Notes from Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation

In an effort to keep a record of useful readings, below are my notes from Richard Sennett’s latest book, Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation. As ever, these notes are a hedge against the risk of such accidents as losing my copy of the book with notes in it already or wanting a reference while being away from my bookshelf.

My copy has a different cover than the one on Amazon:

Which is a bit of a bummer, because it looks like the US copy bears a really great photography by Frances Johnston. For a text that makes reference to images and material things on a regular basis, I wish Together were illustrated. The fact that it’s not would have been a big inconvenience before the internet. Today it’s just a quirk.

Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Source:

All in all, Together is a fantastic and quick read. If I have one quibble it’s with Sennett’s attempt at deconstructing Google Wave. He introduces the erstwhile collaboration platform as a way of highlighting the value of dialogue and dialogical thinking which, he argues, is easier in person-to-person interactions than via online platforms. But Sennett doesn’t seem to acknowledge that no one liked Google Wave and it shuttered shortly after launch. Because of this, he comes off as a conservative a pre-internet intellectual struggling to stretch his argument to be relevant to lolcat’ing internet natives. In my opinion, the book suffers because of his constant return to Google Wave as an (irrelevant) whipping post. Instead I have a wish: someone graft Richard Sennett’s brain onto Clay Shirky’s and magic will happen. Just saying. They teach at the same school, so how hard should it be?


8: “Superficial relations and short term institutional bonds together reinforce the silo effect: people keep to themselves, so not get involved in problems which are none of their immediate business, particularly with those in the institution who do something different.”

9: “People are losing the skills to deal with intractable differences as material inequality isolates them, short-term labour makes their social contacts more superficial and activates anxiety about the Other.”

13: “Experiment involves doing new things, and more, structuring these changes over time.”

14: “Usually when we speak of communication skills, we focus on how to make a clear presentation, to present what we think or feel. Skills are indeed required to do so, but these are declarative in character. Listening well requires a different set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations.”

17: “Ritual makes expressive cooperation work.” Or put differently, ritual is an expressive form of cooperation.

39: “Sociality is not an active reaching out to others; it is mutual awareness instead of action together. Sociality thus contrasts to solidarity.”

49: “Irrational it may be, but conspiracy is one way of making sense on the ground of everyday impotence. Reforms in the name of people done through back-room deals translate into conspiracies that deprive ordinary people both of their rights and of their respect.”

56: Booker T Washington’s workshops taught skills such as horticulture, carpentry, metal-working, and animal husbandry. But to graduate they had to now only show mastery of the skills, but also learn how to teach. The workshop became a self-replicating dispensary of knowledge.

69: “Social insects, for instance, possess enough genetic code to take over, when sickness or misadventure requires, some of the specialized tasks performed by other members of the nest or hive.”

89: The three building blocks of ritual: “Rituals depend on repetition for their intensity.” “Rituals transform objects [and] bodily movements or bland words into symbols… The point of a handshake is more than feeling another person’s skin.” Rituals are an act of dramatic expression. “Walking down the aisle if you get married is nothing like walking down a street, even if your gait is similar.”

114: When the printed word emerged, “ways of making” could be written down in how-to books and spread further and faster than word of mouth would ever allow know-how to travel.

116: “Chivalry focused in large part on taming violent sexual behavior” by invoking shared rituals of behavior to restrain personal desires and behaviors, particularly with regards to sexual urges and matters of reputation. Courtesy expanded this into other “realms of of experience” with niceties enabling smoother communication and cooperation between individuals who do not necessarily come from the same culture. This included such things as “how to speak clearly without referring to persons or places a stranger may not know” [thus bringing them into the conversation]. Castiglione’s introduced sprezzatura in his Book of the Courtier, providing a practicable way for people to act in public with “less self, more [social]“. “Sprezzatura oiled the show of informal, open talk” in a way that was casual but still restrained, deliberate.

151: In a passage describing how authority differs from power (authority = power + legitimacy), Sennett describes Peter Zumthor in his studio. Zumthor describes his process like this:

“At the beginning I come with a sketch, and we talk. We walk about the idea, we talk about how to start… As I walk through the office, I pass all the work … I am good at giving structure to our talks … where we have several opinions, I cut off all academic, theoretical arguments … I get other people in, even the secretary, and ask ‘would you like a hotel bedroom like this or like this?’”

Sennett continues, “Zumthor is obviously no pussycat in the studio, a mere mediator; he’s in charge. But he engages others seriously, and by all accounts he elicits deep dedication from his staff.”

178: “Short-term time is the solvent of civility.” !!!!!!

186: “There’s a difference between feeling secure and feeling complacent. When we feel inwardly secure, we can become willing to experiment, to unleash curiosity… Complacency is not outward-looking… rather, it is a cousin to narcissism in expecting experience to conform to a pattern already familiar to oneself; experience seems to repeat routinely rather than evolve.”

199: Making and repair. Making has a more creative reputation, but repair is also a highly creative act.

201: “The quiver is an important image in skill development. Sometimes it’s imagined that becoming skilled means finding the one right way to execute a task, that there is a one-to-one match between means and ends. A fuller path of development involves learning to address the same problem in different ways. The full quiver of techniques enables mastery of complex problems; only rarely does one single right way serve all purposes.”

208: “Informal is not the same as shapeless.” Informal speech, gestures, interactions are infused with accumulated experience.

210: “In practicing music, when confronted by a sour note or a hand-shift gone wrong, the performer gets nowhere by forcing. The mistake has to be treated as an interesting fact; then the problem will eventually be unlocked.”

212: Three kinds of repair: restoration, remediation, and reconfiguration. Restoration is a humble act which aspires to return the broken object or situation to a previous state. Remediation allows for old components to be replaced by new ones. It’s a skill that is practiced by “fixers”. In Sennett’s words “inventory skills are the fixer’s stock in trade; he or she knows of all the alternatives.” Reconfiguration often involves “an analytical, theoretical rethink” that is spurred by detailed issues. Reconfiguration, in other words, uses specific needs to prompt a general rethinking of the original problem that was solved, and then follows that rethinking through to new repairs executed as well-resolved details.

229: “The repair of conflict, like a workshop repair, re-formats an issue so that it becomes changeable.”

236: “We often imagine compromisers as the people skilled at meetings and the act of striking a compromise to be enabled by formality. Not so. The compromiser assumes that beliefs and interests are just bargaining chips, which supposes that the people holding these views aren’t firmly committed… Meetings which chip away at these beliefs in the name of compromise often leave engaged participants with the sour sense that they’ve been sold out by the meeting, or, worse, that they’ve sold themselves out… The real virtue of the formal meeting is that it can avoid this vice of appeasement. If a written record of talk is kept, people can put their views as strongly as they like, knowing that these will be preserved. The record makes of official transparency, and more, if the meeting does wind up with a compromise, the participants can still feel that they have not been personally compromised.”

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  1. Cultures of Decision Making - etc on September 17th, 2012

    [...] Notes from Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation [...]

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