• Email
  • Print

Breaking the Code

In response to:

The Rise of Private Man from the April 14, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Sheldon Wolin writes (NYR, April 14) of my The Fall of Public Man that its two main concepts are “narcissism” and “personality.” If this is so, then I have failed to convey my purpose in writing the book. What I want to do is explore the meaning of dramatic action in everyday life. Rituals and conventions are important ways of organizing human behavior; they give a social form to feelings which might otherwise remain inarticulate or idiosyncratic. My aim in The Fall of Public Man was to show why, as the values of modern society become more focused on matters of individual personality, narcissism is encouraged, and dramatic activity is discouraged.

If this theme does not come through, then the organization of both the historical and the contemporary materials may seem arbitrary and random, as it evidently does to Wolin. The form of the book is to chart some paths by which dramatic activity in everyday life has diverged historically from ideas about performance, and behavior during performance, in the formal performing arts. I would be the first to agree that I have not mastered this subject; the difficulties I had in writing this book reflect themselves both in its language and in confusions of form—such as whether to have footnotes in the Introduction, a matter to which Wolin calls attention.

Whatever the failings of the text, Wolin and I have two disagreements which are serious and may be of interest to other readers to expose.

I believe that dramatic conventions are the substance of public life: how people dress, the physical gestures they use, the ways in which they enact their feelings or beliefs to other people so as to arouse empathy or cause revulsion—these are the means by which people create a social bond with other people, especially with strangers who do not know them intimately and privately. These public conventions, I believe, have a political dimension, and an important one. For these conventions have an effect on what political formulas, and what politicians, people are likely to believe. In connecting drama to politics, I have wanted to show in particular that as belief in impersonal convention has declined in modern society, the ability to believe in impersonal political categories like class struggle has also declined, and that more attention is being paid to the personalities of political figures to judge their worth than to their actions.

Wolin’s sense of the connection between the “public” and the “political” is much different, as I understand him. He writes in the tradition of Fustel de Coulanges and Hannah Arendt (the latter whom I unpardonably failed to discuss in my text). In this tradition, the res publica is taken to mean a particular intermixing of the law, the family, and the conditions of labor. Thus it becomes logical for Wolin to criticize me for ignoring political “content,” for this mixture of formal elements creates for him the substance of politics. In his view, I am ignoring content for the sake of form; my connection between acting and action is alien to him.

Our disagreement about the relation of public behavior and political life comes in turn from a second disagreement, perhaps a more basic one: What is a social institution? More particularly, how much emphasis must be put upon the interpretations people put on their family patterns, their work, their community relations, in order to define what each of these are as social institutions?

Wolin rightly identifies this as a real difficulty for anyone who writes, as I do, in the Weberian tradition. It is easy to affirm that people’s beliefs influence their actions; it is difficult to say how. In The Fall of Public Man I try to do so by showing how people’s belief in forms of emotion outside the terms of their individual personalities might affect their action both individually and collectively. One of the difficulties I encountered in this study was that such beliefs are often unspoken. People are likely to leave records about behavior or social conditions which trouble them, and to leave unmentioned those ideas which govern action so routinely, just as matters of “common sense,” that they scarcely seem worth mentioning.

Wolin appears to be worried about the problems involved here on two counts. First he fears that the social analyst will work in a formless and discipline-less way to uncover these meanings; the more intuition the analyst has to use, the greater the danger that his analysis becomes a subjective reflection of himself. Second, he fears that the attempt to break codes of meaning becomes so involved that the analyst loses any perspective on his material, and so cannot use clear standards to pass judgment on what he is finding.

How far I have succumbed to these dangers the readers of my book will have to decide. I have little faith in my own complete innocence. Whatever the potential and actual dangers of the Weberian tradition—and Weber himself was entirely contradictory on this score, affirming the worth of “value-free” analysis at the same time he made full use of the ideas of Dilthey and Collingwood about empathy—I believe this tradition is a living one. It does away with the mechanical notion of a social structure which “produces” feelings and beliefs, as though the institutions of human society were apart from, and prior to, people’s cognitive and emotional powers. If this tradition comes to fruition, it ought to show us how the whole human being is involved in social relations—psychologically, economically, artistically. My own belief is that, whatever the penalties of ambiguity this tradition entails, it is the only means to restore to the whole human being a sense of mastery over the environment in which he lives.

Richard Sennett

New York City

Sheldon Wolin replies:

Trusting that brevity will not be mistaken for churlishness, let me simply say why I think that Sennett’s letter confirms my main criticism that he had sacrificed substance to forms. His letter states that “dramatic conventions are the substance of public life.” In my view this confusion is possible because of Sennett’s essentially empty conception of “public life.” He argues that the “political” is importantly a part of what we mean by public life, yet he does not appreciate that if his attempt to “connect drama to politics” is to succeed, it has to show that dramatic conventions can provide the “social bonds” needed to sustain political life. But to do this, he must first carefully work out a conception of the political, otherwise it would be impossible to decide if the bonds were adequate to the task.

In my view, not only did Sennett fail to come to terms with the meaning of political life, but if he had, it would have become apparent that his conception of social bonds, as growing out of “dress,” “physical gestures,” and the “enactment” of feelings and beliefs, was ill-suited to the demands of political life. As I tried to suggest, it was not accidental that Western political theorists have been preoccupied with concepts such as “fraternity,” “civic virtue,” and “public trust”; it reflects their appreciation of the severe strains consequent upon our being “members of one body politic” and of the necessity of encouraging values and ties which can endure the strains of having to decide questions of social justice, crimes and punishments, the use of finite resources, and war and peace. I remain unpersuaded that the conventions of the theater are instructive, either as analogue or model.

Sennett’s letter also illustrates his tendency to treat “conventions” as though they were autonomous forces rather than social instruments which reflect, say, the interests of dominant classes. Oddly, this pre-Marxian conception of conventions is combined (as it is in Sennett’s book) with a post-Marxian acceptance of “class struggle.” Thus Sennett deplores the fact that “as belief in impersonal convention has declined in modern society, the ability to believe in impersonal categories like class struggle has also declined….” It seems to me, however, that a critical analysis could demonstrate the reverse, that “class struggle” (using that term as a synonym for conflicts arising out of a deep-felt sense of inequity) is likely to command greater support precisely because certain “impersonal conventions” have ceased to be credible and hence cease to mystify. An obvious case in point is the loss of belief among the poor and black in the “impersonal conventions” which are supposed to govern law enforcement and judicial processes. One effect of that experience has been to increase the self-awareness of these groups and to encourage them to act. Whereas Sennett seems worried about whether people believe, I am worried about what they believe.

It would be foolish in this brief space to attempt to resolve the complexities in the concept of social “codes.” Briefly, much turns on which of two possible meanings is intended: is a code simply a useful metaphor devised by the analyst to illuminate a limited range of social phenomena? or is a “code” supposed to be a miniaturized replica of the “real structure” of social reality? When Sennett talks about “break[ing] codes of meaning” he seems to be adopting the second sense of code. Be that as it may, the point of the closing remarks in my review was that, given Sennett’s moral and political complaints, he could not simply remain content to decipher “meanings” and to denounce or praise the forms of belief and behavior which deviated from or accorded with those meanings. He needed, but he did not develop, a moral psychology to support his criticism of the cult of personality, just as he needed, but did not develop, a conception of the “political” which would make the connection between drama and politics more coherent.

Sennett’s closing references to “the whole human being” and to the need “to restore…a sense of mastery over the environment” are not reassuring: the latter provides further support for my claim that he is still trapped in conventional values (e.g., “mastery”); while the former fails to recognize the fundamental question, which is not whether the “whole human being is involved in social relations” but whether such a conception makes political sense. If political membership is taken seriously, Sennett’s “whole human being” will inevitably find that he is required to deny some part of the self so that public purposes can be served (e.g., he may have to be a citizen-soldier). Or he may find that he is being asked, in the interests of justice, to sacrifice so that “strangers” may prosper more.

  • Email
  • Print