And frequently it is suggested that the sociologist Erving Goffman coined this phrase. Without disregard: what my great colleague Erving did, is nothing more than sociologising what William Shakespeare outlined already around 1600 in his comedy As you like it, (first published in 1623).
And before Erving Goffman presented his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (published in 1959), Thomas Mann dedicated time to this topic, writing the Confessions of Felix Krull (the genesis of this unfinished novel spans between 1905 and the middle of the 1950s).
In some respect one may say, it is all one topic: the roles we play, the images we present – a reality that is fictive by presenting its reality in certain images as much as it is real to the extent to which it is a combination of fictions, stories we tell and combine in different ways. Own stories and our stories, interweaving with the narratives told by others.
The Seven Ages to which Shakespeare refers, in 1838 depicted by William Mulready; the confidence, which is an misleading English translation of imposture about Thomas Mann is actually talking: the mendacity of a time that at the first instance moved towards WWI, and later, when Mann took up the work again, lost itself in the emerging German post-WWII economic miracle; everyday life Erving Goffman has in mind when analysing a society that suggests its own modernity in Rostowian sense as archetype of development’s ultimate goal.
The Basic Rules of Capitalism in a World of Change are surely not a novel or a play for the stage of any theatre let alone a comedy.
Nevertheless, the supposed fictive character that seems to provide the foundation of today’s economy shows exactly the withdrawal not into an illusionary world but on the contrary the establishment of a real world that follows entirely different rules: the rules not of a fictive accumulation but the rules of a real appropriation.
The theory becoming a material power (as Marx mentioned it in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right from 1843/1844) can only merge into this new realm if it fully acknowledges this seemingly small difference between accumulation and appropriation.
Bastian Kraft staged his version of Felix Krull in Munich’s Volkstheater in a masterful way, showing exactly this difference. Felix – the ‘three Felix’ – appear smart like today’s economy, likable and handsome – and they do it to such an extent that some kind of participation offers immediate conciliation. And only leaning back allows to recognise that all the camouflage is a seductive play, not allowing us to escape or forcing us to abscond completely.
There is not much that has to be added to Michael Weiser’s critique in the Kukturvollzug, a digital feuilleton for Munich:
It is Felix Self-Threesome, a Krull-trinity, that orders power onto the stage: one may say Mühlenhardt, Fritzen and Fligg embody different facets of Krull’s real character. The three do not agree in their respective version of their own history; again and again they interrupt each other and repeat scenes of the story of imposture. … . What is the essence, the true character of the human being? This is the question one poses again in the next story which probably again doesn’t lead anywhere. It may be already revealed that at the end the three show real intuition before Felix Krull’s imposture ends in a complete crash.
(Here the German original text)
Es ist ein Felix Selbdritt, eine Krullsche Dreifaltigkeit, die Kraft auf die Bühne beordert: Mühlenhardt, Fritzen und Fligg verkörpern quasi verschiedene Facetten des Krullschen Wesens. In den Variationen ihrer Geschichte sind sich die Drei durchaus nicht einig, immer wieder fallen sie sich ins Wort und spielen zur Selbstvergewisserung Szenen jener Hochstaplergeschichte nach. … . Was ist des Menschen Kern? Das fragt man sich und ist schon wieder in der nächsten Geschichte, die vermutlich wieder nirgendwo hin führt. Im Finale, so viel sei verraten, beweisen die furiosen Drei nochmals richtig Fingerspitzengefühl, bevor Felix Krulls Lügengebäude einstürzt.
This crash, its charcter and cause, are important. It is the crash of a tower, erected in a sensible way by putting block on block, changed in a seemingly reasonable way: taking one block away from the bottom and putting it onto the top and taking one block away from the bottom and putting it onto the top and taking one block away from the bottom and putting it onto the top and taking one block away from the bottom and putting it onto the top … and, yes: towers, societies and economies are not established in a way that they can survive without the foundation they stand on ….
And the performance had been nothing of a crash – and exciting adventure, the music by Arthur Fussy adding to an experience of a sociological didactic play that makes for a most pleasant …, learning.
Coming briefly back to the title of Erving Goffman’s book: The Presentation of Self ….
The Presentation, living in a world of presentation is as such not the problem. The real problem is the presentation of presentation, the duplication of the process.
And as much this is a matter of the economic development, it is also a matter of academic life today: the thinking in models, the suggesiton of blueprints as reality …. –
– … the European model worked, until it distructed its own foundation …; the liberal economy suceeded as long (well: as short) as it could claim to a reasonable extent its liberalism …; finance capitalism could maintain its profitability as long as it managed to pretend to have its foundation in the real economy ….
But fiction remains fiction – even if it develops by griping the masses.