Sensibility, the Garfinkel Way

Posted on November 8, 2013 by


In Theory

Let’s talk about peace. Let’s talk about love. Let’s talk about understanding. No, let’s talk about shoving my broken-down car up a hill. So we get out of the car, and we shove. Only you (jackass) are only pretending to shove, while I am shoving sincerely.1 Ha ha, good joke. The interesting thing about the joke, though, for present purposes, is the sense it makes to me. I thought we were working together to push the car up the hill. Yes, I was wrong about what you were doing — that’s the prank part. But the interesting thing is that I was also wrong about what I was doing. Erving Goffman described these sorts of things as frameworks collapsing. The meaning system that I was using to understand myself fell away, and another, more fundamental one, took over. My immediate experience — how I understood the shoving — was disconfirmed at the top of the hill. What I thought I was experiencing wasn’t what I was experiencing. My experience — my sense of the world — is shown to have an odd social aspect to it. It isn’t just my experience.

In the heavily psychological understanding we have of ourselves in present culture — Marshall McLuhan, in particular, argued that it wasn’t always this way — our selves are something we have, “deep down,” and our job is to express (or not express) them as we make our way through the world. This is communication: making what is private public, to quote a well-used textbook definition. But, for a moment, your car-shoving joke inverts that commonplace understanding. What is private is shown to be somehow contingent on the public part. You can mistake your own experience.

OK, so you tell me you like Jack. I understand this. I see Jack, and I mention that you like him. Word gets around, then you come to me, angry, and ask, “Who told you I liked Jack?” Well, you did. “I don’t like like him. God.” Now, what is understanding? Obviously, understanding is not the sense I had of having understood you. In fact, it looks like I can’t be sure I understood you until my understanding was somehow socially tested. So my experience of having understood something does not mean I understood it. Understanding is quite obviously not a psychological experience.

Love: a guy and a gal meet in a heterosexually normative way, which is to say, drunk. Sparks happen, and they begin to date. She sincerely likes the guy. He, however, for his own (unimportant) nefarious reasons, is scamming her. Things progress. They fall in love. Well, she falls in love. He pretends to fall in love, using his awesome performance skills to deceive her. (He is not unlike my uncle, but we can save that story for another time.) They get married. (His nefarious plan is very deep.) She, radiant, says “I do” and means it. He, of course, withholds his commitment as he says the words. They buy a house, have a couple of kids, manage careers and families, live rich and full lives, she with total authenticity, and he misleading her. Kids grow up. They retire, move to a bungalow in Sarasota. She is happy. He is “happy.” You get it. Now, he drops dead, without ever revealing, leaking, or documenting his evil plan. What happened there? Was it love?

Now, nobody could do that. No one performs so well that they wouldn’t eventually get caught in their deception. True. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem posed by our story, but, even so, don’t you sometimes look over at a loved one and kind of fall out of your story for a second and think, “who are you, anyway?” Aren’t there times when you aren’t feeling your love for another person, and you just act along with it, knowing, from experience, that it will probably come back in fifteen minutes, so there’s no reason to make a fuss?

A second strategy is to say, no, that wasn’t love. It’s more or less like your car-shoving prank (jackass). She thought she was in love, but she was mistaken. Well, first of all, read that last sentence carefully and note how odd it is. Then, consider that, following my example, in this case you never let on that you weren’t shoving. Something stranger is happening.

Love is obviously not how you feel. Quite. It is kind of a hypothesis, something you hope is true. The achievement, as Harold Garfinkel would point out, is that, in love (and many other things), you feel like you feel together when that is clearly impossible. How did you do that? Short answer: love is how we treat one another. We make a case for the feeling, both to our partners and ourselves.

Peace I will leave for the reader to work out at home.

Love, understanding, working together to shove a car are not experiences, per se, they are social accomplishments that we retroactively interpret into experiences. (That interpretation being an important part of the work.) Likewise self is less something we have deep inside us, and is really something more like “commitment to a narrative.” The work of that becomes visible when you do something dopey and say, in an effort to salvage continuity, “I just wasn’t myself.” Who were you? Or when you go out to the woods and say, “now I can really be myself.” Who were you before?

Self is a thing you do, a story that — for the non-sociopaths among us — you have a stake in maintaining, a burden you drag around. You incorporate the coherent things you do into that story, and repress the things that don’t fit. When the audience is others, we call this work “identity.” When the audience is us, we call it “self.”

So, finally, the title. What Garfinkel might say is that the work of everyday life is to make things sensible. That is, to make things — things like love, understanding, shoving, and selves — able to be made sense of. We behave in ways that (we hope) others will interpret sensibly, and then (we hope) they make into stories about us that are broadly reflective of how we would like to be seen.

1 Example borrowed from John Searle. (back)

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