Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014
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Waiting for Goffman

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To understand how this is done, one must first consider the psychology of cons. In Goffman’s view, “The mark’s readiness to participate in a sure thing is based on more than avarice; it is based on a feeling that he will now be able to prove to himself that he is the sort of person who can ‘turn a fast buck.’ For many this capacity for high finance comes near to being a sign of masculinity and a test of fulfilling the male role.” Thus, in the aftermath of a sting, the mark’s self-image has suffered as much damage as his pocketbook. “He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them.” This awful realization Goffman likens to a destruction of the self—and the imagery of death informs his subsequent portraits of disappointment and regret.

In life everyone needs cooling out from time to time. After all, hasn’t each of us failed to live up to the kind of person we thought we were? When this is made freshly and painfully clear, as again and again it must be, such recognition results in a species of mourning for the idealized self we have lost. Merely to live in a city is to suffer inevitable daily shocks and to risk small and large humiliations. In some almost Ovidian passages, Goffman reflects on the many dispiriting alterations and metamorphoses of urban existence, of how each of us must handle “the passage from the role that we had” just a moment ago or last week “to a state of having it no longer.” He lists some of the more obvious transitions: “One might consider the social processes of firing and laying off; of resigning and being asked to resign; of farewell and departure; of deportation, excommunication, and going to jail; of defeat at games, contests, and wars; of being dropped from a circle of friends or an intimate social relationship; of corporate dissolution; of retirement in old age; and lastly, of the deaths that heirs are interested in.”

When in our professional lives a role has been yanked away or denied us, we can quit in a huff or be fired—or, as a consolation prize, be transferred up, down, or away. Sometimes the loser is mollified with a crumb: a rejected lover can be asked to remain a friend, the washed-up heavyweight may become a trainer. In extreme cases, psychotherapists might be called in, “Because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in a relationship to others.”

Victims, as we all tend to see ourselves in these circumstances, deal with failure by developing rationalizations and excuses. Writes Goffman with somber majesty, “It is, perhaps, in this region of fantasy that the defeated self makes its last stand.” Occasionally the broken-spirited may grow mystical, convinced “that all involvements are part of a wider con game,” and that people are fools to take pleasure in any particular role because we suffer all the more “when it is time to leave it.” All too frequently a man may turn “sour”: while outwardly accepting his loss, he nonetheless “withdraws all enthusiasm, goodwill, and vitality from whatever role he is allowed to maintain. He complies with the formal requirements of the role that is left him, but he withdraws his spirit and identification from it.” Who has not known friends and fellow employees in this condition?


In counterpoint to this melancholy, rather Hobbesian meditation on life’s nasty turns, “Where the Action Is” (in Interaction Ritual, 1967) offers a study of why people look for excitement, why they take risks, why they gamble and, without any apparent need, put their lives or fortunes on the line. Like “On Cooling the Mark Out,” it is a classic moral essay disguised as a sociological paper.

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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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