Goffman, Presentation of Everyday LIfe, 1959
I am of a certain age and as a result many of my friends are of that age too. I mention this because I think generally people of our age, let's say older than 40 but younger than a million, have a tendency to be curmudgeonly when it comes to kids today. After all, why can't they be like we were, perfect in everyway? This curmudgeonliness is particularly obvious when it comes to technology. Lately I have noticed a lot of technology is killing love talk.
I have a cousin who blogs on this very site who is extremely wary of the effects of technology on intimate relationships. I have a girlfriend who feels the same way. On Sunday novelist Jonathan Franzen published an Op-Ed in the New York Times that argued that in the age of social networking we need to learn how to move beyond "like" and into real "love" again. Franzen's essay argues that
As our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn't throw terrible scenes when it's replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
And this technology- now in the form of social networking sites like Facebook- forces us to create public selves that are in desperate need of being "liked" by everyone.
if you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you've despaired of being loved for who you really are...
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you're going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you'll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don't like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you're having an actual life.
Okay, I'll admit that there is something true in this angst about the effects of technology on human relationships. I admit that because it's so much easier to connect with everyone I've ever known it is also incredibly easy to disconnect wtih anyone who is getting on my nerves. I can ignore them, hide them on FB and certainly I never have to see them. But because I can ditch everyone else so easily, they too can ditch me. And so I am perhaps hypervigilent of my public persona- always trying to be interesting and "likeable."
And yet these technologies of connection are unavoidable. There is no need to bemoan them because they are necessary and therefore here to stay. Under our current conditions of existence in the US, we have to be endlessly mobile. Parents travel and have to be willing to move for work, children are often expected to leave home for school or university, grandparents retire somewhere different than where they lived much of their lives, and friendships are so geographically diffuse that without new technologies like Facebook and Skype- or at least telephones and letter writing- we would never be able to know anyone for more than a few years before they moved on.
But I am also very skeptical of some of the claims being made by my generation that somehow in some halcyon days of yore we were more real and more authentic with people because we didn't have Facebook or cell phones. And somehow these perfectly intimate relationships of the past were not just better, but less mediated by technology and what social psychologists like to call "front stage behavior." Let's consider the truth to this notion that just because we are conscious of our presentation of self, it is somehow less true than if we behaved without a lot of planning. This is the idea Franzen put forth with his claim that a screaming fight is more "real" than a FB post.
In 1959- long before our current technologies- Erving Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman argue that we are all actors in the drama that is our life. We all perform our front stage selves and use the back stage to prepare for such performances. Going to meet your lover for a night out? Then a lot of back stage prep- from bathing to dressing to hair and cosmetics- is required. But obviously once out for the night you do engage in back stage prep; you do not adjust your underwear, pick your nose, or pluck your eyebrows. Not, that is, if you want to be a successful performer. Of course, sometimes performances fail: we trip, we say something "out of character," we flatuate loudly. And when performances fail, our audience either plays along with us or storms out.
Goffman's dramaturgical model, which was later developed and pushed into notions of the "performativity" of self, is at its core a claim that nothing about us innate, not even our social postion as men or women, white or black, rich or poor.
A status, a postion, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is none the less something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized"
I cannot walk up to you and tell you that I am a Black man or a pink hippopatamus unless I can perform as such. I cannot even tell you I am a white woman unless I can perform as such. There is nothing "true" or even "real" about who we are except as identities and statuses become true through repeated performance over time, a sedimenting of acts that social theorist Pierre Bourdieu called "habitus"- as in habits over time written onto the individual's body as well as the social body.
In other words, people may have had more f2f time prior to FB, but f2f time was always enacted, performed, mediated, and either successful or disasterous in its effects. Humans were not more authentic or less so prior to the current historical moment. They were exactly as they are now: looking for human connection and even love through a series of stylized performances of self that were no less true or real for being performances.
That's why people today use new technologies to connect and love. Some people reveal more of themselves in such performances; others less. Sometimes we get to know and love someone better because of our online connections and sometimes we even get into screaming fights with people because of our online connections, fights that lead to a phone being picked up or even a meeting in the flesh. Some people use Skype to work; others to connect with family and friends. I know a couple who live on different continents and yet have dinner together every night on Skype. I know of another couple, one of whom is stationed in Iraq, who sometimes manage to Skype one another so they can sleep (yes, just sleep) at the same time, computers next to them as they happily breathe in the same rythm as their spouse.
That's because our human desire to love is about as universal as emotion comes, even as technological moments are specific. We want to connect even when our work lives demand we be elsewhere. We want to connect even when we're told that technology doesn't allow "real" connection. And if love ever dies, it will not be technology that killed it, but a fear that technology isn't "real" and a withdrawal from one of the few ways we overworked and ovelry mobile moderns can still reach out to one another.