The Public, the Private, and the Intimate: Richard Sennett's and Lauren Berlant's Cultural Criticism in Dialogue

By Linke, Gabriele | Biography, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Public, the Private, and the Intimate: Richard Sennett's and Lauren Berlant's Cultural Criticism in Dialogue


Linke, Gabriele, Biography


TWO PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS

A few years ago, after I had talked to a multidisciplinary audience about a democratization of public memory through the display of working-class people's autobiographical statements in museums, a scientist stood up and challenged my premises, claiming that personal recollections were so subjective that they had hardly any value, either as historical truths or as subjects of academic interest or museum pieces. This set off a search not only for a justification of my research, but also for a thorough understanding of the relationship between the subjective and intimate character of many autobiographical texts and their functions upon entering the public sphere in the form of books, museum displays, films, videos, and other media. Many points of departure are possible for this search, and scholars from different fields have addressed connections between intimacy and the public sphere. Nevertheless, my argument will be limited to two approaches, which I hope will facilitate deepened insights into selected aspects of the intimate and the public and the redefinition and revaluation of intimacy since the 1970s.

Both Richard Sennett and Lauren Berlant have been fascinated by the production of citizenship and social attachments in Western societies since the nineteenth century. Furthermore, they share the urban experience of Chicago and an approach to the study of culture that constantly transcends the boundaries of disciplines. They also observe, and comment on, changing social behavior and beliefs as public intellectuals who cover a wide range of "specialisms," telling us as a society who we are and how we got there, as Melissa Benn writes with regard to Sennett. Nevertheless, Sennett and Berlant grew up almost a generation apart, witnessing the cultural transformations of the 1960s and '70s at different points in their lives, and pursuing different projects beside their shared interests, which in Sennett's case involve primarily sociological analyses in terms of class, while Berlant focuses on popular culture and literature. In my essay, I will discuss Sennett's The Fall of Public Man (1977) and the ideas Berlant develops especially in "Intimacy" (1998) and The Female Complaint (2008), in particular with regard to their statements about the historical aspects and nature of intimacy, the role of gender and the media, and the evaluation of intimacy. I will conclude with comments on some contemporary Scottish autobiographical texts as test cases, trying out the explanatory power of a reconceptualization of intimacy with regard to the question posed at the beginning: what happens to "intimate" acts of self-disclosure such as autobiographical acts when they enter the public sphere.

TRANSFORMATIONS OF INTIMACY

As the title of his book suggests, Sennett is driven by a sense of the decline of the public sphere to search for the economic and cultural forces that brought about this change in the social fabric. His main line of argument is based on an analysis of public life and forms of expression in the public sphere in London and Paris, beginning in the eighteenth century, through changes in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth. With this, he largely follows Juirgen Habermas's line of reasoning about the formation of a bourgeois public and its decline since the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Sennett refers to Habermas and the Frankfurt School only briefly, criticizing them for overemphasizing the social conditions of modern capitalism as the cause of the decline of public expression and neglecting the complexities of the resulting situation (31-32). Sennett's own approach does pay more attention to the effects of modern capitalism on the psychological set-up of society. Taking London and Paris around 1750 as models, he defines the city as "a milieu in which strangers are likely to meet" (48), and where, through the presence of a confident non-aristocratic and mercantile bourgeoisie, (1) a vibrant public life developed, as well as a public geography with parks, promenades, theatres, coffeehouses, pubs, and markets, which became sites of ritualized, conventionalized interchanges. …

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