Think of Mrs Darling

Jenny Diski

  • Goffman's Legacy edited by Javier Treviño
    Rowman and Littlefield, 294 pp, £22.95, August 2003, ISBN 0 7425 1978 3

There must be certain texts which become available to each generation in their youth and then remain with them: a background, forgotten bass rhythm throughout their lives. Certainly, I had forgotten about reading Erving Goffman in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Asylums, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and, I think, Stigma. They were required reading, part of the unofficial University of Pelican Books course on gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, J.K. Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased. If you weren’t at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were), Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves – it all poured in and slopped around, bits and pieces sticking together and coming apart to make some other combination. Like dialectic but a lot messier. I imagined that if you went to university you ended up with an immaculately catalogued library in your mind; and that if you didn’t, and just picked the latest Pelicans off the shelves (along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Soledad Brother, Catch 22, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and whatever else flew into your consciousness) you got something more like a second-hand bookshop – a place where you could rummage pleasurably for hours and come away with a quite different idea from what you thought you might have been looking for.

There are no amateur readers like myself represented in Goffman’s Legacy. The writers of these essays are professional sociologists (apart from Mary Rogers, who is a professor of something called diversity studies), and they each consider Erving Goffman’s effect for good or ill on their academic discipline. Goffman died in 1982, but he still rouses passions. I didn’t read him with the critical eye of a student sociologist, I read him with a view to seeing what the world was like and what went on between people. I neither knew nor cared that professional sociologists, who so urgently wanted academic respectability for their newish and nebulous subject, were enraged by Goffman’s guilt-free plundering of anthropology and psychology, his airy indifference to statistical samples or his casual methods of plucking illustrations from whatever he happened to be reading – The Trial, The Esquire Book of Etiquette, Being and Nothingness, I Was a House Detective.

Goffman was perfectly pitched for the moment and for general popularity. Asylums introduced his notion of total institutions, which I recognised well enough, but the book was also filled with examples of that attractive canny madness which R.D. Laing and David Cooper were analysing as higher wisdom. Stigma told me about the nature of outsiders, ways of not belonging which redeemed my sense of not belonging, and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life made sense of more or less everything, but especially the overwhelming sense of phoneyness I perceived in all my encounters with the world, which Goffman defined neatly (too neatly, perhaps) as performance. He produced a perfect trilogy for the times. I read entirely subjectively and Goffman wrote towards that subjectivity. I don’t think I was alone. I suspect we would have discovered texts to console and justify our radical or irascible condition in whatever generation we might have found ourselves (the outrageous subjectivity of Montaigne’s Essais knocked the young Marie de Gournay’s socks off in 1580). But not as easily, because the coincidence of cheap paperbacks and the accessible libraries, the width and commitment of the Pelican imprint, and a questioning generation with no fear of unemployment made the combination of intellectual curiosity and subjectivity easy to indulge.

Decades on, however, I didn’t have a memory of any galvanising moment reading Goffman, nor did I have a single blue-spined Pelican left from those days. Yet when I ordered second-hand copies of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Asylums (which arrived with a Warneford Psychiatric Hospital library stamp in it and must have brought considerable comfort to the patients who borrowed it), I was startled by how much of what I thought then and, to a lesser extent, still think about the individual in culture derived from Goffman’s cataloguing of social interaction. 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 in his introduction, 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.’

But Goffman was not actually re-creating the world, any more than a landscape painter does; he was offering a way of looking at it. While many of his readers wished for definitive images and final statements, Goffman tells them on the final page of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that his metaphors – ‘the language and mask of the stage’ – have served their purpose and can now be dropped. ‘Scaffolds, after all, are to build other things with, and should be erected with an eye to taking them down.’ Goffman was a great one for proliferating typologies. In each book he wrote, he found an image which led to a series of sub-images, each of which had its own logical subsets. Tidiness can be comforting. Think of Mrs Darling folding her children’s minds neatly away in their drawers when she puts them to bed. For Alan Bennett, writing in this paper in 1981, ‘One of the pleasures of reading Goffman is in taxonomy: items that one has had lying around in one’s mind for ages can be filed neatly away.’ It’s Goffman’s strength and weakness that his scaffolds are so solidly built. What ought to be taken down and replaced with a kaleidoscope sticks instead in the mind and becomes the thing itself, and therefore rigid and limiting. Fear of embarrassment is such a striking way of analysing social interaction that all the other possible ways of looking at how people operate fade. Of course, the same thing happens with the scaffolding provided by Marxism, capitalism, science or religion. Goffman, at least, did not imagine that his was the definitive description of the world.

With each new book he offered a new perspective. Stigma developed the idea of in-groups and out-groups. In Asylums he offered institutionalisation, and inmates as resistors who worked the system. He used anthropological methods, encouraging his students to do participant observation, although he didn’t do exactly that himself. In the community in the Shetlands on which he based The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he pretended to be a student studying agricultural techniques. In the mental hospital he posed as a sociologist studying the staff in order to watch the patients. Participant observers generally believe in pretending to their objects of study that they are anthropologists or sociologists. Goffman liked to maintain a secret self – whatever that may have meant to him. Perhaps he was more like a participant observer when he studied gambling in Las Vegas, and wore trousers with extra long pockets to keep his winnings in. What he didn’t do, which much annoyed his colleagues, was claim or even try to be impartial. He openly took the side of the patients, saying in the introduction to Asylums that he went to St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington ‘with no great respect for the discipline of psychiatry or for agencies content with its current practice’. He called psychotherapy and psychoanalysis ‘the tinkering trade’. Sociology, longing as it did for the respectability of science, was naturally enough appalled by this, and the fact that his books sold in the hundreds of thousands meant that the sacred, priestly status of an academic discipline was breached. Moreover, those wanting a theory of everything for sociology – a great overarching explanation of social structures – disapproved of Goffman’s ‘micro-sociology’, which looked at detailed interaction in specific circumstances rather than taking in the world at one sweep. What is remarkable, if this selection of essays is anything to go by, is that nothing much has changed, and the same in-groups are having the same arguments about Goffman as they were in the 1970s. Whether he was right or not seems to me less the point than that he offered us interesting ways of looking at the world. Pile them high, take them or leave them. Like Pelican titles.

One of the strongest arguments against Goffman’s view of the ever-shifting self is the rather consistent and particular self that he presented. A student of his at Berkeley remembered that ‘Goffman presented himself as a detached, hard-boiled intellectual cynic, the sociologist as 1940s private eye. His was a hip, existential, cool, essentially apolitical (at least in terms of the prevailing ideologies) personal style. As a Canadian Jew of short stature working at the margins (or perhaps better, frontiers) of a marginal discipline, he was clearly an outsider.’ In his foreword here Charles Lemert, a professor of sociology, offers up an anecdote told to him by a professor of philosophy during a dinner at an Oxford college. The philosopher remembered another dinner years before to which he had taken his teenage daughter, who was seated next to Goffman. The young woman and Goffman hit it off, to the astonishment of the philosopher, because they discovered a mutual interest in second-hand clothing. Which is all very interesting, but much more interesting is that Lemert tells the story because the philosopher’s anecdote redeemed, as he put it, ‘the accident of the evening’s misplacement’. He speaks of the mutual ‘despair’ of himself and the philosopher occasioned by having to suffer each other’s presence. They were excused an evening of embarrassed silence or of ‘having to feign an interest in each other’s work’ by their common interest in the ‘enigmatic’ Goffman.

It’s nice that Goffman and his weird clothes-buying ways prevented these two men from spending their evening with their faces flat in their dinner-plates, but a world where a philosopher and a sociologist despair of being able to hold an hour’s conversation and can find nothing to interest them in each other’s fields sounds to me like one which urgently requires the attention of any marginal observers it can get. Either that, or they should scour the second-hand bookstalls for some old Pelicans.