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 …

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