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.
A res publica [he writes] stands in general for those bonds of association and mutual commitment which exist between people who are not joined together by ties of family or intimate association; it is the bond of a crowd, of a “people,” of a polity rather than the bonds of family or friends. [pp. 3-4]
In translating this into more contemporary terms, Sennett bids us think of a public as involving “the community relations of strangers, particularly those which occur in cities” (p. 4). There follows a conception of “civility” appropriate to a “public” based on impersonal relations:
Civility…is the activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company. Wearing a mask is the essence of civility…. Civility has as its aim the shielding of others from being burdened with oneself…. Incivility is burdening others with oneself…. [pp. 264-265]
The above is a representative example of Sennett’s systematic arbitrariness. He starts with the language of classical political theory—res publica, association, polity—and then he proceeds to impose meanings that run quite contrary to the originals. The classical understanding of political life was based on the most intimate ties of kinship and friendship and on the deliberate intermixture of religion with politics. Further, in the Greek polis and the Roman republic “the stranger” was considered, if not a threat, then a troubling presence because of his unfamiliarity with the political and religious usages of the city. Above all, the ancients feared the “crowd,” not only because of its physical threat of disorder and its disregard of the conventions of “rank,” but because it threatened the fundamental conditions of deliberation without which public life was meaningless. It was precisely because the “public” was supposed to be involved in substantive decisions that its character was crucial; and hence the classical attempt to integrate publicly a wide range of values and behaviors which we regard as “private.”
Thus the classical concept of the public was a political concept standing for participation in public matters which related to the shared advantages made possible by a social cooperation and to the shared burdens made necessary by the constant threat of war and class conflict. If a radically different understanding of the public is to be introduced, and if one is, at the same time, trying to locate that new understanding within the tradition established by older understandings, then one has got to show how the new meets the problems that the old was trying to resolve.
To talk seriously about the “public” is to enter into an ancient and continuous discourse that began in the fifth century BC, with the public life of the Athenian polis and the political discourse which centered around it and often against it. A tradition was begun and it came to include the Roman res publica, the medieval estates, Hooker’s Anglican conception of an “ecclesiastical polity,” the “holy common-wealth” of the Puritans and the revolutionary republics of eighteenth-century America and France, and the nineteenth-century bewitchment with the distinction between “state” and “civil society,” most memorably expressed in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The existence of a tradition of public life, comprising both theories and practices, and its perpetuation meant that the idea of a public life was inseparable from its history and that any discussion of it which did not attend to the ideas with which it had become intimately connected by use and wont was incoherent.
Thus the “public” became affiliated with the idea of the citizen whose status entitles him to take part in the common affairs of his society; with the idea of authority, or the public person or body authorized to pronounce or decide on behalf of the whole society; with the idea of freedom, of being able to speak and act publicly; with the idea of “public” law as an assemblage of rules and customs governing the conduct of public officials and bodies; and with the idea of civic virtue, or the beliefs, habits, and qualities which are vital to maintaining a political order and which are often in tension with personal needs and private desires. In short, the idea of the “public” is not—to adapt a remark of Max Weber’s—like a taxi that one can pick up or leave wherever one wishes; nor is it a political boutique, full of cabbages and kings, where one is free to select the kings and leave the cabbages.
This is, however, what Sennett proposes to do. He claims that an ideal form of public life once existed and that an understanding of it and its subsequent decay can help us to realize the nature of our present predicament and to identify the terms for overcoming it. In London and Paris of the 1750s he finds a proper “balance” between the “public” and “private” realms and a lively, flourishing public life. This condition is associated with a continuous interchange which was taking place between the “street” and the “theater.” In both settings—in the squares, parks, and coffee houses of the “streets” and among the audiences in the theaters—people of diverse social origins and classes mingled freely as strangers, using dress as costume, mask, and identity badge to establish distance without preventing either social pleasures or self-expression. The conventions of conduct in the theater and the streets formed a system of “signs” which, according to Sennett, demarcated clearly the line between the private and the intimate, especially as they related to the family, and the public realm of “impersonal sociability” (p. 64). It is Sennett’s contention that this tale of two cities shows that rituals, norms, distance, and discipline—all of which are synonyms for the conventions governing healthy social intercourse—are the conditions, rather than the enemies, of spontaneity, expressiveness, and playfulness (pp. 73, 108).
There is little profit in following out Sennett’s explanation of how the “balance” was destroyed. He attributes it primarily to “capitalism” and “secularization,” but the explanation as it relates to the former is too eccentric to be satisfying: he uses a vaguely Marxist analysis of commodity fetishes and mass production of clothes, but he never explores capitalism as a system of production and power. Similarly, Sennett makes a number of grand generalizations based on the decline of religion, but his concept of religion is, to say the least, abbreviated. It seems Catholic in inspiration and it consists of two elements: rituals and the idea of “transcendence.” Transcendence is approved because it discourages the emphasis upon the value of self-disclosure. Rituals are approved because they promote depersonalization and distance. One would have thought that the Protestant revolt against ritual, the Puritan claims about conscience, and the mystic’s search for an “inner light” might be relevant to an inquiry into the modern self. These conceptions of religion are not only ignored by Sennett, but he even manages to compartmentalize his open distaste for the values of “order” from his admiration (p. 235) for the rituals and offices which, in the ecclesiology of the Church, have been strongly connotative of order.
In the end, one feels a certain helplessness in the presence of an author who picks at religion, using it at one moment to bash the secularists (“The price for doing away with this magic, with dogmas of the transcendental, with priests and all their mumbo-jumbo, is that the people are highly susceptible to becoming narcotized by a great political speaker”) only to turn against it with a virtuoso thrust that, on second reading, proves to be nonsense: “The priest brings mental idiocy to those who believe in him, but leaves free their expressive powers…” (p. 235).
These small points hardly matter because, in the end, Sennett’s eighteenth-century public is politically empty. Not once in the entire discussion of the London “street” and “theater” is there any attempt to connect them with the politics of, say, the House of Commons or the political factions of the day.1 Surely if an ideal was actually in being, it should have had a discernible effect upon the practice of politics and the behavior of politicians and citizens. Or, to take an even stronger example of the vacuity of that ideal: how is it possible to pronounce upon the “public” character of the theater without ever examining the content of the plays? Why doesn’t it matter what the audience was actually seeing and hearing—is it because then, as now, Sennett is indifferent toward the substance of public things, toward what politics is actually about? His political emptiness is not accidental but is the natural accompaniment to a distrust in the value of particulars and a fondness for the externalities of masks, costumes, and conventions. It is significant that the model of activity most preferred by Sennett is provided by the play of children: they show us what disinterested activity is like, how “immediate gratification” may be subordinated to “rules,” and how rules themselves may become malleable and made to express the player (pp. 316-322).
Sennett’s failure to establish a convincing connection between public life and political life means that he has misstated his own project: it is not the Fall of Public Man he has traced, but the Rise of Private Man. If the “theater” and the “street” are the best that can be made of the meaning of the “public” and if children are model-actors, then psychological man is still pre-lapsarian. Never having known a public life that is political, he cannot have fallen from it. Sennett’s Public Man has his origins in a systematic confusion between political “action” and public “acting.”
A revolt against repression,” Sennett declares roundly, “which is not a revolt against personality in public is not a revolt.” This sentence needs to be pondered, for it is a true measure of the distance traveled by the erstwhile radicals of the Sixties when “revolt,” the most serious word in the radical’s lexicon, is risked against a psychological construct. Sounding the tocsin for a “revolt” against “personality,” like a similar alarum sounded about the “tyranny” of psychological categories (p. 338), seems such a misplaced concreteness that it sets one to wondering whether the error is less significant than the understanding of social theory which produced it.
The Fall of Public Man may signify the post-scientific practice of social and political theory. It displays a studied indifference toward the scientific claims and fetishistic observances of the social and behavioral sciences; it is silent about “logical rigor,” “explanatory power,” and “elegant models”; and it couldn’t be stirred by the problem of “necessary and sufficient conditions,” inductive proof, uninterpreted calculi, and unintended consequences. Regarding these matters, Sennett works from a conceit rather than a conception.2 His way of handling the normal questions, What is the evidence? What would count against this theory?, is first to invent a red herring, which he calls the standard of “exhaustive evidence” and which no one, save the certifiably obsessive, has ever defended. Then, with a lordly disdain for the “intellectual dishonesty” of those who would apply such standards to “qualitative research” such as his, Sennett goes on to suggest that the demand for proof harbors a symptom (“In qualitative research, ‘proof,’ if that anxiety-laden word must be used at all….” [p. 43]).
After this promise of a more honest and straightforward standard we are told that proof “is a matter of demonstration of logical relationship.” But that conception turns out to be anything but the ordinary understanding of a logical relationship as necessary or conditional. Instead we are given a notion of proof that would delight astrologers and devotees of witchcraft.3 The “qualitative researcher has laid on him the burden [sic] of plausibility” (p. 43). What is interesting about this formulation is that (a) Sennett believes it does impose a “burden” and (b) plausibility which means, literally, “a show of truth,” describes quite precisely the contents of The Fall of Public Man.
Then there is a problem of identifying the kind of inquiry the work purports to be. “I have tried to create a theory of expression in public by a process of interplay between history and theory” (p. 6). This “interplay” is then described by Sennett as a “dialectical inquiry,” a description which is misleading and which, in its understanding of “dialectical,” manages to be both embarrassing4 and trivial.5 If by a “theory” we mean a systematic explanation of a certain range of phenomena or an intellectual structure shaped to combine critical inquiry with a counter-conception of existence; if, in other words, it is a necessary condition of having a theory that it have a recognizable form (e.g., logical, empirical, or critical), the “theory” of The Fall of Public Man is one by courtesy alone: for its form consists of a series of images united by some metaphors.
The most engaging example of the systematic arbitrariness of the book occurs when its methods of historical selectivity are explained. Recognizing that his method jumps about somewhat breathlessly—one moment in London of the 1750s, then Paris; then to the Paris of 1848 before going back to Savonarola’s sixteenth-century Florence in order to go forward to Zola’s Paris—Sennett relies upon the procedure of “postholing,” which he attributes to some unidentified historians. Admittedly the method “loses in a certain kind of veracity,” but there is compensation in “the sweep of historical forces” and “some of the richness of detail which comes from delving into a specific moment” (p. 42).
While there is much to be said against the methodological fetishes of the social and behavioral sciences, Sennett does not say it; he simply follows the precept, “anything goes.”6 But the interesting thing is that, simultaneously, he is inveighing against public self-indulgence and extolling the virtues of rules, conventions, and impersonal standards. Sennett is thus an atheist about social science, but a Pascalian about society.
What might post-Weberian social science look like? If Sennett is a harbinger, it will start from the Weberian conception of an “interpretative” science which searches for patterns of meaning displayed in human action; then, while remaining interpretative, it will substitute the idea of “signs” for the idea of science, “codes” for patterns, and “acting” for action. There will be work for everybody: decoding codes which nobody has encoded. And after all of the “codes of belief and behavior” (p. 33), the “secular codes of immanent personality” (p. 253), of “hidden desires” (p. 259), and of “hidden agendas” (p. 260) have been exposed, the fundamental question will remain unanswered: why should I reject narcissistic indulgence in favor of public life? What is the moral and political position which persuades me that narcissism is wrong?
Code-work may postpone these questions, maybe even help to illuminate them; but it cannot answer them. It can, however, immobilize the questioner by suggesting that all moral and political positions of a systematic kind are themselves codes. And thus we shall have chalked ourselves inside the hermeneutic circle, which would be a heavy price to have paid for reducing jesting Pilate to silence and his question to nothing.
April 14, 1977
Sennett does discuss the Wilkes affair but only as a symptom of the “crack” in the public sphere created by the intrusion of “personality” into politics. ↩
Here is an example of how canons of evidence are understood. In support of an argument he wants to make concerning the relation between sexuality and narcissism, Sennett refers to “an interesting study conducted in Paris over many years ” (p. 9). The study is never identified any further. The reference to it occurs in Part One of the book, which contains several statements of historical fact and numerous references to the ideas of various writers. No citation is offered for any of them. The following explanation for this procedure is offered: “No notes are given for Part One,” Sennett writes, because “the works mentioned there are readily available in bookstores ” (p. 343). This is, of course, quite charming, even suggestive of a possible formula for footnotes that permit adjustment to regional differences: fewer for New York City with all its bookstores, more for Plains, Ga. ↩
“Empirical plausibility is a matter of showing the logical connections among phenomena which can be described concretely” (p. 43). ↩
“A dialectical inquiry means the argument is complete only when the book has come to an end” (p. 6). ↩
“As the history has suggested clues to a theory, I have tried to take the abstract insights gained as clues in their turn for new questions to ask the historical record” (p. 6). Sennett seems unaware that “the historical record” is a meaningless notion, or that it is misleading to say that history “suggests.” ↩
For a playful and suggestive defense of an “anarchistic” conception of epistemology and the philosophy of science, see Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (Humanities Press, 1975). ↩