Remembering Erving Goffman

Paul Creelan

(Paul Creelan, “Vicissitudes of the Sacred,” Theory and Society, 1984, vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 663-695.)

Just as Job’s conventional attachment to the conventional theology is challenged not only by his own sufferings but also by his realization of the massive self-interest that underlies the Friends’ support of the ritual and moral codes, so in Asylums, Stigma and Strategic Interaction, Goffman displays an absolute moral outrage against manipulative and exploitative power-holders who utilize the code of conventional morality as a basis of their own claims to exalted status and power over others. Just as Job is eventually released form his bitterness and his agony by the appearance of God Himself at the conclusion of the drama, so Goffman’s Frame Analysis recedes form the cynical outrage of his middle period to comprehend the paradigmatic “frames” of social interaction, earlier characterized as sacred rituals, a holding manifold moral possibilities, some quite exalted and noble, others quite base and mean. Just as Job, at the end of his ordeal will never gain be so naïve sa to confuse the sacred symbol with its infinite reference, so Goffman’s “frame” metaphor emphasizes that ritual and moral structures are only humanly created forms that, however much they strain to capture the mystery of human existence, never exhaust its possibilities. Goffman’s work thus appears as prolonged, ever-deepening meditation upon the meaning and significance of the sacred representations that Durkheim’s naïve acceptance of the verisimilitude of such rituals, as well as the cynically debunking approach of many understanding of scared representations. Viewed from this standpoint of the moral development that transpires in the agonized heart of the suffering Job, Goffman’s work becomes manifest as an ongoing dramatic narrative that chronicles a moral struggle that Goffman himself, using the Job text as a signpost, must have undergone in his own life and career.