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.