Reading Goffman (2): Props and Teams

One of the primary drivers of our social interactions are the things that signify or confer some form of identity. In some cases these signifiers may denote a particular role we seek to perform, or see others performing. This defines our expectations and parameters with them. These props are useful tools to govern interaction.

Following the dramaturgical analogy of Goffman, the props that constitute social interaction are much like the props in a stage play, these are the costumes of the actor, or perhaps the scenery of the set. Carrying a defective table set with a missing leg in the returns queue of Ikea is the primary motivation of an angry customer to the customer service person at the till, and forms the basis of their interaction.

This is not to say that props are necessary or criterial of interactions, however they are such important drivers of interaction that interactions without props may involve creating new forms of props with significance internal to the agents who confer meaning to such a prop. An example of this was an energy driink that I bought for the sole purpose of making an in-joke with a certain friend, following a conversation about a certain brand of energy drink that we had a month previously.

Props are signifiers of roles, but are not necessarily conferring of roles. A related aspect of Goffman’s social ontology is the role of teams in interactions. People working with a shared goal, or under the auspices of a shared identity, be it of an organisation or grouping by creed (or something else) work in collusion with each other, when interacting with outsiders. There is a distinct world that the colluding team try to portray towards those outside of this group, and a certain set of behaviours or rituals of activity are performed in before the outsider.

Teams can be placed under a strict form of behaviour. Disagreement between members of a group can be downplayed or even unacknowledged towards outsiders. Some organisations have their own official and unofficial codes of conduct to give guidance towards the proper image and impression that is given by the organisation. Team behaviour can be highly regimented and controlled, either overtly by one of the members, or tacitly and among several agents at the same time.

When reading Goffman the worry does emerge about how strictly controlled social interactions can be. I see this regimentation in two opposing senses. In one respect it can be affirming towards uncertainty and a loss of face, in that rule-following behaviour, whether tacit or not, provides the pool of options an agent has in a given social situation. On the other hand, one could see the regimentation of such team behaviour and the application of props to be an almost tyrannical form of control over the individual. This is a tyranny not of the political persuasion, but the kind we all agree and consent to, which in a way is even worse. People often speak of the political tyranny of policing behaviour and thought, when the state is percieved in some way to intervene. However, what if collective humanity may be responsible for uniformity of interactions viz the regimentation of behaviour through props and teams? This is a tyranny of another sort, one which paints Goffman as a social cynic, and anyone who would agree with his viewpoint.

So with that I would ask: what goes against this vision of the world?

The next post will be on the ‘front and back regions’.


Reading Adorno: Culture, Administration and ‘institutionalised culture’

As I further read Adorno, I find many of the cultural references he establishes interesting, they are interesting in that they show a man’s familiarity with what he essentially finds repulsive and corrosive. I myself make a purposeful effort to listen to music that I wouldn’t normally like, or I might say it in a different way: if I listened only to the things that I liked, I would be incredibly dull and unchallenged aesthetically speaking, even if my music interests are typically subversive ideologically. Adorno was well aware that subversive cultural objects can be sanitsed and appropriated by the culture industry to become an anodyne machination to enforce the cultural status quo.

I am reading an essay ‘Culture and Administration’, where he addresses a certain kind of putative dichotomy between these two notions. Administration may be typified as the Weberian concept of rationality. According to Adorno’s reading of Weber, institutions which become increasingly organised and efficient seek as a norm, to become even more efficient and organised, I wonder what both sociologists would have thought of Machine Learning! Culture by contrast, is fuzzy, culture is ideological but also without a system of order and can manifest organically and in its various infestations, manifest in its own unique way. I take Adorno to appropriate this dichotomy as a late 19thC or Romantic notion (I must admit that I’ve not quite finished the essay yet). However, for the context of Adorno’s broader cultural industry notion, it seems interesting to invoke this contrast.

Perhaps there is a normative role for culture, a still existent rational possibility for the emergence of Culture in the way he has construed. Emergent forms of art representing ideologies may simply come from various historical and cultural contexts and remain fresh and relevant. When I read about Adorno’s distinction, I immediately thought about the state of the arts in the UK. Many artists and projects are maintained institutionally. A lot of Classical Music in the UK through the BBC is essentially tax payer funded (or whoever pays a TV license). This is an instance where ‘culture’ directly has an administrative character. There are manifold other instances of this, the British Government has a ‘ministry for culture’, which does sound quite Orwellian (as in 1984) to me.

If I were to take an Adornian perspective to the current affairs of ‘institutionalised culture’ we might see the institutionalisation of culture, that is to say, by paying and supporting artists, funding bodies take an areopagite role of determining the agenda of future successess, at least as far as financially supported artists may go. Of course, as we have learned from the bohemians, financial support goes a long way to recognition among the public, and as we have also learned from history, it is not always the ones who are popular who are remembered.

When I think of Adorno’s contrast between culture and administration there is the air of the old ‘creativity versus rationality’ dichotomy, and I am also reminded of Kant’s notion of the genius, which I am sure Adorno had in the back of his mind. The Genius is a creative potential to redefine the rules of a given art, genuine innovation comes not from following the rules of an artistic norm, but working from one’s inner creativity to establish an internal logic and order. Perhaps simply said, the truely eminent don’t follow rules and principles of their art but create their own. I think by this contrast of culture and administration, Adorno allows for the possibility of the Genius, and I’m pretty sure that he thought Alban Berg/Arnold Schoenberg were exemplars [and he’s not wrong!].

As I close this piece I realise that there is an amphiboly here. I used three senses of the term culture. Culture qua culture industry, which involves the oppressive machination of late capitalism to use media such as radio and television to have an impact upon the social consciousness. Culture versus administration, which allows for a positive notion of art, perhaps through the Kantian genius, or the emergence of underground movements. Lastly, I considered an undefined and perhaps putative use of the word in my address of ‘culture’ institutionalised. The state of funded cultural projects today shows both the administrative and autonomous aspects of various cultural practices (such as say, Grayson Perry’s British Museum exhibit). Perhaps this infrastructure is a more rationalised form of the patron. Institutionalised culture does not challenge the terminology of Adorno, rather, it emphasises that terms need to be pulled apart.