Elizabeth Day (2013) discusses storytelling: How reading aloud is back in fashion

I enjoyed reading a Jan. 6, 2013 article in The Guardian.

The article (see link in previous sentence) by Elizabeth Day about her storytelling in an art gallery in central London begins with the following heading and text:

“Storytelling: how reading aloud is back in fashion

Elizabeth Day Reading at the Simon Garfield Gallery in Mayfair. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer | The Guardian

“At a weekly book club, Elizabeth Day has found that even in an age of social networking, the direct, oral tradition can still reach out to a new audience.”

[End of excerpt]

Hochschild (2003) discusses Goffman

The Guardian article helps me to position Erving Goffman’s work in my mind.

I think of him as a storyteller who focuses on what happens in the present moment when people interact. His stories are based on what he has observed in the course of his field work.

This aspect of Goffman’s work  – his capacity as a storyteller – accounts for part of his appeal outside of his home field of sociology. One can say that narrative plays a strong role in social theory; in that regard, what distinguishes Goffman is his noteworthy and superlative capacity as a narrator.

In this context, I’ve read with interest the discussion by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2003) (pp. 90-92) of what Hochschild views as the strengths and limitations of Goffman’s representation of social interaction.

Goffman focuses on the present moment

Part of Goffman’s appeal is that he appeared to be unconcerned about many aspects of the frame of reference in which sociology generally operates.

He chose to focus on a seemingly narrow aspect of everyday life, namely what occurs in the present moment. He demonstrated an acute perceptiveness and sensitivity as an observer of the here and now.

Hochschild notes (p. 265, note 14), with regard to Goffman’s work, that:

“To link the momentary act of emotional work with the concept of personality, we must alter our perspective on time. An emotive episode and the attempt to shape it take, after all, a brief strip of time. The situations Goffman studies are often momentary. He focuses on the act, and the act ends, so to speak, when the theater closes and starts again when it reopens.”

Goffman wasn’t much interested in personality, from what I can gather, as a field of inquiry. He was interested, instead, in the momentary situations in which social encounters occurred, and in the instrumental means by which those situations were consensually defined and sustained by participants. That was enough for him to focus upon, for a lifetime of academic research.

Storytelling, as in the reading aloud by Elizabeth Day at the Simon Garfield Gallery in central London, is an experience that celebrates the present moment in which storyteller (or story reader) and audience share a story from start to finish.

The past including what we call history has relevance to the extent that it’s experienced in the present moment.

Aside from the present moment, there is nothing that can be experienced.

Scheff (2006) discusses Goffman

Thomas J. Scheff in Goffman Unbound! The new paradigm for social science (2006) speaks of a concept central to Goffman’s work that can be expressed, in Scheff’s words (p. 40), in the assertion that “we spend much of our lives living in the minds of others.”

Scheff (2006, p. 33) establishes a context for this assertion with his introductory paragraph to a chapter entitled Looking-glass self: Goffman as symbolic interactionist:

“Goffman’s most basic work can be seen as closely related to ‘the looking-glass self’ (LGS). This idea is of great interest because it connects two vast realms, the social nature of the self, on the one hand, and the intense emotional life that results, on the other. Charles Cooley, who invented the phrase, proposed first that the self is social, that we ‘live in the minds of others without knowing it.’ He went on to say that living in the minds of others, imaginatively, gives rise to real and intensively powerful emotions, pride and shame (Cooley 1922).

Scheff describes how Goffman and Cooley share a similar analysis of the self-monitoring that occurs when people encounter each other in the course of social interactions.

Scheff notes (p. 35) that Cooley’s idea of the looking-glass self “can be seen to form the basic structure of all of Goffman’s earlier writings, especially Presentation of Self, some of the chapters of Interaction Ritual, and several other books that were published before Frame Analysis (1974). The latter book is entirely cognitive, and so marks a departure from Goffman’s concern with emotions.”

Cooley/Goffman analysis speaks of intersubjectivity

Scheff speaks (p. 40) of a joint Cooley/Goffman perspective on topics such as intersubjectivity:

“The second component of the Cooley conjecture, shared awareness, also involves violation of the canon of individualism. Intersubjectivity, living in the minds of others, implies that individuals, as well as being separate units, may be joined together as components of larger units, such as pairs, threesomes, and still larger groups. Although the idea of shared consciousness is a staple of Eastern cultures, it us unacceptable in Western thought.”

To say that the idea of shared consciousness is unacceptable in Western through appears to me a vague generalization, an “essentializing” of Western thought. The generalization is also anomalous given that Scheff refers to the presaging of the concept (see below) in Western social theory and in works of Western fiction. However, the discussion of intersubjectivity is apt nonetheless.

Henry James and Virginia Woolf

The above-noted conjecture of intersubjectivity, according to Scheff (p. 40), “follows in the footsteps of [George] Mead (1934) and [Herbert] Blumer (1986). What might be called ‘mutual mindreading’ was central to their perspectives.”

Elsewhere Scheff notes (p. 32) that “The idea of selves arising out of the social sharing of consciousness has been presaged by literary masters, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf:

‘… [James and Woolf’s] {the brackets are in the original quotation} basic assumption [was] that the individual’s identity is gained only through participation in a complex field of other individuals’ consciousnesses …’ (Oates 1974, 33).

Goffman was known, even in his undergraduate years, as a “voracious reader.” His wide reading of fiction along with social theory likely influenced his work.

Intersubjectivity is conceptually akin to interdependence

The reference to intersubjectivity brings to mind a passage from What we see (2010) (p. 129):

  • We are relearning some valuable ecological truths: human beings are part of nature and not separate from it; since everything is connected to everything else, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions – to ourselves, to other people, to other generations, and to other species. The idea, then, that we can move in, use up, throw away, and move on is not only morally indefensible but ultimately economically destructive. Our community and ecological and economic well-being are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually interdependent.

The quote is from David Crombie in a chapter entitled Jane Jacobs: The Toronto experience, in What we see (2010) (see first link in paragraph that introduces the quotation).


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