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Okay, so I was going to transcribe this glorious article about Gob and his lack of identity/mutability from the Arrested Development and Philosophy book, which I strongly recommend everyone buys, and then I realized it was ten freaking pages long. So I found an epub and copy-pasted poorly, I'll try to make the formatting not suck. Article is under the cut!

Chapter 4

DON’T KNOW THYSELF

Gob and the Wisdom of Bad Faith

Daniel P. Malloy


Socrates once said, with his life on the line, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”1 But he never looked at the results of that examination. (His fellow citizens executed him.) So what if someone examined his life, and found it not worth living? In that case, it would be better to avoid the examination in the first place. In fact, that’s just the way that Gob Bluth lives his life, and we should respect him for it.

In “S.O.B.s,” Gob pretends to be a waiter, only to find himself really being a waiter. This scene reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s well-known example of the waiter in the café, the one who is just a bit too much like a waiter—too eager, too concerned, too perfectly waitery. As Sartre describes him,

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.

Sartre gives this example to illustrate his concept of bad faith. But, as we shall see, Gob’s initial act in “S.O.B.s” is not an act of bad faith. It is only later, when Gob really decides that he is a waiter that he enters into bad faith.

Gob, in fact, lives large parts of his life in bad faith. He tells himself that he is a great magician, that he can run the Bluth Company, that he loves Marta, and that everyone loves him, and he acts according to those beliefs. Each of these acts, among many others, is an instance of bad faith. Gob tries constantly to fill various roles for which he is simply unsuited.

Gob isn’t alone in bad faith, however. The rest of the Bluth clan keep him company on occasion. But outside of a few isolated incidents, such as when Buster bashes his mother in order to fit in with his siblings (“Bringing Up Buster”), the Bluths are largely too self-involved to be in bad faith. The only exception (aside from Gob, of course) is Michael, who we discover in the final season is living in bad faith about precisely how self-involved he is (“The Ocean Walker”). Gob is unique, a perfect case study of bad faith. Most people occasionally enter into bad faith, but Gob lives there—and good thing, too!

Gob is wiser for it. Not only does Gob’s bad faith make him happier, it also makes him a better person. For Gob, the ancient wisdom must be altered: Don’t know thyself, Gob.

Gob Isn’t Just Deceiving Himself

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre reluctantly identifies bad faith and self-deception. He says, “We shall willingly grant that bad faith is a lie to oneself, on condition that we distinguish the lie to oneself from lying in general.” There is good reason for his reluctance—when we think a bit, we can see that self-deception and bad faith are two distinct concepts. As tempted as we may be to accuse Gob (or any other Bluth) of self-deception, such an accusation wouldn’t be correct. Gob lives in bad faith, but no one can live in self-deception.

So, what makes self-deception impossible? After all, it’s fairly common to say that so-and-so is just deceiving himself. But common and correct aren’t the same thing. Don’t deceive yourself about deception: if the person being deceived already knows the truth, then the deception has no chance of succeeding. When Buster deceives Gob into believing that George Sr. is controlling Larry (George’s surrogate while he is under house arrest), the entire act is based on Gob not knowing the truth about who is actually controlling Larry (“Mr. F”). Had Gob realized that Buster was giving Larry his orders, he would never have been fooled. In the case of so-called self-deception, a single person would have to know the truth of the matter (in order to deceive) and not know it (in order to be deceived). Hence, self-deception isn’t possible.

So, if bad faith is possible, we must distinguish it from self-deception more clearly than Sartre did. This can be done fairly easily. Bad faith is existential; self-deception is epistemic. That means that while self-deception is about belief and knowledge, bad faith is about living and acting. It is not necessary to believe anything to be in bad faith. For Gob, living in bad faith means that he is acting like something he isn’t. It’s more like pretending than it is deception. But the pretense of bad faith should be distinguished from other forms of pretense. Occasionally, an actor or actress will be praised for “disappearing” into his or her part—making the audience forget that this is a person playing a part. The person living in bad faith tries to do the same—disappear into a role. Only, in this case, Gob’s audience is himself.

Let’s dive a little deeper. For Sartre, there are two kinds of things in the world: beings-in-themselves (en-soi) and beings-for-themselves (pour-soi). Beings-in-themselves simply are what they are. They are defined by other beings, often before they even exist. For instance, a carpenter builds a table. Before he begins to build, he defines his project. He chooses the materials, designs the table, and establishes what his finished product will be and what it will be used for. Before it comes into existence, the table has its essence assigned to it. The carpenter is a being-for-itself. Unlike the table, the carpenter doesn’t have a pre-given essence. He chooses to become a carpenter, just as he chose to build a table. Humans are beings-for-themselves, and as such we are free beings. Unlike a table, a human can choose to be this or that. When we try to deny this fact, this freedom, we enter into the realm of bad faith. Bad faith consists in acting as though one was not free, as though one was a being-in-itself. As Sartre says, “The waiter in the café cannot be immediately a café waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell, or the glass is a glass.”

Although most of the Bluths lie to themselves, or try to, Gob is uniquely suited to guide our discussion of bad faith. Gob is sometimes like most of the rest of the Bluths—selfish, narcissistic, vain, and worse—but he is also often driven by a need to be thought well of by others. His quests for his father’s approval and Michael’s respect, for acceptance by the world at large, for love and self-respect, all lead Gob to deny his freedom, to disappear into parts, to live in bad faith.

Gob Plays His Roles

Michael also engages in bad faith. At least in the final season, much of Michael’s motivation is wrapped up in how he’s viewed by others. It’s not so much that he is a good person, as that he needs to be seen as a good person. He, like Gob, is playing a part. Michael plays the part of the good one, the selfless one, the reliable one, “the living saint,” the put-upon member of the Bluth family. Michael’s acts of bad faith do not form the core of his existence, though. In this, Gob is unique. He is so bound to his bad faith that his life would be shattered without it.

Just consider Gob’s various careers. He began the show as a magician (illusionist!), moved on to being the titular president of the Bluth Company, and then became a ventriloquist—taking temporary gigs along the way as a waiter, a pimp, and an executive at a rival development company. Gob isn’t especially good at any of these jobs; for some he has no qualifications at all, and he knows it. But he desperately wants to be good at all of them. In each career, he tries to fill the role to a T. As a magician (illusionist!), he founded the Magician’s Alliance—only to be blacklisted by them (“Pilot”). As president of the Bluth Company, he tried hard to imitate his father—wearing George Sr.’s suit and firing everyone (“Afternoon Delight”). In each case, Gob behaves in the way he thinks he ought to, rather than recognizing and accepting that he is making free choices.

Sadly, Gob’s bad faith isn’t limited to his “professional” life. It also plagues his romantic relationships and encounters. In particular, it was ever present in his relationship with Marta. Recall his hasty decision to make up with her. The instant she accepts, Gob realizes that he’s “made a huge mistake” (“Key Decisions”). What was his mistake? From Sartre’s perspective, Gob’s mistake was that he denied his freedom, but not in the same way that anyone who enters a relationship denies his freedom. Gob denied his freedom by treating himself as “any man.” Convinced by Michael that any man would be lucky to have Marta, Gob acts as “any man” should. The trouble is that Gob isn’t “any man.” No one is. Gob is an individual, and as such does not fit into the mold of “any man.” In getting back together with Marta, he denied that fact about himself.

Gob’s brush with matrimony is likewise rife with bad faith. We can see this in two aspects of his marriage to the “Bride of Gob,” played by Amy Poehler (the character, although appearing in several episodes, is never named other than Gob’s misguided attempt to remember her name, when prompted by Michael). First, there’s Gob’s continuing insistence that the marriage was consummated, in spite of his inability to remember the event. Then there’s the fact that Gob briefly slips into the role of the ideal husband, or at least of the long-suffering husband.

One of Gob’s previous romantic encounters led to another instance of bad faith. We are not told much about his relationship with Eve Holt beyond the fact that it resulted in Steve Holt (!). Gob’s relation to Steve involves bad faith in two ways. First, there are Gob’s various attempts to deny that Steve is, in fact, his son. In a confrontation with Michael, Gob even denies the validity of DNA tests:

Gob: Hey, can you do me a favor? A young neighborhood tough by the name of Steve Holt will be dropping by, and . . .

Michael: Your son?

Gob: According to him.

Michael: And a DNA test.

Gob: I hear the jury’s still out on science. [“Notapusy”]


Accepting one’s freedom also means accepting the consequences of one’s choices. Gob goes to extremes to deny this particular consequence, however. At one point he goes so far as to dose himself with a Forget-Me-Now (“Forget-Me-Now”).

On the other hand, when Gob does acknowledge Steve as his son, he goes to the other extreme, once again trying to play a role for which he’s unsuited. Like many parents, Gob decides he won’t make the same mistakes his parents did. So, instead of mimicking the absentee parenting of his father, Gob attempts to mimic the parenting style of Ward Cleaver. For instance, in “Making a Stand” Gob opens a banana stand with the help of Steve Holt (!). By including Steve, he’s trying to avoid being the neglectful father that George Sr. was. The trouble is that Gob isn’t Ward Cleaver. He’s an adult in name only.

The examples we’ve considered so far all seem to point to the conclusion that bad faith is, well, bad. But if we look at some of the times when Gob is happiest, or making others happiest, he’s living in bad faith then as well. The example that springs to mind is when Gob plays catch with his father in the prison yard. Gob knows full well that he is not that kind of son, nor is George Sr. that kind of father. Nevertheless, they both have their fun—until Gob gets stabbed by White Power Bill (“Key Decisions”).

Be Yourself, Gob

Although bad faith generally seems to work out for Gob, there’s a reason Sartre labels it “bad” faith. Gob seems happiest when living a lie, but his happiness doesn’t make the lie any more honest. Further, given the number of bad faith scenarios we’ve outlined, it would seem difficult not to live in bad faith. Indeed, it is. Sartre acknowledges as much. He says, “If bad faith is possible, it is because it is an immediate, permanent threat to every project of the human being.” In everything we do, there is always the risk of bad faith. It is a constant temptation to simply play our role in life. Consciously trying not to be in bad faith can itself be a form of bad faith. Sartre calls this form of bad faith “sincerity.” If we tell Gob that instead of living in bad faith he should be sincere or just be himself, Sartre will laugh at us in a mocking, French way.

Recall the definition of bad faith: treating a thing that is for-itself as a thing that is in-itself. By Sartre’s understanding, any demand for sincerity does just this. He even says, “The essential structure of sincerity does not differ from that of bad faith.” When we ask Gob to be sincere, we are not asking him to accept his essential and radical freedom, or his responsibility for the events in his life. Instead, we are acting as though there’s some other independent essence of Gob—his Gobness, we might say, just as there’s an essence of being a chair (it’s “chairness”). In demanding sincerity, we want Gob to act in conformity with his Gobness, to play the role of Gob as we’ve come to know and tolerate him. This involves denying his freedom just as much as any other form of bad faith. Just because Gob is playing the role of Gob doesn’t mean that he isn’t playing a role.

Since sincerity itself is just another form of bad faith, we seem to be left with few, if any, options. We are doomed to lives of bad faith, and we might as well get used to them. All is not so bleak, however. The term bad faith already points the way to the alternative: good faith. So what is good faith? How is it distinguished from sincerity? And what happens when someone lives in good faith? Remember, the problem with sincerity boils down to treating someone as something that he or she is not. For Gob to be “sincere,” he must treat himself as though he had no choice but to act in this way. But the facts are otherwise. Gob is a radically free being. Whatever he is doing at the moment, be it an illusion or talking to his brother or having sex with his former high school civics teacher, he chose to do it—and he can choose to quit.

Good faith, then, is not “being oneself” but accepting the type of being one is, accepting radical freedom and responsibility (the two go together). It’s a frightening prospect: to live without identifying with one’s roles, without guidelines telling one how to live. It is a goal that is rarely achieved because it is difficult to break out of our roles, or even to be sure that we have. Oddly enough, one of the few times that we certainly act in good faith is when we act ironically. For instance, Gob is acting in good faith when he pretends to be waiter. He knows he’s not a waiter. He’s just Gob, choosing to have a laugh at the idea that he’d work for a living.

The terms good faith and bad faith already imply which we ought to prefer. Sartre is an advocate of life lived in good faith. But what do we gain by good faith? Self-respect, dignity, maybe—not much, really. We do, however, lose quite a bit. We lose our roles, our guidelines—indeed, even our identities. What we get in return is little compensation. We get something we already had: freedom, freedom without limits. Sartre openly acknowledges that this isn’t a great deal. We’re taught to value freedom, but absolute freedom like this is paralyzing at best. As Sartre puts it, “Man is condemned to be free.” The only difference good faith makes is that we acknowledge it.

Gob Makes Huge Mistakes in Good Faith

According to Sartre, good faith is a struggle. On one hand, we easily fall prey to bad faith because it’s comforting to have roles to play. Good faith, on the other hand, is frightening and difficult for most people. In some ways, Gob seems to be an exception to this rule. He often goes from bad faith to good, and back again—sometimes in the course of a single scene. Gob seems to slip easily into good faith, but has trouble maintaining it. The siren call of bad faith is just too strong. Nonetheless, let’s take a closer look at some instances of Gob’s good faith, and see what the outcome is.

Our first example of Gob’s good faith is, appropriately, a parody of Sartre’s most famous example of bad faith. When Gob becomes a waiter in “S.O.B.s” he does so in good faith. At first, he is not mistaking himself for a waiter—he is play-acting, in an ironic way, at being a waiter. He’s making a joke. Because of the distance that he acknowledges between himself and the role of “waiter,” it’s obvious that Gob took on the mannerisms freely. He didn’t initially deny his freedom in playing this role. It’s only later, when Gob starts believing that he really is a waiter that he acts in bad faith. When he flirts with his wealthy customers and gets angry with Lindsay for messing up the dinner, Gob has slipped back into bad faith.

Such is the temptation and danger of roles. They lead us very easily to identify ourselves with them and deny that we have chosen to occupy them. There is one role, however, that Gob occupies often, but that rarely leads him to bad faith. This is the role of the bum or the mooch. Many bums and mooches like to make excuses for their status, thereby denying the element of choice that led them to be bums. Gob, to his credit, does not. He is quite honest with himself at least, about why he’s a bum: he doesn’t like to work. Again, in “S.O.B.s,” the whole point of Gob’s little joke is the laughable idea that Gob should get a job. One may not respect the lifestyle, but there’s something to be said for the honesty. That honesty is limited however. Gob’s choice to be a bum often leads to dishonesty toward others, as when he seduces his father’s secretary, Kitty, so that Michael will keep supporting him (“Visiting Ours”), or any of the many times he lies to Michael.

The most common and poignant temptation that leads Gob to bad faith is his need for acceptance and approval. This may be the case for most of us, but it is especially true for Gob. His mother is distant, his father is disappointed, his siblings don’t take him seriously—you get the idea. But occasionally it is Gob’s striving for acceptance that leads to good faith—mainly when that striving fails and Gob realizes he is unloved for a reason. It sounds cruel, but there is a reason Gob remains unloved: he’s a narcissistic boob. As he tells Buster, “I’m the pathetic one, Buster, not you. I totally freaked out in front of that prosecutor today. Like a little girl. In a little dress. Little saddle shoes. Little pigtails” (“Sad Sack”). Realizing that he’s chosen to be a narcissistic boob is Gob’s ultimate act of good faith.

So, should we strive to live in good faith? That’s too general. Some of us surely should. But should Gob? Look at what he gets from good faith: bad faith, deceiving others, and soul-crushing revelations. That doesn’t sound like a great deal.

The Wisdom of Bad Faith

The intuition we have about the wrongness of bad faith is actually, according to Sartre, based on a faulty ontology. We believe that people shouldn’t have to pretend, shouldn’t have to deny who they truly are. People should accept themselves as they are and be happy with that. The trouble is that, according to Sartre, who we “truly are” is nothing more than freedom. For Gob to be who he truly is at each moment means nothing more than to choose at each moment. One moment he may choose good faith, and accept that each of his actions and all of their outcomes are the result of his choices, and the next moment he may choose bad faith, and believe that his actions are dictated by the role he plays or the social position he occupies. So, why choose one over the other?

We often choose one thing over the other because one will make us happier than the other. This explains a number of the choices we make, from chocolate instead of vanilla to going to college instead of going to jail. It may also point us in the right direction for Gob. When is Gob happiest? If we’re honest, we’ll have to say that he seems happiest when he’s living in bad faith. It’s easy to see why: Playing a role provides a degree of security and reassurance. For someone as fundamentally directionless as Gob, good faith must be a paralyzing experience. Gob has been called many things, most of them unflattering, but never responsible. Good faith must be a nightmare for Gob. Bad faith, on the other hand, is a fluffy down comforter. It keeps Gob safe and warm. It’s debatable whether the happiness involved in bad faith is genuine happiness, but the fact is that it seems to satisfy Gob.

Sometimes, though, we forgo our own happiness in favor of the happiness of others. Admittedly, Gob rarely does this (in his defense, though, nor do any of the other Bluths except for Michael and George Michael). Nonetheless, his actions do make other people happy or unhappy, even if he doesn’t intend them to. So, when are the people in Gob’s life happy? When Gob lives in bad faith, Steve Holt (!) gets a good father, Michael gets a caring brother, Buster gets a protector, and the whole world gets a clown. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, what most often leads Gob into bad faith is his desire for approval, so it’s only natural that he is more likable when he plays a role. When he lives in good faith, on the other hand, Gob tends to be a selfish mooch and a loser. He brings people down.

If what I’ve said so far is true, that Gob and the people around him are all better off when he lives in bad faith, why shouldn’t he just go ahead and live in bad faith? For Sartre, he’s denying his freedom. I have two responses to Sartre. First, so what? What’s so important about embracing radical freedom, especially if it makes Gob miserable? Second, isn’t it possible to freely choose bad faith?

Socrates advised us to know ourselves, because the unexamined life is not worth living. Gob shows us the danger of knowing ourselves and examining our lives. Gob is the sage of bad faith. He has shown us the way. Reject authenticity! Embrace a role or two! Twenty! As many as you want! As many as you can! That way lies security and happiness; the other way, insecurity and madness!.


Date: 2013-08-15 08:27 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] daisiestdaisy
This is great, thanks for sharing!

This in particular is a really interesting catch, especially coupled with how much GOB dwells on that 'little girl' description later: Convinced by Michael that any man would be lucky to have Marta, Gob acts as “any man” should.

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