The Fall of Public Man

The Fall of Public ManRichard Sennett’s thesis in The Fall of Public Man revolves around a central presumption: a fundamental part of how humans express themselves is through play-acting. This rings so many bells with some of my prior research into visual rhetoric, especially with regard to how we interpret artifacts.

Watching a movie on PBS Independent Lens a few days ago, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, it was interesting how Romanians interpreted the western films smuggled behind the iron curtain in the 1980s as fuel for liberatory fantasies. Films that seemed downright silly to most westerners were taken up as evidence for the possibility of a better life. If Chuck Norris can do it, anyone can. Right?

It’s easy for a cultural critic to dissect every flaw and horrid notion of sexism and bourgeois suppression of the subaltern in trash media, but to see these mainstream films invoked as valuable “props” in a game of make believe made me remember John Willats.

In Art and Representation, Willats argues that pictures are most useful when they provoke those who view them to use them as “props” to trigger thought. This places them, not as symbols or “representations” that resemble their ostensible subjects, but rather more like toys that we arrange to convey our fantasies. He begins with children’s drawings, and the systems used to create them (which bear no resemblance to classical single point perspective, for example) are an integral part of the way that we interface with the world. Drawings (or photographs for that matter) do not  represent the world as much as they give us a chance to express thoughts about the world in a playful way.

Yesterday, I cited a bit of Sennett’s contention that self-absorption is a dangerous block to expression. That passage continues:

There is a relation between the question of method and the question of aborted expression. The artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but is meaningless or even destructive among intimates. Playacting in the form of manners, conventions, and ritual gestures is the very stuff out of which public relations are formed, and from which public relations derive their emotional meaning. The more social conditions erode the public forum, the more people are routinely inhibited from exercising the ability to playact. The members of an intimate society become artists deprived of an art. These modes of playacting are “roles.” Thus, one method of making sense of the shift between public and private in modern culture would be to investigate the historical changes in these public “roles.” That is the method of this book. (28-29)

There are many potential blocks to expression. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, the communist-controlled media feared that exposure to western films would corrupt the masses and erode the public forum, so they provided what they thought were better “role models” for the people. Government and police agencies allowed the films to circulate to a limited extent, bribed with western films for the use of themselves and their friends, because they thought the phenomenon was isolated and impacted only a few. They could still be good communists and watch the films; the films wouldn’t corrupt a “good” communist; only the masses needed to be protected. However, tens of thousands of people viewed the contraband films— everyone wants to play.

The popularity of entertainment media is one of the core points of departure in Sennett’s book. Theater in the 18th century was vastly different than today, or even from the 19th century. Chairs were placed on stage with the actors, for example, all the way up to 1762. Raucous crowds, massive in size, watched the same plays over and over (bit like people watching old VHS tapes) and interacted with the actors when they thought things weren’t quite right. Theater was a public space, not an intimate dark space filled with isolated strangers. Sennett adopts what he labels a “posthole” method, looking at narrow spans of time to be able to more easily isolate the changes across time. It isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t need to be.

What seems apparent, and easily verified, is that between the 18th century and now the focus has shifted between spectacle-prone performances by an emergent class of actors with varying ideas about how to communicate with the masses, and what we now look at as “texts” (Shakespeare’s plays for example), which are interpreted within circumscribed boundaries. The 18th century audience was not the passive recipient of the packaged emotions of the performer (on screen in the dark, mostly, these days) but rather participants in a public game of sorts. When the chairs came off the stage, a lot changed. The actor became the center of attention.

The social importance of the theater, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century, comes at the expense of its literary propriety though. I found this lovely snippet in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature from the early 20th century:

Though the last forty years of the eighteenth century produced few English plays of primary importance, the period is among the most interesting in the history of the national theatre. Its study shows how complex and perishable are the conditions of dramatic excellence, and explains why one of the chief glories of the English muse sank, for at least a century, beneath the level of literature.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the decay of the drama was partly due to the advance of the actor. In the days of Betterton and Barton Booth, the best player was, in a sense, an intermediary, and the attention of spectators could be held only if characters and situations appealed directly to their understanding. With the coming of Havard, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, Spranger Barry, Foote, Yates, Mrs. Abington and King, success no longer depended on the excellence of a play. The stage began to offer a new and non-literary attraction. It was enough for the dramatist to give a “cue for passion”; he need only serve as a collaborator, as one whose work was half finished till presented by a trained performer.

The sinking of the literary muse is tied to the ascent of the sort of celebrity culture that we now find ourselves held hostage by. Looking back to the 1980s, I don’t think I’d care to celebrate Chuck Norris either. Note that in this critique 18th century plays are simply “cues for passion.” This sounds eerily like Willat’s “props for games of make believe.”

The really intriguing thing about Sennett’s thesis (thus far) for me, is that expression is the presentation of emotion. This dovetails in one particular discussion of craft from Jogge Sundqvist I transcribed a while back, which includes this bit: “the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and  art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.” The objects we make, just as much as the face we present to the public, carries with it a particular presentation of emotion. Not as sentiment, per se, but in our attention to a shared sort of decorum. Sennett frames it thusly:

Suppose one person tells another about his father’s dying days in the hospital. Today the sheer recounting of the details would be enough to arouse the other person’s pity. Strong impressions minutely described are for us identical with expression. But imagine a situation or society in which the sheer reporting of the details of suffering would not signify to another person. The man recounting these moments could not merely relive them, but had to mold them, selecting some details to emphasize, suppressing others, even falsifying his report in order to fit a form or pattern which his listener understood to be what dying was all about. Under these conditions, the speaker wants to present to his hearer the death so organized in its details that it fits the picture of an event which arouses pity.  Similarly, pity is not different depending on what death we hear about; pity exists and an independent emotion, rather than varying with and, therefore, depending on each experience of it. (107-108)

The 18th century approach to sentiment, to the emotions, is profoundly different from the way that we express them now. This is evident in the elocutionary movement in rhetoric. I was shocked, as I researched it a bit, just how little rhetoricians have dealt with this intriguing cultural moment. Sennett’s book is driving me to remember a lot of things that I studied long ago, to make better sense of how emotional expression might be found both in appearances and objects. Taking care, or more precisely, communicating care, is of paramount importance in negotiating the world.

Play-acting, then, becomes a central rather than peripheral issue. Not just in the 18th century, but now.

In an interview I watched recently, Laurie Anderson described the telling of stories as our public face. They become embellished and altered, modified and simplified, until they have little resemblance to the events that invoked them. Stories, which are in a sense short “plays,” become our way of expressing ourselves through play. And we are still guilty of distorting them to conform to cultural standards.