It was enough to feel the thrill of leading a double life.

Philip Roth, The Human Stain


Reflections on Post-Modernism, by way of Reflections on the Architecture of Jeremy Bentham and Rudolf Steiner

Contents [in five installments]

1. Political Sentimentalism: French Revolution
2. An Inspector’s Paradise: Bentham’s Panopticon
3. Immaterial Light: Romanticism
4. Ethereal Walls: Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum
5. Post-Modern Perspectives



This essay brings together two names that must surprise most readers. Bentham, the liberal Englishman who ‘spoke in sober sadness’, schooled in Hume and Locke, always at it with his intellect’s razor. Steiner, the wild and weird, if not downright nutty Austrian, schooled in mysticism, combining almost any philosophy with any other.

Yet they paved the road for the Modern as well as the Post-Modern discipline of ‘the citizen’. Both were looking for their own special kind of ‘transparent’ authority, both considered architecture as an important part of the solution. At least, that is what I am going to argue in this essay. A discussion of the kind of social problem they wanted to cure will lead up to an analysis of their thoughts.

1. Political Sentimentalism

Ever since the French Revolution, transparency has been the double-edged blade of Modernity. Modernity is partly defined by the complex relationship between the Private and the Public. Michel Foucault claimed that architecture was effective in making their relation shift, collapsing the two into a concept of one ‘disciplinary practice’. [0]

Becoming transparent in the eyes of those in power was vital to the disciplinary process. Until the 18th century, the upper classes made a public show of themselves, yet veiling their private from their social personality. The presence of servants, even at more intimate occasions, restricted the range of any domestic privacy. The aristocracy thrived on etiquette and thus – per contra – also loved to cross the unambiguous threshold between restrictive public virtue and frivolous private vice. The wearing of masks on various occasions was one of the ploys. The early bourgeoisie, even its Dutch Calvinist version, imitated the aristocracy and, by doing so, they managed to make both virtue and vice lack-lustre.

For the masses, on the other hand, private life always coincided with some kind of public life, leaving little room for hypocrisy amongst equals. Furthermore, inside their private spaces most of the common folk’s activity was free from their masters’ surveillance.

In the 18th century cities grew large, the so-called middling classes multiplied. For many people the tension between social appearance and private feeling intensified. The movement known as Sentimentalism reacted to this tension. I would like to define it as the paradoxical affectation of naturalness.

A quote from the Scottish laird James Boswell may illustrate these new feelings. ‘What I gave you was natural. It had neither spice nor perfume. It was fresh from the dairy. It was curds and cream.’ Publicly, Boswell claimed to be naive, ‘for I spoke with the honest frankness with which I declare my sentiments on great and on small occasions.’ [1]

His inspiration was of course Rousseau. This Swiss philosopher’s novels Boswell read, his Confessions were only completed in 1770, five years later than the words I quoted from Boswell. The Swiss, perhaps also a little bit French sentimentalist claimed that man must be artlessly transparent, completely honest not just to himself, but also in public.

“My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man that I shall portray will be myself… My function is to tell the truth, not to make people believe it… There is no human heart that does not conceal some odious vice. I decided to make it this work unique and unparalleled in its truthfulness, so that for once at least the world might behold a man as he was within.” [2]

Rousseau equated transparency with baring all good and evil, advocating his own brutal form of honesty to the reader. Although he pleaded complete honesty in everyman’s dealings with others, he explicitly wrote for his own kind. Opening himself up only for the congenial reader, in practice he withdrew from society into an almost complete solitude.

Later he described his ideas in Reflections of a Solitary Walker (1782), this time the meditations of an older man not meant for a public, but solely for himself. He claimed that he had nothing left to confess, being transparent to others had become meaningless for him.

One might perhaps interpret the French Revolution as political Sentimentalism, the state’s practice of transparency, this time involving a whole nation, from aristocrats and bourgeoisie down to the rabble. And it did involve parties and cabals, something Rousseau explicitly detested. The Revolution did not just advocate complete transparency, it demanded this of everybody while giving it political force.

In this new revolutionary atmosphere with its imperative of group solidarity, obscure solitude became anti-revolutionary and privacy suspect. Ralph Ellison suggested that a man become ‘invisible’ to others does not actually exist and that for this very reason he may become irresponsibly subversive. In order to defend itself against such threats, the Revolution created first the moral, then the juridical entity of The Citizen – the new honnête homme who must be passionate as well as virtuous, just as Rousseau had prescribed.

Because of their growing alienation from the masses, Revolutionary leaders created a police state to monitor the populace. According to the revolutionary lawyer Target writing in 1789, ‘each man must see himself only as part of the whole and detach himself from his individual existence.’ One citizen must be like all others, the citizen soldier became the model man. A prime motive for the use of the guillotine was to make execution both decent and everybody equal, from subversive agent to queens and kings. Through terror and surveillance abstract legal freedom was translated into equality for all, levelling traditional class distinctions in order to create a transparent society.

The leading Jacobins abhorred secrecy of any kind. Robespierre, who was addicted to spotless, transparent political behaviour, became suspicious of his friends and was constantly on the lookout for traitors. The revolutionary government instituted all-pervasive police surveillance, with powers that included the right to search anybody. Marat appealed to the street immediately, crying out: ‘Open your eyes, purge your committees’. This pronouncement encouraged the regular denunciation of non-conformists while making suspicion normal.

New measures would fuse school and family into a pillar of the moralized republic, as opposed to all those considered un-citizens. At night, all citizens were required to attach a notice to their front door, listing the names of all people residing in the house. To entertain someone not on that list was a serious crime, it meant hiding someone in the private realm of the home, unknown to the authorities.

Politically then, Modernity began with a violent forcing of a fusion of the public and the private. Rousseau had been so right in thinking that he could only appeal to his own kind to be voluntarily transparent. Common people and their revolutionary leaders had to be disciplined by the watchful eye of others – that is, by their own kind.

Théroigne de Méricourt’s experience may serve as a metaphor for the revolutionary collapse of the delicate screen between public and private. This former mistress of a Marquis, as well as an opera star, in 1789 changed her persona, to become the prototypical Marianne later described as Amazon of the Revolution. The Revolution transformed her into a feminist, her portrait from that year shows us a beautiful, omnipotent and robust woman. She identified with the movement so much, that an Austrian prison doctor diagnosed her as suffering from ‘revolutionary fever’.

Then she went mad and was interned in La Salpêtrière, more prison than asylum, where she died in 1817 having raged all those years in incomprehensible, revolutionary screams. A last portrait, from 1810, shows the former fighting belle as nun-like, not a woman anymore, yet certainly a model citizen, ‘a person of almost sublime transparency and pre-social innocence… The Revolution could fill her up like a vessel.’ [3]


Portrait of Théroigne de Méricourt


0 Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), part III.

1 James Boswell, On the Grand Tour, Germany and Switzerland (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), p. 319, p. 283.2

2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953), p.17, p.192, p.262, p.214, pp. 478-479. Rousseau’s confessions were prompted by the exposure of his ‘sins’ in Voltaire’s Sentiment des Citoyens, who was informed by Rousseau’s personal doctor.

3 Simon Schama, Citizens. A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), pp. 874-875, pp. 462 ff.


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

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