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.

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.

The Fall of Public Man (2)

The Fall of Public ManMy previous post was oddly prescient. As I’ve progressed further into the book, I’ve stopped today at a section which discusses the relationship between text and performance.

To get there, Sennett has passed through fascinating discussions of fashion and done a comparative section about the emergence of “personality” in the 19th century, as opposed to “nature” in the 18th. This will take some time to examine in detail. There’s a lot of foregrounding to the changes in texts and performances across the the centuries to be established.

The bare bones of it start with Diderot’s “paradox of acting.” The relationship between the theater and the theater of the street are a lot closer than I’d really thought about before encountering this book. Sennett proposes that as cities grew, urban life forced a more restrained approach to the emotions. One had to do his crying/celebrating/emoting in private to a greater degree so as to avoid being vulnerable to the increasingly wide-ranging population that surrounded them. Popular theater began parallel development. Theatrical performance diverged from religious spectacle and ritual performances in important ways.

Most 16th and 17th Century French theories of acting correlated how an actor performed with the contents of what he or she performed. The truth of the lines spoken had some relationship to how well the actor could speak. Thus it was possible to subsume the idea of acting under the rubric of rhetoric, and to talk of rhetoric in relation to morals and religion. In this formula the priest became the greatest possible rhetorician because the lines he spoke were absolute truth. No good Christian would dream, of course, of directly comparing priest and actor, but the reason lay precisely in the fact that the priest’s rhetoric was innately superior to anything possible on the stage because he was speaking divine truth.

Diderot broke this connection between acting, rhetoric and the substance of the text. In his Paradox he created a theory of drama divorced from ritual: he was the first to conceive of performing as an art form in and of itself, without what was to be performed. The “signs” of the performance were not the “signs” of the text. I put this less clearly than Diderot. He writes:

If an actor were full, really full, of feeling, how could he play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success? Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out and cold as marble by the third. (110-111)

The complexity of Sennett’s argument is higher than it might seem at first glance. An actor’s emotions are not real human emotions- how could they be with any degree of repeatability? Underneath this though, is the contention that the emotions contained in the text are not the same as the emotions conveyed by the performance. Though Sennett doesn’t spend a great deal of time talking about what was happening in rhetoric around this time, I did a bit of a refresher on the side that I might discuss at greater length later.

The gist of it is this: the elocutionary movement in rhetoric had two competing factions. On one side, emotions were treated like a public, standardised language that could be simplified (to reach the broadest possible audience). Like all languages, this public display of emotion was a bit arbitrary, and separated (and cartoonish) when compared to the personal experience of emotion. A second faction that emotion (as a communicated language) needed to be more like the private version, only restrained and polite. Elocutionary manuals were frequently written by actors, as a matter of fact. They didn’t agree on the proper approach either. Rhetorical scholarship in this area isn’t particularly helpful, since most scholars tend to collapse this distinction as meaningless. I can see several reasons for this, but I don’t want to stray too far from my short point today.

Returning to Diderot’s Paradox, Sennett continues to explain the distinction between emotions and enacted emotions is that “the tears of real life are immediate and direct, while the tears brought on by art must be produced consciously, by degrees” … “At best, in the world where sympathy and natural feeling govern, if there is an exact representation of an emotion it can happen only once” (111, 112). I think that the disjunction in locating the emotion “in the text” is arises when you think of the emotion as manifest primarily in the “sympathy and natural feeling” of an audience; in reading, yes, you might locate an emotion in the text. But in a performance, the emotion exists as conveyed by a physical manifestation of the text (the actor), which must take precedence.

Diderot contended that the actor could not feel the emotion of the text and be a successful actor. Other  critics did not agree, Sennett characterizes the debate as one “the argument between sentiment and calculation” (114). Actors, it was thought, could as rational actors calculate the correct means of conveying the emotion as felt. The emotions of theater were debated as if they were a secular “truth” to be conveyed in a genuine (calculated to be genuine, at least) way or as a generic display of more easily communicated “sentiment,” in short, rational sense vs. sensibility.

The core of this argument though, was accepted by both sides: the performance was a thing separate (and to 20th century critical eyes, inferior) to the text.  Who decides what emotion is expresssed, the actor or the playwright? Sennett later explores the attempts to make performances more answerable to texts in the 19th century. He uses music as a gateway. Is  a musical score a prompt or a bible?

There’s much more to think through from here.

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.


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.