La Mise En Scène De La Vie Quotidienne, Tome 1: La Présentation De Soi Erving Goffman

ISBN: 9782707300140

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La Mise En Scène De La Vie Quotidienne, Tome 1:  La Présentation De Soi  by  Erving Goffman

La Mise En Scène De La Vie Quotidienne, Tome 1: La Présentation De Soi by Erving Goffman
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I’m probably going to say something a little daft about this book – but I do think two things: Goffman really didn’t need to be quite so squeamish about his central metaphor of ‘all the world’s a stage’ and he should have started with something he said in his conclusion and worked out from there.

That is, that there are five ways you can come to understand an enterprise: technically (what’s it trying to achieve and how does it go about achieving it?), politically (who has power and how do they get, use and sustain that power?), structurally (what is the internal organisation of the enterprise and how does it use that structure to communicate with the outside world?) and culturally (although this is more concerned with the moral values of the organisation in its relations with the outside world).Now, if you were counting you’d have noticed only four ways for you to understand an organisation.

Of course, the fifth way is what Goffman calls dramaturgically, the performance and staging that goes into creating the representation that is sought after. This is the one this book is most concerned with. I think it would have been good for him to start with this as I had thought this book was going to be much more focused on the individual, and it really isnt - and that really is a good thing.I think his main problem with the idea of ‘performance’ is that people really don’t see what they do in life as being a performance.

The idea of a performance implies that a kind of lie is involved. You know, in the way we can think of actors as basically liars. But his point is that to successfully perform – to carry off these performances – you have to believe in them. Like in that Ani Difranco song As Is, “What bugs is that you believe what you’re saying, what bothers me is that while you’re telling me stories you actually believe that they are real”.This book starts with the presentation of self in the way that we would probably expect a book of this title to start – with the individual.

There are people, people are individuals, they present themselves in various ways to other people. If that presentation is sane or not seeking to cheat or defraud then all is good with the world. In fact, a large part of what we do in life would seem to be a kind of ‘making sure’ the performances we observe from others match some kind of reality.

This is the third book by Goffman I’ve read this year and one of the things I often think he is going to do is a kind of intelligent persons body language book – but it never quite becomes that. In this one I was half expecting him to say how you can tell if someone is ‘faking it’. The problem is that he sort of does do this – he tells us that everyone is ‘faking it’.We like to present to the world an image of ourselves that takes some effort to sustain. This presentation is based on habits, but also on notions of the kinds of people we actually are.

Like in that saying, “Fake it until you make it”, a lot of what we do is done because it is the thing someone like us would do.But this book becomes particularly interesting when it moves away from the individual as the focal point of presentation and onto teams, groups and organisations. What is most interesting about this is the relationship between a performance and the audience. This is a dialectical relationship in all senses – not much point ‘performing’ without an audience – although, obviously enough, we become so convinced of our own performance that we can become our own audience.

And the expectations of an audience are a key factor in the path and direction of a performance. This is a very similar idea to Foucault’s panopticon, we are watched so we will behave as if we are watched, so we will behave as if we are watched even when we are not watched. A Clockwork Orange anyone?There are nice instances in this – in a lot of ways this book is a group of examples strung together to paint a picture – where these relationships between performer, audience and the disinterested are troubled. The metaphor of the performance is extended in this book – he even talks about back stage and front stage and what happens when audience members see into the back stage with the actors relaxing for a moment out of character.

Better still, he talks about how almost invariably people backstage tend to downgrade those they are performing for. Like the child who bows his head in submission to the teacher only to poke his tongue out at her once her back is turned, we seem to love to point out how foolish those are who fall for our performances.There is also a lot of talk here about how people develop warning signals, or prompts, to alert other team members that it is time to go back into character.

Talking loudly to let your mum know you have arrived home with a friend so she has time to quickly pop things into the dishwasher and sit back down casually as if she had been a portrait all day long. Because back stage can become front stage at a moment’s notice.Teamwork in maintaining a performance is essential. This is true as much in families as in organisations. I guess everyone has worked with someone who ‘is a loose cannon’ and says things about the team that the team would rather remained silent.

And isn’t this the reason why, when special guests arrive, the youngest children of the house are shipped off to bed? – as they can’t really be trusted to remember that they are now front of stage, rather than back stage any longer.Throughout this book I was reminded of North By Northwest, a favourite Hitchcock film, particularly the first scene where James Mason meets Cary Grant http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdFVxv....

The idea that Grant is playing an advertising executive is utterly inspired. In this scene, he is confronted by someone who ‘knows’ he is a spy, and so everything he does is being read in a way that is different from what he intends. Everything is subtext made explicit by Mason.

This is, of course, something from Kafka. It is a nightmare, but nightmares can only frighten us because they present something we are afraid of. Having our performance shown as being based on a fraud, or being seen as a fraud, is obviously a nightmare many of us share.This is the thing, our performance requires our audience to be somewhat forgiving.

So, we gather props about ourselves to make the performance all the more so. I’ve come down with some sort of flu over the last week or so and have been to the doctor more times in the last week than in the last year. Anyway, he’s been sending me off for tests which come back with no result.

The thing is, in his surgery we do pretty much the same routine each time. Blood pressure, stethoscope to the chest, check the temperature in my ear. How much of this is for show and how much for real diagnostic purposes is hard to say. It is clear, though, that each is part of the performance and that I possibly wouldn’t feel right about having seen the doctor if these scenes weren’t acted out in their turn.This is perhaps also the problem when people ‘marry up’ out of their own social class.

They get an entrée into the backstage realm of a world that should have been forever hidden to them normally. A place that ought to have remained secret. Or to go back to my other obsession – the idea of people ‘gaining a middle class education’ and the difficulties this often presents them as has been documented in a million books, from Great Expectations to Mr Pip.So, even while we go out of our way to sustain the illusion of ourselves we are seeking to create – oh, maybe illusion is too strong a word, but certainly the impression we are seeking to maintain of our selves and of our competence – there is a sense of irony that is also forever just below the surface (well, if we are lucky).It is like St Peter walking on the water – he was fine until he started to doubt and the wind picked up giving him good reason to doubt.

We create enterprises, organisations, scenes and situations where there can be no doubt, not for us and not for our audiences. We keep out of sight that which might cause doubt in the eyes of our audiences. And we collaborate in these performances.

We learn the rules and the actions and rites that will justify us being taken for what we believe we are.This is why conmen are such a threat, or why insincerity is so debilitating. There actually is no effort involved in suspending disbelief – we are all too keen to believe. If there is an effort in suspending disbelief it cannot be sustained. No one’s performance is good enough, or flawless enough, to face intense scrutiny. Which, I think might just be an important lesson to be learnt by people in positions of authority.

It is easy to get a child to read badly - focus on correcting them and they will provide ample evidence that they cant read at all.Reading this I couldn’t help but think about how open our society has become, how much more under surveillance we have become. There aren’t nearly as many backstage places where we can set aside our act and relax. I’ve been thinking particularly of ‘open plan office spaces’. I’m not sure it is unequivocally a good thing that people have nowhere to hide and to let their guard down for a moment.

I keep thinking of that lovely scene in The Newton Letter by Banville where the man feels incredibly close to the woman he has just made love to as he watches as she unconsciously picks her nose beside him.This is a great book and will probably mean Im going to have to read more of Goffman.



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