Why can’t he see it? Marshall Berman on Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man


By Gareth Millington

I had known it existed for a few years but I only recently got around to tracking down and reading Marshall Berman’s review of Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (1977). The review was published in The Nation in August 1977, just over forty years ago, thereby chronologically placing the article somewhere between Berman’s first book The Politics of Authenticity (1970) and his best-known work All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). Even though Berman was not the most prolific of authors, this article is, to my knowledge, little known. Given its quality I’m surprised it didn’t made it into either Berman’s Adventures in Marxism (1999) collection or this year’s posthumous collection Modernism in the Streets. As such, it remains something of a rarity; indeed, I took pleasure in finally ‘unearthing’ and reading the piece.  I’d been told the review was fairly acerbic, and having previously read Berman’s review of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz (also in The Nation), I could well believe this. Marshall Berman shows a generosity of spirit in his own work, reserving this most of all for regular, everyday city dwellers or  in his interpretations of his beloved Marx, Nietzsche and Rousseau. His contemporaries—especially fellow ‘critical’ urban scholars—are often given much shorter shrift.

sennett cover

Berman’s review of Sennett is an important piece; an entertaining piece, too. It’s only in retrospect that the value of a review article becomes apparent, but it’s rare to see an intellectual heavyweight go up against another as is the case here.  The review has relevance for our own political times, and for our cities too; whether we are thinking about Catalans voting for independence, NFL superstars protesting against police brutality or anti-austerity marches in London. The arguments in this piece are relevant anywhere that people have chosen or have felt compelled to articulate their personal experiences or express their convictions in the public realm of the city.

Many readers will be familiar with Sennett’s book. It is a staple in the canon of urban sociology and continues to shape debates in urban studies on public space. It’s difficult, though, to move away from the verdict that while the book has a compelling thesis and is, unquestionably scholarly and erudite, it is also, well, a little bit stuffy. Sennett venerates ‘impersonal relations’ and is firmly against the kind of self-absorption, or ‘narcissism’ which he sees as a product of the 1960s. He warns against the ‘tyrannies’ of intimacy, claiming that public and intimate life have become worryingly confused, causing us increasing dissatisfaction with both. For example, Sennett (1977) writes, ‘[m]asses of people are concerned with their single life-histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation’ (ibid: 5). Moreover, ‘[…] people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning’ (ibid: 5). Sennett prefers earlier incarnations of metropolitan life when there was stricter separation between private and public lives and where people wore ‘masks’ or performed ‘roles’ in public life rather than presenting themselves and judging the merits of others as ‘feeling individuals’. Sennett argues that the freedom to feel is much greater when one’s personality and one’s identity in society are unambiguously separated.


There is a clear tension between Sennett’s thesis and the position Berman had already outlined in The Politics of Authenticity. For Berman, the wearing of masks in public and the schism between what is said or performed and what one truly thinks or feels is a barrier to leading an authentic life. The pursuit of authenticity is important to Berman. To struggle with and against this contradiction is, he argues, one of the hallmarks of a modern life.

The review begins with (faint) praise for the ambition and provocative nature of Sennett’s book. Berman is impressed that Sennett takes in not only forms of drama staged in theatres, but also those that unfold on the streets, cafés, parks and public spaces of the city. Berman also approvingly notes Sennett’s scholarly, yet vivid depictions of the costumes, masks and public performances of urban life in centuries past. For Berman (1977: 118) though, ‘Sennett’s theoretical scheme is a kind of Paradise Lost, only without any Miltonic promises of redemption at the end’. This is because for Sennett the Golden Age of urban life belongs in Paris and London during the 18th-century. Ever since however, the book reads as if ‘[w]estern values have evolved in a wholly disastrous way, from a public to a private centre, from impersonality to intimacy, from performance to self-revelation […]’ (ibid). Moreover, ‘Sennett’s theory insists that once people begin to think about their feelings, it’s impossible for them to think or care about anything or anyone else’ (ibid: 120).

Berman is confused by Sennett in relation to when or how the proposed Fall takes place, or why people began to get serious about their inner lives. On the latter point, to Berman’s mind, the answer is obvious. It is suffering and injustice that cause an outpouring of emotional life, creating a release that enhances rather than diminishes public life. Fundamentally, people become unwilling to suffer alone or in silence. Acts of sharing and recognition lead to learning, protest and revolution. This was also the case in the 18th-century as is evident in the philosophy of Rousseau or the fiction of Samuel Johnson, sources that Berman suggests Sennett ignores or misrepresents. Sennett is too concerned with the forms that public life takes, rather than examining its content and trying to decipher what people are trying to express. Berman argues that even during Sennett’s favoured century, people knew how to see through the most splendid facades, including their own. No mask was ever worn without a sense of playfulness or irony. Berman’s summation, ‘is that Sennett sees none of this. As far as he is concerned, the Age of Revolution marks the burial of public man, not his rebirth’ (ibid: 119).

Berman is left exhausted by the middle part of the book, complaining how we are forced to accompany Sennett on a monochromatic tour through 19th and 20th-century Paris and that never has an American in Paris had such a miserable time. A social theory that grinds something so flat, dull and grey into the city of Paris and the inspirational art that celebrates it is an ‘environmental crime’, writes Berman. However, Berman is more engaged by the final sections of the book where Sennett eloquently affirms the values of city life. The problem is that he doesn’t budge from his point that the quality that animates urban life is impersonality. Once more, Sennett’s argument is that our current fear of impersonality has a deleterious effect on our cities, causing us to retreat into ethnic enclaves and/or the politics of community and defensive belonging. Berman finds this suggestion too high-minded:

Can a man really love the city if he can’t stand the people in it? His [Sennett’s] attack on localism is grossly abusive to those involved in it. He can’t imagine any reasonable motives on their part—e.g. a belief that locality is the only level at which most of us can participate actively, take initiative in making policy, exert some effective control over events and live a public life.

Sennett’s unfortunate example of ethnic enclavism is the Jews of Forest Hills in Queens. From this point on, the gloves come off and Berman gets up close, even accusing Sennett of getting bored by his own ideas. It is fascinating to read this caustic encounter between scholars who were, at the time, New York contemporaries (Sennett at NYU and Berman at City College). I wonder what kind of frosty relations existed between the two when, inevitably, their paths crossed at seminars or events in the city. I’m also interested in what shared acquaintances, friends and colleagues made of the review; did they sympathise with Sennett? Perhaps they felt Berman was correct but ultimately went too far? Berman willingly positions himself as the underdog in this review, just as he did in his later contretemps with Perry Anderson in the New Left Review in 1984. He does this here mainly to mock Sennett’s tendency to look down on those who share their personal troubles in public; all this from Sennett’s NYU office on Washington Square, where, confusingly,

[…] at any given moment, he is surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people of every race and age, acting and interacting, harmonizing and improving […] But none of this, alas, happens in Sennett’s city; as far as he is concerned, nothing like this has happened for the last 200 years. I picture him trudging through the square, wrapped up in his theory that all modern men are wrapped up in themselves […] (ibid: 121)

The last line is a killer. Berman concludes the review by asking why Sennett is unable to see how the public life that does exist in our cities can rescue us from our personal sorrows and anxieties and renew our strength to fight against injustice. The barrier, Berman surmises, is his theory. Berman detests theories that downgrade the critical potentials of individual social actors (his criticisms of Weber and Foucault in All That is Solid… are, let’s say, unrestrained). Sennett’s theory in The Fall… falls into this category. It decrees that all roads are blind alleys, that the rich variety of modern life is illusory, that contemporary urban life is all one big wasteland (ibid: 121). His theory always wins. It is self-fulfilling; shutting down a vast contemporary array of urban activities (that are all political in the broadest sense) without ever seeking to acknowledge or understand their meaning. Berman’s reading of Sennett is that everything that can be valued about city life belongs to a time that can never be recovered. In contrast, as we now know from All That is Solid…, Marshall Berman views modernism is an ongoing rather than outdated theme of contemporary life. It’s promises still exist to be fulfilled rather than abolished.


Berman, M. (1977) ‘Facades at Face Value’, The Nation, August 6 1977

Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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