The Fall of Public Man
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.