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Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation

February 9, 2012

Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation by Richard Sennett – review

    Friday 3 February 2012 09.00 GMT

I hope I’m not over-quoting Runciman, but this book looks really interesting – the review Runciman has written reinforces this! Runciman writes: “…the world has changed in the last 10 years. The 70s are more remote than ever. Who needs free love in the age of Facebook? Online social networks have given us a thousand and one different ways to make immediate connections with our fellow creatures. This is potentially very bad news for co-operation. The web might look like a giant co-operative endeavour, but it’s not. It’s an endless array of communities. Community life is relatively easy. All it takes is finding people who think like you do. Co-operation is hard because it is about learning to live with people who think differently or don’t know what they think at all. Sennett wants to remind us that this is a skill, and like any skill it takes patience and practice.Together is the second book in Sennett’s homo faber trilogy, about man as a maker of things. The first was The Craftsman, which dealt with the pleasures of doing things with your hands. The third will be about city living. This one explains the joys and pitfalls of making anything happen co-operatively. …

The fact is that very few of us are going to have the time or energy to become adept at co-operation; we need short-cuts. This is where the rituals of Sennett’s subtitle come in. Over time patterns of behaviour develop that give us all pointers in the right direction. For instance, if you want to know how to co-operate, good manners would be a start. The problem is what happens at times of dramatic social change, when these rituals fall apart.

Sennett has a fascinating discussion of what he calls “the great unsettling” that took place at the Reformation, when the co-operative patterns of the Catholic church were undermined by a new individualism. The old ways of living together started to look hollow and manipulative, but the new patterns of behaviour were crude and disruptive. It took a long time for people to work out how to co-operate with each other again. Something similar happened during the scientific revolution. Laboratories and operating theatres were, to start with, cold and inhuman places, in which genuine co-operation would have seemed impossible: it was all hierarchy and elaborate performance. Now, science and medicine provide some of the most fruitful sites of co-operative activity (most of us can only look on the co-operative spirit of a surgical team with envy).

The information technology revolution means we are currently living through another great unsettling. Workplaces are being hollowed out, jobs are often short-term and connections can be made and lost in the blink of an eye. Employers still like to talk about “working as a team” but as Sennett points out it’s hard to know what this means any more. At the same time, the web has yet to generate its own “civilities” to replace the ones we are losing. A lot of net activity appears friendly and collaborative enough – blogs, wikis, the twitterverse – but look more closely and most of it is still about hierarchy and performance. …

He is also acute on the subject of the inequalities of co-operation. Because it is hard to co-operate, it is much easier for those people who already have plentiful resources. Far from bridging growing inequalities, the web can enhance them by making genuine co-operation accessible only to a privileged few. Face-to-face activity has become an increasingly scarce resource and yet it is only in face-to-face activity that the most fruitful forms of co-operation are to be found.



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