The Fall of Public Man (3)

The Fall of Public ManI realize now that my previous post lept over an important part in its discussion of acting. Acting, as explored by Sennett, was a dominant metaphor for the role of people in public environments prior to the eighteenth century.

Prior to his discussion of Diderot’s Paradox, he discusses theatrum mundi as the operating image for man in the world. Citing the opening of Book Seven of Fielding’s Tom Jones, Sennett points out that the cliched nature of “all the world’s a stage” was taken for granted for so long that 18th century sophisticates no longer need to be reminded that the drama of ordinary life is indeed real, and not just a fancy metaphor:

“The world as a stage” was indeed and old cliche dressed up in new ways by the mid-18th Century. We have observed that one of the classic functions of theatrum mundi imagery was to detach the human nature from social action, by separating actor from act. In the common-sense view of man as an actor, personally you were no longer indictable as a bad man for committing a bad act you just needed to change your behavior. Man as an actor bears a lighter moral yoke than either Puritan or devout Catholic: he is not born into sin, he enters into it if he happens to play an evil part. (109)

The weight carried by private grows heavier because the private is saddled with the burden of being the sole province of the “genuine.” Floating free and atomised from or relations with others, the arbiter of our moral selves becomes narcissism. We look inside to figure out what is “right.”

Sennett’s exploration focuses on the suppression of public displays of emotion through clothing and the rise of judging things by appearances rather than actions as it moves into the 19th Century. Just as action carries less moral importance on stage, how a person acts (as a way of evaluating them) becomes less important than how they look.

The argument is complex and interrelated with the rise of “personality” as a way of defining a person over “nature” in the 18th century. It’s possible, in the 18th century, to explain an action by saying it was somehow a component of their “nature,” but in the 19th this explanation no longer holds: they might be forced into action because of the role they play. That role, to a certain extent, can be predicted by the way they look (be careful of that dark-skinned kid in the hoodie, or that women in a birka, even today). What you “do” matters far less than how you look.

How you look marks what “group” you belong to; there are no strangers, only people to sort into previously evaluated communities that you already have notions for the predilections they might have. A rather sick notion of community, or deploying the social science term used by Sennett, gemeinschaft. Groups are frequently formed around people, who like charismatic actors, suspend the critical factor of evaluating behavior through action and substituted the evaluation of people by “personality.” Sennett’s example is the mid 19th century poet/politician Lamartine:

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville of Paris, on February 25, 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux.

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville of Paris, on February 25, 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux.

The hidden power of a speaker like Lamartine is that he harnesses mystification. He has no text, and so escapes by being measured by any outside standard of truth or reality. He can make the quality of his intentions or sentiments a self-sufficient basis of his legitimacy to rule, and thus, if he is a Goebbels, make large numbers of normally intelligent people believe that Jews are both Communists and international bankers. Whether this is more or less mystical than convincing large numbers of people of a virgin birth is an open question.

The age of proletarian revolutions is over; so is the age of the Romantic performer. Without the color, the passion, the bombast, what has survived is the cognitive structure: a believable public event is created by a believable public person rather than a believable action. The genuine aesthetic qualities of the meeting of politics and the arts having disappeared, what remains is only the obscurantist, paralyzing effect of a “politics of personality.” (237)

The current political situation really seems to support Sennett’s 1974 thesis. The current administration that has brought the nation back from the brink of collapse and extended health care to more people than ever before is judged, not by its actions but by what it might do, according to the pundits: “they’re trying to take our guns away!” Hello gridlock, goodbye civility. But what concerns me most is the transformation in evaluative criteria, and the lack of any real public venue to express genuine (rather than stereotypical) emotions about it.

In short, what we have lost is a meaningful public domain. Not public domain in the sense of a cultural copia, as hashed out by an army of intellectual property specialists, but rather a public domain for meaningful emotional expression. This isn’t a recent development, but rather something that’s been a long time coming through careful, calculated choices.

Another example invoked by Sennett is the gradual shift away from public discourse to a kind of polite silence. It began with the suppression of labor dissent and organizing in public houses. It was frowned upon to speak of grievances, it’s better to sit and drink your pint in peace toward the end of the eighteenth century. Groups of people vocalizing in public become suspect. The house lights on the theater are turned out by then, and by the mid-19th, audience is discouraged from reacting to what is said on the stage: applaud only at the end of the act, or the piece of music. The performer (personality) is given precedence over the audience. By the end of the 19th century, the performer not only does not have to answer to the text he’s performing, but also remains immune from the vagaries of the audience.

The secular public domain has essentially become mystified while the workings of the planet have (supposedly) been demystified by science and mathematics. And we retire to our private chambers with a simultaneously improved and crippled, ineffectual, role to play in the audience of this mystery play.

There’s at least one more post before I turn loose of this book. I can’t believe I avoided reading it all these years.

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