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Wed Jan 8 07:45:00 MST 2003
Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 2003
Searching for Respect
Richard Sennett's latest work examines the costs of meritocracy
By DAVID GLENN
In 1946, an aspiring writer named Dorothy Sennett moved with her 3-year-old
son, Richard, into Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project, which had been
hastily constructed during the war. She was anxious about money. Her
husband had left when Richard was an infant. Years later she wrote that her
apartment building felt "like a beleaguered ship. Around it, from early
morning until far into evening, there rose a sea of sound ... voices
screaming, laughing, wailing, shouting."
On a December afternoon 56 years later, Richard Sennett sits in an
astonishingly quiet pocket of New York City, practicing the cello. He lives
half the year in a converted stable in Washington Mews, a cobblestone alley
adjacent to New York University, where he is a professor of sociology.
(Spring semesters he spends at the London School of Economics and Political
Science, where he teaches sociology and social policy.) It's the day after
a heavy snow, and the streets are still hushed. If Mr. Sennett's childhood
home felt like a beleaguered ship, this feels like the opposite. Despite
whatever terrorist plots or social miseries threaten the city, Washington
Mews offers a convincing illusion of security and permanence.
The cello was an anchor for Mr. Sennett as he grew up in Chicago. For
several years he dreamed of performing professionally, but when he was 21,
botched surgery for tendinitis left him with a disability in his left hand.
Still, he practices for several hours a week. As he writes in his new book,
Respect in a World of Inequality (W.W. Norton), his adolescent
cello-playing gave him a permanent sense of "craft-love" -- "by
constructing an accurate, free sound I experienced a profound pleasure in
and for itself, and a sense of self-worth which didn't depend on others."
That sort of "craft-love," he argues, represents a counterweight to a
market-driven society in which people assign value to each other (and
themselves) according to socioeconomic status. It also can be a bulwark
against the excesses of America's SAT-calibrated meritocracy. "There's so
much emphasis on potential," he says. "Not on what people do, but on what
they might do. ... The judgment of people's potential is devastating to
people who lose out on that judgment. It deprives people of hope."
Mr. Sennett is a tall man with earnest eyes and a receded hairline. Smoking
a pipe after his cello practice, he talks about his recent work on the
problem of social status and personal identity -- a question he first
explored 30 years ago, in The Hidden Injuries of Class. That book, which he
wrote with a colleague, Jonathan Cobb, used hundreds of interviews with
white working-class Boston residents to examine their feelings of shame and
anxiety. They found that working-class men were, for example, hugely
resentful of welfare recipients because the existence of the dole seemed to
mock their position as breadwinners. What honor was there in struggling to
feed your family with a low-status job if your wife and children could just
as easily be cared for by the state?
Respect is intended as both an extension of and a corrective to Hidden
Injuries, which Mr. Sennett says was written when he was "in a sort of
ferocious Marxist phase." The earlier book has a polemic undercurrent, and
ends with a call "to overturn a society based on validations of self, on
rewards for performance, on the linking of dignity to special ability."
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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