Monday, January 06, 2014

The stage we are on (2)

Performance without an audience

The grandmaster of the analysis of social role-playing is the sociologist Erving Goffman. His most famous analysis of this phenomenon is his The presentation of self in everyday life. It’s already long ago that I read it, so actually I have a bit forgotten what Goffman wrote there, but I had underlined many passages in my copy of the book, so let me browse a bit and then give some – actually somewhat arbitrary – quotations and comments by way of illustration and support of what I have said before.
Already in the “Preface” Goffman tells us that he considers the social world as a stage: “The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance” (xi). By pasting a few passages from the “Introduction” behind each other, I want to give an idea what this theatrical performance perspective involves for Goffman: “… the individual will have to act so that he intentionally or unintentionally expresses himself, and the others will in turn have to be impressed in some way by him. … Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interest to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him. This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. … [W]hen an individual projects a definition of the situation and thereby makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect.” (2, 3-4, 13; italics EG]. However, sometimes things go wrong and the others have another definition of the situation than the individual. Then the latter is driven back on “defensive practices” or otherwise to “protective practices” (by which he simply supports the definition of the others, like by using tact) (13-14).
This is in a nutshell what we are doing on the stage of life in Goffman’s view. At the end of the introduction to the Presentation he calls the influencing of the others by an individual in a face-to-face interaction a “performance” and he calls these others “the audience, observers or co-participants”. (15-16) I think the third term is the best, for aren’t actually all those present on the stage “performing” in some way? (which Goffman doesn’t deny, however)The terms “audience” and “observers” suggest that the others are not involved in the interaction in some way. But since Goffman is explicitly talking about “face-to-face-interaction”, they belong all to the company of actors (although I don’t want to deny that there can be bystanders present or that there are passers-by that we can best qualify as “audience” or “observers”).
I could go on and add more quotes from Goffman’s book. But didn’t bring us what I cited above already to the essence? Nevertheless we must not forget that the actor-and-stage metaphor is more than just that: In life we are not simply players who can step out of their roles. We are not simply pretending. We are our roles. We are our pretences if not our pretensions. For as Goffman puts it “The self … is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented …” (252-3). To put it differently: The self is the dramatic effect of all our acts, actions and interactions (cf. 253). In the end that’s also true for the artist, for if it wasn’t, he couldn’t be a good performer. As the last words in Goffman’s book are: “Those who conduct face to face interaction on a theater’s stage [i.e. the actors - HbdW] must meet the key requirement of real situations; they must expressively sustain a definition of the situation: but this they do in circumstances that have facilitated their developing an apt terminology for the interactional tasks that all of us share” (255).

The quotations are from Erving Goffman, The presentation of self in everyday life, Garden City:
Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.

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