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The Public and the Private

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The publication in 1959 of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life had a bigger impact on the social sciences than to be expected from such a dense and sometimes awkward text. The timing helped – its focus on dramaturgy in social interaction in the late 1950s appealed equally to the prevailing
processes of consumerism and individualisation. It represented a shift away from conventional static notions of agency to a more knowing and calculated modern self, its concern with impression management speaking loudly to the burgeoning American middle class and those who studied it.

It still stands today as a classic in its field, and is taught in most social psychology courses. No wonder, as the core issues Goffman was so keen to promote (including the continuation of Veblen’s work on the leisure class), resonate with those fascinated by social behaviour. The constant pressure to perform so prevalent in post-war America still rings true today, anxieties over the public fragmentation of self a constant in late capitalist society.

The fact that Goffman’s work was a product of its time ensures that the book has its drawbacks as well as its benefits. Chief among these drawbacks is its tendency to operate as a function of binary opposites – structure and agency; artifice and authenticity; public and private. Possibly its greatest deficiency is to suggest performativity as a purely public phenomenon. If anything, the implicit message of the book is that ‘performance’ is not just a form of public drama; it is also a private process. Far from being authentic, no ‘face’ is safe from the imperative of performance. There is no escape, no refuge from the relational world.

Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still people persist in the view that an inner self exists (somewhere?), an interiority protected from the gaze, safe from others with intent to harass, injure and humiliate. It’s a comforting thought, but simplistic nonetheless. Supposedly private identities are riddled with relationality, the desire for acceptance, honour, glory, even heroism classic and unyielding presences in the most private of moments. What could be the substance of this interior world if it were not relational? What would constitute the private self otherwise? Privacy provides the self with the opportunity to reflect on its public self (and vice-versa), but publicness gives the private self its meaning – its sense of self, in fact. Once it is accepted that the relational is not an entity that stops short of the body, then one can also accept that the ‘private’ self is arguably a form of respite care – a place to call your own, but only for a short while.

A fundamental error that people make is to think that separating the private from the public is the same as separating fact from fiction. Intellectual history is riddled with binary oppositions well past their sell-by-date. One of the arguments goes that the development of modern liberal democracies, industrialisation and the establishment of a bourgeois civil society necessitated the public/private split sense of self – the modern subject. This may be, but given that society has moved on from salons, the spinning wheel and the steam engine, the time may have finally come to leave the past behind, relationally speaking, of course.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

1 reply on “The Public and the Private”

Thanks for the post. I liked the way you approached the subject. But I have some questions, I would like you to elaborate more on some specific topics. You said:

“One of the arguments goes that the development of modern liberal democracies, industrialisation and the establishment of a bourgeois civil society necessitated the public/private split sense of self – the modern subject”.

I don’t know much about this subject, so can you give an example of a work/article which explains the necessity of the public/private sense? And why do you think “the time may have finally come to leave the past behind”?

Thank you.

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