In an article which appeared in Laphamâ€™s Quarterly,Â (â€œWaiting for Goffmanâ€ â€“ by Michael Dirda -Sept. 17, 2010), I got excited, reminiscent; wondering about Goffmanâ€¦ 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 â€œinteresting timesâ€), than â€œmerelyâ€ trying to describe and understand the world. But Iâ€™ve spent so many years trying to â€œsee and studyâ€ the human in our mostâ€¦basic terms: e.g., the human body â€“ socially, developmentally, interacting, ageing, being and seeing others, and or via ourselves. (â€œBody Journals,â€ â€œFoundations Project,â€ â€œLanguage and Human Nature.â€ And I think Iâ€™ve â€œexhaustedâ€ those subjects.
Dirda â€œgets offâ€ on Goffmanâ€™s magnificent prose, but also on the depth and breadth of his observations: as Goffman tried to explore the world as â€œan ethnographer of small entities.â€ As I now refer to myself as an â€œanthropologist of the Ordinaryâ€ â€“ I relate very well to the title and ideas behind the first book: â€œThe Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifeâ€ â€“ a most expansive framing of the worlds in which we all wander, butâ€¦ exploring who we are â€œbehindâ€ our public persona.
Goffman was â€œsome kindâ€ 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 â€œbig brother”. Big brother, because we were/are heavily influenced by the same teacher-person: Ray Birdwhistell (who doesnâ€™t show up in Dirda â€“ but he always was the primary base for Ervingâ€™s and my thinking aboutâ€¦ most everything. Birdwhistell who Goffman met at the U. of Toronto; me, somewhat later at SUNY Buffalo â€“ he was our primary teacher, model, incite/insight/excite: the â€œbest observerâ€ I ever met. Similarly for Goffman.
Birdwhistell sent us both to U. of Chicago where we fell under the thinking of various practitioners of â€œSymbolic Interactionâ€ deriving from G. H. Mead, whose ideas seem now to be â€œcreepingâ€ back into a field which has practically been overtaken by Sociobiology and/or by Neuropsychology and other psychologies which donâ€™t pay much attention to the interactional-social facts of our very being.
Dirdaâ€™s celebratory piece is excited by Goffman, and wonders why he has mostly â€œdisappearedâ€ 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. Iâ€™ve been trying to revive and extend Goffman and Birdwhistellâ€™s ideas> (Plus, Birdwhistell was the best observer Iâ€™ve ever met â€“ in many circumstancesâ€¦ all of humanâ€¦ life.)
While Goffman â€œenjoyedâ€ quite great success, his teachers and little brother got â€œwiped outâ€ in what I call the Chomskyan â€œrevolutionâ€ in ideas â€“ 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 â€œuniversity professorâ€ at Penn, was able to â€œrescueâ€ Birdwhistell and got him a position there after he was â€œlet-goâ€ from his study of human-interaction at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute as support for these studies just â€œwent awayâ€ and our careers much diluted.