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Dramaturgy

Author: joe

Tuesday, 23 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the absence of inner realities.

While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, - there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they have the power of embarrassing. A cynical view of everyday performances can be as one-sided as the one that is sponsored by the performer. For many sociological issues it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving. The crucial sociological consideration, for this report, at least, is merely that impressions fostered in everyday performances are subject to disruption. We will want to know what kind of impression of reality can shatter the fostered impression of reality, and what reality really is can be left to other students. We will want to ask, "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?" and this is not quite the same as asking, "What are the ways in which the given impression is false?"
 
I would like, finally, to add that the matters which the audience leaves alone because of their awe of the performer are likely to be the matters about which he would feel shame were a disclosure to occur. As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the performer senses that his chief secrets are petty ones. As countless folk tales and initiation rites show, often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning this too.
 
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman's front and back regions and their associated performances are standard fare in the kinds of intro-to-cultural-studies units I've taught on, especially in relation to online participatory media, where it has been a popular way of understanding the liberating and playful 'face-work' that disembodied, pseudo-anonymous spaces afford. The front persona acts out roles based on scripts determined by the performative imperatives in play at any given moment - the particular stage being occupied, the nature of the audience present, the props and paraphernalia to hand, the superset of expectations and conventions which are mobilised by the narrative genre at work and the attendant sense of destination that such stories always demand. The 'front' persona is what we think it is - it is transparently a role, immediate in its ability or otherwise to convince us of its sincerity.

The back region is always more problematic. it is very tempting to ascribe to the 'back' region a hidden authenticity - the real actor behind the role, the performer behind the performance. If the front region is determined by the external pressures of peers, observers and the wider world, as well as the internal pressures exerted by self-consciousness and confidence, personal desires and aspirations, fears of failure and hopes of acceptance, then surely the back region is what is concealed by the performance: the inner drives and originating sources of such desires, fears and hopes - the real person behind the appearance. Common wisdom fears that excessive and injudicious self-exposure will reveal more of oneself than was intended or might be desirable or safe, precisely because areas of the back persona will escape through cracks in an out-of-control performance - corpsing.

I had gone along with this interpretation of Goffman's analysis, teaching undergraduates about the front persona and it's conformance to social norms, versus the back persona and its association with a more authentic, hidden self - until one of my colleagues demanded to know why I was so sure this back persona should necessarily be 'the real me', and even whether Goffman intended that we should understand it so. Why would I assume that 'back' were synonymous with 'real'? Go back to the text, the script.

The analysis of back regions focusses for the most part, (frustratingly for the essay-writing or lecture-planning skim-reader looking for a quote about online identities) on teams. The teams go front-stage together in their workplaces, sanatoria, suburbs and homes; they also go back-stage together where the anti-front actions play themselves out - informality, swearing, solidarity, irritability being a few of the symptoms Goffman lists. But back-stage is still stage: the actor has merely turned his back on one proscenium arch to face another audience. The back is just another front: the business of complying with scripts continues just the same. We may ask, where is the back region to this new front-that-was-back? Is there an end to the infinite regress, when the actor leaves and finds himself alone? Goffman himself notes the dilemma:

"it must be allowed that one can become so habituated to one's front region activity and front region character that it may be necessary to handle one's relaxation from it as a performance. One may feel obliged, when backstage, to act out of character in a familiar fashion and this can come to be more of a pose than the performance for which it was meant to provide a relaxation."

He seems to imply, here, that habit makes the back region a performance in itself, but I wonder if his aside - that the question of "what reality really is can be left to other students" - is not a hint that those other students might be chasing a hall of mirrors. The performances are - as the dramaturgical analogy implies - acts, and as such, they enact; they make real. Perhaps they do not reveal or conceal hidden depths, so much as they compensate for the absence of such essences, and in so doing produce what is now, newly real. There is no inner core which ever-withdraws from display and revelation. There is only a performer; there is no actor; and therefore - no gap.

Categories: Erving Goffman, dramaturgy, performance, identity, gap, front, back, persona,
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