Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction

What scares me the most is that it cannot longer be told if it is the stage that mimics humans or humans that mimic the stage. The two phases are so interwoven that they are mostly indiscernible. How much of our behavior is actually a representation of a representation? Not only subconscious reenactions but direct quotes, dialogue, vestment. So much of our speech takes place in the movies and in literature that art itself had to scape from our own common behavior, by creating that trend which we call realism, that is, the look for that of life which has not been tainted by art already.

(Heidegger would definitely have something to say about this, but ain’t nobody got time for that.)

And it scares me so much because the ones that don’t participate in the representation of the representation are excluded from the every-day, through simple but violent ostracism. This is the terrible alienating consequence of art: its world-creation is so powerful and eventually all-encompassing that it replaces even the deepest of customs. From the avant-garde, to the cliché, to the every-day, the process is subtle but inevitable. It hurts, as it does when we see in film that joke or that subtle mannerism that we though we only knew, but now it’s there, represented and thus, if worth it, destined to become cliché or eventually, even worse, to be forgotten by it being so common, trivial. Art, thus, aims for the common.

Yes, the book… I also read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Goffman this year. I loved it, and after the two essays in Encounters… I must say I’m still convinced. Two ideas captivate me. The first one is the atomistic belief that sociology could learn a lot from the study of the basic interactions of humans beings. If someone tomorrow would tell me that my mission for the next 10 years is to write a sociological study, I would start with that premise, a reduction not to individuals and their passions, a la Locke and others, but to the basic interactions between humans. I would do this mainly because I’m a scientist and I thus have a completely irrational belief in reduction. But also because studies of the everyday will definitely be more relevant for—guess what—the everyday of common people, and could even get to be useful. Actually, one direct consequence of reading Goffman is a notorious alteration of our social interactions. If our mind happens to remember anything that we read from him when in the middle of a conversation, or say while playing a game—the situation covered by the best essay of the book—then we’ll be immediately transported to a new dimension of thought, where we’ll almost be able to hear the coughing of the audience looking at us, at the stage, representing.

The second idea that convinces me in Goffman’s writings is precisely this, its mapping of human interactions to theater. It doesn’t follow the obvious route of personality and characters, but a more broad and spacial aspect of stage, audience, entrances and exits. It goes beyond one-to-one, more psychological relations to explore the dynamics of our roles and the conditions and consequences of absorption; how we constantly play with our  level of involvement, a sequence of layers that seem to lead to essentially theater itself: the game of endless masks. It’s a seductive read, a bait for the mind suggesting a new world of ideas with which to sprinkle even the most boring social situations; it is even inspiring for anyone who still, maybe, perhaps, believes in change from bottom-up; but, as I said in the beginning, it’s also quite scary.

Critique of Everyday Life

“A man’s consciousness, his condition, his possibilities, do not depend upon a relation with some timeless Reason, a permanent human nature, a ready-made essence or some indeterminate freedom. His consciousness depends upon his real life, his everyday life.”

Coincidently, as my life converges into an overall pleasant routine, and I start to live the life of all men, my appreciation and interest for the every-day raised. “Coincidently” meaning here that I desperately needed something to give meaning to this material situation in which I suddenly found myself in. Or if meaning was too much to ask, then at least I was looking for a way to criticize my life smartly and thus live as a satisfied intellectualoid: comforted and bitterly. Once again, I underestimated literature, as I found so much more than consolation reading Lefebvre; strange thing in me, I found ideas which I’m willing to follow and preach. Finally, a book that fills me with hope. A discourse I feel eager to commit myself to.

Everyone, in its quest to make sense out of this skydive-without-parachute experience called ‘life’, creates a personal mythology. We elaborate, some with more craft than others, a divine collage of our own history and social ideas that carefully hides the unbearable senselessness of existence. The social aspect of this is, in brevity, a collection of doctrines, usually condensed in words that Plato would love to show us we don’t really understand, but that anyway have a profound influence on our behavior: liberty, freedom, democracy (the American holy trinity), and a big and interesting etc. Lefebvre’s suggestion is revolutionary for a marxist intellectual: ignore and avoid such concepts, as they only lead to alienation, unless we are able to find them ourselves in our every-day life. Start, that is, from the beginning, ‘you’ and ‘what you did today’. Take a step back from the empty intelectual world of grandiose words and observe how your daily actions are both cause and effect of the social. In sum: understand from your particular.

I believe that interpreting the everyday on an ideological level is a powerful start to, first, construct any new social structure, as anything that is not based and sustained on the daily material world is bound to collapse under the immense power of customs and routine: man is a creature of habit. And second, to improve our lives, by living in concordance with society and carefully aware of our own actions; to descend from the world of ideas into the cave, set the fire, sit down, relax, and think deeply about the things that matter, the daily.

An excellent read for the 30 year olds in crisis. It is unfortunately too marxist at some spots, mainly because of historical reasons, but the book is otherwise filled with incisive insights that suggest a new way of thinking of ‘the social’ that seems, surprisingly, to have a future.

(Comments on Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1 (1947) by Henri Lefebvre)

A name for identity

How valuable are words. Reading this excellent article on Quantum wierdness (from Nautilus, of course) I stumbled upon the word ‘haecceity‘,

(/hɛkˈsiːɪti, hiːk-/; from the Latin haecceitas, which translates as “thisness”) […] denotes the discrete qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing

I feel that this concept now serves me as a firm, indivisible pilar on which I could edify more intricate ideas. The wonderful utility of succinctness; my mind being so limited I tend to value as treasure those things that can save me expensive mental steps. Now I just don’t want to look at it too much, as I know it will eventually disintegrate, like all mediaval stochastic philosophical terms should. Let us for a while asume that haecceity has some haecceity.