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Fyre… the biggest festival that never happened

The Fyre Festival of 2017 is a great example of a ‘postmodern’ event…. an unfortunate coming together of consumerism, hyperreality, and hyper-individualised identity-obsessed millennials.

In case you missed the furore, you can get a feel for what happened just by watching this trailer on Netflix – which describes the event as a being billed as a luxury music festival on a paradise island, which went spectacularly wrong in the hands of a cocky entrepreneur..

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The organisers of the Fyre Festival spent a fortune publicising the campaign on social media. They basically hired ten of the world’s best-known super models and spent a weekend filming them hanging out sipping cocktails on luxury yachts moored off the island where the Festival was due to take place. They then paid social media ‘influencers’ a fortune to publicise the festival. Kendall Jenner was apparently paid $250 000 for making just one post about it, but she was only one influencer among many…

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The various posts soon went viral, and 10, 000 tickets (which cost a minimum of several thousand dollars each) sold out within 48 hours to wealthy millennials who thought they’d be getting three days of luxury jet-set partying in the Bahamas.

However, when the first wave of festival attendees arrived, they found that their accommodation wasn’t condos and super-yachts, it was repurposed emergency dome tents, usually used in disaster situations, and instead of gourmet food they ended up being served bread and cheese in plastic tubs, as this viral tweet told the world:

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In fact it was that exact tweet that convinced the organisers to admit they’d failed and then just cancel the festival: any remaining incoming flights were cancelled, and the unfortunates who had already arrived had to make their own way back to the mainland.

Relevance of this to Sociology

The Fyre Festival seems like the quintessential postmodern event: t’s basically consumerism meets hyperreality.

Effectively a bunch of rich millennials paid a fortune to attend an event on the basis of a fiction spread via social media, and then found out it was a fiction when they arrived in physical reality.

At root, it’s logic of good old conspicuous consumption which drives the event: the point of the millennials going wasn’t for them just to enjoy the bands and the vibe, the point was the show off the exclusivity – to demonstrate to their other friends that they’d made it, that they had enough money to burn on this luxury, pioneering island festival.

This even also illustrates hyperreality – the event was sold on the basis of a fiction created over one weekend, and the images created their lodged themselves in thousands of people’s heads: they thought they’d be getting a festival plus a luxury island vibe, but hardly any of them checked the reality: there was never enough space on the island to actually fit 10K people and the necessary infrastructure, and islands can also be pretty uncomfortable places – sand, humidity and mosquitos. But no, the hyperreal image is what stuck with the vast majority, rather than the thought of thinking about whether such an event was actually feasible in reality, which it obviously wasn’t!

The Fyre Festival is also a powerful reminder of the increasing power which advertisers and influencers have in our lives. Brands are set to pay influencers $6.5 billion in 2019…. Perhaps it’s time to regulate them a bit more?!?

I guess it’s also worth noting that the organiser, Billy McFarland, is now serving 6 years in jail for fraud, so this is one example against the ‘Marxist’ view of crime: here’s a member of the elite class (NOT the super-elite) getting served justice.

Oh, and analysis aside, it’s hugely entertaining, I mean: do I feel sorry for these rich kids, not in the least!

Find out more…

The Netflix documentary is well worth a watch, and it’d make a great end of year movie!

Sources 

The Week, 2nd February 2019

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Bauman’s Consuming Life A Summary – Chapter 2 – The Society of Consumers

Summary of chapter One 

A fairly lengthy, paraphrased summary with a few comments in italics

consuming life bauman.jpgIn consumer culture people behave ‘unreflexivly’ – without thinking about what they consider to be their life purpose and what they believe to be the right means of reaching it, without thinking about about what prompts them into action or escape, or about what they desire, what they fear and at what point fears and desires balance each other out

Nb – In defining consumers as unreflexive – that is, anyone who limits their conscious reflection to questions of what to consume- rather than focusing on the ‘deeper’ questions of life – Bauman seems to deny that such people have any sense of agency – they are not fully human. 

The society of consumers stands for a set of existential conditions under which the probability is high that most people will embrace the consumerist rather than any other culture, and obey its rules.

The ‘society of consumers’ is a kind of society which ‘interpellates’ its members primarily in their capacity as consumers. While doing that, ‘society’ expects to be heard, listened to and obeyed; it evaluates – rewards and penalizes – its members depending on the promptness and propriety of their response to the interpellation.

As a result, one’s ability to engage in consumerist performance has become the paramount stratifying factor and the principal criterion of inclusion in or exclusion from society, as well as guiding the distribution of social esteem and stigma, and shares in public attention.

(Following Frank Trentmann) This is historically unusual – for most of the modern period consumption was little discussed and when it was it was typically associated with eccentricity and wastefulness.

For the better part of modern history (that is, throughout the era of massive industrial plants and massive conscript armies), society ‘interpellated’ most of the male half of its members as primarily producers and soldiers, and almost all of the other (female) half as first and foremost their by-appointment purveyors of services.

It was the body of the would-be worker or soldier that counted most; their spirit, on the other hand, was to be silenced, numbed and thereby ‘deactivated’.

The society of consumers, on the other hand, focuses its training and coercing pressures on the management of the spirit – leaving the manage- meant of bodies to individually undertaken DIY labour, individually supervised and coordinated by spiritually trained and coerced individuals.

This coercive pressure is exerted on members of the society of consumers from their early childhood.. Following Daniel Thomas Cooke…

‘the battles waged over and around children’s consumer culture are no less than battles over the nature of the person and the scope of personhood in the context of the ever-expanding reach of commerce.’

The society of consumers does not recognize differences of age or gender (however counter-factually) and will not make allowances for either; nor does it (blatantly counter-factually) recognize class distinctions. From the geographic centres of the worldwide network of information highways to its furthest, however impoverished peripheries…

‘the poor are forced into a situation in which they either have to spend what little money or resources they have on senseless consumer objects rather than basic necessities in order to deflect total social humiliation or face the prospect of being teased and laughed at.’ (In Ekstrom et al, Elusive Consumption, 2004.)

However it is down to the individual to negotiate the staggering amount of info in order to make the right consumer decisions to avoid derision.
Since ‘social fitness’ is the responsibility of the individual, if people fail to make the right choices they are blamed (and thus constructed as ‘flawed consumers’) – we are taught to believe that there is nothing wrong with society, because there is plenty of choice, and so if people fail to succeed they are not deserving of care.

At least the above is the case if we are unreflexive viz our consumption habits.

Consumption is an investment in everything that matters for individual ‘social value’ and self-esteem, thus the crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers themselves to that of sellable commodities.

If you wish to take part in society, you have to consume in this way – turning yourself into a commodity – this is a precondition which is non negotiable thus market relations are fundamental to the society of consumers, as is the calculating mindset which goes along with it.

I’m left wondering what Bauman would make of attempts to set up alternative, low impact cultures assisted by alternative financial avenues such as Kick Starter?

Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity is the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.
The society of consumers, with its compulsive and willing individualization places a magnified emphasis on the on the subject as the one who has the duty to make oneself something, and on the individual as being the one who is responsible if one fails.
NB – I guess to simplify one of Bauman’s basic points you could just say that we believe that we are responsible for own successes and failures in life only because that is what society tells us, and this isn’t necessarily true.
In the society of producers, society took on the role of a ‘collective Prometheus’ – it took responsibility for the product in exchange for the individual conforming to social norms. If you just ‘became’ what society asked of you’ that was enough – your Promethean challenge, and sense of of Promethean pride could thus be earned if you fulfilled your social role.
However, in the age of individualisation, now that society ‘doesn’t exist’ (TINA) just becoming what society wants is no longer an option – ( in the consumer society the point, the task, is to continually become something else).
Being born, having become something are now sources of ‘Promethean shame’ and the task of the individual is to perfect themselves – to become more than they are, and there is never an end to this process… life is a never ending struggle of becoming.
Because of this, being a member of the society of consumers is a daunting task, a never-ending and uphill struggle. The fear of failing to conform has been elbowed out by a fear of inadequacy, and consumer markets are eager to capitalize on that fear, and companies turning out consumer goods vie for the status of the most reliable guide and helper in their clients’ unending effort to rise to the challenge. They supply ‘the tools’, the instruments required by the individually performed job of ‘self-fabrication’.
However, following Gunder Anders, it is absurd to think of those tools as enabling an individual choice of purpose. These instruments are the crystallization of irresistible ‘necessity’ – which individuals must learn to obey, in order to be free. Cites teen fashion as an example.
I’d be interested in looking at the social construction of retirement in this… to what extent is retirement constructed as a time when we are expected to ‘consume hard’? Does all of this end then?


There are two versions of human history – That of life as a progression towards greater rationality and freedom, of which consumer choice is the latest ‘highest’ expression, the other is of the increasing colonisation of human life by commodity markets – the society of consumers is its zenith because humans are now obliged to interact with each other at the same level as the products they consume (as explained above) – they purchase products in order to maximise their own market-value and they have no choice but to do so.
NB – I get the impression that Bauman sides with the later version.
Markets today are sovereign, you only get political rights if you are able to consume – people such as the underclass and illegal immigrants (flawed consumers) are seen as having no rights in the popular imagination, and there is no authority they can appeal to because the state’s ability to draw the line between the included and the excluded has been eroded by the market – it now makes these decisions, and it has no tangible body that can be appealed to if people feel unfairly excluded.
In recent decades the state has shifted many of its functions sideways to the market such that the state has now become the arbiter of market demands, evidence in the centrality of economic measurements as the state’s primary indicators of its ‘success’.

The secret of every durable (successfully self-reproducing) social system is the recasting of its ‘functional prerequisites’ into behavioural motives of actors – the secret is making individuals wish to do what is needed for the system to reproduce itself.
In the modern period, this required an emphasis on deferred gratification – people committing to the idea of putting off pleasure now in order to reap the rewards in the future.
We also see in the general theories of the time – such as Freud’s reality principle and in Bentham’s panopticon – that the good society could only be constructed with the individual’s subordination to the society.
(However, such theories were themselves a product of the crisis of community – the very fact that people were thinking about community demonstrates that community is no longer ‘taken for granted’ as it was in traditional times, and because of this, it was already losing its power as a coercive force).
Much of the modern period thus involved nation states vying to restrict freedom of choice through panopticon style discipline and punish rule, but this was always cumbersome.

In the post-modern era (mistakenly conceived as a decivilising process) the civilising process takes the form of the ‘obligation to choose’ but this breeds little resistance because it is represented and conceived as freedom of choice.
People now are obliged to seek happiness and pleasure and this is lived through as an exercise of ‘freedom’ and self-assertion. Today it is as if the (individualised) pleasure principle has taken over the reality principle as the primary regulating force in society. (Reminds me of happiness is mandatory.)

When society confronts us (which it rarely does as a totality, these days) it does so in ways which make it easy for us to act as solitary consumers… (rather than in large collectivities). Bauman now gives several examples of this:

  • As mentioned earlier on in the chapter, this starts with childhood
  • At university, the new future-elite of consumers are socialised into the norm of living on credit (phase one)
  • At home we have TV dinners and fast food, which protect solitary consumers.
  • The primary acts of consumption are done in swarms – groups who come together for limited times with loose connections.
  • Elsewhere Bauman has also written about the nature of shopping malls, privatised public spaces of individualised consumption.
  • Even our post-modern ‘collective’ carnivalesque acts reinforce individualism – we come together in fringe moments to get our ‘collective’ fix and then go back to being individuals again .. ..

The chapter finishes with something about tax cuts to the rich and shifting taxation away from income to expenditure which doesn’t make much sense in the context of the chapter.

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Merry Debtmass…

A 2016 poll by Nationwide found that the average Brit spends £645 on Christmas. On average, people in the UK spend…

  • £117 on Christmas presents for their partner,
  • £145 on presents for their children,
  • £20 on their pet (lucky pets!).

christmas-debt

This broadly corresponds with the Bank of England’s findings on Christmas spending which found that our spending in December increasing by around £500 per month. OK they’re not exactly the same, but in the same sort of ‘region’, and not crazily different (to use the technical term).

Looked at by household – A Survey by Go Compare (1) found that the average British household expects to spend £753 on Christmas festivities this year.  Collectively that’s a staggering £21 billion splashed out on presents, food and drink, parties and decorations.

Regional Variations in Spending 

Unsurprisingly, households on lower incomes spend a higher proportion of their monthly income on Christmas than – According to this BBC article, people in the North East spend around 26%, while in London the figure falls to around 16% of monthly household income.

The article also cites anecdotal evidence that people in poorer areas spend more on presents than people in richer areas.

Debt and Christmas

Again, according to the above BBC article, The Money Advice Trust, a charity which runs the National Debtline, polled 2,000 people and found 37% are putting Christmas presents on credit. NB As far as I can tell these are 2015 figures (it’s not that clear from the article!)

  • 34 percent borrowed money to cover the cost of Christmas presents – figure equating to an estimated 16.9 million people.
  • More than one in five (21 percent)  borrowed to put food on the Christmas table – equating to an estimated 10.4 million people.

All in all, it seems like there’s a lot of evidence that for the poorest third of households, it’s not so much Christmas, but more like Debtmass, which offers broad support for the validity of a Marxist theory of Christmas. 

Notes 

(1) NB – An interesting point about this research, is that one finding is unlikely to valid… half of households said they would finance their income from their current account. Unfortunately for Go Compare, the Median household in the UK has only £10 a month left over after all expenditure is taken into account…. thus it simply isn’t possible (assuming these ONS stats are valid) for this to be the case.

 

 

 

 

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Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ (part 1/3)

Chapter One  – The Rise and Fall of Labour

This chapter explains that the decline of the labour movement is due the extraterritorial power of Capital.

The industrial revolution led to labour being uprooted from its age old link to nature and then becoming tied to capital in commodity form, thus it could be bought and exchanged. In the era of heavy modernity, where profit derived from Fordist/ Taylorist big scale heavy production, capital and labour were dependent on each other for their well-being and reproduction because they were rooted in place,  hence the historic power of unions and the welfare state. It was in everyone’s interests to keep labour in good condition.

All of the above gave rise to a long-term (and collective?) mentality– as illustrated in collective bargaining through unions and also through the fact that pretty much all nineteenth century thinkers thought that there would be an end point to constant change, even if the means and ends to reach that end point differed.

All that has changed now – we have moved from a long term mentality to a short term one. The features of work today are as follows:

  • Short term contracts – partners no longer intend to stay long in each others company.
  • Flexibility – work is like a high achieving sport (following Geert van der Laan) – the people in it work very hard, but fewer of us actually compete.
  • Working life is saturated with uncertainty – the nature of work is that anyone can be sacked at short notice with no warning signs, and the logic of promotions are less apparent.

Such uncertainties are a powerful indivdualising force – when work is like a campsite (not a home) there is little incentive to take an interest in the organisation, and thus solidarity is lost. We find ourselves in a time of weak ties (Grannoveter) or fleeting associations (Sennet).

This disengagement between capital and labour is not one-sided – Capital has set itself loose from from its dependency on labour, its reproduction and growth have become by and large independent of the duration of any particular local engagement with labour. Extraterritorial capital is not yet completely free of local ties – it still has to deal with governments but, paradoxically, the only way for governments to attract Capital is to convince it that it is free to move away – and to give it what it requires.

Speed of Movement (following Crozier) now seems to be the main stratifier in the hierarchy of domination – ideas are now more profitable than production, and ideas are had only once, not reproduced a thousand times, and when it comes to making ideas profitable the objects of competition are consumers not producers, and this is now Capital’s primary relation – thus the ‘holding power’ of the local labour force is weakened.

Thus (following Robert Reich) we now have four categories of economic activity –

  1. Symbol manipulators – For example those involved in the knowledge economy and marketers.
  2. Those who work to reproduce labour – Mainly teachers.
  3. Those who work in personal services – A whole range of things from Estate Agents to Hairdressers.
  4. Routine labourers – low skilled people who make things – these are the lowest paid and have the least secure obs because they expendable and they know it!

Following Peyrefitte, Bauman now characterises Modernity as an attempt to build confidence and trust – in oneself, in others and in institutions – Modernity did this and work was its primary vehicle – there was trust in the general frame – now this is gone – when de-layering and downsizing is the norm, people no longer invest in it – they would rather trust (e.g.) the fleeting stock market than the collective bargaining power of unions.

Pierre Bourdieu links the decline of politics and collective action to people’s inability to get a hold on the present (because without a hold on the present, we cannot get a grip on the future). This is especially true of today’s mass labourers who are tied to the local while capital is extraterritorial –  means they are apriori in an inferior position – when they cannot control capital, why would they engage with politics?

It is the passage from heavy to light modernity that provides the context for the decline of the labour movement. Other explanations are insufficient.

Summary/ commentary/ questions

In the postmodern era Capital has (and requires) more freedom of movement than in the modern era. The primary reason for this is the growth of consumer markets – rapidly changing tastes mean people buying and throwing away at a faster pace, and to keep up with this Capital needs to be able to shift itself around faster – free to drop old ideas and production practices as they become unfashionable or unprofitable.

As a result workers mass-labourers are powerless – they are rooted to place, as are national governments – both can only compete in a race to the bottom to try and make things as attractive as possible to globally mobile capital.

For such workers, their efforts are in vein – they are expendable and they know it, hence they are less likely to join unions and less likely to get involved in politics – neither of these make any sense when they don’t have a grip on the present – when they do not have any purchase on security of livelihood.

Speed of movement seems to be the main differentiating factor in the post-modern society.

NB – There are some workers who do OK out of these arrangements, mainly the ‘symbol manipulators’ but these have to be extremely adaptable to survive in the era of globally mobile capital!

Q: This could be an untestable theory? How does one measure the ‘mobility of Capital’ and its effects on employment?

Chapter Two – Local Orders, Global Chaos

Order is a situation where you can predict the probability of something happening. Some things are probable, some unlikely. Order suggests a degree of predictability, and it is order which gives rise to the confidence that you can engage in an action knowing what the outcome is likely to be – order boils down to the manipulating the probabilities of events.

The opposite of order is chaos – or a situation where there is always a 50-50 chance of any two events happening.

The manipulating of events and the production of order out of chaos is what culture does on a daily basis.  We speak of a cultural crisis if the order of culture is breached too often.

Culture also differentiates. This is because order is created by categorising, setting boundaries – Difference is the result of this order building activity

However, in every culture there are those who transgress boundaries, who do not fit, those who are ambivalent, and such ambivalences are unlikely to disappear because in reality no attempt to classify the complexities of the world are ever going to be able to accommodate the actual complexity of the world, and hence the more culture or order there is, the more ambivalence.

Culture may well be an attempt to distance chaos by creating order but the result is ambivalence (a self-defeating process!).

Because of their unsavoury yet intimate connections with the state of uncertainty,  the impurity of classifications, the haziness of borderline and the porousness of borders are constant sources of fear and aggression, and these are inseparable from order-making and order-guarding exertions (33)

Order is also important in the global power struggle – Imposing order onto others is one way of gaining power. The more routine and predictable one’s life is, the more order, the less power. Order is something the powerless suffer and which the powerful impose, whereas they themselves (the elite) are relatively free to move as they please.

The above logic is at work in globalisation – Globalisation is a world disorder – It is presented to us as chaotic (a genesis discourse) rather than predictable (a Joshua Discourse) and order is an index of powerlessness. The new global power structure is operated by the opposition between mobility and sedentariness, contingency and routine, rarity and density of constraints. Globalisation may be termed ‘the revenge of the nomads’.

Escape and volatility rather than ominous presence (like bureaucracy and the panopticon) are now the means of power. Normative regulation (which was costly) is no longer necessary in the age of flexibility – what keeps the precariat in check today is their vulnerability – They race to the bottom in an attempt to attract ultra mobile capital, aided in this by state policies of precariatisation. It is irrational for them to mobilise collectively because if they do capital will just take flight.

In terms of knowledge, space matters much less than it did in the past, and according to Paul Virillio, it doesn’t matter at all. In the age of instantaneous global communications, local knowledges which are based on face to face interactions and gatherings have much less authority. We get our information through cyberspace, and thus actual space matters less. However, for those doomed to be local, this is felt as powerlessness.

The elite used to accumulate things, now they discard them and have to be comfortable dwelling in chaos. Bill Gates is the archetype – constantly striving to produce new things in act of creative destruction. Chaos is thus no longer a burden in the culture of the elite, who experience it as play, but this is a curse for those lower down the order, who would wish to slow down the changes that are imposed on them as a result of the elites’ creative destruction.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who cannot live in space. For the former space does not matter, while for the later they struggle hard to make it matter.

Summary/ Comment/ Questions

Culture is an attempt to create order out of chaos – and in doing so it sets rules/ norms/ boundaries. However, this is a self-defeating process, because the result of order building is ambivalence – the more a culture becomes obsessed with order building, the more differentiation occurs, and the more scope for the established boundaries being transgressed.

Order is important in the global power struggle – the ability to impose order on others is a mark of power, to subject them to a routine, to limit them, while the ability to avoid having order imposed on you, to be free, is also a mark of power. Having order imposed is something the weak have done to them.

However, the elite no longer have to be present to impose order – they manage to do this by being free-floating – it is volatility which keeps people individualised and thus powerless and doomed to be local. (Limited to only certain types of freedom, but not the freedom to construct a more stable society).

Furthermore, local knowledges facilitated by face to face communications are undermined by global communications networks. This further undermines the ability of the precariate to act collectively.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who do not live in space.

Question – Doesn’t this somewhat overlook Glocalism – especially Permacultural elements of the green movement – albeit extremely fringe?

Chapter Three – Freedom and Security: The Unfinished Story of a Tempestuous Union

Starts with Freud – In order to be happy man must fulfil his desires (individual freedom) but he exchanges these in ‘civilisation’ for security, so that he can be free from the suffering of his own body, other men, and nature. Security is gained when the impulses are tamed and replaced with order in the form of culture which imposes compulsive (habitual) action on individuals. However this compulsive action restricts our freedom, and human life is a situation in which the urge for freedom constantly battles against the damn put up by culture.

In other words, there is a trade-off between the need for freedom and the need for security – we need both, but to get one we have to sacrifice the other, and the sacrifice of either results in suffering. It follows that happiness can only ever be a fleeting thing as we flit between too much freedom or too much security, and finding the best-trade off is an ongoing process.

Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.

Alain Ehrenberg suggests that rather than unhappiness stemming from man’s inability to live up to cultural ideals, it is rather then absence of any clear ideals which results in a not knowing how to act, this is the source of mental depression – and not knowing how to act rationally in particular. This is the malady of our post-modern times.

Impotence and inadequacy are the diseases of our late modern, post modern times. It is not the fear of non-conformity but the fear of not being able to conform, not transgression but boundlessness which are our problems. (Unlike in modern times, big brother is gone and there are numerous Joneses who couldn’t care less about our quests for our ‘true selves’).

This is freedom, but the cost is insecurity, unsafety and uncertainty (Unsicherheit) – We have the freedom to act but we cannot know whether our actions will have the desired result, yet we do know that we will bare the costs for bad decisions.

Individually we stand, individually I fall.

Following Norbert Elias’ book title ‘The society of individuals’ – society consists of two forces locked in a battle of freedom and domination – society shaping the individuality of its members, and the individuals forming society out of their actions while pursuing strategies plausible and feasible within the socially woven web of their dependencies.

However, it is important to note that the process of individualisation is different today from modern times.

In modern times class divisions arose out of different access to the resources required to self-assert – The working classes lacked the means to do so and turned to collectivism to assert themselves, while the middle classes were able to be more individualistic – yet they generally responded to being disembedded through attempts to re-embed.

However, individualisation today is a fate and not a choice. In the land of individual freedom of choice the option to escape individualisation and not participate are not on the agenda. We are told that if we fail it is our fault, and we must find biographical solutions to problems which are socially created.

There is a difference between the self-asserting and self-sustaining individual and the individualised individual.

Can there be politics in the individualised society?

The Self-Assertive ability of men falls short of what genuine self-assertion would require – the choices we are free to make are generally trivial.

There are two consequences of individualisation for politics – Individuals by decree do not seek to solve their problems collectively, they just look to others for advice about how to cope with their problems (e.g. chat shows), and they tend to to view committing to acting with others as too limiting on their own freedom. Individuals by decree do not see engaging in public life as a duty, they tend to see it as an investment and only do so when they can get something back, and as a result the only thing individuals by decree tend to ask of society is minimal – to protect their bodies from danger and to protect their property rights.

Hence why networks are the new norm in the postmodern society – which consist of shallow connections (weak ties) as they are easy to access and easy to leave. As a result, in the individualised society the individual is not really a citizen because they have invested so little of themselves in that society.

Togetherness, individual style

The gap between the right of self assertion and the ability to influence the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible or unrealistic seems to be the biggest contradiction of second modernity, and we would do well to tackle this collectively.

Short termism and selfishness are rational responses to a precarious world – We have all been hit by global economic forces over which we (or seemingly no one else) has control, or we know someone who has (downsizing etc.) and so the rational response to this is to look to oneself, not invest in collectivism. No one seems to be discussing the fact that this uncertain world is human made, and that what we are dealing with is the ‘the political economy of uncertainty’.

The root of the problem is the flight of power from politics – capital is extraterritorial and politics remains rooted to space – and the political solutions to the problems mobile capital creates is yet more freedom for capital – because there is no global institution that is capable of doing the job of regulating it. No one seems to have any solutions!

When individals accept their impotence en masse (following Cornelius Castoriadis) – society becomes heteronomous – pushed rather than guided, plankton like, drifting, it is like people on a ship who have abandoned any attempt at steering the vessel, and so at the end of the modern advernture with a self-governing, autonomous human world, we enter the era of mass confromity

Making the individualised society safe for democracy

Democracy is an anarchic force – one best recognises democracy when it is complaining about not being democratic enough. Democracy is a constant battle to find the right balance between freedom and security. For most of modernity the fight has been for more freedom, now we need to focus more on security. However, the biggest danger of all is that we call off the fight to get the balance right by opting out of the social process (and engage with society only as indivduals).

What is to be done? We need global instituitons to limit the flow of capital, at the state level – basic income. However, a bigger question is who is to do it?

Summary, Comment and Questions

I think Bauman is trying to say too much in this section – It’s much easier to understand some of what he says by cutting out about a third of it and reording it….

Capital is freefloating and the average person’s job is more precarious, and there are no global or national institutions capabable of controlling International Capital (power, says Bauman, has departed from politics). Because of this, people see no point people getting involved in politics, and thus we no longer seek collective solutions to social problems and we only ask society to do the bare minimum for us.

In short, structural changes in the nature of Capitalism have altered the way we perceive politics – we now see it as pointless and thus we are no longer contributing to the construction of our society.

Instead, we seek biographical (personal) solutions to these systemic problems – . Rather than getting involved in long-haul politics, we limit our range of vision, our range of options to choosing how to better surviving or cope in this precarious world – we spend our time re-training, or improving our C.V.  (marketing) to make us more employable or promotable, for example. (Bauman says that selfishness and shortermism are a rational response to a precarious world). We are spured on by our efforts because we know that if we fail in our efforts we will be held responsible for the the consequences of our inability to keep ourselves employable.

The key thing here is that this limited range of choices we are choosing between is forced on us – we haven’t actively decided to not engage with society as political beings, the social structure has changed in such a way that politcs is now (objectively?) pointless, and we don’t know how to fix it, thus we narrow our range of vision to focussing on that narrow range of events we think we can control, and doing so, Capital becomes freer, and so our lives become even more unstable.

This is why Bauman says…. The gap between self-assertion and the ability to affect the social settings which make that assertion realistic (which is required for ‘genuine self-assertion’ ) is the biggest contradiction of second modernity.This is because what we are currently witnessing is individualisation by fate which falls well short of genuine self-determination – In general the choices we are free to make are relatively trivial.

Comment

Firstly, Interestingly, this theory does not depend on there being a false consciousness  – whether we fail to see that there are systemic contradictions which are causing this need to continually update ourselves to keep ourselves employable or whether we see it but simply cannot see any alternative is moot – the point is the important thing is whether or not we perceive the systemic contradictions, we KNOW that if we do not try we will be held responsible for our failure by society, and it is this ‘responsibilisation’ which is compelling us to keep on keeping on.

Secondly, I guess this links back to why Bauman perceives the decline of the Welfare State is so bad, because it’s very existence assumes that it is not our own fault that we sometimes might suddently find ourselves unemployed.

Chapter Four – Modernity and Clarity – The Story of a Failed Romance.

When reason tells us that the world is an uncertain place, indecision of the will is the result. Ambivalence is a mixing of the doubts of reason and this indecision of the will.

The more my freedom grows in terms of the greater the range of future possibilities, then the less grip on the present I have. The less freedom I have, the greater my grip on the present.

In considering freedom we need to consider the difference between the range of viable possibilities on offer, which possibilities I wish to achieve and my ability to achieve them. If the volume of possibilities exceeds the capacity of the will then restlessness and anxiety are the result, but if I lack the means to attain a possibility I desire then withdrawal is the result.

Freedom, Ambivalence and Scepticism seem to go together.

After a few pages outlining the historical development of sceptisism in philosophy, Bauman points out that modern sceptics were pretty much universally obsessed with order building, as exemplified in the popularity of order building – Modernity was fundamentally a legislative process.

The mission of modernity was (in Freudian terms) was to restrain the pleasure principle with the reality principle, or (in Durkheimian terms) to socialise the individual so that they would never want what they couldn’t achieve  and would want to do what was socially useful – real freedom meant to live like a slave (to one’s desires), society’s job was to get people to agree to acceptable freedoms and duties. In short, Modernity was about cutting the ‘I want’ down to the ‘I can’. Restricting people’s desires was the way Modernity dealt with the problem of ambivalence.

Or to sum up – The modern project was about society determining what freedoms were possible and then legislating and socialising so that people internalised these legitimate wants. Here we can see the origins of modernity’s totalitarian tendencies.

Two things in retrospect – this project has failed, and it has been abandoned. One reason this battle with ambivalence failed because the powers of creative destruction and the individual’s desires played second fiddle to the ‘objective’ constraints imposed on them.

Today it is desire itself which fuels social change – Needs creation seems to be the main thing which Capitalism does (following Bourdieu). The way we integrate into society is as consumers – and we can only integrate if our wants constantly exceed our current level of satisfaction. (The only exception to this is the underclass, but they are the minority – their wants are managed, limited).

(p68) The permanent disharmony between wants and the ability to achieve them is for the postmodern era functional – hence why we have a high degree of ambivalence in identity formation, social integration and systemic reproduction.

Today the market requires ambivalence and we are free to enjoy its wares, but we are unfree to avoid the consequences (downsizing etc.) because the only solutions on offer to help us deal with the downsides of the free market are market-solutions.

A second reason why modernity failed to tackle ambivalence is because modernity was always local, and it resulted in many localities with different solutions to ambivalence. Hence why we have neotribalisms and fundamentalism – these aim to heal the pain of ambivalence by cutting down choices – but the nature of these responses is that they are unpredictable.

The 300 year war against ambivalence is not over, it has just changed its form – it is no longer carried out by conscript armies but by guerrilla units which erratically erupt occasionally between the brightly lit consumer malls.

Summary, Commentary and Questions

When we have too much freedom, ambivalence is the result (ambivalence is a mixture of the doubts of reason (uncertainty over the probability of events) and the resulting indecision)

Modernity attempted to reduce ambivalence by order building – society determined what freedoms were necessary and desirable and then socialised people into thinking in this way – restricting their freedom, replacing the ‘I want’ with the ‘I can’. People’s desires came second to the social.

With consumer-capitalism, however, things are now reversed. Needs creation is the main thing Capitalism now does – profitability requires us to desire things, and once we have those things to tire of them quickly and desire new things. Fuelling Individual desire lies at the heart of modern Capitalism.

However, there is a growing gap between our growing (unfulfilled) desires and our ability to achieve them, and this creates ambivalence, which today is functional for Capitalism.

There is nothing in mainstream society that offers us an escape from this, nothing that offers us structure and certainty and a limt to our desires – at the level of social integration, we integrate as consumers, at the level of identity construction we must make choices based on consumption, and at the level of societal reproduction, this requires people to be consumers. The message is clear – you are free to consume, free to make a choices.

However, we are not free to escape from this because the only solutions to our confused state of having too much choice are market-solutions. This is why Bauman said we are compelled to make these choices, forced into making more and more choices by a system that requires us to make choices.

There are movements which offer alternatives to consumerism – Fundamentalisms and Neotribalisms – but these do not offer the possiblity for systemic reproduction because they tend to be local, and are thus only ‘guerilla movements’ between the brightly lit shopping malls which perpetuate ambivalence at the levels of the system and the lifeworld in general.

Commentary

Again I think Bauman here is extremely verbose – He’s basically saying that the system requires that we keep on buying and discarding, buying and discarding at ever faster rates and so we are sort of forced into making consumer choices. This ‘built in obsolence’ is the very basis of the system and it destabilises us, bewilders us, makes us uncertain of what we should be doing and uncertain of who we are.

I think Bauman maybe ignores elemts of the green movement and the anti-consumerist movement – these have the potential to resocialise people into constraining their desires on the basis of a global ethics of responsibility for the other, and do, in fact, specifically focus on how the local and the global intersect.

Chapter Five – Am I my brother’s keeper?

The concept of the welfare state has changed from being a safety net to a springboard. Its success is judged by the extent to which it renders itself unnecessary – by getting people back into work. The unspoken assumption behind this is that dependence is something which is to be ashamed of – ‘decent people’ simply do not entertain the idea of being on welfare.

According to Levinas, our starting point should be ethics – I am my brothers keeper, because his well-being hinges on what I do and refrain from doing. He is dependent on me. To question this dependence by asking the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’, asking for reasons why I should care, is to stop being a moral being, because morality hinges on (internalising?) this crucial dependent relationship.

The need of the other and taking responsibility for meeting that need is the cornerstone of ethics according to Levinas. This has been the basis of the Judaeo-Christian form for a long time, and the idea underpinned the welfare state, but this idea is now well and truly under attack.

The welfare state came into being because of a conflation of factors – simultaneously a result of ethical intentions, labour movement struggle, and the need to diffuse political tensions, but also because it was in the interest of both labour and capital. Both industry and the state benefited from having a reserve army of labour – because profit was derived from the number of people employed and state-power was derived from the size of the reserve national-army.

However, the nature of unemployment has changed today – They are not a reserve army of labour because downsizing means they are unlikely to be recalled by industry, and they have no social function – they are not needed for work and they are not useful as consumers – because the products they need are low profit and they cannot afford anything else. Hence the recasting of them as the underclass – society would be better off without them, so best to forget them! Free floating capital has no need to keep local-underclasses nourished. To illustrate this Bauman draws on Beck’s ‘The Brave New World of Work’ – only 1 in 2 Europeans have regular, full-time employment.

We hear nothing of people’s lives turned around by social security,  but we hear a lot about the minority of welfare scroungers. The underclass in popular imagination is demonised.

Why? Because the life of the average worker is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety – as is the consumer lifestyle he adopts — Ordinary life in short is miserable – Cynically the creating of an underclass whose lot looks miserable and who we can look down on – a life even worse than our own – makes us a little less miserable. However, they do get some stability – in the form of welfare cheques and it is this that the average flexible worker perceives – rather than their suffering on account of their not being able to access the many opportunities on offer. This also means the prospects for solidarity with the poor are slim. To the average person, the welfare state gets no support.

Because there is no rational economic reason for the welfare state, we should go back and make the ethical argument for it….. I am my brothers keeper, we are all dependent on each other and a society should be measured by its weakest link.

What moral duty implies is inherently ambivalent – it requires constant communication, it is not open to measurability (bureaucracy etc.) – It is always asking the question what is best for that person, what do they need, without me becoming a mere tool of that person, and how do we negotiate around things when our ideas about what is good comes into conflict with theirs.

To sum up – there is no rational reason to support the welfare state, but the ethical argument does not depend on rationality – it is its own starting point – It is better to live for other other, it is better to stand in misery rather than to be indifferent – even if this does not make a society more profitable. This should be the starting point!

I don’t think this needs any translating, for once just summarising it once makes it understandable.

Chapter Six – United in Difference

Many aspects of modern living contribute to a feeling of uncertainty – the feeling that the world in which we live, and the future is uncontrollable, and thus frightening – Thus we live today in a culture of ambient fear (following Doel and Clarke).

The things which contribute to this are as follows:

  1.  The capacity of the nation state to put things in order, to classify things and set the future has dramatically declined since the collapse of communism (this is basically the collapse of metanarratives applied to politics). Moreover the rest of the world does not look to the ‘civilisational centre’ (the developed world) for guidance any more. The main relation between the two seems to be that the rich supply weapons to facilitate numerous tribal conflicts – The New Barbarism might be an apt way to describe globalisation.
  2. Universal deregulation – the tearing up of all other freedoms other than those granted to capital – so that everything else gets subjected to the irrationality of market forces. The freedom of capital benefits from weak states – this is a new world disorder. The vast majority lose out in this process – inequality increases but it is not only the marginalised who are harmed, very few of us feel secure in our homes or our jobs – human rights do not extend to the right to a job, the right to social secuirty, or the right to dignity.
  3. The self-woven safety net of the family and the community, based on people connections and indigenous knowledges (connections for the sake of connections, with long term commitments) have been severely weakened – at this level of social integration we are increasingly dependent on technologies and the market, and so such bonds reflect the uncertainties inherent to these things. Also, we increasingly cast the other as sources of pleasure, asking what we can get from them, rather than what we can do for them.  4. Culture is soft and indeterminate – human connections are cast into successive encounters and Human identities are fragmented, a series of masks. Rather than our identity being like us building a house, it is rather that we put up a series of pre-fabricated buildings, tear one down and then put up another. The fragments of life do not necessarily relate to the other fragments… In our culture the art of forgetting is more useful than remembering.

These are some, not all of the features of postmodern life which result in uncertainty – anxiety.

Modern cities are places of perpetual strangers – Strangers are by definition messy, they do not fit in with your system of order – and thus cities are patchwork places in which no one will feel comfortable everywhere. The chief stratifier in the modern city is the extent to which you have freedom of movement – the extent to which you can avoid the areas you don’t want to go into and get to the areas where you do want to get to. In other words, city dwellers are stratified by the extent to which they can ignore the presence of strangers.

For the better off the messiness of strangers can be avoided – For those in the suburbs, strangers are an occasional pleasure when they want to interact with them, and those who provide services for them. For the poor, however, dealing with strangers cannot be avoided, and they are experienced as a threat to their sense of orderliness. They live in areas where they are not able to choose, and lack the money to escape, so they vent their frustrations in other ways – everything from racism to riots for example. Following Cohen, people feel as if they are losing their sense of home because of the stranger (but the strangers are not the real cause of course, they are just a symptom).

Bauman now proposes  that specific forms of postmodern violence stem from the privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation of identity problems – the dismantling of collective institutions through which people can come together means people no longer discuss what the root causes of their shared identitity problems might be.

We have an opportunity here – of bringing to a conclusion the disembedding work of modernity – now the individual has been set free, we can move beyond nationalism and tribalism and rethink what it means to live as humanity – and here the rights of the stranger are fundamental. This will be an involved process… the sole universal guiding principle should be the right to choose one’s identity as the sole universality of the citizen/ human – we should celebrate this,and then work on how unity might be achieved with this new diversity. However, there is also ample scope for the balkanisation of politics and tribalism as a response.

We tend to see strangers as either exotic pleasure sources or as exaggerated threats… and this in turn stems from polarisation of wealth and life chances, but also of the capacity for genuine individuality… until we sort this out the detoxification of strangers and a move forwards to genuine new global concepts of citizenship are a long way off.

Commentary

I guess it’s passages like this that demonstrate Bauman’s Late rather than Post-modern attitude to a postmodern world – there is still hope for the future!

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A Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’, Part Two – The Way We Think

Part Two – The Way We Think

Chapter Seven – Critique – Privatised and Disarmed

More than anything else so far this chapter represents a good summary of some of Bauman’s major ideas.

What is wrong with our society is that it has stopped questioning itself? We are reflexive but it is a limited reflexivity which focuses on our own personal circumstances, our own strategies for navigating through life, but this reflexivity does not extend to looking at the conditions which determine or limit the kinds of strategies available to us.

There is criticism of society, but its nature has changed because the way ‘citizens’ engage with society is different – we now treat it like a caravan park rather than a shared residence – we expect most other people to keep their distance, and we expect minor changes to be made for our convenience. We no longer approach society like a house (or somewhere where we feel at home) in which we all share a lot in common and need to muck along together in order to get by. The later offers the chance for genuine autonomy and self-constitution, the former does not.

The causes of this change are deep rooted, to do with the transformation of public space, and the way in which society works and how it is perpetuated – summarised in the shift from a heavy/ system society to a liquid/ network society.

The heavy modern society was one of Fordism and Panopticons and with the threat of Big Brother – and critique was aimed at liberating the individual from totalitarianism. This is no longer the case. We are still modern in the sense that creative destruction lies at the heart of our society, but two things have changed – firstly, the disappearance of the idea of there being an end point, and secondly the disappearance of the notion of the just society – that we can legislate our way through change – now adapting to changes has been privatised – it is up to the individual to find a way using his own resources.

Commentary – So Bauman is saying now that society is based on constant and rapid change  we are forced to continually adapt – we are told this is freedom, but it is not because we are compelled to choose, we have to make choices, and we are not free to not make choices (at least if we want to integrate into society in the normal ways rather than retreating from it, which, as Bauman mentions elsewhere, is a mere reaction to globally mobile capital rather than genuine autonomy). Moreover, we no longer have control over our society, because our globalised society is shaped from above by the extraterritorial forces of Capital, and so we narrow our agency to small-things – such as building our CV or constructing our identity. In both of these spheres we settle for being consumers – we use the products provided by the market to differentiate ourselves, and we integrate (at the level of society) with other people as consumers based on these limited, apolitical, non-autonomous, individualised biographies. And bleakly, at the end of the day, limiting our reflexivity to identity construction via consumption perpetuates our powerlessness in relation to the globalised political economy.

All second modernity means is that experts dump their contradictions at the feet of individuals and leave them to make the choice – to seek biographical solutions to systemic contradictions – the problem is there are very few solutions that are adequate, especially when you do not have the resources.

We live in the age of small change, not big government, and in the age of TINA – but individuals are individuals by decree, not de facto, and they lack the resources for genuine self constitution (which would require them to have some kind of control over their political economy).

The privatisation of critique means constant self-critique – but because none of the strategies on offer are up to the task we also end up with scapegoats – various groups to blame our troubles on – what we need to do instead is to get back to Politics – and to translate private troubles into public issues and seek collective solutions to these.

This is difficult when the public realm has been colonised by private affairs – and the task of critical theory is now to reclaim this space, to repoliticise private concerns and public issues.  The task of politics today is to reconnect the abyss beetween the individual de jure and the individual de facto.

Further comment

(I’m mashing this up with bits from elsewhere) Whatever we do as individualised individuals is never enough (for most of us at least) to guarantee us some kind of security and/or get everything we want (Capitalism in fact depends on this) – but we do not blame the system for this, we blame ourselves, because we have internalised to such an extent the message of individualism – mainly through TINA (this looks like a dig at Giddens’ 3rd Way) but also because the public realm has become colonised by private affairs – basically the media does not talk about politics, and if it does so, it does so through the lens of indivdualisation.

As a result rather than criticising society, we have constant self critique – rather than social critique – and if we fail we end up blaming ourselves, or others for their failure. However, we also have scapegoats emerging – most obviously the Underclass.

The solution is to reclaim Politics at the level of the Agora.

Questions/ tasks students could consider

Locate some examples of TV shows and websites which focus on privatised critique (hint- BB3 an C4 are good places to start!)

Locate some social-scapegoats and analyse the media discourse surrounding themselves

Locate some groups which are atempting to reclaim Politics. 

Chapter Eight – Progress – The Same and Different

Having a grip on progress means having a grip on the present – it has little to do with the future. The problem is that today (following Bourdieu) we have little grip on the present. These are the reasons…

  1. Not knowing who is going to steer us through postmodern times – the old power bases are gone – the Fordist Factory is uprooted, the political domain powerless, we are in the age of free-floating capital. It is as if we are all on a plane, but the pilots have left the cockpit.
  2. The absence of a vision of the good society – Economic Liberalism and Marxism are both dead, this is probably a good thing given the tendency for metanarratives to end in genocides.

Progress today is ongoing – constant improvement without an end – and it is privatised – it is up to us to lift ourselves up and get out of those elements of social life which we do not like.

However, because we live in a world of universal flexibility, Unsicherheit is everywhere, and thus very few people have a grip on (the ability to control) their present – and this means the goal of long term progress is hard to establish for most.

Instead, short termism seems to be the norm – coping, adapting, surviving is what most people do!

Life becomes episodic as a result.

Commentary

This is a classic statement of progress in relation to modernity and post modernity – Once again we could point to the Green Movement as a counter-example of this, but for most people I think the notion of ‘progress’ has become individualised and short-term.

Here Bauman goes a bit further than previously – not only does Unischerheit individualise, it also changes the way we perceive the future and time in the present. Life has become short term and episodic. This is an idea which Bauman develops in future books – suggesting that many of us no longer operate in ‘linear time’ but rather in ‘pointilist time’ – life has become a series of unrelated episodes not really joined together by a coherent narrative – following, as I understand it, Erikson’s Tyranny of the Moment.

The state of flux we fined ourselves in is so fluctuating that this even changes our relationship to time – we are left in pointlist time, and so find it difficult to even construct an individualised biography – because doing so requires some purchase on the present, which we don’t have.

If this is correct then we may in the future come to redefine ‘success’ ‘utopia’ ‘the good life’ or even ‘normality’ as the ability to construct a coherent (individualised) narrative of the self – even if that self is thoroughly depoliticised. In fact, through the CV building activities I’ve witnessed where I work, this could already be happening. In the realm of the social, Facebook may be a good example of this. 

Questions

What would count as resistance to this system? Possibly groups like Adbusters that seem happy with Pointlilism but just aim to perpetually subvert, but then again are they self-constituting?  Maybe the Permaculture Movement?

Chapter Nine – Uses of Poverty

We live a world of growing inter and intrasocietal inequality, this is the gravest problem we face. Much has been said about this, but little has been done to arrest it. This chapter questions the frame in which we address the problem and explores some possible solutions.

When we discuss poverty we only discuss the economic dimensions – we do not discuss the following….

‘the prescence of the large army of the poor and the widely publicised egregiousness of their condition… offsets the otherwise repelling and revolting effects of the consumer’s life lived in the shadow of perpetual uncertainty. The more destiute and dehumanised the poor of the world and the poor in the next street are shown and seen to be, they better they play that role in the drama which they did not script and did not audition for….The poor today are the collective other of the frightened consumers, the modern day hell which induces the average person to carry on working-consuming. What one learns is that the fate of certainty in poverty is worse than daily dealing with the uncertainties of working life, while focussing on their depravity rather than their deprivation enables anger to be chanelled to them (like burning effigies).’

The problem is that there are fewer and fewer jobs – there is a crisis of unemployment – capitalism does not need that many people to be in work, it is that simple!

This is a serious problme because beyond providing income, work, or livelihood, employment is the activity on which genuine, progressive self-assertion rests, and in the era of flexibilsation, this is lost – This is our probllem, without stable work we have a mass existential crisis.

Our crisis is caused by the political economy of uncertainty – global capital moves around dismantling order – to which neoliberal nation states capituaulate by competing in a race to the bottom, through the processeses of dregulation and further privatisation. Today capital maintains power not by legislation but by destabilising – by leaving behind privatised individuals who lack the capacity to organise effectively. Crippling uncertainty is the latest tool of globally mobile capital.

What we need is for politics to catch up with the power of capital. We need to challenge capital (especially finance capital) based on a concept of the common good.

Can nation states rise to the challenge? Basically no, their problem is that they are inward looking, doomed to be local. Following Alain Gesh – what we need is a New Internationalism, and to date there are few agencies doing this – Mostly the large NGOs but then the solidarity they garner is sporadic.

Commentary

By now it is becoming clear that for Bauman the biggest challenge facing humanity is that of how to regulate international Capitalism – again, drawing on what he has said elsewhere –

Tasks – Find out some of the worst examples of harms done by ‘Capital Flight’ – This shouldn’t be too difficult! Research into some of the proposed solution (beyond the Robin Hood Tax!)

Chapter Ten – Education: Under, For and In Spite of Modernity…

What is functional in education today is not the knowledge we learn, not learning to learning, but learning to unlearn the habits we have learned. In the postmodern world, with no fixed frame of references, forgetting is the key skill.

Universities do not fit the postmdodern era –

They offer a model of learning in which there is a clear body of knowledge to be learned, passed down by authorities, which does not fit a world in which there are knowledges and no clear authorities, but huge cultural relativities.

Knowledge has now become radically democratised – in the age of the internet – and episodised – rather than it being linear.

In the age of flexibilised working, quick training and re-training courses fit better.

A university education does not make economic sense.

The kind of long-term linear, structured learning they offer only makes sense within the time of eternity or the time of progress – modernity put paid to the former, postmodernity to the later.

The intellectual authority of the unviersity, and of academics has been undermined by the mass media – Intellectual authority use to be measured by the number of people who would come to listen to a person, then the number of books sold, but now it is the amount of air time someone gets – and here Dallas has more importance than Philosophy. In the era of the media public attention is scarce and notoriety the main currency – maximium impact then immediately forgetting is the name of the game – the kind of long search for truth you find in universities will not hold the public’s attention – so academic knowledge will not make it into the public domain.

Finally, the claim that scientific and technological knowledge is superior is open to question following Foucault and Beck.

So what do universities do – they can either subject themselves to market forces – and compete – letting the market judge what is socially useful knowledge – or they can withdraw into ivory towers – both change fundamentally the role of the university – (note the later is not autonomy, it is irrelevance.)

The future of the university lies in mutlivocality – the task of pilosophers of education is how to plan for this when there is no one central authority and how to incorporate open-ended knowledges into the process.

No Comment, other than to say I am wondering how long teaching has a profession?

Chapter Eleven – Identity in the globalising world.

In the mid 1990s the issue of identity became immensley popular in the social sciences – this chapter explores why.

(142) ‘Anxiety and audacity, fear and courage, despair and hope  are born together. But the proportion in which they are mixed depends on the resources in one’s possession. Owners of foolproof vessels and skilled navigators view the sea as the site of exciting adventure, those condemned to unsound and hazardous dinghies would rather hide behind breakwaters and think of sailing with trepidation. Fears and joys emanating from the instability of things are distrbuted highly unequally.

The idea of identity as an unfinished project and that individuality is a product of society is by now a trivial truth but what needs to be stated more often is that our society also depends on how the process of individuation is framed and responded to.

The notion that we have to become what we are has been around for a long time, the renewed focus on this is because of the radical disembeddedness of postmodern life – the places we might embed ourselves into are shifting – If we are running, the finishing line keeps moving, the lanes change and the track itself shifts.

The task of identity now is not that of a pilgrim – knowing where he is going, and figuring out the best way to get there but of a vagbond, not knowing where to go…. The task of identity is to make a choice and then defend the frame you construct from being erroded, which it might well be.

Eriksen said that the identity crisis of adolesents end when one feels one has a grip on oneself – when one has developed a sense of sameness and continuity. This view has aged – today we live in era when a constant identity crisis is the norm – in a world where things shift – having a continuous identity means to shut off options, it restricts one’s freedom too much – and so people prefer light identities – fluid connections which involve non-binding commitments – so that they may move on quickly. The postmodern subject has to be flexible, so when you reach your goal, you are not yourself!

The power of global capital has escaped inditutional politics, and in response people have retreated into the narrow, local concerns of life politics rather than Politics — These are self-perpetuating – and it is in this context that the growing interest in life-politics needs to be scrutinised.

P150 – Cristopher Lasch — Quoteable — In the age of precarity where we have no grip over global capital we retreat into that which does not matter – but people kid themselves – thus we get into therapies, the wisdom of the east, jogging… These are things which do not matter, and away from things that do matter but about which nothing can be done.

In all of the above ways, we retreat from what really matters (which is figuring out how to control global capital, and how to get on in an increasingly diverse world).

Today we use the word community to refer to fleeting connections, but it is not real community we are forging… and in doing so we also put up boundaries, and we create pegs on which to hang our fears.

The process of identitification as it stands lubricates the wheels of globalisation – The fact that we retreat from Politics allows Capital even more freedom.

Commentary

This is basically something I have thought for a long time – Cultural studies is simply irrelvant as are many studies on identity, indeed the whole focus on postmodern identities – absolutely pointless – espeically when not grounded in the constext of political economy.

Nice little summary this – Globally mobile Capital makes us retreat from Politics and into the realm of identity construction and the formation of communities based on weak ties (which are not weak communities on which Sociology focuses – but focussing on these and ‘telling their stories’ can tell us nothing.

I guess what’s interesting about the end bit is that Bauman’s suggesting that Sociology should be focussing more on the alternatives – how we control globally mobile Capital – it should have a Political agenda rather than focussing on what is immediately obvious (which is just identity-fluff). Useful for teaching value freedom this!

Chapter Twelve  – Faith and Instant Gratification

Starts with Seneca –  In his dialogue ‘On Happy Life – he notes that the problem facing those who seek the pleasures of instant gratification is that the pleasures fade quickly – thus there is no lasting happiness in such a strategy. He also noted that the kind of people who seek such pleasures care not for the past, present or future.

What in Seneca’s time was limited to a few people is today the case at the social level – The past offers us no guidance in the present, which is out of our control and the future seems full of hazards – hence more of us escape into the short-lived pleasures of instant-gratification.

It is unclear whether a long-term investment will be useful to us in the future – assets all to easily may become hinderances, and so times are hard for faith/trust/ commitment.

I’m not actually sure Bauman means when he says ‘assets’ – this doesn’t seem to apply to property, for example? Perhaps he means investments in ‘consumer commodities’, or in education?

The primary reason for this is the flexibilised nature of work – soon market demand will be met by 1/3rd of the population – unemployment and thus precariousness is structural.

Also, in the realms of consumption, we have learnt to see products as things we buy for short-term use, not long-lived.

In such a situation it makes sense to seek only temporary commitments with others, no investment in lasting relationships, because we know not what the future will bring. We tend to see relationships as things to be consumed, rather than produced (dating sites a such a great example of this!). Relationships are more likely to last until further notice – when they stop providing gratification, rather than being worked through.

Uncertainty and episodic lives tend to go hand in hand – it is unclear which is cause and which is effect.

An important aspect of faith is to invest in something which lasts longer than an individual human life – This used to be the family, but the typical family today may be made and unmade several times in the course of one’s life.

There is little else that we can look to to provide lasting values to commit to… And until we do something about the looming threat of insecurity this is unlikely to be the case.

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I wonder if some people now regard their social media profiles as symbols of their immortality? Where you gather together photos and comments with you at the centre,  rendering the need to make a more serious investment in anything even less necessary!

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Sociological Theories of Consumerism and Consumption

consumerism and consumptionMany of us spend a lot of time thinking about the things we might consume, and how we might consume them, and we do this not only as individuals, but as friends, partners, and families, and so intensely do we think about our consumption practices that the things we buy and the experiences we engage which are linked to them become invested with emotional significance and central (crutches) to our very identities.

The consumption of goods and services is so thoroughly embedded into our ordinary, everyday lives that many aspects of its practice go largely unquestioned – not only the environmental and social consequences have got lost on the way, but also they very notion that consumption itself is a choice, and that, once our basic needs are met, consumption in its symbolic sense is not necessary and thus is itself a choice.

In sociological terms one might say that contemporary reflexivity is bounded by consumption – that is to say that most of the things most of us think about in life – be they pertaining to self-construction, relationship maintenance, or instrumental goal-attainment, involve us making choices about (the strictly unnecessary) things we might consume.

Even though I think that any attempt to achieve happiness through consumption will ultimately result in misery, I would hardly call anyone who tries to do so stupid – because all they are going is conforming to a number of recent social changes which have led to our society being based around historically high levels of consumption.

There are numerous explanations for the growth of a diverse consumer culture and thus the intense levels of unnecessary symbolic consumption engaged in by most people today – the overview taken below is primarily from Joel Stillerman (2015) who seems to identify five major changes which underpin recent changes in consumption since WW2.

The first explanation looks to the 1960s counter culture which despite having a reputation for being anti-consumerist, was really more about non-conformity, a rejection of standardised mass-consumption and promoting individual self expression. Ironically, the rejection of standardised consumption became a model for the niche-marketing of today, much of which is targeted towards people who wish to express themselves in any manor of ways – through clothing, music, foodism, craft beers, or experiences. Some members of the counter culture in fact found profit in establishing their own niche-consumer outlets, with even some Punks (surely the Zenith of anti-consumerism?!) going on to develop their own clothing brands.

A second discussion surrounding the normalisation of consumerism centres around changes in the class structure, following the work Bourdieu and Featherstone (2000). Basically these theorists see the intensification of consumption as being related to the emergence of the ‘new middle classes’ as a result of technological innovations and social changes leading to an increase in the number of people working in jobs such as the media and fashion.

Mike Featherstone focuses on what he calls the importance of ‘cultural intermediaries’ (who mainly work in the entertainment and personal care industries) who have adopted an ‘ethic of self-expression through consumption’ – in which they engage in self-care in order to improve their bodies and skills in order to gain social and economic capital.

The values of these early adopters has gradually filtered down to the rest of the population and this has resulted in the ‘aestheticisation of daily life’ – in which more and more people are now engaged in consumption in order to improve themselves and their social standing – as evidenced in various fitness classes, plastic surgery, and a whole load of ‘skills based’ pursuits such as cookery classes (yer signature bake if you like).

A third perspective focuses on individualisation – as advanced by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck.

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In their view, after World War II, universal access to higher education and social welfare benefits in Europe led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity provided by family, traditional authority, and work. Today, individuals are ‘free’ from the chains of external sources of identity, but this freedom comes at a price. Individuals are now compelled to give meaning to their lives without the certainty that they are making the right choice that in the past had come from tradition. Individuals are forced to be reflexive, to examine their own lives and to determine their own identities. In this context, consumption may be a useful vehicle for constructing a life narrative that gives focus and meaning to individuals.

As I’ve outlined in numerous blog posts before, Bauman especially sees this is a lot of work for individuals – a never ending task, and a task over which they have no choice but to engage in (actually I disagree here, individuals do have a choice, it’s just not that easy to see it, or carry it through!).

Fourthly, Post-modern analyses of consumption focus on the increasing importance of individuals to consumption. Building on the work of Lytoard etc. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) argue that changes to Western cultures have led to the erosion of modernist ideas of progress, overly simplified binary distinctions like production and consumption and the notion of the individual as a unified actor. They suggest that in contemporary societies production and consumption exist in a repeating cycle and retail cites and advertiser have increasingly focussed on producing symbols which individuals consume in order to construct identities.

These changes have led to increasing specialising of products and more visually compelling shopping environments, and F and V argue that these changes are liberating for individuals and they seek meaning and identity through consumption, which they can increasingly do outside of markets.

Fifthly – other researches have looked at the role of subcultures in contemporary society, where individuals consume in order to signify their identity as part of a group, and doing so can involve quite high levels of consumption, even if these groups appear quite deviant (McAlexander’s 1995 study of Harley Davidson riders looks interesting here, also Kozinet’s study of Star Trek fans).

Something which draws on numbers 3,4 and 5 above is the concept of consumer tribes (developed by Cova et al 2007) which are constantly in flux, made up by different individuals whose identities are multiple, diverse and playful – individuals in fact may be part of many tribes and enter and exit them as they choose.

Finally, Stillerman points out that underlying all of the above are two important background trends

  • Firstly, there are the technological changes which made all of the above possible – the transport links and the communications technologies.
  • Secondly there is the (often discussed) links to the global south as a source of cheap production.

Very finally I’m going to add in one more thing to the above – underlying the increase in and diversification of consumption is the fact that time has sped up – in the sense that fashions change faster than ever and products become obsolete faster than ever – hence putting increasing demands on people to spend more time and money year on year to keep up on the consumer treadmill….

So there you have it – there are numerous social trends which lie behind the increase in and diversification of consumption, so the next time you think you’re acting as an individual when you’re getting your latest tattoo, maybe think again matey!

Related Posts 

Consuming Life (Bauman, 2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

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

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