Richard Sennett: the rise of the immanent personality and The Fall of the Public Man
One of the staple claims made about a therapeutic culture is that narcissistic investments in the present go hand in hand with a cultural devaluation of the past. In a deliberately contrary fashion, Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (1993 ) commits to identifying the echoes of the past – the past of London and Paris in the ancien regime and the nineteenth century – in what he regards to be the cultural malformations of the contemporary. The terms of the narcissistic culture as defined by Sennett are very much the legacy of the nineteenth-century crisis of public life transmogrified in the twentieth century into a psychologistic and amnesiac culture of denial: there is no crisis, according to the modern citizen of the mid-to-late twentieth-century West. Sennett holds that contemporary narcissism comes into being as a result of changes in the definition of ‘public’ and ‘private’ experience, and that the modern individual emerges out of a fixation with ‘authentic’ expression symptomatic of an ‘ideology of intimacy’. ‘Intimacy’, he argues, ‘is an attempt to solve the public problem by denying that the public exists’ (27).
Sennett informs us that prior to the nineteenth century, the ‘private’ and the notion of the individual were not yet bound together for ‘the realm close to the self was not thought to be a realm for the expression of unique or distinctive personality’ (89). On top of the socio-cultural forces of secularisation and capitalism, Sennett points to a set of ‘psychological conditions’ that are entangled in the demise of public culture, the most crucial of which is the principle of the ‘immanent personality’. This historical structure emerges for Sennett from the mid-to-late eighteenth-century ‘culture of sentiment’, the representative figure of which is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s ‘sentiment of being’ is exemplary of the ‘inward turn’ in European culture which relates ‘truth’ to the interiority of the subject (see Taylor, 1989; Trilling, 1973). Sennett describes an emergent culture of scrutiny in the nineteenth century consequent upon this myth of interiority: if one’s true self is internal, and therefore concealed from the public sphere, it is also, inferentially, susceptible to public investigation. Natural Science, criminology, phrenology, genre literature (especially detective fiction) and psychiatry are all prominent Victorian cultural phenomena which attest to the social impulse to discern ‘real’ private character behind the mere facade of public appearance. Alongside this cultural inspectorate grew the anxiety of the individual who felt continually scrutinised in public. The public realm was no longer a place of expression, as Sennett had characterised it to be in the ancien regime, but a place of repression in which the individual suffered from a constant fear that her emotion would be involuntarily disclosed.1 We can see here a mode of exchange in which the scrutiny exercised by society is internalised by the subject, such that she can no longer trust her own actions or appearances, and asks with anxiety, have I shown myself involuntarily; have I given myself away?
Although Sennett does not dwell on it, psychoanalysis is obviously implicated in this discursive development, where slips, signs and gestures operate to betray the secrets of the individual in spite of her voluntary will. This betrayal sits at the centre of psychoanalytic theory and practice; as Rieff puts it, ‘the self may not know itself, the subject [may] not be its own object’ (1965, 65). The revelation that the unconscious betrays the conscious self is commonly recognised as Freud’s contribution to the historical turn to inwardness. But betrayal of the conscious by the unconscious mind is clearly an oversimplification of the Freudian psychical economy if only because, to cite Freud, the greatest scandal of the unconscious is not that it tells the truth, but that ‘it too can lie!’ (1920b, 165). Here, Freud is advising that we fundamentally reassess the idea that our ‘authentic’ self resides in some deep unconscious arena. However, it is clear that in positioning the ‘inward turn’ so prominently within the cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Sennett is not concerned to deploy this Freudian complexity. Rather, psychoanalysis sits for Sennett within a broad narrative, the coordinates of which extend the work of the American cultural critic and Freud biographer Lionel Trilling.
In Sincerity and Authenticity (1973), Trilling famously charted the rise of sincerity as a discursive term in the Romantic era and its subsequent usurpation by the term authenticity in the twentieth century. This is a reading that Trilling specifically undertakes in order to consider the strength of the modern preoccupation with the ideal of authenticity and its embroilment in a contemporary culture marked by the inauthenticity of experience and selfhood. Sincerity for Trilling expressed a singleness and simplicity of self. Authenticity, on the other hand, is conceived as ‘a more strenuous moral experience […] a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man’s place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life’ (11). Trilling identifies that the cultural rise of authenticity is symptomatic of the increased anxiety about inauthenticity; who, after all, would claim to be authentic if the possibility of inauthenticity were not already present? We can see how this simple narrative is coextensive with the development of what Sennett terms the ‘immanent personality’. It is the ever-present possibility of one’s inauthenticity threatening to be ‘involuntarily disclosed’ that leads to the ever-more ‘strenuous experience’ of authenticity. For Trilling, as for Sennett, ‘being true’ to a conception of the self becomes the prevalent cultural dynamic.
Sennett argues that if preoccupied with the authenticity of expression, one is inevitably ‘plunged into the narcissistic problem of never being able to crystallize what is authentic in one’s feelings’ (1993, 267). The modern fixation with authenticity engenders the peculiar dynamic whereby the desire to share one’s feelings is accompanied by the heightened fear that one’s feelings will give one away. This is a distinctively modern bind that operates under an ideology of intimacy where the test of social relationships and social categories – the mark of their authenticity – is defined in psychological terms (i. e. ‘social relationships’ are judged by the degree to which ‘they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person’ (259)). Thus, the impersonal character of the public sphere is severely weakened. Correspondingly, Sennett stresses that the ‘private’ individual also pays a price insofar as his capacity for ‘self-distanced activity’ is seriously compromised. Modern suspicion of ritual masks of sociability means that the narcissistic individual lacks the capacity to self-distance; he cannot ‘play with and invest feeling in external images of self’ (37).