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Goffman Blogging

Is there any point to these fancy Ivy degrees we pundits carry around besides the connections thereby gained? Well, it lets you name-drop good stuff. Last weekend saw David Brooks do Thomas Kuhn, albeit somewhat ineptly. And now here's Michael Kinsley:

The sociologist Erving Goffman used to write essays and books with titles such as "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," arguing that we are all actors in a play of our own devising. All sincerity is calculation, as Goffman saw it, and every statement or gesture is layered with strategy. A famous review of one of his books compared Goffman to Kafka, for undermining our confidence that the sea we're swimming in is like the sea we think we are swimming in.
One of the best things that ever happened to me, education-wise, in school was that a professor for a class on 19th century Russian novels assigned "The Presentation of Self." It's not especially relevant to the subject of 19th century Russian novels except insofar as it's relevant to absolutely everything so it was kind of a lucky coincidence that I got exposed to it. Fortunately, out here on the internets you can not only mention things, but also link. Here's the book, this is a reasonable summary, and we've got some key excerpts here.

March 6, 2005 | Permalink


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This is an interesting parallel of pundit name-dropping. Except it appears to me that Kinsley know what Goffman was saying, whereas Brooks...

Posted by: MCMC | Mar 6, 2005 1:45:49 PM

I will get back to the Goffman, got distracted by a sidelink:

Progrock Chickens Crossing Roads

No mention of Can,Kraan,Gryphon,or Samla Mammas Manna, but nobody's perfect.
Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman about an amateur stage production, couldn't contain an allusion in the title, could it? A serious analysis could possibly transform the critical assessment of Guest's oeuvre.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 6, 2005 2:05:26 PM

Point of information: Kuhn and Goffman get assigned outside of the Ivy League. It's called Sociology, and you don't have to have a legacy parent or a perfect score on the SAT to study it.

Posted by: State U | Mar 6, 2005 2:11:05 PM

Yes, yes, obviously. Just making some jokes. I got assigned Kuhn in a philosophy class, though, not a sociology one. The question, really, is why journalists are expected to go to college at all. It didn't used to be like that.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Mar 6, 2005 2:27:52 PM

Well, you're conflating two kinds of journalists. All of the journalists you're citing to are opinion journalists/pundits, for whom there are perfectly good explanations for why they're expected to have a college education. As to why investigative journalists are expected to, that's a more interesting question. An explanation might say something about college education is important in that it, to some degree, sets the boundaries for what is interesting for an investigative journalist to investigate, though this assumes more self-direction and less editor-direction than is probably realistic.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 6, 2005 2:53:06 PM

What the Ivy League is also good for is equipping you to make scary Ivy League noises, the better to intimidate those from less prestigious schools into deferring to your arguments with, even when they are more intelligent, or just as intelligent, as you are.

Just sayin'...

A substantively strong argument doesn't need to wear a crown.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 3:16:18 PM

Goffman's wife committed suicide.



Althusser, by contrast, strangled his.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 6, 2005 3:23:17 PM

" is why journalists are expected to go to college at all. It didn't used to be like that."


1) GI Bill etc increased the general level of education, and in particular the education level of talented writers.

2) Targets of advertisers in newspapers and magazines moved an economic class or two.

3) Journalism used to be an apprenticeship. After a hundred years of mass-media, schools have finally learned how to teach the skills.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 6, 2005 3:37:54 PM

Ummm, any chance of a summary of Goffman for those of us who skipped Sociology class and don't have an hour to slug through that insanely dense summary linked?

Posted by: Andrew Edwards | Mar 6, 2005 4:12:44 PM

Well, it's like this Andrew- your presentation of self is not incomplete, but it is unconvincing to us because you present two conflicting performances at once- a vague intellectual yearning coupled with an attention span under a half hour. Because most of us are baffled and cannot readily supply a role-specific feedback, you are also baffled- and likely to remain so.

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 6, 2005 6:09:11 PM

The question, really, is why journalists are expected to go to college at all.

That's funny. There used to be no requirement that lawyers go to law school.

Maybe it's sort of like what people talkabout w/regards to the trend of a society to do more and more to protect wealth as time passes- when people from a certain class get enough clout and representation within a profession, they find thay feel comfortable being around their own, and shore up certain obstacles to entering the profession, thereby creating a new status quo.

Maybe it's not a policy intentionally aimed towards those ends, or at least not an explicit policy, but it just ends up working out that way because of the incentives that exist.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 6:42:04 PM

Actually, catowner, I just have a very low attention span when confronted with such dazzling turns of prose as:

In constructing a front, information about the actor is given off through a variety of communicative sources, all of which must be controlled to effectively convince the audience of the appropriateness of behavior and consonance with the role assumed. Believability, as a result, is constructed in terms of verbal signification, which is used by the actor to establish intent, and non-verbal signification, which is used by the audience to verify the honesty of statements made by the individual.

Come on. "communicative sources"? "consonance with the role assumed"? Who the fuck speaks like that? As far as I can tell, this translates to:

People give off social cues through a number of channels, such as body language, spoken language, and general behaviour. In order to be believable, actors need to make sure that they get all those cues right.

I could have done a better translation, if I'd taken another few minutes. But I shouldn't have to take any minutes. The author should have had the care to write jargon-free prose that is accessible to non-experts, or should expect that no one other than experts will read it.

I'm not an expert, at least not in this. I refuse to waste valuable time digging through someone else's jargon. And so should you.

Posted by: Andrew Edwards | Mar 6, 2005 7:04:43 PM

All of Goffman's books are worthwhile, but the one that continues to inform much of my critical thought is "Frame Analyis" in which the theatrical aspect of self presentation is highlighted. So many of the Bush administration's antics make sense only when viewed as attempts to create "frames" that gullible true believers will accept as defining "reality."

Posted by: SOB | Mar 6, 2005 8:44:25 PM

The link between Goffman and the 19th Century Russian novel is not as non-existent as you might think. Many Russian historians think--influenced by Iurii Lotman's ideas on the subject--that at least a partial source of the social conflicts that exploded later in the 20th century was a ruling class badly out of touch with the Russian ethos. The nobility, seeking to gain the favor of the westernizers on the Russian throne such as Peter, Catherine and most of the nineteenth century tsars, came to adopt behaviors in public life that may have resembled those of "actors in a play"; an inauthentic display of Western European habits. Strangely, perhaps after a while the nobility didn't know they were acting anymore.

Posted by: Stephen Brain | Mar 7, 2005 2:20:30 AM

I am not sure why it would be especially relevant to Russian novels. Aren't all aristocrats (or similar elites) by definition "actors" and "out of touch with the people" ?

That is their social function everywhere and it would work for Trollopian snobs or Proustian salons.

Posted by: Laynia Petrovna | Mar 7, 2005 7:21:09 AM

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