(i) Performing Roles

If this paper is as much about identity as it is about history, then it is with identity that we must begin, though it is with identity that we will also end. The reader must forgive if in discussing identity at the outset, we introduce, perforce, some of the conclusions. Nonetheless, in our attempt to write the history of the present,' we must look to the now before digging into the past.

Who are we? How do we come to be who we are? With what language and in what terms can we answer such questions? These are fundamental concerns, and have been addressed in various ways by a number of thinkers in recent decades. One of the most interesting and seminal of these thinkers was Erving Goffman.


Erving Goffman was perhaps one of the first thinkers in this century to make use of dramaturgical principles in his theorising about the social. Others, more recently, like Judith Butler, have extended this interest in the applicability of performance as a metaphor, in their development of the theoretical standpoint of Performativity. The development of the ideas in this first section of the paper follows the route from performance to performativity, from Goffman to Butler, as a way in to the crucial political arena of identity, wherein the kernel of this paper's argument occurs.

Goffman considered "the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may or may not do while sustaining his performance before them."1 Goffman's individual has two means of expressing himself: one conscious - what he 'gives' of himself; the other unconscious - what he 'gives off.' Those who comprise the audience for this individual's performance gain two impressions of him: one from what he gives of himself, which he controls, and one from what he gives off, which he does not control. The individual, of course, can be lying, in which case what he gives, in fact deceives, and what he gives off, (in this case quite consciously,) he in fact feigns. But arguably, even when he feigns, there are other signals he is giving off, unconsciously, which may well belie the image he is attempting to display. In short, in social interaction, according to Goffman, a fundamental asymmetry exists between performer and audience: the latter have access to information about the performer beyond and potentially contradictory to his intentional performance.

What an individual gives off consists of many things. One's 'front,' as Goffman defines it, is perhaps peculiarly important. The 'front' is defined as that part of the individual's performance which is more or less fixed. It is "expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed," 2. as part of the performance. The standard parts of front are (i) the setting: the environment in which the interaction takes place, e.g. one's office, front room (sic) etc. (ii) personal front: one's appearance - clothing, sex, age, racial characteristics etc. Front is quite abstract, and general. Importantly, observers "need only be familiar with a small and hence manageable vocabulary of fronts, and know how to respond to them, in order to orient themselves in a wide variety of situations."3 Front often becomes a collective representation.


The scenario, or situation in which people meet, is defined by these performances and shared fronts. As Goffman describes: "When we allow that the individual projects a definition of the situation when he appears before others, we must also see that the others, however passive their role may seem to be, will themselves effectively project a definition of the situation by virtue of their response to the individual and by virtue of any lines of action they intiate to him."4 The definition of the situation which results is not usually an ideal consensus or harmony, but rather one in which each participant has suppressed "his immediate heartfelt feelings," preferring to "assert values to which everyone present feels obliged to give lip service," resulting in a "surface of agreement,...[a] veneer....[or] working consensus."5

Interaction, then, can be "roughly defined as the reciprocal influence of individuals upon one another's actions when in one another's immediate physical presence. An interaction may be defined as all the interaction which occurs throughout any one occassion when a given set of individuals are in one another's continuous presence." A performance is defined as "all the activity of a given participant on a given occassion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants."6 In Schechner's terms then, every performance in social interaction is efficacious.7 The social actor wishes to project a role that will make an intended impression upon his audience, and thereby influence the definition of the situation, albeit within the limitations of the working consensus. Shared or common values are being paid lip service to by us all in the creation of working consensus, and thereby, inevitably, at times, we will "give a well- designed impression of a particular kind..[though we]..may be neither consciously nor unconsciously disposed to create such an impression."8 Anyone who has been in, or known someone who is or has been in 'the closet,' will understand how an entire lifestyle can be constructed for the sake of the working consensus.

The Self

The question of belief in the role that one is playing must be addressed. At the two extremes are the performer who is completely taken in by his own act, and the more cynical performer who is not taken in at all by his own routine. There is often travel between these poles, for example from disbelief to belief, wherein the insecure social actor comes to know himself through performing his role, and develops into a Person. In the opposite direction, the performer acting a role he deems important and responsible, can over time lose his passion for the task and grow, finally, cynical behind the mask he nonetheless maintains.

Coming to know oneself through playing out a role within the confines of the working consensus and developing thereby into a 'Person' is perhaps the central concept in Goffmans standpoint. He quotes from Robert Ezra Park: "'It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role...It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves. In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves - the role we are striving to live up to - this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.'"9

Having introduced the concept of the working consensus, consisting in shared values, Goffman goes on to speak of how a performance "highlights the common offical values of the society in which it occurs," and how this constitutes a ceremony, or celebration, and comes to be accepted, in fact, as reality itself. "To stay in one's room away from the ... party... is to stay away from where reality is being performed. The world, in truth, is a wedding."

What we have here is a definition of the Self which asserts not merely that it is constituted and shaped by the performance of roles, but that "a correctly staged and performed scene leads an audience to impute a self to a performed character," and this self "is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not the cause of it." In other words, the process of interaction defines the performance which defines the self. "The self.. as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited."10 When someone volunteers to do something, claiming that they 'have to,' it is because in order to maintain the integrity of the overall role they are playing, in order to avoid being discredited as a fraud, they must do it: it is part of the role.


NEXT: IDENTITY : (ii) Performativity