussion of social conditioning by looking at the
actual process by which we are formed. (This will give us a better idea of what
we are up against.)
- At its most basic level, form has to do with the differences between how we
see ourselves and how other people perceive us.
- Everyone is a source of form, including your parents and other family members,
and your friends, teachers, employers and representatives of other institutions.
This is because they all perceive you, or anyone else, on the basis of the evidence
that is available, which for the most part is tangible. In other words, you are
what their senses reveal you to be.
- Based on these initial impressions people tend to box you up, or stereotype
you. This is form. They see you as something definite, and respond to you from
their own personal agendas, the natures of which depend on them and their relationships
- Furthermore, they, consciously or unconsciously, want to influence you. They
want to be right about you, to confirm you in your box. They want you to be what
they want you to be: your parents want you to be a good student (not all form
is negative), to enter a certain career, to marry a particular person; your friends
want you to behave in a certain way; businesses want you to be a dutiful employee,
or big shopper, etc.
- You, however, particularly as a child, are less clear about yourself. You may
in no way be definite. You might be uncertain about many of the major areas of
your life including, most importantly, your identity. (This is what is known as
immaturity.) Because of this you will tend to be susceptible to their influence.
- In many cases you will not be able to resist the pressure and persuasion. The
sources of form will succeed in influencing you. Form is power! (This is the complete
linkage: form - content - control - power.) You will become what they want you
to be. As a result, you will lose part of your individuality, uniqueness and free
Another way to consider form is to think of it as a simplification. When people
first meet, they cannot understand or even appreciate each other. No one can grasp
the complex totality of another individual immediately, or even ever. Hence people
simplify: we reduce each other to a manageable level, which in and of itself is
not necessarily bad.
However, in the simplifying process a quick, summary judgment is often added.
This is form, and in many if not most cases it is bad. It positions you relative
to the other person in some way, and it is usually done wholly from selfish motives.
In addition, such a simplification, or snap judgment, is almost always partially
or even completely wrong.
Unfortunately, this is not all. Many people, and all institutions, take a further
step. They convey - impose - a message, which could be via the most subtle of
suggestions, that you should be true to their simplification and judgment, that
you should live up (or down) to it, and think and act in a manner that is consistent
with it, in other words, in a way that satisfies their purposes.
This is fully-fledged form, and its selfish derivation is clear. Such people and
institutions want only to be right about you, and to get you to do all manner
of things to conform to their wishes. And this, of course, is always bad, but
(also unfortunately) it happens all the time.
(It is also worth noting that we are mentally biomechanically predisposed
to make such simplifications. An act of perception is a lot more than
capturing an incoming stimulus. It requires a form of expectation, of knowing
what is about to confront us and preparing for it.
We automatically and
unconsciously fit our sensations into categories that we have learned, often distorting
them in the process. A Users Guide to the Brain, John J.
Ratey, M.D., Pantheon, page 56)
For yet another perspective on form, what Gombrowicz is saying about externalizing
yourself is that in every group situation you choose a form to present to others,
so that to them you appear recognizable and definite. (All the while, though,
to yourself you may well feel uncertain and indefinite.) However, this form that
you choose, without your even realizing it, is a form - or face -
that others, perhaps the very people in the situation, have effectively chosen
for you. And they have done this by directly influencing you to accept it - to
wear it - or by doing so indirectly, by somehow making it the face in which you
feel most comfortable.
It seems like you are making a choice, but in fact it is no choice at all.
Whenever you meet someone, anyone, they immediately impose form on you, their
idea of who you are and how you should act relative to them. And you do the same.
We all see each other, at least initially, as simplifications and stereotypes.
In this way form causes us to devalue people: not to see them as flesh and blood
individuals, with feelings and emotions. It leads us to view people as objects,
valuable only inasmuch as they can do something for us or we can get something
from them. Because of this, the potential for a power conflict exists, and is
often realized, in every human relationship.
As suggested, form manifests itself situationally, in the moment, and also in
the context of universal chaos. For instance, suppose that by chance you see an
advertisement, and its message registers on you, and you are not even aware that
it has. Later, in a store, you see the item, and buy it. What might appear to
be a random impulse is in fact a programmed cause and effect relationship.
As another example, presume you are in a situation where you are part of a social
group. Almost by definition you will have a certain role to perform, if only because
it is expected of you or, more accurately, of someone like you. You will
probably do what you are meant to do: you will put on the right face, and thereby
fulfill your role (and meet the expectations of your type).
There is a form in every situation. Actually, there are often many forms, sometimes
as many as the number of participants, since everyone brings their own set of
expectations with them. Indeed, in any given situation there is generally a whole
series of forms, as different things are said, different images are seen, e.g.,
a string of advertisements on the TV, etc.
At its most extreme, you can become identified with a particular situation. For
example, if in a moment of crisis you act courageously, even if you do it unthinkingly
and afterwards consider yourself a fool, you will be a hero. For the rest of your
life you will have, and will have to live up to, this form. On the other hand,
if in the moment you react with fear, you may well be branded a coward. Also,
in a situation anything can be a form: a word, or tone of voice, or glance,
anything that appeals to any sense, including its context and timing, i.e., the
way in which it is presented. Furthermore, a situation can have its own composite
form, which transcends all of its separate elements, and which conveys some message,
or messages, about how you, and perhaps other people as well, should behave.
As this infers, it is essential to understand how subtle, even subliminal, the
process of being formed can be. For instance, if someone asks you to do something,
something with which you do not really agree, but this someone is a friend (or
a parent or boss) so you do what they want just to be nice, then congratulations,
you have been formed. You are now the type of person who will do such a thing,
when formerly you were not.
Or suppose you are at some crossroads in your life, and you have a heart-to-heart
chat about it with a friend. He or she may suggest that you follow some course
of action, and since they care about you, only want what is best for you, this
will likely be well considered and thought-out. However, for all their care and
concern it could still easily not be right for you. Only you can know what
is right for you, and for that to happen you have to know who you are. You have
to be clear about and confident in your identity.
Unfortunately, creating your identity, which is the same as maturing into a unique
individual, is very difficult now that there are so many people in the world,
and because modern form, from television and advertising, is so powerful. It has
made us uniform.
The psychological consequences of this uniformity include a reduced sense of unique
identity; lowered confidence and self-esteem; unhappiness, guilt and depression,
because you are only ordinary, because you do not measure up to society's ideals;
and confusion in finding a purpose in your life. (Carl Jung thought that form,
and the conflict that it causes - between self-interest and social demands - creates
a mental imbalance that has to be compensated for by the unconscious mind through
dreams and irrational behavior. Approaching the Unconscious, Carl. G. Jung,
Man and His Symbols, Laurel, page 35 )
The pervasiveness of form is interfering with the maturity process, both for individuals
and society as a whole. It is undermining our collective will: the coming together
of individual wills to achieve a common goal. For example, consider those things
which we do not want, but seem powerless to change or stop, including:
- An unbelievably complicated tax system.
- An out-of-control legal profession.
- Doctors, and also health care providers, who care only for money. (This has
been instigated in part by the exorbitant malpractice insurance premiums that
the former must pay, a consequence of the actions of the lawyers.)
- Police who fail in their mission to investigate and reduce crime, but who abuse
their power, and who also strive to repress social dissent.
- Exponentially increased surveillance, of all types, and the consequent death
of personal privacy.
- Presentations of extreme violence and immoral behavior in the mainstream media,
including the targeting of such presentations at children.
- Never-ending attempts by corporations to manipulate and dominate us as consumers.
- And the acceleration of environmental degradation, including with developers
taking the view that they must destroy nature now, while they still have
the chance, before reason and conservation take hold.
At this point it is worth considering what form is not. Form is not education.
Form and education are fundamentally different, and the distinction here is purpose.
To inform and illuminate someone is education; to shape and conform
them is form. Of course, many times form is presented as education, but in most
cases a quick analysis will reveal its true intent. Education often exists as
in a vacuum, as a description or explanation of the ways things are. Form always
has a secondary motivation, which is to get you to believe that things are some
particular way, to serve some other purpose. In education, the task is to convince
someone of something; with form it is to persuade.
Said another way, the goal of education is that you understand. With form it is
that you believe.
There are two crucial questions with regard to form. The first is: when are you
being brainwashed to support the forces of social conformity, i.e., when are you
working to meet the needs of the system rather than your own; versus, when are
you exercising your free will to satisfy natural human needs and to fulfill your
own unique tastes? You must answer this question if you want to understand the
specific ways in which you have been formed.
Secondly, and as was implied with the earlier reference to good form, are there
any forms that you should willingly accept, and if so which ones? For instance,
you should consider accepting those traditions of your background that you find
positive (or at least non-objectionable), including:
- Your family traditions
- Your cultural traditions
These are part of your foundation: the things about your family and culture of
which you can be proud.
At this point it is worth a digression to consider the idea of good form in more
detail. In other words, does it exist? One view is that there is education and
form, with the latter comprised of two categories, good and bad. Good form has
a selfish intent, but the intent is ethical. (It is ethical to want to pass on
your family and cultural traditions, but also, in a sense, selfish.) With bad
form the selfish intent is unethical (e.g., the passing on of a tradition which
is itself unethical). The other view is that good form is part of education: it
is a means of presenting, and perpetuating, ethical education. In any case,
the situation can be viewed either way it may even be an issue of semantics
but one thing is clear: bad form is both selfish and unethical.
Furthermore, it should be noted that education can be used in the service of form.
An example of this is the teaching of English to indigenous groups as a prelude
to introducing new values to them, which introduction undermines and even destroys
their own, traditional, values.
To continue, form can be subtle, but it can also be overt - and backed by force!
In dictatorships it is backed with torture and death. You will do what
they - the sources of form - want.
The individuals and institutions that seek to manipulate you use a number of tactics,
but one thing they have in common is that they prey on your needs. The last chapter
made the point that your needs drive your behavior. The sources of form understand
this, and target your needs in order to change your behavior. They do this by
changing your perception of your needs, actually changing what you think your
needs are, into the needs that they have for you, which are the needs that will
cause you to behave is ways such that their needs are satisfied.
The most powerful forms focus on and seek to influence our most powerful needs,
and probably the foremost of these are the needs for security and sex. (The latter
includes the need to give and receive love, the desire to procreate, and the desire
for the physical stimulation that the act of procreation causes.) In what are
perhaps their most fundamental tactics, the sources of form attempt to cause us
to feel fear, such as for some aspect of our security, which they then
tell us will be eliminated if we follow their recommendations. As to sex, society
inundates us with messages about it, so that we want it (and are afraid we won't
get it), but also gives us conflicting messages so we feel guilty about
wanting it. You only have to look at television ads: the vast majority of them
use a fear or a guilt element, or both, in their persuasive design.
As this suggests, there are varying powers or magnitudes of form. Some forms cause
you to buy products, and others to kill. Indeed, one of the most powerful forms
of all, that of religious cults, can even lead groups of people to commit mass
The strongest forms are those which cause us to give up and not fight to survive:
such a form is so powerful it counteracts our will to live. Similarly, the form
of society can be so strong that it undermines what was once considered to be
an immutable truth of life: the love of a mother for her child. Nowadays, the
messages and values that women are subject to are so powerful that they lead some
individuals to reject their maternal instinct. Of course, this can be viewed two
ways. On the one hand, the freedom to choose is positive. It is not the manifestation
of a new form but rather the defeat of an old one: an instinct is also a form.
But on the other hand, there is nothing to commend in the now regular occurrence
of mothers who discard their newborn children in the nearest dumpster (or the
(By referring to instincts, and other such genetic traits, what I also want to
illustrate is that in our efforts to combat form, to achieve our freedom from
it, we must confront all of our deterministic influences: both nature and nurture.
However, in most cases throughout the book when I use the word form
I will, as I hope the context will make clear, be referring to social influences.
In addition, it is important to note that form includes all of the social architectures
from which such influences derive.)
In general, the greater the power of a form, the more obedience it requires. For
example, it is no coincidence that the forms of the military and, ironically,
of investment banking, are so similar. It is no accident that investment bankers
regularly have the expressions, and the haircuts, of soldiers. Adjusted for their
different uniforms, they look the same.
This is because they are both engaged in serious work, which is the
creation of great power over others, one through physical force and the other
through financial force. Both worlds require tremendous effort, discipline to
the cause, and great sacrifice in terms of personal relationships
with others. Both worlds are intensely insular, allowing only minimal contact
with other environments and groups.
As another example, the phenomenal work-ethic that young Americans have (and young
Japanese), the incredible levels of competition that they reach, which supposedly
is driven by a quest for excellence, for merit, is really about demonstrating
obedience to the system. When young people become workaholics to get good grades
and high scores, to participate in many, many activities, and to get into the
best schools, it is not because they are pursuing the fulfillment of an internal
drive to accomplish everything of which they are capable. Rather, it is to demonstrate
that they will do anything, make any sacrifice that the system demands of them,
and that they will do it better and more diligently than anyone else.
They are being good little soldiers for the social machine. And people wonder
how we got Nazis? You get Nazis when society as a whole assumes far too much importance
relative to the individual.
In addition, not only are some forms more powerful than others, this also means
they are more difficult to overcome. One might contrast the difficulty in recovering
from the psychological effects of a suicide in your family with that of dealing
with an overbearing sibling. Furthermore, some forms are localized, but many spread
until they are institutionalized and become part of the generally
accepted social conformity.
As all of this suggests, there are also variations in susceptibility to form,
both by culture and, within a given culture, for individuals. For the first, all
societies require some degree of conformity from their members, and engage in
conditioning to achieve it. However, the number of behavioral rules that they
have, and the required strictness of observation of them (and the punishments
for deviation therefrom), vary widely. One such contrast is a liberal and open
society, like Sweden, with a closed and intolerant one, like the Taleban area
of control in Afghanistan.
There also appears to be a difference in susceptibility to form for individuals.
There may even be a genetic influence. Some of us seem to be born followers: Take
care of me, and I'll do anything you want. Others are born leaders,
or rebels: Don't tell me what to do. I'll do what I want! For
the latter, happiness depends more on having personal freedom, and for the former
on successful integration into a social group. One might also wonder if susceptibility
to form varies by such factors as class background, race, sex and age and, conversely,
what personal characteristics serve to protect you from it.
The influence of class background can work in a number of ways. If you are poor
and struggling to survive, buying fancy, materialistic items will be a fantasy,
of no practical concern whatsoever. You could, though, be particularly susceptible
to the form of politicians who promise to improve your life (and to army recruiters!).
For the upper classes, there may be greater susceptibility to the form of status,
and the material accoutrements thereof, as well as to politicians (and the police)
who promise to protect you from the poor.
As to susceptibility by sex and race, it is hard to say, although the preponderance
of glossy women's magazines that promise to assuage fear and guilt is a disturbing
sign. As to age, young people are ignorant of form and stereotyping, and hence
highly susceptible to it. Also, your susceptibility may or may not change as you
get older, but the messages that are directed at you certainly do, in line with
your changing needs.
(Actually, regarding gender, I do not believe either sex is innately more susceptible
to form. Being different, having some different needs, exposes us to different
forms. For instance, men are attracted to, and manipulated through, such things
as sports, machines and war. Men are supposed to aspire to machismo, to
being real men. Also, as a man, the forms to which women are exposed present
themselves more clearly, while the forms to which men are exposed are - for men
- much more difficult to detect.)
For personal characteristics, other than a genetically based need for independence,
a high degree of harmony in your family when you are a child, and strong educational
accomplishments, should help protect you from form.
One major problem with form is that it perpetuates itself and becomes self-fulfilling.
One example of this was the earlier point about TV fueling mass uniformity. Another
is that parents pass on their own conditioning to their children (which is one
more reason why history repeats itself). The most negative examples of this include
child abuse and bigotry. It is well documented that the children of abusive and
bigoted parents regularly carry on these traits. Over time, such influences can
spread, particularly throughout distinct social groups, to the point where stereotypes
generally become accurate. (Shared experience yields a shared identity.)
Finally, of all the different forms to which we are exposed, many are linked and
acting in concert. This includes the messages of corporations and the media in
developed countries, and the messages of the government, the military and the
media in developing and autocratic nations. Also, there is form, sometimes overlapping,
sometimes conflicting, from all of the social groups and cultures to which you
belong. You are subject to the demands of the form of your nation; region; ethnic,
tribal or racial group; sex; age group; class background; employer; religion;
sexual orientation; and any other groups of which you are a member. (These are
also the primary stereotypes with which you will be identified.)
Considering all of the above, one can see why form is so complex and powerful,
and why personal problems (not to mention dreams) are so difficult to understand
and solve. The update of psychoanalysis is form analysis: analyzing the
ways in which you have been shaped by all of the influences to which you have
In addition, form analysis can be applied in many other ways as well, such as
with artistic criticism. For example, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Man can be viewed, or form analyzed, as the trials of a young man
breaking free of the form of his background, including his social class, the political
conditions in his nation, and a rigid Catholic upbringing. Indeed, at the end
of the book, when he embarks on a self-imposed exile, he chooses to leave behind
- he accomplishes his escape from the form of - his religion, country, school,
family, friends and girl, all to the end of achieving the objectivity that he
feels is necessary to pursue the creation both of his art and of his life.
© Roland O. Watson 2001-2005