SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: SOCIETY AS DRAMA
by: Peter L. Berger Outline of Chapter 6 | Berger Resources & information page
If the attempt at communication in the preceding two chapters has been successful, the reader may now have a sensation that could perhaps be described as sociological claustrophobia. He can be conceded a certain moral right to demand some relief from this from the writer, in the way of an affirmation of human freedom in the face of the various social determinants. Such an affirmation, however, poses a priori difficulties within the framework of a sociological argument. It will be necessary to look at these difficulties briefly before we proved.
Freedom is not empirically available. More precisely, while freedom may be experienced by us as a certainty along with other empirical certainties, it is not open to demonstration by any scientific methods. If we wish to follow Kant, freedom is also not available rationally, that is, cannot be demonstrated by philosophical methods based on the operations of pure reason. Remaining here with the question of empirical availability, the elusiveness of freedom with regard to scientific comprehension does not lie so much in the unspeakable mysteriousness of the phenomenon (after all, freedom may be mysterious, but the mystery is encountered every day) as in the strictly limited scope of scientific methods. An empirical science must operate within certain assumptions, one of which is that of universal causality. Every object of scientific scrutiny is presumed to have an anterior cause. An object, or an event, that is its own cause lies outside the scientific universe of discourse. Yet freedom has precisely that character. For this reason, no amount of scientific search will ever uncover ,a phenomenon that can be designated as free. Whatever may appear as free within the subjective consciousness of an individual will find its place in the scientific scheme as a link in some chain of causation.
Freedom and causality are not logically contradictory terms. However, they are terms that belong to disparate frames of reference. It is, therefore, idle to expect that scientific methods will be able to uncover freedom by some procedure of elimination, piling up causes on causes, until one arrives at a residual phenomenon that does not seem to have a cause and can be proclaimed as being free. Freedom is not that which is uncaused. Similarly, one cannot arrive at freedom by looking at instances where scientific prediction falls down. Freedom is not unpredictability. As Weber has shown, if this were the case, the madman would be the freest human being. The individual who is conscious of his own freedom does not stand outside the world of causality, but rather perceives his own volition as a very special category of cause, different from the other causes that he must reckon with. This difference, however, is not subject to scientific demonstration.
An analogy may be helpful here. Just as freedom and causality are not contradictory but rather disparate terms, so are utility and beauty. The two do not logically exclude each other. But one cannot establish the reality of the one by demonstrating the reality of the other. It is possible to take a specific object, say a piece of furniture, and show conclusively that it has a certain utility for human living to sit on, eat on, sleep in, or what-have-you. However, no matter what utility one can prove, one will get no closer to the question of whether that chair, table or bed is beautiful. In other words, the utilitarian and the aesthetic universes of discourse are strictly incommensurable.
In terms of social-scientific method, one is faced with a way of thinking that assumes a priori that the human world is a causally closed system. The method would not be scientific if it thought otherwise. Freedom as a special kind of cause is excluded from this system a priori. In terms of social phenomena, the social scientist must assume an infinite regress of causes, none of them holding a privileged ontological status. If he cannot explain a phenomenon causally by one set of sociological categories, he will try another one. If political causes do not seem satisfactory, he will try economic ones. And if the entire conceptual apparatus of sociology seems inadequate to explain a given phenomenon, he may switch to a different apparatus, such as the psychological or the biological one. But in doing so, he will still move within the scientific cosmos that is, he will discover new orders of causes, but he will not encounter freedom. There is no way of perceiving freedom, either in oneself or in another human being, except through a subjective inner certainty that dissolves as soon as it is attacked with the tools of scientific analysis.
Nothing is farther from the intentions of this writer than to come out now with a statement of allegiance to that positivistic creed, still fashionable among some American social scientists, that believes in only those fragments of reality that can be dealt with scientifically. Such positivism results almost invariably in one form or another of intellectual barbarism, as has been demonstrated admirably m the recent history of behavioristic psychology in this country. Nevertheless, one must keep a kosher kitchen if one's intellectual nourishment is not to become hopelessly polluted that is, one must not pour the milk of subjective insight over the meat of scientific interpretation. Such segregation does not mean that one cannot relish both forms of sustenance, only that one cannot do so in a single dish.
It follows that if our argument wanted to remain rigidly within the sociological frame of reference, which is a scientific one, we could not speak about freedom at all. We would then have to leave the reader to his own devices in getting out of his claustrophobic corner. Since these lines, fortunately, do not appear m a sociological journal and are not to be recited at a ceremonial gathering of the profession, there is no need to be as ascetic as all that. Instead, we shall follow two courses. First, still remaining within the model of human existence provided by sociological perspective itself, we shall try to show that the controls, both external and internal, may not be as infallible as they were made to appear so far. Secondly, we shall step outside the narrowly scientific frame of reference and postulate the reality of freedom, after which we shall try to see what the sociological model looks like from the vantage point of this postulation. In the first course, we shall give some further touches to our sociological perspective. In the second, we shall seek to obtain some human perspective on sociological perspective.
Let us return to the point in our argument, at the end of the last chapter, in which we maintained that our own cooperation is needed to bring us into social captivity. What is the nature of this cooperation? One possibility of answering this question is to take up once more Thomas' concept of the definition of the situation. We can then argue that, whatever the external and internal pressures of society may be, in most cases we ourselves must be at least co-definers of the social situation in question. That is, whatever the prehistory of this may be, we ourselves are called to an act of collaboration in the maintenance of the particular definition. However, another possibility of getting at the above question is to switch to another system of sociological conceptualization, namely that of Weber. We contend that a Weberian approach at this point will serve as a helpful balance to the Durkheimian angle on social existence.
Talcott Parsons has compared Weberian sociology to other approaches by calling it "voluntaristic." Although Weber's conception of scientific methodology was far too Kantian to allow for the introduction of the idea of freedom into his system, Parsons' term is apt in distinguishing the Weberian emphasis on the intentionality of social action as against the Durkheimian lack of interest in this dimension. As we have seen, Durkheim stresses the externality, objectivity, "thing"-like character of social reality (one is almost tempted here to use the scholastic term of "quiddity"). Against this, Weber always emphasizes the subjective meanings, intentionsand interpretations brought into any social situation by the actors participating in it. Weber, of course, also points out that what eventually happens in society may be very different from what these actors meant or intended. But he asserts that this entire subjective dimension must be taken into consideration for an adequate sociological understanding (Verstehen is the technical term used to denote the latter, a term that has been taken over into English sociological parlance). That is, sociological understanding involves the interpretation of meanings present in society.
In this view, each social situation is sustained by the fabric of meanings that are brought into it by the several participants. It is clear, of course, that m a situation whose meaning is strongly established by tradition and common consent a single individual cannot accomplish very much by proffering a deviant definition. At the very least, however, he can bring about his alienation from the situation. The possibility of marginal existence in society is already an indication that the commonly agreed-upon meanings are not omnipotent in their capacity to coerce. But more interesting are those cases where individuals succeed in capturing enough of a following to make their deviant interpretations of the world stick, at least within the circle of this following.
This possibility of breaking through the "world-taken-for-granted" of a society is developed in Weber's theory of charisma. The term, derived from the New Testament (where, however, it is used in a very different sense), denotes social authority that is not based on tradition or legality but rather on the extraordinary impact of an individual leader. The religious prophet, who defies the established order of things in the name of an absolute authority given to him by divine command, is the prototype of the charismatic leader. One can think here of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad. Charisma, however, can also appear in the profane areas of life, especially the political one. One can here think of such personages as Caesar or Napoleon. The paradigmatic form of such charismatic authority setting itself up against the established order can be found in Jesus' reiterated assertions that "you have heard it said . . . but I say to you." In this abut" lies a claim rightfully to supersede whatever was regarded as binding before. Typically, then, charisma constitutes a tremendously passionate challenge to the power of predefinition. It substitutes new meanings for old and radically redefines the assumptions of human existence.
Charisma is not to be understood as some sort of miracle that occurs without reference to what has happened before or to the social context of its appearance. Nothing in history is free of ties with the past. Also, as Weber's theory of charisma has developed in great detail, the extraordinary passion of a charismatic movement only rarely survives for longer than one generation. Invariably charisma becomes what Weber called "routinized," that is, becomes reintegrated into the structures of society in much less radical forms. Prophets are followed by popes, revolutionaries by administrators. When the great cataclysm of religious or political revolution is over and men have settled down to live under what was considered a new order, it invariably turns out that the changes have not been quite as total as it first appeared. Economic interests and political ambitions take over at the point where insurrectionary fervor has begun to cool. The old habits reassert themselves and the order created by the charismatic revolution begins to acquire disturbing similarities with the ancien régime that it overthrew with so much violence. Depending on one's values, this fact may sadden or comfort one. What interests us, however, is not the long-range weakness of rebellion in history, but its possibility in the first place.
It is noteworthy in this connection that Weber regarded charisma as one of the principal moving forces in history, despite his clear insight into the fact that charisma is always a very short-lived phenomenon. But however much the old patterns may reappear in the course of the "routinization" of charisma, the world is never quite the same again. Even though the change has been much less than the revolutionaries hoped or expected, change there has been none the less. Sometimes only the passage of much time shows just how deep the change has gone. This is why almost all attempts at total counterrevolution fail in history, as such undertakings as the Council of Trent or the Congress of Vienna illustrate. The lesson to be derived from this for our sociological perspective is simple, almost platitudinous, but none the less significant for a more balanced picture: It is possible to challenge effectively the Leviathan of predefinition. Or to put the same thing negatively, in terms of our previous discussion: It is possible to withhold our cooperation with history.
Part of the inexorable impression conveyed by the Durkheimian and related views of society comes from their not paying sufficient attention to the historical process itself. No social structure, however massive it may appear in the present, existed in this massivity from the dawn of time. Somewhere along the line each one of its salient features was concocted by human beings, whether they were charismatic visionaries, clever crooks, conquering heroes or just individuals in positions of power who hit on what seemed to them a better way of running the show. Since all social systems were created by men, it follows that men can also change them. Indeed, one of the limitations of the aforementioned views of society (which, to emphasize this again, give us a valid perspective on social reality) is that it is difFicult to account for change within their frame of referent. This is where the historical orientation of the Weberian approach redresses the balance.
The Durkheimian and Weberian ways of looking at society are not logically contradictory. They are only antithetical since they focus on different aspects of social reality. It is quite correct to say that society is objective fact, coercing and even creating us. But it is also correct to say that our own meaningful acts help to support the edifice of society and may on occasion help to change it. Indeed, the two statements contain between them the paradox of social existence: That society defines us, but is in turn defined by us. This paradox is what we have alluded to before in terms of our collusion and collaboration with society. As soon as we view society in this way, however, it appears very much more fragile than it did from the other vantage point. We need the recognition of society to be human, to have an image of ourselves, to have an identity. But society needs the recognition of many like us in order to exist at all. In other words, it is not only ourselves but society that exists by virtue of definition. It will depend on our social location as to whether our refusal to recognize a particular social reality will have much of an effect. It does not help the slave much to refuse to recognize his enslavement. It is a different story when one of the masters does so. However, systems of slavery have always reacted violently to such a challenge even from their humblest victims. It would seem, then, that just as there is no total power in society, there is also no total impotent. The masters in society recognize this fact and apply their controls accordingly.
It follows that the control systems are in constant need of confirmation and reconfirmation by those they are meant to control. It is possible to withhold such confirmation in a number of ways. Each one constitutes a threat to society as defined officially. The possibilities to take into consideration here are those of transformation, detachment and manipulation.
Our reference to charisma has already indicated rn what way the transformation of social definitions may occur. Charisma, of course, is not the only factor that can induce change in society. Any process of social change, however, is connected with new definitions of reality. Any such redefinition means that someone begins to act contrary to expectations directed towards him in line with the old definition. The master expects a bow from his slave and instead gets a fist in his face. It will depend, of course, on how frequent such incidents are whether we speak of individual "deviance" or social "disorganization," to use common sociological terms.
When an individual refuses to recognize the social definition of economic rights, we will be faced with a phenomenon of crime, namely with those acts of deviance that are listed in the FBI statistics as "crimes against property." But when masses of individuals, under political leadership, engage in the same refusal, we confront a revolution (be it in the form of the establishment of a socialist order or, more mildly, in a radical new tax system). The sociological differences between individual deviance, such as crime, and the wholesale dis- and re-organization of an entire social system, such as revolution, are obvious. Both, however, are significant in terms of our argument, in showing the possibility of resistance to the external and (of necessity) also the internal controls. In fact, when we look at revolutions, we find that the outward acts against the old order are invariably preceded by the disintegration of inward allegiance and loyalties. The images of kings topple before their thrones do. As Albert Salomon has shown this destruction of the peoples' conception of their rulers can be illustrated by the Affair of the Queen's Necklace before the French Revolution and the Rasputin case before the Russian. The ongoing insurrection of Southern Negroes against the segregation system in our own time was similarly preceded by a long process in which the old definitions of their role were discredited in the nation at large and destroyed in their own minds (a process, by the way, in which social scientists, including white Southern ones, played a not insignificant part). In other words, long before social systems are brought down in violence, they are deprived of their ideological sustenance by contempt. Nonrecognition and counterdefinition of social norms are always potentially revolutionary.
However, we can look at much more routine cases in which particular social situations can be transformed or at least sabotaged by a refusal to accept their previous definitions. If we may make a rather unscholarly reference here, we would point to the opus of the English humorist Stephen Potter as an excellent guide to the subtle art of social sabotage. What Potter calls the "ploy" is precisely the technique of redefining a situation contrary to general expectations and doing so in such a way that the other participants in the situation are caught off guard and find themselves helpless to counterattack. The patient who prearranges phone calls in such a way that he converts his doctor's consultation room into a business office, the American tourist in England who lectures his English host on the antiquities of London, the non-churchgoing houseguest who manages thoroughly to upset his churchgoing hosts on Sunday morning by alluding to his own darkly esoteric religious preference that would not possibly permit him to join them all these are instances of what could be called successful microsociological sabotage, picayune compared to the Promethean bouleversements of the great revolutionary, but none the less revealing of the innate precariousness of the social fabric. If his moral prejudices allow, the reader can readily test the validity of the Potterite technique of sociological demolition (which might well be called, with due apologies to Madison Avenue, the engineering of dissent). Let him pretend to be a tolerant but firm abstainer at a New York cocktail party, or an initiate of some mystic cult at a Methodist church picnic, or a psychoanalyst at a businessmen's luncheon in each case, he is quite likely to find that the introduction of a dramatic character that does not fit into the scenario of the particular play seriously threatens the role-playing of those who do fit. Experiences such as these may lead to a sudden reversal in one's view of society -from an awe-inspiring vision of an edifice made of massive granite to the picture of a toy-house precariously put together with papier mache. While such metamorphosis may be disturbing to people who have hitherto had great confidence in the stability and rightness of society, it can also have a very liberating effect on those more inclined to look upon the latter as a giant sitting on top of them, and not necessarily a friendly giant at that. It is reassuring to discover that the giant is afflicted with a nervous tic.
If one cannot transform or sabotage society, one can withdraw from it inwardly. Detachment has been a method of resistance to social controls at least since Lao-tzu and was made into a theory of resistance by the Stoics. The person who retires from the social stage into religious, intellectual or artistic domains of his own making still, of course, carries into this self-imposed exile the language, identity and store of knowledge that he initially achieved at the hands of society. Nevertheless it is possible, though frequently at considerable psychological cost, to build for oneself a castle of the mind in which the day-to-day expectations of society can be almost completely ignored. And as one does this, the intellectual character of this castle is more and more shaped by oneself rather than by the ideologies of the surrounding social system. If one finds others to join one in such an enterprise, one can in a very real sense create a counter-society whose relations with the other the "legitimate" society can be reduced to a diplomatic minimum. Incidentally, in that case the psychological burden of such detachment can be greatly minimized.
Such counter-societies, constructed on the basis of deviant and detached definitions, exist in the form of sects, cults, "inner circles" or other groups that sociologists call subcultures. If we want to emphasize the normative and cognitive separateness of such groups, the term subworld may be an apter one. A subworld exists as an island of deviant meanings within the sea of its society, to adapt the phrase that Carl Mayer used eloquently to describe the social character of religious sectarianism. The individual who enters such a subworld from the outside is made to feel very strongly that he is entering an entirely different universe of discourse Eccentric religiosity, subversive politics, unconventional sexuality, illegal pleasures any of these are capable of creating a subworld carefully shielded from the effect of both the physical and the ideological controls of the larger society. Thus a modern American city may contain, well hidden from public view, its subterranean worlds of theosophists, Trotskyists, homosexuals or drug addicts, speaking their own language and in its terms building a universe infinitely far removed in meaning from the world of their fellow citizens. Indeed, the anonymity and freedom of movement of modern urban life greatly facilitate the building of such underworlds.
However, it is important to emphasize that less rebellious constructions of the mind can also liberate the individual to a considerable extent from the definitory system of his society. A man who passionately devotes his life to the study of pure mathematics, theoretical physics, Assyriology or Zoroastrianism can afford to pay a minimum of attention to routine social demands, as long as he can somehow manage to survive economically in the pursuit of his interests. And, what is more important, the directions of thinking that these universes of discourse will naturally lead him to will have a very high degree of autonomy indeed vis-a-vis the routine intellectual patterns that constitute the world view of the man's society. One may recall here the toast delivered at a gathering of mathematicians: "To pure mathematics and may it never be of any use to anybody!" Unlike some of the examples mentioned earlier, this kind of subworld does not arise out of rebellion against society as such, but it leads all the same to an autonomous intellectual universe within which an individual can exist with almost Olympic detachment. Put differently, it is possible for men, alone or in groups, to construct their own worlds and on this basis to detach themselves from the world into which they were originally socialized.
The discussion of the art of "ploying" has already brought us close to the third major way of escaping the tyranny of society, that of manipulation. Here the individual does not try to transform the social structures nor does he detach himself from them Rather he makes deliberate use of them in ways unforeseen by their legitimate guardians, cutting a path through the social jungle in accordance with his own purposes. Erving Goffman, in his analysis of the world of "inmates" (be it of mental hospitals or prisons or other coercive institutions), has given us vivid examples of how it is possible to "work the system," that is, to utilize it in ways not provided for in the official operating procedures. The convict who works in the prison laundry and uses its machinery to wash his own socks, the patient who gets access to the staff communications system to transmit personal messages, the soldier who manages to transport his girl friends in military vehicles all these are "working the system," thereby proclaiming their own relative independence of its tyrannical demands. It would be rash to dismiss such manipulations too quickly as pathetic and ineffective efforts at rebellion. There have been instructive cases in which motor-pool sergeants successfully ran call-girl rings and hospital patients used the official message center as a bookie joint, such operations going on m subterranean fashion for long periods of time. And industrial sociology is full of examples of how workers can employ the official organization of a factory for purposes deviant from and sometimes contradictory to the intentions of management.
The ingenuity human beings are capable of in circumventing and subverting even the most elaborate control system is a refreshing antidote to sociologistic depression. It is as relief from social determinism that we would explain the sympathy that we frequently feel for the swindler, the impostor or the charlatan (as long, at any rate, as it is not ourselves who are being swindled). These figures symbolize a social Machiavellianism that understands society thoroughly and then, untrammeled by illusions, finds a way of manipulating society for its own ends. In literature there are characters such as André Gides Lafcadio or Thomas Manns Felix Krull that illustrate this fascination. In real life we could point to a man like Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., who bamboozled a long line of eminent specialists in various fields into accepting him as a colleague, successfully impersonating such respected social identities as college professor, military officer, penologist and even surgeon. Inevitably, in watching the swindler take on various roles of respectable society, we are pushed towards the uncomfortable impression that those who hold these roles "legitimately" may have attained their status by procedures not so drastically different from the ones employed by him. And if one knows the bamboozling, bunkum and (to use Potters term) "one-up-manship" that go into, say, a professorial career one may even come dangerously close to the conclusion that society is a swindle to begin with. In one way or another, we are all impostors. The ignoramus impersonates erudition, the crook honesty, the skeptic conviction and any normal university could not exist without the first confidence trick, no business organization without the second and no church without the third.
Another concept elaborated by Goffman is helpful in this connection the one he calls »role distance«. By this Goffman means the playing of a role tongue-in-cheek, without really meaning it and with an ulterior purpose. Every strongly coercive situation will produce this phenomenon. The "native" underling plays up to the pukka sahib in the expected way while planning the day on which all white throats will be cut. The Negro domestic plays the role of self-depreciating clown, and the enlisted man that of spick-and-span military fanatic, both with hindthoughts that are diametrically contrary to the mythology within which their roles have a meaning they inwardly reject. As Goffman points out, this kind of duplicity is the only way by which human dignity can be maintained within the self-awareness of people in such situations. But Goffman's concept could be applied more widely to all cases where a role is played deliberately without inner identification, in other words, where the actor has established an inner distance between his consciousness and his role-playing. Such cases are of paramount importance for sociological perspective because they depart from the normal pattern. This, as we have been at pains to point out, is that roles are played without reflection, in immediate and almost automatic response to the expectations of the situation. Here this fog of unconsciousness is suddenly dispelled. In many instances this may not affect the visible course of events, yet it constitutes a qualitatively different form of existence in society. "Role distance" marks the point at which the marionette clown becomes Bajaccio the puppet theater is transformed into a living stage. Of course, there is still a script, a stage management and a repertoire that includes one's own role. But one is now playing the part in question with full consciousness. As soon as this happens, there is the ominous possibility that Bajaccio may jump out of his role and start playing the tragic hero or that Hamlet may begin to do somersaults and sing dirty ditties. Let us repeat our previous assertion that all revolutions begin in transformations of consciousness.
A useful concept to introduce in this connection is that of "ecstasy." By this we refer not to some abnormal heightening of consciousness in a mystic sense, but rather, quite literally, to the act of standing or stepping outside (literally, ekstasis) the taken-for-granted routines of society. In our discussion of "alternation" we have already touched upon a very important form of "ecstasy" in our sense, namely, the one that takes place when an individual is enabled to jump from world to world in his social existence. However, even without such an exchange of universes it is possible to achieve distance and detachment vis-a-vis one's own world. As soon as a given role is played without inner commitment deliberately and deceptively, the actor is in an ecstatic state with regard to his "world-taken-for-granted." What others regard as fate, he looks upon as a set of factors to reckon with in his operations. What others assume to be essential identity, he handles as a convenient disguise. In other words, "ecstasy" transforms one's awareness of society in such a way that givenness becomes possibility. While this begins as a state of consciousness, it should be evident that sooner or later there are bound to be significant consequences in terms of action. From the point of view of the official guardians of order, it is dangerous to have too many individuals around playing the social game with inner reservations.
The consideration of "role distance" and "ecstasy" as possible elements of social existence raises an interesting sociology-of-knowledge question, namely, whether there are social contexts or groups that particularly facilitate such consciousness. Karl Mannheim, who greatly favored such a development on ethical and political grounds (a position that some might want to debate), spent a good deal of time looking for its possible social ground. His view of the "freely suspended intelligentsia" (that is, of a stratum of intellectuals with minimal involvement in the vested interests of society) as the best carriers of this sort of liberated consciousness may be disputed. At the same time, there can be little doubt that certain kinds of intellectual training and activity are capable of leading to "ecstasy," as we indicated in our discussion of the forms of detachment.
Other tentative generalizations can be made. "Ecstasy" is more likely to take place in urban than in rural cultures (vide the classic role of cities as places of political freedom and liberality in thought), among groups that are marginal to society than among those at its center (vide the historic relationship of European Jews to various liberating intellectual movements or, in a very different way, take the example of the itinerant Bulgarian journeymen carrying the Manichaean heresy all the way across Europe into Provence), as it is also more likely in groups that are insecure in their social position than among those that are secure (vide the production of debunking ideologies among rising classes that have to fight against an established order, the rising French bourgeoisie m the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries providing us with a prime example). Such social location of the phenomenon reminds us once more that not even total rebellion takes place in a social vacuum without predefinitions. Even nihilism is predefined in terms of the structures it is driven to negate before one can have atheism, for instance, there must be an idea of God. In other words, every liberation from social roles takes place within limits that are social themselves. Nevertheless, our consideration of the various forms of "ecstasy" has taken us some way from the deterministic corner into which our previous argument had chased us.
We thus arrive at a third picture of society, after those of the prison and the puppet theater, namely that of society as a stage populated with living actors. This third picture does not obliterate the previous two, but it is more adequate in terms of the additional social phenomena we have considered. That is, the dramatic model of society at which we have arrived now does not deny that the actors on the stage are constrained by all the external controls set up by the impresario and the internal ones of the role itself. All the same they have options of playing their parts enthusiastically or sullenly, of playing with inner conviction or with "distance," and, sometimes, of refusing to play at all. Looking at society through the medium of this dramatic model greatly changes our general sociological perspective. Social reality now seems to be precariously perched on the cooperation of many individual actors or perhaps a better simile would be that of acrobats engaged in perilous balancing acts, holding up between them the swaying structure of the social world.
Stage, theater, circus and even carnival here we have the imagery of our dramatic model, with a conception of society as precarious, uncertain, often unpredictable. The institutions of society, while they do in fact constrain and coerce us, appear at the same time as dramatic conventions, even fictions. They have been invented by past impresarios, and future ones may cast them back into the nothingness whence they emerged. Acting out the social drama we keep pretending that these precarious conventions are eternal verities. We act as if there were no other way of being a man, a political subject, a religious devotee or one who exercises a certain profession yet at times the thought passes through the minds of even the dimmest among us that we could do very, very different things. If social reality is dramatically created, it must also be dramatically malleable. In this way, the dramatic model opens up a passage out of the rigid determinism into which sociological thought originally led us.
Before we leave behind us our narrower sociological argument who would like to point to a classical contribution that is very relevant to the points just made the theory of sociability of the German sociologist Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Weber's whose approach to sociology differed considerably from the latter's. Simmel argued that sociability (in the usual meaning of this word) is the play-form of social interaction. At a party people "play society," that is, they engage in many forms of social interaction, but without their usual sting of seriousness. Sociability changes serious communication to noncommittal conversation, eros to coquetry, ethics to manners, aesthetics to taste. As Simmel shows, the world of sociability is a precarious and artificial creation that can be shattered at any moment by someone who refuses to play the game. The man who engages in passionate debate at a party spoils the game, as does the one who carries flirtation to the point of open seduction (a party is not an orgy) or the one who openly promotes business interests under the guise of harmless chitchat (party conversation must at least pretend to be disinterested). Those who participate in a situation of pure sociability temporarily leave behind their "serious" identities and move into a transitory world of make-believe, which consists among other things of the playful pretense that those concerned have been freed from the weights of position, property and passions normally attached to them. Anyone who brings in the gravity (in both senses of the word) of "serious" outside interests immediately shatters this fragile artifice of make-believe. This, incidentally, is why pure sociability is rarely possible except among social equals, since otherwise the pretense is too strenuous to maintain as every office party shows painfully.
We are not particularly interested in the phenomenon of sociability for its own sake, but we can now relate what Simmel maintains about it to our earlier consideration of Mead's notion that social roles are learned through play. We contend that sociability could not exist at all as the artifice it is if society at large did not have a similarly artificial character. In other words, sociability is a special case of "playing society," more consciously fictitious, less tied up with the urgent ambitions of one's career but yet of one piece with a much larger social fabric that one can also play with. It is precisely through such play, as we have seen, that the child learns to take on his "serious" roles. In sociability we return for some moments to the masquerading of childhood hence perhaps the pleasure of it.
But it is assuming too much to think that the masks of the "serious" world are terribly different from those of this world of play. One plays the masterful raconteur at the party and the man of firm will at the office. Party tact has a way of being translated into political finesse, shrewdness in business into the adroit handling of etiquette for purposes of sociability. Or, if you like, there is a nexus between "social graces" and social skills in general. In this fact lies the sociological justification of the "social" training of diplomats as well as of debutantes. By "playing society" one learns how to be a social actor anywhere. And this is possible only because society as a whole has the character of a play. As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga has brilliantly shown in his book Homo ludens, it is impossible to grasp human culture at all unless we look at it sub specie ludi under the aspect of play and playfulness.
With these thoughts we have come to the very limits of what it is still possible to say within a social-scientific frame of reference. Within the latter, we cannot go any further in lifting from the reader the deterministic burden of our earlier argumentation. Compared with this argumentation, what has been said in the present chapter,so far may appear rather weak and less than conclusive. This is unavoidable. To repeat ourselves, it is impossible a priori to come upon freedom in its full sense by scientific means or within a scientific universe of discourse. The closest we have been able to come is to show, in certain situations, a certain freedom from social controls. We cannot possibly discover freedom to act socially by scientific means. Even if we should find holes in the order of causality that can be established sociologically, the psychologist, the biologist or some other dealer in causations will step in and stuff up our hole with materials spun from his cloth of determinism. But since we have made no promises m this book to limit ourselves ascetically to scientific logic, we are now ready to approach social existence from a very different direction. We have not been able to get at freedom sociologically, and we realize that we never can. So be it. Let us see now how we can look at our sociological model itself from a different vantage point.
As we remarked before, only an intellectual barbarian is likely to maintain that reality is only that which can be grasped by scientific methods. Since, hopefully, we have tried to stay out of this category, our sociologizing has been carried on in the foreground of another view of human existence that is not itself sociological or even scientific. Nor is this view particularly eccentric, but rather the common (if very differently elaborated) anthropology of those who credit man with the capacity for freedom. Obviously a philosophical discussion of such an anthropology would utterly break the framework of this book and would, for that matter, lie beyond the competence of its writer. But while no attempt will be made here to provide a philosophical introduction to the question of human freedom, it is necessary to our argument that at least some indications be given of how it is possible to think sociologically without abandoning this notion of freedom, and, more than that, in what way a view of man that includes the idea of freedom may take cognizance of the social dimension. We contend that here is an important area of dialogue between philosophy and the social sciences that still contains vast tracts of virgin territory. We point to the work of Alfred Schuetz and to the contemporary efforts of Maurice Natanson as indicating the direction in which this dialogue could move. Our own remarks in the following pages will, of necessity, be exceedingly sketchy. But it is hoped that they will suffice to indicate to the reader that sociological thought need not necessarily end in a positivistic swamp.
We shall now begin with the postulate that men are free and from this new starting point return to the same problem of social existence. In doing this, we shall find helpful some concepts developed by existentialist philosophers (though we shall use these without any doctrinaire intentions). Herewith the reader is invited to undertake an epistemological salto mortale--and this behind him, to return to the matter at hand.
Let us retrace our steps to the point where we looked at Gehlen's theory of institutions. The latter, we will recall, are interpreted in this theory as channeling human conduct very much along the lines that instincts channel the behavior of animals. When we considered this theory, we made the remark that there is, however, one crucial difference between the two kinds of channeling: The animal, if it reflected on the matter of following its instincts, would say, "I have no choice." Men, explaining why they obey their institutional imperatives, say the same. The difference is that the animal would be saying the truth; the men are deceiving themselves. Why? Because, in fact, they can say "no" to society, and often have done so. There may be very unpleasant consequences if they take this course. They may not even think about it as a possibility, because they take their own obedience for granted. Their institutional character may be the only identity they can imagine having, with the alternative seeming to them as a jump into madness. This does not change the fact that the statement "I must" is a deceptive one in almost every social situation.
From our new vantage point, within an anthropological frame of reference that recognizes man as free, we can usefully apply to this problem what Jean-Paul Sartre has called "bad faith." To put it very simply, "bad faith" is to pretend something is necessary that in fact is voluntary. "Bad faith" is thus a flight from freedom, a dishonest evasion of the "agony of choice." "Bad faith" expresses itself in innumerable human situations from the most commonplace to the most catastrophic. The waiter shuffling through his appointed rounds in a cafe, is in "bad faith" insofar as he pretends to himself that the waiter role constitutes his real existence, that, if only for the hours he is hired, he is the waiter. The woman who lets her body be seduced step by step while continuing to carry on an innocent conversation is m "bad faith," insofar as she pretends that what is happening to her body is not under her control. The terrorist who kills and excuses himself by saying that he had no choice because the party ordered him to kill is in "bad faith," because he pretends that his existence is necessarily linked with the party, while in fact this linkage is the consequence of his own choice. It can easily be seen that "bad faith" covers society like a film of lies. The very possibility of "bad faith," however, shows us the reality of freedom. Man can be in "bad faith" only because he is free and does not wish to face his freedom. "Bad faith" is the shadow of human liberty. Its attempt to escape that liberty is doomed to defeat. For, as Sartre has famously put it, we are "condemned to freedom."
If we apply this concept to our sociological perspective, we will suddenly be faced with a startling conclusion. The complex of roles within which we exist in society now appears to us as an immense apparatus of "bad faith." Each role carries with it the possibility of "bad faith." Every man who says "I have no choice" in referring to what his social role demands of him is engaged in "bad faith." Now, we can easily imagine circumstances in which this confession will be true to the extent that there is no choice within that particular role. Nevertheless, the individual has the choice of stepping outside the role. It is true that, given certain circumstances, a businessman has "no choice" but brutally to destroy a competitor, unless he is to go bankrupt himself, but it is he who chooses brutality over bankruptcy. It is true that a man has "no choice" but to betray a homosexual attachment if he is to retain his position in respectable society, but he is the one making the choice between respectability and loyalty to that attachment. It is true that in some cases a judge has "no choice" but to sentence a man to death, but in doing so he chooses to remain a judge, an occupation chosen by him in the knowledge that it might lead to this, and he chooses not to resign instead when faced with the prospect of this duty. Men are responsible for their actions. They are in "bad faith" when they attribute to iron necessity what they themselves are choosing to do. Even the law itself, that master fortress of "bad faith," has begun to take cognizance of this fact in its dealings with Nazi war criminals.
Sartre has given us a masterful vista of the operation of "bad faith" at its most malevolent in his portrayal of the anti-Semite as a human type. The anti-Semite is the man who frantically identifies himself with mythological entities ("nation," "race," "Volk") and in doing so seeks to divest himself of the knowledge of his own freedom. Anti-Semitism (or, we might add, any other form of racism or fanatical nationalism) is "bad faith" par excellence because it identifies men in their human totality with their social character. Humanity itself becomes a facticity devoid of freedom. One then loves, hates and kills within a mythological world in which all men are their social designations, as the SS man is what his insignia say and the Jew is the symbol of despicability sewn on his concentration-camp uniform.
"Bad faith" in this form of ultimate malignancy however, is not limited to the Kafkaesque world of Nazism and its totalitarian analogies. It exists in our own society in identical patterns of self-deception. It is only as one long series of acts of "bad faith" that capital punishment continues to exist in allegedly humane societies. Our torturers, just like the Nazi ones, present themselves as conscientious public servants, with an impeccable if mediocre private morality, who reluctantly overcome their weakness in order to do their duty.
We will not at this point go into the ethical implications of such "bad faith." We shall do so briefly in the excursus that follows this chapter. We would rather return here to the startling view of society that we have reached as a result of these considerations. Since society exists as a network of social roles, each one of which can become a chronic or a momentary alibi from taking responsibility for its bearer, we can say that deception and self-deception are at the very heart of social reality. Nor is this an accidental quality that could somehow be eradicated by some moral reformation or other. The deception inherent in social structures is a functional imperative. Society can maintain itself only if its fictions (its "as if" character, to use Hans Vaihinger's term) are accorded ontological status by at least some of its members some of the time or, let us say, society as we have so far known it in human history.
Society provides for the individual a gigantic mechanism by which he can hide from himself his own freedom. Yet this character of society as an immense conspiracy in "bad faith" is, just as in the case of the individual, but an expression of the possibility of freedom that exists by virtue of society. We are social beings and our existence is bound to specific social locations. The same social situations that can become traps of "bad faith" can also be occasions for freedom. Every social role can be played knowingly or blindly. And insofar as it is played knowingly, it can become a vehicle of our own decisions. Every social institution can be an alibi an instrument of alienation from our freedom. But at least some institutions can become protective shields for the actions of free men. In this way, an understanding of "bad faith" does not necessarily lead us to a view of society as the universal realm of illusion, but rather illuminates more clearly the paradoxical and infinitely precarious character of social existence.
Another concept of existentialist philosophy useful for our argument is what Martin Heidegger has called das Man. The German word is untranslatable literally into English. It is used in German in the same way that "one" is used in English in such a sentence as "One does not do that" ("Man tut das nicht"). The French word on conveys the same meaning, and José Ortega y Gasset has caught Heidegger's intention well in Spanish with his concept of lo que se hace. In other words, Man refers to a deliberately vague generality of human beings. It is not this man who will not do this, nor that man, nor you nor I--it is, in some way, all men, but so generally that it may just as well be nobody. It is in this vague sense that a child is told "one does not pick one's nose in public." The concrete child, with his concretely irritating nose, is subsumed under an anonymous generality that has no face--and yet bears down powerfully on the child's conduct. In fact (and this ought to give us a long pause), Heidegger's Man bears an uncanny resemblance to what Mead has called the "generalized other."
In Heidegger's system of thought the concept of the Man is related to his discussion of authenticity and inauthenticity. To exist authentically is to live in full awareness of the unique, irreplaceable and incomparable quality of one's individuality. By contrast inauthentic existence is to lose oneself in the anonymity of the Man, surrendering one's uniqueness to the socially constituted abstractions. This is especially important in the way one faces death. The truth of the matter is that it is always one single, solitary individual who dies. But society comforts the bereaved and those who are to die themselves by subsuming each death under general categories that appear to assuage its horror. A man dies, and we say "Well, we all have to go someday." This "we all" is an exact rendition of the Man--it is everybody and thus nobody, and by putting ourselves under its generality we hide from ourselves the inevitable fact that we too shall die, singly and solitarily. Heidegger himself has referred to Tolstois story The Death of Ivan llyitch as the best literary expression of inauthenticity in the facing of death. As an illustration of authenticity to the point of torment we would submit Federico García Lorca's unforgettable poem about the death of a bullfighter, Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.
Heidegger's concept of Man is relevant for our view of society not so much in its normative as in its cognitive aspects. Under the aspect of "bad faith" we have seen society as a mechanism to provide alibis from freedom. Under the aspect of the Man we see society as a defense against terror. Society provides us with taken-for-granted structures (we could also speak here of the "okay world") within which, as long as we follow the rules, we are shielded from the naked terrors of our condition. The "okay world" provides routines and rituals through which these terrors are organized in such a way that we can face them with a measure of calm.
All rites of passage illustrate this function. The miracle of birth, the mystery of desire, the horror of death--all these are carefully camouflaged as we are led gently over one threshold after another, apparently in a natural and self-evident sequence; we all are born, lust and must die, and thus every one of us can be protected against the unthinkable wonder of these events. The Man enables us to live inauthentically by sealing up the metaphysical questions that our existence poses. We are surrounded by darkness on all sides as we rush through our brief span of life toward inevitable death. The agonized question "Why?" that almost every man feels at some moment or other as he becomes conscious of his condition is quickly stifled by the cliché answers that society has available. Society provides us with religious systems and social rituals, ready-made, that relieve us of such questioning. The "world-taken-for-granted," the social world that tells us that everything is quite okay, is the location of our inauthenticity.
Let us take a man who wakes up at night from one of those nightmares in which one loses all sense of identity and location. Even in the moment of waking, the reality of one's own being and of one's world appears as a dreamlike phantasmagorion that could vanish or be metamorphosed in the twinkling of an eye. One lies in bed in a sort of metaphysical paralysis, feeling oneself but one step removed from that annihilation that had loomed over one in the nightmare just passed. For a few moments of painfully clear consciousness one is at the point of almost smelling the slow approach of death and, with it, of nothingness. And then one gropes for a cigarette and, as the saying goes "comes back to reality." One reminds oneself of one's name, address and occupation, of one's plans for the next day. One walks about one's house, full of proofs of past and present identity. One listens to the noises of the city. Perhaps one wakes up wife or children and is reassured by their annoyed protests. Soon one can laughingly dismiss the foolishness of what has just transpired, raid the refrigerator for a bite or the liquor closet for a nightcap, and go to sleep with the determination to dream of one's next promotion.
So far, so good. But what exactly is the "reality" to which one has just returned? It is the "reality" of one's socially constructed world, that "okay world" in which metaphysical questions are always laughable unless they have been captured and castrated in taken-for-granted religious ritualism. The truth is that this "reality" is a very precarious one indeed. Names, addresses, occupations and wives have a way of disappearing. All plans end in extinction. All houses eventually become empty. And even if we live all our lives without having to face the agonizing contingency of all we are and do, in the end we must return to that nightmare moment when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and all identities. What is more, we know this which makes for the inauthenticity of our scurrying for shelter. Society gives us names to shield us from nothingness. It builds a world for us to live in and thus protects us from the chaos that surrounds us on all sides. It provides us with a language and with meanings that make this world believable. And it supplies a steady chorus of voices that confirm our belief and still our dormant doubts.
Again we would repeat in this slightly altered context what we have said before about "bad faith." It is correct that society, in its aspect of Man, is a conspiracy to bring about inauthentic existence. The walls of society are a Potemkin village erected in front of the abyss of being. They function to protect us from terror, to organize for us a cosmos of meaning within which our lives make sense. But it is also true that authentic existence can take place only within society. All meanings are transmitted in social processes. One cannot be human, authentically or inauthentically, except in society. And the very avenues that lead to a wondering contemplation of being, be they religious or philosophical or aesthetic, have social locations. Just as society can be a flight from freedom or an occasion for it, society can bury our metaphysical quest or provide forums in which it can be pursued. We come up once more on the persistently Janus-faced paradox of our social existence. All the same, there can be but little doubt that society functions as alibi and as Potemkin village for more people than it functions for as an avenue of liberation. If we maintain that authenticity in society is possible, we are not thereby maintaining that most men are indeed making use of this possibility. Wherever we ourselves may be socially located, one look around us will tell us otherwise.
With these observations we have come once more to the edge of ethical considerations that we want to postpone for another moment. We would stress at this point, however, that "ecstasy," as we have defined it, has metaphysical as well as sociological significant. Only by stepping out of the taken-for-granted routines of society is it possible for us to confront the human condition without comforting mystifications. This does not mean that only the marginal man or the rebel can be authentic. It does mean that freedom presupposes a certain liberation of consciousness. Whatever possibilities of freedom we may have, they cannot be realized if we continue to assume that the "okay world" of society is the only world there is. Society provides us with warm, reasonably comfortable caves, in which we can huddle with our fellows, beating on the drums that drown out the howling hyenas of the surrounding darkness. "Ecstasy" is the act of stepping outside the caves, alone, to face the night.