The Imaginary Camera, Part II

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Editor’s Note: Part I of “The Imaginary Camera” left off with Jennifer Senior considering why it is that politicians like Reagan and Clinton were so effective as personalities; she suggests that this is because they basically have no “backstage” character–that the space between the private self and the public face is in fact de minimus.

On Bill Clinton:

Senior’s point here is that the best politicians are basically the same on stage and off stage. In Reagan’s case, as a professional actor, Ronald Reagan the man had, over time, simply become “Ronald Reagan” the politician and public figure. In the case of Clinton, one suspects, the same end result, being truly comfortable in the role, was attained by sightly different means–Clinton as an adult seems simply to have never had a self apart from his political image. Senior quotes Clinton advisor Paul Begala (well-read enough to be familiar with Goffman) to this effect: “Erving Goffman used to make the distinction between front-stage and backstage personas. Bill Clinton has the least distance between his front stage and his backstage personas out of anyone I know” (129). Begala’s comment here is especially interesting if seen through the lens of John Harris’ account of the first meeting between candidate Clinton and the two hot operatives of 1991, Begala and James Carville. According the Harris, Clinton first interviewed Carville and Begala at a bar, and he was wooing these two rather than the other way around. “Clinton had a reputation as the consummate politician, so the operatives sat down waiting for a discussion laden with inside dope {…} Instead, Clinton launched into an impassioned discourse–nothing short of a sermon, really–about how troubled he was about his country.” Begala “swooned” but “in his crush {…} kept enough detachment to contemplate that the session had been a put-on, and what seemed like a wonderfully guileless performance actually had been a more sophisticated brand of artifice. Is this guy for real? he asked Carville” (xi).

Through our reading of Senior and Goffman we realize that the answer to Begala’s questions is of course “yes”–he was for real, in this sense, the performance was both entirely guileless (that is sincere) and entirely artifice (that is cynical and calculated), the two modes blending in Clinton to such an extent that there was virtually no difference between the two. Clinton, after all, had by this point been running for a very long time; he lost a congressional race in Arkansas in 1974 at the age of 28, won a race for Arkansas Attorney General in 1976 and one for governor in 1978 at the tender age of 32. When it came time to run for president, Clinton the candidate had essentially erased any vestige of Bill Clinton the man, with a backstage self distinct from the man in the floodlights. Senior traveled with Clinton to Africa in 2005, and came away with this observation: “Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s always performing. The fantasy about Clinton is that he’s exactly like you or me. But he’s nothing like you or me {in} Africa {…} even in the most solitary circumstances, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He enjoyed performing in these quiet circumstances, often repeating the same jokes and anecdotes {…} It was like an imaginary camera was always running” (135).

The more one reads about Clinton the more one realizes that he is analogous, in an odd way, to Gandhi–not in the obvious sense of course, but in the more that you read about Gandhi, the more he “messes with you” to quote one of my graduate school teacher, a postmodern Indian feminist who by training and ideological leanings should have found him outmoded and distasteful, but who nonetheless found Gandhi rather a slippery, protean character. So too Clinton, and until I read Senior the more information I had about the man, the further I felt I was from having a true handle him. But after reading Senior, I feel I have gained a key insight into both Gandhi and Clinton–the secret of both men was that there was no secret–ultimately there was nothing to hide. Most readers of Gandhi will know of his abstinence from sex for the last 50 years of his life; Gandhi became a brahmachari around the turn of the 20th century. When, in 1936, Gandhi had an unfortunate nocturnal emission, breaching, in his own eyes, his vow of celibacy, he promptly announced the fact in two of his newspapers, Young India and Harijan (Shirer, 238). I have always thought that Gandhi here took the concept of recognizing no distinction between stage and backstage, public and private to almost absurd ends, and still do. But while Clinton, in contrast, tried to hide and cover up his dealings with Monica Lewinsky, when Ken Starr dragged his most private deeds in front of the public the public never cared. Although these two incidents of apparent sexual indiscretion seem to be complete opposites, they actually both point to a central similarity; for Gandhi there was no backstage because he willingly made everything public–for Clinton, the private and hidden had never in fact been so, and the whole of his character had all been on display from the first time we saw him–Clinton the man and Clinton the president had always already been Clinton the pussy-hound; it was baked in the cake, part of the image, so that when Starr and company forced the truth out there was no there there that hadn’t been there the whole time.

Secondarily, on Hillary Clinton:

The case of Hillary, while in some ways similar to that of Bill, is at heart completely different, and this explains what Senior, who’s piece came out in 2007, did not yet know–why she lost. Senior writes: “Like many people, I used to assume that it was public life, and more specifically the unique constraints of her marriage, that made her build a carapace around herself. And I’m sure it’s partly true. But people who have known Hillary a long time say her emotional life has always been opaque {…} Though there probably is another Hillary buried somewhere in her, she’s spent so long in her current role that she’s more of less internalized it” (136). Pop psychology? Maybe, but anyone who watched dispassionately the painfully drawn out end of her campaign for president in the Spring of 2008 would, I think agree with David Brooks as to why she wouldn’t, couldn’t give up until the bitterest of the bitter ends. In that spring, Brooks wrote:

why does she go on like this? {…} Is she simply selfish, and willing to put her party through agony for the sake of her slender chance? {…} The better answer is that Clinton’s long rear-guard action is the logical extension of her relentlessly political life. For nearly 20 years, she has been encased in the apparatus of political celebrity. Look at her schedule as first lady and ever since. Think of the thousands of staged events, the tens of thousands of times she has pretended to be delighted to see someone she doesn’t know, the hundreds of thousands of times she has recited empty cliches and exhortatory banalities, the millions of photos she has posed for in which she is supposed to appear emphatic or tough, the billions of politically opportune half-truths that have bounced around her head. No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal. It’s like a machine for the production of politics {…} The only question is whether Clinton herself can step outside the apparatus long enough to turn it off and withdraw voluntarily” (“The Long Defeat”).

I don’t always agree with Brooks–he is often too smug for my taste–but this analysis feels right in that it suggests that politics for someone like Hillary is a habit, a physical and mental addiction, and that those who hang on way too long may be doing so not out of a love of power per se, but just from the inability to break a habit. Not so Bill, for whom politics seems not so much a learned and internalized habit but his most natural mode of being, his mother’s milk. If the imaginary camera is always running for him, it is because he genuinely wants it to be; he loves it.

Back Around to Goffman: On Wearing a Necktie and Getting Along

One of the great joys of reading The Presentation of the Self lies in reading Goffman’s footnotes and checking his sources. Goffman is widely read, and his sources display his omnivorous, catholic range beautifully: The Higher Service of Great Britain is followed closely by Sidelight on Chinese Life and Mr. Ump. “How Executives Get Jobs,” The Philosophy of William James, The Canons of Good Breeding: or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion from 1839, and “Screening Patients for Nasal Plastic Operations” are all cited within ten pages of each other. Senior calls attention to one of the most striking citations from the first chapter of Presentation, which we are focusing on here, “Performances” where Goffman quotes Robert Ezra Park’s Race and Culture: “It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask {…} In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves–the role we are striving to live up to–this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality” (19-20).

So where does this leave us? Reading Senior and Goffman side-by-side, I think we are pushed toward the following conclusion: while there may be certain cynical performers who in the words of Goffman “obtain unprofessional pleasures from his masquerade {…} a kind of gleeful spiritual aggression from the fact that he can toy at will with something his audience must take seriously” (Presentation, 18), most of us are probably incapable of sustaining a position of pure cynicism without seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to undermine the pose, to get caught out. Instead, most of us probably fall into either category a) those who know there is a degree of manipulation and fakery in our pose, our public face, but who nonetheless basically believe {“field ethnographers seem quite generally convinced that even shamans who know that they add fraud nevertheless also believe in their powers, and especially those of other shamans: they consult them when they themselves or their children are ill” (Presenatation, 21)} or b) those of us who, like Hillary, have inhabited a role for so long that belief versus non-belief is no longer even an issue because whatever elements of either true sincerity or ruthless cynicism that once existed have been worn away by routine. Then there are the outliers, the Bill Clintons, who are nothing like the rest of us–those for whom the performance comes so naturally that they never have to fake anything–they fully believe their biggest poses, and, as Begala suspected on his first meeting with Clinton, are entirely calculating even when expressing their most deeply held feelings.

In his post on “practices of the self,” Andrew Inch waxed most ambivalent about the act of putting on a necktie–he seems to feel that putting on the tie is at once a cynical act of conformism based on the desire to get ahead as well as a perfectly sincere act of getting along in the world by suspending the endlessly nattering egotism that forces us to ask forever after our own authenticity and just getting on with it. He writes, “we are led to doubt whether our sense of living an interior life, of having a relationship to the selves we project to the world, has any value. Instead we are drawn to conclude that it is the act alone that counts. By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities. Is it possible then to stand at a remove from such outward appearances? In ideological terms is an ironic or cynical performance really any different from a passionate rendition?” He concludes his piece in typical generation X naval gazing, the kind of agonizing about sartorial details that Barack Obama must have engaged in before he allowed himself the (cynical) luxury of wearing an American flag pin: “I am trying to understand our capacity to change the structures that govern workplaces and other places too, and I am wondering whether this is more or less possible in a necktie.” I understand exactly where Mr. Inch is coming from, and have been there myself, but I suspect that this kind of question would never have occurred to Bill Clinton. If the tie is required or preferred in the role, so be it–this is a small concession indeed for the man who’s mantra was “sooner or later, you have to cut a deal.”

  1. Good to hear back from Mr. Inch on this–baby I wrote it with you firmly in mind. Of course there was more to your post than “generation x type naval gazing”–and someday I will mature out of the need to take the occasional cheap shot…apologies. Reading your comment I circle back actually to a section from your original post:

    “And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting. In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?” Based on my reading of your comment, this last question remains an open one.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that when one reaches a certain age (and this is for you BJ) there just isn’t much mileage left in kicking against the pricks WITHIN the institutions which with you are daily affiliated. In other words–professional and personal conscientiousness begins to demand that you fall into line with at least the semiotic schematics that surround you–one ignores these schematics only at the risk of setting a ceiling on one’s ability to achieve anything within that space–one’s ability to either reproduce, transform, or, as is more common, reproduce certain elements of your “dominant culture” while having a transformative effect, if only a slight one, on others. Put another way, and I mean this sincerely, not as a cheap shot at all, a “lingering attachment to the personal experience of interior angst in the face of the general outward performance of a conformist identity” while it may feel like it creates space for genuine imaginative and creative resistance, probably devolves more often than not into some species of adolescent sulkiness, unfocused and ungenerative crankiness, and underperformance. Nothing attractive in that lineup.

    “More profoundly it is premised on an unwillingness to give up on a space for both human agency, and for the value of that interior voice in any conception of that agency.” Indeed, and I too take issue with Foucault, also with Althusser and his nauseating conceit that “history is a process without a subject.” I do not intend to accept this, and would agree that nothing of value has even been accomplished by someone who has approached life on the basis of such negation. The key question then becomes “is a certain amount of conforming, especially in matters such as dress, manners, and everyday social codes and norms, to be equated with mindless conformism and ‘selling out’, or can it not be as an active, conscious choice, a ‘buying in’?” But there is a crucial ethical difference, it seems to me, between ‘buying in’ to an organization (a school, a company) and buying in to a culture as a whole. Specifically, it has always been my feeling that an employment contract ought be regarded as a sacred document on both ends. If you have, uncoerced, signed on the dotted line, you are duty and honor bound to fulfill the letter and spirit of the contract and to give your best. If you find that your best is something you can no longer find it in yourself to give, you should pack up. Simple as that. Now is this attitude somewhat complicated in a world of mass layoffs and of ever-withering loyalty from company to worker? Sure. But there are few things less attractive than layabouts on the job who bring nothing to the table, whinge on all day, pocket the paycheck, and generally suck at the teat of the beast that they do nothing to serve. My opinion.

    Back to the issue of authenticity and “role distance,” it seems to me that the insistence on a dichotomy (and I not sure if Mr. Inch is indeed trying to insist on this or not) between a meaningful ‘inner life’ and a zombielike social ‘role’ sustained, in this reading, by a mercenary motive, a power motive, or some form of false consciousness, is ultimately pretty unproductive, indeed deeply reductive.

    Let’s break it down a little further: for TC, there may in fact exist significant distance between his professional role and face (‘stage’ in Goffman’s language) and his after work (‘backstage’) self–but this does not mean, and I say this with some confidence-that the TC with the tie is either a) a cynical pose, b) a self-sacrificial and uncomfortable caving in to a social more that “simply serves to reproduce existing social relations.” In fact, there are effectively two TCs, both perfectly real, both perfectly sincere, and, I may add, increasingly overlapping (TC is usually in the office with tie firmly in place before I arrive, for instance.)

    In the case of, say, BJ, here is someone who’s belief in his essential own unconcern, while once possibly sustaining, has faded, and who is now, suddenly, willing to put himself on the line, to be seen to care, come what may. And to be sure, there is a risk in putting oneself forward, in definitively breaking ranks with the whingers, the professional cynics, the lads. But his desire to engage , and this is key, comes from within; it is a reflection of inner, deeply felt needs far more so than it is simple acquiesence to an externally imposed, alien reality.

    OK. I’m not entirely sure how this will read, or if what is written above is really quite what I mean. But I do know this, today, before I seek to “re-affirm some of our capacity to shape ourselves and to perform identities that resist social norms,” it is incumbent upon me to think through a) specifically which aspects of social norms I intend to resist and which aspects I can learn live with (pick one’s battles); b) to what degree knee-jerk resistance makes me just another jerk. I think back to Obama’s decision to put on the flag pin–while I would have loved to be privy to the thought process behind the move, this is my guess: at some point he and his team realized that, far from tilting at windmills, they actually had the inside track on the presidency, a role in which, if he was able to seize and perform, he would have the ability to effect change from the pole position. At this point, “the they became the we” in the immortal words of DW’s general, Michael Kelley; that is the flag pin was donned not as an act of selling out but of buying in. That’s my sincere hope, in any case.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Mr Thomas. Goffman does indeed provide interesting means for thinking about the self and identity. I think, however, that in part you have misinterpreted the roots of my ambivalence, and in so doing attribute something rather different to my post than I intended (not that I entirely object since I have no rights of ownership over my words, and suspect that this ambivalence does indeed emanate in part from some of the anxieties you diagnose). Still, for the sake of clarification and some further jousting…

    Rather than being a “generation x type naval gazing” (a somewhat uncharitable jibe perhaps?) I am interested in what I think to be a more profound question – whether our experience of an inner life can be considered “real” or meaningful, and particularly whether it has political implications or potency.

    This is in part a problem that Goffman’s sociology leaves unconsidered. The type of “role theory” he deals with leaves unquestioned the assumption that there is an essentialist core of individual humanity “behind” the role. I think this in part explains why Goffman has become somewhat overlooked, though he still stands amongst the central figures in the development of sociology and anthropology in the second half of the 20th century. Recent approaches to thinking about identity have instead been inspired by a rather different form of theorising that is both anti-essentialist and anti-humanist. Foucault in particular refused to recognise any part of our existence as subjects other than that which was “written onto us” by socially produced discourses. Others, such as Slavoj Zizek, drawing on the Lacanian psychoanalytic traditions that Foucault rejected, assert that though we can experience a certain interiority we can never know the “Real”, the absence at the core of our being. They would further maintain that identity is only made real through performance, as in the knotting of the necktie.

    As an example Tim Chanecka’s response to my previous post is a good one. His own performance of the necktie ritual is self-conscious, and he continues to assert a distance between the “him” that wears the tie, and the “real” self that rips it off on the way out the door each evening. My interest, as I said, is particularly focused on the spaces for resistance within such thinking or presentation of the self. For Zizek that sense of inner-resistance to outward conformity is as much, or even more so, a symptom of ideology as if Tim defined himself entirely by the colour of his tie. If, as such approaches imply, the performance is all that matters, then Tim’s sense of what Goffman might call “role distance” is in fact entirely ideological and simply serves to reproduce existing social relations.

    You may well be right to consider the implications of this kind of thinking as so much naval gazing, and dressing for work is probably not a very good example of searching for meaningful resistance. I am certainly not willing to suggest that not wearing a tie be seen as a radical gesture (though lets remember that at certain times and places not wearing something, say a bra, might have been). Certainly it does not stand up to an assessment of how leading public figures present themselves to the world and become enmeshed with their own public persona. Still, it does focus attention on the way that we perform the everyday activities of social reproduction. Other examples might prove more substantial, one such, slightly dated but still often cited, being from Terry Eagleton who asks whether a white South African could really have been anti-apartheid even as she sat down on a bench marked “whites only”?
    My own sense of ambivalence is, I suspect, in part a reflection of not really knowing what I think about the wearing, or not wearing of ties. It is also rooted in a lingering attachment to the personal experience of interior angst in the face of the general outward performance of a conformist identity. More profoundly, however, it is premised on an unwillingness to give up on a space for both human agency, and for the value of that interior voice in any conception of that agency. As such it is an ambivalence that flows directly from some of these forms of theorising. Foucault, in particular, is often accused of leaving us no space for real resistance to power, or for shaping our own sense of self. Instead our practices are always related to some configuration of dominant knowledge. I detect an element of truth in this, but am also not just ambivalent but also suspicious, disturbed and resistant to it. At the moment I am reading around this, trying to get the measure of myself in relation to the disciplines of thought that these theories imply (for such reading is surely a practice of the self par excellence). Recently I have found in the philosopher Ian Hacking an interesting attempt to meld the Foucauldian with the insights of Goffman. Elsewhere feminists, most influentially perhaps Judith Butler, point in interesting directions that re-affirm some of our capacity to shape ourselves and to perform identities that resist social norms. I’ll let you know if I ever make up my mind.

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