Rereading Sennett‘s book The Corrosion of Character

With comments by Uli Brinkmann, Lukas Doil, Petra Gehring, Martina Heßler, Anna Elisabeth Keim, Mirjam Meyer, Christopher Neumaier, Sebastian Randerath, Martin Schmitt.

Do you remember reading Richard Sennett’s interpretation in “The Corrosion of Character” (Der flexible Mensch)? What was your impression when reading it and what do you think, when reading it today regarding historical and /or current developments of flexibility and/or agility?

Comment Uli Brinkmann, Darmstadt

When I first got my hands on the book “The corrosion of character” two decades ago, I was rather surprised about the strong normative undertone of the text. It seemed to me to be a sad look back at a time when many things were better, or at least seemed better. Yet another perspective would be just as conceivable: After a phase of prolonged decommodification (fordism), the pendulum swung the other way: social relations, work attitudes and professional and social securities were renegotiated and adapted to contemporary flexible capitalism and to deal with the problem of falling profit-rates. At the time, I saw this more as a problematic but still inevitable consequence of structural upheavals than as a sad failure of modernisation – today I am not so sure about my perception. The book itself is admirably subtly written, it is quite a pleasure to read – in my opinion this has not changed twenty years after its publication.

Comment Lukas Doil, Potsdam

In re-reading Corrosion of Character, I wondered whether one needs to re-interpret the flexibilization of work organization/drift in light of later sociological texts such as Hartmut Rosa's Acceleration or Andreas Reckwitz's Society of Singularities. Should we analyse flexibility as a late-modern transformation of temporality or sub-jectivity, or do such diagnoses of long duration rather obscure the concrete labor-world changes of globalization in our analysis?

Comment Petra Gehring, Darmstadt

When I first read Sennett, I found his observations on the conditions of service work apt and incisive. Whether working flexibly is really a curse in general I rather doubt. Extorted flexibility or – repressively enforced – stereotypical work are findings of a critique whose common denominator is and remains the critique of repressive labor relations. However, there is nothing to be said against freedom at work (unless this in turn is suspected of necessarily involving too much insecurity). From a purely conceptual point of view, it would therefore be appealing if Sennett were to relate flexibility and freedom more concretely to one another – as well as I would love to lean more about freedom as the dark side of the moon of work.

Comment Martina Heßler, Darmstadt

Rereading Sennett's Book The Corrosion of Character – My Dream of Flexibility

Martina Heßler, TU Darmstadt,

When I now reread Richards Sennett's book The Corrosion of Character, I was much more attracted by the question of a meaningful life narrative -- which turns out to be one clue of the book -- than I was when I first read it. Sennett ties the possibility to create a narrative of one's life very strongly to stable conditions, indeed, almost to continuous, linear developments, which are lost. I do not want to raise here the question of images and interpretations of what it means to be human and its historicity, which is not dealt with in Sennett's book explicitly. I would rather like to present a personal dream, yes, perhaps a utopia of a different kind of flexibility.

Despite the moralistic tone criticized by many contemporary readers of the book and the implicit model of a stable order of the 1950s and 1960s (which Sennett himself problematizes in its rigidity), I found much that shaped my life in academia. Moving every three years, starting anew many times, having no shared past with people around me, making new friends with every new place, acquiring new institutions, etc. This was exhausting, uprooting, sometimes lonely, but also exciting, enriching and broadening my horizon. It has always been ambivalent -- however, I had the “luxury” of remaining in the same profession (academia), but always with the worry whether my “career” would continue or one would become a Hartz IV candidate after all.

At the same time, I would like to have more flexibility or, to be more precise, a different flexibility. I thought of Marx's vision that we could hunt in the morning, fish at noon, and be critics in the evening. This would be my dream of flexibility: to develop different skills and capacaties beyond scientific thinking and writing. I would also like to be a photographer, an athlete or a gardener and volunteer for old, lonely people, to mention only few possibilities. This would mean the decoupling of flexibility as lived and criticized in neoliberal capitalism. It is a dream, because it would mean a different form of society, beyond highly specialized division of labor, capitalist competition, and also beyond the material prosperity that is so strongly defended today.

Comment Anna Elisabeth Keim, Halle

I was skeptical about Sennett’s rather anthropological assumption that flexible capitalism would make it nearly impossible for individuals to form stable characters and to find meaning in their life. More recent anthropological research has also shown that Sennett’s assumptions need to be strongly relativized and that individuals can create new places and practices of stability in flexible capitalism, too.

Sennett’s portrayal of flexible capitalism in rather dystopic narratives leads to another problem: the over-idealization of the boom period as “golden age” of stability and security. Here, historical research also tends more and more to question this picture and to make the ambivalences of the boom period visible. Nevertheless, from a personal perspective, I liked Sennett’s plaidoyer for routines which for him don’t necessarily imply monotony.

Some developments during the last decades, though, have further relativized Sennett’s dystopic assumptions. For example, the concept of “flexicurity” has emerged in several European countries already during the 1990s and early 2000s which can be interpreted as a departure from one-sided flexibilization. In this concept, the demand for flexible labor markets is combined with a promise for social security for the employees. Flexibility and security are not understood as opposites but as mutually supportive. The European commission accepted “flexicurity” as a policy measure for the individual member states, yet, not surprisingly there exists a great discrepancy regarding implementation.

Slow-Movements (slow food, slow fashion, slow work) during the last couple of years, though still niches, could point toward further countertendencies opposite to permanent flexibility and agility. Also, the multiple crises of the present, foremost climate and energy, could bring capitalism, flexible or not, to a point where the economy as we knew it might just not work anymore.

Comment Mirjam Meyer, Zürich

Rereading Sennetts classic I noticed how much he focused on the possibility to find a narrative to ones life story. He identified the lack of narration e.g. ones inability to make sense of his or hers course of life by narrating as a main consequence of a flexibilized working condition. This observa-tion made a lot of sense to me, and at the same time I thought about a current, observable tendency that is at odds with it. Namely, the circumstance that in certain situations (often work-related but not only) the way of taking about things is seemingly weighted more than the quality of content. The presenta-tion of an idea more and more seems to outstrip the idea itself. Maybe one could understand this in terms of compensation for this „uncountability“.

Comment Christopher Neumaier, Potsdam

While the English book title of Richard Sennett’s essay alludes to the negative effects that came with “flexibilization”, the German title rather points to the possibilities that flexibility entailed. Reading the essay, the discrepancies between content and title became obvious, from my viewpoint, because Sennett rather stressed the negative effects of flexibility. The management literature of the 1980, in contrast, had a positivistic view on flexibility.

It would interesting to discuss how these diverging assessments of flexibility are rooted in political views, scientific background, and economic interests.

In addition, value change had a negative touch among West German conservative social scientists – or maybe better: opinion pollsters in the 1970s and 1980. Most famously, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term “decline in values” (“Werteverfall”) in the political arena. From this viewpoint “flexibility” could evolve to concept that might avert the perceived downfall that came with the social change of the 1970s (new social movements, new life forms, and depreciation of work ethic) and establish new guiding principles that indirectly pushed subjects in the “right” direction, i.e. to increase in performance and more cost efficiency – an approach managers were eager to embrace. Simultaneously, labor unions and liberal social scientists had a more ambiguous take on “flexibility”, warning from exploitation. Yet, they also had hopes that “flexibility” would make work and social life more human by guaranteeing freedom, for instance with flexible working time.

Was flexibility thus part of a negotiation process on the interpretational sovereignty on the future of society in the 1980s and 1990s?

Comment Sebastian Randerath, Bonn

The most exciting aspect of “The corrosion of character” for me personally is that the diagnosis of the book, besides that of Boltanski and Chiapellos diagnosis of the new spirit of capitalism, was also ap-preciated by the management consultants and agility trainers I met during an ethnography. This made me wonder how the impact of Sennet's thesis but also Boltanski and Chiapello's can be of critical re-search over twenty years later, or whether the question should not be seen from another side e.g. in special purpose applications rather than a general change of capital. Moreover, I wonder if the thesis overlooks contemporary economic infrastructures, e.g., in high-frequency trading, that cannot be traced to contemporary capitalism from a primarily anthropocentric perspective.

Comment Martin Schmitt, Darmstadt

I read Richard Sennett’s book as a graduate student in 2008. Back then, I just started to historize “technological change and digital revolution”. His book was super inspiring for me. Especially the parts about programmers and their necessity to be flexible in a faster changing world informed my thinking. He elaborated that in “Culture of New Capitalism”, too and showed how programmers acquiring new skills and programming languages one after another, while their old ones were devaluated.

While most of my fellows emphasized the negative consequences of digitally enforced flexibility for society, I highlighted how people learned to use the new and flexible technology in their favor – but I also hinted to the hidden continuities of once established IT-systems and jobs. Looking back to how that development unfolded, at least in the IT sector the fact that many IT-engineers nowadays are enjoying high salaries and less unemployment rates in well-established industries at least shows that not only the negative effects of the “flexible men” prevailed. The so-called “digital revolution” has been institutionalized.

Reading chapter 7 on the “failure” of IBM mainframe men in Sennett’s book again feels surprising in many ways. Sennett already dealt with the “second wave” of digitalization, separating mainframe men from the following generation. This reminds me of those digital skillful who were left back in the digital transformation, like mainframe operators or GDR data typists.

Reading Sennett opens up a bigger perspective on the rise of the far right over the last decade in relation to flexibilization and digitalization. But at the same time as some of its analysis seem to hold true nowadays, its tone reads somehow conservative and moralizing. Heterogenous identities and characters, patchworked models of life and work, have become way more common today, while community and values have by no means disappeared – but are still under discussion.

In 2009, the University of Tübingen even offered an ethics class at the International Center for Ethics in Science which was only focusing on Sennett’s book. I took it. And we had a lot of discussions. It feels even stranger now that many of Sennett’s hypothesis were directly used to inform students about their career decisions.