Sunday, January 14, 2018

It's not the end of the world, but we can see it from here

The world did not end yesterday.

This statement has two qualities. One is that it is universally true for literally every situation you will find yourself in, a precondition for situations being that yesterday led to the present. The second, and more immediately pressing quality, is that it is related to a very specific event.

If you are reading in the future, then here is the context: yesterday, an alarm went off in Hawaii, warning about an imminent ballistic strike. Which is a technical way of saying that the nukes are coming, and they are coming this way. As you might imagine, this caused quite a bit of emotional anxiety for everyone involved. The fact that the whole ordeal happened because someone pressed the wrong button (I have been given impression that this is the literal truth, rather than mere evocative language) - did not help.

In fact, very few things help when the world is about to end. That is kind of the point of the world ending.

This is a very immediate situation to find oneself in. Everything becomes irrelevant, and one singular question becomes the totality of all possible lines of thinking: what do you do? Nothing matters any more, and thus the only thing that matters is what you do. Other questions, such as "what would others think?" "would this look good on my CV?" "does this affect my credit rating?" "can I really afford it in the long run?" - are swept away, and you are left with the immediacy of choice: do or do not, do this or do that. The long term is gone, this is your moment to define yourself in terms of your own. For the duration, you are the most important thing in your reality. You decide. What do you do?

This immediacy is both terrifying and, in a perverse way, liberating. The word that most perfectly summarizes the situation is the old version of "awesome": to be struck to one's very core with awe in the presence of some overwhelming factor which quite literally is larger than anything one has ever encountered before. It is the kind of experience that leaves you mouth agape and your mind repeating: everything I knew was wrong. Nothing makes sense any more, and because of that, the multitude of considerations that permeate everyday life melts away. Nothing makes sense, and the only thing that is of any importance whatsoever is:

What do you do?

Fortunately, the news about the world ending happened to be greatly exaggerated. We are still here to talk about it, and to try to get a grip on what this all means. Most, I suspect, will see it as just another news item among many, and not think too closely about it; there are still plenty of everyday chores to be done, and the non-ending of the world means they will not do themselves. Life goes on, with ruthless indifference, and this confronts us with a single, even more pressing question:

What do we do now?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Backstage sociology

This semester, we talked a lot about Goffman's concepts of frontstage and backstage. One of the things that struck me about it is that it is, as so many other concepts, fractal. You can apply it to just about any level, and then move either upwards or downwards, finding roughly the same processes going on. The scales differ, but the process remains the same.

These words have the advantage of meaning what you think they mean. Backstage is the social space behind the stage, where the last-minute rehearsals, costume changes and informal banter takes place, while frontstage is, well, on stage. The two spaces have different social dynamics, and things that are proper in one is improper in the other, and vice versa. While the play is on, only the actors who are supposed to be on stage are on stage, and they have very defined roles to play; the show must go on. Only when they have retreated backstage can the actors let their guard down, stop acting and - quite unceremoniously - collapse into the post-performance heaps they really are.

The audience members, too, have roles to fill whilst the show is on. The fact that these roles mostly consist of sitting and watching makes them comparatively easy to play; this does not, however, take away from the fact that things get very strange very fast if audience members suddenly decide to join in on the action. Everyone present have roles to fill, and most everyone present know these roles implicitly.

A non-theatrical example is a restaurant. Out among the tables, things are quiet and posh, with hushed conversations taking place among the dining guests, a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In the kitchen, however, the hustle and bustle is in full swing, with yelling, fast-paced motions and a stress level that is through the roof. The difference between frontstage and backstage is not subtle.

The fact that these two states of things happen in close proximity to each other means that there have to be boundaries between them. Often enough, these boundaries are subtle until you try to cross them. A restaurant guest is usually not allowed into the kitchen, and quickly escorted out should they somehow stumble into it. Shoppers are allowed to browse the store area, but any attempt to enter the back rooms will be ever so efficiently discouraged. If you do not have a keycard, you are not allowed into the office building. At concerts, only those with backstage passes are allowed into these mystical spaces.

Most spaces can be analyzed using these concepts. They are very versatile in this regard.

They are also fractal. Individuals act differently when they are frontstage (often quite literally meaning that they are not alone) than when they are backstage, and the boundaries between these states allow very few persons access. A small group (beginning at two persons) can similarly act differently when in a frontstage setting than when alone, with similar boundaries to entry. A large group (a theatre production, for instance) can project a particular image frontstage, while having very different dynamics backstage. And so on, scaling up as much as need be. (I suspect the discovery of alien life will have interesting implications in this regard.)

The only thing needed to use these concepts is an impulse to apply them to concrete situations. Upon reading this, you now have this impulse.

Have fun.