From role to ritual
Alongside the figure of the craftsman, Sennett also values the figure of the actor for his capacity to self-distance. Predictably enough, however, because late modernity is marked by a ‘contempt’ for the masks of ritual, the modern social actor is an actor deprived of his art (1993 , 15). Whereas the actor of Sennett’s praise finds expression through the principles of play, the modern social actor, on the understanding that artifice is strictly opposed to authenticity, equates expressiveness with laying oneself bare. Thus, Sennett’s twin hypotheses run that ‘theatricality has a special, hostile relation to intimacy; theatricality has an equally special, friendly relation to a strong public life’ (37). If Sennett’s sociology of public life is a dramaturgical sociology, then it is clearly one that seeks to differentiate itself (and the tradition of the theatrum mundi) from the type of modern ‘role theory’ best represented by the work of Erving Goffman, most notably in his seminal text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1980 ). Lest Goffman’s sociology be read as a celebration of the modern self as adept social actor, Sennett insists that it is precisely the modern formations of self-presentation described by Goffman that are at odds with the theatricality of a robust public culture. It is telling that Sennett, Lasch and MacIntyre are in close agreement here and all read Goffman’s account of a social world configured by the arts of ‘impression management’ to be symptomatic of the cultural decline that they critique. MacIntyre places Goffman’s sociology at the root of an emotivist culture that knows no distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative relations: ‘Goffman’s world is empty of objective standards of achievement; it is so defined that there is no cultural or social space from which appeal to such standards could be made’ (115). MacIntyre’s characteristic objection is that without an appeal to an ‘objective standard’, the sociologist, like the social role-player he observes, cannot voice a critique or appeal to an impersonal ‘virtue’. We saw in our discussion above that Sennett’s concern with the changes in the structure and the character of the labour market revolved around the idea that identity was becoming increasingly detached from the activity of work, and instead determined by the narcissistic concerns of self (i. e. the demise-of-work-as-craft thesis). The declinists’ critical inflection is not so obviously discernible in Goffman’s sociology whose ‘thick description’ methodology commits to presenting ordinary selves in their everyday social interactions (1980, 9). For Sennett, the principal problem with Goffman’s style of sociology is that the self is isolated in a series of dramatic scenes that are divorced from the forces of history. In other words, what is absent from Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, at least on Sennett’s reading, is a sense of plot, which is where the weight and ‘discordance’ of history lie. Thus role theory is reproved on the grounds that in Goffman’s world, ‘people behave but they do not have experience’ (Sennett, 1993: 36). Like MacIntyre, Sennett diagnoses what he reads as Goffman’s repudiation of history to be symptomatic of ‘the modern malaise’ (36). And, as we shall see, Christopher Lasch’s presentation of the role-playing social actor as a manipulative and calculating personality follows suit.
In repudiating Goffman’s account of role-playing, with its particular emphasis on the management of behaviour and performance, I would suggest that the critical declinists overlook the more radical aspect of Goffman’s work. Sennett regards Goffman’s sociology as suffering from an ‘inability to imagine social relations which would arouse much passion’ (36). However, in accusing Goffman of failing to imagine social relations in a particular way, Sennett is betraying something of his own sociological orientation rather than locating a deficit in Goffman’s. If one recognises that Goffman is not advocating the position of the social roles that he describes, then there are clear grounds for a rapprochement between Goffman-the-role-theorist, and Sennett-the-ritual-theorist. In fact, when Goffman describes the modern actor’s modification of his performance from social scene to social scene, he is offering an alternative articulation of the dislocated (or protean) character of modern life. But because of Goffman’s commitment to articulating the symbolic interactions of everyday life, his so-called microsociology is not conveyed with the same overt norma – tivity as are the disenchantment theses of Sennett, MacIntyre and, even more so, Lasch.
Of great value in Sennett’s thesis is his illumination of the socially and politically corrosive effects of ‘the tyrannies of intimacy’ that ‘[arouse] a belief in one standard of truth to measure the complexities of social reality’ (1993, 338). Whilst it would be naive to attempt to exempt psychoanalysis wholesale from such a cultural turn toward the psychological standard, it is nonetheless one of the arguments in this book that psychoanalysis remains at a critical distance from therapeutic modernity. Accordingly, I would suggest that Sennett’s account underplays the psychoanalytic language of the unconscious, and of fantasy, and in so doing fails to fully engage with the complexities of modern social reality. When, for example, he describes his version of the paradox of authenticity he observes that ‘[t]he more a person concentrates on feeling genuinely, rather than on the objective content of what is felt, the more subjectivity becomes an end in itself, the less expressive he can be’ (30, my emphasis). Sennett’s thought that one can approach ‘the objective content of what is felt’ is somewhat problematic, especially from a psychoanalytic perspective. This is not because psychoanalysis simply disavows the idea of ‘objective content’, but because it invests in an approach to this ‘content’ that can hold together the tension between its ‘reality’ and the ‘fantasy’ of its production. If the patient can come to appreciate her identity, fantasies, symptoms and so on as dramatic productions – or performative achievements – and at the same time appreciate that their status as productions is as binding as any metaphysical belief, then psychoanalysis may prove itself to be engaged in exactly the type of play of self-distancing that Sennett suggests the narcissistic dynamics of culture foreclose. Central to Sennett’s critique of Goffman is the idea that the role-player’s disjointed presentations of selfhood suffer from a dearth of narrative, and hence fail to engender ‘experience’. For Sennett, play-acting and the wearing of a mask is connected to social reality and real ‘experience’ through the operation of a narrative or plot (i. e. through history). For psychoanalysis, however, play-acting is connected in the first instance to the narcissistic illusion of self-sufficiency. As we discussed in Chapter 1, it is only through the originary illusion – the creation of one’s own mask – that the social relation is possible at all; a social relation which is always and forever vulnerable to being interrupted at the point of its originary make-believe moment.
This interruption is the work of the unconscious. The coordinates of play are not simply those designed by Sennett’s impersonal self, but also those given by the narcissistically unrecognised environment of care. Sennett’s emphasis on narrative continuity, as we suggested with respect to his history of the ancien regime, contains vital omissions of representation (e. g. how do we acknowledge the peasantry within the representation of the eighteenth-century polis?). The psychoanalytic prototype for this historical question centres on trauma: how do we acknowledge the ‘experiences’ that have not been experienced; how do we acknowledge the unpossessed self in the midst of apparent selfpossession? Psychoanalysis, precisely because it does give a prominent role to the unconscious, acknowledges – by way of interruptions and daemonic repetitions – how volatile and unequal the conditions which give rise to play might be.