Conservatism and critique.

This week we talked about Richard Sennett‘s Corrosion of Character in our seminar on the diagnosis of capitalism in the 21st century. It has been a while since I last read Corrosion of Character, and over the course of the last years I seem to have forgotten some of the central arguments he made and some of the terms into which he molds his critique. Here, I want to focus on two terms in particular:

drift. I think this term describes the feeling many people experience living their lives without a firm anchor very well. Some kind of unknown but forceful current takes you into a direction, carrying you to a place that is not known, and, although appearing on the horizon, might never be reached because the currents have changed again, taking you to through murky waters to some other place. Will I be working in Berlin or in Darmstadt in 2006? Or maybe in some other city or even some other country? How long will I be there, what will I have to do there, whom will I (still) know and work with? What will my perspective be then? Will it actually be connected to what I am doing today, or will I have to work in a different sector? I will surely try to row and set sail to get to particular places, and I may know how to hold a certain course. But I am not sure if the drift will bring me to where I will go, or if it is me, and I know that the drift will have a much stronger influence on other people than it has on me.

corrosion. I realized how well this term works today, especially if one imagines the corrosion of character as the corrosion of a car’s body: it will begin slowly, eating away the metal structure under the finish. After a while the finish cracks, the fabric of the masks we want to wear and play with (comp. Sennett The Fall of Public Man) becomes threadbare, making it hard to maintain the images we want to create of ourselves. If the corrosion proceeds the structure itself becomes more and more fragile, and finally prone to collapse. Such an imperiled character might not have the strength to build up enough resistance to the forces of a capitalist economy that pushes and tears in several different directions.

In the discussion it also became very clear that Sennett is not formulating his critique from a postmodernist perspective. He wants to argue for a stabilization of characters, for anchoring them in some firm ground, for providing them with a coherent narrative that enables them to formulate their own desires, norms and positions; he does not argue for an urban guerilla that is always changing it’s shape, that is radically localized and fluent, appearing at unpredictable times and locations. I think that there are some convincing reasons for doing this, for taking this conservative position – a position that is probably based on his conception of the antique greek polis as he develops it in Stone and Flesh and some of his other works. The postmodern position probably also has its place. However, to me it also seems to be an elitist and group specific perspective: it relies on a group of actors who have to be highly qualified, highly mobile, independent, skilled with modern technologies and generally living a life-style that by its definition is restricted to a small minority of the population (a group, it might be added, that also relies on distinction from “the rest” of the population to a very high degree, even if it may sympathize with the poor, the homeless, and the disadvantaged.)

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