In November 1952 Erving Goffman took a phrase from the world of confidence trickery for the title of his essay “On Cooling The Mark Out”, which was subtitled “Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure” and published in the journal Psychiatry. A mark in the jargon is the victim of a scam. For the mark, such cooling is a process of adjustment to a situation arising from his having defined himself in a way that the social facts (e.g. his loss) contradict.

In stark cases, as in those of physical death, the role of spiritual cooler is given to doctors or priests. A priest must not so much save a soul as create one that is consistent with what is about to become of it. A second typical solution to the problem of reconciling a mark to his loss consists of offering him another status that provides something else for him to become. Usually the alternative presented to the mark is a compromise of some kind. As examples, Goffman offers the lover who may be asked to become a friend and the student of medicine who may be asked to switch to dentistry.

A third standard method of cooling the mark out is to perform a controlled explosion. If this eruption of emotions does not find a target, then it at least serves as a release and catharsis. When a blow-up of this kind occurs, friends of the mark or psychotherapists are often called in. Friends are willing to take responsibility because their relationship is not limited to the role the mark has failed in. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, are willing to take responsibility because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in some other relationship.

In an increasing number of cases, the mark is given professional help of some kind. The psychotherapist is, in this sense, society’s cooler. His or her job is to send the patient back in a condition in which he or she can no longer cause trouble to others and can no longer make a fuss.

As a fourth cooling procedure, the operator and the mark may form an understanding according to which the mark agrees to act as if he were leaving of his own accord and the operator agrees to preserve this illusion. Bribery is a form of exchange. In such cases, the mark guarantees to leave quickly and quietly and in exchange is allowed to go under what the writer calls a cloud of his own choosing.

Goffman also writes that persons who have died in social ways come gradually to be brought together into a common graveyard that is separated ecologically from what he terms the living community. For the “dead”, this is at once a punishment and a defence. Jails and mental institutions are the most familiar examples but other important ones exist.

In America, he observed the interesting tendency to set aside certain regions and towns as retirement asylums for those who have died as workers and as parents but who are still alive, financially. In Europe we can view the south coast of Spain as a parallel zone.

Hobo jungles provided another case in point for Goffman but, just as a residential area may become a graveyard, so also certain institutions and occupational roles could take on a similar function, he maintained. The religious ministry in Britain, for example, had sometimes served as a limbo for the occupational stillborn of better families, as had the British universities. Nonetheless Goffman accepted that there were few positions in life that did not group together some people who were there as failures and others as successes.

In this sense, the dead are sorted but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living.

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