Remembering Erving Goffman

Marshall Berman

(Marshall Berman, “Weird and Brilliant Light on the Way We Live Now.” The New York Times, 1972, Times, February 27.)

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One of the greatest writers alive today is a man whom our culture hardly knows, the sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; he is 50 years old; he was born in Toronto, educated at Chicago, taught at Berkeley in its Free Speech Movement days. Wherever he has been, he has been virtually anonymous. He has taken no part in the political or cultural affairs. He does not speak at conferences or appear on talk shows. He almost never allows himself to be photographed. He has written eight books in the last 12 years, but they have all been organized in densely academic formats, written in a remote, pedantic style, and apparently aimed at limited, specialized audiences. In his books, as in his life, he projects a persona of utter impersonality. In fact, ironically, this apparent impersonality only heightens all that is most personal, and most powerful, in his vision of life. For Goffman, I want to argue here, comes closer than any living being to being the Kafka of our time.

I mention Kafka specifically because he communicates o vividly the horror and anguish – as well as some of the absurd comedy – of everyday life. His narrators and heroes are clerks, salesmen, petty civil servants – like Kafka himself, who worked in the Prague Social Security office. They are sober, narrow, tepid, ordinary men, distinguished only in their mediocrity. They have no great aims or dreams in life: they want merely to "do their job" (like the land-surveyor K.), or else, even more simply, just get through the day. Kafka, writing in their style, out of their experience, shows how it is precisely these "simple" operations that are the most complex, problematical, absurd of all. The demonic underworlds; of romance and fable turn out to be far less frightful, less monstrous, than the ordinary "real" world in which we live, or try to live, our daily lives. This is the world on which Goffman's works throw a weird but brilliant light.

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From the start of his career, Goffman has been tireless in exploring “the little salutations, complements and apologies which punctuate social life”; “the little interactions that are forgotten about as soon as they occur,” and that “serous students of society never collect”; “the gestures which we sometimes call empty,” but which, he believes, “are perhaps the fullest of all.” These everyday moments and situations lead us to the core of what Goffman, in a typically jarring image, calls “the slop of social life.”

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In an essay on "Characteristics of Total Institutions" (in "Asylums"), Goffman gives new life to the old concept of totalitarianism and brings it close to home by narrowing and sharpening its focus from the total state or society to the total institution. This enables us to see that even in a relatively free society, such as ours, enormous numbers of people may in fact live their daily

lives "totally" sealed up. Goffman piles up endless examples of little ways in which the hospital, the prison, the army, the boarding school may function as Siberias without snow. For instance, the mental hospital breaks down the patient’s identity, not so much through straitjackets and electric shock treatments (which, though bad, are increasingly obsolete) as through routine encounters, often unnoticed or taken for granted by everyone, in which doctors or staff members "will discuss intimacies about a patient in his presence as if he were not there at all."

Again, in "Stigma," Goffman's feeling for the nuances of everyday living opens up a deeper vision of how our society oppresses minorities. He focuses, not on the occasional legal murder, nor even on the grinding poverty of the ghettoes, but on ordinary, friendly social relations – on the awkward moment, for instance, when you must reveal to four of your friends (or, alternately conceal from them) the fact that the fifth person who's coming to dinner is black. These little discomforts and embarrassments are what stigma, and oppression, and the banality of evil, are all about.

Finally, in has essays on "Role Distance" (in "Encounters") and "The Underlife" (in "Asylums"), Goffman explores ways and means of resistance to the structured indignities he understands so well. Most institutions, he says, and many social scientists, seem to want the individual to "march up and down like a wooden solder, head erect, eyes front, rolled up in a particular role."

However, when we "get close to the moment-to-moment conduct of individuals," we find that people are generally not willing to accept passively these definitions of themselves. In fact, in sphere after sphere of life, we can find avast and ever-expanding lore of strategies, practices, routines, for "driving a wedge between the individual and his role, between doing and being."

Probing beneath the surface of life behind the walls (of hospital or prison or base), Goffman leads us through enormously complex networks of secret life: stashes, free places, personal and group territories, networks of communications, supplies for economic and social exchange – sex, drugs, gambling – wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds underground. "When existence is cut to the bone, we can learn what people do to flesh out their lives." The power of the authorities against these little worlds, Goffman argues, is minimal: close down one, and inmates will display inexhaustible energy and enterprise in building up more. These endless forbidden acts, "twisted out of official existence through bargains, force, wit and cunning," take on a desperate, existential urgency: they reveal "some of the minimal requirements for building up a life."

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Goffman’s images and ideas at once express and illuminate this radical sensibility. In his own language, we might characterize the sixties as a time when, in nearly every institution in our culture, the under-life boiled over. And Goffman, along with Lang, Goodman, Marcuse, Norman 0. Brown, Ginsberg, Dylan, must be ranked – perhaps against his will – as one of the major prophets of this overflow.

Although Goffman's works articulate the sensibility of the 1960's, his voice grew suddenly, strangely still just around the time the real action began. Between 1963 and last year he published only one long essay, "Where the Action Is" (1967; in "Interaction Ritual"), and one short book, "Strategic Interaction" (1969). And although they were brilliant and fascinating in many of the old ways, much of the human immediacy and urgency seemed to be gone.

During these years, too, serious critical questions were raised concerning even his best work. Even his most ardent admirers came to be disturbed by a coldness, a remoteness, that seemed to permeate his writing. Although he was 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. As American society grew more and more turbulent and explosive through the 1960’s, it became harder and harder to connect the world in which we were living with the cool world where Goffman's works took place. Those of us whom he had inspired were troubled. Maybe, for reasons unfathomable to outsiders, theflame had simply gone out. Maybe it had never illuminated as much as we thought.

After all this I am happy to report that Goffman's new book, "Relations in Public," overcomes many of these objections. It contains some of the best work he has ever done, and reveals a decade of impressive intellectual and human growth.

In "Relations in Public," for the first time in his career, Goffman situates himself at a distinct point in history. He makes it clear that he has experienced the sixties, in all their glory and ambiguity. He participates in our great moments of ritual liberation. In discussing Grayson Kirk's exclamation, on entering his defiled office at Columbia after the bust in 1968, "My God, how could human beings do a thing like this?", Goffman comments: "The great sociological question is not how it could be that human beings could do a thing like this, but how it is that human beings do this sort of thing so rarely. How come persons in authority have been so overwhelmingly successful in conning those beneath into keeping the hell out of their offices?"

"In the last decade," he goes on, interesting things have happened to assumptions about the moral order within and around establishments. First of all, the informal boundaries that long kept people segregated by class, race and age have broken down. Second, respect for rank has pervasively withered away. A generation of Americans has grown up that is no longer intimidated by fear of public arrest, which they may find inconvenient, but not mortifying. As a result of all this, trouble abounds. "And citizens at large have learned the sociological lesson that their usefulness had been dependent all along on the self-restraint sustained by potential offenders who have never had many reasons for being respectful."

This is the most empathetic prose Goffman has ever written. Like many of us, he is glad to see "the solid buildings of the world" shake. He suggests that the upheavals of the recent years are long overdue, and identifies himself openly with the sources and makers of trouble. Nevertheless, he argues, the conflicts that broke through to the surface of social life in the sixties – the "military sustained antagonisms" that are raging today "between diffusely mingled major population segments, young and old, male and female, black and white, impoverished and well-off" – may be deeper in nature, and harder to resolve, than any of us have thought.

Goffman's vision has always seen everyday life as something ominous, fraught with hidden dangers. But now, in the world of RIP the world of the 1970’s, the menace is out in the open. About a quarter of Goffman’s new book with a long essay on "Normal Appearance". This essay is a virtuous piece, a tour de force of paranoid logic and imagination, written with exceptional vividness and immediacy. It communicates "an experience of our times that is deep, dumb and terrifying".

Think, Goffman invites us all, of all the horrible things a person might want to do to you: rob you, kill you, molest you sexually, simply beat you up for kicks, or little less violently, entrap you into punishable or abhorrent admissions or deeds; or shadow, bug or trail you; or whatever your lurid fancy, likes. Pretend, too, that your assailant must make face-to-face contact with you in order to execute his evil designs. How would he (or they) be most likely to do it? The crucial thing, Goffman argues, is that you, the victim, must suspect nothing until the last possible moment. In other words, they must hide behind what you will define as "normal appearances".

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Once you have started on this route, there is no turning back. Any object on the ground, Goffman says, might be booby-trapped. Any blind spot might hide a killer lurking in wait. “Any current incidental contact that has so far not led to anything alarming might at any moment do so." Any cab that drives up to where you are standing might be kidnapping you. "Any stranger, any newish friend, could be a government agent." And – get this – you may think that there's no conceivable reason for anybody to be shadowing you – and you may be right. And yet, can you be equally certain about every person in your life? If not, forget it, for you might easily be a target by virtue of contact with anyone you have any contact with. "And what is thereby suspected is all the types of anyones, all the someones, in [a person's] social net, in brief, everyone around him." It might be better to stay at home in bed alone - except that, as Goffman argues lengthily, you are even more vulnerable inside than out.

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Ironically, this vision of the world, for all the horrors it holds out, is a very comfortable vision to have. It offers unlimited self-pity and self-righteousness, almost for free. For those of us in search of these comforts, Kafka and Goffman both have much to give. And who does not need comforters in times like these? However, Kafka and Goffman can give us more. Besides the one-dimensional truth of the drama of victimization, they also offer us a less comforting, more tragic vision, opening up deeper dimensions of life.

We can find this deeper drama in Kafka's other great novel "The Castle." There, instead of "them" intruding into Joseph K.'s world, it is he who intrudes into "their" world, and presses claims which, although perfectly reasonable to him, strike the villagers and officials as groundless or absurd. K. cannot leave them (he has burned his bridges behind him), and they cannot recognize him. So he presses on, destroying his health, creating havoc among them. He is not evil, neither are they; each party more or less understands the other's point of view, and may even sympathize; but there is nothing to be done. This is precisely the situation that Hegel defined as archetypically tragic: a struggle to the death in which both sides are right.

This is the situation that Goffman invokes in the last chapter of "Relations in the Public," an essay called "The Insanity of Place." This essay is far and away the best think Goffman has ever written, and I believe it is the best thing yet written by anyone in any genre about the experience of living through the sixties. "The Insanity of Place" is about what happens to a family when one of its members "goes through heavy changes," as the sixties taught us to say. The focus of change may be radical political commitment, or experience with drugs, or women's liberation. Any member of a family, from 16 to 60, may go through it, as countless Americans have done, and many more will do. Goffman argues that whether their projects are beautiful or horrible, constructive or destructive, sane or mad, they are bound to hit the family with a catastrophic, explosive force.

When a person begins to go through changes – let us call him G., a Goffmanian soul-mate of Kafka's K. – he will typically act his inner development out by, as Goffman puts it, "refusing to keep his place." For his family, this means that he will cease to have anything to do with his normal household tasks or responsibilities. He will ignore family schedules, will come and go at all hours of the day and night. He may flood the house with outsiders, perhaps making his home the headquarters for his "collective."

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The tragic irony of this impasse is that the family's most dishonest actions stem from its most generous impulses, from its human virtues and strengths. For "it is the distinctive character of the family that is members not only feel responsible for any member in need, but also feel personal identification with his situation." Harm done to him might well hurt them more than harm to themselves. Thus, out of their very desire to protect and sustain, they will do all they can to protect him from disaster - even if this means, paradoxically, protecting him from himself. Meanwhile, forced to "betray a loved one" in order to save him, the family members are in the end "pressed to the wall of sanity" themselves.

The terrible result, as Goffman sees it, is "two collusive factions in a state of total war. " The home, where wounds were meant to be licked, becomes precisely the place where they are inflicted." Like Malamud's tenants, "offender and offended remain locked together screaming, their fury and discomfort socially impacted, a case of organized disorganization." And this is the way more and more of us have come to live now.

If this is so, it forces us to face some disturbing questions about the breakthroughs of the sixties. For so many Americans, there were years of unprecedented personal expression and political confrontation. In every sphere, we "refused to keep our place," we broke boundaries, tore down walls, acted out what we felt, encouraged others to do the same. And where are we now? Goffman's final vision seems unrelievedly bleak. Life in the streets appears as a Hobbesian nightmare, life in the family an existential battleground. It seems terrifying both to go out and to stay in. And social life turns out to be far more fragile, more vulnerable than we thought.

Thus, when a so-called maniac and paranoid like G. "gives up everything" that family and society have to offer, his behavior "reminds us what our everything is, and then reminds us that this everything is not much. Asomewhat similar lesson is taught by other categories of troublemakers who do not keep their place." On this cryptic note the book ends.

Is Goffman's last judgment on the sixties, then, mea culpa? Is he telling us ' that when you tear down the walls of "the solid buildings of the world," you create ruins? This is part of his meaning – and part of the truth – but only a part. It is true that our recent personal and political experiments in living have helped bring some dreadful impulses up from the repressed depths, have engendered vicious acts and tragic dilemmas. It is now possible for anyone to rationalize anything he wants to do to anybody as heroic resistance to oppression – and harder than ever to judge both who is sincere and who is right. There is no honest radical I know who doesn't, at least in some moments, in some dark night of his soul, feel some responsibility and guilt.

And yet, if we think back to what life was really like in those peaceful and orderly times gone by – if we remember the quiet degradations that so many people endured for so long, while they obligingly "kept their place" – I think our nostalgia and regret will fade, and we will be willing to accept, in all its ambiguity, what we have done.

We will be – worried – as Goffman is worried – but not contrite. Tearing down walls does create ruins – for a while. But it also creates the space the chance to put up a better building. And it can give people a sense of their strength and beauty, of their power to build. In the last decade, Goffman’s work has been a source of power and inspiration, and we will need him even more for the work ahead.