I have only recently become a reader of Sennett's work (see The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism or Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation as further examples of his work that I have read recently, been impressed with, and has led me to seek out this book, which I seem to recall was recommended to me when I was doing my Masters nearly 20 years ago). In this book, from the 1970's, Sennett discusses the ways in which the presentation of self in the public domain has come to focus on personality, an insincere construct that so distorts feeling and emotional display that genuine expression seems no longer possible. To present his case, he reaches back into the French Enlightenment, particularly its theatrical tradition, to examine the erosion of a distinction between public and private, into the faux emotions of public figures that mislead us into notions of trust. This was an idea that must have been rather lively at the time the book was written, given Nixon's recent perfidious manipulation of public trust, and Carter's appeal as the righteousness mender of social and political wrongdoing as his sole qualification to the Presidency.
Sennett's success is difficult to gauge, given the broad range of evidence from which he can draw; a history of ideas about public and private conduct; his examination of the rise of psychology; and his astounding knowledge of theatre practice as an art and in its presentation to the public, are all enlisted in a critique of modern Western manifestations of public life. This is a very dense and difficult text, and Sennett further adds to the complexity through an appealing and credible ability to extend a given idea one step further, or to give it a polish to reveal something further than the satisfying aphorism from which he started. His contempt for the personal converted into currency for the public space is clear, but I am somewhat mystified as to why, or what alternative modern capitalism (his favourite target) might have thrown up (though as a Marxist, I suspect he doesn't think this would be possible).
What Sennett could not have foreseen is the way in which we are all now involved in these games, in the personal brand management through social media that removes our privacy by making us all into public figures in some way. To the modern reader, the playing out of his concerns since the time of writing is certainly alarming, and has me questioning my own public conduct (or as he might witheringly put it, my ersatz sincerity as only an expression of disingenuous attempts to be thought of as a feeling person).
An exiting book about our lives we live, compared against earlier centuries. A book full of facts and interesting comments, and a subjective view at our way of living and loving. A must read for a sociologist, and a good book to have read. Slightly diffucult reading.