Stages, Structures, and the Work of Being Yourself

I have a half-baked theory, and I’m going to write about here to see where it goes.

My half-baked theory starts with the intuition of an analogy. I’ve been working on a piece for Real Life about the heightened self-consciousness our use of social media tends to generate (it was published today, you can read it here). I leaned a bit on some of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the self to make my case.

In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggested that we understand our social interaction by analogy to the theater. When we interact directly with others in their presence, it is as if we are actors on stage. On the stage, we are engaged in the work of impression management—trying to manage how we are perceived by controlling the impressions we give—the particular shape of which depends on the audience. But, in keeping with the analogy, we also have a back stage. This is where we are no longer immediately before a public audience. In our back stage area others may be present, but, if they are, they constitute a more intimate, familiar audience before which we are more at ease, some might say more ourselves. In our back stage area, we are able to let down our guard to some significant degree.

Goffman’s examples are all rather concrete and grounded in face-to-face experience. For example, for restaurant workers the kitchen is the back stage to the dining area’s front stage. Part of what I argue in the Real Life piece is that we can usefully extend Goffman’s analysis to the experience of the self on social media, especially when sustained by ubiquitous mobile devices. The idea is that we are now always potentially on the front stage, relentlessly managing impressions. When the stage is virtual, in other words, it is potentially everywhere. There is no backstage, or, to put it more moderately, the front stage begins to colonize what used to be backstage time and space. What I might’ve done a better job of explaining in the essay is that front stage work amounts to a practice of the self, a practice that becomes habitual and formative. It’s not so much that we internalize any one performance but that we internalize the performative mode. 

But it wasn’t Goffman’s analogy to the theater that I spoke of intuiting at the outset of this post, rather it was the analogy between Goffman’s dramaturgy and medieval carnival. Briefly stated, certain medieval festivals and carnivals had the function of relieving, if only temporarily, the burden and pressure of living a holy life. During these festivals or carnivals traditional roles were reversed, conventional pieties were overturned, even the sacred was profaned. All of it, mind you, ultimately in the service of the established order, more or less.

Charles Taylor, who discusses medieval carnivals at some length in his history western secularism, cites a medieval French cleric who explains the inversions and apparent profanations of carnival this way:

“We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels ….”

As Taylor notes, the French cleric did not think in terms of blowing off steam, a metaphor more at home in the industrial age, but that’s essentially his point as we might put it today.

In his discussion, Taylor draws on Victor Turner’s discussion of carnival in his work on the ritual process. In Turner’s view, medieval carnival is just one manifestation of a wide-spread phenomenon:  the relationship between structure and anti-structure.

Taylor summarizes what Turner means by structure this way: “the code of behavior of a society, in which are defined the different roles and statuses, and their rights, duties, powers, vulnerabilities.” Consequently, Taylor writes, “Turner’s point is that in many societies where this code is taken perfectly seriously, and enforced, even harshly most of the time, there are nevertheless moments or situations in which it is suspended, neutralized, or even transgressed.” But why?

Taylor notes again the “blowing off steam” hypothesis. If you don’t find a way to relieve the pressure within the relative safety of semi-sanctioned ritual, then you will get more serious, uncontrolled, and violent eruptions. But Taylor also notes an alternative or possibly complementary hypothesis present in Turner’s work: “that the code relentlessly applied would drain us of all energy; that the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Coming back, then, to my intuited analogy, it goes something like this:  carnival is to the ordinary demands of piety in medieval society as, in contemporary society, the back stage is to the front stage relative to identity work.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Indeed, I confess that I may be stretching a bit to make it work. It really only focuses on one aspect of the backstage experience as Goffman theorized it:  the backstage as a space to let one’s guard down, to relieve the pressures of a constantly calibrated performance before an ill-defined virtual audience, to blow off some steam.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something useful in the approach. The main idea that emerged for me was this:  in our contemporary, digitally augmented society the mounting pressure we experience is not the pressure of conforming to the rigid demands of piety and moral probity, rather it is the pressure of unremitting impression management, identity work, and self-consciousness. Moreover, there is no carnival. Or, better, what presents itself as a carnival experience is, in reality, just another version of the disciplinary experience.

Consider the following.

First, the early internet, Web 1.0, was a rather different place. In fact, a case could be made for the early internet being itself the carnivalesque experience, the backstage where, under the cloak of anonymity, you got to play a variety of roles, try on different identities, and otherwise step out of the front stage persona (“on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, etc.). As our internet experience, especially post-Facebook, became more explicitly tied to our “IRL” identity, then the dynamic flipped. Now we could no longer experience “life on screen” as anti-structure, as backstage, as a place of release. Online identity and offline identity became too hopelessly entangled. Confusion about this entanglement during the period of transition accounts for all manner of embarrassing and damaging gaffs and missteps. The end result is that the mainstream experience of the internet became an expansive, always on front stage. A corollary of this development is the impulse to carve out some new online backstage experience, as with fake Instagram accounts or through the use of ephemeral-by-design communication of the sort that Snapchat pioneered.

Indeed, this may be a way of framing the history of the internet:  as a progression, or regression, from the promise of a liberating experience of anti-structure to the imposition of a unprecedentedly expansive and invasive instrument of structure. Many of our debates about the internet seem to be usefully illuminated by the resulting tension. Perhaps we might put it this way, the internet becomes an instrument of structure on a massive scale precisely by operating in the guise of an anti-structure. We are lured, as it were, by the promise of liberation and empowerment only to discover that we have been ensnared in a programmable web of discipline and control.

Second, maybe the analogy that occurred to me is more straightforward than I first imagined. My initial focus, given the essay I was working on, involved the experience of hypertrophied self-consciousness. So the analogy in this light operated at a sort of meta level. No real moral code was involved, only the psychic burden of constant identity management. But maybe there is a moral code involved. Of course, there’s a moral code involved! Our experience of social media can be an infamously surveilled and policed experience. Undoubtedly, there is pressure to conform to ever-evolving standards regulating speech and expression, for example. This pressure manifests itself through blunt instruments of enforcement (blocking, harassment, doxxing, etc.) or more tacit mechanisms of reward. Either way, it is not a stretch to say that we negotiate the demands of an emerging, perhaps ever-emerging moral code whenever we use online platforms. We might even say that the disciplinary character of the social media activity takes on an oddly ritualistic quality, as if it were the manifestation of some ancient and deep-seated drive to cleanse the social body of all forms of threatening impurities. 

But it’s one thing to conform to a standard to which you more or less assent and arising from a community you inhabit. It’s quite another to conform to a standard you don’t even buy into or maybe even resent. This is basically the case on many of our most popular digital forums and platforms. They gather together individuals with disparate, diverging, and conflicting moral, political, religious stances, and they thrust these individuals into meta-communities of performative and competitive display. Not surprisingly, interested parties will take recourse to whatever tools of control and discipline are available to them within the structures of the platforms and forums that sustain the meta-community. The result, again, a disciplinary experience in a space that was assumed to be liberating and empowering.

[Taylor is helpful on this score as well. He tells a long and complex story, so I won’t do justice to it here, but one key concept he deploys is what he calls the nova effect. The nova effect, in Taylor’s analysis, is the explosion of possible and plausible options regarding the good life that emerge in the modern world. The result is, of course, experienced as freedom and liberation, but also as fragmentation and fragilization of the self. Social media, it seems to me, dramatically intensifies the nova effect. It brings us into a space where we become aware of and interact with an exponentially greater variety of perspectives, stances, and forms of life within structures that foreground the performative experience of the self, which only accents its sense of fragility.]

Think, then, of the dark perfection of a structure that has convinced it is really an anti-structure, a front stage that invites us to think of it as a back stage. We end up unwittingly turning to the very source of our exhaustion, anxiety, burnout, and listlessness for release and relief from the same. The result is recreation without rest, familiarity without intimacy, play without joy, laughter without mirth, carnival without release—in short, the feeling that society is on the brink of exploding and the self is on the brink of imploding.


I write a newsletter called The Convivial Society, and you can subscribe to it here.

5 thoughts on “Stages, Structures, and the Work of Being Yourself

  1. You’re on to something. It certainly does ‘feel’ as you have described in your closing paragraph.
    I very much like the front stage – back stage metaphor.
    (Origin of the word ‘person’: from Latin persona “human being, person, personage; a part in a drama, assumed character,” originally “a mask, a false face,” such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater.)

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