I have been re-reading Erving Goffman lately, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. But it seems to me that while what he calls ‘Total institutions’ may be different in degree from other institutions they are not in kind. I was reminded of this most forcibly while travelling through an airport recently (clutching my copy of Asylums, 1961). I empathised with the inmates as I found myself being ‘shaped and coded into an object’ and ‘fed into the administrative machinery’ (p.26). I felt the full force of the mortification of self as I removed my belt and shoes, offered up my intimate lotions and unguents for inspection, and was subjected to a full body scan. Goffman speaks of the loss of personal autonomy in the total institution: ‘A margin of self-selected expressive behaviour – whether of antagonism, affection or unconcern – is one symbol of self-determination’ (Asylums, 1961, p.47). While this is denied the inmate of the total institution it can equally be withheld on ‘the outside’. Modern practices to which we must subject ourselves are illustrative of this. Call centres, for example, routinely strip the individual of such personal autonomy through their ritual debasements: the endless musical loop interrupted only by the patently mocking ‘your call is important to us’; complicated menu choices which do not, however, exhaust the possibilities draw us into a dangerous labyrinth of indecision; slowly intoned, unnecessarily explanatory, repetitive, tiresome, overlong and ultimately meaningless ‘information’ messages, see the charges rocket; and together with the mantra that the call-is-being-recorded-in-order-to-improve-the-service-offered, effectively prevent the service being offered at all. All this de-humanises the caller, rendering the self precarious, and threatening – when finally a voice from the subcontinent appears incongruously naming itself as ‘Charlie’ or ‘Janet’ – to boil into an unaccustomed rage. At which point the call centre operative is quite justified in hanging up.
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