In the Cage

Families Against the City

by Richard Sennett
Harvard, 258 pp., $8.50

The Uses of Disorder

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 198 pp., $5.95

There are certain classical patterns of scholarship which are still both useful and beautiful to watch; and which few scholars any longer trouble to carry through completely. The failure to do so results in bitty and irrelevant research of the most familiar kind. The rare exception is both satisfying in its craftsmanship and exciting as a source of important and original ideas. These two books constitute such a classic model. In the first, Professor Sennett reports the findings of an odd and seemingly arcane documentary investigation of the composition and characteristics of the households of a declining middle-class neighborhood of Chicago during the years 1872-1890, using the city directories of those years to follow the fortunes of persons more completely reported in the Census of 1880, and he draws some startling conclusions. In the second, more speculative, work, he develops the theory that he tested in the research reported in the first; and the perceptions that led him to select this commonplace tract of nearly a century ago for intensive study become the source of insights that are radically relevant to the current urban crisis.

Located about two miles due west of what came to be the Chicago Loop, the forty-block area Sennett defines as Union Park had a population of some 12,000 in 1880. The area had declined in status as it grew in population. In 1860 it sustained six or eight hundred souls in a spacious urban life which Edith Wharton would have found quite pleasing, to judge from the memoirs of A. C. Chatfield-Taylor and Carter Harrison II—two well-to-do and socially prominent former residents of Union Park whom Sennett cites. But the ensuing years were a time of unusual economic and demographic stress as well as growth for Chicago. The great fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city east of the Chicago river, and the depression of the Seventies impeded normal rebuilding. Union Park, though well west of the devastated area, found that the axis of growth of the city had changed from east-west to north-south as the city was rebuilt; and was itself cut off by an increasingly ugly and unpleasant warehouse and industrial belt. The well-to-do moved to the new gold coast along Lake Michigan, and Union Park became middle-class with a tendency to sag into lower-middle.

But it was still thoroughly, if increasingly defensively, respectable. The proportion of its residents rated as professional or managerial by occupation was nearly twice that for the city as a whole, while clerks were proportionately twenty times as numerous. Manual semiskilled and unskilled laborers were greatly underrepresented, while domestic servants were twice as numerous proportionately as in the rest of the city. Union Park had no mini-ghettos in it; one-fourth of the population was foreign born, but over 90 percent of it was anglophone, and only a 1 percent trace had ancestry other than northern European. Sennett calls it “ethnically integrated,” but there wasn’t much to integrate.

Union Park, in 1880, was already, then, of Middle America all compact. And by selecting for study a community nearly a century old, Sennett gains the advantage of access to census data in which individual families are identified, which the Census Bureau cannot lawfully provide from current materials. Hence he is able to relate these data to other, albeit sparse, traces left by members of the Union Park community in their encounters with life. Sennett managed to trace about a thousand fathers and sons from 1872 to 1890:

This trace involved selecting all the families in the 1880 Census where a father, or occasionally a lone mother had a son at work; the heads of these families and the working sons were located when possible in directories of the City of Chicago in two-year steps back to 1872 and forward to 1890. Thus it was possible to sketch the occupational and residential history of these families and compare the generations.

The tracking down of these thousand Union Park people revealed, for the majority of families, that the family became a refuge for fathers who were in fact stagnant in their work, even though the economic structure of Chicago was rapidly expanding. In this stagnation, this lack of vigor, whose surface character was noted in Union Park at the time, lay the origins of a condition that has, on many accounts, persisted into the present; a special weakness of middle-class fathers in relation to their sons, and a consequent sense of family in which the mother is taken as the strong force; in Union Park occurred, in other words, a failure of middle-class fatherhood, where the father was unable, due to his own work experience, to prepare his children to cope with the urban society in which they would live.

Life in Union Park, Sennett infers, was characteristically fearful of and defensive against the demands, rather than responsive to the opportunities, of the outside world. There were, in any case, few prospects of satisfaction for Union Park men. Men did not marry until they had “established themselves.” “In the majority of cases, the husband was at least five to ten years older than the wife; for about a fifth of the married couples, the husband was ten or fifteen years older than the wife; and in the case of wives under twenty-five, from 10 to 15 percent of their spouses were 15 to 20 percent older than they themselves.”

But even marriage brought very little freedom, sexual or otherwise. Family size remained small, though contraception was neither reliable nor respectable. Little time or money was spent outside the home whose keynote, in every respect, was abstinence. In Dreiser’s novel, Sister Carrie’s reluctant relatives and hosts, the Hansons, lived, as Sennett notes, in Union Park.

But Sennett does far more than corroborate the picture of life there which Dreiser presented. In Chicago as a whole, the proportion of white-collar administrative and commercial occupations was expanding enormously at this time. In Union Park, this expansion was shared almost exclusively by persons who lived in large households that sheltered an extended rather than a nuclear family—though this is popularly regarded as a sign of lower status. Those who lived in what Sennett calls “intense” families, including only parents and children, without roomers or collateral relatives, tended to remain stagnant or even slip in comparison to their less exclusive neighbors. He has no psychological information about the individuals who compose his sample, and his interpretations of his demographic data require an immense logical leap, but they are also immensely plausible and illuminating.

Sennett sees the isolated, emotionally intense family life of American cities as a banal and cheerless effort to defend the family unit against external threat from anything different or challenging. Such a defense obviously keeps those who practice it from learning to cope with the kinds of people and situations they avoid; and it requires them to insist ever more stridently that everything of value is included in the pattern of family life to which they limit themselves. As Paul Goodman pointed out years ago in an essay in this journal (NYR, May 23, 1968), what we call racism in America is really squeamishness; it does not distinguish among the objects of its repugnance as genuine racism, responding with hostility to the actual characteristics of the denigrated race, would.

Sennett’s inferences and contemporary observations also support the central conclusion of Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz’s pioneer study, The Dynamics of Prejudice. This found ethnocentric hostility to be positively correlated not with low socio-economic status so much as with declining socio-economic status, and the consequent sense of defeat and loss of ability to cope. Sennett’s contribution here is his evidence that the process is a vicious cycle: declining fortunes lead to more intense ethnic hostility while ethnic defensiveness and a fearful and sullen withdrawal from what is strange and active hamper economic fortune. The embittered barber who complains that his business is falling off still drives long-haired youths out of his shop, or cuts their hair short as a patriotic act if they do happen to come in.

In The Uses of Disorder, Sennett, now free of the constraints of formal empirical investigation, speculates creatively about the ways in which his insight might be used to arrest and reverse the present desolation of the American city, reduced as it is so largely to a set of warring enclaves, none of which has within itself the resources to sustain a decent, let alone a rich, life. Growing material abundance, indeed, has made things worse, for “a community with adequate monetary resources can materially control its boundaries and internal composition”; and, by duplicating facilities that a poorer community would have to share, reduces the occasion for human interaction: except in comic strips—themselves an atavistic art form—who borrows a lawn mower any more, even from a neighbor indistinguishable from himself?

But Sennett’s critique cuts deeper even than the problems of urban misery. He addresses himself directly to the baleful effect on individual human growth of living in a world where people strive harder to avoid conflict and disorder than to achieve any positive goal. Like Konrad Lorenz, Sennett perceives modern man as uniquely lethal in lacking any natural limits to his aggression against his kind. But Lorenz attributes this primarily to man’s reliance on technological weapons which permit him to kill without recognizing his victim as human or developing an instinctual aversion to pushing a button or pulling a trigger. Sennett emphasizes that being brought up to isolate oneself from conflict tends to make it more lethal when it does occur in any case; it is more frightening because unfamiliar, and one’s adversary is perceived as a devil who might do anything, unless one is prudent enough to do it to him first. So it goes.

Existence in a state of urban development thus comes to possess no arts, no letters, no society, and, what is worse, continual fear and danger of death; the life of a man becomes solitary, dull, nasty, brutish, and short. If life is to become more truly civil, Sennett proposes, the power to avoid and exclude and to resort to bureaucratic and impersonal authority to control the behavior of one’s adversaries must be curtailed. Zoning restrictions on land use should be eliminated. The police—and, presumably, the National Guard—must not be used to abort social conflict and thereby forestall its genuine resolution, which can only occur through a real encounter among antagonists who thus learn to take each other’s true measure, abandon their own unrealistic insistence on dominating and exploiting the situation for themselves, and even work together, at first for limited, then for increasingly general goals.

What must be abandoned in the process is a sense of omnipotence—and the terror underlying it—and “the adolescent refusal to deal with the world in all its complexity and pain…dreaming of a beautiful city that exists somewhere other than in the present, a beautiful city where people fit together in peace and harmony, a city so beautiful in fact that ghetto people, Irish cops, aristocratic WASPS, hippies, students, clerks and bookkeepers will close their eyes to what they cannot abide in each other, to the painful facts of their difference, and settle down to common happiness.”

Sennett, then, clearly does not promise anyone a rose garden. He seems, instead, to see the flourishing city as something like a permanent, established, floating encounter group whose members force one another to cope with and hence come to respect their mutual reality and humanity. This is both a promising and a disturbing vision, for what Sennett calls adolescent, and would eradicate, is really the dangerous purity of the true believer who thinks that, since he is virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale. His analysis seems, on the whole, to be sound, both morally and empirically. Yet it still presents serious difficulties.

The most obvious of these is a problem common to all proposals for radical social reform: the initial steps that are needed to attack what is wrong are just those that the condition makes politically impossible. It certainly would improve the quality of urban life, once the shock wore off, if zoning restrictions were removed. People would indeed begin to work things out among themselves if they were prevented from calling the police or getting an injunction. But these are just the measures that a society on an up-tight law-and-order trip finds most repugnant. The more desperate its need, and the more nearly correct Sennett’s analysis is, the more adamantly it will refuse.

Indeed, the most positive praise that can be given the police as an agency is that when they are not clubbing or gassing freaks and demonstrators they do, indeed, usually try to perform the kinds of social functions Sennett recommends, rather than the interventions desired by the people who summon them. Some of the best social work done in cities is done by police, who usually try, for example, to cool out family quarrels instead of arresting and locking up one spouse at the request of the other. Had the values, and anxieties, of the society that employs them permitted, this Ombudsman-like role of containing conflict without interfering with its resolution might have become recognized both by the public and themselves as the major and most valued function of the police. Instead, they have been cast, willingly enough, in the role of a paranoid pseudo-ethnic minority group.

Sennett believes that these political difficulties are being resolved, “that the disgust and anxiety affluent communities presently cause in their young will make the people of this generation ready to explore the human unknown, and perhaps permit themselves to be hurt for the sake of preserving their vitality,” and that men will therefore come to “want the new cities.” The proposition is questionable on several grounds. Some of the more open young are trying to set up urban communes; but more seem to be setting up rural ones or moving quietly into rural areas that they hope will prove less hostile, with tragic results in the southwest and rather promising ones, so far, in Vermont. Sennett, moreover, seems to underestimate the adversary. Though willing to explore the human unknown and perhaps permit themselves to be hurt, neither the Jackson nor the Kent State students, Robert Kennedy, Fred and Carl Hampton, or Martin Luther King may be said to have thereby preserved their vitality.

The actual fact of lethal violence does not seem very real to Sennett, even though it is one of the evils his proposal seeks to abate: getting killed or beaten up are simply among the pains that being honest and open to life may require man to accept. He fails, however, to distinguish the serenity to accept the event, should it befall, from the power to ignore it, which is rarer. “The adulthood I have described is one in which man knows that his being cannot be annihilated by the plans of others. From failing to coherently manipulate the social space around him, the adult learns also its limits in manipulating him.” This goes a step further even than Sartre’s famous remark about the possibility of being free even in a concentration camp; it may still be applicable, though barely, to Huey P. Newton, but not to Huey P. Long.

But Sennett is neither romantic nor sentimental, but utterly honest and consistent; and his honesty, even as it commands respect for his work, reduces the appeal of his vision. Again and again he emphasizes that he promises no new Jerusalem; and, inevitably, one begins to wonder whether there is then very much to be gained from removing the barriers that divide the old one:

The bonds in the adult society I envision would be difficult. Care between individuals would exist only to the extent that mutual curiosity and specific personal bonds developed. There would be no expectation of human love, no community of affection, warm and comforting, laid down for the society as a whole. Human bonds would be fragmented and limited to specific, individual encounters.

And, later:

These suggestions for a greater density, diversity, and power relations in city communities would create in general a high level of tension…. [T]hey would create a sense of the need to deal with shifting combinations of people and shifting issues over the course of time in order to keep daily life ongoing. I don’t imagine any sort of joyous communion in these encounters but rather a feeling of needing to keep in touch, a feeling of having to be involved in the social world.

But all this we already have. It is clearly depicted in Midnight Cowboy. The plight of the two leading characters in the film is meant to illustrate an urban life precisely contrary to Sennett’s vision. Their tragedy is attributable to their isolation, their naiveté, and their basic inability “to deal with shifting combinations of people…in order to keep daily life ongoing.” In this sense, the film might be said to support The Uses of Disorder. But if a remedy be sound, the before-and-after pictures ought to show more contrast than this.

The problem is not simply one of bringing together all kinds of people and letting them learn to survive and negotiate in the social arena. Indeed, a simpler hypothesis may be that it is just the contrary: that there is a real need for islands of quiet and privacy and security in which people need not feel perpetually threatened and bewildered; that those who move to the suburbs and seek to homogenize their neighborhoods are perfectly justified in wanting this; and that they could afford to be less squeamish if their lines of retreat and withdrawal were defended rather than cut off. For, in the words of two distinguished Lake poets:

The world is too much with us, late and soon.

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.

We need all the warmth we can get, desperately. And the ability to generate it is to the credit of any social institution in our time, though the price in strain and injustice may of course be so high that it counter-balances and negates this gain. Even so, Sennett’s analysis is damning to exclusiveness as a social process, and properly so: the “intense” homes of Union Park do not seem to have been very warm; and even when the members of an exclusive coterie do develop a clubby warmth, as college alumni and even college presidents used to do, they indeed find to their dismay that their ignorance of those they exclude seals the doom of their club. A planner with a nostalgic regard for intimacy and durability in human society might well accept Sennett’s recommendations as the best way of encouraging enclaves in which these might develop, on the sound principle that one can only stay the same by being willing and able to change.

This, in fact, is an important part of Sennett’s message. Yet, The Uses of Disorder really does set a rather low value on love, warmth, and community—even though its analysis would be immensely useful to anyone who wished to foster these in urban life. The moral position of this work, which is almost identical with that taken by Warren G. Bennis and Phillip Slater in their aptly titled The Temporary Society, is flawed by a similar confusion about the nature of love and what it means to care for another person.

Sennett discusses this in detail in his chapter “Outgrowing a Purified Identity,” in which he distinguishes “caring for” from “caring about.” “Caring for” has, for Sennett, unpleasant overtones of omnipotence and possessiveness; as we mature, we “care about” others instead of “for” them.

Such caring is not, in an adult’s life, a permanent condition, nor a permanent desire, but an unstable quality that changes as the character of the individual develops and as social processes beyond the individual’s control also evolve along new lines…. To possess a thing is to take it out of time, which implies that we rob it of its own destiny. To be responsible as an adult means to champion a person or thing without feeling responsible for its destiny.

There is a subtle but very serious ambiguity here in the meaning of the concept of responsibility. For from justly denouncing possessive over-protection as destructive and, indeed, no love at all, Sennett proceeds to reason as if the power to abandon one’s former loved ones to their fate were itself a sign of maturity. From this power, moreover, is derived the flexibility, the ability to rise above principle, which Max Weber—and Sennett, who cites Weber’s position in support of his own—saw as the distinctive craft of the professional politician.

But to apply this position to all human relationships, including the most informal and emotionally toned, is to eradicate the distinction between public and private spheres of life—which, in a way, is what Sennett’s proposal has been about all along. Weber merely argues that politics is a special art whose practitioners can afford to be rarely pure and never simple. But Sennett, as I read him, is arguing that human relationships are to be judged mature to the degree that they become basically political in character; and that Weber was really presenting a paradigm for human growth in which the value of a human relationship is to be judged by its realistic social consequences.

If this is so, then the sad domiciles of Union Park do indeed become ideal types of what a home should not be; not merely because they were unpleasant, but because they failed to release and develop their children’s potential for mastery and interaction in the outside world. Sennett, in Families Against the City, develops a fascinating refutation of Talcott Parsons’s classic thesis that the mononuclear family developed as the predominant pattern in Western industrial society because of its unique effectiveness in launching independent and competitive young people into the outside world. Union Park suggests, rather, that the family evolved to shield its members from the stresses and threats of that world, so that the most successful young people came from just those families that were imperfect models of their kind.

But no matter which of them is right, a home is still not a catapult. And a society is not necessarily better because its members are skilled at investing shifting relationships with real but temporary emotional meaning and accepting the grief of termination as a necessary part of growth. The terrible truth, I suspect, is that there is a real need for permanence and trust among human beings, and that our sense of dignity and selfhood requires that some—not all, but the crucial ones—of our relationships be of this character. We do not outgrow this need; and when it diminishes, as in many adults it does with age, the process is nothing like growth, though it is functional in our society. We do, after all, have some information about the personalities and life styles of the Union Parkers who were reared in the atypical, extended households. We know that they became like the successful Chicagoans of the turn of the century. And for this, Clarence Darrow might have said, God invented evolution!

We are, I fear, indeed responsible for the destinies of those with whom we know ourselves to be truly involved, the members of our karass; and the souls of those who deny it shrivel like grapes in a struck vineyard. Omnipotence consists not in accepting this responsibility but in supposing that it carries with it the power or the right to control such destiny. It is certainly true that we cannot protect those we love, and that we damage them severely if we try too zealously and without respect for their power and their need to learn to protect themselves. And maturity consists, in part, in accepting our own powerlessness and the grief we may sustain through their injury, humiliation, or death. But precisely because this responsibility does not stem from possession, it cannot be terminated by emancipation or divided, like common stock, to make everybody a shareholder in our affections, albeit at a greatly reduced equity.

Sennett, indeed, specifically grants, in a passage already quoted, that in the society he envisions very few bonds would be based on care. Since no one, surely, denies that all societies require many such cool, transactional bonds in order to function, it seems a needless impoverishment of the spirit for him to go further and develop a conception of care that would make even those relationships that are based on it ephemeral and terminable transactions. By doing so, however, he achieves the flexibility his model needs. What he admires in the young, of whom he writes very sympathetically, is their openness to new experience, their refusal to close themselves off with structure. He rejects as adolescent their “true believer” qualities, their refusal to compromise and inability to tolerate hypocrisy. It is therefore good for them to encounter defeat and failure, since these, though painful, force them to re-examine their view of reality:

What collapsed, in a good way, during the rebellions of 1968 was rather the assumptions that “we,” the students, are good, “they,” the establishment, are bad. These purified images collapsed and a compassion was born.

But compassion should inform, not eclipse, moral judgment; Julius Hoffman became an object of compassion to the Chicago Conspiracy defendants and their attorneys precisely because he was clearly so much more evil than they. And that compassion did not become transformed into a willingness to accept him for what he was and to negotiate with him realistically, in the interests of staying at large and hence free to do something else, and of preventing further polarization; though this would have been even more mature. It would also have destroyed whatever meaning the trial had to those who had been sustained by the spectacle of the defendants’ grace under pressure.

Sennett rejects not merely moralizing and moral posturing, but even the enjoyment of virtue. “For men struggling to understand each other in order to survive, the question of goodness would be irrelevant…. It is the essence of the good act, as Dostoevsky said, that it does not bring a person pleasure to have been good.” He and Dostoevsky are both certainly prudent to be suspicious of those who pride themselves on their superior commitment to virtue; for such people are indeed little better than Graham crackers. But the statement just quoted would exclude the individual from conscious participation in the moral order of which he is a part.

Men struggling to understand one another in order to survive must continue to guide themselves by such moral judgment as they possess; and their understanding must not become merely the empirical instrument of their survival. In The Meaning of Treason, Rebecca West makes the quite valid point that the judgment and execution of William Joyce (Lord HawHaw) for treason were required if a proper and decent respect were to be shown, not merely to British society but to him; Joyce had, after all, a right to be taken seriously at last, and it was clear that he had become what he was largely because he never had been. The Crown did not, finally, repudiate its responsibility for his destiny but helped him to fulfill it.

Sennett’s position, finally, seems to me to coincide, at least implicitly, with the argument advanced by Margaret Chase Smith and, more recently, by Father Andrew Greeley and a good many other liberal spokesmen to the effect that the more rigid and demonstrative student radicals who knowingly antagonize the community are to be regarded as the true source of the repression directed against them; they, rather than their oppressors, are the real storm troopers. There is nothing new about this argument. T.S. Eliot made superb sardonic use of it in having the last and most eloquent of the three murderous knights in the epilogue to Murder in the Cathedral argue that the audience, sitting as a Coroner’s Jury, must return a verdict that Thomas à Becket had committed suicide while of unsound mind, since he deliberately and ostentatiously chose to confront them before their righteous wrath had cooled.

Professor Sennett does not go this far; and he certainly does not condemn the young rebels. But he does hope that their rebelliousness will lose itself in a larger concern and a deeper compassion for their present adversaries and a greater willingness to accept their own impurity and the imperfection of men and social institutions than either they or their adversaries have shown so far. When the argument is put that way, I could almost wish it myself—until I realize what their enemies are like.