The Imaginary Camera, Part I

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:35 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

bobdole250Introduction to Erving Goffman:

Here, I am interested to dig deeper into some of the themes of earlier posts on Sympathies, one by Matthew on being and becoming, the other by Andrew Inch on “practices of the self.”  This is a long post, so I have split it into two parts.  There may be a part three to follow.

We are concerned here once again with the way in which people, by inhabiting a role in society, create a social, public self–and with the relation of that created second self to what Erving Goffman calls our “backstage” self. This post draws primarily on Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Jennifer Senior’s excellent article from 2007 “The Politics of Personality Destruction” (originally from New York magazine, collected in Best American Political Writing 2008).

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life would be on a very short list of my favorite books ever written, but it not too widely known, even among many casual readers of sociology. But while Marx, Weber, and Durkheim may enjoy a higher public profile, Goffman, in my opinion, holds his own as one of the most creative and influential sociologists to have written. Gary Alan Fine and Philip Manning argue that Goffman is indeed a major figure–that his ideas have been taken up by legions of sociologists, and have seeped into many other disciplines, but that very few have followed directly in his footsteps. Fine and Manning suggest that because he offered no “overarching theory of society,” thus not attracting followers or a ‘school’ as such, Goffman’s contributions have been somewhat overlooked, and it is true that Goffman provides great insight and inspiration, but not a systematic program or model of society. His exceptionality is in his individuality–his work is unreproducable and wholly idiosyncratic, but is it not true that in the long run individual obsessions played out at length are, in all their eccentricities and drawbacks, usually the most enlightening and lasting? Despite the unsystematic nature of his work, between The Presentation of Self and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior Goffman did produce a fairly thorough analysis of what transpires in everyday social interactions.

I have no intention here of providing a general overview of Goffman’s theory; suffice it to say that Goffman, like Shakespeare, sees almost all social activity as taking place on stage, and delineates between events that happen on “stage” (those actions carried out in front of the public) and those that transpire “backstage” (those actions carried out in private, many of which if they were seen by the public would disrupt, falsify, or even destroy the potency of staged actions). In Interaction Ritual, Goffman is centrally concerned with face-saving behavior and accommodation, and sees everyday activity as made up of countless “interchanges”–an interchange referring to a series of moves between social actors with face consequences. Most interchanges, and most social activity, have the effect of saving face both for the actor and those whom the actor interacts with: in my earlier post when I made the point that people are generally taken at face value to be what they claim to be I was heavily indebted to Goffman, who in Interaction Ritual affirms that “the line taken by each participant is usually allowed to prevail, and each participant is allowed to carry off the role he appears to have chosen for himself,” and that “mutual acceptance seems to be a basic structural feature of interaction.” This willingness to accept the presentation of the other as legitimate “has an important conservative effect upon encounters” (11). Although Goffman allows for, indeed analyzes at length, what he calls “face challenges,” I think his underlying point is largely true, as evidenced by the fact that when a person’s face is challenged in public, this challenge is generally recognized as interesting, dangerous, and dramatic by the audience (face challenges, Goffman notes, invariably take place in front of an audience). The Presentation of Self deals less with the logic of face-to-face encounters, focussing instead on social behavior as performance–whether solo or in teams. Here, he also deals at length, and brilliantly, with the question of which is the authentic self–the social projection, or actor behind the mask.

Sincerity and Cynicism in Politicians:

It is this last point that Senior takes up in her article about the stage and backstage character of major American politicians. Politicians, especially on the campaign trail, provide an obviously fertile ground for digging into the question of the authentic versus the cynical, the person versus the persona, and I have read, and thought, a fair amount about the issue. Having read Senior carefully, I can say with confidence that hers is the single best piece of analysis I have read on the topic, and it comes as no surprise that she leans heavily on Goffman. Arguing that modern American political campaigns in the age of You Tube are all about authenticity, she tries to understand which kind of personality type is best suited to survive a media and public culture hyper-aware of the fact that politics is a show, and obsessed with trying to peek behind the curtain. Writing about the 2008 presidential campaign she says that “authenticity has become the dominant meme of this campaign season {…} both parties {…} seemed eager to find a presidential candidate who didn’t suffer from a phoniness problem” (125). Senior acknowledges that phoniness can be a turn-off for voters, writing that in the most recent election cycle “Democrats experienced this desire more urgently than Republicans, because the men their party ran in the past two elections looked as if they’d been specifically selected for their extra coatings of polyurethane” (125). Right, and the problem with Gore’s public image was always that it was so obviously a construct, and not a very comfortable one at that. Senior: “with Al Gore, voters sensed that there was another man rattling around in there somewhere–a funnier man” (125) and she is right, but the incongruity between the “real” Gore “rattling around” under the skin of presidential candidate Gore was at best comic, and at worst unsettling and vaguely stomach-churning. Senior writes that a number of recent presidential candidates suffered from a version of the same problem, Bob Dole being the classic example: “Bob Dole the person was so alienated from Bob Dole the brand that he referred to it–referred to himself-in the third person” (130).

Senior relies on Goffman to help explain the uncomfortableness of a politician trying to “be” a role and failing at it–Goffman calls those who are consciously playing a role “cynical” while those who believe in their own performance “sincere” (Senior, 127). Senior tells us that Goffman sees “a while spectrum of behaviors {…} between these two extremes” (127), and it is true that Goffman allows for shades of belief, but a look at the original passage reveals something else: “I have suggested two extremes: an individual may be taken in by his own act or be cynical about it. These extremes are something a little more than just ends on a continuum. Each provides the individual with a position which has its own particular securities and defenses, so there will be a tendency for those who have traveled close to one of these poles to complete the voyage” (Presentation 19). So, while surely it is possible for a performer to “believe in the sincerity of their performance and its fraudulence all at once” as Senior says (127), Goffman’s wording suggests that those in motion toward sincerity overtime tend to be completely taken in by their act, while those on the road to cynicism tend to become complete charlatans–the salesman who privately dismisses the product as garbage; the priest who’s public professions of faith belie a yawning chasm of unbelief. Spinning this reading of Goffman slightly, we are in a better position to understand why politicians such as Dole, Gore, and some extent John McCain, who Senior writes about at length in her piece, seemed at times almost to be intentionally undercutting their own image (think Dole’s use of the third person, Gore’s “earth tones,” and McCain’s much remarked upon meta commentary on process in public, coupled with what Senior calls his way of “rattling through his talking points like an auctioneer”). These men when called upon to reproduce, day after grueling day, the brand, the canned speech, the talking points, are drawn into a cynicism so total that it becomes a form of self-loathing and seeks to destroy itself.

But, the case of McCain, Senior argues, is rather more complex again, and her analysis here leads us into the main thicket of our piece. McCain is so obviously a bad actor that he can’t be bothered to sustain the act for very long, instead veering from mouthing stale talking points one moment to being totally “himself” the next. This juxtoposition could be oddly endearing “in almost every campaign cycle, the press has a brief romance with the candidates whose backstage personalities are also out front” (135), but in the end, says Senior, politicians who bring their backstage personality on stage too often are cast aside in favor of the politician who seems more comfortable in the role. Put another way, and this is the great insight of Senior’s piece, Clinton and Reagan won not because they were better actors, but because they weren’t acting: “the biggest distinction between candidates like (Bob) Kerrey and McCain versus candidates like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. It’s true that both have the same front-stage and backstage personas. But for people like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the front-stage persona is the person backstage” (135). Please click here for Part II of this post.

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