The Fall of Public Man 4

The Fall of Public ManI finished The Fall of Public Man yesterday, and it has seriously unsettled me. I need to turn somewhere else after this, because I’m afraid it’s left me terribly depressed. Sennett, to his credit, hasn’t really had to reverse his somewhat dark estimation of the health of society in the intervening years since 1974.

If anything, the observations of the book seem even stronger now. The book is an indictment of individuality much more severe in form and expression than say, Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head. 

Sennett’s thesis cuts severely against the grain of traditional individualism much more deeply: “the effacement of the res publica by the belief that social meanings are generated by the feelings of individual human beings” has become our guiding social principle (339). This has caused an erosion of meaningful political engagement:

We understand that that power is a matter of national and international interests, the play of classes and ethnic groups, the conflict of regions and religions. But we do not act upon that understanding. To the extent that this culture of personality controls belief, we elect candidates that who are credible, have integrity, and show self-control. These personalities appeal, we say, to a wide variety of interests. . . . But a community of power can only be an illusion in a society like the industrial west, one in which a stability has been achieved by progressive extension into the international scale of structures of economic control. In sum, the belief in direct human relations on an intimate scale has seduced us from converting our understandings of the realities of power into guides for our own political behavior. The result is that the forces of domination and inequity remain unchallenged. (339)

Further, Sennett suggests that this transformation (with ample historical precedent) of understanding from societal interactions into personal ones has perverted the very idea of cities:

This belief that real human relations are disclosures of personality to personality has, secondly, distorted our understanding of the purposes of the city. The city is the instrument of impersonal life, the mold in which diversity and complexity of persons, interests, and tastes become available as social experience. The fear of impersonality is breaking that mold. In their nice neat gardens, people speak of the horrors of London or New York; here in Highgate or Scarsdale one knows one’s neighbors; true, not much happens, but life is safe. It is retribalization. (339)

I’ve been reading and looking at a lot of material from the “tiny house” movement in the last year or so. Not because I would ever consider living in one, but because I’m interested in the design of interior spaces right now. It seems to me, that stripping things down to the essential can tell you a lot about what we need to live. Reading the Sennett, it becomes clear that this withdrawal into the most intimate of spaces  affirms the belief that the personal is taken to be the arbiter of all things in our modern consciousness. Can’t afford a big manor house? Perhaps a small hut in the woods away from others would be just the ticket to cure your social ills.

The problem is that this is entirely a bourgeois phenomenon. Only people of means can really consider running away from social relations and regulations like building codes. I recently watched a little documentary about some of the experiments currently active in the southwest, A spaghetti western on lean urbanism. While some of the quirky young people were interesting, I’m past the age where I would consider crapping in a bucket. Indoor plumbing is nice, and if you build away from the city you are forced to confront the problem of infrastructure, and regulations. There was an interesting arc to the conclusion of that film though, which suggested in the end that a dynamic urban center was vital to creativity and creative expression. That is ultimately Sennett’s point. There’s a problem with our attitudes towards cities that goes beyond the expensive nature of living spaces (the film ended with an examination of tiny apartments, the urban equivalent of tiny houses).

To their credit, many of the “tiny” people are attempting, in their own way, to improve things. A recent development in downtown Syracuse of tiny apartments is attempting to replicate the college dorm experience of their residents. By engineering in common spaces such as a full kitchen and rec rooms adjoining the tiny spaces, they hope that young adults will want to live there. But this sort of locally generated “community” is still a type of ghettoization of like types which enervates, rather than energizes social anxieties, complete with resident social engineer. It creates just another echo chamber where people can see themselves in their immediate neighbors and avoid being challenged by confronting “strangers,” the original form of the city— a collection of strangers.

The problem is the way our attitude toward others has evolved. We look outside ourselves to find— not the “real” world— but instead a mirror. We feel uncomfortable if we can’t “identify” ourselves in others. We retreat into more and more intimate spaces. The outside collapses inward.

Worldly asceticism and narcissism have much in common. In both, “What am I feeling?” becomes an obsession. In both, showing to others the checks and impulses of oneself feeling is a way of showing that one does have a worthy self. In both, there is a projection of the self onto the world rather than an engagement in worldly experience beyond one’s control.

If we ask why Weber constructed this idea of the Protestant Ethic, one answer is that it was his way of showing the combined results of secularism and capitalism on the psyche; it is no accident he should have chosen these two forces. They lead to the erosion of belief in experience external to the self. Together they have eroded the self as an aggressive, confident force, and instead made its worthiness the object of obsessive anxiety. Together, they have eroded public life. (334)

Controlling the external manifestation of feeling is the core focus of Sennett’s historical exegesis in The Fall of Public Man. We show that we’re civilized by not “playing” when we’re dealing with others; we establish our authenticity through polite restraint in our dealings with others. There’s a cul-de-sac I’ve not written out regarding the elocutionary movement yet, but I think I’ll wrap writing about Sennett here. The stifling influence of decorum is well explored a bit earlier in the book, and these are the words that shook me the most while reading it:

To lose the ability to play is to lose the sense that worldly conditions are plastic. The ability to play with social life depends on the existence of a dimension in society which stands apart from, at a distance from, intimate desire, need, and identity. For modern man to have become an actor deprived of an art is thus a more serious matter than the fact that people prefer listening to records rather than playing chamber music at home. The ability to be expressive is at a fundamental level cut, because one tries to make one’s appearance represent who one is, to join the question of effective expression to the issue of authenticity of expression. Under these conditions, everything returns to motive: Is this what I really feel? Do I really mean it? Am I being genuine? The self of motivations intervenes in an intimate society to block people from feeling free to play with the presentation of feelings as objective, formed signs. Expression is made contingent on authentic feeling, but one is always plunged into the narcissistic problem of never being able to crystalize what is authentic in one’s feelings. (267)

The cul-de-sac I feel compelled to traverse next involves the concept of emotions as “objective, formed signs.” It’s not really a main feature of Sennett’s book and to explore it fully I need to look into melodrama a bit more extensively.

I’ve just started on Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World, which is due back at the library in about a week, so I can’t dally too much.