The Fall of Public Man

“What social conditions encourage people to display their feelings to others in such a way that some sympathetic response, some arousal occurs? Under what conditions do do human beings tap their creative powers to make ordinary experience expressive? These questions are ways of asking when, if ever, the human being naturally and without fuss calls on the energies which today seem isolated in the very special preserves of Art. Much of the contemporary writing on society’s obsession with self proclaims the fact that this obsession cuts people off from being expressive to each other, that we are artists without an art. (28)

My current reading project, Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, is a book that I’ve owned for years but never really felt the need to read until now. I could kick myself. It’s really good, and really helping me think. While it’s a tougher read in many ways than Sennett’s later books, it raised several topics that sent me launching sideways into a bit of a refresher on several topics. That makes it worth it, at least to me.

The basic premise is that the rise of cities created a division between private and public where the concept of public became associated with artifice and the private was somehow more “natural” and sincere. Our modes of expression are different in public than they are in private. Placing expression at the center of his inquiry, Sennett reminds me a lot of the problem of the libertarian notion of “self” that Matthew Crawford takes to task in The World Outside Your Head. In fact, this book really seems to get at the root of that. In fact, the rhetorical construction of the “natural” self seems like the fundamental error.

That’s where I started heading down a strange alley.

The narcissism and self-involvement (seen as the enemy of personal/social improvement by both Crawford and Sennett) that appears to be part and parcel of the modern/postmodern condition stems from the perversion of key concepts such as liberty, freedom, and most all— self. If it’s true, as Sennett proposes, that we both crave and are frustrated about is our inability to express ourselves, just where does this fit in with human needs?

Like any good liberal arts student, I thought instantly of Maslow. I researched it a bit. I couldn’t quite remember the hierarchy. I thought the need for safety was the most primal need; nope, it’s food and shelter. Doesn’t make much sense to me to put it that way, because if the bombs are exploding, you wouldn’t be stopping for a sandwich. Wikipedia suggests that the presence of a “hierarchy” doesn’t really hold up, and this seems right to me. Maslow insisted that satisfaction of each level of need was a precondition for moving on to the next, and I don’t really see the justification for that. He also felt that these needs were universal and not culturally dependent, another chink in his schema.

But, leaving aside these criticisms for a moment, using his categories as a thought experiment is productive. Applying some of the “simple life” reading I’ve been doing lately, it seems completely plausible to think that living simply decreases the need to be concerned about “safety” for the simple reason that if you don’t need much, you don’t have to stick your head out in traffic that much and risk being run down. Your impact on the planet is minimized as well, because you consume fewer resources. If you maintain a smaller stockpile of things, you also reduce the chances of another human being coming to take things from you. It makes sense to look at it in buddhist terms: the cause of suffering is desire. The more desire, the more suffering.

At Maslow’s lowest level (basic survival needs, food, shelter, and basic physiological needs) the need for expression is strangely ignored. Only the strangest sorts consume their food without embellishment or flourish (both in preparation and social ritual). It seems obvious, to me at least, that humans will decorate and elaborate anything they get their hands on, even if it’s the most utilitarian of needs. Thus, I think in that first tier of needs, I think that expression does fit (as Sennett seems to imply).

The ascending levels of love/belonging and esteem are also inextricably tied to the more basic levels. We shelter those we love, and esteem ourselves and others based on social practices that always tend to circle back to satisfying our basic needs. It’s a habit, a habit rehearsed from birth. The evil phrase at the top of the textbook is Maslow’s “self-actualization” which is invoked to justify all the worst excesses of successive “me” generations. This is, of course, a misreading of what Maslow was actually trying to express.

I learned by poking around that Maslow began as a socialist, not as a libertarian. In a 1968 interview, he explains his initial motives:

Well, I think the humanistic concerns were part of the reason, a very large part of the reason that I went into psychology at all, from philosophy. My concerns were socialistic with American Socialism. Norman Thomas was a great hero of mine, and Upton Sinclair, and Eugene Debs, in college. There is the Jewish tradition of the utopian, and the ethical and I was pretty definitely looking for the improvement of mankind. I became impatient with philosophy, at all the talking that didn’t get anyplace, and wanted in effect an empirical philosophy in the old 19th-century sense of working at philosophical problems empirically. I had made one shot at it before at Cornell with Titchener, and then just fled.1

What is presented as a clinical analysis is actually (I think) an attempt at an empirical solution to a philosophical problem. What do human beings need? What gets left off in all those textbooks is the revision Maslow attempted to address his critics, the addition of a level higher than self-actualization— self-transcendence.

Human needs don’t end with a containerized “self,” but rather with the ability to lose oneself in what Maslow labeled as “peak experiences.” Those experiences, as labeled by Maslow, were intrapersonal rather than personal. In that same 1968 interview, he mocked the public response to his theories in an interesting way:

There was one lapel button I saw that summed it up perfectly—somebody on the west coast put them out—and it’s called “Nirvana, Now!” Of course this is something we can learn from, too. If these youngsters that I’m thinking about are very self-consciously seeking for self actualization and ultimate values, and metamotivations and so on, their goals are wonderful, the goals are fine, but the strategy and tactics are very inefficient.

Maslow tried, apparently to combat the simplistic appropriation of “self-actualization” as the highest need of humans, but to no avail. It’s enshrined forever in every psychology textbook. The best framing of it I found in my limited research is here:

The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self. They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term. Beauty is not within one’s skin nor is justice or order. One can hardly class these desires as selfish in the sense that my desire for food might be. My satisfaction with achieving or allowing justice is not within my own skin . . . . It is equally outside and inside: therefore, it has transcended the geographical limitations of the self. Thus one begins to talk about transhumanistic psychology.2

He used transhumanistic and transpersonal interchangeably, but he might just as well have said social or public. The tension between public and private is huge, and at this point a downright hostile interface with the world outside our heads.

1 Quoted in Willard B. Frick, Remembering Maslow: “Reflections on a 1968 Interview” Journal of Humanistic Psychology Spring 2000 vol. 40 no. 2 128-147
2 Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1(1), 1–9.