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The Rise of Private Man

The Fall of Public Man

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 373 pp., $15.00

Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man is an original and courageous book; it is, also, a troubling book: shoddy in its execution, arbitrary in its methods. Practically every reviewer, including those who have praised it highly, has remarked upon its insensitivity to the ordinary conventions of grammar and literary craftsmanship, its repetitiousness, and near incomprehensibleness.

Most reviewers have insisted that a persevering reader of The Fall of Public Man will be rewarded; precisely how has been made less clear. I would suggest the following possibility: Sennett has made a powerful and important critique of (what I shall call) psychological man. Psychological man emerges when the crucial terms of human identity (e.g., “self,” “person,” and “character”) and of human action lose their meaning and relationships are construed primarily by the conceptual language of psychology and psychoanalysis. We know that we are in the linguistic realm where psychological man is citizen when the civil discourse is about “personality disorders” rather than “vice” or “corruption.” Psychological man marks a crucial change when the enterprise of psychology is inflated far beyond the requirements of a scientific inquiry and becomes the dominant mode of understanding, interpretation, and validation for both self and society. With the decline of religion, traditional morality, and civic values, we are left with psychology as our main language for expressing moral judgment, analyzing social relationships, and conferring political approval. With subtlety and sensitivity Sennett shows something of what it means when, as we might put it, the soul and its dark night give way to the personality and its disorders; and when salvation seems less urgent than self-realization.

The two main concepts in Sennett’s critical analysis are “narcissism” and “personality.” Narcissism stands not only for self-absorption, self-preoccupation, but also for the urge to “express” one’s “deepest” stirrings, to confide one’s most private feelings, and to “reach out” for really intimate relations with other quiverers. Personality might be defined as public exhibition of the self in which attention is deliberately drawn toward the gestures of disclosure (e.g., the virtuoso performer or the politician with “charisma”) to the obfuscation of what is concretely at stake. Thus a pianist may dazzle by his histrionics and thereby prevent us from realizing that he is mutilating a composition; a politician may do the same and charm us into forgetting to ask, what has he done lately for our real interests? (p. 265) The cult of public personalities is a way of promoting powerlessness among the viewers: we come to enjoy being in the passive state of spectators, voyeurs whose appetites are managed by the media. Similarly, narcissism is now systematically promoted by “society”; people are being encouraged to “treat social situations as mirrors of self,” thereby draining the public world of all meanings save those that are self-referential (pp. 8, 326-327). Class conflict, if a gloss is permitted, will be brought to you by the same people who made Elvira Madigan.

Narcissism is now being exploited as an instrument of control. In the pretense of bringing people “closer together,” there is a “logic” at work which is undermining the conditions of effective action. If people are to act effectively, they must be able to make rational judgments about their real interests. Such judgments presuppose the capacity of the self to stand back from its immediate feelings and acquire some “distance”; this capacity is being sapped by the obsessive preoccupation with one’s immediate feelings and inner states. Accordingly, “in the name of removing barriers between people,” society is “transposing the structures of domination…into psychological terms” which serve to mask power (p. 336).

Sennett’s general thesis is that a “state of decay” has set in in “the public domain” because of the collapse of the line separating “private” from “public” life. This has come about because private values, notably those centered around the self and its urge to be expressive and intimate with others, have been used to discredit the values of “restraint” and “distance” which form the necessary basis of a public life in a modern, urban society of strangers. An urge to snuggle, to exchange warmth with others, has transformed the way we think about social groups as well as personal relationships. Formerly our expectations were that a political or economic group was strictly instrumental; one supported it for practical reasons, such as to improve one’s economic prospects. All of this has changed. Now we want “community” and “fraternity”; and to get it we will shrink the circle of familiars until the group is very cozy indeed, perhaps ethnically pure.

Thus, according to Sennett, the quest for Gemeinschaft turns into a form of social withdrawal chanted to the tune of “small is beautiful.” While we have traded efficacy for fellowship, the real world of impersonal structures and multinationals rolls on (pp. 338-339). Worse, the very intimacy of a community of neighbors encourages each to observe what the other is doing. “Community has a surveillance function” and those who are “open with each other” end by trying “to control each other.” Community ends in “fratricide”: the members turn against each other and preserve their solidarity only by closing ranks against the “outside” world (p. 300). At the national level we are mainly passive, so replete with our own self-absorption that we ask no more of politicians than to display themselves before us and to let us savor their personalities, explore their motives, question their credibility, and bask in their image, but not press questions about their policies.

When nineteenth-century commentators remarked upon the American frenzy for obliterating the past, the past they had in mind was a distant one, usually stretching back to the Old World origins of America. The Fall of Public Man is a remarkable example of the frenzy with which the participants in the history of the last decade are fleeing from the recent past, rejecting it totally, not in a mood of rebellion but of revulsion, almost Sartrean nausée.

There is in this book a blanket condemnation, sweeping and unqualified, of the major political assumptions of the Sixties and of the political forms chosen to express them. The core notions of “community,” “sharing,” and “participation” and the institutions associated with them—decentralization, local autonomy, ethnic politics, and neighborhood communities—are not ridiculed but savaged for being “destructive Gemeinschaft.” All forms of closely knit group life are bitterly condemned as “ghettoes” and a judgment as harsh as Cato’s Delenda est Carthago is rendered: “The destruction of a city of ghettoes is both a political and psychological necessity” (p. 296). The rebels of the Sixties are not even allowed a measure of dignity for having opposed Nixon. Their narcissism complemented his politics of “intimate motives”; and, lest it be forgotten, it was Nixon who promised to “bring us together.”

The gist of the indictment is directed at the ideal of “personality” which Sennett believes was fundamental to the politics of the past decade: a new personality based on “the expectation…of trust, of warmth, of comfort.” In his view, it was, and is, a recipe for powerlessness. It promotes “a weakened sense of human will” and a steady supply of victims for a harsh world:

How can it be strong enough to move in a world founded on injustice? Is it truly humane to propose to human beings the dictum that their personalities “develop,” that they become “richer” emotionally to the extent that they learn to trust, to be open, to share, to eschew manipulation of others, to eschew aggressive challenges to social conditions or mining these conditions for personal gain? Is it humane to form soft selves in a hard world? [p. 260]

When Sennett turns to sketching the characteristics needed to cope with “the realities of power,” we find that we are back in the familiar world of pre-Vietnam politics. The prodigal son has returned with the sobering knowledge that toughness and realism are what the world is about, that only by acting “impersonally” can people “learn to pursue aggressively their interests in society…” (p. 340). Unless “political behavior” eschews the search for “power relations” on a “more intimate scale” and faces up to the “actual structures of power,” powerlessness will persist. What is needed is aggressiveness, a return to hard-headed, interest-oriented politics, in which alliances are chosen for their material rather than their psychic benefits (p. 339).

Although some dark threats are vaguely expressed about “the capitalist system” and about challenging “the forces of domination or inequity” (p. 340), these examples of post-Sixties language are insignificant when compared with the astonishing re-emergence of the traditional American political vocabulary. Aggressiveness is the old individualism, as interpreted by a contemporary New Yorker; talk about “interests” overwhelms any possible talk about equality or injustice; big structures are the necessity of the present and the wave of the future: there is much emphasis placed upon “diversity” and “complexity,” while the communal forms, which would seem to be its precondition, are attacked; and there is a reaffirmation of the classical American faith in “the rules of the game” now couched as the discovery of the value of “conventions,” “rules,” “distance,” and “discipline.”

The American problem, for Sennett, is what it has always been: to find the ways of keeping people apart so that when they come together they will remain separated by a proper distance and focused upon their particular interests. The heart of the problem, and only vaguely suggested, is the anxiety that tormented Cotton Mather and probably inspired the title of this book:

…people can be sociable only when they have some protection from each other; without barriers, boundaries, without the mutual distance which is the essence of impersonality, people are destructive. [p. 311]

When Sennett turns to the task of locating the sources of inspiration for a public revival, one begins to suspect that his break with his own past is less decisive than it had originally seemed. We need to remember what Sennett curiously forgets, that the Sixties witnessed an unprecedented mix of political and cultural forms: dress, music, street-theater, and politics were mingled, sometimes creatively, sometimes pathetically. In condemning the politics of that decade, it might seem that Sennett would be after a purer form of politics; one that would be in keeping with his metaphorical language about the “public domain” and the “separation” of “the public” from “the private.” This proves not to be the case.

Sennett begins his discussion of the “public” as though he recognized what the political stakes were about. The opening paragraphs of The Fall of Public Man play with certain parallels between contemporary America and the Roman Empire, but then Sennett turns to establishing the basic vocabulary of his book. He does so by borrowing from the languages of the two most political of peoples, the ancient Greeks and Roman republicans, in order to state his conception of the public.

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