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)

Greece and the growth cancer

It feels like a 70’s gangster movie. The rich guy lends money to the greek (immigrant) not knowing that the greek is actually lying. At some point he finds out, gets angry and decides to ask some questions, “well Tsipiras, who’s going to pay me now, ah?!”

It feels like a 70’s gangster movie. The greek (immigrant) lies to the rich guy to get money from him. He has this big money opportunity that can’t fail. The rich guy eventually founds out that he’s been tricked, gets angry and decides to ask some questions, “well Tsipiras, who’s going to pay me now, ah?!” The greek fails to tell a convincing story, so the rich guy decides to go to the modest house of the lying bastard. “Nice TV you have there, Tspirias. It’ll look great in my living room. Nice electricity grid, Tsipiras. Nice salaries you have there… whoops! I just sold them to my guys. You know what? I feel generous today. I believe in you. Here’s more money. Fix your shit, Tspirias. And call me when you’re done.” Make the ‘rich guy’ a woman and you have a box office hit.

Cute Europe, old Europe, always so polite, always so pretty; I love how you look after 17 hours of meetings. How did you end up looking so wasted? First bad decision: doing business with ‘the rich’ based on falsified information. Repent of your sins, Greece; you were not the first, but you misjudged your leverage to pull it off. Second bad idea: waiting for the 300 billion euro elephant in the room to disappear. What a huge spectacle of miss management we have seen for the self-proclaimed most civilised appendix of the world. Ten years of plain denial of the problem, pushing it like I thought only we south americans could do. Why didn’t anybody do anything? Suspicious; my conspiracy obsessed self-hippie wants to believe that Deurope knew from the beginning and saw the opportunity to grab those shiny power lines whenever Greece exploded. Or, as it is now probable, they just want Greece out but “make it look like it was their fault.” It’s hard to believe that nobody saw it coming, but then again, humans constantly overestimate humans.

Welcome, Greece, to the club of countries owned by other countries! (Round of applause, please)

The most fantastic scene of the show was sleepy Merkel feeling proud that the european ideals won. Is that it, really? Is Europe only about closed-door antidemocratic big money talk? Is this the Europe that billions of modern slaves are supporting? Give us back our gold and silver, guys. We wanted something more than puritan-work-ethics fanaticism.

Discussions about Europe will now inevitably lead to my-god-is-better-than-yours kind of arguments. One is always tempted to think that the root of the problem is ethical: do we strive to touch God’s finger through hard work and frugality? Or become an angel of Marx by enjoying as much as we can the company of our comrades? Both false, outdated questions; the ones who cut the cake follow just one idol: growth. It is an obsession, and before any national spirit is invoked to provide us with an explanation, I would like to propose that the origin of evil is something we all have seen an experienced: the blindness of ambition. It has never been shown more clearly than this past week: over democracy, over socialism (whatever that means), over any form of trust or compassion, give them the three percent return and they’ll buy and sell anything. Expect the problem to become increasingly acute as only the obsessed, or the blessed, are able to cope with the ever increasing rhythm. This is a non-ending marathon: last man standing wins, if the world doesn’t burn before.

I don’t believe anymore on the growth discourse; the only thing growing is the cancer of ambition. The irony is that the work-freaks are so obsessed with producing more and more, that they don’t even enjoy their comfort. Millions live in hunger so that northerners can work more. It’s a vicious cycle, and part of the solution is to STOP WORKING SO MUCH! Relax, wash your brain from propaganda and realise what makes humans happy. Trade your iPhone for some time with your friends. Enjoy, and don’t forget to share, as we have more than enough.