Two principles of cultural functioning: play vs. narcissism
In keeping with Winnicott’s contention that play represents the transitional space of culture, Sennett argues that the impoverishment of one’s capacity to play – via the decline of culture’s transitional spaces – can be taken as a symptom of inhibited creativity. He explains that the waning of the art of public life reflects what occurs within the individual life cycle as the infant moves away from the principles of play (314). It is important, we are told, to distinguish the complexity of play from a conception that maps it onto spontaneous creativity, for when conceived as an ‘aesthetic training’, ‘play for the child is the antithesis to expressing himself spontaneously’ (315). This is because play allows the child to invest his passion in an impersonal situation and to engage disinterestedly with the formal qualities of the social interaction – the ‘social contract’ of the game, for example (318). Modern-day adult culture fails to facilitate the childhood strengths of play and hence truncates the possibility of impersonal expression in the public sphere. When Sennett claims that ‘the growing human being is [… ] losing [t]his childhood strength’ we can be sure that he is not advocating a return to the spontaneity of childhood which is so valued by the ‘liberationism theorists, such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse (315). Rather, the affinity between play and political action is found in the disciplined achievement of ‘stepping away from immediate desire or instant gratification’ (317). This is because play entails the ‘expressive quality of a convention’ where the rules of the game offer the child the opportunity to ‘objectify action, to put it at a distance and change it qualitatively’ (321). Thus, to affirm the plasticity of worldly conditions (267) and to engage, beyond childhood, with the conventions of the public sphere requires ‘a certain amount of suspension from immediate reality, [… ] a certain play of the mind, a certain kind of political fantasy’ (277).
Throughout his The Fall of Public Man, Sennett gives many historical snapshots of the type of social play that he would like to see rehabilitated in contemporary culture. An example may prove helpful here: Sennett considers the modes of address between strangers in the coffee houses of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century London and Paris where, once the established rules of the house were known – ‘e. g. no spitting on such and such a wall, no fighting near the window, etc’ – patrons were free to enjoy the ‘fiction that social distinctions did not exist’ because the tacit rule of the coffee house was that ‘distinctions of rank were temporarily suspended’ (81-82). Sennett explains that ‘[c]offee house speech is the extreme case of an expression with a sign system of meaning divorced from – indeed, in defiance of – symbols of meaning like rank, origins, taste, all visibly at hand’ (82). By prohibiting talk of one’s social origins, this mode of sociability preserved the possibility of being intimate and impersonal in a public setting, which for Sennett is just what is foreclosed in a culture of narcissism. So, for Sennett, it is precisely this freedom from the self, a prerequisite of play, that the narcissist cannot achieve:
The terms of modern bourgeois notions of personality [… ] do not permit the adult to call upon the most fundamental and earliest born of all the social impulses, the impulse to play. Play is pleasure in the observance of form, a convention not dependent on individualized momentary impulse. (1977, 193)
In conflict with the principle of play, then, stands the cultural principle of narcissism. Far from encouraging an investment of one’s passion and energy in the impersonality of convention, narcissism, in accordance with our understanding of the ‘immanent personality’, directs one’s energy towards the goal of uncovering the motivations of behaviour. Whereas play constitutes an aesthetic training, narcissism comprises an ascetic self-absorption that erases ‘demarcations, limits, and forms of time as well as relationship’ (1993, 325). As Sennett puts it, narcissism dictates a ‘withdrawal from surface sociability into a "deeper" life’, where the ‘depth’ of the psychological comprises a dangerous, modern fallacy (315). Contesting the primacy of the inside, Sennett’s thesis, staying close to Trilling’s work, can be read as a challenge to the advancement of therapeutic discourse as the dominant idiom of modern culture. But we would do well to recall here that Narcissus’ self-fascination was not necessarily with the depth of his ‘psychological interiority’, but rather with a surface image outside of himself: as we have seen, narcissistic identification is both with ‘self’ and ‘not-self’.
The clinical literature of Heinz Kohut (and to a lesser extent Otto Kernberg) provides the main support for Sennett’s reading of narcissism. This is not surprising given that Kohut’s self psychology, which took as its principal concern the prevalence of the so-called ‘narcissistic personality disorder’, did so much to foreground the language of narcissism in the clinical and cultural discourse of the 1970s. One particularly important note of influence was Kohut’s claim that certain narcissistic character-types are ‘frequently encountered in everyday life [and should be considered] as variants of the normal personality’ (Kohut and Wolf, 1978: 422). In fact, the question of Kohut’s influence on Sennett (and for that matter on Lasch) is less to do with the specifics of narcissism as a clinical manifestation (Kohut after all takes a broadly ‘affirmative attitude’ towards the narcissist (see for example Kohut, 1972: 363)), and more to do with his preoccupation with the concept of selfhood. At bottom, self psychology theorises from the assumption of a capacity for coherent and integral self-organisation deriving from the existence of a self ‘which serves as a source of initiative, intentionality, and unity for the personality’ (Kirshner, 1991: 159). We can identify this language of selfhood – especially ideas of the true and false self – in Sennett’s critical account, but should recognise from our discussion of the divergent appreciations of the theory of narcissism considered in earlier chapters, that Kohut’s version is far from representative of the psychoanalytic field.
Sennett returns to the Narcissus myth and infers that ‘narcissism is the very opposite of strong self-love’ (324). Narcissus drowns in his self-image because the line between self and other has been erased. The illusional ‘depth’ of the self – the allure of interiority and the seduction of solipsism – is what limits Narcissus; as he is captivated by his reflection in the water’s surface so he is fixated in the realm of the image. On this reading Narcissus’ tale is one of arrested development. This shines a light for Sennett on the increasing proclivity in contemporary culture towards viewing the world ‘as though reality could be comprehended through images of the self’ (324). It is telling that Sennett aligns a contemporary narcissistic culture with what he regards to be the ‘entropic state’ depicted in the myth (325). Overlooking the potential of Narcissus’ attraction to others, and those enviable qualities which draw a crowd, Sennett identifies the Narcissus myth with a closed and stagnant economy which precludes an active public sphere.
In conjuring up an image of paralysed productivity, then, Sennett directs his analysis towards the concerns of work and the activities of labour. This time it is his Weberian inheritance which becomes clear (see Weber, 1992 [1904-05]). As Weber associates ‘victorious capitalism’ with a particular development of Protestant asceticism, so Sennett diagnoses the modern narcissistic’s obsession with authentic selfhood as a retreat from ritual and a denial of aesthetic pleasure (Sennett, 1993: 333). Using the term ‘worldly asceticism’, Sennett laments the erasure of sociability in modern capitalist relations. Specifically, he identifies various developments in the stratification of labour and resultant changes in the dynamics of work practices. ‘Corporations’, he says,
treat their white-collar technical workers so that [… ] norms of narcissistic absorption are produced; boundaries between self and world are erased because that position at work seems a mirror of personal power; the nature of that power resides, however, not in action, but in potential. (328)
This over-investment in ‘potential’ allows Sennett to combine the modern Narcissus fixated by images of his profundity, to the modern Proteus who is called upon to adapt to multiple roles with enduring diligence. For Sennett, the modern worker is valued less for his craft – that which binds the activity of work with the identity of the worker – and more for the potential of his ‘innate skill’ – personal and interpersonal skills, a capacity to learn, skills of cooperation and empathy and so on (328-329). Thus, the worker in the modern corporation is a ‘protean’ one who endlessly shifts his shape in response to the demands of technological innovation, bureaucratic expansion, and the requirement to be mobile and flexible.
Sennett borrows the protean metaphor from Robert Jay Lifton (1970 ) whose capture of this emergent character-type resonates in part with the theses of Sennett and Lasch. Protean Man is unable to commit to any single form; he operates under the principle of adaptation where his versatility is a functional pattern in response to the psychohistorical dislocation of contemporary life. Like Sennett, Lifton diagnoses Protean Man’s ‘allergy to that which strikes him as inauthentic’; but unlike Sennett, Lifton sees in the protean style possibilities for ‘renewal’ and ‘innovation’ (Lifton, 54). We can configure this difference under the rubric of the protean-narcissist’s dilemma: Will the modern individual be attracted to the creation of contemporary forms, and so experience the transformative freedom that his namesake embodies, or will he seek to restore the boundaries of selfhood that have become unavailable to him through defensive mechanisms such as narcissistic withdrawal? Unconvinced that the attraction to the contemporary experimentation with identity is sufficient compensation for the loss of the ritual formations of tradition, Sennett comes down on the declinist side of this dilemma. He insists that the experience of the worker who must react to the demands of the modern theatre of exchange, is not equal to the play of social rituals.