These notes complement the 4-session Tate Modern course Philosophy - Art - Society led by Nigel Warburton (ticket only, fully booked).For this week’s class we looked at the idea of the self as a social construct, both in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and in that of Erving Goffman (who was heavily influenced by Sartre.
Sartre’s descriptions of Bad Faith (a particular kind of self-deception about the limits of one’s personal freedom) include the example of the Café Waiter who enacts his role, performs his dance, as if he could not be anything else. For Sartre he is in denial of the degree to which he is not bound by social norms or by any picture other people have of what he ought to be. We also discussed Sartre’s argument against solipsism (the idea that you might be the sole mind in the universe) – the example of a voyeur peering through a keyhole who suddenly becomes aware of himself as a ‘looked at look’ when he hears footsteps behind him. The implication is that we are all pre-consciously aware of ourselves as being one mind amongst many, and that social emotions such as shame reveal how much our way of being in the world takes this for granted.
Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, put forward an interesting dramaturgical line on human interactions. Taking seriously Shakespeare’s line that ‘All the world’s a stage…’ he analysed a wide range of interactions in terms of masks, stage-setting, and performance. Surprisingly he did not think that there was a ‘true’ self behind all the masks.
Listen to a Social Science Bites podcast on Erving Goffman (with transcript)
Read more about Erving Goffman (Wikipedia)
In the gallery we looked at selected works in the Performing for the Camera exhibition, considering them from the perspective of Goffman’s dramaturgical framework. The setting, the appearance given and given off, etc.
For the final week of the course we’ll be looking at Aestheticism…