The intimate lives of others

Jan 2016

The self

The intimate lives of others

Richard Sennett talks narcissism, identity and the unbearable lightness of selfhood.

Richard Sennett

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Topics Politics

‘I used to be a professional musician, playing in a string quartet in the 1960s’, says Richard Sennett smiling. ‘And there was this one woman in particular who came to see us perform all six of the Bartok Quartets in Chicago over the course of a single weekend. Playing all six is very hard to do, and, at the end, I was longing for a drink and a cigarette. And the woman came up to me and said, “How beautiful that was. You know, I knew Bartok.” And I thought, goodness, this can’t be true. And then she said, “Yes, my name’s Hannah Arendt”, and, after sort of fainting on the floor, we took her out for a drink.

‘Imagine, we were in our early twenties. We didn’t know anyone who knew Bartok. She was charming, too. She must have been in her early fifties – and she was very sexy. Anyway, for various reasons, I had to spend a term at the University of Chicago where she was teaching. She said, “why don’t you do a course of mine, a lecture course on aesthetics”. And so I took it. But after a bit, I thought “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m dropping out”. And I told her this and she said, “well, that’s probably a good idea – you don’t seem to have a philosophical gift”.’ Sennett chuckles again. ‘It was, you know, flirtatious.’

So what happened then? ‘I did drop out, but we stayed in touch. I would frequently have coffee with her, talk to her about what she was doing, what she was thinking about. She was quite a down-to-earth person, and she was still suffering the after-effects of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which alienated her from most of her peers. And I was just too young, and too American, to really respond, so it wasn’t an issue between us. So we became friends. And I learnt a lot from her.

‘I have to say, though, she hated The Fall of Public Man.’ Why?, I ask. ‘Because she wasn’t in it. It’s not an Arendtian book.’

Sennett’s right, of course. The Fall of Public Man, published in 1974, is not Arendtian. Rather, the book that helped to launch this most intellectually trailblazing of careers offers a compelling, unique and sometimes near prophetic take on the decline of the public world as an impersonal space, governed by certain rituals and conventions, in which individuals perform and act out, rather than express themselves. In its stead, Sennett argued, there has emerged what he called the ‘intimate society’, in which individuals treat public matters as personal ones, and their social relations as little more than opportunities for self-disclosure. Narcissism expands and publicness shrinks. As he himself put it, ‘The self no longer concerns man as actor or man as maker; it is a self composed of intentions and possibilities. Intimate society has entirely reversed [Henry] Fielding’s dictum that praise or censure should apply to actions rather than actors; now what matters is not what you have done but how you feel about it.’

It is over 40 years since The Fall of Public Man was published, a period during which Sennett’s work has diversified, flourished and, above all, challenged, from The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998) to The Craftsman (2008). But the concerns that Sennett first addressed four decades ago persist: public life still seems shrunken; politics still appears personality obsessed; and self-disclosure, or ‘openness’, or ‘transparency’, is still encouraged. So what does Sennett make of the state of publicness today? And what of the modern self? Is it still, well, self-obsessed? But first a qualification, and the reason why The Fall of Public Man was not Arendtian:

‘There are three schools of thinking about what public means’, Sennett explains while apologising for coming across ‘professorial’. ‘The first school of publicness is really associated with Jürgen Habermas, and it’s about the transcendence of identity in this common domain in which acts are entirely speech acts. And it’s very legalistic. Quite a different school of thinking belongs to that of my teacher, Hannah. She thought that people keep their identities – they were who they were – but out of the interaction of those identities, something new emerged, a new identity. That’s what this whole notion of natality is about. She saw this as a process in time, a dialectical process, as opposed to the Kantianism of Habermas. But in The Fall of Public Man, publicness is visual, bodily, non-verbal as well as verbal – it’s, above all, theatrical. My notion, although it’s not unique to me, is of the public world as a Theatrum Mundi, a theatre, as a place of performance for strangers.

‘So there are these different ways of approaching the public sphere, one of which is Kantian, one of which is Hegelian (although Hannah had a very particular interpretation of Hegel). But in both, the public realm is not embodied; it’s entirely discursive. So that’s a big difference between these schools. So to say the public realm should be a realm of action, depends on what kind of action you mean. For me, it’s if you mix, say, people of different races in the same space, their physical presence is meaningful. To Arendt, their physical presence is meaningful only if they start talking to each other. And for Habermas, it’s meaningless that they’re in the same public space. Only their talk counts as public.’

So what does he make of The Fall of Public Man now? ‘I do think of it, but my thoughts have evolved. When I wrote that book in the 1970s, it was in the midst of the “me generation”, and people were really obsessed about selfhood, identity and so on – it was a very unsocial preoccupation they had; anything that involved strangers seemed exterior to the self. And what has happened over the past 40 years is that technology has transformed that relationship between self and strangers. That line between self and stranger has been eroded by things like Facebook, etc. And it’s been eroded in power terms by the kind of tracking that Google does so that it can profile you and so on.

‘So I have the same concerns, but they’ve taken another form, which is how can people remain strangers to power. Because people today are not. To me, Facebook is one of the most insidious technologies you could imagine, because you’re not a stranger to power. I think it’s also an issue about how you remain a stranger to others. And how the technology is abused so that it has become really intrusive.’

Is this an intensification of the idea of the intimate society? ‘It is. It is a political and economic intensification of it. If you think back to the 1970s, Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed like what it was, a dystopian fantasy. By the time Mark Zuckerberg made his first billion, it was taken as normal that you would have these scopic regimes – this surveillance. And they’re scopic because they’re visual, not just data-focused. You can see people online, you can exchange pictures, show where you live, your real-time locations. In some ways, I find it really frightening. And this abuse of technology is purposefully made easy so that people can consume the intimate life of others.

‘I want there to be some resistance. That is what I like about online aliases. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not stripping for you, we have to get to know each other first”. It’s a process, rather than an instant picture. Also, if you can make an alias online, you can retain that propertied sense of the self as something that belongs to you rather than to Google or to Mark Zuckerberg.’

Readers familiar with The Fall of Public Man will recognise the role Sennett ascribes to the alias, in terms of ‘the mask’, and more broadly the public performance. So why are masks, and now aliases, so important?

‘Because I think people need a medium in which they experience, like a cell membrane, both porosity and resistance. So that you can relate to other people, but you’re not instantly exposed to them. That’s the whole purpose of the cell membrane. It keeps in what’s valuable to a cell while still taking in nutrients and so on. I’ve been thinking about that a lot – I’m writing a book about it at the moment, about how we can get these sorts of membranes into the environment.’

Given that many people, rather than becoming strangers to power, are giving themselves up to it, intimate pictures and all, does this represent an entrenchment of the narcissistic tendencies identified in The Fall of Public Man?

‘No, I don’t think so’, he says. ‘Part of the whole culture-of-narcissism thing is about affluence, about kids who can have it all. And it was a very affluent time back then. It is hard to be a narcissist if you’re on a zero-hours contract. You can still be very pre-occupied with yourself, but I don’t think there’s this abundance of stuff, and that you can have what you want.

‘It’s also useful to look at the technical meaning of narcissism. Basically, it means you relate to other people only as an aspect of yourself, and a narcissistic character formation is one in which the other doesn’t exist in his or her own right. Some people have suggested to me that actually this technological revolution in communication has increased narcissism. I guess you could make that argument, but what seems to happen on Facebook – I’ve got five students studying the sociology and psychology of Facebook, and none of us are on it, except as avatars – is that there’s a kind of lightness of self. What the psychoanalysts used to think about narcissistic personality disorder is that you felt burdened by the other, that, as an aspect or reflection of yourself, the other represented the things you didn’t like, that the self was a kind of sink, and that these others were kinds of emanations of the things you felt burdened with in yourself. That was the classic formulation by Otto Kernberg.

‘But there doesn’t seem to be much weightiness in Facebook selves. One of my students is looking at what it means, for example, to share the fuck you had last night with 400 friends? It’s a way of dispelling the weight of what happened. That’s why it’s reported like news. So there’s a lightening of the self. It’s not a narcissistic personality disorder. Remember Narcissus fell in the pool and drowned because he was looking at his own reflection – that’s the old psychoanalytic idea of it. But nobody’s drowning in Facebook; they’re just becoming slaves to images and to lightened senses of self. It’s a different kind of character formation.’

Does this character formation, like narcissism, still involve an erasure of the difference between self and other? ‘Absolutely’, he says:

‘The flipside of this lightening of the self is what has happened to identity politics since The Fall of Public Man. In the age of first-generation feminism, gays coming out and so on, the other – the dominant order – was something to confront. But today, there’s a kind of isolation, a kind of siloing. You know the kind of thing – you’re like that, and I’m like this, and they’re like that, and so on. It is particularly true in the US in terms of race. The racial identity of the 1970s was very aggressive and now it’s like, “well, we’re not like you. We whites, we blacks; we just have different ways of living.” So now there’s a kind of indifference to the other. It’s the construction of a neutral indifference.

‘You can see a lot of this in the UK, I’m told, among young Muslims in their attitudes towards young Christians, in that they’re simply not interested. It’s not an in-your-face difference, it’s… well they’re not interested.’

Some of this could sound counterintuitive. After all, doesn’t identity politics rest not on indifference, but a celebration of difference? ‘Not exactly’, says Sennett: ‘identity politics celebrates a single identity. It doesn’t celebrate hybridity.’ A phrase, Sennett adds, which is ‘very 1990s’.

The siloing and mutually isolating tendencies of contemporary identity politics is one reason why Sennett continues to stress the importance of public space and its potential for fostering physical presence between strangers. ‘It’s something that I think is terribly important. And modern cities are eroding it. I began to notice it in The Fall of Public Man, the lack of street life. And it’s just become worse and worse with globalisation. London is an incredible example of it.’

Indeed, in The Fall of Public Man Sennett mentions the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, central London, as an example of the isolating effect of modern public space. ‘In the central concourse’ he writes, ‘there are a few shops and vast areas of empty space. Here is an area to pass though, not to use; to sit on one of the few concrete benches in the concourse for any length of time is to become profoundly uncomfortable, as though one were on exhibit in a vast empty hall.’ His view today, then, of the centre’s recent re-design is telling:

‘You have to remember there was nothing in the middle when I wrote the book. Now there is a bit more in the central area. But it’s all commercial. When you have a really vital, intense street life, you have a mixture of public and private, commercial and non-commercial. What would have made the Brunswick Centre a really vital public space is, say, if there was a health clinic there, if there was even a school, or a hospice. But it’s all devoted to one relentless thing, which is buying and selling. Still, there are crowds there, so it’s a little better I guess. The most public space is around the Renoir Cinema, which opens out on to a park. People come out after the film and, rather than disappear off into this myriad of cafes, they just hang out outside and talk.

‘Physical presence’, he says, elaborating, ‘it’s played a big role in my thinking. And given that cities are now increasingly siloed, increasing physical presence is, in itself, an important thing to do. So as this idea of publicness has evolved over time, I’ve thought more and more about the non-verbal ways in which people are in public and act in public. So, if the Brunswick Centre mixed a hospice with people shopping, and on your way to buy aged cheddar from Waitrose, you pass someone dying of AIDS, that’s a public experience. It’s visual, and if you’re with the AIDS sufferer, even more so.

‘I’ve done some planning work in West Africa, and in many areas lepers were forced into leprosariums because even though people knew they couldn’t be physically infected, they didn’t want to be confronted by the sight of someone with leprosy. And part of our work there was freeing the lepers from leprosariums. It’s not pleasant, seeing someone suffering from leprosy, but that’s reality.’

Does this segregating and syphoning off of public and urban space play into the siloing of identity politics? ‘Absolutely. It means that when you’ve got homogenising spaces, people don’t mix in complex ways. Spaces are entirely task oriented. And what I’m interested in now is how does urban design break down that siloing.’

Sennett’s interest in urban design may be relatively new, but his driving concerns are not. There is a continuity between this transformative vision of urban space and his long-term desire to revitalise the robust, physically, socially and culturally diverse melting pot of publicness. In both, self and other are brought into an impersonal, but transformative relationship; in both, the self, with the eyes of another upon it, ceases to be itself, and becomes other, object-like, performed. And you can see this same process at work in the figure with whom Sennett has recently found common cause: the craftsman.

‘My model for craftsmanship is what I knew as a musician: how I got better at something through interacting with other people; the pursuit of quality; and the sociability of the quartet being similar to the sociability of the workshop. It can’t be a solitary pursuit. Even for pianists. But the key thing about craftsmanship is that it’s impersonal. It’s not about expressing yourself; it’s about expressing the object. When you play the Bartok Quartets, it’s not about showing what kind of person I am. If you do that, you’ll give a crap performance.

‘I’ve been looking at some old videos of David Bowie – he’s not a great musician – but again it’s all about craftsmanship, about getting out of yourself into something that is exterior to you, costumes, and also music itself. It’s not a kind of personal wail. The stuff Bowie did with Brian Eno – there’s a there out there, and they’re trying to capture it.

‘Good craftsmen are not expressing themselves. They’re expressing something outside themselves. In that sense, craft is not about selfhood. When somebody declares to you, “I feel I have a novel in me, but of course at the moment I’m working in advertising”, you know that person is never going to be an artist. “I have this novel hidden inside myself, I’m an artist without an art”. I don’t believe that sort of thing. And I don’t believe in the ethos of personal creativity. You either do it or you don’t. The idea of having an identity as an artist – “I am an artist” – is very dangerous, because it is about the self. When Franz Liszt said “the concert is myself”, which was completely false, it was about showmanship, although he wasn’t much of a showman. It’s a very destructive model for people who weren’t Liszt, that art is about expressing one’s self. It’s why, in The Craftsman, I concentrate on craft, not art. I don’t deny there are things like originality, that people infuse themselves in their work. But the work does not express them.’

Richard Sennett is the centennial professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and professor of the humanities at New York University. He is the author of many books, including: The Fall of Public Man (1977); The Corrosion of Character (1998); and, most recently, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation (2012).

Richard was talking to spiked review editor Tim Black.

Picture by: Alexander Rentsch, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Politics

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