Craft and the city
This is a good moment to revisit Sennett’s reading of contemporary ‘Destructive Gemeinschaft’. We recall Sennett’s argument that the myth of Gemeinschaft, confected as the moral consolation of open and honest intersubjectivity, contributes to the alienating economic order of late capitalism. Not only does the ‘authentic self’ become an exchangeable commodity, but the myth of authenticity depends upon an economy of exchange: this is how we might imagine a market-place of confessions or a culture of intimacy which demands personal revelation. Across
Sennett’s work the revival of the craftsman is proposed as an alternative to this market economy (see especially 2008). But in the light of his own reading of modernity and its pernicious contradictions, we can hardly ignore the fact that Sennett’s proposed craftsman – proposed as an alternative to the protean subject of the market – is himself a recognisable figure of Gemeinschaft who must now take up his place in Gesellschaft conditions. We should wonder, then, how Sennett will account for the craftsman’s supporting environment, since, as we have claimed in our reading of primary narcissism, every image of self-sufficiency – and the craftsman is certainly one such image – presupposes an environment of care. What are the qualities of the environment that silently support the craftsman such that he can be ennobled to undertake long-term projects, resist the pressures of short-term economic reward, and enact the aesthetic virtues of playfulness or craft? Sennett proposes his craftsman as a more robust public figure than the protean or narcissistic type; yet, as he himself argues, the public sphere that could support his preferred figure is continually under threat. Might it be, then, that Sennett’s craftsman operates only within a simulacrum of a healthy public space supported by just the modern economy of ‘authenticity’ Sennett proposes we reject? Which is to suggest that the exceptional self-sufficiency that the craftsman enjoys is only made possible by the fundamental disequilibrium of mass-market relations: could a Gesellschaft environment ever support more than a patrician minority of Sennett’s craftsmen? Here the problem of narcissism intersects with the problem of the modern city.
The city, for Sennett, is intimately tied to the virtues of civility but endangered by the hypertrophy of cultural narcissism. It is, he says, the form of ‘human settlement in which strangers are most likely to meet’ and most likely to achieve ritual sociability: ‘In a [metropolitan] world without religious rituals or transcendental beliefs, masks are not ready made. The masks must be created by those who will wear them, through trial and error, through a desire to live with others rather than a compulsion to get close to them’ (1993 , 264-265). Clearly, the mask is not that which should be prised away from its wearer in the name of psychological transparency – on the contrary, it is the ritualistic expression of identity itself. But the question that forces itself is how exactly can ritual masks be self-consciously and civilly created, given the fact that self-consciousness is itself part of the narcissist’s (uncivil) symptomology?
The shift Sennett describes from the impersonal theatricality of the ancien regime to the basic incivility of modern city-based illusions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘intimacy’ is a psychological one, but it is also evidence for society’s progressive psychologisation. This is the basis on which Sennett critiques the incivility of modern political discourse: it relies upon the relation of personal subjectivities rather than an impersonal understanding of the city as a political entity. Perhaps the most attractive feature of this psychological history resides in its myth of origin: In the beginning was re-presentation (i. e. the donning of a mask) – a claim not dissimilar to that put forward in Chapter 1 with respect to Freud’s account of primary narcissism. Sennett is at pains to emphasise that myths of primary simplicity – openness or honesty – are false positions placed upon the past. In other words, he suggests both that the self of the ancien regime was more psychologically adept at dissembling than modern man, and that modern man is more psychologically naive than the self of the ancien regime. However, as we have hinted at with regard to the figure of the craftsman, this acknowledgement of primary complexity is not without its own problems. The first problem is that of self-consciousness itself, and the demand that self-consciousness places upon modern man to create his own masks. If in the eighteenth century inherited roles were such (and civil discourse was rigid enough) that this demand was not exacted of its citizens, to what extent is it meaningful to speak of the achievements of eighteenth-century polity (or civility)? This is to say that we must recognise that the robustness of eighteenth-century public life – the impersonality, the social theatricality, and the craft of self-representation and of meaningful work – was the product of an entirely different social and psychological dispensation. The second problem follows on from this and concerns mass culture – or rather the exclusion of it from eighteenth-century civic life. If the complexity and implied maturity of eighteenth-century psychological representations are dependent upon a simplification of the social sphere – the exclusion from representation of the majority of the people in society – then how are we to read the psychological simplifications attendant upon a more complex social sphere? At the very least we can say that negative critique is not sufficient. Of course, Sennett might take us to task for reading his history too literally; he is after all engaging in a form of utopian thinking. But the fundamentally unhistorical character of his historical examples should serve as warning, especially when it comes to considering his critiques of the politics of identity and authenticity (we might ask, for example, where is the peasantry in his version of eighteenth-century civility?). As psychologically simplistic as such twentieth-century political movements may appear to be, they relate to a social environment of complexity and volatility far exceeding Sennett’s historically imagined polis. This highlights the principal challenge for Sennett’s sociology, and the critical declinist mode more generally; namely, to account for the social conditions in which it would be possible for the modern subject to resist the protean-narcissist mode, and become instead a craftsman.