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Phew! Oops! Oof!

Forms of Talk

by Erving Goffman
University of Pennsylvania Press, 320 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Unruffled, the announcer said, “She’ll be performing selections from the Bach Well-tempered Caviar.” Erving Goffman’s Forms of Talk, his tenth book since he published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1959, is characteristically well-tempered in its understanding of virtually every kind of ruffle and unruffle. The essays collected in it ought to prove as pleasurable to the general public as to Goffman’s fellow sociologists. The chapter which marvels acutely at the announcer’s equanimity is on “Radio Talk.” Its subtitle is “A Study of the Ways of Our Errors.” Goffman’s largeness of spirit is evident not only in the happy phrase itself but in the wide application of its “our”: he doesn’t just mean radio announcers, since he discusses all the ways in which their face-saving maneuvers (despite the fact that we cannot see their faces, saved or unsaved, any more than we can see the countenance which an announcer wants to keep himself in) are much the same as those of everyday, face-to-face talk.

Again, “our errors” has the sense to mean not just the likes of us but the likes of sociologists. As is frequent in Goffman’s work, one of his humane impulses is a principled dissatisfaction with his profession, not merely in his judging that some of his colleagues don’t do well enough by delicacy and by inter-relationship, but in his knowing that they and he couldn’t ever do well enough. Just as some of the greatest art is alive to the limits even of the greatest art, so Goffman, in a manner very unusual in his neck of the sacred woods, incorporates the best form of self-criticism. Only a cynic would mistake it for cynicism.

One of the errors of our ways (we being the nonsociologists) is an unprincipled dissatisfaction with sociology. George Watson has justly observed that “it is an over-notorious fact that sociology is in practice ill-written, perhaps because sociological works which are not ill-written are commonly thought of as something else.” So one could rejoice too much at the fact that Goffman—who writes like an angel, especially about the fact that we all often talk like poor Poll—is the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. The publisher’s praise of Forms of Talk says truly that it is the variety of different situations analyzed in Goffman’s work “that has made it so necessary for students of interaction in many disciplines.”

Yet to apply Goffman within literary criticism, as I found when publishing Keats and Embarrassment, is to meet the reflex hostility of the dwarfish critic. It is only in a very torrid world that Goffman could stand accused of creating, as one such critic put it, “a chilling fiction of social life which turns us all into inauthentic actors.” Goffman’s are notes away from the supremacy of fiction, which is the reason why they so acknowledge fiction’s diverse ubiquity.

Moreover, Goffman’s beliefs are so respectful of others’ that one fine complement to his book would be a very different one, Paul Goodman’s best, Speaking and Language. A delight in Goffman’s microscopic powers can be perfectly at one, also, with a delight in the attention paid to talk by one of the great macroscopes: Thomas Carlyle, who created what must be the most telling description of a genius in a desperate state of talk.

I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers—certain of whom, I for one, still kept eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of their own….

Jonathan Swift, sociolinguist extraordinary, whose Polite Conversations would be well worth Goffman’s illuminating candle, pointed out that it wasn’t enough just to know what to say:

The true Management of every Feature, and almost of every Limb, is equally necessary; without which an infinite Number of Absurdities will inevitably ensue: For Instance, there is hardly a polite Sentence in the following Dialogues which doth not absolutely require some peculiar graceful Motion in the Eyes, or Nose, or Mouth, or Forehead, or Chin, or suitable Toss of the Head, with certain Offices assigned to each Hand; and in Ladies, the whole Exercise of the Fan, fitted to the Energy of every word they deliver; by no means omitting the various Turns and Cadence of the Voice, the Twistings, and Movements, and different Postures of the Body, the several Kinds and Gradations of Laughter, which the Ladies must daily practise by the Looking-Glass, and consult upon them with their Waiting-Maids.

Goffman himself is untiringly perspicacious about the various turns and cadence of the voice and the several kinds and gradations of laughter. One of the latest Wittgenstein bootleg publications includes an observation of which the humorous acumen is exactly in the spirit of Goffman’s starting points: “In a conversation: One person throws a ball; the other does not know: whether he is supposed to throw it back, or throw it to a third person, or leave it on the ground, or pick it up and put it in his pocket, etc.”1

The nonsociologist, all the same, is bound to feel what everybody always feels about the main contentions which issue from somebody else’s discipline: that it is odd that certain things need to be said. So when the publishers praise Goffman for “his insistence that talk be placed in an interactional framework and studied as part of the total physical, social, cultural, and verbal environment in which it occurs,” the nonsociologist will wonder that the insistence was called for. Goffman is very good at showing not just that the simple formulae, notions, and models won’t do, but exactly why they won’t do; yet an outsider must feel something of a stranger when meeting a sentence like this:

I am arguing here that what in some sense is part of the subject matter of linguistics can require the examination of our relation to social situations at large, not merely our relation to conversations.

Tiens! Yet it is just such forms of talk as these about which Goffman himself is penetratingly imaginative. “Coordinated task activity—not conversation—is what lots of words are part of,” he says (rather as Paul Goodman had an affectionate page about working together wordlessly on a car until it finally starts: “At this point, of consummation, they are almost sure to say something, if only ‘Oof!”’). Goffman adds: “And these are not unimportant words; it takes a linguist to overlook them.”

It takes a sociolinguist of humor and imagination (intimately related) to notice the things which Goffman so eloquently and unstuffily calls into play, his practice being the validation of his complaint that in much sociolinguistics “the essential fancifulness of talk is missed.” His pleasure in fancifulness depends upon a keen feeling for social reality, just as Leigh Hunt praised a moment in Keats as “a fancy founded, as all beautiful fancies are, on a strong sense of what really exists or occurs.”

The first essay in Forms of Talk, “Replies and Responses,” is wonderfully resourceful about the implications of the resourcefulness within such an exchange as this at an airport, when a man neither silently puts down his bag en route to the ticket counter nor explicitly asks the woman sitting there to watch the bag for him. Instead:

He: [Laconically, almost sotto voce, as if already lodged in conversation with the recipient]: “Don’t let them steal it.”

She: [Immediately utters an appreciative conspiratorial chuckle as speaker continues on his way.]

The second essay, “Response Cries” (my favorite, for the range of its comedy and surprise), listens to ways in which, unexpectedly, it is permissible in our society to talk to yourself. Taking time to ponder such things as the proprieties of picking up money in the street, Goffman listens to what we say, for instance, when we trip over something. His taxonomy of response-cries not only brings home how foolish it is to use the word taxonomy pejoratively, as if a taxonomy weren’t a thrilling thing, but it also rises above even a taxonomy in its bizarrerie of relationships. There is the transition display (Brr! Ahh!, Phew!); the spill cry (Oops!, Whoops!, Oopsadaisy!); the threat startle (Eek!, Yipe!); revulsion sounds (Eeuw!—and one might throw in Yuk!); the strain grunt (Goodman’s Oof!); the pain cry (Oww!, Ouch!); the sexual moan (no notation forthcoming); floor cues (Good God!, from someone reading the paper, inciting an inquiry which it can’t quite bring itself to ask for); and audible glee (Oooooo!, Wheee!). On all these, Goffman notices relations between the things he notices, and though serious, is never in deadly earnest.

The next essay, on “Footing,” is about the changes in alignment or position taken within an uttered sequence, the cadenced laminations. The argument would be very apt, for instance, to Frost’s important principle of “the sound of sense” (“Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied”), since it seems from Frost’s instances as if what he calls “the posture proper to the sentence” is actively the changes in footing or in posture; as with Frost’s example:

No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out off the track.

Goffman’s fourth essay is a lecture on “The Lecture”; and his fifth is “Radio Talk.” The former has many jokes, none cheap, at Goffman’s own expense (though any lecturer would fit and foot the bill); the latter avails itself of Kermit Schafer’s anthologies of hilarious radio bloopers or clangers.

What, though, does a nonsociologist—in my case, a literary critic—learn from all this? The delight he may feel as a general reader would be more than enough, but it is something different from the claim that “students of interaction in many disciplines” can profit greatly from Goffman. So let me seize upon one thing which, first of all, is central to Forms of Talk, being indeed the preoccupation that holds the five essays together, and, secondly, is a central preoccupation of literary criticism today, self-reflection.

The grace of self-reflection, by which some part of art’s attention is well turned upon itself, upon its own proceedings, has rightly been valued highly by much recent criticism, especially as a power for wit and humor, and as a reminder, in its admission of its own art, that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” The principle of self-reflection has proved to be of deep, wide, and delicate application, from the proper respect in which the art of Saul Steinberg is now held, to the profound rotation effected by Walter Jackson Bate’s comprehension of the burden of the past and the English poet. But the principle, like all others, has always been tempted to escalate its claims, to make itself the one thing necessary, as if art’s own nature were the only thing with which art were ever occupied. Then a proper self-attention becomes solipsism and self-regard, and poems are held to have no other subject than their own poemness.

Few things are more important in literary criticism just now than to protect the newly restored insights into the worth of disciplined self-reflection against its foes: those who have never had the imagination to see how much self-reflection could honorably effect, and those who have never had the imagination to see how little it can honorably effect unless it be continually braced—as by the thrust of an opposing arch—against an equal respect for all the ways in which the reflection of something other than self (other than art itself) is indispensable.

When the back-up women, early in Bob Dylan’s song “New Pony,” ask eerily “How much longer?” and then repeatedly ask it, without its apparently having any direct connection with the drama in the song, there is a crucial sense in which the question is a question about the song itself. A great many of Dylan’s best songs (it is part of their comedy, rueful or ravaging) are, in part, about how and when they are ever going to manage to end. “How much longer?” But it would demean the song to make it sound as if the question within the song were only, or even mainly, about the song itself. A friend of mine has shown me how various—some sad, some funny—are the tacit applications of “How much longer?” to the amatory goings-on which are the song’s impulse and substance. “New Pony”: but “How much longer?”2

In a similar way, it does, I believe, need to be noticed that one of the feats of Dylan’s rhyming is its self-reflection, as when he rhymes on the word “rhyme” (“Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme,” against “time,” for instance, an exquisite stridulation),3 or as when he sings:

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.4

One of the things which you should gather from this is that the rhyme, like any rhyme, is a gamble, a coincidence of sound and sense, igniting a new sense through its new sound-chime. Yet it would sell Dylan short if one were to make this the only or the ruling sense of the lines, the thing not to be missed. Self-reflection is a good partner, but it is not good enough to be any art’s master.

Forms of Talk (which, not incidentally, has many good asides about singing) is everywhere apt to this double duty toward self-reflection, this double defense. It repeatedly illuminates reflective moves in talk, and it has recourse throughout to the inescapable prefix, in references to self-reference, self-correction, self-responding, self-talk (a whole essay), self-congratulation, self-management, self-disassociation, self-reporting, self-direction, self-monitoring, self-concern, self-centering, self-orientation, self-consciousness, self-communication, and even self-abuse.

But it is not just that Goffman is so variously acute about the ways in which talkers refer to themselves; he is endlessly fertile about the vistas of regression and about the ways in which an utterance (not just the utterer) may be in part self-referring. After all, his witticism “the ways of our errors” depends upon our momentarily blinking at what might itself be an error. So here is Goffman lecturing on “The Lecture”; and writing, often in brackets, on such things as “the parenthesizing parenthesis”; on how we manage to talk about the management of talk itself; on the ways in which a remedial utterance (an apology, say) may itself then become something that needs to be remedied; on the way in which the introducer of a lecturer is himself introduced; or on the regressions that threaten the central principles of the social world, so that tact can itself become tactlessness, or consideration inconsiderate. (National Lampoon’s greatest creation is the lethally decorous Politenessman.)

Who but Goffman could so do right by Oopsadaisy?

When a parent plucks up a toddler and rapidly shifts it from one point to another or “playfully” swings or tosses it in the air, the prime mover may utter an Oopsadaisy!, stretched out to cover the child’s period of groundlessness, counteracting its feeling of being out of control, and at the same time instructing the child in the terminology and role of spill cries.

At the same time”: Goffman does not elevate self-reflection into what is really at stake, but he does give it such a part as it plays.

Every conversation, it seems, can raise itself by its own bootstraps.” So Goffman is drawn not just to frames, but to frames of frames.

Let me take what I have gathered from coincidence, and point out that he who is here so good on the way in which a lecturer uses text-parenthetical remarks (momentaneous qualifications or additions) so as to become “a broker of his own statements” and “his own go-between,” or on the way in which an announcer serves as “his own straight man”—he, Erving Goffman, is here his own general editor. Or rather, he is one of his two general editors, which constitutes a proper arch. Like the announcer, he values, and not just as maneuver, “a dual voice, commenting on one’s own production even while producing it.” This, without reducing the utterance to solipsism or infinitely pointless regress. For even while Goffman tacitly corroborates the plausibility and the value of literature’s being to some degree self-reflective or self-referential by his showing how much of daily talk is valuably so, he also explicitly honors the necessity for maintaining the relation between the substantive and the self-referential or self-reflective. He is severe only in his warnings, which are in part self-warnings:

I am not trying to wriggle out of my contract with you by using my situation at the podium to talk about something ready to hand, my situation at the podium. To do so would be to occupy a status for purposes other than fulfilling it. Of that sort of puerile opportunism we have had quite enough, whether from classroom practitioners of group dynamics, the left wing of ethnomethodology, or the John Cage school of performance ripoffs.

Goffman fears for “the vulnerability of the line between the process of referring and the subject matter that is referred to.” The vulnerable line is our lifeline.

If, because of what I refer to, you attend the process through which I make references, then something is jeopardized that is structurally crucial in speech events: the partition between the inside and outside of words, between the realm of being sustained through the meaning of a discourse and the mechanics of discoursing. This partition, this membrane, this boundary, is the tickler; what happens to it largely determines the pleasure and displeasure that will be had in the occasion.

The wisdom and madness, as well as the pleasure and displeasure. For we may change the first ideal in the Victorian trinity from self-reverence to self-reference, only if we more than maintain the other two: self-reference, self-knowledge, self-control.

And, of course, there would be much to say, thanks to Goffman, about Goffman’s unremitting propensity to begin sentences, and even paragraphs, with “And, of course.”

  1. 1

    Ludwing Wittgenstein, Culture and Value edited by G.H. von Wright, translated by Peter Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1980).

  2. 2

    © 1978 Big Ben Music Ltd.

  3. 3

    © 1974 Big Ben Music Ltd.

  4. 4

    © 1965 M. Witmark and Sons.

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