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Erving Goffman

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 14, 2001
Latest update: May 14, 2001
E-Mailjeannecurran@habermas.org

Goffman's Dramaturgy and Postmodernism

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata.
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

At the very end of his file on Goffman's dramaturgical work, TR Young says:

"It is in this socio-political context that both Goffman and postmodern society emerge...I want to conclude the lecture by making two points:
  1. Most of the time in most societies, innocent and honest presentations are still the norm...it is a small layer in a few societies in which such cynical use of dramaturgy is appropriate...but as Stanford Lyman said in his keynote address to SSSA last week, it is another rough beast, it's time come round at last, marching toward Bethlehem to be born...so take care.

  2. It is my firm and considered view that the human project can benefit greatly from all three knowledge processes:

    1. "Pre-modern thought with its emphasis upon belief, faith, trust, hope and prophecies remain the deep rich core of all social interactions; all distinctly social relationships; all the really rewarding forms of social life in which we are engaged...including education.

    2. "Modern thought and rational thinking has given us great treasures in agriculture, transportation, communication, health and the knowledge process itself...it is precious to the human condition.

    3. "Postmodernity is the beginning of the end of innocence and also the beginning of responsibility for the good and evil we do...no longer can we blame God and/or Nature for the many forms of social life we erect and in which we must perforce live out our lives...most of the division of labor is a social division: race, gender, class and ethnicity...the technical division of labor is all too much praised...there are better ways to produce and better ways to consume all goods and services including dramaturgy...postmodernity insists we are responsible for the theories and the technologies we create. So be it."

    I think this is an excellent way to follow the transition from pre-modern, through modern, to postmodern: from belief and trust, through to science and the enlightenment, and ultimately to confrontation with our responsibility "for the theories and technologies" we have created, recognizing that all have contributed to our present knowledge.. Sometimes these very simple ways of putting a concept help more than all our fancy technical jargon.

    I would also like you to note especially TR Young's emphasis on the predominance of innocence. Dramaturgy smacks of play acting and role "playing" and insincerity. But it need not take such a sinister approach. Turned into a commodity, the play may deceive, but it need not do so. But woe unto us who are so naive as to miss that possibility in late capitalism. TR Young offers a good analysis in Section B: The Social Uses of Dramaturgy, about halfway down the file. He compares Shakespeare, Bertholt Brecht, and Woody Allen in their approach to dramaturgy.