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Fall 2010

On Erving Goffman

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Kathryn Crim

On certain weekday evenings, I leave the visitor parking lot of San Quentin, the decrepit state prison that sits on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, and as I look out at the night sky rising above the Richmond Bridge—an arch of highway sending me home—I seem to be moving across the hinge of a great disproportion. It was the first thing I noted about teaching in prison, the way the impression of the place overtook speech.

At first this impression was physical, then moral, and finally emotional. Teaching often facilitates a relationship with one’s own ignorance: only by confronting the limits of my knowledge can I begin to ask questions, begin to imagine how questions will be asked of me. This is a confrontation I have learned to accept readily, as a useful practice, a gentle intellectual and spiritual stretching in the safe and narrowed context of a classroom. But outside the door of the San Quentin classroom is a prison yard, and beyond that, stairways that lead to cellblocks and dorms where thousands of men live literally stacked against each other. I do not understand how to live out there. I don’t have to. But more significantly, I don’t know how to think about what a life there means. For some hours after teaching—sometimes days—I can’t reconcile the scale of my daily existence with the scale of a world which has brought about this other place. Increasingly, as one semester of teaching has turned to two, three, five, I have felt that if only I could begin to ask the right questions, I might begin to negotiate an experience that otherwise threatens to dull my senses, to beset me with bitterness and what seems an ineffable exhaustion.

I began reading Erving Goffman’s Asylums, his now fifty-year-old treatise on total institutions, in the hope of finding a cleanly presented argument. To grapple with the particular character—which is to say the measure and mischief—of this inquiry into the lives of mental patients and prison inmates is to try to consider what, for most of us, are terrifying social realities. The total institution: Goffman’s notion is, first, that one kind of barrier is erected or employed (a prison gate, a hillside, vast grounds that surround a hospital on the hill, wire, locked doors and fences) and, second, that within these institutions other kinds of barriers, the physical and social divisions between domestic and professional spheres, public and private existences, are torn down. The force of the word “total” is in both these positive and negative absolutes: the institution, totally removed from society, is a totally encompassing society.

But I must own up to the fact that while reading Goffman, I was suspiciously wondering what his end intentions were—and perhaps looking for a clue to my own. “When individuals attend to any current situation,” Goffman writes at the beginning of another volume, Frame Analysis, “they face the question: ‘What is it that’s going on here?’” Can I begin to address this question without wishing to arrive at some definitive conclusions, some consolatory explanations? Part of my exhaustion, in the face of my comings and goings from class, arises from resisting the neat theories of incarceration proffered by political pundits and activists. And yet the question remains inevitable and necessary: What is it that is going on here?

Goffman is himself able to resist the rush to argument by narrowing the “here.” The four essays which comprise Asylums attend expressly to the daily lives of inmates—leaving aside the circumstances that brought them there—and to patterns in the conditions of these lives which make possible certain categorical claims about institutions in general.

This struck me first as analytical chilliness. Early on in my reading notes, I commented on the “indifferent tone,” once writing, “this section is distressing.” Not until further on in the book—once I realized I would not find the sweeping assertions I assumed would be there—did I begin to read better. The scrupulousness of Goffman’s attention is a sign of his distress. His sympathy for lived experience and the subtlety of his skepticism crackle all over his sentences. His critique is there even in the introduction, where he contrasts family life with “batch living,” a phrase so utilitarian and horrific it might have been plucked from Kafka. I’m not sure now how I could have missed the indignation in such a sentence as “In our society, [total institutions] are the forcing houses for changing persons; each is a natural experiment on what can be done to the self.” Perhaps it was because I too, in spite of my visits to San Quentin, or perhaps inspired by them, have held on to an idea that under certain circumstances people really ought to change. My mistake, our mistake, is to confuse wishing that a person be changed with wishing that a person would change.

By drawing on references not only to mental hospitals and American prisons, but also to such famously cruel places as Orwell’s boarding school and, on the extreme end, Nazi concentration camps, Goffman suggests that the total institution always presents the dangerous possibility of turning into a district of terror. Nowhere is such slippage more insidious than on the level of institutional language. “Para-doxically,” Goffman observes, “while total institutions seem the least intellectual of places, it is nevertheless here…that concern about words and verbalized perspectives has come to play a central and often feverish role.” The “official aims” of the institution provide the staff with a “rational” language to meet the demands of the inmates. (Often this official language is also employed to “rationalize” the operations of the institution to those outside the institution, a less-than-astute public.) The more carefully I read Goffman, the more certain I am that just under the surface of his cool, methodical investigations, he is waging a crusade against the transformation of humans into objects. His own subtle and at times playful prose models a kind of moral imperative: a refusal to accept wholly the situation that confronts us.

Goffman is everywhere looking for signs of spiritual ingenuity and resistance. And this dark optimism is implicit in Asylums. The most delightful of the four essays in the book is the third, “The Underlife of a Public Institution,” where he catalogues with some amusement the ways mental patients manipulate the facilities and resources of the hospital to their own ends, carving out the kind of autonomy and the kind of intimate relationships that are otherwise explicitly repressed. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that Goffman would say a classroom in a prison provides a curious and important zone of linguistic—that is, individual—freedom. And in the last analysis, I think this may be the only certainty I can hope to have on my drives away from San Quentin.



Kathryn Crim is the deputy editor of The Threepenny Review and a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.
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