Remembering Erving Goffman

Bennett Berger

(Bennett Berger, “A Fan Letter on Erving Goffman.” Dissent. 1973, Vol. 20, pp. 353-361).

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What is there to say about Erving Goffman after uttering some helpless gasps about his brilliance? I had the impulse recently to say to a group of sociologists we were bantering with: be good to him, he's the only genius we've got, and we ought to cherish him while he's still here with us. What is it that makes me feel so tender and protective toward this man, whose abrasiveness in print and in person is by now legendary, and which makes him fair game for practitioners of put-down for myth the same reasons that movie hard-guys must occasionally contend with barroom toughs testing their macho?

I'm not sure I know the answers to these questions; I'm not even sure it would be useful to know them. But I think they have something to do with grace and with blessedness, with roughness in the service of delicacy and delicacy in the service of truth. Goffman makes me feel less alone as a sociologist; however temporarily, reading him replaces my usual sense of mild disaffection from most of my colleagues with an almost prideful sense of identification with the profession to which we both "belong." More than any social scientist I know who is constantly touching the subtlest and most intimate details of social life, Goffman' s efforts to speak truly and precisely are least compromised by moral posturings, knowing leers, or other vulgar ego trips, and given the temptations of his material, that is itself a sort of moral triumph. Of all the "remarks" one might make after observing the eyes of a luncher civilly inattentive to the tits of a topless waitress hovering over his plate, Goffman says only, "When bodies are naked, glances are clothed."

Like Max Weber, Goffman, has a strong sense of decency and propriety, without any cognitive grounds for believing that his sense is any better than anyone else’s. As you might expect, this generates a good bit of pressure – his moral feeling on his analytic efforts, his conspiratorial sense-of-the-real on his cheerful disposition – which gives him that nice edge, the good-humored, bad-boy outrageousness which, when it breaks a rule of conduct that others maybe "knew" but weren't sharply aware of, both instructs them in "the social construction of reality" and reminds them that there are still sociology teachers abroad in the land: passing by a group of old friends in a hotel lobby at a sociologists’ convention. He was once heard saying loud and clear, “If I can’t find anybody more important to talk with, I’ll come back and talk with you.” A jaunty terrorist with a diffident voice reminding us that in this world’s bag full-to-bursting with banal sentiment, anybody who says something cruel and-true can't be all bad.

I mean I like his taste: lean, spare, severe, contained. He is constantly putting his scientific discipline to the test of emotionally volatile facts that would reduce most other writers to orgies of hortatory indignance or sonorous affirmation. The facts he deals with in his most recent book, Relations in Public, are the ones he has always dealt with, the stuff of elementary sociology: the fundamental units of social structure, selves, norms, roles, interaction between face-to-face individuals, the rules of "co-mingling" in public places. His preoccupation are with what anyone can see, but usually doesn't unless he looks carefully and with fresh eyes; how greasy and creamy foods contaminate the hands but not the mouth, why elbows are the least "private parts" of the body, why "A person with carcinoma of the bladder can, if he wants, die with more social grace and propriety . . . than a man with a harelip can order a piece of pie." Goffman writing about the surfaces of human contact reminds one of Gide saving, "The deepest thing in man is his skin."

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Ceremonial observance governs. It is not for nothing that Goffman’s favorite sources include Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt (for "manners," like art. Religion, and symbols of nationality, are part of the expressive culture, and offenses to even the most apparently trivial of manners may evoke feelings – and sanctions – offense to those nobler institutions), or that he is sometime compared to novelists of manner who are concerned with revealing how people struggle with these social forms to get their self-work done.

In Relations in Public, ceremonial observance governs individuals as “vehicular units” going to and from in the world, and up and down in it, and as "participation units" ("singles and withs") communicating evidence about who they are to unknown others. It governs the accounts and apologies offered and received by offenders and offended when fire engine of interaction develops knocks and pings, and requires remedial attention; it governs, too, the little supportive rituals without whose mercies "unsatisfactory persons would be left to bleed to death from the conversational savageries performed on them." Goffman's gifts are for describing how (not merely asserting that) "the individual stakes out a self, comments on his having done so, even while others are taking the whole process into consideration in reviewing his view of himself." I have seen people become fidgety when Goffman walks into a room, suddenly self-conscious that their apparently effortless sociability might reveal something unintentional.

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Combine the brilliance with the disciplined detachment and the conviction he knows that there are political meanings and consequences in such observance, about the governing character of interaction rituals, and comments are invited in these politicked times about where Goffman's political sympathies lie. Gifted thinkers are potentially valuable political properties, and Goffman has recently become the subject of considerable speculation among the realtors of the Left. It began a few years ago with some devaluation by Alvin who criticized Goffman in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology for his failure to deal explicitly with how the greater power and wealth of some people give them greater access to favorable self-presentation; how the restriction on the significant political choice in capitalist society induce people to lay self-demeaning image games instead of projecting their more wholesome selves.

More recent rejoinders have attempted to claim Goffman as a resource for the Left by pointing out his sympathy for the afflicted and the stigmatized, for underdogs like mental patients. They point to his implicit criticism of the degradation by established institutional routines, his exposure to the analysis of he commercial exploitation of personal sentiments like love or sincerity, or his Kafka-like fascination for words such as machination, chicaneries, contrivances, deceptions, disguises, collusions, plots, concealments ploys, devices simulations, ruses, strategems, maneuvers, and cons (all of which recur throughout his text), and for the imagery of

secret hiding places, slots in bedroom walls . . . trap doors, panels that open to reveal stairways into caves, permanently locked rooms, hidden entranceways, bars on the windows and doors, sudden failures of the light, eerie sounds, concealed machines of destruction. . .

Well, all right, Goffman's imagination is Kafkaesque; or Gothic. He doesn't much like institutional caretakers. And he probably doesn't care much for routinized inhumanity. But when a New York Times writer concludes his praise for Goffman an all-together-now exhortation that Goffman join with him and others for the important political struggle ahead, he is simply not reading carefully. And when a writer for American Sociologist conclude his defense of Goffman with the assertion "he should be read as a radical sociologist" he is inviting disappointment because live thinkers cannot be consistently depended upon to satisfy the claims of political constituencies. The conservative Edmund Burke supported the American Revolution; the aristocratic Ortega y Gasset, who hated and feared the rise of the masses, recommended the extension of higher education to them. Marx, Trotsky, and Goodman, all of whom were explicitly involved in politics, cannot be depended upon to fulfill the expectations of partisan interests, this can even less be expected of Goffman, who has never to my knowledge shown any sustained interest in movement politics.

Let's take Goffman at his word: ceremonial observance governs. Certainly he knows that there are political meanings and consequences in such observance, and he has not ignored them. But it is clearly mistaken to infer from his occasional political feints and jabs any strong desire to aim a knockout punch for doctrinal reasons on behalf of the oppressed at any heavyweight establishment. Where he can be read politically, the evidence is in brief and edgy "remarks," and if, as Gertrude Stein is sad to have said, "Remarks are not literature," then political remarks are not political positions. Goffman's political remarks are usually made not primarily for their political impact but in connection with some relatively abstract theoretical point which he is tempted to illustrate with a homely and cutting example. Thus when he implies that members of the Boy Scouts of America stash marijuana, he is less interested in "laying bare" the fact that these prides of the Lions Club smoke dope (and maybe commit other crimes), than in generalizing the fact that people suffer moments of alarm when in danger of being found out.

But obsessed as lie is with the microstructure of social order, Goffman has none of the conservative's piety about Rules. He knows that some people profit more than others from a given set of rules for social order, and that some rules produce more inconvenience than they're worth, and even that society can get along quite well with fairly high rates of rule-breaking. But neither does he have much of the radical's fondness for moral indignation over the injustice of rules or their application; as always, the attitude is clinical, detached, morally ambiguous. When a rule of conduct between two individuals is broken, "A bit of the definition of actor and recipient is threatened, as is to a lesser degree the community that contains both." But he says also that in many circumstances rule-breaking doesn't appreciably undermine the support that others give to the rules:

. . . in fact, pure self-interest should lead the individual to encourage others to guide their conduct by an image of what would happen were everyone to cease to support the rule, and while thus encouraging the others, he himself should quietly disregard the rule.

Thus is the categorical imperative disposed of; take that, Immanuel Kant! There is a little Nietzsche somewhere in Goffman, a moral adventurer less interested in the justice or injustice of the rules themselves than in what breaking them or abiding by them reveals about the risks to one’s sense of self and personal order. It sometimes seems, for example, that even Goffman’s well-known “sympathy” for mental patients and the insane is based on their status of victims of family collusion or institutional barbarism, nor on a Laingian appreciation of the superior reality of schizophrenic modes. It is as if he were personally grateful to them for having taught him something about the rules of behavior normal people depend upon; as if those who reveal our rules to us by breaking them (and thereby putting us uptight) deserve our gratitude for instructing in what we believe in and depend upon. An exquisite morality: he respects the rule-breaking of the insane because he honors their deviance with the power to threaten meaningful existence.

Still, and however, it would be a mistake to infer from this sympathy for moral deviants any generally favorable predisposition on his part toward those groups who would make cultural or political capital out such deviance. Encounter movement, preaching openness 'n honesty and the appearance of intimacy among persons who are not intimates, turns out in Goffman's view to be little other than "social molestation." And he seems to derogate the antics of Yuppies (apparently because they seem so smugly pleased with their status as mind-blowers) by reminding them that even revolutionary decorum" must rely on "shared idiom" – telling them, in effect, that they're not so damned far-out as they are pleased to think.

Back again the "liberal" side, Goffman has shown much interest in and sympathy for the modern Feminist movement. But that sympathy seems based less on the political injustice of the women’s cause than on the fact that the movement is genuinely of sociological interest for much the same reason the' insane are: it threatens the traditional assumptions that govern orderly interaction between categories of persons – in this case between the sexes; and also because his interests are involved. At the 1972 meetings of the American Sociological Association Goffman and I were asked by a group of women to join them in a sit-in attempt to desegregate a hotel dining room that served only men at lunch. We went along. As we were sitting there at a large table with a group of women, I asked him if he was doing this out of principle or out of impulse. "Impulse," he said, then, "but once you do something, you've got to begin to think about it." And then, as if he had thought about it for a moment, suggested that the interests of liberated men were tied to the liberation of women they regarded as peers. His interests are involved, his sexual interest obviously, and his professional interests as well, because to the extent that that Women's Liberation successfully effects changes in the subtle definitions of female ascribed status, the movement will be affecting the rules of co-mingling, and it is Coffman's business to be aware of such changes.

Goffman asks his readers to accuse him of laconicity rather than morality, and he is usually at some pains to avoid being identified as a believer in this or that that moral or political cause for the reasons usually espoused in behalf of it. As a maker of terse political remarks rather than a pleader of doctrinal causes, Goffman usually seems guarded against the possibility of being ideologically harvested by those political powers who for one reason of another think they have found in the words he has sown some ground for believing that he might be ripe for picking. Almost as if to ward off the Left, Goffman makes scattered references in Relations in Public to the problem of “crime in the streets,” and it is clear that he is concerned about the high petty theft rates in big American cities which make its streets and other public places unsafe to be at certain times.

But Goffman talks about the unsafety of city streets not as a “social problem” to which one or another political solution can be brought to bear (more police, better lighting, welfare, methadone maintenance, etc.), but personally, almost sa if his own bailiwick were being affronted.

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For whom, is there political comfort in this analysis of crime in the streets? The Left? The Right? Not much for either; maybe a little more for the Right than the Left. Goffman loves the streets and loves to think analytically about the organization of public places; the streets are his, and their unsafety produces in his sense of personal loss. But note that we may learn from him about sources of authentic political feelings: the streets are ours; he is correct. And our being deprived of their routine use can produce much the same feeling of threat to personal and social order (hence political anxiety) as any other rip-off personal property, for example the way a burglary (regardless of the value of personal property) can threaten ones taken-for-granted sense of the sanctity of one’s own home, then produce anxiety about the visibility of elemental social order, and finally political fear and outrage.

Goffman’s political remarks, then, are almost always cast in an abstruse theoretical frame form which no consistent political position can be inferred. The theoretical focus reduces the sizes of his potential popular audience, and insulates him against the current tendency fro intellectual publics to demand political leadership from teachers. It is as if Goffman needed the “distance” (dis-tance) that theory provides. He won’t pander; he won’t talk down; he won’t sloganize; he won’t draw morally comforting inferences; he wil not be banal. That, I suppose, is why he doesn’t much like teaching, particularly not undergraduates. And why he will travel long distances(and sometimes even pay his own way) to do a colloquium for his peers, but not give a public lecture except fro a high fee.

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Except for his general obsession with orderliness and precision it’s not entirely clear why Goffman bothers with all this. In addition to holding his political admirers at bay, it may be that his attempts at exhaustiveness with respect to the possible variations and conditions of the phenomena which gets his attention express his desire to be regarded as theorist – perhaps to avoid the reputational fate of George Simmel (with whose gift of insight his own is often compared): brilliant and all that, of course but not really a theorist, i.e., not really systematic; as if the dutiful dullness of his typologies were somehow a credential for his seriousness as a thinker, the price he feels it is necessary to pay to neutralize those who would derogate his achievement as mere brilliance.

This is more than idle speculation. I remember asking Goffman many years ago whether he thought it was possible to do a nonquantitative sociology that was not functionalist or systematic. His answer was typical Goffman: “Yes, but you won’t sell it.” Goffman has never been less than candid about his interest in selling it, and in reaping the optimal profit form his work. Unlike many intellectuals whose heads are full of exquisite Ideas About Human Behavior, Goffman has always taken pride in his worldliness, in his canny regard for plain and practical self-interest.

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Goffman has to be good at it because he is a rule-breaker, and rule-breakers invite the vultures to gather. Being good at it means having defences sufficient “to portray and advocable relationship to the negative judgment . . . which results.” If his is judged crude or cruel for announcing that if can’t find anybody more important to talk with he'll talk with you, the advocable response is that he is only articulating what people in fact do at conventions, and if the offended could but overcome their momentarily ruffled feelings, they might learn something important. If, after an expensive dinner in a fan restaurant, he is judged crass asking waiter in a voice for all to hew whether desert will “cost extra”, the advocable response is that it’s all right to his dinner companions the opportunity to think twice about whether they want to overpay for a sweet after having already eaten an overpriced dinner.

I think that Goffman’s enamor of orderliness and precision may be his way of portraying and advocable relationship to the negative judgment of those social scientists who would derogate the kind of thing he does brilliantly as “soft,” merely insightful, merely humanistic, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I don’t mean to suggest that he is calculatedly cynical about this, but Goffman is as skilled a player of the sociology game as he is a student of the power of social organization (including the organization of social science) to strip a person of almost everything he or she is; and the robes of empirical rigor and logical exhaustiveness are sufficiently regal to induce the barons of social science to see that even underneath the purple this particular emperor has very fine clothes indeed.

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Goffman’s gift is a gift of grace, a blessing, and a burden that no teacher can be expected to transmit successfully to his students (although sometimes this happens), however severe his demands on them (and Goffman, who is by reputation a notoriously severe grader, once said that he gave A only to students who taught him something – which is not a bad criterion).

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But without Goffman’s own fine sensibility and disciplined taste, “Goffmanian” insight and rigor are each vulnerable to a peculiar form of vulgarization. There are those who admire Goffman for his sensitivity to nuance but who ape style of “insight” for undignified reasons: to be arch, knowing, sophisticated, one-up. They are the one who wink, elbow you in the ribs, snicker disdainfully at the human comedy they earn their livings to observing. They are the smartasses.

Then there are the solemn ones who admire his ethnographic rigor but sometimes forget about the payoffs (i.e., fresh truth, new understanding) of such attention to detail. The danger here is that the rules of rigorous ethnographic practice can degenerate into one more set of barren methodological strictures interesting and original thinkers sometimes seem fated to bequeath to their less gifted heirs. An interesting and original thinker like Paul Lazarsfeld left to the survey research institutes of the world an intellectual style that C. Wright Mills characterized as "abstracted empiricism." And, like those "rigorous" quantitative sociologists who choose their studies in order to demonstrate the power of their research technologies, "rigorous" ethnographers may produce the most pedestrian accounts "ordinary people doing ordinary things" with the smug satisfaction that they have been phenomenologically true” to the data, content with the achievement of having not prematurely imposed any preconceptions of their own. They are the qualitative abstracted empiricist.

Like everything else, rigor has its price, and in the marketplace of science the point is always not to pay too much for it. Goffman is a careful and discreet merchant, and he has enough confidence in the high quality of his goods that he can afford to be candid and modest in the methodological claims he makes for them. But the pedantic "A radical ethnography must take ordinary persons doing ordinary things . . ." buys trouble. For one thing, the study of ordinary people doing ordinary things is, among anthropologists, not radical, but the most traditional kind of ethnography. But anthropologists, who do their field observations in faraway places with strange-sounding names, can rely on the unfamiliarity of ordinary Islanders doing ordinary things, in order to sustain the interest of Mainland readers. It is probably this constraint (the need to be interesting and fresh) which best accounts for the fact that the dominant tradition of urban ethnography among sociologists has been the study of exotics, either "deviants" such as criminals, prostitutes, and homosexuals, or else "inside jobs" on straight occupational milieus which are not directly visible to general observation from the outside.

But to go still further out, and make interesting the study of really ordinary people doing really ordinary things requires a more daring exoticization of the familiar. It requires nothing less than the risk of rendering strange and problematic the very assumptions and routines which make ordinary social life possible and worthwhile. It requires the courting of anomie; a glimpse of the Void; a Faustian flirtation in which the Renaissance Devil is replaced by postmodern diagnosticians of madness. Goffman of course, in the company of some others who call themselves ethnomethodologists or phenomenologists, or existential sociologists, is doing precisely this, and he deserves our gratitude; for, by taking these risks, he is helping to bring the image of sociological man (heretofore pretty dowdy) up-to-date, and to make him recognizably kin to the image that has long been prevalent in modern art.

Gratitude may not be enough; the costs he bears are very high. Goffman’s prose is often melancholic, almost French; in pursuit of le mot juste, his brilliant excursions often end with a shrug, a twisting of the corners of the mouth through closed lips, an upturned palm of powerlessness. If resignation is ever it is beautiful here:

What a remarkable way to end a book! What a remarkable thing to say for a man who has devoted a whole career, an oeuvre, to this "not very much." Is he being piously modest? Fashionably Zen-like? I think not. I think it is the old role distance working in him, telling us that however "important" a figure his works enable him to become, he will never lose the outsider's lurking knowledge that it is all some grisly game to which his gifts just happen to have been brought at the right time and the right place; the role distance which is obliged for deviantly successful out of loyalty to all beautiful losers who never made it.