The Creative Destruction of Situations

April 9, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post used a disastrous performance of Peter Pan as an instance wher the “definition of the situation” breaks down irreparably. That kind of total breakdown is rare. Any social situation can go wrong, but it’s a usually a matter of embarrassment, not a complete fiasco, and the encounter can continue though perhaps not as smoothly as before.

As Goffman says in his classic essay “Embarrassment and Social Organization”*

The elements of a social encounter, then, consist of effectively projected claims to an acceptable self and the confirmation of like claims on the part of the others. The contributions of all are oriented to these and built up on the basis of them. When an event throws doubt upon or discredits these claims, then the encounter finds itself lodged in assumptions which no longer hold. The responses the parties have made ready are now out of place and must be choked back, and the interaction must be reconstructed.

The Peter Pan that went wrong as described on This American Life wasn’t “restructured.” Instead, at least for the audience, it became something else entirely — a sequence of hilarious sight gags for them to laugh at. 

These breakdowns don’t always end badly, though they usually do. Sometimes the moment of embarrassment can lead to the “creative destruction” of a definition of the situation that was not working and its replacement with something better.

In the final story of the episode of This American Life, the encounter that goes wrong involves a journalist Margy Rochlin in 1982 interviewing Moon Unit Zappa, whose “Valley Girls” was climbing the charts. Moon was 14. The interview took place in her living. Her mother was also present.

The interview was not going well. As Rochlin, tells it, “I’m sort of that rock bottom level that everyone can get at in an interview, where you’re just saying, like, what's your favorite color?” The cup of coffee that Moon’s mother has given Rochlin has gotten cold. And then. . .

And so what happened was Moon told me a joke. And I didn’t see the joke coming. And right before she told me the joke, I had taken a big swig of the coffee, which was now cold. And when she told me the joke, I burst out laughing. And I started to choke. And so I pressed my lips together, so I didn't spit it out. I didn't want to do a spit-take. And the coffee came shooting out my nose. . . . I was really embarrassed, but simultaneously, I couldn't breathe. At the same time, I was choking. And I jumped up. And I sort of started running around the room, knocking things over.

It gets worse. The mother chases Rochlin around the room trying to give her the Heimlich manoeuvre. (you can hear Rochlin’s full account here).

Ira Glass: Now, what happened after that? 

Margy Rochlin: It was sort of like we’d all been in an earthquake together. And all of nervousness left the room. And suddenly we were three gals, just chatting. And I remember that I sort of hugged them both when I left. They were now my friends. 

Ira Glass: It’s interesting, because one of our criteria for a fiasco is that all social order, the normal social structure breaks down. And literally, that’s what happens here. The normal interview stops. And the social structure of the moment completely changes. The mom gives you the Heimlich maneuver. And then, suddenly, it stops feeling like an interview.

Ira Glass calls it “the social structure of the moment.” Sociology instructors call it the “definition of the situation.”

*American Journal of Sociology, Volume 62, Issue 3 (Nov., 1956), 264-271.

When Definitions of the Situation Fail

April 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This weekend’s episode of This American Life (here) was called “Fiasco.” The title for Soc 101 would have been “Definition of the Situation.”

Most of the time, we don’t realize that we have such a definition. We know what something is – a play in a theater, police responding to a minor call for assistance, a journalst doing a celebrity interview. Nor do we realize that all the participants must do their part to sustain that definition. It’s only when something goes wrong that we begin to see these requirements.

These stories all involved things going wrong, very wrong. At first, people tried to maintain the definition they had come with. They tried to ignore or explain away the events that don’t fit. But eventually, they had to abandon the defintion.

The first story, recounted by journalist Jack Hitt,  was about a production of Peter Pan, the play where Peter and the Darling children fly. But the stagehand operating flying mechanisms don’t know what they’re doing, and the actors are swung about randomly or just left hanging in air.

 [The transcriptions below do not include all of what is in the audio clips.]

Ira Glass: Wait, wait. And the audience reaction to this point is just — are they laughing?

Jack Hitt: No one is laughing. One of the great things about audiences, especially in a live theater production, is that they’re very forgiving. They want the show to work. And so everyone is sort of gripping their chair a little tightly. We feel for them. They’re up there — they're embarrassing themselves for us.

Ira Glass: We identify with them. We become them.

Jack Hitt: And so the audience, I think, was very forgiving and very understanding of this moment.

“We identify with them [the actors],” says Ira, “We become them.” But it would be more accurate to say that we identify with the entire situation. The actors may be “embarrassing themselves,” but as Erving Goffman says, embarrassment affects the entire situation and the people who are part of it.
Even when the little boy playing the youngest child is being jerked up and then suddenly plummeted almost to the floor, “No one said a word. We just all sat there sort of holding our breath. And there’s that weird tension of being in the audience thinking, oh, oh my goodness. They have gotten off to a very bad start. Oh, this is not good. And we feel for them.”

To put it another way, our definition is still that this is Peter Pan. It’s just a Peter Pan where things aren’t going well.That definition starts to crumble as the younger people, teenagers, in the audience start laughing. The adults though held on to the old definition for a bit longer.

Jack Hitt: There was a split in the audience. Sort of the younger people who were the least forgiving, they started to go first, OK? So the high school students, couple of college students maybe, they started to laugh out loud. . . . But then whatever restraint that the audience had, it just evaporated at this point because there were a number of things that happened in quick succession that just made it impossible to hold any sense of decorum.

The audience was arriving at a new defintion. This is not Peter Pan, where we think about the schemes of Captain Hook and the responses of Peter and the children. It’s a fiasco, where we wait for the next sight gag.

Jack Hitt: There are just belly laughs rolling up to the stage from the audience. People are howling with laughter at every mistake. And now any small mistake just takes on these-- any instigation for laughter is just enough of for this audience. And now the old people have given it up. Everyone has quit being nice. Now there's just this kind of frightening roar that comes from the audience every time there’s a mistake.

Once the audience has this new definition, they sustain it in the same way that they had tried to sustain the old one, ignoring or rejecting information that doesn’t fit.

Ira Glass: At some point the audience turned and realized, oh wait. I realize what’s going on here. This is a fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Yeah. This is a fiasco. And what’s really interesting about a fiasco is that once it starts to tumble down, the audience wants to push it further along.

Ira Glass: Oh, they get hungry for more fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Oh, yeah. Ira Glass: If the play proceeded perfectly, they would be disappointed.

When Virtue Is Its Own — and Only — Reward

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A warren of journalism professors have written on open letter to Rupert Murdoch demanding that his Fox News stop spreading misinformation about the corona virus.

The basic purpose of news organizations is to discover and tell the truth. This is especially necessary, and obvious, amid a public health crisis. Television bears a particular responsibility because even more millions than usual look there for reliable information. Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic. [This HuffPo piece contains the full text of the letter.]

This is a noble sentiment, but it’s a little like saying that the basic purpose of a president is to run the executive branch of the government effectively. The trouble with these ideal versions is that they ignore a basic principle of behavior — the reality of rewards. As Deep Throat said, follow the money or whatever else the people involved crave.

For both Fox News and Trump, the reward they pay attention to is popularity. Fox News is not very good at telling the truth, but it is very good at keeping and expanding their audience, and the larger the audience, the more money Murdoch makes. Apparently, it is by profits that he measure success, it is profits that bring him gratification.

Similarly for Trump. He’s not very good at running the government, but he is very good at keeping and even expanding the number of people who pay attention to him and who approve of him. Those ratings, along with the number of his Twitter and Facebook followers and his TV ratings, are what bring him satisfaction. They are what he craves.

As long as spreading misinformation brings no loss in popularity, Fox News and Trump will continue to do what they do best. The truth and the well-being of the population will remain secondary considerations with little consequence and therefor little influence; even less so will be the opinions of professors or even the judgment of history.   

Ellis Marsalis, 1934 - 2020

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

His sons Wynton and Branford became far better known, even outside the jazz world, especially when Branford was leading the Tonight Show band back in the Jay Leno days. But Ellis Marsalis was a fine pianist. This is his recording of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” from the album Heart of Gold, recorded in 1991. The other 14 tracks on the album are with bass and drums. But this one is solo piano., the melody once through. It shows his great sense of harmony.

I had known of this song, but the recordings I’d heard were treacly romantic versions from the 1940s. I never really heard it till I listened to Marsalis’s treatment (which I have tried to more or less copy when I play it). It’s as though he were singing it, and I’m sure that as he played he was thinking the lyrics to himself.

The Times obit says that he died of complications from COVID 19. He was 85.