Posts Tagged ‘Bill Clinton’

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). Continue Reading

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. Continue Reading