In an article which appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, (“Waiting for Goffman” – by Michael Dirda -Sept. 17, 2010), I got excited, reminiscent; wondering about Goffman… as well as about myself.
Wondering how we study the human these days, I currently find myself wandering more into socio-political arenas (given these “interesting times”), than “merely” trying to describe and understand the world. But I’ve spent so many years trying to “see and study” the human in our most…basic terms: e.g., the human body – socially, developmentally, interacting, ageing, being and seeing others, and or via ourselves. (“Body Journals,” “Foundations Project,” “Language and Human Nature.” And I think I’ve “exhausted” those subjects.
Dirda “gets off” on Goffman’s magnificent prose, but also on the depth and breadth of his observations: as Goffman tried to explore the world as “an ethnographer of small entities.” As I now refer to myself as an “anthropologist of the Ordinary” – I relate very well to the title and ideas behind the first book: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” – a most expansive framing of the worlds in which we all wander, but… exploring who we are “behind” our public persona.
Goffman was “some kind” of Sociologist-Anthropologist who wrote beautifully, and was one of the best-ever observers of various persons interacting in varying circumstances.
And he was my “big brother”. Big brother, because we were/are heavily influenced by the same teacher-person: Ray Birdwhistell (who doesn’t show up in Dirda – but he always was the primary base for Erving’s and my thinking about… most everything. Birdwhistell who Goffman met at the U. of Toronto; me, somewhat later at SUNY Buffalo – he was our primary teacher, model, incite/insight/excite: the “best observer” I ever met. Similarly for Goffman.
Birdwhistell sent us both to U. of Chicago where we fell under the thinking of various practitioners of “Symbolic Interaction” deriving from G. H. Mead, whose ideas seem now to be “creeping” back into a field which has practically been overtaken by Sociobiology and/or by Neuropsychology and other psychologies which don’t pay much attention to the interactional-social facts of our very being.
Dirda’s celebratory piece is excited by Goffman, and wonders why he has mostly “disappeared” from public view after a good, long run in Sociology, and currently in some parts of Comparative Literature.
Well: the history of ideas and academic power overtook Birdwhistell, and then myself. I’ve been trying to revive and extend Goffman and Birdwhistell’s ideas> (Plus, Birdwhistell was the best observer I’ve ever met – in many circumstances… all of human… life.)
While Goffman “enjoyed” quite great success, his teachers and little brother got “wiped out” in what I call the Chomskyan “revolution” in ideas – where the study of the human got displaced (still is) by the notion that the human being is centrally a mind/thinker, not a body in such complex interactions.
Goffman who was finally a “university professor” at Penn, was able to “rescue” Birdwhistell and got him a position there after he was “let-go” from his study of human-interaction at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute as support for these studies just “went away” and our careers much diluted.