Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Erving Goffman, the 50s and Literature

Sociology: what is it good for? For students of literature, that is. I'm pondering this question as generals loom. Still on my list, yet to be cracked, are Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction and Jurgen Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere — both works that have already influenced my thinking via my hazy preconceptions of what they are likely to say, but which I must admit I'm scared to actually confront. And even more scared to have to talk about in front of a committee who might actually know something about them.

One sociology book I have managed to read, however, as previously mentioned, is Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. I have some ideas about how I might eventually be able to work this into a developing thesis idea about the social self-presentation of poets and the genealogy that stretches from Eliot to Auden to Ashbery, but I will leave those aside for another day. In the meantime, I'll just give a sketch of some first impressions of Goffman, in the hope that they might lead to something more fruitful later.

I was turned on to Goffman originally by Jeff Nunokawa, who used a little bit of I think Frame Analysis in his Victorian novel seminar as a conceptual framework to talk about "awayness" and the evasion of the social totality (Jeff, in his own personal conceptual system, plays Goffman off against Foucault). He is (still?) highly regarded as a sociologist who facilitated a paradigm shift within the discipline from the macro- to the micro- level, i.e. studying not broad social trends or "laws" but actual human behavior as collected by experts in the field operating similarly to anthropologists.

Anyway, The Presentation of Self is a weird, crafty, idiosyncratic little book that is equal parts empirical survey, philosophical treatise, etiquette guide and public relations manual. Its basic subject is "the art of impression management": how people strive to make other people feel a certain way about them, or to limit or control the information others have about them. (This theme gets its best literary expression, to my knowledge anyway, in the works of David Foster Wallace.) To this end, Goffman uses "some language of the stage," speaking of performances, backstage areas, rehearsals and improvisations, etc., only to retract this conceit on the second-to-last page in a headspinning rhetorical move: "The claim that all the world's a stage is sufficiently commonplace for readers to be familiar with its limitations and tolerant of its presentation" (254) — that is, this very claim, on which the whole book has been based, was itself an impression-management strategy. It made me slap my forehead when I read it.

Though Goffman focuses on real-time interactions and thus is naturally led to use theatrical terminology, the manipulations he describes could just as well be those of a novelist, or a poet, both of whom also work by carefully controlling the amount of information, both literary and extra-literary, given to the audience of their work. In fact, one thing that distinguishes Goffman from sociologists past (Weber, Durkheim) and future (Bourdieu) is his conscious literariness. Not only is his own prose style economical and attractive, clearly learned from reading short stories and New Yorker profiles, but he often takes his clinching examples from literary sources: some of the authors he quotes from at length include Kenneth Burke (25, 175, 194), Henry Mayhew (41), Kafka (96), Warren Miller (97), Evelyn Waugh (101), Orwell (122), Melville (137), Gore Vidal (193) and Mary McCarthy (219) (as well as stuff like Character, Manner and Customs in the People of India and Ebony magazine). And it must be admitted that he sometimes comes off like a frustrated novelist himself ("So, too, members of the team must not exploit their presence in the front region in order to stage their own show, as do, for example, marriageable stenographers who sometimes encumber their office surroundings with a lush undergrowth of high fashion," 214). There's a lot of that sort of thing, sometimes a little too much: a number of Goffman's categories seem like opportunities for examples rather than helpful distinctions in their own right.
Goffman is also, noticeably, a creature of the 50s, receptive to the literary and intellectual influences of that time. One of the more interesting features of Goffman's book are its periodic mentions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre's Being and Nothingness supplies a description of a waiter in a café who "is playing at being a waiter in a café": "The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the café plays with his condition in order to realize it" (76). De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is quoted a few times to describe the attitude of women (problematically labelled "woman," a usage not followed by Goffman) to their performances in the presence of men: "Confronting man woman is always play-acting; she lies when she makes believe that she accepts her status as the inessential other … With other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics…" (113).

On the one hand, Goffman's quotations from Sartre and De Beauvoir clearly have something to do with the widespread popularity of Existentialism in America in the 50s; this vogue both explains why the quotes impressed Goffman and why he feels they will bolster his argument with a "lay" "literary" reader. But in another sense Sartre seems an odd choice of hero, given that Goffman (a) doesn't seem to be much interested in metaphysics, or abstract thinking of any kind, and (b) avoids any explicit discussion of politics. And yet Sartre and De Beauvoir were also associated with and influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Structure of Behavior and The Phenomenology of Perception — both Goffman-ish titles. And while I don't know squat about phenomenology — just that it was also being enthusiastically received in the art critical world at about this time, by Michael Fried for instance, and that it made my eyes glaze over in college — it's clearly this aspect of Existentialism, and not so much its concern with "being" or "commitment," that interested Goffman.

Well, how about this. A vogue for phenomenology suits a sudden awareness of an explosion of phenomena: and that's what the affluence of the American postwar economy, with all its attendant cultural renaissances, produced. And there was apparently also an explosion of sociological research conducted and published in the 1950s (much of it, I think, under Goffman's supervision). Reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life you get the feeling that we have so much more data on 1950s America than we do on any previous society. While Goffman occasionally dips back into earlier eras (often Victorian or eighteenth-century England) for his examples, he rarely "historicizes" in the sense of accounting for changes in values or social agreements from one period to another. I would have to think that this close focus on the current day was fairly radical for the field of sociology, which, in its development out of Hegelian philosophy and traditional social history, would have been interested in nothing so much as epochal change. My question is, how much of Goffman's contentment with "now" was tied to a general sense in the America of the 50s that, after centuries of talking around the subject, everyday life itself was finally being discovered, a notion that is connected both to the public events of the time — the Kinsey Report comes up in passim — and the gradual permeation of such intellectual events as Freudianism and phenomenology into American life? It's a notion, at any rate, that prepares the way for Confessionalism, and for the Beat poets.

A final question. Can Goffman meaningfully be called a Modernist, or even placed in respect to the intellectual influence of Modernism? This is tricky. His literary sources (with a few interesting exceptions, like Kafka) are straight-ahead novelistic realism, because that's where the source of the best information lies. He shows little concern with language, and much with physicality and expression, making his work hard to subsume under the heading of "the linguistic turn" that is often seen to be Modernism's theoretical counterpart. (On the other hand, it suggests points of contact with the later Wittgenstein.) In his concern with "everyday life" rather than "culture," with the facts of contemporary social life rather than what it evolved out of or might be tending toward, he is not at all in the semi-metaphysical tradition of Eliot, Leavis and Raymond Williams. But clearly he's in no way a throwback to 19th century intellectual traditions either: he engages with Freud, with Simmel and Durkheim, with literature. He recognizes modernity has taken place, but he prefers to anatomize and catalogue it than to situate it in a larger historical or theoretical framework. For this reason the Modernist he most resembles is probably Joyce, the Balzacian Joyce who bragged about Ulysses being a blueprint from which turn-of-the-century Dublin could be reconstructed.
Or maybe Beckett: "Performers are aware they foster and ordinarily also possess destructive information about the show," Goffman states on page 144. Waiting for Godot had its American premiere in 1956, Endgame in 1957; a dedicated follower of Existentialism would presumably have been aware of them. This last point raises the question of what I'll risk calling the postmodernity of Goffman's approach, and it's closely connected with one of my biggest problems with his book in general. It seems to me that Goffman's concept of "destructive information" (first used on page 141) is seriously flawed. Putting my objection in short, analytically unrigorous form: just how sensitive are we, anyway? Goffman sometimes talks as though the merest breeze that happens along could destroy the delicate ecosystems of human interaction that he so minutely anatomizes. Social relations are more adaptable and impervious than that, as the early work of Stanley Cavell (in my view a direct inheritor of Goffman: but more on that trajectory another day) shows quite extensively. Goffman, for one thing, is so eagle-eyed himself that he fails to account for the fact of repression, or willful not-noticing, that the more Freudian Cavell so doggedly attends to in essays like "Knowing and Acknowledging." But this emphasis on the ever-present possibility of destruction, far from being a mere weakness on Goffman's part, may point to something bigger, a distinctively postwar epistemic framework that extends inexorably to where we are now: that is, we are getting used to being disillusioned — perhaps Adorno would say "disenchanted" — consistently, and in every aspect of our cultural life. (This is a condition perhaps also anticipated by Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations was made available and became influential only after the Second World War.)

Hypothesis: in the postmodern period, disillusionment itself becomes the frame in which cultural activity — and not just, but especially, literary activity — is automatically viewed.

Corollary: it's time for a nap.