Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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Waiting for Goffman


Today’s sociologists may argue over the degree of his originality, but to the casual student of poor, forked humanity Goffman consistently provides an eye-opening, touching, and frequently harrowing look into the meaning of our behavior, especially our behavior in cities.

At one point in The Presentation of Self he notes that “There is hardly a legitimate everyday vocation or relationship whose performers do not engage in concealed practices which are incompatible with fostered impressions.” Insincerity and inauthenticity haunt us all. But sometimes people possess what Goffman emphatically calls “spoiled identities” or “stigma”—and these they must live with or try to hide: time spent in jail, for instance, or being a successful prostitute. Stigma (1963) examines the nature and difficulties of a damaged life.

Goffman first distinguishes between “an undesired differentness” that “normals” can see, such as a physical deformity, and those that can be hidden from the public, such as impotence or a criminal record. “In the first case, one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable.”

While the discredited, depending on the “obtrusiveness” of their infirmity, have to spend their psychic time in managing “tension” generated during social contacts, the discreditable instead must manage “information” about their “failing.” Thus they constantly need to decide whether “to display or not to display, to tell or not to tell, to let on or not to let on, to lie or not to lie, and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.” This often leads to what is commonly called “passing,” trying to appear as a “normal.” As a result, the branded individual becomes hypervigilant, a constant “scanner of possibilities,” and often grows “alienated from the simpler world in which those around him apparently dwell.”

For the most discreditable, existence can readily become nightmarish and Kafkaesque: a man or woman trying to pass must live with repeated doubt over whether his or her secret is truly hidden. One can never be sure. Ever increasing subterfuge (“in-deeperism”), the leading of a double life or even a double double life, may result, not to overlook the possibility of every sort of blackmail. And the more people who even suspect anything shady, the more treacherous the situation. As Goffman says, “It may be safer for a bank teller to dally with his wife’s girlfriend than to go to the races.”
Above all, for those with something to hide, the “information connectedness” of their biographies becomes a stress point. Whereas, in The Presentation of Self, Goffman highlighted the need for performers to play multiple roles, here he underscores the safety of a clear, unilinear presentation of one’s past. Any gaps in the lifeline—due to incarceration, for example, or hospitalization or closeted homosexuality or an ongoing adulterous relationship—must be disguised or accounted for. Who among us, then, ever wholly escapes the consequences of some form of stigmatization? No human heart is untroubled, and we are all lamed in some way.

Consider “On Cooling the Mark Out” (1952), the youthful Goffman’s first truly distinctive paper. While its title derives from the argot of grifters and con artists, its theme is, to invert Boethius, the philosophy of consolation. The essay surveys the myriad disappointments we all encounter in business, in courtship and marriage, in all our urban and suburban relations. Sooner or later, each of us will be the mark of time and circumstance and dashed expectations.

At the end of most swindles, Goffman writes in his introductory pages, the criminals simply disappear with the mark’s money. But sometimes a gang feels it necessary to assuage the anger and bereavement felt by the victim, usually to avoid reprisals or to discourage undue attention from the authorities. And so one of the cons—still thought to be a “friend”—remains behind to “cool the mark out.” His job is, essentially, to commiserate, and then “to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

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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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