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Performance and Critical Theory:
Recasting the Habermas–Goffman Debate

Italo Alves
Department of Philosophy
Loyola University Chicago

Abstract: In this paper, I explore Jürgen Habermas’s approach to what he terms “dramaturgical theory of action” by comparing it with Erving Goffman’s performative theory. I claim that the absence of a detailed discussion of the performative aspects of social life in the later generations of Frankfurt School critical theory is due, at least in part, to Habermas’s dismissive attitude to Goffman’s theory of action. A critical theory of society, I argue, must be able to pay attention to the embodied, dramaturgical, and performative aspects of action, for which a return to Goffman may be instructive.

Keywords: Habermas, Goffman, action, performance, dramaturgy

* * *

The concern with embodied aspects of discourse is not particularly new in philosophical debate, and its history may extend, if we are to restrict ourselves to modern philosophy, at least as far back as Spinoza. More recently, a current of thought that has gained prominence in philosophical debate has been that influenced by Judith Butler, who has theorized, from a poststructuralist framework, about the ways in which embodied forms of discourse are able to perform things in the world.[1] Given that the inquiry about the body seems so central to discussions about social life and political organization, subjects on which the different generations inheriting from the Frankfurt School dwell, it is surprising that this question appears so rarely in authors of the so-called “second and third generations” of the Frankfurt School, such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, or Rahel Jaeggi.[2]

In this article, I would like to suggest that the absence of a systemic concern over the possibilities of the body and embodied forms of reason in Frankfurt critical theory is due, at least in part, to the problematic way in which Habermas treats what he calls the “dramaturgical model of action”: the conception, based above all on the work of the American sociologist Erving Goffman and Austrian phenomenologist Alfred Schütz, according to which aesthetic and performative self-expression is one of the central elements of social life. Habermas associates this model of action with features such as insincerity or inauthenticity. In opposition to this view, I would like to suggest that a closer reading of Goffman allows us to see that the very distinction between “sincere” and “insincere” action is difficult, to say the least, but perhaps impossible to grasp. Goffman’s approach to the dramaturgical aspects of action shows that political subjects communicate their intentions and expectations discursively as well as performatively. Such a conception, I believe, is fundamental to a critical theory of society, which seeks to identify normative potentials in the very social reality under scrutiny.

In part one, I will outline a methodological conception of Frankfurt School critical theory according to which the critical activity must ground its normative foundations in the object of critique itself. I will show how this methodological requirement takes shape in Habermas. In part two, I will explore Habermas’s approach to what he calls the “dramaturgical theory of action,” highlighting the failure of Habermas’s communicative theory to account for the embodied, performative, and dramaturgical aspects of action. In part three, I will rescue Erving Goffman’s performative theory, arguing that it overcomes aporias of Habermas’s model of communicative action.

Part One: Critical Theory and Reconstruction

Since the publication of the essay Traditional and Critical Theory by Max Horkheimer,[3] Frankfurt critical theory has operated with the conception that a critical theory of society needs to ground its normative foundations not in something external to the object of critique, but precisely in it. Critical theory, in other words, must be immanent and “objective”. This means that the content of social critique is not just the product of an individual subjective will but is somehow “inscribed” in the thing itself. In Rahel Jaeggi’s words, critical theory is in search of instruments to enable “things to criticize themselves”.[4]

What is sought, instead of an ideal construction of norms of action, for example, is a reconstruction of social normativity, in which the fulcrum is no longer an ideal hypothesis, but the very practices and structures of the existing social order. Immanent critique, according to Honneth, holds that “only those principles or ideals which have already taken some form in the present social order can serve as valid basis for social critique.”[5] Habermas expresses it in the terms of a “rational reconstruction”:[6] norms of action are identifiable in the communicative use of language, through the pragmatic analysis of speech acts and the transcendental presuppositions assumed by speaking agents.

According to Habermas’s thesis, by making use of language for communicative purposes, a subject is at the same time expressing a propositional content, suggesting an interpersonal relationship, and revealing their subjective intention.[7] In Habermas’s terminology, the subject is making claims, respectively: of truth, in relation to the propositional content referring to the objective world; of rightness, in relation to the normative context present in the social world; and, finally, of truthfulness, or sincerity, in relation to the manifestation of experiences present in the subjective world.[8] Habermas’s fundamental insight is that when we use language for communicative purposes, we are making transcendental, context-independent presuppositions. Thus, language in its communicative use acquires a regulatory function. Ultimately, the communicative use of language is capable of grounding norms of action: a hypothetical norm, if discussed by all subjects possibly affected by it using language in its communicative mode (that is, oriented to understanding, not to success), acquires, due to its mode of deliberation, normative force.

The problem, however, is that Habermas restricts the possibility of identifying hypothetical norms to the communicative use of language, which I will call “rational discourse”. In other words, the only way in which the critical theorist can identify, in the social reality they investigate, elements for social critique is by observing rational discourses. The problem with paying attention only to rational discourses is that the only elements that the critical theorist would then be able to see in social reality would be those expressed linguistically and for communicative purposes. I believe, however, that a social theory capable of giving a deeper account of the means of formation and justification of social norms should also offer ways of analyzing opaque, not fully explicit, not fully understood by the agents, and non-discursive social practices; in other words, performative, or dramaturgical, practices.

Part Two: Habermas and Dramaturgical Action

Habermas’s dismissive approach to the aesthetic realm is apparent in his approach to the expressive aspects of action. Goktepe summarizes Habermas’s position as a “suspicion of the staged.”[9] Habermas’s suspicion of the expressive and aesthetic aspects of action goes back to his conception of the public sphere as a mediating space in which private persons come together as a public. For Habermas, the public sphere, before assuming functions of political deliberation in the strict sense, was primarily literary. In this scenario, the theatrical or dramaturgical aspect is associated with “spectacle”, alongside entertainment and away from deliberation and information.[10] Theatricality would have a one-dimensional nature—it would refer to an expressive feature starting from an actor and reaching out to a passive spectator. And the tendency to be associated with entertainment would dilute and “depoliticize” the public sphere.[11]

Several critics have already pointed to the deficiency of Habermas’s theory in accounting for the “metaphorical, rhetorical, playful, and embodied aspects of discourse.”[12] Iris Marion Young and Nancy Fraser emphasize the importance, for marginalized social groups, of creating “counterpublics” that are not primarily interested in the dispute for discursive hegemony in the official “public sphere” but can tension it through aesthetic forms of discourse.[13]

Habermas does admit exceptions to the prevalence of rational discourse over dramaturgical expression. On the one hand, Habermas concedes that “sensational actions” and “mass protests,” as activities with a high expressive content, can function as catalysts for issues of public interest, propelling them as objects of discussion in a public sphere.[14] On the other hand, aesthetic forms of discourse can only be admitted as a kind of rational “protodiscourse.” Aesthetic discourses can acquire rational ends and be “validated through aesthetic experience,” which would give them a superior normative load, “taking the place of an argument” and fulfilling their same functions.[15] Habermas also admits that a non-rational discourse can enter the sphere of reasoned discussion, or the reflective and communicative use of language, when referring to religious discourse. Habermas speaks of a condition of “translation”: religious discourses would be admissible as rational discourses to the extent that they can be translated from a strictly religious language into a secular language.[16] However, at no point does Habermas concede that what he considers “parasitic” elements of discourse can themselves intervene directly in the world by raising normative claims. Habermas does not, in other words, grant autonomous normative capacity to performative, or dramaturgical, action.

According to Habermas, Goffman’s dramaturgical model views social action as an “encounter in which participants form an audience visible to each other and perform for each other.”[17] The model of dramaturgical action introduces a reflexive sphere, in which the subject can critically engage with the course of action it chooses. Habermas, polemically, defines this subjective world as “the totality of subjective experiences to which the agent has, relative to others, privileged access.”[18] For Goffman, however, a subject only possesses characteristics attributable to a subjective world insofar as he or she externalizes them to an audience and, in addition, that audience accepts this externalization as valid. In other words, there is a claim of “sincerity” or “truthfulness” in an agent’s exteriorization, which can be confirmed or denied by his or her audience.

When using language for communicative purposes, subjects, according to Habermas, would integrate three claims (truth, rightness, and truthfulness) and would do so reflexively, that is, by negotiating the meanings attributed to the action with the other participating agents.[19] Habermas believes that, for the dramaturgical action model, only the subjective expression of experiences is at stake, while, for communicative action—his own model—the illocutionary force of utterances and the establishment of intersubjective relations would be equally important.[20]

For Habermas, bodily elements of action “acquire relations to the world only as the infrastructure of other actions.”[21] They cannot autonomously mean something. Here, I believe, Habermas is vulnerable to a phenomenological or ethnomethodological critique, such as the one allowed by Goffman: could we not claim that, even if the subject does not explicitly attribute meaning to a bodily movement it performs or sees performed by its interaction partner, conceptions of normative adequacy and claims to the acceptance of his expression are being raised? And if so, are these movements not taking the form of “actions” as such?

Part Three: Goffman Contra Habermas

Marvin Carlson, in Performance: A Critical Introduction, argues that the concept of performance is fundamentally contested.[22] A clear and precise definition of performance, therefore, would run the risk of being partial and reductionist. In this paper, performance, performativity, theatricality, and dramaturgy are therefore treated as belonging to a very close semantic field.

Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, defines “performance” as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion that serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.”[23] The terms used by Goffman are the same as those used in the performing arts: actor, performance, audience, role, set. What underlies his analysis of social life is the idea that subjects, in a context of inter-individual interaction, recognize the existence of behavioral expectations on the part of their “audience” and seek to control the variables of their own behavior in order to make an expected impression on this audience. In everyday life, an individual performance—the way an “actor” plays a “role”—can change the discursive content that this role might bear.

Among the contributions that Goffman’s dramaturgical theory offers to the issues raised by critical theory, especially by Habermas, I believe that a major one lies in the reorientation of the Habermasian view of self-expression. Habermas defines the subjective world as “the totality of subjective experiences to which the agent has, relative to others, privileged access.”[24] This view leads Habermas to regard the “actor” of Goffman’s theory as an “opportunistic and insincere manipulator”.[25] This is because Habermas holds a narrow view of the elements that make an action strategic and those that make it communicative. For Habermas, truly communicative action should be oriented not to persuasion, or to the success of a demand, for example, but to mutual understanding. Different from this, strategic action is oriented to success, or is determined, in an allusion to Kantian moral theory, by elements extrinsic to the rational subject itself. As a result of this understanding, Habermas shows what Goffman would call a “bias toward authenticity.”[26] That is, the expectation that a subject can speak either truthfully, if it is expressing states internal to itself without any “strategic” intervention, or lie outright, when such internal states, or a knowledge of fact, is deliberately manipulated for the achievement of an individual will. A model that operates with such a stark distinction between sincerity/authenticity and lying/strategy could only perceive the performative elements of action as artifices that can distort communicative action. For Goffman, this distinction is not so strict, and the poles separating a sincere and authentic expression from a “false” and inauthentic one are not so clear and well defined. And, ultimately, they matter little.

Goffman says, alluding do Jacques’s line in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, that “the whole world is, of course, not a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”[27] Habermas, in regarding authenticity as a transcendental regulator of discourse, proposes such a criterion of distinction—there are actions (sincere, authentic) that seek understanding and other actions (insincere, inauthentic) that seek success. Habermas’s response, when we consider Goffman’s framework, seems premature. Goffman’s central point is precisely that this distinction is more nuanced than Habermas thinks, and that success is not necessarily opposed to communication.

For Goffman, rather than merely expressing thoughts, opinions, and desires, interacting subjects are fulfilling a series of normative obligations imposed upon them. The sources of these obligations can be both internal to the subject itself (e.g., when the subject intends to convince its interlocutor to follow a certain course of action) and external (e.g., at the end of a talk in an academic seminar, the speaker is expected to thank the audience; or in a casual conversation between two friends, the friend who receives a compliment is expected, upon hearing the compliment, to thank the other friend). In Goffman’s words, “what talkers undertake is not to provide information to a recipient, but to present dramas to an audience. Indeed, it seems that we spend most of our time not engaged in giving information but in giving shows.”[28]

The extreme of this role-playing, as Goffman suggests, is total speech pre-formulation, so as to exclude, in practice, the interlocutor, who serves as a mere receptacle of a series of pre-determined statements. This, we could say, would be the archetype of the strategic action against which Habermas opposes communicative action. Most of the time, however, as Goffman shows, the dramaturgical element of speech shows itself in minor utterances. We are always, in linguistically mediated intersubjective interaction, “fishing” for the interlocutor’s attention and agreement, presenting topics that we understand to be conducive to a conclusion we expect, responding with “uh-hums,” “yes, yeses,” “of courses,” and other expressions that induce empathy from the interlocutor.[29] While these expressions are not necessarily driving or presenting a determinate or determinable discursive content, they are showing an adherence to predetermined forms of social behavior. And to the extent that they do so, they point to the existence of established norms of behavior and, moreover, to the subjective will to conform to them. In this sense, the expressive or dramaturgical aspect of action is also a vehicle for conceptions of social normativity.


Goffman’s dramaturgical theory allows us to be aware of ways in which normative intentions can be expressed in “quasi-discursive” ways. And to the extent that such expression is possible, it seems that a critical social theory that attempts to analyze linguistically mediated intersubjective relations must be attentive to the extra-discursive, aesthetic, and performative forms that are capable of conveying such expressions.

Contrary to what Habermas suggests, the model of dramaturgical action would not operate only with the existence of an internal world, in which the subject relates to itself, and an external one, in which it relates to an audience,[30] but also with an intersubjective, socially regulated world. Dramaturgical action introduces, on the one hand, individual reflection on socially established norms, but it also introduces the idea that it is possible to claim, through sensual, dramaturgical, or aesthetic means, norms and expectations of behavior.

From the identification of normative claims in elements hitherto considered “parasitic” to discourse, the very task of identifying the principles invoked in historically raised normative claims and subsequently unveiling their unrealized transformative potentials can be undertaken.[31] By saying this, I do not claim that every non-discursive expression necessarily possesses such a capacity to raise normative claims. Of course, stylistic features, whether of speech or of the presentation of the self through clothing, facial expressions, modes of speech, and so on, can be merely “decorative” elements; aesthetic elements that fulfill an aesthetic purpose only, and not also a discursive one. I mean to suggest that this, however, is not the only possibility.

[1]     See especially Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 2006); Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[2]     Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas MacCarthy, vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society (Boston: Beacon, 2007); Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy, vol. 2: Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995); Rahel Jaeggi, Critique of Forms of Life, Harvard University Press, 2018.

[3]     Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Continuum Pub. Corp, 1982).

[4]     Jaeggi, Critique of Forms of Life, 241.

[5]     Axel Honneth, “Reconstructive Social Critique with a Genealogical Reservation: On the Idea of Critique in the Frankfurt School,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22, no. 2 (October 1, 2001): 6, https://doi.org/10/fz8ssn.

[6]     J. Pedersen, “Habermas’ Method: Rational Reconstruction,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 38, no. 4 (September 15, 2008): 457–85, https://doi.org/10/fpvq9w.

[7]     Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:96.

[8]     Habermas, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:99–101.

[9]     Katherine Goktepe, “‘Sometimes I Mean Things so Much I Have to Act’: Theatrical Acting and Democracy,” Constellations 25, no. 3 (2018): 373–87, https://doi.org/10/ggzvz4.

[10]   Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989), 38.

[11]   Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998), 377.

[12]   Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1990), 118.

[13]   Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference; Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text, no. 25/26 (January 1, 1990): 56–80, https://doi.org/10/fgp8qj.

[14]   Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, 381.

[15]   Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:20.

[16]   Jürgen Habermas, “‘The Political’: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 25–26.

[17]   Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:90.

[18]   Habermas, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:91, italics mine.

[19]   The communicative use of language, in other words, involves a reflexive negotiation of meaning. When participants agree on the claims raised (of truth, correctness, and truthfulness) in their interaction, language fulfills its function, according to Habermas, of coordinating action, while also attesting to the necessity of these claims for any communicative use of language.

[20]   Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:95.

[21]   Habermas, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:98.

[22]   Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (London ; New York: Routledge, 1996).

[23]   Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1st ed. (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1956), 8.

[24]   Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:91.

[25]   James J. Chriss, “Habermas, Goffman, and Communicative Action: Implications for Professional Practice,” American Sociological Review 60, no. 4 (August 1995): 545, https://doi.org/10/c862n2.

[26]   Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Harper Colophon Books ; CN 372 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 547.

[27]   Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, A Pelican Book (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 78.

[28]   Goffman, Frame Analysis, 508.

[29]   Goffman, 510.

[30]   Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1, 1: Reason and the rationalization of society:93.

[31]   See Axel Honneth, Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 64.