Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat
Professor Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man has been much admired; it gave us a jolt and made us think about the life of politics in a new way. Authority is a study of “the emotional bonds of modern society,” and it approaches this study through analyses of these emotional bonds in a variety of “cases.” These include the case of Helen Bowen, who has a black lover to spite her father, but in this reveals her dependence on him; the case of two employees of a modern corporation engaged in negotiation about the professional status and future of the junior of the two; and several cases arising out of the relations between accountants within a firm. There are also short accounts of the relations between the railway industrialist George Pullman and his workers in the model town he established and of attempts to establish model communities on similar principles in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts. Anthropological and historical information is used to illuminate the problems under discussion.
There are some attempts to link the discussion of private relations with questions of political authority. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is Sennett’s discussion of Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” in the Phenomenology; it is used as an account of the stages through which we may pass on our way to a critical, mature acceptance of authority. We end with Dostoevsky’s parable-story of the Grand Inquisitor, as posing the question whether we are to accept or reject “the logic of repression”; and Sennett tells us this is where he began.
It was in thinking about the ambiguity of this parable that I began to wonder how the rhythms of authority in intimate life might serve as a response to the illusions of authority and their negation in public life. Authority as a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation makes sense in intimate affairs; it does not in public. There are structural reasons for this; the rhythm of growth and decay in a life is not the rhythm of growth and decay of society. There is an unbridgeable gap—or, to put it positively, each of us can reimagine authority privately as we cannot in public. We have a principle by which to criticize society based not on abstract deduction about justice and right but on our intimate knowledge of time.
This is the clearest and most vigorous passage I can find that seems to express what Sennett wants to tell us. Even in its context, and with the rest of the book’s argument behind it, I find it difficult. I don’t understand how authority can be a process of interpretation—of course, we can go on interpreting our experiences in different ways so that in the end we come to think differently about this or that authority, though this would not be the same thing as thinking differently about authority. Again, I don’t understand the force of the “in public” of the penultimate sentence. It seems to correspond to “privately” which…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.