Intuition Versus the Genius of Sartre, Mead, and Goffman

The final paper for freshman Existential Sociology.  A huge bitch of a work, but not without merit.  I'd managed to at least grasp the lingo.  Still written like a high-schooler.

The genesis and definition of self is a popular problem among sociologists and philosophers because we naturally question that which is closest to us.  The root of the question crosses the boundaries of sociology, biology, philosophy, and literature, but many learned people have bravely crossed these bridges on their voyage to the true nature of ourselves.  These philosophers, sociologists, and writers have each individually unlocked and developed many theories of selfhood.  But when their theories are linked together our natures become almost obvious.  The three leaders of the socio-philosophical excavation of the Self are the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre; George Herbert Mead, champion of symbolic interaction; and Erving Goffman, whose dramaturgical approach to the issue casts an unusual light.  The progression and combination of these great minds is very natural because each of their theories develops and intensifies the other two, while maintaining an intellectual sovereignty from over-generalization.  With their help, a truthful and intuitive solution may yet be possible.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism is grounded in the optimism of an inalienable Freedom granted by ontology that we may either embrace, deny, or over-indulge in.  Our freedom to negate our present world (the en-soi) awards the self one hundred percent independence from any kind of determinism or essentialism that intuition (science?) would attempt to bestow.  Sartre claims that the transcendence from immanence that Hegel speaks of is possible through the exercising of negatité and the fulfillment the future-oriented pour-soi.  The self is realized when we appropriately mix our freedom with the given situation.  Thus arises Sartre’s dialectic: praxis versus seriality, a razor edge upon which the self must balance in order to obtain our Project.  The Project is a product of the ever-forward-looking pour-soi, and thus must be considered the goal of the self: to achieve this ever-changing future state wherein, supposedly, the nothingness of which we are made will be filled.  What is the nature of this nothingness?  It consists of all the states that we do not occupy but which we feel would complete our existence.  This is where Sartre obtained the title of his phenomenal existentialist text Being and Nothingness; the connection of these integral structures constitutes Selfhood.  Since the Project defines and justifies our existence, and since the Project can never be fully realized due to the greedy foresight of the pour-soi, we must be hollow, cursed to roam the earth in search of the final crucial piece to our puzzle of selfhood.

Sartre’s dialectic is inherently counter-intuitive.  If the scientific laws of causality were always true as intuition suggests, the past must necessarily determine the present; that which is (the essence of the world, the essence of us, the en-soi) must have an undeniable effect on all that follows, much like in the mathematical concept of dependence on initial conditions.  Sartre’s dialectic insists that our actions now are determined by our Project, which is our intended future.  Sartre also insists that as conscious beings we have the power to change our present by negating the en-soi and externalizing the pour-soi to create new states, new en-soi.  

So if the future determines our actions, and our actions determine the present, then the future must truly control the present, at least, subjectively.  However, problems ensue when we attempt to exist to our fullest extent while living in a world populated by six billion other consciousnesses.  The Other’s freedom provides a crucial check to our own, thus keeping us grounded in a reality of people and things.  Without this grounding, we risk descending into bad faith, falsely believing ourselves pure freedom running psychopathically through the world.  We must also guard against the opposite; we must not succumb to the spirit of seriousness, believing that the Other’s Gaze has totally objectified our being and robbed us of our Freedom.  Only in death do we lose our Freedom.  

This battle of Freedoms constitutes Sartre’s most crucial mode of being: Being-for-Others.  This mode can be said to house the mechanisms that we use in interactions with others in the world.  The ideal interaction with the Other is a reciprocal freedom where we can both externalize our pour-soi; for Sartre, externalization was a keystone in our existence because, he believed, the moment of praxis held for us the justification of our being.  Along with having to alter our patterns of praxis for the Other, we are also susceptible to the Gaze, the Other’s most formidable weapon wherein we may be objectified to the Other, thus losing our Freedom.  But we represent an equal threat to the Other’s Freedom (we have equal ontologies, remember) and the reciprocal threat is here uncovered.  The power of the Gaze lies in it’s judgmental purpose.  

We know that when we are the object of a Gaze, the Other is making judgments and casting us in a mold.  The Other is trying to identify us closely with an aspect of the en-soi, and such an identification has the ability to totally change the nature of our interaction.  Relationships based on intimidation, violence, submission, torsion, and worse begin with a non-mutual exchange of Freedoms and the ensuing objectification of one of the parties.  In relations with the Other, Sartre’s dialectic holds in a modified form; our bridging the gap between praxis and seriality affects not only our own self-actualization but also our patterns of externalization, and therefore our relationships.  The Other helps us to develop a self-consciousness that is necessary for existence within a society, but he also presents an intimidating threat to our sovereignty.

Sartre’s theory of the self can be divided into two parts: the subjective and the intersubjective.  In each, externalization and fear of the Other sound prominently as characterizing forces of being.  Despite this division, the common thread of an outward awareness runs through all facets of the Sartrerian self.  Our lives are defined by a constant quest to make our dreams a reality, regardless of their fickle nature.  We must also constantly reevaluate our position in the minds of others in order to maintain a desirable self-consciousness.  Thus, the self is defined as a structure that is constantly pulled by opposing forces: action and inertia, ego and Other; a trial by fire on the road to Being.

George Herbert Mead, in the spirit of sociology, concentrated on the Other’s definition of the self.  While Sartre believed that the Other’s reaction to our externalization defines being, Mead claims that society actually creates from scratch most of our Self by instilling within us a generalized Other, a societal yardstick that we carry with us to remind us of our place among society.  He calls this sculpted self the Me, and from the moment of its creation it is considered an object by the Other.  Mead’s instant self-objectification simplifies interaction with the Other by leveling the playing field; all members of a society will have essentially the same Me and thereby have enough in common with others to be able to interact functionally.  The Me may be seen as a public face that we wear in order to achieve Success, which is inherently defined by society.

The keystone in Mead’s self is symbolic interaction with the Other.  He claims that the fundamental unit of communication with either oneself or the Other is the symbol.  The symbol takes many forms, such as language, thought, or artistry, but its function remains as the bond between members of society, and since the Other defines the self, symbols would seem to be stepping stones to the establishment of our being.  The establishment of the Me is accomplished by the exchange of these symbols creating an organization of attitudes.  If we are unable to share the emotional tag of a symbol with someone, we cannot have any mental content, thus no self.  In The Emergent Self, Mead outlines the ontological framework for the construction of the self.  His two key starting structures are the I and the symbol, and using these structures, society creates a set of attitudes that will harmonize with and compliment the existing societal arrangement.  “What goes to make up the organized self is the organization of the attitudes which are common to the group” (Anthology 171).  Since the self cannot exist without the Me, and since the Me is actualized by society, then the Other is an absolute necessity to the development and existence of the Self.

“The individual possesses a self only in relation to the selves of the other members of his social group; and the structure of his self expresses or reflects the general behavior pattern of this social group to which he belongs, just as does the structure of the self of every other individual belonging to this social group.”  (Anthology 172)

Mead’s dialectic arises when he introduces the I, a core self that remains untouched by socialization and in which lies our individuality.  To be societally functional, we need to suppress the I, which can be thought of as an individual reaction to a situation, and act with the Me, which is the generalized Other’s reaction.  The I can be seen to overpower the Me in times of extreme passion or agitation when we speak or act in ways that are different from the societal standard.  So we are led to believe that the external world can affect the I, and that the I is still able to express itself despite its submission to the stronger needs of society.  If we were to look for an authentic mode of being in Mead, the answer would lie in the acknowledgment of the unavoidable interconnectedness of the Me and the I.  “Human reality is a dual process of action and inertia...of choice and routinization, of being a pour-soi and of being an en-soi.  The actualization of the one cannot escape the consequences of the other” (Hayim 30).  Mead has basically reformulated Sartre’s human condition using an Other-based ontology, and Hayim’s summation accents the inherent duality of Being, as seen by both Mead and Sartre.

The sociologist Erving Goffman took the issue of self-definition in a new direction.  He believed that society’s impact on the self was so superficial that it did not take the then accepted form of Durkheim’s authentic morality.  Goffman even rejected Mead’s more down-to-earth theory of the Me as a representative of moral society.  Goffman’s alternative said that the self does not internalize any set of moral rules, nor does it initiate any action.  Instead, we react as an actor to an audience, always trying to convince the Other that the impression we present is authentic.  Other theorists see some sort of personal or social success as the goal of existence.  But if all that exists is a front, as Goffman suggests, and all fronts are inauthentic representations of reality, then concepts like success and failure are impossible.  What we see as social reality is actually a thin crust of pretense and charade.  This crust however is firmly supported by an ontological fear of unmasking and exposure, so its permanence, while intuitively unstable, remains an independently logical premise.

We are not alone on the stage of the world.  Other actors with the same audience form a dramaturgical team with which we may bond in a unified struggle for the crowd’s approval.  The help of fellow actors is sometimes the only way to adequately meet the audience’s expectations.  The combination of talents and performance attributes will greatly increase the effectiveness of the performance by showing the audience a strength in numbers and a variability of responses to situations.  Sartre has an analogous social structure that he calls the praxis group, which is united in its quest for a goal while having no other ties among the members.  Such a group is free from the en-soi of social regulation, thus increasing its existential authenticity but weakening its permanence as a structure.  The self, being defined by the Other, depends heavily on others both on stage and in the audience; the social dynamic is different but both are essential to the definition of Being.  The Goffman Team is especially important to the self because it establishes the principle dichotomy of the dramaturgical Region.  The Region is a behavioral zone that contains a specific performance or performance type and the audience for whom it is intended.  We carefully protect unintended audiences from seeing inappropriate or damaging performances by dividing Being into these zones.  The dichotomy that the Team brings to light is between the frontstage and backstage attitudes.

Staging is an important aspect of the Region concept because our Team is meant to be an extension of ourselves, different limbs reaching farther together than if separated.  So when we are backstage, and find ourselves performing for the other members of the team, theoretically, we are acting as if talking to ourselves.  The other members are down on our level and so, intuitively, performing for them should take less artifice than performing for the audience.  Goffman disagrees.  He claims that the connection between the self and the Team is so tenuous, and the divide between Team and audience is so blurred that all performances have essentially the same quality of fictitiousness.
The idea of the Region is familiar to every performer.  In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman cites many examples of differing language, humor, and attitudes as one crosses Region boundaries.  Sartre would say that of course different externalizations are due to different Projects, and that sometimes the self finds it necessary to maintain several simultaneous Projects.  Goffman’s simpler ontology answers with the elementary thought that different audiences require different performances.  However, we are still left wondering at the motive for Goffman’s theory of existence. 

With dramaturgy, Goffman has essentially intensified the Me and eliminated the I, which gives the self a much more simplified structure.  The Me could be said to be equivalent to a Goffman mask in that it is wholly determined by the Other (the audience) and is functionally defined as a cloak for our internal states.  The self is never the source of action, but does it still retain a subjectivity, some kind of core that remains unadulterated by society?  Goffman does not provide a direct answer, but one may not be possible.  If internal states have no place in behavior, then their presence is both impossible to discern and irrelevant to the argument.  Then what do our masks attempt to hide?  If our girlfriend asks us to ‘drop the mask’ or ‘show me the real you,’ we know what she’s talking about; we feel that we have a more authentic state or appearance to show her, something that perhaps more accurately reflects our internal states.  We have an intuitive understanding of masks because we cannot deny that in certain situations, we put up a front because it is simpler or even more effective than ‘the truth.’  But what would Goffman say to a girlfriend who demanded to see his true face?  He would respond, ‘I could show you something different but it would be no more authentic than the mask you see now.’  Behind the mask lies nothing, at least nothing that can be discussed or considered because it has no bearing on existence.  Goffman seems to hark back to non-interactionist dualism, which is logically sound, but intuitively faulty.  When stretched to extremities, Goffman’s theory of self becomes somewhat counterintuitive.  Although it does not offer a solution to the human condition, the dramaturgical theory of the Self fits many plainly visible patterns of human behavior, and thus cannot be ignored.

The existential mode of analysis has definitely affected my life through the simple device of stating the obvious.  In the study of existential sociology, the goal is to find words for ideas and concepts that we know must be true.  By clarifying many philosophical aspects of life in general, I have been able to see existence in a much more realistic and lucid manner, and my actions have been greatly affecting accordingly.  If I know or can reason out the causes of my actions, I can more accurately weigh their intelligence and sensibility.  Too many people, I feel, have no way to truly examine their actions because the way they have been taught to think, ideals essentially unchanged for centuries, does not allow for both objective and subjective modes of inference.  The inherent counter-intuitiveness of many of the philosophies that we have studied shows that our current methods for examining our world and our existence have grown stale and nearly destructive.  I owe so much to these intellectual gurus that I have studied and to the opportunity to study them.  Before I began this study, I knew that an essential piece was missing in my conception of myself and my world.  Without this class, I would have continued in this incomplete knowledge of myself, and in these formative years, my impression of reality would have been warped irreparably.  Now the bonds of ignorance and blindness have been lifted from me, and I am able to live with the Freedom God intended me to have.

The connections between the theories of self developed by these great thinkers form a matrix of reason within which lies the truth of the human condition.  Sartre’s dialectic between praxis and seriality parallels Mead’s concept of torsion within the Me and the I.  Goffman’s theory of the perennial use of masks connects with Mead’s idea of the Me being for the benefit of others only.  Mead’s generalized Other relates to Sartre’s Being-for-the-Other and dovetails with Goffman’s perpetual audience.  These truly great men brought us closer to understanding the essence of our existence than ever in the history of human thought, but we are left with many questions.  The questions that remain have been filtered through the sieve of existentialist sociological thought, and the answers will be a gateway to the greatest kind of wisdom we have ever known.

Freshman Existentialism

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