Remembering Erving Goffman

Dell Hymes

(Dell Hymes, “On Erving Goffman.” Theory and Society. 1984, Vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 621-631.)

And editing with Erving was sometimes uneasy. His own feelings, and changes of heart, would enter discussion sometimes as instances of scholarly principle, sometimes as matters of the well known way of the world. Sometimes he seemed Spinoza, sometimes Ann Landers.

The common rot, I think, was an intractable modesty, a modesty kept in trim by comparison o himself with the standard of what he thought truly excellent in sociology. He wished to think of himself as a servant of that standard, and sought to ground evaluation outside himself in that standard. Of course he did not escape a lively sense of how much further short of that standard a good many others fell. When inadequacy came clothed in pretension, his imaginative irony flared, his gift for verbal denunciation came into play. Let me give one example:

This paper is short on solid data and long on Germany. It doesn’t deal with communication problems, it constitutes one. (Indeed, in a frightening way, the paper is data). [The author] should be taken back to the bottom of the ocean and this time brought up slowly. That way bubbles form the various American books he has annexed would have a chance to settle. Pricking each of them separately would be a long job, underpaid, and should only be performed by his mother. Perhaps we should write her directly and complain. Regards, . . . [20 January 1976].

I hope it is not inappropriate to speak of Erving’s anger. At least this is partly in terms of anger that I made sense of him myself. I imagined his rudeness, his game-playing, his invention of inviolable rules of which one had not heard hitherto heard, as having this source: a mind gifted fro the dissection and the creation of culture in a way analogous to the gifts for physics, mathematics and music that we more readily recognize and marvel at, born short and Jewish in a small Canadian town (When I once said something that implied failure to recognize the prevalence of bilingualism in the world, Erving reproached me with words to the effect: ‘You forget that I grew up (with Yiddish) in a town where to speak another language was to be suspect of being a homosexual.” A mind able not only to perceive behavioral norms of which others were unaware, and to christen practices that had no name, but also to imagine alternatives th at had as yet no culture to inhabit. He made of this gift a life in which joy and anger were inseparable. Joy in the increasing mastery of the gift and the finding of a world in which it was valued; anger first perhaps at a way of the being in the world that could never leave the world unobserved, and later, perhaps, as a modulated defense of the gift itself, of its free innocence of eye. A modulated defense too, perhaps, of seriousness. The rest of us might assimilate experience of Erving’s gift to such manageable genres as wit and anecdote. For him it was life itself.

. . . .

I hope it is not inappropriate to remember in this regard that Erving’s commitment to sociology was not always reciprocated. When he was to come to Penn as Benjamin Franklin Professor, the sociology department o the time was not all that pleased. The departments that welcomed him were elsewhere. That is why his initial title was that of Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Psychology, and his office in the University Museum.

. . . .

I should like to close with a short poem. It is not memorial in conception, but mock-heroic, something that came to mind over the winter holiday before Erving died. He seemed to like it. It has the virtue at least of treating the same theme as these remarks.

On First Looking into a Manuscript by Goffman*

Many speak of speaking, who were dumb
When rationalist Chomsky’s unrelenting thumb
Pressed hard on any antecedent –ist,
Behavioral-, structural-; they squirmed but raged unmissed;
Social interaction went down the taps,
Conflated with fatigue and memory lapse.

Now, all allow, even the most dogmatic,
One should be at least a bit “pragmatic”;
But happy the few, in early sixties Berkeley,
Who saw the neglected situation starkly,
Whole, saw speaking tongue-tied at its core
Until exchanged, entwined, in something more,

Itself one strategic modality,
Framed, inseparable form the solidarity
Of interacting humankind. You sloughed
Methodologies, set out to tell what oft
Is done, but ne’er quite well expressed. And until
Well expressed, well christened, ill seen. Gentle

GOFFMAN, so much of such seeing we owe, we know,
To thy quick quirky quizzing of our status quo.

*Subtitled “Some problems in the ethnography of discourse.”
January 1982; revised 9 July 1983 .

From what he said of the original, Erving was amused [“If only it were so.”]