Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
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Waiting for Goffman

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It may seem fairly obvious to describe a face-to-face encounter as the interaction between a performer (or a team of performers) and an audience. To use a simple example, consider all the role-playing that ensues after a highway patrolman stops a speeding motorist. Nonetheless, Goffman turns what fellow sociologist Tom Burns calls “this relatively simple analytical device” into a powerful tool for social understanding. Burns notes that Goffman collects all sorts of behavioral routines and everyday observations of urban existence and “merely by juxtaposing them in an unfamiliar classification reveals them in a newly significant light.” Goffman explores, for instance, the implications of “audience complicity, ‘breaking role,’ ‘discrepant roles,’ the moral obligations of membership of a team of performers, playing as member of a team” and other “manifestations of the individual’s management of his conduct and situation.” We are all involved in street theater and office melodramas.

In perhaps his most brilliant stroke, though, Goffman grasped the necessity and significance of what he calls the “backstage.” While some qualities must be “accentuated” to establish and enhance a particular definition of an activity or role, others which discredit the fostered impression need to be suppressed. They are then often relegated to a “back region,” or backstage.

This “may be defined as a place relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course.” In actual dramatic representations, it may be literally the area behind the stage’s backdrop, its curtained wings, or the actors’ dressing rooms—in short, those places where the players unwind, take off their makeup, and rudely comment on the audience or each other’s performances. Bathrooms, teachers’ lounges, locker rooms, hunting lodges, and bedrooms are some familiar backstages where people will exclude the outsiders before whom they strut and gesture and only admit fellow team members.

The contrast between front-stage—being “on”—and backstage behavior and language is, well, dramatic. “Throughout Western society…The backstage language consists of reciprocal first naming, cooperative decision-making, profanity, open sexual remarks, elaborate griping, smoking, rough informal dress, ‘sloppy’ sitting and standing posture, use of dialect or substandard speech, mumbling and shouting, playful aggressivity and ‘kidding,’ inconsiderateness for the other in minor but potentially symbolic acts, minor physical self-involvements such as humming, whistling, chewing, nibbling, belching, and flatulence.”

Such places of escape and refuge are essential to our lives, especially our busy metropolitan lives, because, “The whole machinery of self-production is cumbersome,” fragile, and prey to mishaps. As Goffman observes in his essay “Role Distance” (included in Encounters, 1961), people “trip, forget names, wear slightly inappropriate clothes, attempt to buy a too-small amount of some commodity, fail to score well in a game, arrive a few minutes late for an appointment, become a trifle overheated in argument, fail to finish a task quite on time. In all these cases, a momentary discrepancy arises between what the individual anticipated being and what events imply he is.”

In that discrepancy lies anxiety but also, Goffman later suggests, the possibility of defining oneself as unique and distinctive. One can learn to step back from assigned and self-assigned roles and view them with a saving irony. Goffman’s own wry sense of life emerges in his footnotes and in the maximlike observations scattered throughout The Presentation of Self. “If a service is judged on the basis of speed and quality, quality is likely to fall before speed, because poor quality can be concealed but not slow service.”

In the end, though, the book reminds us that urban living transforms all of us not just into actors but often into broken-hearted clowns. Peer backstage, and any individual “will be seen for what he largely is, a solitary player involved in a harried concern for his production.” Further refining this ancient trope, he movingly adds, “Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look, a look of concentration, a look of one who is privately engaged in a difficult, treacherous task.” That task is the central problem of city life: interacting with other people.

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About the Text

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and most recently, Classics for Pleasure.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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