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From Pilgrim to Tourist – Or A Short History of Identity, Zygmunt Bauman

If the modern problem of identity was how to construct an identity, the postmodern problem of identity is how to avoid fixation and keep the options open. If the catchword of modernity was creation, the catchword of postmodernity is recycling.

The main identity-bound anxiety of modern times was the worry about durability; it is concern with commitment-avoidance today.

The photograph was the medium of modernity, all set in bound books with yellowing pages, the video-tape the medium of postmodernity – today’s recording only exists until something deemed more significant emerges to replace it.

Modernity built in steel and concrete, postmodernity in biodegradable plastic.

Identity as such is a modern invention – it is the name given to the escape sought from uncertainty, from the modern ‘problem’ of freedom of choice which arises with social change, and of not knowing for certain where one fits in to the order of things; the modern ‘quest’ for identity is a response to the inability of people to clearly project who they are to others so that we may all ‘go on’.

Identity is always a process, a critical projection (typically?) into the future  – it is an assertive attempt to escape from the experience of under-determination, or free-floatingness , of disembeddnsess, which is the ‘natural’ condition of modernity.

Identity in modernity is presented as an individual task, but there are experts to guide us as to what identities are possible to achieve – experts such as teachers and counsellors, who are supposed to be more knowledgeable about the task of identity construction.

Modern life as pilgrimage

Modernity gave the pilgrim a new prominence and a novel twist.

For pilgrims through time,  the truth is elsewhere, always some distance away. Wherever the pilgrim is now is not where he ought to be, not where he dreams of being. The glory of the future debases the present.

The pilgrim is not interested in the city, the houses tempt him to rest, he is happier on the streets, for they lead him to his destination. However, even these are perceived as a series of traps which may lead him from his path. The pilgrim feels homeless in the city.

The desert is the place for the pilgrim, who seeks a hermetic way of life away from the distractions of city life, away from duties and obligations. The desert, unlike the city, was a land not yet sliced into places, a place of self-creation, which is not possible when one is ‘in place’ in the city, which calls upon the individual to be certain ways (through the commitments of family and polis).

You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to become ‘god like’.

The Protestants changed this by becoming ‘inner-worldly pilgrims’ – they invented the way of embarking on pilgrimage without leaving home and of leaving home without becoming homeless. In the post-Reformation city of modernity, the desert started on the other side of the door.

The protestant worked hard to make the dessert come to him – through impersonality, coldness, emptiness – protestants expressed a desire to see the outside world as null, lacking in value, of nothingness waiting to become something.

In such a land, commonly called modern society, pilgrimage is no longer a choice, pilgrimage is no longer heroic or saintly, it is what one does of necessity, to avoid being lost in the desert; to invest in walking with a purpose while wandering the land with no destination.

The desert world of modernity is meaningless, the bringing-in of meaning is ‘identity builiding’ – the pilgrim and the dessert-like world he walks acquire their meaning together. Both processes must go on because there is a distance between the goal (the meaning of the world and the future identity of the pilgrim) and the present moment (the station of the walking and the identity of the wanderer.)

Both meaning and identity can exist only as projects. Dissatisfaction with the present compared to the ideal-future and delaying gratification to realise greater pleasure in that future are fundamental features of the modern-identity building project, as is marking and measuring one’s progress towards one’s goal through time.

Time is generally perceived as something through which one progress, in a linear fashion, and modern pilgrims generally had trust in a clearly identified future state (however fantastical) – and saving for the future was  a central strategy of future oriented identity-building.

Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked, a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story – moving towards fulfilment – The world of pilgrims, of identity-builders must be orderly, determined, predictable, but most of all it must be one in which one can make engravings in the sand so that past travels are kept and preserved.

The world inhospitable to pilgrims

The world is not hospitable to pilgrims any more. The pilgrims lost their battle by winning it: by turning the social into a dessert, ultimately a windy place where it is as easy to erase footprints as it is to make them.

It soon transpired that the real problem was not how to make identity, but how to preserve it – in a dessert, it is easy to blaze a trail, but difficult to make it stick.

As Cristopher Lasch points out identity refers to both persons and to things, and we now live in a world of disposable objects, and in such a world identities can be adopted and discarded like a change of clothes.

In the life-game of postmodern consumers the rules of the game keep changing in the course of playing. The sensible strategy is to keep each game short, and ‘live one day at a time’, depicting each day as a series of emergencies.

To keep the game short means to be wary of long term commitments, not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to abolish time and live in a continuous present. Fitness takes over from health – the capacity to move where the action is rather than coming up to a standard and remaining ‘unscathed’; and the snag is to no longer construct an identity, but to stop it from becoming fixed.

The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building, but avoidance of fixation.

There are no hooks on which we can hang our identity – jobs for life have gone, and we live in the era of personal relationships. Values become cherished for maximal impact, and this means short and sharp, because attention has become a scarce commodity.

The overall result is the fragmentation of time into episodes. In this world, saving and delaying gratification make no sense, getting pleasure now is rational.

In this world, the stroller, the tourist, the vagabond and the player become the key identities, all of these have their origins before postmodernity, but each comes to be practiced by the mainstream rather than being marginal in postmodernity.

In the postmodern chorus they all sing, sometimes in harmony, but more often with cacophony the result.

The stroller

In modernity this is Walter Benjamin’s flaneur – strolling among crowds of strangers in a city, and being in the crowd, but not of the crowd, taking in those strangers as ‘surfaces’ so that what one sees exhausts what they are, and above all seeing and knowing them episodically – each episode having no past and no consequence. The distinction between appearance and reality matter not. The stroller had all the pleasures of modern life, without all the torments.

In the postmodern world, the stroller is the playful consumer, who doesn’t need to deal with ‘reality’. Shopping malls are the domain of the stroller – while you can shop while you stroll. Here people believe they are making decisions, but in fact they are being manipulated by the mall-designers. Malls are also safe-spaces, where undesirables are screened out.

Originally malls were merely physical, now all of this is intensified in teleshopping, in the private domain.

The vagabond

The vagabond was the bane of early modernity, being master-less, out of control. Modernity could not bear the vagabond because he had no set destination, each place he stops, he knows not how long he will stay. It is easy to control the pilgrim because of his self-determination, but not the vagabond.

Wherever the vagabond goes he is a stranger, he can never be native, he is always out of place.

In modernity the settled were many, the vagabonds few, postmodernity reverses the ratio as now there are few ‘settled places’ left – jobs, skills, relationships, all offer no chance of being rooted.

The tourist

Like the vagabond, the tourist is always on the move and always in the place but never of it, but there are seminal differences.

Firstly, the tourist moves on purpose, to seek new experiences. They want to immerse themselves in the strange and the bizarre, but they do so in a safe way, in a package-deal sort of way. The tourists world is structured by aesthetic criteria. Unlike the vagabond, who has a rougher ride.

Secondly, the tourist has a home, the vagabond does not. The problem, however, for the tourist, is that as the touristic mode of life becomes dominant, it becomes less and less clear where home actually is, and homesickness sets in – home lingers both as an uncanny mix of shelter and prison.

The player

In play there is neither inevitability nor accident, nothing is fully predictable or controllable, and yet nothing is totally immutable or irrevocable either.

In play there is nothing but a series of moves, and time in the world-as-play is divided into a succession of games, each self-enclosed. For the player, each game must have an end, it must be possible to leave it with no consequences once it has been completed, leave no mental scars.

The point of the game is to win, and this leaves no room for compassion, commiseration .or cooperation.

The mark of a postmodern adult is to embrace the game wholeheartedly, like children do.

Related Posts 

Modernity and Postmodernity

Postmodernity and Postmodernism

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Summary of Liquid Modernity – Chapter Two – Individuality

blueI’m presently enjoying re-reading Bauman’s major works – I thought offering up my summaries might be useful to some students. I will eventually further summarise/ comment/ critique, but in the meantime.. the raw summary of chapter two of Liquid Modernity….

Bauman begins by pointing out that Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopias were very much products of their time. Although they clearly had their differences, what they both shared in common was a fear of individual freedom being reduced to a sham ; both felt the world was heading in the direction of an ever increasing split between remote controllers and the controlled. Just like Plato’s inability to imagine a utopia without slaves, Huxley and Orwell could not imagine a world without a supreme controller’s office. Today’s Liquid Modern society, the type of dystopia imagined by Orwell and Huxley makes no sense.

Capitalism Heavy and Light

In this section, Bauman introduces his by now classic concepts of heavy and light (or liquid) modernity.

He casts ‘heavy capitalism’ as being a like Nigel Swift’s notion of the ‘Joshua discourse’ – centrally organized and rigidly bounded. In heavy Capitalism, order is all important, and to be seen as having legitimate existence, something must serve a purpose that fits the overall end. In such a ‘modern’ system – the system is like God, it is the reason for its existence, and its perpetuation is the goal. Under such a discourse, it was the capitalist managers of business who controlled things – who decided what was rational and what was not, thus determining the range of viable alternatives available to actors.

The world sustaining the Joshua discourse was the Fordist world, which in its heyday was simultaneously a model of industrialisation, of accumulation and of regulation. At a deeper level, the Fordist model was also an epistemological building site – It was about binary oppositions such as manager and managed, design and execution, freedom and obedience.

Heavy Capitalism was fixed to the ground , tied to one place (as in the Fordist factory), it seemed set to stay and it seemed as if there was no alternative to it. Despite the seemingly oppressive nature of this heavy period of history, this at least gave people a sense certainty, predictability and rootedness, and people generally had jobs for life, they knew where they stood, labour could ‘dig in’ and make deals.

All of this solidity is gone under Light Capitalism. NB Bauman here doesn’t actually say much about this concept, possibly in an attempt to mirror the ‘ambiguous nature’ of this current mode?

He limits himself to saying that nowadays capital travels light, it can stop-over almost anywhere, and is no longer has to stay put. Labour, on the other hand, remains as immobilised as it was in the past – but the place it was once fixed to has lost its solidity. Bauman characterises the passengers of ‘Light Capitalism’ as being on an aircraft who have discovered that….

‘to their horror the pilot’s cabin is empty and that there is no way to extract from the mysterious black box.. any information about where the plane is flying, where it is going to land, who is to choose the airport, and whether there are any rules which would allow the passengers to contribute to the safety of their arrival.’

(p59) Have car, can travel

In Heavy Modernity, we new what the ends were, although there may have been some level of uncertainty over the means whereby we should achieve those ends. However Liquid Modernity introduces a new level of uncertainty as we no longer know what the ends are. Furthermore, in the absence of a supreme office, it is now up to the individual to decide what these ends should be.

Since there are now more life experiences than we can experience in a lifetime, even when we achieve something, there is still more to be achieved, and thus in the Liquid Modern society, are always becoming something but never finally arriving finally.

On this note, Bauman offers up a nice quote by Zbyszko Melosik and Tomasz Szudlarek:

‘living amidst apparently infinite chances offers the sweet taste of ‘freedom to become anybody’. This sweetness has a bitter after-taste, though, since while the ‘becoming’ bit suggests that nothing is over yet and everything lies ahead, the condition of ‘being somebody’ which that becoming is meant to secure, portends the umpire’s final end of game whistle: ‘you are no more free when the end has been reached; you are not yourself when you have become somebody’.

This state of unfinishedness, incompletenesss and underdetermination is full of anxiety and risk, but its opposite brings no unadulterated pleasure either, since it forecloses what freedom needs to stay open.

Bauman uses a Buffet Table analogy to describe this world of possibilities….

‘the world full of possibilities is like a buffet table set with mouth-watering dishes, too numerous for the keenest of eaters to hope to taste them all. The diners are consumers and the most taxing and irritating of the challenges consumers confront is the need to establish priorities’ – which dishes to forgo that have never yet been experienced… the means are obvious, but the question of ‘have I used my means to the best advantage’ remains.’

Bauman rounds off this section by pointing out that (or this might be inferring it!) Liquid Modern Capitalism requires consumers…. and there is no objective function of the consumer other than to carry on making choices. To make the choice between what to consume is the telos, the purpose the end goal. This means the consumer can never be wrong. If we accept this role of consumer, this means consigning ourselves to a life of perpetual choice and uncertainty.

(63) Stop Telling Me Show Me

Heavy Fordism had clear authority figures. However, in the new capitalism, these don’t disappear, it’s just there are more of them and none of them hold their power for long.

Bauman now makes the distinction between Heavy Modernity’s authorities as ‘leaders’ and Liquid Modernity’s authorities as ‘counsellors –

 

 

Leaders

Counselors

A by-product and necessary supplement to the world which aimed at the ‘good society’.

Are to be followed, demanding and expecting discipline.

Act as two way translators between individual good and the ‘good of us all’ (between Mill’s private worries and public issues).

Politics with a capital P.

Use the word ‘we’ – offers the possibility of collective solutions to social problems.

Exist in a Liquid Modern World in which there is not only no commitment to the hope of agreeing on the ‘characteristics of the good society’, but where people generally believe that there is no such thing as society.

Are to be hired and fired. Need to earn the right to be heard by currying favor with would-be listeners.

Are wary of stepping beyond the closed doors of the private, and so offer only therapeutic means to fight off private worries – life-politics

politics with a small ‘p’.

After counseling, the private individual is as alone as when he started.

The crucial thing about advice offered by counsellors is that the counselled is always referred to things he can do himself to put him in the right situation. The source of one’s unhappiness is always diffuse, never rooted in society. Solutions offered to personal worries typically come in the form of individual examples…

What people today want is a living example of how they can solve their own problems, rather than a leader to tell them. Bauman provides the case of Jane Fonda as an example of one of these ‘examples’. Fonda took responsibility for her own body, treated it like a project, and made her own way, through her own efforts. The message here is ‘I am to blame and to shame if I err.’

Other examples of popular examples are celebrities and Bauman also casts the chat show in a similar light – On chat shows, it is people ‘like me’ who explain their stories. He explains the popularity of chat shows because they are closer to me, and there are more examples to be learnt from. Ultimately, however, chat shows legitimise filling public space with private concerns (that never become public issues).

The current definition of the public sphere seems to be the right of the public to play out their private dramas and the right of the rest of us to watch. As an example of this Bauman reminds us of how we are interested in the private lives of politicians, and much less interested in their political careers and policies.

(p72) Compulsion turned into addiction

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Looking for counsel, guidance and examples becomes an addiction, because no matter how much of these we receive, none ever deliver on their promise of fulfilling us, they all have their use by date, and so we must move onto the next fix. This is similar to the short-lived satisfactions gained through the consumption of products, the satisfaction gained through each materialistic attachment eventually fades, and so we move on to the next one. As a result, we become ‘content’ that we can simply ‘stay in the race’, and abandon any attempt to reach the finish line.

The archetype of staying in the race is shopping – and today this doesn’t just mean going to the mall – pretty much anything we do today takes the form of shopping if, by shopping, we mean scanning the assortment of possibilities, testing, touching, comparing and finally choosing.

To quote Bauman directly…

‘ the avid and never ending search for new and improved examples and recipes for life is also a variety of shopping, and a most important variety, in the twin lessons that our happiness depends on our competence but that we are personally incompetent, or not as competent as we could or should be if we only tried harder.

(On a personal note this sounds like the message we give out to our students on a daily basis at our sixth form college!)

There are so many areas of life in which we now need to be more competent and Bauman now lists the type of things we can shop around for such as job skills; numerous aspects of advice to do with relationships; how to save money; how to cook (cheer’s Jamie); and how to use our time more efficiently (the discourse of time-management is probably the one I find the most irritating.)

Bauman now distinguishes between ‘need’, ‘desire’ and ‘the wish’ to describe how the nature of consumption has changed. He suggests that consumerism has for a long time been more than about just satisfying needs, but has been (for many decades) about satisfying consumers’ self-generated desires. Bauman casts needs as having some kind of objective basis, while desire is subjective, and required considerable resources to be employed by producers to generate. Desire, however, although flightier and shorter-lived than needs had specific objects as its focus, and it was at least rooted in something, but today consumerism has moved beyond this – it is now focused on what Bauman calls ‘the wish’ – which is much more gaseous and spontaneous and rooted in fantasy rather than reality.

To ‘elucidate’ the difference between the desire and the wish –

Desire – is fluid and expandable, based on half-illicit liaisons with fickle and plastic dreams of the authenticity of an ‘inner self’ waiting to be expressed. The facilitation of desire is founded upon comparison, vanity, envy and the ‘need’ for self-approbation.

The Wish – completes the liberation of of the pleasure principle, purging and disposing of the last residues of the ‘reality principle’ impediments… Nothing underlies the immediacy of the wish. The purpose is casual, unexpected and spontaneous. It has a dream like quality of both expressing and fulfilling a wish, and like all wishes, is insincere and childish.

(p76) The Consumer’s Body

The seminal difference between post-modern and modern society is that post-modern society engages its members primarily as consumers rather than producers.

Life organised around the producer’s role tends to be normatively regulated… There are bottoms lines outlining what one needs to survive as a producer, and there are realistic upper limits to ambition which one ‘s peers will make sure are kept within. The major concern in a society of producers is then that of conformity, of settling securely between the upper and lower limits.

‘Life organised around consumption, on the other hand, must do without norms: it is guided by seduction, ever rising desires and volatile wishes – no longer by normative regulation’ – Luxuries make little sense in the society of consumers because the point is to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrows necessities, and to take the waiting out wanting. There is no norm to transform luxuries into needs, and thus the major concern in a consumer society is that of adequacy, or being ever ready to rise to the opportunity as it comes, to be able to respond to new desires as they arise, and get more out of new consumer experiences.

Health was the standard of modern society, while fitness is the standard in the society of consumers.

Health implies coming up to a normative standard that is required to do the work required of you in a society. Being fit, on the other hand requires having a flexible, adaptable body, it means being ready for new, testing experiences. Whereas health is about sticking to the norms, fitness is about smashing through those norms to set (temporarily) new ones.

‘Life organised around fitness. promises a lot of victorious skirmishes but never the final victory. There is no final goal in the pursuit of health. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and also self-deprivation, and so continuous anxiety.

The consequences of a society organised around ‘fitness’

Ever new states of the body become the target for medical intervention

second the idea of disease (dis ease) becomes blurred. It is no longer a one off by a perpetual fight.

Finally the meaning of a healthy life never stands still!

(p80) Shopping as a rite of exorcism

This never ending quest calls upon the consumer to be active in their pursuit of maintaining their health. Being healthy does not require abstinence, rather it requires ever more shopping around and staying on top of the latest ‘health trends’.

Common interpretations of shopping around are that this activity is a manifestation of dormant materialistic and hedonistic instincts, but another part, and a necessary complement of all such explanations is that the shopping compulsion-turned-into-addiction is an uphill struggle against acute, nerve-breaking uncertainty and the annoying, stultifying feeling of insecurity.

People shop because they want security, they want certainty, but it is not in the final product they seek security, it is in the very act of shopping, of picking and choosing itself.

(p82) Free to shop – Or so it seems

People think they cannot own the world fully enough, but it appears to them that other people’s lives are fuller than theirs. Distance blurs reality, and other people’s lives seems like works of art, and so we try to make our lives appear as works of art too.

That work of art which we want to mould out of the friable stuff of life is called ‘identity’. Whenever we speak of identity, there is at the back of our minds a faint image of harmony, logic, consistency, all those things which the flow of our experience seems – to our perpetual despair – so grossly and abominably to lack. The search for identity is the ongoing struggle to arrest or slow down the flow, to solidify the fluid, to give form to the formless. We struggle to deny or at least to cover up the awesome fluidity just below the thin wrapping of the form; we try to avert our eyes from sights which they cannot pierce or take in. Yet far from slowing the flow, let alone stopping it, identities are more like the spots of crust hardening time and again before they have time to cool and set. So there is need for another trial, and another – and they can be attempted only by clinging desperately to things solid and tangible and thus promising duration…. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: ‘Desire constantly couples continuous flow and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented.’

Today our identities are volatile, and because of this we increasingly see the ability to shop around in the supermarket of identities and hold it as long as I desire as desirable.

The experienced, lived identity can only be held together with the adhesive of fantasy… and fashion fits the bill here especially well… just the right stuff, at it provides ways of exploring limits without commitment to action. The ultimate freedom is the freedom to have an identity, to be different, with a nod and wink to the idea that we are all playing the game, but because this game requires us to buy into things, we need stuff to express our identities, we are not really free.

And in today’s world the fashions we use to identify ourselves have built in obsolescence, and so we are required to keep on top of things- more effort. (Lasch) As a result we have moved from a Panotopicon to a Synopticon – where spectacles take the place of observers without losing any of the disciplinary power of their predecessor. NB the few used to watch the many, now the many watch the few. This appears in the guise of freewill but it is really not!

In society we and celebrities and experts, we all construct and present fake identities – but sometimes we see interviews (possible on chat shows) which aim to get to the ‘real person’ – this is equally as nonsense, this is a myth…..

In our society notions of authenticity and inauthenticity are moot, because what is more important is the ability to choose, to be on the move, and in such a society.

There are consequences of living in such a society – on the one had there is the uncertainty and anxiety, on the other your ability to shop around depends on your local in society, which is especially bad for the poor, because in a synoptic society of shopping/watching addicts, the poor cannot avert their eyes.

(89) Divided we shop

In a consumer society with an ever faster turnaround of products -each product’s appeal is shorter-lived, this is more of a problem for the poor who cannot afford to keep up with consumer trends, less of a problem for the wealthy. Being wealthy also means you are more able to avoid the negative consequences of your consumption.

He now uses Gidden’s concepts of plastic sexuality, confluent love and the pure relationship to illustrate this – these fluid forms of relationships, when they come to an end, are clearly going to have some who come out of them better than than others, especially where children are involved.

To sum up – the mobility and flexibility of identification which characterises the shopping around type of life are not so much vehicles of emancipation as the instruments of the redistribution of freedom. They are for that reason mixed blessings.

Comments to follow…

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Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

A summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – Chapter One

I use paraphrasing heavily below, so a lot of this is Bauman’s own words, just cut down a lot and also simplified in places. Love the guy’s literary style but it doesn’t always result in accessibility. The chapter is broken up into about nine sub sections, but I’ve knitted a few of the ideas together below to condense these into

Chapter One – Consumerism versus Consumption

1.1 – The basic characteristics of consumer society

The chapter only briefly deals with consumption – which is part of all societies – at the beginning, the remaining 90% deals with consumerism, or the unique features of the consumer society, which emerges with the decline of the society of producers some years after WW2.

Consumerism describes that society in which wanting has become the principal propelling and operating force which coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of identity and life-policies.

In consumer society wanting, desiring and longing needs to be, just as labour capacity was in the producers’ society, detached (‘alienated’) from individuals and recycled/reified into an extraneous force.

In the previous society of producers desires were always, after deferred gratification, eventually meant to be satisfied.Moreover, the function of objects of consumption, once acquired, was to provided a sense of durability and long-term security. In contrast, the consumer society associates happiness with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them.

Consumer society has the following characteristics (my numbering)

  1. An instability of desires and insatiability of needs – Consumer society thrives when we want more and when those wants have a high turnover rate – i.e when the goods we buy provide satisfaction for a limited time period only.

  2. The desire for Immediate gratification – which has given rise to a ‘Nowist culture’ – or a curiously hurried life. However, because today’s products only have a limited life span and a stigma once its date is reached the motive to hurry is only partly the urge to acquire and collect, the most pressing need is to discard and replace.

  3. Pointillist time – Time is experienced as ‘broken up, or even pulverised, into a multitude of ‘eternal instants’ episodes which are not connected to each other. Bauman suggests that these episodes are like ‘Big bangs’ – they are pregnant with possibilities of magnficent things happening, however these moments rarely live up to their promise and it is in fact the excess of promises which counters each promise not lived up to.

1.2 How the consumer society effects our worldview/ inner pysche/ general way of seeing the world.

In the consumerist economy product innovations grow at an exponential rate and there is increasing competition for attention. This results in a flood of information which we cannot cope with which manifests itself in vertical stacking (think multiple windows on the go at the same time).

Images of ‘linear time’ and ‘progress’ are among the most prominent victims of the information flood: when growing amounts of information are distributed at growing speed, it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.

This in turn has consequences for the ways we relate to knowledge, work and lifestyle in a wide sense.

Firstly this results in a blase attitude toward knowledge – the essence of which is the blunting of discrimination

Secondly it results in melancholy – To be ‘melancholic’ is ‘to sense the infinity of connection, but be hooked up to nothing’ – a disturbance resulting from the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose and the inability to choose. (This seems like an evolution of the concept of anomie)

The crucial skill in information society consists in protecting oneself against the 99.99 per cent of the information offered that one does not want.

1.3 The consumer society promises but fundamentally fails to make us happy

The society of consumers stands and falls by the happiness of its members

It is, in fact, the only society in human history to promise happiness in earthly life, and happiness here and now and in every successive now – also the only society which refrains from legitimizing unhappiness.

However, judged by its own standards it is woefully unsuccessful at increasing happiness.

Bauman now draws on research carried out by Richard Layard to remind us that once average income rises above approximately $20K per head then there is no evidence whatsoever that further growth in the volume of consumption results in a greater number of people reporting that they ‘feel happy’.

In fact a consumption-oriented economy actively promotes disaffection, saps confidence and deepens the sentiment of insecurity, becoming itself a source of the ambient fear it promises to cure or disperse.

While consumer society rests its case on the promise to gratify human desires, the promise of satisfaction remains seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified. Clever!

A low threshold for dreams, easy access to sufficient goods to reach that threshold, and a belief in objective limits to ‘genuine’ needs and ‘realistic’ desires: these are the most fearsome adversaries of the consumer-oriented economy.

Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.

Necessary strategies to maintain this involve hyping a product to the hilt and then soon after denigrating it and creating goods and services such that they require further purchases to be made – so that consumption becomes a compulsion, an addiction and shoppers are encouraged to find solutions to their problems only in the shopping malls.

The realm of hypocrisy stretching between popular beliefs and the realities of consumers’ lives is a necessary condition of a properly functioning society of consumers.

In addition to being an economics of excess and waste, consumerism is also an economics of deception.

1.4 Individualised life-strategies are the principle means whereby consumer society neutralises dissent.

The society of consumers has developed, to an unprecedented degree, the capacity to absorb all and any dissent. It does this through a process which Thomas Mathiesen has recently described as ‘silent silencing’

In other words all ideas threatening to the existing order are integrated into it.

The principle means whereby this is done is through individualisation – whereby individual life strategies become the route to Utopia to only be enjoyed by the individual – changing lifestyle, not society.

To follow the metaphor used by schoolboy Karl Marx, those visions are attracted like moths to the lights of domestic lamps rather than to the glare of the universal sun now hidden beyond the horizon.

The possibility of populating the world with more caring people and inducing people to care more does not figure in the panoramas painted in the consumerist utopia.

The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show instead vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course); a kind of empty space of which the liquid modern consumer, bent on solo performances and only on solo performances, always needs more and never has enough.

Lifestyle strategies smack of adiaphorisation – removing sense of moral responsibility for others.

Related Posts 

Consuming Life – A Summary of Chapter 2

If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!

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Tyranny of the Moment (A Summary/ Notes)

A summary of/ notes on Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2001)

The general focus of the book is on why social life has become so hurried and accelerated and what the (negative) consequences of these changes are for family life and leisure-time.

Preface

We face a double paradox – Despite the proliferation of time-saving technologies we seem to have less time to spare than ever, and the information revolution has not created a more informed population, but a more confused one.

The book stems from a sabbatical in which the author got very little work done, because his time seemed to filled with lots of minor tasks – he had no time to sit down to a long project. So it seems with life today – we seem unable to think a thought more than two inches long.

This book is not luddite, it is an attempt to create understanding of the unintended consequences of the information society.

The general focus of the book is on how life is hurried and accelerated – how working days are overloaded, leisure-time is chopped up and the consequences of these changes for family life.

Chapter One – Introduction – Mind The Gap

A central claim of this book is that the unhindered and massive flow of information in our time is about to fill all the gaps, leading as a consequence to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical series of saturated moments, without a ‘before’ and ‘after’, a ‘here’ and ‘there’ to separate them.

We seem to live about two seconds in the future. When one is on the receiving end of a mass of information, the scarcest resource is slow, continuous time.

In the information age it could be that more flexibility makes us less flexible and more choice makes us less free – Why do most of us have less spare time, and why does more information result in less comprehension?

Chapter Two – Information Culture, Information Cult

We need to understand the move from an industrial to an informational society – a term which can be traced back to The Frankfurt School, MacLuhan and of course Toffler.

The move to the informational society is only one of many trends leading to greater complexity, uncertainty and individualism.

The twenty first century began in 1991 with three major events – firstly the collapse of the USSR, secondly the emergence of geopolitical instability, for example the Balkan Wars and the USA’s New World Order – heralding more wars in far flung places.

The third major event was the emergence and rapid growth of the Internet, which changes knowledge through linking chunks of it together differently and leads to constant updating, which heralded the move to an informational society, which is a society in which IT is integral to all production, as it is in many other spheres of social life.

Information has now become the new scarce resource – Information processing is increasingly integral to many jobs.

In the information society, freedom from information is a scarce resource. The skill we really need to learn is to learn to filter out the 0.001% we actually need.

Many of us are coming to see living in a world of colourful fragments of knowledge – and engaging with this knowledge without being able to grasp everything in its entirety as not being a problem. People used to worry about knowing everything – now they don’t.

however, even though we do not regard this as a problem this represents a profound transformation of knowledge.

In information society, the gaps are being filled with fast time (NB Mgraine has something to say about this).

For those on the supply side of the economy, they are competing for attention – and they want our attention NOW because information can quickly become obsolete. For those of us who are consumers, freedom from information is our scarce resource. (Interesting).

People are uncertain of who they are, where they have to re-invent themselves on a day to day basis. People are free to choose but not free not to choose.

In Information society – The point of gravity in the global economy has moved from things to signs. The sign economy changes at astonishing speed, and requires other organisational forms and a greater flexibility than the economy of things, since signs float more freely than things…. The free availability of ideas simultaneously implies that many of them compete for the free spaces in our heads, leading to confusion and uncertain identities – identity has become disembedded from tradition, or major, continuous narrative. Hybridity and blurred boundaries are the norm.

Another feature of the 21st century is that freedom and vulnerability are synonyms – the bipolar world has been replaced with a unipolar world. That pole is called market liberalism and indivdualism, and its beats the drum with catchwords like flexibility, freedom and openness. Resistance is scattered and uncoordinated. New tensions result and new types of scarcity might emerge as a result:

  • Slow time
  • Security
  • Predictability
  • belonging, stable, personal identity
  • Coherence and understanding
  • Cumulative, linear, organic growth
  • Real experiences.

What matters is not whether any of this is new, what matters is the fact that our age is the information age.

What is the relationship between technology, time and culture? You have to understand this by looking at the recent past… which is where we go back to in chapter 3…

Chapter Three – The Time of the book, the clock and money.

Skimread

Acceleration is at the heart of the last 10000 years of cultural history – Writing lasted 4500 years, the printing press 500, while radio only had a few decades of dominance before the TV. Today, it is feasible that a product can be obsolete before it hits the shelves.

He now apologies for making some general comparisons of the traditional, the modern era and the information era…..

In this chapter Eriksen looks at five technological innovations which indicate those ‘peculiar institutions’ of modern society which are precursors of the information society: Writing, clocks, money, and notation,

Writing – Has been an essential tool in the transition from a concrete society based on intimate, personal relationships, memory, local religion and orally transmitted myths, to an abstract society based on formal legislation, archives, a book religion and written history.

The emergence of Clock Time – Time used to be event-determined – Something would happen when everything else was ready – You find this in some traditional societies today – where trains arrive when they arrive, not at a pre-given time. With the invention of the calendar and especially the clock, time becomes external and something which we are expected to sign a contract to stick to from cradle to grave – It becomes something objective which can be chopped up. It also now becomes something which can be used to coordinate us – the basis of modern business.

Bergson in ‘Time and Free Will’ has criticised how quantitative empty time now regulates us from outside rather than letting tasks at hand fill time from within.

Money does roughly the same thing to payment, value measurement and exchange as clocks and writing do to language and time. They make the transaction abstract and impose a standardised grid on the whole world. They place individual, mundane transactions under an invisible umbrella of abstraction. Money renders personal connections and trust redundant, as long as we agree on the value of the digit.

Musical Notation is his final example – manuscripts make music abstract, separate them from the individual. He argues that classical music would not have been possible without musical notation.

All of these changes together lead to a small-scale society based on local knowledge to a large scale society based on an abstract legislative system and abstract knowledge founded in logic and science.

The printing press and the industrial revolution were also necessary to pull all of the above together in modernity – a society where external abstract systems regulate huge people into being part of of one machine in which they are expendable. ‘Particular individuals are expendable because language, economy, memory, morality and knowledge are all externalised’.

Linear time is not part of the problem…

In addition to all of the above, possible because all of the above, a key feature of modernity was faith in progress – that things were getting better – however, now we are living in a postmodern age. People think things are about to go horribly wrong. This is not caused by linear time, but by a time perception which is not sufficiently linear. Time has been partitioned into so many pieces that the only time in existence is a single, manic, hysterical moment which is continuously changed, but which does not point to anything other than the next moment.

This could well be an unintended consequence of the efficient society concerned with speed.

Chapter Four – Speed (and the consequences of time speeding up!)

The chapter starts off by drawing on Paul Virilio, a theorist of speed (dromology)

Virilio studies the military – pointing out that invading a country used to take another country months to organise, then weeks and now possibly minutes – even more rapidly if we include the potential of cyber-war.

In response to Mcluhan’s global village, V prefers the term global megacity – characterised by anonymity and disintegration – Where everyone communicates to everyone and nobody really speaks with anyone. Time dominates place, everyone is close by in an instant.

The chapter now goes into an interesting description of how acceleration took place in the industrial revolution which was caused by the IR and new productivity demands in commodity production.

This acceleration was aided in the second half of the twenty first century by Information Technology – IT is simultaneously catalyst, source of coveted goods and economic powerhouse.

There are eight consequences of acceleration which are unique to post-modernity:

One – Speed is an addictive drug…

Because it is easier to communicate today, we communicate more – previously, the labour in writing a letter precluded the writing of unnecessary letters, emails are easier to write, and we we can be contacted anywhere, so we send more emails. Also, we are now more impatient in waiting for a response. In the age of email, we now expect, demand, a rapid response to our communications –

Because we demand a rapid response, this interrupts slow time.

It is not just email, everything moves faster now.

Two – Speed leads to simplification…

For example paintings to photos, and summaries of books in Readers Digest (actually the reference to Readers Digest dates this a bit!)

Three – Speed creates assembly line effects….

Quite a weak section – speed leads to a reduction in quality generally, but sometimes fast products are OK and especially better than nothing!

Four – Speed leads to a loss of precision…

Today decisions have to be made almost immediately. Those who pause for thought are overtaken by those prepared to act immediately. This can lead to bad decisions and uncertainty – unsurprising maybe when we no longer stop to reflect.

In politics, politicians react immediately and short termism is in fashion – those who play the long game get nowhere (the greens?). While in financial markets, ripples in one country rapidly domino to others.

Finally he turns to Journalism where accuracy and complexity have been replaced by speed and what’s interesting. What matters is beating the other guys to getting something published.

Erikson notes that this is correlated with declining trust in journalists – an interesting dialectic where increasing freedom = increasing distrust.

Five – Speed Demands Space…

Because they complete over our attention, every spare moment is precious in the information age – There are less empty spaces, less time for the free flow of thought, messages on mobile technologies fill every gap.

Six – Speed is Contagious…

Short wins out over long – and what’s lost along the way is context and understanding and credibility. We also speed up…. Plays are faster…

A political scientist recently studied the development of the annual financial debate in the Norwegian Parliament, comparing the speed of speech in selected years from 1945 to 1995 – Looking at Phonemes per minute…

584 in 1945

772 in 1980

863 in 1995

In other worlds the average politician spoke 50 percent faster in 1995 compared to 1945.

Increasing speed also makes us more impatient – If a plane journey takes an hour, a delay of 15 minutes is less bearable than if the same journey took two hours. Similarly we are now impatient when it takes a computer 30 seconds to log on.

Seven – Gains and losses tend to equal each other out…

For example — Although computer processor power doubles every 18 months, so does the complexity of the software.

Worse, more complex software means more chances of crashing.

Also it means more choice, and more time spent negotiating these choices, and hence less efficiency.

Eight – Technology leads to unpredictable changes

Who could have thought that time saving technologies and more information could have made time scarcer and us less enlightened?

Chapter Five – Exponential Growth

Basically involves the doubling of a number over a certain time period – Growth is slow at first, and then there is a sudden leap upwards, leading to a qualitative shift in a very short time – for example when a village becomes a town.

Exponential growth creates scarcity of space…

There is now a dearth of information – and when there is more information, we spend less time looking at any one piece of it…. And thus the producers of info change the info to fit in with this – Movies are more action packed and commercials shorter for example. Speed is also a narcotic, it is easier to speed up the info rather than to slow it down.

Side effects become dominant –

Quantitative growth leads to qualitative change – For example Bateson’s Polyploid Horse and the tendency to larger institutions towards Bureaucratisation. Basically larger organisations are less efficient, and more time is spent in wasteful activities.

There is more of everything – he now spends some time outlining the rapid growth of books and journal articles (most of which are never read?) and air traffic. Before stating that the growth rates in cyberspace surpass everything (p97)

Changes in cyerbspace represent compression in time – more and more information, consumption, movement and activity is being pushed into the available time, which is relatively constant. When the growth line hits vertical, time has ceased to exist – this happens when news is outdated the moment it is published.

When more and more is squeezed into each moment, the result is stacking…

Chapter Six – Stacking

We have moved from the relatively slow and linear to the fast and momentary – novels and old style dramas evolved based on passed events and assume you read progressively. The internet and new style dramas (Dynasty) stand still at enormous speed – the web is not hierachical and new dramas despite the cliffhangers do not generally progress – you can pick up the narrative thread after being away for several episodes.

The most important part of navigating the web is filters, but filters do not remove the fragmentation .

We are forced to customise the content in the internet – this gives us freedom of choice but we lose internal cohesion, meaningful context and slowness.

In the Informational Society pieces replace totalities…

Industrial society

Informational Society

CD/ Vinyl record

Book

Sinlge channel TV

Letter

Stationary Telephone

MP3

WWW

Mutli-channel TV

Email

Mobile Telephone

Lifelong Monogamy

Lifelong work

Depth

Linear Time-saving

Scarcity of Information

Serial Monogomy

Flexible Work

Breadth

Fragmented Contemporariness

Scarcity of Freedom of Information

The tidal waves of information fragments typical of our kind of society stimulate a style of thought that is less reminiscent of the strict, logical, linear thinking characteristic of industrial society than of the freely associating, poetical, metaphorical thinking that characterised many non modern societies. Instead of ordering knowledge in tidy rows, Information Society offers cascades of decontextualised sings more or less randomly connected to each other.

Contemporary Culture runs at full speed without moving an inch

The close cousins of acceleration and exponential growth lead to vertical stacking. Since there is no vacant time to spread information in, it gets compressed and stacked in time spans which become shorter and shorter.

He also uses music to point out that nothing new has been created since about 1990. The new now emerges from stacking – new combinations of old phenomenon. This has consequences for human creativity.

When this happens it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic. This has consequences for the way we related to knowledge, work and lifestyle. Cause and effect, internal organic growth, maturity and experience are all under threat in this situation.

The law of diminishing returns strikes with a vengeance

Media appeal is the most important thing politicians can have – their ideas are less important. Those who take time and prefer complexity have less influence.

Today, there are diminishing returns of media participation following information explosion… Basically the more channels, the less valuable a media appearance. Also, a stronger effect is needed to get the message across.

News has a decreasing marginal value – the first ten seconds is valuable, and after that…?

Information destroys continuity….

A section on today’s typical HE student who has to vertically stack activities – a lecture is something one goes to between many other activities – slow learning is marginalised – and universities adapt – they teach faster. This is like his own life, but his is because of information lint.

Very few academics today have five years to spend writing a book – especially since the marginal value of new information is next to zero, and so easier to produce something rapidly that grabs attention, even if it is cut and paste from a conference paper.

Because of all this stacking, the moment is ephemeral, superficial and intense. When the moment dominates, everything must be interchangeable with everything else in the immediate NOW – even if some things only make sense with duration.

Chapter Seven – The Lego Brick Syndrome

The relationship between time and space has undergone dramatic transformations in the IS –

  • Baudrillard talks of the implosion of the time/ space axis
  • Giddens says there has been a collapse of time and space
  • Castells talks about how the space of flows has been replaced by the space of places
  • Harvey of Time Space Compression.

It is no longer viable to pretend that a certain duration corresponds to a certain distance, and for this reason delays, gaps, slowness are threatened.

When time is chopped up into sufficiently small units, it ceases to exist as duration but continues to exist as moments about to be overtaken by the next moment.

The same pattern can be observed in many apparently unrelated fields…. We used to receive a set of lego bricks at birth with a number of sets of instructions to choose between – now there are no instructions – this must have been what Giddens meant when he spoke of the self as a project – it is not a given entity, it has to be created again and again.

He now looks at how fixation on the moment, stacking and the lego brick syndrome influence labour, family life, leisure, and consumption.

An accelerated professional life offers flexibility but leads to a whole host of other negative consequences….

In the Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett describes how successful people in the emergent economies of the 1990s – flexible, adjustable, technologically capable people – experienced a vacuum in the very centre of their lives. They work in sectors such as finance, web design, e-commerce, advertising and journalism, in sectors which have been radically transformed in the information age.

New technology in many ways makes up the backbone of these industries, but at the same time it also forces the labour market to adapt to it. Old-timers with long and vast experience do not have much value in this new setting.

Sennett describes people who have been liberated from the monotonous drudgery of the labour market, but they live under constant pressure to reinvent themselves, update and change their perspective on the job they are doing. There is little of routine in their work, and they enjoy the opportunities on offer, but they experience serious problems in attempting to make their lives hang together as something other than a discontinuous series of events, career moves, and so on.

Some of them are virtually burnt out by the time they are 35. He now quotes some stats (30% of the workforce report mental health issues in the UK) and early burn-out is already in a good position to contend for the title of the civilizational disease of the new century.

Also, long-term planning seems to have disappeared as a concept in the world of work. Short-term stays in jobs are much more common than they used to be and contract work has increased enormously. (I guess this means more intense working?). This means job security is reduced.

This new world of work also favours a particular personality type – adaptable, opportunistic etc, which helps to explain why teaching is now seen as a low-grade profession.

Finally, these changes result in increased uncertainty, not least because the present is opaque but also because the demands of this moment are terrorised by the next.

The effects on family life and leisure-time

Given that fast time beats slow time, when the concept of working at home was introduced, the former was bound to win. Workers may not be expected to be on time any more, but they are expected to be online.

Work has invaded our home lives, and one of the most profound effects is that our family lives have become ‘Taylorised’ (following Bateson) – because increased flexibility in one area of life means less in other areas:

We now have to negotiate how to keep the kids busy so I can fit in with the flexible demands of work. We have lost the sense of slow time in which we just live for the sake of living, family life has become a tit for tat process of negotiating.

Family life is not particular labour-intensive, or capital-intensive, but it is time-intensive – and this is precisely what is absent in today’s society, hence these changes

Furthermore, family life in general is by nature slow and fits the current era badly – frequent changes of life partners are clear indications of the spread of the tyranny of the moment into the intimate sphere. The number of failed marriages and the number of Peter Pans and Bridget Jones are also testimony to this.

Serial Monogamy is a good example of standing still at great speed – the same debates in relationships had over and over again.

Marriages are also under direct pressure from the Tyranny of the Moment in which ever more exciting things are just around the corner, and there is no sense of continuity. Duration and continuity lose out, spontaneity and innovation win.

The Cult of Youth is Caused by the Tyranny of The Moment

When knowledge changes quickly, what role for the older generation? They lose at least some of their relevance and the youth are minded to fashion their own values from fragments – from a mixture of the older generation and X box!

Until quite recently 15 year olds were quite happy to start their adult life – to become properly independent persons – while at the other end of the scale, with age came established certainty and authority.

Today, however, youth, or that ambiguous phase between childhood and adulthood, has extended in both directions – through marketing to the very young and those in their 40s to remain younger. Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’ is now truly relevant.

Two of the most serious symptoms of the tyranny of the moment are the cult of youth and the crisis of knowledge transmission – A society which does not value ageing has no interest in where it has come from – and thus no real handle on where it is going.

Our society values spontaneous energy over historical experience (in the new economy) and this is often blamed on advertising and pop culture, but it is all of the above that is really to blame.

Leisure-Time becomes a stressful rush to get more things done…

Staffan Linder talks of The contradictions of Capitalism – a healthy growth rate requires us to produce more efficiently and consume at a faster rate. Leisure time thus turns into a mad rush for intensified consumption. Leisure time becomes like work – we have to organise it, learn to multi-task and stack, to consume more efficiently and spend less time doing just one thing.

The fragmentation of work, consumption, family life and the public sphere brings us to a world where each must construct their own identity – but is such a task manageable or is life inevitably becoming collage-like and filled with singular events and impressions, arbitrariness and spontaneity with no over-arching direction, is the fast-mode becoming hegemonic rather than a mix between fast and slow modes?

Finally, the further social consequences of a life in fragments…

Bauman is far from alone in publishing books such as life in fragments – the dividing of time into ever decreasing units and the lost of internal coherence lead to….

  • Fundamentalism
  • Extreme Opportunism
  • Burn-Outs
  • Politics devoid of vision.

Does the Information Revolution actually increase efficiency?

Obviously with more complex technology we are required to go on courses to learn how to use their functionalities.

But also when we have mobile technologies, the quiet times disappear because we are expected to be always on! When emails reach a certain threshold, we loose convenience and they become oppressive. Similarly he argues that many transport connections designed to speed travel up are cancelled out by traffic jams and queuing….And now we have impatience, which is the transition between fast and slow time , and journeys are filled with things we should be doing.

Chapter Eight – The Pleasures of Slow Time…

Not everyone is affected by the pressures of fast time – but a growing number of people in the developed world are and because fast time affects the production of culture the majority is exposed to such pressures – when you switch on the TV for example.

A brief summary of the main points in Tyranny of the Moment

  1. When there is a surplus, and no scarcity of information, the degree of comprehension falls in proportion with the growth of the amount of information. The more you know, the more you do not know.
  2. The main scarce resource for suppliers of any commodity is the attention of others
  3. The main scarce resource of the inhabitants of an IS are well-functioning filters
  4. Acceleration removes distance, time and space.
  5. When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins
  6. Flexible work causes a loss of flexibility in the non-work areas of life.
  7. When time is partitioned into sufficiently small units it ceases to exist as duration.

There are many academics who write about exponential growth, stacking and acceleration – Giddens and Beck are the figureheads but also Bordieu, and their theme seems to be that there is now a generalised inability to get a coherent overview of everything in this fast moving world.

There are few solutions offered to acceleration and information overload:

Castells just warns against ‘building castles’

  • Giddens talks of dialogic democracy but provides no substance about how this might be achieved
  • Bordieu – simply suggests we hit the off button
  • Baudrillard escapes into dark humour
  • Virillio says he has no solutions

So what to do? Some suggestions:

  • What can be done fast should be done fast
  • Remember that dawdling is a virtue as long as no one gets hurt
  • Recognise that slowness needs protection
  • Treat delays are a blessing in disguise
  • The logic of the wood cabin needs to be globalised
  • All decisions need to exclude as much as they include
  • It is necessary to switch consciously between fast and slow time
  • Recognise/ accept that most things one will never need know about
  • We also need to put the breaks on fast time by….
  • Establishing press rules for the slow production of more types of news.
  • Establishing the rule of less is more – quality over quantity.

He finishes with a number of fairly obvious public/ work level policies for introducing slowness, which I won’t go into.

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Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Times – A Summary

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Zygmunt Bauman is one of the world’s leading sociologists. He is particularly interested in how the west’s increasing obsession with ‘individualism’ actually prevents the individual from being free in any meaningful sense of the word.

In  ‘Liquid Times (2007), Bauman argues that there are a number of negative consequences of globalisation such as the generation of surplus people who have no where to go in a world that is full; of increasingly visible inequalities as the rich and the poor come to live closer together; and of a world in which it is increasingly difficult for communities and nations to provide collective security.

According to Bauman, the ultimate cause of negative globalisation is due to the fact that the owners of Capital are invisible and shifting, having the power to invest locally without making commitments, and even to ignore international law if they deem it in their interests. The global elite are globally mobile, they are not stuck in one place, and they are free to move on if there are better investment opportunities elsewhere. The elite are seen as creating an unstable world as they move from place to place, seeking to maximise their profits. Meanwhile, the experience of ‘negative globabalisation’ for the rest of us who are ‘doomed to be local’ is one of increasing anxiety, fear, and suspicion, which derive from living in an unstable and unpredictable world over which we have no control, and we are compelled to develop strategies to counter the unstable, unjust, unequal and ‘risky’ and ‘dangerous’ world that the forever shifting elite leave in their wake.

The strategies adopted depend on the specific experience of negative globalisation, but they nearly always involve putting up barriers to protect us from ‘dangerous others’, or they involve escaping from a world that is perceived as no longer worth living in.

Those that ‘run away’ include everyone from refugees fleeing a war torn country to the millions of people in the West who continually reinvent themselves selves through seeking out new life experiences rather than rooting their identities in involvement in local and national institutions.

‘Barrier strategies’ include the emergence of fortress Europe to keep refugees out; the development of gated communities and the move towards zero tolerance policing policies in many cities.

For Bauman, these strategies are always ineffective, because they do no address the root cause of our anxiety, which is the fact that our national and local institutions can no longer provide us with security in the wake of instabilities brought on by advanced global capitalism. Instead, these strategies end up increasing the amount of anxiety and fear and segregation and eventually serve to justify our paranoia.

The remainder of this article looks at three elements of ‘negative globalisation’: The generation of surplus people; Increasingly visible inequalities; and the undermining of national and local institutions.

Surplus people

 Bauman argues that ‘When the elite purse their goals, the poor pay the price’, seeing the instabilities and inequalities caused by global capitalism as creating the conditions that can lead to ethnic nationalisms, religious fanaticisms, increased civil wars, violence, organised crime and terrorism, all of which do not respect national boundaries. As a result, there is a new ‘global frontier land’ occupied by refugees, guerrilla armies, bandit gangs and drug traffickers.

Focussing on refuges, Bauman points out that they are outside law altogether because they have no state of their own, but neither are they part of the state to which they have fled.  He points out that many Palestinians, for example, have lived in ‘temporary’ refugee camps for more than a decade, but these camps have no formal existence and don’t even appear on any maps of the regions in which they are situated. To make matters worse, refugees often have no idea of when their refugee status will end, and hence Bauman argues that they exist in a ‘permanent temporary state’ which he calls the ‘nowhere land of non humanity’.

Refugees in camps can be forgotten, whereas if they were amongst us, we would have to take notice of them. In these camps, they come to be seen as one homogenous mass, the nuances between the thousands of individuals living therein becoming irrelevant to the outsider. Refugees, in fact, go through a process much like Goffman’s mortification of the self, as many of them are stripped of all the usual things they need to construct an identity such as a homeland, possessions and a daily routine. Unlike the mentally ill who Goffman studied, however, refugees have no formal rights, because their self- mortification takes place in a land that doesn’t formerly exist. Bauman’s point is that one of the worst consequences of globalisation is the absolute denial of human self expression as experienced by refugees.

While Bauman’s work provides us with an insight into why refugees may want to escape their permanent temporary camps, there is little chance of this happening. For a start, Europe is increasingly developing a ‘fortress mentality’ in which we try our best to keep refugees out the European Union through offering aid to countries that boarder international crisis zones in order to help them, rather than us having to deal with the ‘refugee problem’ ourselves.

Those refugees that do make it to the United Kingdom and other European countries have an ever slimmer chance of being awarded Asylum, and are increasingly likely to be locked up in detention centres. In the United Kingdom, Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or to claim benefits, which in turn makes it incredibly difficult for such individuals to ever integrate into what is to them a new and strange country. Thus even for those who escape, their reward is further experience of marginalisation.

Bauman also deals with why the general populace of the West are so scared of Refugees. Firstly, and very importantly, he reminds us that the real underlying cause of our fears, anxieties and suspicions is that we have lost control over the collective, social dimensions of our life. Our communities, our work places, even our governments, are in constant flux, and this condition creates uncertainty about who we are and where we are going, which is experienced at the level of the individual as fear and anxiety.

This experience of fear and anxiety means that we are unnaturally afraid of a whole range of things, but a further reason that we might be especially scared of Asylum seekers in particular is that they have the stench of war on them, and they unconsciously remind us of global instabilities that most of us would rather forget about. Asylum seekers remind us, ultimately, that the world is an unjust place full of tens of millions of people who, through no fault of their own, bear the consequences of negative globalisation. Asylum seekers remind us of the frailties of a global system that we don’t control and don’t understand.

Rather than looking at the complex underlying causes of our irrational sense of fear, the Media and Politicians see people such as Asylum seekers as an easy target: They are confined to camps, and hence stuck in one place, and they will obviously look different and hence are more visible. Keeping Asylum seekers out, or sending them back in droves, becomes a political tool, with politicians winning points for adopting ever greater levels of intolerance towards the desperate.

The consequence of this for refugees is bleak. A major theme of Bauman’s work is that once fear of a group in society has been generated it is self perpetuating, whether or not that fear is justified. The very fact that we are afraid of Asylum seekers means we are less likely to approach them, it means that were are less likely to give them a chance, which in turn leads to a situation of mutual suspicion in which both parties seek to keep as much distance between themselves as possible.

The experience of Global Inequality

The radical inequality between citizens in the United Kingdom and refugees living in the no where land of non humanity is stark, but, for most of us, easily ignored. Much more visible are the inequalities that exist within International cities such as London, New York, and, even more obviously Mexico City and Rio Di Janeiro.

Bauman points out that cities used to be built to keep people out, but today they have become unsafe places, where strangers are an ever looming presence. The underlying reason why the modern city is a place that breeds fear and suspicion is because they are sites of some of the most profound and visible inequalities on earth, where the poor and rich live side by side. As a result, those who can afford it take advantage of a number of security mechanisms, such as living in gated communities, installing surveillance cameras, or hiring private security. The architecture of the modern city has become one of segregating the haves from the have nots.

For the poor, this ‘fortification mentality’ is experienced as ‘keeping us excluded from what we can never have’ and they effectively become ghettoised in areas which will always seam undesirable compared to the places they are prevented from being. Thus the poor are permanent exiles from much of their city. Lacking economic capital, sub cultural capital becomes the only thing the excluded can draw on in order to carve out some status for themselves. This, argues Bauman, is the reason why there are so many distinct and segregated ethnic identities. These are the strategies adopted by the poor to carve out some freedom for themselves, the strategies of those who are doomed to be local.

 This strategy, however, breeds a culture of difference, and separatism. It breeds a city in which we are surrounded by strange others whose territory will always seam unfamiliar, which in turn breeds yet more suspicion, fear and insecurity. Islands of difference rather than an integrated city are the result, a city populated by unfamiliar people who we do not know.

Bauman points out that, once visited on the world, fear takes little to keep it going. Social life changes when people live behind walls, wear handguns, carry mace and hire security guards. The very presence of these things makes us think the world is more dangerous, leading to increased fear and anxiety. It doesn’t actually matter if the ‘others’ are actually, or ever were, dangerous, the fact that we put up defences against them is proof enough of the fact that they must be a threat.

Insecurity, anxiety, and the inadequacy of identity…

 While Globalisation creates instabilities which creates surplus people and stark inequalities, Bauman also argues that Globalisation erodes the ability of the state and local communities to provide genuine stability and security for individuals. Social institutions such as the family, education and work dissipate faster than the span of one’s life, and it becomes difficult for individuals to construct a coherent life-project.

 This situation results in what Bauman calls ‘existential tremors,’ where individuals do not have a stable sense of who they are, or what they belong to, resulting, as we have already come across, in increased feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.  As evidence of this, Bauman points out that most of us do not generally perceive the future as a bright place of hope and of ‘better things to come’, instead we see the future as a series of challenges to be overcome, of risks to be managed, and of threats to our security. In short, the future is a bleak, dark, and uncertain place.

In the absence of collective security, individuals and families are left to try and develop strategies to find security and stability themselves, and our goals become limited to the managing risks, and our horizons limited to the every narrowing sphere over which we still have some measure of  control! Thus we invest in pensions, become very protective of our children, and become increasingly suspicious of strangers. We are obliged to spend our time doing things to minimise the perceived threats to our safety: checking for cancers, investing in home security, and monitoring our children. Our life-project becomes not one of developing ourselves, not one of striving for a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, but, instead, our life goals become limited to avoiding bad things happening to ourselves.

Bauman also has a pessimistic take on the common practice of the continual reinvention of the self. Bauman argues that the process of constructing an identity is sold to us as something that is fun, as something that should be pleasurable, and as something that is indicative of individual freedom. One only needs look at the various networking and profiling sites to see that the expression of self identity is something associated with pleasure and leisure. It has become a normal part of daily life to spend a considerable amount of time, effort, and money on constructing, maintaining and continually transforming one’s self.

Bauman, however, reminds us that although we may think we are free, we are actually obliged to engage in this process of continual reinvention because our social lives are in continual flux. Furthermore, many identities are not rooted in the local, the social or the political, they are much more floating and transient, based on fashion, music, and interests, and Bauman interprets many of these strategies as an attempt by individuals to try and escape from a world over which they have no control.

Following Joseph Brodsky, Bauman is rather scathing of the range of shallow strategies many of us adopt to escape from the world, and ultimately argues that they are all pointless….

“you may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate, you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis…. In fact you may lump all these together and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amid a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window.” (105)

Bauman seams to be arguing that individuals will never find peace of mind, never find ‘who they really are’ unless they have stability and security, and in order to have that, people need to root themselves in local and national institutions, otherwise, our attempts to find ourselves through the reinvention of the self will always be less than satisfactory.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Bauman’s work is important as it reminds us that there is inequality in the way we experience risk and instability. On the one hand, the global elites who cause our global society to be unstable benefit from this instability and are able to avoid the worst effects of it, through, for example, moving away from war zones, or retreating into gated communities. Meanwhile, the poorest are the ones who suffer, having lost, in the extreme example of refugees, the very right to be regarded as human beings.

As a final perverse twist, the elites that created this situation in the first place end up either retreating to expensive enclaves that are well secured, or they profit from our fears politically and financially.

One cannot help but feel incredibly pessimistic after reading Bauman’s work. It is as if hegemonic control has penetrated so far into the hearts and minds of the populace that the huge effort required for people to reassert localised, communitarian politics against global capitalist hegemonic power is simply too much to ever hope for.

But for those that are inclined to join Social Movements, at least Bauman’s work identifies an elite to position oneself against, and reminds us this elite continually flout the principles of genuine freedom, equality, in the pursuit of their self interest. Bauman’s work also offers a useful counterpoint against what some would regard as the pointless relativism of post-modernism and the mediocre third way quiescence of Anthony Giddens.

 You might also like…

A summary of Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman

A Summary of Runaway World by Anthony Giddens

Bibliography

Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Liquid Times

This summary was published in the Sociology Review in February 2009

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What is Sociology? (Bauman and May)

What is Sociology

Below is an extended summary adapted from Bauman and May’s (2001) work ‘Thinking Sociologically’ which to my mind remains one of the best introductions to Sociology there is!

What is Sociology?

Sociology is a disciplined practice with its own set of questions for approaching the study of society and social relations. It is important for understanding ourselves, each other, and the social environments in which we live.

In search of Distinction

As well as being disciplined set of practices, it also represents a considerable body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the course of history…. it is a site of constant flux with newcomers adding new ideas and studies.

Sociology has the following similarities with ‘cognate’ disciplines such as anthropology, psychology and history –

  • They aim to collect relevant facts and to check them for validity and reliability

  • They aim to present information in a clear and unambiguous way

  • They aim to make clear propositions which are free of contradictions and stand up against the evidence.

‘Sociology is distinguished from other disciplines through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: that is, of a non-random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependency.

Individual actors come into view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependency. The central questions of Sociology concern how the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences.

Thinking Sociologically also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways.

Sociology and Common Sense

Thinking Sociologically is also distinguished by its relationship with so called ‘common sense’. This is because the objects of study of Sociology ( the family, education, media, and so on) are tightly bound up with our ordinary day-to-day routines, and thus everybody already has common sense understandings of these things.

However, in common-sense understanding, we tend to only see these things in terms of our own individual, private, experiences, we rarely pause and ask questions about the social-settings in which we live our lives. ‘Sociological thinking asks us to ‘step back’ and to ask ‘how do our individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with other human beings’.

It is important to draw a boundary between common sense and sociology, and Bauman and May see four ways this can be achieved:

  1. Sociology, unlike common sense, subjects itself to ‘rigorous rules of responsible speech’ – Sociology tries to confine itself to statements that can be baked up by reliable, valid and representative evidence which others can verify, rather than making untested propositions.

  2. Sociology aims to ‘broaden horizons’ and to examine individual biographies in the context of wider social processes. In this sense Sociology encourages people to lift themselves above the level of their daily concerns and see what we share in common with others, and what these commonalities have to do with our particular historical social context.

  3. Sociology is not about understanding things from the individual’s perspective – it stands against the view that someone’s biography is purely down to their own motives, efforts and intentional action. Thinking Sociologically is to make sense of the world through looking at the manifold webs of human dependency.

  4. Sociology involves examining ordinary life in a more fully conscious way – and going through a process of defamiliarisation – looking at society in new ways and realising that ‘this is not the only way we could do things’ – this will not be to everyone’s liking, especially those who benefit from existing social relations.

It involves constantly examining the knowledge we have of selves and others – this is an ongoing process. If we open ourselves up to this processes then it should have the following benefits –

  • It should make us more tolerant of diversity
  • It should render flexible that which may have been oppressive
  • It should make individuals more effective agents of social change – realising that society does act as a restraining force in many ways should enable the individual to direct their efforts more effectively at making changes. (A nice quote here – ‘Sociology stands in praise of the individual, but not individualism’)
  • It should enhance social solidarity – as it makes us realise that many of our private troubles are shared by several (possibly billions) of other people.

Action, Identity and Understanding in Everyday Life

‘Possessing feelings of being free and unfree at the same time is one of the most confusing issues that gives rise to feelings of ambivalence and frustration, as well as creativity and innovation.

You could now choose to carry on reading this, or abandon it and do something else. The ability to make conscious decisions is an exercise of your freedom.

Choice, Freedom and Living with Others

Our choices are not, of course, always the product of conscious decisions, many are habitual.

We are often told that we are responsible for our decisions and their outcomes – the way Unemployment is talked about is a good example of this – the discourse surrounding unemployment is very much one of ‘if you try hard enough you can get a job’. However, if one lives in an area of high unemployment and cannot afford to move, this is simply not the case.

There is thus a difference between one’s ability to reskill and look for a job and the actual capability of making one’s desires manifest in reality (actually getting a job). We are limited by the following things (sticking to the unemployment example):

  • Scarcity – there may be a lack of jobs available

  • Material constraints – we may lack the money to be able to broaden the area in which we search for work.

  • Cultural Constraints – we may live in a sexist/ racist/ classist/ homophobic area – and thus not be able to get a job because of prejudiced views held by employers

  • Our accumulated experiences as part of a particular group – our own norms and values may limit the range of possibilities open to us – we may not feel comfortable interacting with people who we perceive are very different to us.

How we act and see ourselves is informed by the expectations of the groups to which we belong – we are born into various groups (e.g. class/ gender/ ethnicity) and we have no choice over this – these groups give us a set of norms and values which both give us skills which can use to be creative (and express our freedom) but they also constrain us in certain ways.

First – there are ideas about what goals are worth pursuing

Second – there is the matter of how we should pursue these goals

Third – we are expected to identify with certain people and against others – those who might assist and prevent us from meeting expectations one and two.

Being part of a group assumes a huge amount of unconscious knowledge – a ”natural attitude” to do with the minutiae of every day life – from how we dress, to how we speak and our more general value-set. We learn this ‘natural attitude’ through growing up with others, and we generally don’t question the norms and values that we are socialised into, as revealed by the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel.

Oneself with Another: Sociological Perspectives

For Mead ‘who’ we are is not something we are born with, but something we acquire through time, through interaction with others. In order to understand how this occurs, Mead divided our sense of self into two parts – the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ – the ‘I’ is best thought of as a conversation that takes place within ourselves where we use language to think of ourselves as a whole, the ‘Me’ on the other hand refers to how we organise the expectations of groups within our actions.

To my mind this is better understood as follows:

The ‘I’ – is the internal dialogue you have with yourself about who you are. ‘I’ is your stream of consciousness’

The ‘Me’ is the various ‘social selves’ or ‘roles’ you need to play in day to life and the norms and values you have to make that self conform to. ‘Me’ is the self as others see you.

Our reflexive character is built up by treating ourselves as objects of our own actions as they are understood through the responses of others.

Following Paul Ricoeur, in the course of the acquisition of self-identity we ask questions of ourselves and the first reflexive question of selfhood is ‘who am I’? Here we first experience the contradiction between our inner desires and what we feel obliged to do because of the presence of significant others and their expectations of us.

Freud suggested that the whole process of self-development and the social organisation of human groups may be interpreted in the light of the need and the practical effort to tame sexual and aggressive instincts – but these instincts are never tamed, rather they are ‘repressed’.

The question of exactly how society tames individual instincts and balances these with obligations has been further theorised by the likes of Nancy Chodorow and Norbert Elias.

Socialisation, Significance and Action

The process of how our selves are formed and how instincts may or may not be suppressed is often given the name socialisation.

This is a complex process which involves assigning differential significance to expectations, and goes on from childhood through to adult life.

Making a selection from our environments means choosing reference groups against which we can measure or actions and find the standards to which we aspire.

We may, of course, aspire to be like groups apart from the ones we are born into, increasingly likely in the age of the mass media, where we are exposed to a range of potential groups which we might aspire to, but not actually be part of.

Socialisation is a never ending process which involves a constant rebalancing of freedoms and dependencies.