More on Civility: Goffman & Semiotics

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 1, 2014

More on Civility: Goffman & Semiotics

Here are some unorganized notes inspired by other’s reactions to my blog post about civility.


Goffman and The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life came up a few times, more as a general reference than in any substantive way, but it allows me to go off on this tanget: I haven’t read that book in depth, but to make a premature judgment, I think Goffman is over-rated and that it’s terribly unfortunate that he’s everyone’s point of reference when thinking about social interactions.

What especially irks me is the way that some people like to cite Goffman to support a critique of the belief in authentic identities, stressing how the self is always a performance, we are always managing others’ impressions of us, and that the parts of contemporary culture that stigmatize that behavior are trying to enforce the normative ideal of being true to oneself that’s rooted in a particular philosophical view of the self. A superficial reading suggests that Goffman’s theory is an intersubjective one: identity emerges in the interaction between performers and the audience. However, his distinction between front stage and back stage (effectively, between the character and the performer) implies that his notion of identity is one that we do not fully identify with.

We are all self-aware cynics in the dramaturgical metaphor, which implies a stable, knowing self that orchestrates the act. Although Goffman admits that perhaps some people do buy into their own act, the metaphor of theater means that the cynical view necessarily dominates. If we buy into our own act, then in what sense is it an act? It could be argued that Goffman’s Presentation is an account of the range of more or less manipulative strategies that people employ to gain social status, exert control over their social world, give a good impression and so on—a microsociological study of readers of Dale Carnegie, if you like—which has been distorted into a theory of identity as such.

Under Goffman’s influence, some have misread Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as a version of the dramaturgical self, ignoring her long-standing and explicit opposition to Goffman’s view. You can find this in works like Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler, and less obviously in this Big Think video where Butler distinguishes between gender as a performance and gender as performative to situate her work in speech act theory and distance herself from the theatre metaphor.

This conflation produces nonsense arguments. One says we’re all just posers, and when you get down to it, deep down we know we’re all posers, but we’re uncomfortable admitting it. With this tortured logic, criticizing status-seeking as inegalitarian suddenly becomes essentialist and heteronormative. And then of course there’s the widespread belief in things being “just a social construct” that we can freely choose to ignore.

The contrast between Goffman and Butler becomes even clearer by comparing the ideas of their forebears, George Herbert Mead and Jacques Lacan respectively, who both articulate their idea of the self as the difference between “I” and “me”. For Mead, the “me” is the conventional self who obeys social rules, while the “I” is impulsive, novel, creative and associated with artists who break with convention. Mead’s (and Goffman’s) distinction is between the persona that society requires me to adopt against my true inner self.

Lacan’s conception is quite different. The split between “I” and “me” is between the subject of the unconscious and the ego.

Semiotics of Civility

The original post was inspired by a Twitter exchange I had with Evan Selinger some time ago on the topic of etiquette and whether social rules can or should be sincere. Other dimensions of my argument that insincerity can be considered a virtue can be expressed in a more theoretical way.

Lacan’s theories are influenced by Saussurean semiotics and, as we all know, semiotics distinguishes between two parts of a sign: the signifier and the signified—the form of the sign and the concept it represents. In contrast to our commonsense belief that the signified is what really matters, Lacan privileges the signifier over the signified. In the context of this topic, I take social rules and etiquette as a sign system where we enact rituals (signifiers) that are taken to represent specific meanings (signifieds) and try to show that a signifier can still function despite being (partially) evacuated of genuine meaning.

For Lacan, a signifier refers to other signifiers, not only to the signified. Taking the specific case of asking “How are you?”, it is not only a meaningless question (because we don’t really expect a real answer), trying to “restore” its meaning would actually make it quite rude. Health matters are usually considered private, and if an acquaintance said “I’m not just being polite, tell me for real. What health problems do you have?” it would be intrusive and unwelcome.

“How are you?” is an extreme case: a signifier which only functions on condition that we understand that it doesn’t really refer to the signified to which it ostensibly refers. So how does it still function? As it becomes evacuated of meaning, the signifier begins to more directly reference the process of signification as such. From this we may conclude that exchanging ritualized greetings is a way we confirm each other’s inclusion in the symbolic space: that you have a place within the network of meanings sustained by the symbolic order, you count, you’re accorded a certain status, a set of rights, a certain dignity. Conversely, to refuse to enact an empty ritual toward someone that’s a matter of mere convention can deprive them of their belonging and dignity, even if you didn’t mean it.

All rituals are at some level “insincere” because they are mediated through the abstract network of signs which govern our social interactions. Evan’s concern is with the etiquette of using digital devices, and I’m not trying to say that we don’t need sincerity at all. My argument is really aimed at someone who might ask “Why do we need an etiquette of digital devices at all? Why not just spontaneously show care towards people in the way that you feel it in your heart?”

I worry that advocates of etiquette like Evan with whom I otherwise agree concede too quickly that our interactions ought to be heartfelt, and try to prove that etiquette is sincere. This just leads to people saying “OK sure, but isn’t contextual? And everyone is different, so shouldn’t we just be sensitive to individual preferences?” What this objection misses is that the “empty” ritual adds an additional element: symbolically registering an individual’s inclusion in the social field, marking them as deserving respect from everyone, and making it a public act rather than a private one. In principle, at least. In practice, our symbolic space is in decline, which is why polite rituals are increasingly experienced as empty and as the obstacle to true intimacy.