Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man [1974] (Penguin 1978) – Chap. 8: Personality in Public.


In asking what effect new material conditions had on public life, in particular the effects of industrial capitalism upon it, we find ourselves having to ask a second question, how personality entered the public realm. The system of profits couldn’t succeed without this intrusion of personality, and the system of profits won’t explain why it arose.

Personality appeared in public because a new secular world-view appeared in society as a whole. This world-view replaced an Order of Nature by an ordering of natural phenomena; belief in the first arose when a fact or event could be placed in a general schema; belief in the second began earlier, when the fact or event was understood, and so seemed real, in and of itself. The first was a doctrine of secular transcendence, the second a doctrine of secular immanence. Personality was one form of this belief in immanent meaning in the world.

It is easy to imagine “capitalism” as a historical force, because tangible actions and changes, in production, prices, or power, come to mind. It is not easy to imagine “secularity” in the same way, because it is hard to conceive of it as anything but an abstract product of other forces in society. The inability to imagine secularity as an independent social force comes, I think, precisely from the present-day inability to conceive of the act of belief as real in itself. And this in turn derives from our peculiar inability to comprehend the sociological realities of religion – religion, as Louis  Dumont has observed, being the primary social structure for most of human society during most of its existence. Because today the gods have fled from our minds, we therefore easily imagine that the process of belief itself has ceased to be a fundamental social category and is instead a social product. The followers of Lévi-Strauss, for instance, seize upon his notions of general structures of thought and are blind to the vision from which these notions sprang, that impulses of faith produce the linguistic and economic and family structures which knit seemingly diverse societies together. [150]

Some people have argued that the god of nature in the 18th Century was still a god, and that therefore to speak of secular society is to speak of a society beginning in the 19th Century. It is better to see the 18th and 19th Centuries as two stages in a process of secularization. “Nature and Nature’s god” was a deity without a face, one could honor it but not pray to it. Although Nature was transcendent, belief in it did not bring to the faithful life after death; that is. belief did not make them transcendent beings. This is why a good definition of secularity is “the reason things are as they are in the world, reasons which will cease to matter in themselves, once we are dead.” (See Chapter 1)

That a change in secularity occurred between the 18th and the 19th Century is clear. More than just scientific positivism, it encompassed Darwin’s theory of evolution, attitudes toward art, and everyday convictions, as well as profound changes in the field of psychology itself. Why the change occurred is a book of its own, but I want to state one way of conceiving it.

Belief remains a fundamental social condition, nor is the will to belief erased, even as mankind loses a belief in gods. We are not a peculiar age in our scientific and rationalistic proclivities; we are peculiar only in that our science is used as the enemy of idolatry. This enmity began in and has steadily progressed since the Enlightenment In the 18th Century the will to believe passed from a non-idol religion to a more reflexive condition. beliefs become more and more centered on the immediate life of man himself, and his experiences as a definition of all that he can believe in. Immediacy, sensation, the concrete - only here can belief finally flourish, once idolatry is forbidden. This reflexive principle then goes a step beyond the first, 18th Century break. As the gods are demystified, man mystifies his own condition; his own life is fraught with meaning, yet it remains to be played out. Meaning is immanent in it, yet the person is unlike a stone or a fossil which  is fixed and so can be studied as a form.

It is here that personality enters the scheme of immanent belief. Personality became in the last century the way to think about the meaning implicit m human life, when in every life the concrete form, the self as a complete object, had yet to crystallize. Just as it used to be thought that “the family” was a fixed biological form in history, it is still easy to imagine personality as a constant in human affairs, for there have always been differences m feeling, perception, and behavior among people. The issue is what people are likely to make of those differences. As the gods fled, immediacy of sensation and perception grew more important, phenomena came to seem real in and of themselves as immediate experience. People in turn were disposed to make more and more of differences in the immediate impressions they made upon each other, to see these differences, indeed, as the very basis of [151] social existence. These immediate impressions different people produced were taken to be “personality”.  

Personality came in the 19th Century to diverge from the Enlightenment belief in natural character in three important ways. First, personality is seen to vary from person to person, whereas natural character was the common thread running through mankind. Personality varies because the appearances of emotion and the inner nature of the person feeling are the same. One is what one appears; therefore. people with different appearances are different persons. When one’s own appearances change, there is a change in the self. As the Enlightenment belief in a common humanity is eclipsed, the variation in personal appearances becomes tied to the instability of personality itself.

Second, personality, unlike natural character, is controlled by self-consciousness. The control an individual practiced in relation to his natural character was the moderation of his desires; if he acted in a certain way, modestly, he was bringing himself into line with his natural character. Personality cannot be controlled by action; circumstances may force different appearances and so destabilize the self.  The only form of control can be the constant attempt to formulate what it is one feels. This sense of controlling the self is mostly retrospective; one understands what one has done after the experience is over. Consciousness always follows emotional expression in this scheme. Personalities, therefore, are not only composed of variations in rage, compassion, or trust between people; personality is also the capacity to “recover” one’s emotions. Longing, regret and nostalgia acquire an importance in 19th Century psychology of a peculiar sort. The 19th-Century bourgeois is always remembering what it was like when in youth he was really alive. His personal self-consciousness is not so much an attempt to contrast his feelings with those of others as to take known and finished feelings, whatever they once were, as a definition of who he is.

Modern personality, finally, diverges from the idea of natural character in that freedom of feeling at a given moment seems like a violation of “normal” conventional feeling. The mid-18th Century did not set social convention against spontaneity, the woman m the pouf  “pointing” Mme Favart was engaged in one form of spontaneity, and at home in her natural gown she was engaged in another. Spontaneity of personality, however, is set against social convention, and makes free spirits seem like deviants. Spontaneity and involuntary disclosure of character overlap in their meaning, but can be separated in one way; spontaneity is safe involuntary feeling which seems to do neither others nor oneself harm. Psychologists in the 19th Century came to believe, as did their patients, that people who were involuntarily expressive were often insane people; this is another form of the fear of feeling as abnormal.  This same principle has also come to be turned [152] around. Self-consciousness about being different inhibits spontaneity of expression.

Personality created by appearances, controlled if at all by self-consciousness about one’s past, spontaneous only by abnormality: these new terms of personality began to be used in the last century to understand society itself as a collection of personalities. It was within that general context that personality entered the public realm of the capital.

What is the principle giving rise to these terms of personality? The clue to all three is contained in the first.. Personality varies among people, and is unstable within each person, because appearances have no distance from impulse, they are direct expressions of the “inner” self. That is, personality is immanent in appearances, in contrast, natural character, which, like Nature itself, transcends every appearance in the world.

All visible things are emblems; what thou seest is not there on its own account., strictly taken, is not there at all: Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant.

These words from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus would make no sense in the age of the wig and pouf au sentiment. For Carlyle clothes had become “unspeakably significant,” because appearances made in the world are not veils but guides to the authentic self of the wearer.

One really, knew about a person by understanding him at the most concrete level - which consisted of details of clothes, speech and behavior. In the clothes and speech of Balzac’s Paris, appearances were
therefore no longer at a distance from self, but rather clues to private feeling; conversely, “the self” no  longer transcended its appearances in the world. This was the basic condition of personality.

It was the conjunction of this secular faith in personality, a faith in appearances as a guide to inner feeling, with the economics of industrial capitalism which thrust personality as a social category into the public realm. These two forces have since carried on a dialogue. In the last chapter we saw from the side of profit some of the results of personality in public: passivity, human exchange as a secret, mystification of appearance itself. The new secular faith brought a logic of its own to that public realm which produced sympathetic results. To know, one must impose no coloration of one’s own, of one’s own commitments; this meant silence in public in order to understand it, objectivity in scientific  investigation, a gastronomy of the eye. Voyeurism was the logical complement of 19th Century secularity.

[…; 153.]



[ back ]
[ top ]