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Related Topics
Justifiable ConductReview - Justifiable Conduct
Self-Vindication in Memoir
by Erich Goode
Temple University Press, 2012
Review by A. P. Bober
Oct 1st 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 40)

Visions of Social-Problems classes (I believe our department had no Deviance) and cigar-studded conferences, if not sugar plums, might jog other reader-sociologists' memories on reading Erich Goode's (son of "Family" specialist William J., judging by the wispy top strands?) "slicey" survey of memoiristic justifications.

Chapters One through Three introduce the stimulus (vi: Hobbes-Merton) for, and the constricted perspective in, the writing, while Four through Eight lay out the boxes of crime, substance, sex, and politics in such a way as to make a sociologist hope for a course called "Creative Writing for Social Pathologists" or "Deviance Case-Study by Memoir," or even "Deviant Self-Ethnography."

In these early chapters he demonstrates wide knowledge of confessional memoirs throughout history from at least as far back as Augustine.  He lays down the usual perspectives--interactionist "I-me" of G. H. Mead, perhaps too closely equated with the psychoanalytic; techniques of neutralization of, you might say, conscience pangs (in "accounts," as well) to which add B. Nelson's "rationales of conscience"; Mills's situated actions and vocabularies of motive (the hardest paper, due to his early philosophy training, I ever read in the social-behavioral sciences), to which add his "Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists"; Goffman's presentation of self (cf. the old Greek "two packs," one front and visible, one hidden behind), to which add total institutions and "On Cooling the Mark Out."  "Total institution" implies the deviance of mainstream institutions themselves as we witness today with Wall-Street deviants deflating the American dream and government security agencies reportedly sending unwarranted federal agents to roust former employees naked from their showers.  These successfully shrug off fitting designation as criminals either by failing to contend, to admit guilt, or by enforcing silence, thus re-papering their crime as civil liability or silent settlement, or nothing, something lower-class violators of criminal laws tailored to them cannot law-firm their way out of.

Most importantly (ix), Goode claims that "[h]alf a century or more ago, sociologists abandoned the archaic notion that . . . 'deviance' is pejorative," apparently as pathology or sin.  But please, dear reader, do not let us sociologists throw dust in your eyes; we cannot avoid inking the water with implied deprecation.  He pooh-poohs such alternatives as (his own?) "unconventional," "regarded as transgressive to certain audiences," "supposedly untoward," "non-normative within a specific context."  He could easily have come up with "variant behavior" in lieu of his definition of "deviant" as "situationally objectionable to specific (variant?) audiences."  "Variant" dispenses with the patently foolish notion that there is one standard from one point of view, often from the top, in favor of various group spokesmen that step onto the guillotine platform or push others up to it.  That allows any single actor and any group democratically to bask in the spotlight of condemnation from somebody's point of view, as in Berger's (and Mannheim's, e. g, general-total conception of ideology) "nihilating category of legitimation" as an umbrella for (44) Merton's narrower "obliteration by incorporation."  Armed with these warnings I deem essential, the reader can stride forth into Chapter Four and beyond bearing Saint Michael's shield and spear against the dragons of enforced delusion snaking between lines of professional text.

As for those four remaining areas of text, the reader will find sixteen Contents-listed memoirists, many well known, with a few more scattered in introductory materials.  Goode lets memoirists say almost nothing for themselves in quotation, perhaps to make the most of authorial fair use.  He does much mind-reading in italics and vastly more gloss, imposing interpretive biography over subject-reported memoir.  Even if it made little difference, wouldn't we rather, for example, have the actual court transcripts of Polanski and Samantha Gailey so as to do our own divining?

It is easy for a practiced social-behavioral scientist to hose off bird stains of bias, or at least cover them, with a practiced air of impartiality.  But let no reviewer speak for the reader.

A different issue that places these memoiristic texts "in a context," as media reporters like to do, is that the selections, which offer in fact a relatively small quantity of quotes, are as narrowly aimed at justification as the author's approach requires.  And although there is plenty of "literary" material, don't we expect memoirs to be as prosaic as the diaries and journals that they are?  Clearly, "memoir" in the larger sense can feature self-delineation for personal growth, personal-problem resolution, an interesting life, like that of Melville among the cannibals, vanity, conflict with powers, or reveal a Michelangelo following his "impropulsions"--movements from the inside out, illustrative of an infinitude of struggle.  Just know that here you get a slim slice of the larger memoiristic pie.

The grouchy grammarian in me can't avoid making negligible points: 

--he lets escape (70) "manly virtue"; Latin "vir" can only be manly (as in firmness, integrity, falling on one's sword, being Cato the Younger, and the like).  Womanly virtue, generally used, still sounds quaint as well.

--referential ambiguity:  (87) "at a strip club, he gobbles . . . morphine pills, an employee yanks some of them out of his mouth, and then he passes out."  Must have been a heck of a yank!

And even more disconcerting (161):  only while discussing Malcolm X does he speak of "niggling" details.

--If (67) he says "omertà" means "silence," well, it refers more to the code than to the secret-keeping.  Some think it relates to the dirt of humility, implying obedience.

Perhaps of greater significance is the early (cf. 28-30 et passim) "fic-fac-fab" morass.  Fabrico(r), facio, fingo all funnel down to a sculpting, fashioning, constructionism that give the lie to a granite-like factuality versus a fantasied irreality we call fiction.  "Most members" (below) becomes the granite core of his centralizing professional ideology.

All the way up to the politics chapter I was saying to myself, "He never uses 'ideology' as another word for the various kinds of justification.  A few times he even spits out the word 'leftist'."  Then in the last substantive chapter (7), the word explodes onto the page in the narrow sense of political-party/movement commitments.  Speaking of a dominatrix (133) he says "Most members of the society are likely to consider. . . ."  This, no matter how much he might finesse the idea elsewhere, is the center from which, for him, anything deviates.  Clearly, he could never do enough research to tell us exactly how many, who, from what reference groups, at what times, a majority of people agree on what are mere universal verbal categories incapable of conveying experiential motives.  I believe he is deeply ambivalent, but clearly Platonic, when on one page (145) he says "I do not refer to corruption . . . by politicians" while on the next (146) he merely states that "[p]olitical deviants may be rulers. . . ."  He never actually shows that.  Curiously, I catch no whiff of currently debated issues like FBI, NSA, IRS malfeasance, or the sinking sovereignty of our Constitution.

Goode provides a lot of arresting information and deepens what we already know.  Anger, thrill, and surprise await around every corner.  He explains concepts as if to an undergraduate class.  Can anything human be alien to us, to borrow a phrase?  In the end, the reader alone gets to decide.

 

 

© 2013 Anthony P. Bober

 

A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.

 


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