Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

Rejecting any possibility of an essential identity, his notion is of the self as purely contingent, a shape-shifting construction of altering circumstances. The individual, Goffman says, arrives into an already established social world, and is shaped by, rather than shapes, his environment. All interaction is performance; each individual (or ‘team’) performs for the other and is the other’s audience. Careful ritual and fear of embarrassment are all that hold social order together, which results in the social actor’s impression management being colluded with (if it is not too incompetent or absurd: the comb-over in preference to a bad wig) by the audience, which no more wishes to be embarrassed by the unmasking of the other than the other wishes to be unmasked.

Thus we are actors or con artists or gamblers or audiences or team members or marks, who walk into discrete situational frames and become whatever will get us through. There is no essential morality, only human nature, anxious risk avoidance or calculative dealings. Read Goffman all these years on, and you see the ghostly images of sociobiology and Thatcherism to come. He made no pretence that he was doing anything about the world, he merely described it, using the metaphor of drama as a tool. When he was accused, as he had to be in the early 1970s, of making no attempt to analyse the world in terms of social or economic advantage or disadvantage, or to reveal the true reality behind appearances, he shrugged: ‘I think that is true. I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’ He had no interest in endearing himself to others.

More than thirty years later, academic sociologists are still enraged or delighted by him for his refusal to conform to the rules of sociology, his lack of political passion, his early perception of the fragmented, postmodern, socially constructed individual, his contempt for orthodoxies (we sociologists ‘haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it’). According to Thomas Scheff’s essay, his work is ‘so advanced that we haven’t yet understood it . . . none of us, not even his fans are yet as free of the assumptive world as Goffman. We haven’t caught up with him yet.’ Norman Denzin, on the other hand, believes he offered a sociology ‘that seemed to turn human beings into Kafkaesque insects to be studied under glass’. He did not address ‘social injustice, violence or war under capitalism’. Goffman’s actors were men and women in grey flannel suits who did not resist, ‘they conformed to the requirements of a local and global capitalism that erased class, race and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature . . . Capital was a missing term . . . His was a universal sociology, part of a pandisciplinary project, that moved from linguistics to psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.’

I am still unable to understand what is so wrong with a pandisciplinary project, but I can see the rest of Denzin’s point. Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not. There is, as Goffman repeatedly says, no real reality. Still, you wonder, what is it then in either actor or audience that’s doing the believing or not believing? And when the individual is alone, does she continue to perform for herself? Always? And when she is asleep and dreaming? And if she is ever not performing, what or who is she? Certainly something, because Javier Treviño tells us Goffman acknowledged that the self is ‘always “anchored” in an individual’s “continuing biography” before and after every social event’. I remain baffled, no image comes of this accrued history sitting alone in her bath with flashes of me-ness in between performances. Marshall Berman is quoted as writing of Goffman: ‘Although he was magnificent at evoking human situations, he seemed . . . to lack empathy with actual human beings. People seemed to exist for him only as manipulative players in an endless series of games people play. Feelings, emotions, love, hate, the self, did not seem to come in anywhere at all.’

“Think of Mrs Darling,” LRB, 4 March 2004

But I don’t see how Berman’s assessment can be. For me the anger seeps off the page in his books, especially Asylums, which had to be the inspiration for Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies a few years later. He just knew how difficult the task of action would be, and abdicated responsibility.

And how much more concrete and realistic his visions are than the abstractions given to us by our contemporary social theorists. If we can’t generalize from the reality at hand, the one Goffman described, to the greater world situation, that is our blindness and not his.

2 thoughts on “Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

  1. try and relate goffman’s perception of face to “the truman show”…. i think there can be some interesting feedback gained…..

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