Monday, April 16, 2007

Paragraph of the day

Geoffrey Nunberg begins his blog-post on apologies and their functions with this priceless paragraph:
When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, a bunch of my friends and I spent a lot of long afternoons and evenings at the movie theaters along West 42d Street, where for less than a buck you could see a double or triple feature of gangster movies, war movies or westerns. That was well before the area was sanitized and Disneyfied, and the theaters were--well, "seedy" doesn't really do them justice. The seats and carpeting were shabby and permanently saturated with a mixture of fluids, processed and unprocessed. The balconies were sharply raked, the rows so close together as to make even the economy section of a United Airlines flight seem positively spacious. And the clientele was a mix of movie buffs, lonely guys, and down-and-outers who considered 99 cents a stone bargain for a warm place to sleep off a bender. So it was that a friend and I found ourselves in the balcony of a theater one rainy evening watching an Anthony Mann western when we heard a middle-class male voice behind us saying in a loud, indignant tone: "Sorry? You piss on my date and you're SORRY?"
Just so we are clear: the post is actually on what apologies do -- or are supposed to do -- and the discussion covers both J. L. Austin and Erving Goffmann. Goffmann's take (from Nunberg's post):

The most enlightening discussion of this that I know of comes (not surprisingly) from Erving Goffman, in his books Interaction Ritual and particularly Relations in Public. (Goffman's account has since been built on by others, but his story will do for here.) Apologies, Goffman said, are remediation rituals that

represent a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with them, and by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold.

As a ritual, Goffman insists, the apology is independent of the substantive penalties that may be attached to an offense:

After an offense has occurred, the job of the offender is to show... that whatever happened before, he now has a right relationship--a pious attitude--to the rule in question, and this is a matter of indicating a relationship, not compensating a loss.

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