Richard Sennett on humanism

Sociologist Richard Sennett on the relation of humanism and displacement:

In particular, I would like to consider the relation of displacement and humanism—a cultural ideal on the one hand, a social fact on the other. The two seem to have nothing in common. Yet I want to argue that they do; at the dawn of the modern era, a person’s capacity to manage and master displacement formed part of the humanist project, and, I argue, it continues to do so today, but on very different terms. In a world filled with mobile people—economic immigrants and political exiles in particular—an old humanist ideal might help them to give shape to their lives.

Baruch Spinoza was the humanist philosopher whom we immediately think of as experiencing this connection firsthand. He was exiled from Amsterdam because he was accused of heresy, of violating Judaism. From the thirteenth century on, many Christians also began to be persecuted for the same supposed crime, that is, heresy. One of the greatest of Spinoza’s Christian brothers was the Humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who lived from 1463 to 1494, the younger son of a minor aristocratic family driven first from Italy to France for heresy, then imprisoned in France for that crime, who then returned to Florence to die, thanks to the protection of Lorenzo de Medici.

It was Pico who first made explicit the connection between displacement and the Humanist project. His touchstone was the phrase, “Man is his own Maker,” which appeared in his brief essay “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” written, it is now thought, while Pico was in prison. Pico imagines God as “the master-builder [who] by the laws of his secret wisdom fabricated this house, this world which we see.” But God, whom Pico calls the “Master Artisan,” then created mankind as a “work of indeterminate form.” Pico imagines God the Master Artisan speaking to Adam, his unfinished creation, as follows, “in conformity with thy free judgement, in whose hands I have placed thee, thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself.” These words had the personal meaning to Pico that, as a displaced person, he would have to make up a life for himself.

Freedom, then, to do anything and to become anyone? Informality and spontaneity as the ends of life? Pico emphatically rejected this. Born indeterminate, he says, human beings have to find unity in their lives; a person must make him or herself coherent. In Renaissance Humanism, this quest meant uniting conflicting ancient ideals by bridging the Hellenic and the Christian mindset; in Pico’s own philosophy, it meant making the one and the many cohere, or as philosophers would put it today, discovering unity in the midst of difference. Spinoza, two centuries later, was grounded in just this Humanist project.

On the difference between “career” and “job”:

In Chaucer’s day, a “career” meant a well-laid, well-mapped roadway on which to travel; a “job” meant a lump of something, coal or wood, that could be moved around indiscriminately from place to place. Today, in the labor market, Chaucerian jobs rather than careers define work. The young, middle-level university graduate can expect to change employers at least twelve times in the course of a working life, and to change his or her “skills base” at least three times; the skills he or she must draw on at forty are not the skills learned in school. Job change no longer flows within the Chaucerian trajectory of a career; without a fixed corporate structure, job change follows a more erratic path.

On “voice”:

“Voice” is both a personal and a social issue. To hold fragmentary experiences together in time requires the capacity to step back from the power of each event to hurt or to disorient. To find one’s voice requires establishing some distance from the immediate, from the noumenal; sheer surrender to the moment weakens one’s voice. Of course in the midst of the most traumatic events, like a civil war, stepping back can occur only after the event is over.

On the difference between “toleration” and “cooperation”:

Today, most politically correct people celebrate the fact of racial, ethnic, or religious differences, but we do not believe in them as our Humanist ancestors did. We focus on toleration, particularly on the rights of people who differ from us, but toleration can be itself a form of mutual indifference, leaving one another alone, each in his or her own sphere, as a version of getting along together. Our Humanist forbearers, particularly those of a practical bent, thought of difference, as it were, making more of a difference. True, the differences they had in mind were different views of material things and what could be done with them. True, also, the early modern era imposed its own Christian culture on the peoples outside Europe it subjugated or enslaved. But the technological and scientific mentality of Humanism formulated a simple precept about the experience of difference that, I think, remains powerful in thinking about alternatives to the mere toleration of cultural differences today.

The precept ruling the early modern workshop was that informal, open-ended cooperation is how best to experience difference. Each of the terms in this precept matters. “Informal” means that contacts between people of differing skills or interests are rich when messy, weak when they become regulated, like boring meetings run strictly on formal rules of order. “Open-ended” means you want to find out what another person is about without knowing where it will lead; put another way, you want to avoid the iron rule of utility that establishes a fixed goal—a product, a policy objective—in advance. “Cooperation” is the simplest and most important term. You suppose that different parties all gain by exchanging, rather than one part gaining at the expense of others.

On the “age of brutal simplifiers”:

Today it is widely believed that advanced technologies and machines are dethroning humanist values. The robot with a life of its own, the computer whose brain is better than ours—this scenario seems to mark a gulf between ourselves and our forbearers who worked by hand, who relied on their biological powers. It is a story in which material advance seems to eclipse the human.

This self-dethroning story about technology and society was questioned by Jacob Burckhardt in an unusual way. The historian was certainly pessimistic about modern times; he described the modern era as an “age of brutal simplifiers.” But in his view, the epithet “an age of brutal simplifiers” propounds a paradox: as society’s material conditions become ever more complex, its social relationships become ever more crude.

On technological innovation and technological use:

Whether social relations were once more complex is a question we should set aside; it is an exercise in nostalgia. We should refocus this paradox just as a proposition in itself; refocused, it suggests most simply that technical innovations run ahead of people’s ability to use the innovations well. This simple version has been true through the history of technology: human beings have invented new tools before they knew what to do with them. There is, though, a sharper version of the paradox: the first impulse in using a new tool is to simplify the social relations that existed before.

We are in just that condition, I believe, at the present moment. Our generation is living through a revolution in communications technology, but this revolution so far has reduced the quality of communications in the same measure it has increased their quantity. Those enslaved to email will know exactly what I mean. Composing one hundred carefully considered letters a day would take up the whole of the day; a single, well-thought-out letter can require hours in itself. For this reason, as the technologist Jaron Lanier observes, speed is replacing depth in communications. I would add that the communication occurring in emails tends to the denotative rather than the connotative; it focuses on sheer information. A professional writer will spend hours on situating a piece of information, finding just the right words to convey irony or conviction; so too, in face-to-face conversations, silences and pauses, nonverbal glances and bodily gestures transform the information contained in raw words. The brutalist fault, I want to emphasize, lies not in the technology itself, but in the uses to which it has been put.

—  “Humanism” (The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2011).


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