The Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart has a priceless anecdote from this year’s Edinburgh Festival. At a concert at the city’s Usher Hall, the leader of his group conscientiously turns her mobile to silent, leaving a red LED glowing. At the end of the concert, as she gets up to leave, an Edinburgher turns to her and hisses: ‘your red light completely ruined the concert for me.’ For those of us who have to endure the city’s eccentricities year round, it’s a familiar story. Hoggart’s story was, in an unintentional way, pure Sennett: in a single story an index of some favourite problems: civility, etiquette, how we behave in public.
How we behave publicly with each other, and how specifically we co-operate is the subject of Sennett’s latest book Together, whose title is as much an aspiration as it is a description. It’s a subtle, touching, funny, clever book, perfect for discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August. In many ways it was a perfect audience for it: well-prepped, middle-class, highly observant – and like Sennett himself, delighting in the musical metaphors that run all the way through the book. Sennett’s love of music and art is obvious. He’s as comfortable in this setting as anyone could be, and as persuasive an advocate as any for what is left of the Enlightenment.
However Sennett’s background is more complex than that of most of the people in the room, and in particular, it involves long journeys in British and American systems of social class, a fact that routinely appears in the writing. Together is also more complex than it might first appear. There’s a lot of familiar Sennett here (civility, the public life, ritual etc) . In the mouths of politicians, ‘civility’ can be a platitude, terrible in its simplicity. Here’s it’s more complex, a system of mutually understood social rules that have to be learned, practised, and that are hard. Politeness, in the eighteenth century sense, is one such a model of civility, a set of mutually understood behavioural rules that facilitate co-operation. Civility has a price, though. All that restraint, from holding in one’s farts in public, to refraining from acting on sexual impulses, is extremely hard work, and has to be practised daily to be effective. Sennett’s recognition of the physical difficulty of civility is a subtle, but important point. There is nothing worse, in some ways, than the presumption of civility without the accompanying understanding that civility, through simple human frailty, cannot always be achieved. (in Simon Hoggart’s place, I would have resorted to violence for precisely this reason).
But in Sennett’s subtle imagination, civility does not automatically mean restraint. In an anecdote that both troubled and fascinated the Edinburgh audience, Sennett described a 70s Boston factory in the 1970s, where a shop floor foreman had to show anger periodically to garner respect: ‘bland, polite foremen were the greater goad.’ In this particular version of civility, the threat of violence was an integral part of the mutually understood system. It’s a highly suggestive idea that conflicts with the popular concept of civility as etiquette.
It is also – it goes without saying – a troubling idea that in the wrong hands amount could, and no doubt often did underwrite bullying. A different, less privileged audience, might have had things to say about this, as they might about the equally slippery notion of impersonality. Sennett’s long-held view is that we suffer an excess of intimacy in public life which of itself corrodes public-ness. (Another sociologist, Frank Furedi, has written of a widespread ‘therapy culture’ that prevents large-scale, and necessarily impersonal action). In the professional context of the university, I couldn’t agree more There is nothing that frustrates academic life so much as personalisation. I wonder, however, if the attractions of impersonality might lessen in a situation where (for the sake of argument) workers were hired on a daily basis, where, in other words, intimacy was structurally impossible.
The conversation was certainly developing in these directions when, the Book Festival being what it is, we had to stop, Sennett, I’m sure would have had some subtle and inventive answers to these questions. It was short performance, but a great one. In the meantime, we await the last part of his Homo Faber trilogy, on the City.
Richard Sennett appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August, 2012, chaired by Richard Williams. Sennettt’s book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-Operation, is published by Allen Lane.