Bonds of Cliché
by Richard Sennett.
Knopf. 206 pp. $10.00.
The materials accompanying the publication of this new book by Richard Sennett, a sociologist by training and now a professor of humanities at New York University, describe him as “one of the most brilliant and provocative of American thinkers—a master of the complicated interplay between politics and psychology.” Not yet forty, Sennett is the author or co-author of seven previous books, all of them published within the last eleven years, and all of them the objects of extravagant—and extravagantly undeserved—praise. The present volume (number eight), the first of a promised quartet of books on “the emotional bonds of modern society,” offers a good example of Sennett’s brand of writing, in which the machinery of academic sociology is placed at the service of empty and often foolish theorizing about the nature of life in society.
According to Sennett, all is not well with “the emotional bonds of modern society.” Solitude, for example—identified by Sennett as “the perception . . . of a bond missing”—is sometimes thought to be a desirable condition; Thoreau thought so, and before him Rousseau. But Sennett reminds us that solitary people are inclined to do self-destructive things; in order to escape the pain induced by solitude (or at least by loneliness), they sometimes “blindly commit themselves to a marriage, a job, or a community.” Fraternity, so highly regarded by French revolutionaries as well as by generations of American college boys, is, unlike solitude, a “connection,” but, alas, a connection that “can easily become a nightmare.” Then there is ritual, which serves to make connections (good), but this sentiment of unity “disappears the moment the ritual ends.” So much here for solitude, fraternity, and ritual, emotional bonds whose characteristics will be elaborated in volumes nine, ten, and eleven.
The real subject of this volume is authority. People need it, which is why they feel it into being—all these bonds are “felt into being”—but its various forms are, in our time at least, illegitimate. Sennett explores this subject in the first half of the book; in the second half, he shows us “how more legitimate bonds might come into being.”
What is this thing called authority? Everyone has some “intuitive” idea of it, and Sennett’s came from (or was felt into being while) “watching the conductor Pierre Monteux rehearse an orchestra over a period of some weeks.” Unlike Toscanini, we are told, Monteux never stamped his feet or threw his baton at a player, but he still managed to instill in his players a sense of fear and to impose on them a rigid discipline:
His baton movements were restricted within a box he imagined in front of him, a box about eighteen inches wide and a foot high. The audience saw little of the stickwork going on inside that box, but the orchestra was intensely aware of it. A movement of an inch upward was the sign of a crescendo; a movement of ten inches indicated a massive outpouring of sound. Most of the cueing (the indication of a player’s entrance) was done with Monteux’s eyes. The French horns, always a difficult group to cue, received signals from a raised eyebrow; for the strings, simply a glance from the conductor was enough.
The key to his success was his self-assurance, which prompted others “to think it only natural to yield to him.”
All true, no doubt, but scarcely a sufficient account of Monteux’s authority. When he was appointed conductor, did he not insist on being given the power, or some part of the power, to hire and fire the members of the orchestra? I suspect that any French horn player who habitually mistook a nervous tic for a deliberately raised eyebrow would soon find himself (if he were lucky) playing in the Napa Valley Philharmonic. Knowing this, he would be likely to accept Monteux’s authority whether or not he was able to “feel into being” some respect for his musicianship. Yet authority in this legal or formal sense seems to lie outside the scope of Sennett’s sociological imagination; at least, it does not figure in his account.
Instead, Sennett offers us a number of case stories involving bonds of “rejection,” bonds of “autonomy,” bonds of false metaphors—all forms of authority and all illegitimate. Bonds of rejection, for example, are characterized by a “disobedient dependence.” Helen Bowen (“not her real name”) dates black men, which makes her Irish parents angry, but she spends weekends with her parents anyway, something she does not do when she is dating white men, which does not make her parents angry. She fears them—this is where authority comes in—but she cannot ignore them. Why not? Because of the “social bond . . . created on the basis of these fears.” Helen disobeys her parents, but the “very act of disobeying, with all its confrontations, anxieties, and conflicts, knits people together.” The possibility that there is a family bond between Helen and Father and Mother Bowen, or that this bond is one of the causes of their anxieties and, indeed, of the conflicts between them, is simply ignored.
Then there is the “bond autonomy creates.” The autonomous person is skilled, knows he is skilled, and more needed than needy. He can afford to be indifferent to others; this makes him an authority without love, an illegitimate authority. Dodds—we are not told whether this is his real name—is a physics research worker who receives an offer of employment from another research institution. He goes to Blackman, his superior in the organization where he is currently employed, and asks, in effect, what Blackman is going to do about it. A lengthy dialogue ensues in which, to state the essence of it briefly, Blackman expresses indifference. This makes Dodds nervous; in fact, at the end he is a nervous wreck. Why? Because of the “imbalance” in their relationship: Dodds is “bidding for recognition,” but Blackman is cool, which makes Dodds uneasy, and the “bond between these two is forged from this imbalance.” Maybe so, but as a former chairman of the department of government, Cornell University, I think (and I think Blackman thought) Dodds was bidding for a higher salary and became nervous when the clever Blackman called his bluff. The “bond” between them may have been affected by this dialogue but it was forged by their respective places in the organization: Blackman was the boss, and being the boss, he had authority, but—again—not an authority Sennett recognizes.
At one point Sennett does come close to acknowledging that authority in the formal and political sense is something he ought to deal with.
Once upon a time, his story goes, there was patriarchy and patrimonialism, princes who claimed to be and were understood to be the fathers of their countries; now there is only paternalism, which, he says, is an authority of false love. (Capitalist George Pullman only pretended to love the workers he housed in his company town.) In this context Sennett devotes a couple of pages to John Locke who, he correctly notes, had something to do with the effort to discover a new foundation of legitimate political authority, the old one having crumbled. We Americans built the first new nation on the Lockean principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But Sennett raises the issue only to drop it; his interest lies in the subpolitical world created by emotional bonds whose development, he assures us, Locke did not foresee.
Bonds of rejection, of autonomy, of false metaphors and paternalism characterize our capitalist world, and they are all illegitimate. To chart the way out of this intolerable situation, Sennett turns initially to Hegel. “For all Hegel’s special philosophic concerns and convoluted language”—by which he means to indicate that he is not going to try to understand Hegel—“the nature of the journey he describes suggests . . . how the experience of authority might become less humiliating, more free in everyday life.” There are four stages in this Hegelian journey; Sennett thinks we are now at stage three, “unhappy consciousness,” and our task is to get to stage four, “rational consciousness.” This can be achieved through an “evolution of consciousness,” which requires a temporary “disengagement” from authority followed by an overcoming of the fear of authority. To illustrate how this can be done, Sennett reproduces an interview in which a fat girl explains how she worked herself free of her dependency on authority figures and hence of her falsely induced sense of guilt about her physical condition:
Subject: Look, I had it explained up and down to me how serious it was. I went to child shrinks. Fat-farms. The more they explained it to me, the worse I felt . . . and the trouble when you are a fat child is this; you are always trying to please these people telling you there’s something wrong. You feel awful about yourself but don’t understand what you’ve done wrong.
Interviewer: I’m surprised you can talk so easily about it.
Subject: Well, about my parents, they got hooked on these fat doctors, so I had to do a lot of explaining. Although it’s funny, I dug in my heels and I refused to go when I realized my parents were as confused as I was.
Interviewer: How so?
Subject: Look, I didn’t know why I was fat, or why it was bad, but I thought they did. When it turned out they were as up in the air as I was, I figured, fuck the whole thing, no more diets, none of it.
Thus does Hegel make it possible to believe that fat is fun, and thereby help us to solve one of the Crises of Our Time.
But enough. This is a ridiculous book. If it can be said to possess a virtue, it is that it demonstrates with particular clarity the secret of Richard Sennett’s success. For he is an author who over the years has managed to trick out just about every advanced cliché about modern life in the language—and, as it were, with the “authority”—of respectable philosophic and sociological thought.