I can’t think of any individuals who represent Britishness, continuity and stability better than THE QUEEEN – she’s just always been there throughout my entire life, and through all my Dad’s adult life too.
And, unlike younger members of the royal family, The Queen it seems has never put a foot wrong – she’s just done her queen thing for 70 years – attended thousands of national events, given her speech at Christmas, opened Parliament nearly every year (until recently) – she is very possibly THE ONLY continuous symbol that’s just ‘carried on’ for that length of time.
When she was coronated in 1953 (that date’s from memory I think it’s right), Functionalism was in its heyday, at least American Functionalism exemplified by the work of Talcott Parsons – and and events such as the Jubilee and the way the majority of people come together around The Queen seem to be good examples of a shared collective conscience.
And even the way the Royal Estate seems to be managing the succession – giving Charles more of a central role and making him more visible (he opened Parliament this year) seems very ordered, very MODERN – orderly change within a centralised authority – there really is something very modern about the whole institution of royalty.
And it seems to me that there’s a general feeling that the 70th Jubilee is something good – there’s almost a sense of relief that there’s something positive to celebrate post-covid and amidst the Cost of Living Crisis – I doubt there will be many overt protests this year.
However I also get the feeling there’s a kind of ‘disbelief in relief’ at having The Jubilee to celebrate – it’s obvious the Royal family has faded in ‘glory’, it’s obvious that this will probably be The Queen’s last significant jubilee, there’s almost a tinge of sadness about the whole affair.
It’s as if we’re witnessing a celebration of a bye gone era – it’s like a flashback to Modernity when things were more certain – kind of similar to when you go to an 80s party – you dress up and make believe for an evening – and so here does the Nation for the Jubilee Weekend.
Because in truth the Royal Family is more post-modern than ever – with Meghan and Harry having ‘divorced themselves’ from the institution, and with their very own paedophile-prince (Andrew) showing that they don’t all have the same norms and values.
And once The Queen is gone we are left with Charles and Camilla – it’s just not the same rally-round is it? Much more chalk and cheese!
And when the Jubilee weekend is over, it’s back to postmodern/ late modern reality for us all – the grind, the uncertainty, the increasing cost of living, the fear of the next Pandemic.
This Jubilee celebration is just a pit stop to the past, pleasant to play modernity dress up for a weekend, but that’s all it is.
Voices of Guinness: An Oral History of the Royal Park Brewery (202) is a recent academic work by Tim Strangleman which explores the experience of work in one Guinness Factory from the 1940s to the early 2000s.
The research took place over several years and consists of oral histories (presumably based on in-depth structured, or even unstructured interviews) with people who used to work in the factory and the use of a range of secondary documents such as photos, pictures and the Guinness factory magazine.
Strangleman puts together a kind of collage of life histories to present various stories about how workers made sense of going to work: what work meant to them and how they coped with its challenges.
This is a useful example of ‘work in modernity’ – Strangleman describes how the Guinness company established a kind of ‘industrial citizenship’ – their aim was to build workers who were fully rounded humans who had a sense of ownership over their work, a concept which many seem very alien now with ‘zero hours contracts’.
The workers for the most part in the 1940s – 1970s at least bought into this – they felt at home in the workplace and because of this, they felt able to criticize the management, a situation which may have been uncomfortable for them, but helped them to keep the workers happy enough.
In the 40s-60s – leisure was broadly focused around the factory and with work colleagues – there were several social clubs such as sports clubs, even theatre clubs, but this started to change in the 1960s when rising incomes led to more privatised forms of leisure.
The workers in late modernity also expected to be employed for life, which is one of the most notable changes to date – most students today don’t want a job for life, and you see the idea of ‘temporary employment’ built into the modern day site of the factory – NB the Guinness Factory is now closed, it has been replaced with ‘Logistics’ wharehouses, the kind of temporary structures which stand in contrast with the more permanent nature of work in modernity.
This is an excellent study to show what work used to be like in Modernity, and as Strangleman says, it reminds us what we have lost in Postmodernity.
It’s also interesting to contrast how the solidness of the factory then ties in with the stable idea of ‘jobs for life’ whereas now people no longer expect or even want jobs for life, we see more temporary buildings forming the basis for working class jobs, most obviously the prefab Amazon warehouses.
Steve Bruce points out that the New Age mostly appeals to successful, highly educated, middle class individuals, especially those working in the creative and expressive professions. The kind of individualist beliefs espoused by the New Age Movement fit in well with the world view of such individuals. The doctrine of self-generated success fits their experience of life so far, as they believe they have driven their own success through their own efforts, and New Age practices are a means of achieving even further success.
Bruce further points out that most New Age practices have been stripped of the need for any significant level of self-discipline – all that is required to develop one’s potential is to attend a weekly class, or engage in 20 minutes of yoga or meditation every day. There is no requirement to make any drastic life-changes (like many of the World Rejecting NRMs) and so this fits in well with the busy life styles which most people lead.
In short, Bruce argues that the New Age Movement fits the extremely individualistic nature of late modern societies.
Paul Heelas suggest four reasons why the the New Age Movement has grown in popularity in the Late Modern era:
Modernity has given people a multiplicity of roles, many of which contradict each other, and many people as a result have fragmented identities. The New Age Movement offers people a chance to construct a coherent identity
Consumer culture has created a ‘culture of discontent’ as people fail to find satisfaction in the products and services they consume – the New Age Movement offers an alternative way of seeking perfection, but still offering a choice.
Rapid social changes associated with modernity lead people to seeking security.
The decline of traditional religion has meant people have little alternative.
Ultimately the New Age offers a balance of solutions to those who both experience modernity as an iron cage and a crumbling cage – it offers people freedom, but within a structure they themselves construct.
It also offers people the chance to pursue both ‘utilitarian individualism’ and ‘expressive individualism’, just in different and potentially more satisfying ways than those options offered through consumer culture.
Love and Reason will forever fail to communicate… for three reasons.
Reason is about use, love is about value. The world as seen by love is a collection of values, as seen by reason, a collection of useful objects – Value is the quality of a thing, usefulness an attribute of the things’ user. The usefulness of an object stems from a sense of lack in the user – to use something to fulfill that lack. Usefulness, and the use of reason to get what we want, is about using up the other, it is about gratifying ourselves. Love on the other hand is about valuing the other for the sake of the other.
Use is about annihilating the other for the sake of the self, love is about bolstering the other in one’s otherness and protecting them. Love means self-denial.
Secondly, reason has boundaries – it is about closing off the realm of possibilities, limiting, while love is boundless – it is forever open ended and has no limits.
Reason cuts infinity to the level of the finite self, love extends the self to the infinite.
Finally, reason prompts loyalty to the self while love prompts loyalty to the other. Reason tells us how to manipulate the other to fit around my desires, love encourages us to bend to the will of the other.
There is more to love than this – it is like signing a blank cheque – giving oneself to the forever changing uncertainty of what the other might be like in the future.
For Levinas ethics precedes ontology – ethics is better than what is – the starting point is that I put them first – my neighbour – this is the starting point, and from this point forwards there are no rules. Talking, engaging in dialogue, figuring out what is right and what should be the ‘is’ moves on from here. But care for the other should be the starting point!
Also following Logstrup – Together these propose ‘responsibility for the weakness of the other’ as the fundamental human condition – always making the effort to put the other first, and figuring out what this means is the basis of human social life – not just obeying commands and deferring to authority. This means a state of uncertainty.
To love means to be in a state of perpetual uncertainty, but people still need to get by – and reason is necessary for this – And to make things easier we often defer to authorities. However, authorities themselves use reason in the wrong way – take their attitude to the welfare state for example– they put reason first – the starting point is that we cannot afford it and so how can we reduce it – it should be the other way around – how can change society so that we can afford it?
Authorities use reason without love. It is up to us to love first (he doesn’t say this here, but he does elswehere)
Commentary Bauman seems to be casting an individual or a society which premises reason as a fundamentally selfish person or society – I’m no philosopher, but I think he’s talking more about cost-benefit analysis than ‘pure reason’ – or instrumental rationality – Whatever, I don’t want to get lost in semantics – I get his point – the society or person which puts the question of ‘how do I use this to achieve my goals’ first is selfish – because the logic of use will always end up using the other – bending them to my will.
The logic of what Bauman calls love is the opposite – putting the well-being of the other first. (NB Bauman does mention that there is a danger of becoming a patsy to the other – and all of the above is assuming you don’t yourself end up being manipulated by them….which is something we need to be on our toes about.)
I guess the principle of the welfare state is the first ever in world history where we’ve had this on such a large level. It is interesting to think how little we focus on how many lives have been saved or turned around by the welfare state, while instead we focus on the very few ‘welfare scroungers’. My suspicion is that the reality of welfare is the former, not the later, something I need to look into for sure!
I also like the question rephrasing in this – everyone should get a minimum level of care – how do we change society to make sure this happens? This is what labour should be focusing on in the election, fat chance of course!
Chapter Fourteen – Private Morality, Immoral World
For Levinas, his starting point is the moral party of two – where we are both for the other. This is morality. This is the primal scene in which both are unconditionally responsible for the other. However, when a third party comes into being (society), this necessary and sufficient condition of the moral party does not suffice any more.
Here in society I am confronted with many others and their companions – and the concepts of difference, number, knowledge, time, space, truth and falsity – my intuitive reality is not enough to cope with this anymore. In order to deal with this third other, I must leave my primal realm, and here I encounter social order and justice.
In society, with the third party, we lose our primal connection with the other as a face – and we become individuals who have roles and are governed by laws. To interact with society (following Simmel) is to engage with people who wear masks, engage in fraud, and we must learn the appropriate rituals for dealing with these people. This is far, far removed from original duality.
To return to original morality, if we can, we need to get back to connection with the other with all forms of social status dropped. We need to be reduced to the level of bare humanity given to us at our birth.
Kindness and charity are the two basic human characteristics – naturally, in the moral universe of two, they overflow…because we recognise our common humanity. However in society, the concept of violence is introduced through making comparisons – differentiation and then the liberal state wades in to put limits on charity – and justifies these limits through reason.
The basic problem is that there is a gap between micro and macro ethics – because I cannot be limitlessly for many others – it is impossible, so the state, that vehicle which Levinas thought would translate ethics into the social realm, can never be as ethically pure as the original two-person ethical ideal.
Following Jonas, the gap between micro and macro ethics has really come to the fore in the age of globalisation – technology and capitalism have altered the world massively, and not everyone benefits, and it seems that we have a decreasing capacity to know and predict the consequences of our actions. In fact the growing knowledge of the dangers ahead goes hand in hand with our incapacity to deal with them.
Jonas suggests that ethics (normative regulation) needs to catch up with Capitalism and technology – what we need is a sort of categorical imperative mark 2.
Bauman rounds off by pointing out that ethics are under siege mainly because of Free Market Forces being freed from the control of the nation state (and repeats what he’s written elsewhere) This process basically polarises. Can intellectuals provide moral guidance?
A weird end to the section – He basically seems to argue that the current knowledge class by declaring the end of ideology have effectively become the organic intellectuals of the post-modern era —- They provide no ethical guidance to us. However, it may be immoral to simply lurch from one crisis to the next thinking that there are no better ways to live.
In short, I agree with the end points, but not the ‘hypothetical ontology’ the end point rests on.
So in a hypothetical situation in which I am just with one other person (as a face) I cannot help but feel compassion (this is what he is talking about) for that other person, and I am naturally for him.
This sounds like it’s got something in common with the Buddhist concept of one’s true nature that ‘just is’ – Intuitive, overflowing with compassion, but in Levinas’ view this requires a dualism, an other, just one other, to bring all of this out. I’m inclined to say this is utter nonsense – It such a state of overflowing compassion exists it is self-less, and universal, beyond the self, not dependent on one (hypothetical?) other.
I think an ontological flaw (because it’s coming from a hypothetical idea generated by the intellect maybe) is that ‘my’ ability to be a moral being (basically limitless compassion) is dependent on there only being one discrete object – ONE OTHER (which, for clarity presumes that morality depends on a subject (me) and an object (ONE other) – Of course if this is the premise, then universal morality to more than one other is impossible.
There is no necessary reason why the ability to be moral requires one other in particular. I prefer the idea of morality defined around a pure-motive to do good for others which stems from self-transcendence, thus the basis of morality is not self-self it is non-self.
I am aware btw that I may be talking utter nonsense.
However, I do agree that it is much harder to be limitlessly for a range of others rather than one specific other, what I don’t agree with is the necessity of the other as the basis for morality. And the idea of the state as providing normative regulation because of the complexity of this makes sense – although obviously this is a very idealised conception of the state.
I also agree that there is a difference with dealing with ‘people stripped down’ as human beings, compared to dealing with people in society, because in society people take on roles and wear masks, this is something we do need to get over if we are to be more compassionate.
Finally, I also agree with the idea of using ethics to tame Capitalism. I also agree that to abandon ethics to relativism is to provide sustenance to the forces of Capital.
Chapter Fifteen – Democracy on Two Battle Fronts
Democracy requires an active agora, which in turn requires autonomous individuals and an autonomous society – a society in which people are free to form their own opinions and in which agreement around those opinions becomes law.
Democracy is under threat in the sense that the public body finds it more and more difficult to enact what is good and more and more people retreat from the agora.
The professional politicians no longer visit the agora, and for the citizens taking part in it seems increasingly like a waste of time and effort.
But the public space has been filled with private concerns.
Thus we have a Gordian knot that will be difficult to untie.
This is basically a repetition of what’s already been said in previous chapters.
Chapter Sixteen – Violence Old and New
Terrorism is a form of violence, but it is more than the acts themselves which attract the label – it is only those who lack power who get defined as terrorists by the powerful.
The essence of violence lies in coercing people into doing things they would not otherwise do, it lies in restricting their freedom.
The essence of all power struggles is the right to define with authority and to deny the right of others to define fields of action.
P209 – In all order building enterprises legitimacy (the right to define) is key – in other words the right to coerce, and in such enterprises, fighting (violence) means getting rid of anyone else who might contest your right to categorise….. your right to limit other peoples’ freedoms – thus the fight against violence in such a way is unwinnable.
Modernity has enlisted the fight against violence as one of its major concerns, yet it cannot document much progress – firstly because it is impossible to measure the actual amount of violence suffered by individuals and secondly because the very concept of order building rests on there being enemies to defeat.
However now that our institutional frame is crumbling, coercion is no longer working – people have more power to assert themselves, and violence is one way through which we can push boundaries… hence things like sexism.
At the level of the nation state – for those new nations, ethnic cleansing seems to be the way forwards. This, and making countries accommodate capitalism – both forms of violence.
17 – On Postmodern Uses of Sex
Sex, Eroticism and Love are linked yet separate. They could hardly exist without each other but each exists in an ongoing war for independence, and their boundaries are well-known for being contested.
Sex is simply the biological urge to reproduce – It hasn’t changed much, but eroticisms is cultural experimentation around sex – and lord knows there is enough surplus sexual energy to be inventive with.
In the past society dealt with this surplus sexual energy (the tendency towards eroticism) by either chaining it to sex for reproduction or to love – either people were encouraged to just have sex for reproduction and then any aspect of eroticism was hidden (either repressed or dealt with via porn, prostitution and affairs) OR it was linked to the romantic ideal of love.
Nowadays, however, eroticism is free floating – Why>? It isn’t just market forces manipulating it – There are two main underlying reasons.
Firstly the end of the ‘panoptic model’ of securing social order – which was necessary to turn masses of men into an army of industrial labourers.
However, today, the vast majority of people are integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrination, need creation rather than normative regulation. Most of us are trained as sensation seekers and gatherers rather than as producers and soldiers. We have a constant need for every deeper experiences, more intense than the ones before – this is the basis of a society based on seduction. It is not health but fitness which describes this society – being prepared to always be on the move!
There are three problems with the sensation gathering life-strategy in general…
Firstly, Fitness is always on the horizon, and is shot through with anxiety – you can always be fitter!
Second because fitness is solely about the Erlebniss, about sensations, it can never be intersubjectively reported or compared in any meaningful way – sensations remain entirely subjective – thus it breeds loneliness.
Finally – in fitness one is both the subject and the commander – you have to split yourself into two in order to drive yourself on – fitness requires total immersion, yet you also have to stand back and evaluate yourself – this is an impossible task for one person to accomplish.
All three of these lead to uncertainty, an unfocused free-floating anxiety.
Eroticism which ultimately focuses on the most extreme form of pleasure – organism has all of the above features – and thus eroticism is always a project – never complete, rarely fully satisfying.
Secondly sex is the material substratum of the cultural production of immortality and the supreme metaphor for the effort to transcend individual mortality and stretch human existence beyond the lifespan of individual humans. When sex is linked to reproduction or love then it reflects the efforts of humans to make themselves immortal, when it is detached from these then it loses this (?)
PM eroticism is perfect for constructing those PM identities which require Maximal impact and instant obsolescence.
Identities are now free floating, part of this is plastic sexuality – it has nothing to do with gender norms anymore. Parental control over child sexuality used to be regulatory – now we are suspicious of parents – child abuse etc. so we keep our distance. In short – all bonds of identity are being eroded.. This encourages us to rethink everything……
The problem for postmodern sexuality is that it is contradictory! Full of ambivalence!
18 – Is there life after immortality?This is a very obscure final chapter, quite an irritant to read.
Following Heidegger we know that our life means living towards death, and we know that our life is short.
Life appears to us (NB this is merely an assertion) as the only window of opportunity we have to transcend death, and culture is what we have (laughingly) built up to make our existence more permanent, less transient. (NB he’s getting all of this from Ernst Becker).
One way in which culture has convinced us of our immortality is through life after death: in the idea that the soul lives on after the body. He argues that this has not been disproved. However, following Weber, and to Nietzsche – Modern society no longer believes in God – but only because his existence cannot be proved.
In the absence of God, we build two bridges to try to deny our own mortality – individual level bridges, through a legacy of posterity and memory, but these are for the few only that stand the test time, so for the rest of us there are public bridges – two stand out – the family and the nation, both efforts to achieve ‘collective immortality’. There are others, such as football clubs, but none of them are serious competitors compared to the previous two.
However, families and nations have now ceased to be about perpetual duration.
Nations are now powerless compared to capital, and (interestingly) one thing which testifies to this is the ease with which new statehood is granted – smaller nations are easier for TNCs to deal with. Similarly with the family in the age of cohabitation and confluent love, relationships are not expected to outlive the people who make them up.
Given the crumbling of institutions which link the individual to universal values, then for this first time in history counting days and making days count is irrational. The consequences are as follows:
Firstly, the routes to individual immortality become crowded and as a result fame as a strategy is replaced with notoriety – which is results in a situation of maximal impact and immediate obsolesce.
Secondly, because even fame is now no longer a guarantee of immortality, then there is more urgency to enjoy mortal life, hence the moment becomes more precious.
Thirdly, the body, as all we have left (rather than the soul I presume) becomes the focus of our attention.
Fourthly, because the body becomes our temple, but we cannot be sure what effects this or that product has on it, we exist in a state of anxiety.
Ours is the first culture in history to not value the durable, we live to cast off, we live our life in episodes.
We have not been here before – we live in a state of continuous transgression and we do not seem to mind, but it remains to be seen what ‘being here’ and its consequences are like.
A brief summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, chapter 4: Work.
Bauman begins by citing, among others, Henry Ford as an example of someone who epitomized Modernity’s attitude towards work in relation to time. Work, done in the present, was valuable because it was driving history forwards. Those in power had such a belief in their hold over the present that they could look forward with confidence, feeling they could plan the future, control it. Progress, says Bauman, is a declaration that history is not relevant.
Progress stands not for any quality of history, but of a self-confidence in the present. Faith in progress stems from two things – the belief that time is on our side, and that we are the ones who make things happen. As Alain Peyrefitte put it – the only resource capable of making mass transformations is trust in society now and in the future we will share.
Are we propelled into the future by the horrors of the past, or are we dragged towards it by the hope of better things to come? The sole evidence by which to make a judgement is the play of memory and imagination, and what links or separates them is our self confidence or its absence. To the former, progress is an axiom, to the later the idea is laughable.
Aside for H. Ford quote about exercise – ‘Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it; if you are sick, you won’t do it.’
Today, we have lost our self-confidence and thus our trust in progress because….
Firstly there is a lack of an agency able to ‘move the world forwards – this is because the state remains fixed to a locality, but power flows well beyond its reach, and thus power has flowed from politics – thus we no longer know who it is that is going to move society forwards (thus our main question is not what is to be done, but who is going to do it)
Secondly, the idea of the ‘great society’ is dead – The ones that were planned (Marxism and economic liberalism) have both failed to live up to their expectations, and anyone who proposes a grand plan today is laughed out of court.
However, the modern idea of progress, even if there can be no salvation by society, is not one that is likely to end soon….. the life of modern men is still understood as a task, something to be worked on, it is something to be made…. The question is, what might progress actually look like in the age of ‘no salvation by society’?
The idea of progress has been deregulated and privatised – deregulated because the offers to ‘upgrade’ present realities are many and diverse and whether something counts as an upgrade is open to contest, also we can’t be certain if what we do will result in upgrading) , and privatised because individuals are called upon to use their own individual wits to improve their lives.
He now quotes Beck’s risk society – The tendency is towards the emergence of individualised forms and conditions of existence….. one has to choose and change one’s social identity as well as take the risks of doing so…. The individual himself or herself becomes the reproduction unit of the social in the lifeworld.
The problem is that the feasibility of progress rests on our hold on the present but we live in a world of universal flexibility… under conditions of acute and prospect-less Unsicherheit, penetrating all aspects of individual life – the sources of livelihood as much as the partnerships of love or common interests, parameters of professional as much as cultural identity, modes of presentation of self in public as much as patterns of health and fitness, values worth pursuing as much as the way to pursue them. And we all know from experience that plans may not work out like we plan them.
Bauman now suggests that Chaos Theory in science fits the mood of liquid modernity perfectly.
Where science and work use to anchor us to the present and guide us to the future (basically giving us structure), now they do not, and as we lose hold on the present, the less the future can be embraced… Stretches of time labelled future get shorter and the time-span of life as a whole is sliced into episodes dealt with ‘one at a time’. Continuity is no longer the mark of progress, life has become much more episodic.
Jacques Attali suggest that the labyrinth is the image which illustrates our ideas of the future. Chance or surprise rule in the labyrinth rather than pure reason.
Today work does not offer us a secure route to the future, it is more characterised by ‘tinkering’, and it does not have that fundamental grounding feature it had in the heavy modern period. For most people work is now judged on its aesthetic value – how satisfying it is of itself…. it can no longer give us satisfaction on the basis of ‘driving the nation forwards’, instead it is judged on its capacity to be entertaining or amusing.
(140-147) The rise and fall of labour
This section is simply a classic statement that industrialisation lead to freeing labour from the land, only to be tied to the Fordist Factory, but at least unionised Labour and Capital were equally as tide to each other – and came to be backed up by the welfare state. All of this gave some measure of stability.
(148 – 154) From marriage to cohabitation
The present day uncertainty is a powerful individualising force. It divides instead of uniting. The idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value.
He now follows Bordieu, Granovetter and Sennet to flesh out how changes in the conditions of unemployment have led to workers seeing traditional unionisation as being inadequate because of episodic, temporary work placements – there is little change for mutual loyalty and commitment to take root and this goes hand in hand with disenchantment. The place of employment now feels like a camping site.
Bauman likens this loosening of ties between labour and capital as being like cohabitation…. in the background is the assumption of temporariness….. but this disengagement is unilateral,,,, capital has cut itself free from the needs of this particular bunch of labourers. Capital, of course, is not as volatile as it wants to be, but it is extraterritorial, lighter than ever.
To an unprecedented degree politics has become a tug of war between the speed with which capital can move and the slowing down capacities of local powers to ward off the threat of capital disinvestment, and paradoxically, one of the ways local authorities can keep capital in place is by allowing it freedom to leave.
Today, speed of movement has become perhaps the paramount factor of social stratification and the hierarchy of domination…. The main sources of profits seem to be ideas rather than in material objects… and the objects of competition here are the consumers, not the producers.
He now cites Reich’s four categories of work…From top to bottom – decreasing status.
The reproduction of labour
The bottom category are the easiest to replace, and they now they are disposable and so that there is no point in entering into long term commitments with their work colleagues….. this is a natural response to a flexibilised labour market. This leads to a decline in moral, as those who are left after one round of downsizing wait for the next blow of the axe.
At the other end of the pole are those for whom space matters little – They do not own factories, nor occupy administrative positions – Their knowledge comes from a portable asset – knowledge of the laws of the labyrinth…. to them novelty is good, precariousness is value, they love to create and play and embrace volatility.
Bauman now relays a tale of being in an airport lounge and seeing two business men spend and hour and a half each on their phones conducting business as if the other did not exist – such people, he says, exist in outer space – they are not connected to any particular locality.
He now turns to Nigel Thrift’s essay on soft capitalism who focuses on its vocabulary – surfing, networks, coalitions, fuzzy logic…. this is an ambiguous and chaotic world where knowledge ages quickly.
He rounds off by saying that those who are in charge are virtually networked and for them information moves at an incredible pace…. the life expectancy of knowledge is short, they live in a world of the perpetual new beginnings.
However, such people are ‘remotely controlled’ – they are dominated and controlled in a new way – leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.
(155-160) Excursus: a brief history of procrastination
Cras, in Latin, means tomorrow. To procrastinate is to manipulate the possibilities of the presence of a thing by putting off, delaying and postponing its becoming present, keeping it at a distance and deferring its immediacy.
Procrastination as a cultural practice came into its own with dawn of modernity. Its new meaning and ethical significance derived from the new meaningfulness of time, from time having a history, from time being history.
Procrastination is what makes life meaningful. To illustrate this, Bauman spends some time outlining the meaning of the pilgrim in modernity. The pilgrim is someone who is going somewhere, but they are allowed the time to reflect on where it is they are going, thus the pilgrimage is meaningful. The pilgrim’s life is a travel-towards-fulfillment, and travelling towards fulfillment gives the pilgrim’s life its meaning,but the meaning it gives is blighted with a suicidal impulse; that meaning cannot survive the completion of its destiny.
Procrastination reflects this ambivalence…. the pilgrim procrastinates in order to be better prepared to grasp things that truly matter.
The attitudinal/ behavioural precept which laid the foundation of modern society and rendered the modern way of being-in-the-world both possible and inescapable was the principle of ‘delay of gratification’… without this, there is no idea of progress.
Procrastination, in the form of ‘delay of gratification’ (he’s pushing the definition of procrastination here!) says Bauman ‘put sowing above harvesting, and investing above creaming off the savings, but this delay also elevated the status of the end product to be consumed…. the more severe the self-restraint, the greater would be, eventually, the opportunity for self-indulgence. Do save, since the more you save, the more money you will be able to spend. Do work, sine the more you work, the more you will consume.
Owing to its ambivalence procrastination fed two opposite tendencies. One led to the work ethic another led to the aesthetic of consumption…. however, today we no longer value delay of gratification, this is just seen as hardship plain and simple!
Today we live in a ‘casino culture’ – we don’t want to wait for our pleasures, we want them immediately, in this moment, and moreover, each moment of pleasure lasts for a shorter and shorter instant… thus procrastination is under attack – under pressure are the delay of gratifications arrival, and the delay of its departure.
I think this might be the most importat bit….
In modern society, the ethic of delayed gratification justified the work ethic, and we may need something similar to in the consumer society…. we need the principle of dissatisfaction to justify the central role of desire….
To stay alive and fresh desire must, time and time again, be gratified, yet gratification spells the end of desire. A society ruled by the aesthetic (NB not ethic) of consumption needs a very special kind of gratification, akin to the Derridean phamakon – the healing drug and poison both at the same time, administered slowly and never in its final dose…. a gratification not really gratifying.
Today, our culture wages a war agains procrastination, a war against taking distance, reflection, continuity and tradition, a war against what Heidegger’s ‘modality of being’.
(PP160-165) Human bonds in the Fluid World
The feeling of our time summed up in works such as ‘Risk Society’ involves a combination of the experience of…
insecurity -of position, entitlements, livelihood
uncertainty – about continuation and future stability
un-safety – of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions… possessions and neighbourhoods.
Bauman now suggests that, in terms of livelihood, unemployment is structural and all we need do is look around to see that no one is in a really secure job…. and in this context, immediate gratification is rational. It makes even more sense when we know that fashions come and go (enjoy it now or the moment is gone) and that assets can become liabilities.
Precarious economic and social conditions make people look at objects as disposable, for one off use…. the individual should travel light.. and we apply this to things as well as to human bonds (which rot and disintegrate if not worked at).
Partnerships today tend to be seen as things to be consumed, not produced. In the consumer market, the ostensibly durable products are as a rule offered for a trial period, return promised if the purchaser is less than fully satisfied. If the partner in partnership is conceptualised in such terms, then it is no longer the task of both people to make the relationship work – til death do us part no longer applies, as soon as our partner ceases to give us pleasure, we look to discard and replace them. This leads to temporariness in relationships.
There is also something of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this!
Perceiving the world, complete with its inhabitants, as a pool of consumer items makes the negotiation of human bonds exceedingly hard. Insecure people tend to be irritable, they are also deeply intolerant of anything that stands in the way of their desires, and since quite a few of their desires are bound to be frustrated, there are plenty of things and
people to be intolerable of. (NB I think he’s arguing that it is lack of face to face stable human bonds that leads to insecurity, uncertainty, unsafety, and then that leads to insecurity). He rounds off the section by suggesting that consumption is also lonely, unlike production which requires co-operation towards a joint goal.
(165 -167) The self-perpetuation of non-confidence
Alain Peyrefitte suggested that the common, uniting feature of modern capitalist society was confidence – in oneself, in institutions and in others. They all sustained one another. Together, these three formed the foundational structure of modernity – enabling investment in the future. Employment-Enterprise was the most important of these.
This is no longer the case… no one expects to be in the same job ten years from now, and many of us would prefer to risk our pensions on the stock-market. Bauman also reminds us again of the power imbalance – the precariat especially, bound to the local, are increasingly subject to the whims of capital, which the state is unlikely to regulate. I think his point at the end is that the old labour movements are dead (again it’s not that clear).
In the first section Bauman provides an overview of some of the key features of contemporary urban areas.
Firstly, that modern urban areas are increasingly gated – To illustrate this he offers a description of Heritage Park, a new 500 acre gate community about to be built not far from Cape Town in South Africa, complete with high-voltage electric fencing, electronic surveillance of access roads and heavily armed guards. Within the fortifications, Heritage Park contains several amenities – from shops to salmon lakes, but the most significant feature for Bauman, is the assumption that lies behind the project – that in order to build a spirit of community, we can only do so if we exclude others.
Secondly, he illustrates that a fear of strangers is common by pointing out that increasing amounts of people think they are victims of stalkers and, although there is a long-historical trend of people looking for the source of their misery outside of themselves, this fear of stalkers is just the latest manifestation of a society-wide fear of the ‘mobile vulgus’, the inferior people who are always on the move (stalkers are not generally of the places which they stalk).
He rounds of this section by drawing on Sharon Zukin’s description of LA to provide an overview of the current evolution of urban life which can be described as the ‘institutionalization of urban fear’ the key features of which include…
‘defence of the community’ translated as the hiring of armed gatekeepers to control the entry.
Stalker and prowler promoted to public enemy number one.
Paring public areas down to defensible enclaves with selective access (thus reducing freedom to move about).
Separation in lieu of the negotiation of life in common.
The criminalisation of residual difference.
This is actually a very tame section for Bauman on this particular topic. There is a much stronger commentary in ‘Liquid Times’ in which he comments on ‘Fortress cities’, talking about how, for the marginalised, cities are increasingly becoming full of places where they cannot go.
(94) When strangers meet strangers
Drawing on Richard Sennet (which he does often), Bauman points out that ‘a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’ – the encounters are likely to be without a past or a future, and such encounters require a particular set of skills which Sennet calls civility.
Civility is not an easy skill to learn, it involves putting on a mask to shield others from having to deal with the private burdens of one’s own self, and we expect the same from others. In other words, civility is based on the mutual withdrawal of the ‘true self’ – we don’t expect to be cajoled into expressing our inner most feelings to others in public spaces, instead we put on a ‘public persona’ and expect others to do the same and this is what enables us to share space with masses of other people. This, in short is civility, which the city requires. Something else Bauman says later in the chapter (to my mind this is the important bit, obscured by his artistic efforts to define the concept) is that civility is hard-work – it involves making the effort to get on (and I assume work with) people that are not like you! In order to work effectively, the city requires civility.
Bauman doesn’t go into too much depth here about what ‘civility’ actually is btw, but crucially it clearly doesn’t involve just doing whatever you want, it involves restraint, and not just of your actions, but of your ‘true’ self-expression
BC – I’m not at all comfortable with the analytical divisions stopping with the distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘true (private?) self’ – I’d me much happier with a distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘that confluence of aggregates which people in their ignorance label their true-selves’
Bauman then argues that there are two general types public space which are removed from the above ideal-type model of civility –
The first of these categories of public-yet-not-civil spaces are public squares such as La Defense on the right bank of the Seine which are designed to be kept empty by their inhospitable architecture.
The second category is meant to serve the consumer – the most obvious example of which is the shopping mall in which the primary task to be performed is individualised consumption with a minimum of human interaction. In such spaces, encounters are kept shallow and strangers are kept out to minimise the disruption to consumptive acts
On this note, something interesting to explore further are how successfully counter-movements devoted to subvert the logic of such consumer-spaces. Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping is the most obvious example of this, and some aspects of the UK Uncut protests here in Britain might also be read in the same way.
Our consumer spaces, such as shopping malls, are completely ‘other spaces’ – the temples of consumption may be in the city, but they are not of the city. The temple of consumption, like ‘Foucault’s boat’ maintains a distance from daily life, it is anchored out at sea. Temples of consumption are also purified spaces in that diversity and difference are cleansed of all threats to us, unlike the more threatening and potentially disruptive differences in daily life (such as the increasing likely threat of losing your job!), and so these unreal spaces offer us the near perfect balance between freedom and security.
I’m reminded of two things – the contrast to the relative lack of purity and increased uncertainty when shopping in markets in developing countries, and the attendant requirement to pay close attention to the dynamics (and it is more dynamic) of barter – this contrast is useful for criticising western notions of development; secondly, the fact that such purity really is lulling consumers into a very false sense of security because the ‘security’ gained through the act of shopping is so very short-lived.
In such places as shopping malls we also find a sense of belonging, in that we are all there for the same purpose, and so it is here that we find (a very limited idea of) community. The problem with this, as Sennet points out, is that any idea of community, of sameness is a fantasy… it is only achieved through ignoring differences. However, inside the temples of consumption, fantasy becomes reality and we find a sense of belonging for a few hours in a ‘community’ of shoppers. In these ‘egic’ spaces, for a short-time we can ignore differences because we are all united by the urge to shop, we all share a common purpose. The problem is that this is a shallow community that does not require empathy, understanding, bargaining or compromising.
From personal experience, he may as well be describing every sit-down cup of coffee I’ve ever had in a Cafe Nero or Costa Coffee… Such an EASY feeling of non-community. At some point I must try and work out the average cost per hour per table, I’d like to put a figure on the cost of non-community.
Bauman now turns to Claude Levi-Strauss, who suggested that just two strategies were deployed in human history whenever the need arose to cope with the otherness of others:
Anthropoemic strategies – which traditionally involves vomiting out strangers, which today takes the form of deportation and incarceration.
Anthropophagic strategies – ingesting strangers, which traditionally takes the form of cannibalism, but today takes the form of enforced assimilation.
The first strategy was aimed at the exile or annihilation of the others, the second aimed at the suspension or annihilation of their otherness.
Bauman now brings the above threads together to argue that the public square is the emic stratgey, the shopping mall the egic straegy, both are a response to our having to live with strangers combined with our lack of skills with civility. Rather than learn the skills, our urban spaces are designed to either exclude others or nullify otherness.
Quick Commentary – I think Bauman might be the world master in dualistic constructions (no wonder he likes Levi-Strauss.)
Bauman rounds off this section by (much more briefly) outlining two other types of space found in cities (I think the idea is that they also prevent the development of civility, although I’m not sure what his opinion is on the later)
Non-spaces, such as airports and hotel rooms, are those which discourage settling in, and share some features of the first kind of space. These are uncolonised, free of all identity markers.
This is an eerily accurate description of my one (and never to be repeated) experience in a Travel-lodge. As if the sterility of the room wasn’t enough, the final straw was having to pay for breakfast first and then showing the receipt to collect a plate, bowl and cutlery set, although they did give us unrestricted access to the plastic cups.
Finally, there are empty spaces – Those which are unmapped, to which no meaning is ascribed. These are basically the poorer and unknown bits of the city.
(104) Don’t Talk to Strangers
The main point about civility is the ability to interact with strangers without holding their strangeness against them and without pressing them to surrender it or to renounce some or all of the traits that made them strangers in the first place.
All of the above four places are designed to strip out any of the challenges of togetherness by rendering strangers as invisible as possible and minimising interaction with them.
However, even though we have arranged our public places so we minimise the risk of having any meaningful interaction with them, they are still full of strangers. (Bauman argues that our preferred is to try and organise our lives so we do not have to interact with them at all, but for most of us this is simply not possible.)
And so, following Sennet again, we have arranged our cities into ethnic enclaves where we mix with people ‘just like us’ and we end up with little islands of people bound together by a shared sense of ‘being like these people, but not like other people’ – We have avoided the difficulties of forging relationships with and negotiating how to live with people who are different to us, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy – because we avoid dealing with people ‘not like us’, those people are more distant, so they appear more dangerous, and the idea of constructing an ‘ideal-society’ of shared interest in the midst of cultural difference becomes ever more fanciful. Or, to summarise all of this succinctly in the words of Sharon Zukin (again) – ‘No one knows how to talk to anyone anyone else’.
Ethnicity is the first and foremost way we retreat from the difficult realm of the heterogeneous society out there, the society which requires negotiating and effort to get along in. In ethnic groupings, we don’t need to talk to people, we just feel the same, our sameness is heteronomous, it is given, our right. Identity is about who you are, not about what you do.
Note to self – or question to self – how does this square with the Buddhist notion of transcending the self through ‘non-doing’ and non-identification. What is the difference between ‘doingness’ in Buddhism (ethics) and doingness in Bauman? Also, is Bauman saying that part of being ethical (being responsible) is ‘doing’ in the sense of making the effort to forge meaningful bonds with people who are not like us (in which case this could be a very noble, ideal reading of Habermas’ communicative utopia)… More to come on this…
Bauman sees such a carving out of ethnic niches as a rational response to a legitimately perceived crisis of public life, where the public realm (this is from the last chapter, remember?!) has been narrowed down to private confessions. Politicians in fact give the message that identity matters above all else, it is who you are, not what you are doing that truly matters. Once you have ‘identity’ as the central logic of existence, purging others not like me needs no further rationale.
Bauman now casts our obsession with purity and purging of strangers perceived to be dangerous as a public pathology – a pathology of public space resulting in a pathology of politics: the wilting and waning of the art of dialogue and negotiation, the substitution of the techniques of escape and elision for engagement and mutual commitment.
He finishes by saying…. ‘Do not talk to strangers has now become the strategic precept of adult normality.’ and providing the basic problem with the premise of the gated community…. George Hazeldon Heritage Park (the gated community mentioned at the beginning) would be a place where, at long last, all passers-by could talk freely to each other. They would be free to talk since they would have very little to talk about – except exchanging the routine and familiar phrases entailing no controversy, but no commitment either. The dreamt-of purity of the Heritage Park community could be gained only at the price of disengagement and broken bonds.
By way of commentary on this section – look at the picture below… from my local paper commenting on travellers using a piece of local grassland to graze their horses on. Odd how this is on my regular running route, and I’ve regularly run across this field, people, horses and all, and never felt particularly threatened by any of them.
(110) Modernity as History of Time
Today, if asked how long it will take to get from a to b, we will be asked about what method of transport, because the amount of space we can cross in a given amount of time is very much dependent on the mode of transport we use to get there. It is normal for us today to try to calculate how long tasks will take us given the technology we are using. We are normatively very time-conscious.
However, it has not always been thus. In pre-modern times, people did not think very much about time and space because such thinking was not required given the nature of their lifeworlds. If people were pressed hard to explain what they meant by space and time, they may have said that space is what you can pass in a given time, while time is what you need pass it, but they didn’t think to much about either because their conception of both was limited because their transportation and work techniques (what Bauman calls ‘wetware’) – humans muscle, oxen or horses – which made the effort and set the limits of what amount of space could be travelled in what time.
He now seems to celebrate the efforts of Enlightenment thinkers such as Newton and Kant (who he calls the ‘valiant knights of reason’) for their efforts in setting apart time and space in human thought and practise – or as he puts it, their efforts in ‘casting time and space as two transcendentally separate and mutually independent categories of human cognition’ – the distinction between which provides us with the ‘epistemological ground for philosophical and scientific reflection’ and the ’empirical stuff that can be kneaded into timeless truths’.
Bauman seems to be arguing here that the development of the basic conceptions of time and space have been historically useful, illustrating his modernist roots.
He then argues that it was the construction of such things as vehicles (hardware) that enabled us to travel faster and technologies more generally that enable us to do more in less time that gave rise to this widespread perception of time and space being separate fields of thought.
In Modernity, time came to be seen as something which could be manipulated and controlled, it became a factor of destruction, the dynamic partner in the time-space wedlock, and thus controlling time became crucial to controlling space – Whoever could travel faster could claim more territory. In a nice evocative phrase Bauman says that ‘modernity was born under the stars of acceleration’.
As modernity progressed, time became its central logic: rationalisation was essentially a process designed to make us more productive, to cajole us to do more in less time.
Bauman finishes off this section by saying that the main focus of what the powerful do with time (use their time for?) in modernity is to conquer space. Bauman casts the powerful as those who invade and redraw boundaries, and the faster they can do this, the better, whereas the the weak are those who must defend their territory, for them and their world, time is experienced as something which is ‘running out’. (The very last line is my interpretation, but I’m 99% sure it’s accurate.)
I’m not sure how far Bauman takes his analysis of the differential experience of time in his later works, but one fairly obvious interpretation is that the wealthy, have time on their side, most obviously in the form of privileged access to high speed rail and air networks, the fastest broadband, and also their ability to employ people to do things for them. In contrast, middling people experience time as something that is scarce, and frequently have too much to do in the limited time available, especially where family and work need to be balanced. In addition, it is worth noting that those on the margins have ‘all the time in the world’ and are free to use this time as they see fit, according to their limited means, but if they are hooked on the synopticon, then much of that time will be spent watching the money-rich, time-rich worlds of the elite who take up such a disproportionate amount of media air-time.
I’m further reminded here of another two things – Firstly the 1960s futurologists such as Toffler who predicted a 4 hour working day once we were properly ‘teched up’ (whatever happened to that?!) and secondly I think there’s utility in developing a methodology for calculating how much of our time we give away in surplus value, most horrifyingly in the form of interest payments on our mortgages. The utility of this would lie in being able to calculate how much time we would gain if gave up these things.
NB – At some point in this section Bauman also makes the point that the conception of our place in physical space seems to have ontological significance in modernity – when he suggests that at the individual level we could replace Descartes’ well known ‘I think for I am’ with ‘I occupy space therefore I exist’ and the meaning would remain the same. This didn’t seem to flow with the rest of his argument but I quite liked the point so I thought I’d make a note of it!
(p113) From Heavy to Light Modernity
This section deals with one of Bauman’s most well-known dualisms
The term Heavy Modernity refers to the era of hardware, or bulk obsessed modernity, where size is power and volume is success. This is the era of ponderous rail engines and gigantic ocean liners. To conquer as much space as one could hold,and then guarding the boundaries was the goal.
In heavy modernity wealth and power were firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land, empty space was seen as a threat, and heroes were made of those who penetrated the hearts of darkness.
In terms of production Modernity meant the factory, and the bigger, more routinised, more homogeneous the logic of control and the clearer the boundaries in many respects of the word, the better. Daniel Bell described the General Motors Willow Run plant in Michegan as one of the best examples.
Heavy modernity also involved the neutralising and co-ordination of time; in this eara, time, and what one could achieve in a given amount of time, became the measure of progress.
The relationship between labour and capital was like a marriage, until death do us part, because the factory tied both labour and capital to the ground. Neither could survive without the other which meant conflict, but a conflict born of the rootedness.
This is now changed, as evidenced by Daniel Cohen in the example of Microsoft: whoever begins a career there has not the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Today’s management is concerned with loser organisational forms, with adaptability, and as a result of thisthe idea of a ‘career’ seems out of place.
Behind this watershed change is the new irrelevance of space, masquerading as the annihilation of time. Space no more sets limits to action because of the instantaneity of communications. The instantaneity of time devalues space. Since all parts of space can be reached in an instant, no space has special value, and thus there is less reason to bear the cost of perpetual supervision of such spaces, given that they can be abandoned and revisited in an instant.
This might make sense when we are talking about software development, but in many other areas of work this just doesn’t apply. Surely we still have heavy modernity in places? The mining sector for example, and even supermarkets, which are at the centre of our nexus of consumption, are rooted physically to one place.
(p118) The Seductive Lightness of Being
In this section Bauman contrasts power in heavy modernity with power in liquid modernity.
He uses Muchel Crozier’s Bureaucratic Phenomenon to illustrate how power worked in the heavy period. Crozier pointed out that people who manage to keep their own actions unbound, norm-free and so unpredictable, while normatively regulating the actions of their protagonists rule: the freedom of the first is the main cause of the unfreedom of the second, while the undfreedom of the second is the ultimate meaning of the freedom of the first.
In Liquid modernity, while this basic relationship remains the same, it is those who come closest to the momentariness of time rule. Today Capital does not concern itself with managing labour; surveillance and drill are no longer necessary. Labour (because it either has little interest or choice in the matter, dealt with at more length in the next chapter) allows capital to travel light and engage only in short term contracts, in hopeful search of opportunity, of which there appear to be many. In Liquid Modernity, domination consists in one’s capacity to escape, to disengage, to be ‘elsewhere’ and the right to decide the speed with which all this is done, stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to resist their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battled of domination is waged with the weapons of acceleration and procastination.
The bit below is actually at the beginning of this section in the book, but I thought it made much more sense at the end…where he deals with how we are possibly beginning to view time differently.
In the extreme case of the liquid modern, the software world, time appears as Insubstantial and instantaneous, and so Bauman argues this is also an inconsequential time, in which we demand on the spot fulfilment , but which is also characterised by immediate fading of interest. Today, given that space and time are closer together, we have only ‘moments’ – points without dimensions.
Bauman provides two qualifications to the above –
Firstly, he questions whether this way of conceiving time (time with the morphology of an aggregate of moments) is still time as we know it.
Secondly, he says that the above only describes the developmental horizon of late modernity – the ever to be pursued yet never to be reached in full ideal of its major operators. It is a tendency towards rather than a state reached.
(p123) Instant Living
Bauman starts with Sennet’s observation that Bill Gate’s is very willing to destroy that which he had created in order to bring into being the next best thing, representing the trend for Liquid modernity to devalues the long term, (possibly because instanteity makes every moment infinite?)
Bauman next spends another couple of pages outlining how, in modern society, we valued the long-term more, and there was basically a balance between stability and change.
Today the balance has shifted towards an incredulity towards the value of stability/ immortality and there has been a culture shift towards constant revolutionising of many aspects of life.
Rational choice in this culture means to pursue instant gratification while seeking to avoid the consequences. This ushers both culture and ethics into unexplored territory. Today’s generation is living in a present that wants to forget the past and no longer seems to believe in the future…. but the memory of the past and trust in the future have been thus far the two pillars on which the cultural and moral bridges between transience and durability, human mortality and the immortality of human accomplishments, as well as taking responsibility and living moment by moment, all rested.
I may come back to chapter 4 later, but it’s only about architecture, which doesn’t really interest me!
The Condition of Postmodernity: A Summary of Chapter 5.
NB this is a very heavy going chapter….
Modernism is an aesthetic response to conditions of modernity produced by modernization. A proper interpretation of the rise of postmodernism, therefore, ought to grapple with the nature of modernization. Only in that way will we be able to judge whether postmodernism is a different reaction to an unchanging modernization process, or whether it reflects a radical shift in the nature of modernization itself, towards some kind of ‘post-industrial’ or even ‘post capitalist’ society.
Marx provides one of the earliest and most complete accounts of capitalist modernization. His theory of capitalist modernization makes for particularly compelling reading when set against the cultural theses of postmodernity.
In The communist manifesto Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has created a new internationalism via the world market, together with:
‘subjection of nature’s forces to man,
application of chemistry to agriculture and industry,
steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs,
clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers,
whole populations conjured out of the ground.’
It has done this at great cost:
destruction of traditions,
reduction of the valuation of all activity to the cold calculus of money and profit.
‘Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men’. (Marx and Engels, 1 952, 25) .
Marx here unleashes a rhetoric that defines the underside of al modernist aesthetics.
Marx begins Capital with an analysis of commodities, those everyday things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) which we daily consume in the course of reproducing ourselves. Yet the commodity IS, he avers, ‘a mysterious thing’ because it simultaneously embodies both a use value (it fulfils a particular want or need) and an exchange value (I can use it as a bargaining chip to procure other commodities). This duality always renders the commodity ambiguous for us; shall we consume it or trade it away?
But as exchange relations proliferate and price-fixing markets form, so one commodity typically crystallizes out as money. With money the mystery of the commodity takes on a new twist, because the use value of money is that it represents the world of social labour and of exchange value. Money becomes the means by which we typically compare and assess the value of all commodities. Plainly, since the way we put value on things is important, an analysis of money is of interest.
The advent of a money economy, Marx argues, dissolves the bonds and relations that make up ‘traditional’ communities so that ‘money becomes the real community.’ We move from a social condition, in which we depend directly on those we know personally, to one in which we depend on impersonal and objective relations with others. As exchange relations proliferate, so money appears more and more as ‘a power external to and independent of the producers,’ so what ‘originally appears as a means to promote production becomes a relation alien’ to them.
Money concerns dominate producers. Money and market exchange draws a veil over, ‘masks’ social relationships between things. This condition Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities.’ It is one of Marx’s most compelling insights, for it poses the problem of how to interpret the real but nevertheless superficial relationships that we can readily observe in the market place in appropriate social terms.
The conditions of labour and life, the sense of joy, anger, or frustration that lie behind the production of commodities, the states of mind of the producers, are all hidden to us as we exchange one object (money) for another (the commodity). We can take our daily breakfast without a thought for the myriad people who engaged in its production. All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object (there are no finger marks of exploitation in the daily bread). We cannot tell from contemplation of any object in the supermarket what conditions of labour lay behind its production.
Marx’s meta-theory seeks to tear away that fetishistic mask, and to understand the social relations that lie behind it. Marx would surely criticise postmodernists for simply focusing on the ‘masking’ without looking deeper at the social relations of production which lie behind the production of commodities.
But we can take the analysis of money deeper still. If money is to perform its functions effectively, Marx argues, it must be replaced by mere symbols of itself (coins, tokens, paper currency, credit), which lead it to be considered as a mere symbol, an ‘arbitrary fiction’ sanctioned by ‘the universal consent of mankind.’ Yet it is through these ‘arbitrary fictions’ that the whole world of social labour, of production and hard daily work, get represented.
In the absence of social labour, all money would be worthless. But it is only through money that social labour can be represented at all. The magical powers of money are compounded by the way owners ‘lend their tongues’ to commodities by hanging a price ticket on them, appealing to ‘cabalistic signs’ with names like pounds, dollars, francs.
So even though money is the signifier of the value of social labour, the perpetual danger looms that the signifier will itself become the object of human greed and of human desire (the hoarder, the avaricious miser, etc.).
Money, on the one hand a ‘radical leveller’ of all other forms of social distinction, but is itself a form of social power that can be appropriated as ‘the social power of private persons.
Postmodernism seems to be a reinforcement rather than a transformation of the role of money as Marx depicts it – after all postmodernism suggests that we should focus on:
signifier rather than the signified,
the medium (money) rather than the message (social labour),
the emphasis on fiction rather than function,
on signs rather than things,
on aesthetics rather than ethics.
As commodity producers seeking money, however, we are dependent upon the needs and capacity of others to buy. Producers consequently have a permanent interest in cultivating ‘excess and intemperance’ in others….’ Pleasure, leisure, seduction, and erotic life are all brought within the range of money power and commodity production. Capitalism therefore ‘produces sophistication of needs and of their means on the one hand, and a bestial barbarization, a complete, unrefined, and abstract simplicity of need, on the other’ (Marx, 1964, 148). Advertising and commercialization destroy all traces of production in their imagery, reinforcing the fetishism that arises automatically in the course of market exchange.
Furthermore, money, as the supreme representation of social power in capitalist society, itself becomes the object of lust, greed, and desire. Yet here, too, we encounter double meanings. Money confers the privilege to exercise power over others – we can buy their labour time or the services they offer, even build systematic relations of domination over exploited classes simply through control over money power.
Money, in fact, fuses the political and the economic into a genuine political economy of overwhelming power relations (a problem that micro-theorists of power like Foucault systematically avoid and which macro-social theorists like Giddens – with his strict division between allocative and authoritative sources of power – cannot grasp).
The common material languages of money and commodities provide a universal basis within market capitalism for linking everyone into an identical system of market valuation and so procuring the reproduction of social life through an objectively grounded system of social bonding.
Yet within these broad constraints, we are ‘free,’ as it were, to develop our own personalities and relationships in our own way, our own ‘otherness,’ even to forge group language games, provided, of course, that we have enough money to live on satisfactorily.
Money is a ‘great leveller and cynic,’ a powerful underminer of fixed social relations, and a great ‘democratizer’. As a social power that can be held by individual persons it forms the basis for a wide-ranging individual liberty, a liberty that can be deployed to develop ourselves as free-thinking individuals without reference to others. Money unifies precisely through its capacity to accommodate individualism, otherness, and extraordinary social fragmentation.
But by what process is the capacity for fragmentation latent in the money form transformed into a necessary feature of capitalist modernization?
Participation in market exchange presupposes a certain division of labour as well as a capacity to separate (alienate) oneself from one’s own product. The result is an estrangement from the product of one’s own experience, a fragmentation of social tasks and a separation of the subjective meaning of a process of production from the objective market valuation of the product.
A highly organized technical and social division of labour is one of the founding principles of capitalist modernization. This forms a powerful lever to promote economic growth and the accumulation of capital, particularly under conditions of market exchange in which individual commodity producers (protected by private property rights) can explore the possibilities of specialization within an open economic system.
This explains the power of economic (free market) liberalism as a founding doctrine for capitalism. It is precisely in such a context that possessive individualism and creative entrepreneurialism, innovation, and speculation, can flourish, even though this also means a proliferating fragmentation of tasks and responsibilities, and a necessary transformation of social relations to the point where producers are forced to view others in purely instrumental terms.
The existence of wage labour is also required before profit-seeking (launching money into circulation in order to gain more money) can become the basic way for social life to be reproduced.
The conversion of labour into wage labour means ‘the separation of labour from its product, of subjective labour power from the objective conditions of labour’ (Capital, 1: 3). When capitalists purchase labour power they necessarily treat it in instrumental terms: the labourer is viewed as a ‘hand’ rather than as a whole person and the labour contributed is a ‘factor’ (notice the reification) of production.
The purchase of labour power with money gives the capitalist certain rights to dispose of the labour of others without necessary regard for what the others might think, need, or fee and this suggests one of the founding principles upon which the very idea of ‘otherness’ is produced and reproduced on a continuing basis in capitalist society. The world of the working class becomes the domain of that ‘other,’ which is necessarily rendered opaque and potentially unknowable by virtue of the fetishism of market exchange. Where an ‘other’ already existed (along gender or race lines for example) Capitalism also made use of this.
Capitalists strategically impose all kinds of conditions upon the labourer. The latter is typically alienated from the product, from command over the process of producing it, as well as from the capacity to realize the value of the fruit of her efforts – the capitalist appropriates that as profit. The capitalist has the power to mobilize the powers of co-operation, division of labour, and machinery as powers of capital over labour.
The result is an organized detail division of labour within the factory, which reduces the labourer to a fragment of a person. The ‘division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. This is enforced through hierarchies of authority and close supervision of tasks – of the workshop and the factory.
The division of labour in society ‘brings into contact independent commodity producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of competition, it is anarchic
This enforced fragmentation, which is both social and technical, is further emphasized by the loss of control over the instruments of production. This turns the labourer effectively into an ‘appendage’ of the machine. Intelligence (knowledge, science, technique) is objectified in the machine, thus separating manual from mental labour and diminishing the application of intelligence on the part of the workers.
In all of these respects, the individual labourer is ‘made poor’ in individual productive powers ‘in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital rich in social productive power’ (Capital, 1: 341). This process does not stop with the direct producers, with the peasants pulled off the land, the women and children forced to give of their labour in the factories and mines. The bourgeoisie ‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous “cash payment.”
[It] ‘has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’ (The communist manifesto, 45)
The ‘bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production because the ‘coercive laws’ of market competition force all capitalists to seek out technological and organizational changes that will enhance their own profitability vis-a-vis the social average, thus entraining all capitalists in leap-frogging processes of innovation that reach their limit only under conditions of massive labour surpluses.
Capitalism is necessarily technologically dynamic, not because of the mythologized capacities of the innovative entrepreneur but because of the coercive laws of competition and the conditions of class struggle endemic to capitalism.
The effect of continuous innovation, however, is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills.
Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. Not only does the life of modern industry become a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis, and stagnation, ‘but the uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the conditions of existence, of the operatives become normal.’
All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the workers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (Capital, 1: 604)
The struggle to maintain profitability sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to redouble their efforts to create new needs in others. The result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of capital and workers shift from one line of production to another, leaving whole sectors devastated, while the perpetual flux in consumer wants, tastes, and needs becomes a permanent locus of uncertainty and struggle. This is global in scope.
The resultant transformation in the experience of space and place is matched by revolutions in the time dimension, as capitalists strive to reduce the turnover time of their capital to ‘the twinkling of an eye’. Capitalism, in short, is a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history. If, therefore, ‘the only ‘secure thing about modernity is insecurity,’ then it is not hard to see from where that insecurity derives.
Yet, Marx insists, there is a single unitary principle at work that underpins and frames all of this revolutionary upheaval, fragmentation, and perpetual insecurity. The principle resides in what he calls, most abstractly, ‘value in motion’ or, more simply, the circulation of capital restlessly and perpetually seeking new ways to garner profits.
By the same token, there are higher-order co-ordinating systems that seem to have the power – though in the end Marx will insist that this power is itself transitory and illusory – to bring order to all this chaos and set the path of capitalist modernization on a more stable terrain. The credit system, for example, embodies a certain power to regulate money uses; money flows can be switched so as to stabilize relations between production and consumption, to arbitrate between current expenditures and future needs, and to shift surpluses of capital from one line of production or region to another on a rational basis.
But here, too, we immediately encounter a central contradiction because credit creation and disbursement can never be separated from speculation. Credit is, according to Marx, always to be accounted for as ‘fictitious capital,’ as some kind of money bet on production that does not yet exist. The result is a permanent tension between what Marx calls ‘the financial system’ (credit paper, fictitious capital, financial instruments of all kinds) and its ‘monetary base’ (until recently attached to some tangible commodity such as gold or silver). This contradiction is founded on a particular paradox: money has to take some tangible form (gold, coin, notes, entries in a ledger, etc.) even though it is a general representation of all social labour.
The question of which of the diverse tangible representations is ‘real’ money typically erupts at times of crisis. Is it better to hold stocks and share certificates, notes, gold, or cans of tuna, in the midst of a depression? It also follows that whoever controls the tangible form (the gold producers, the state, the banks who issue credit) that is most ‘real’ at a given time, has enormous social influence, even if, in the last instance, it is the producers and exchangers of commodities in aggregate who effectively define ‘the value of money’ (a paradoxical term which we all understand, but which technically signifies ‘the value of value’).
Control over the rules of money formation is, as a consequence, a strongly contested terrain of struggle which generates considerable insecurity and uncertainty as to the ‘value of value.’ In speculative booms, a financial system which starts out by appearing as a sane device for regulating the incoherent tendencies of capitalist production, ends up becoming ‘the main lever for overproduction and over-speculation.’
The state, constituted as a coercive system of authority that has a monopoly over institutionalized violence, forms a second organizing principle through which a ruling class can seek to impose its will not only upon its opponents but upon the anarchical flux mentioned above. The tools of ‘control’ include:
regulation of money and legal guarantees of fair market contracts
provision of social and physical infrastructures
direct control over capital and labour allocations as well as over wages and prices,
the nationalization of key sectors,
restrictions on working class power,
police surveillance and military repression.
Yet the state is a territorial entity struggling to impose its will upon a fluid and spatially open process of capital circulation. It has to contest within its borders the factional forces and fragmenting effects of widespread individualism and rapid social change. It also depends on taxation and credit markets, so that states can be disciplined by the circulation process at the same time as they can seek to promote particular strategies of capital accumulation.
To do so effectively the state must construct an alternative sense of community to that based on money, as well as a definition of public interests over and above the class and secretarian interests and struggles that are contained within its borders. It must, in short, legitimize itself.
It is, therefore, bound to engage to some degree in the aestheticization of politics.
‘The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past,’ Marx argues, ‘but only from the future.’ It must strip off ‘all superstition in regard to the past,’ else ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ and converts the cathartic tragedy of revolution into the ritual of farce. In pitting himself so mercilessly against the power of myth and the aestheticization of politics, Marx in effect affirms their remarkable powers to stifle progressive working-class revolutions.
Marx criticised Bonapartism as doing just this, and we can criticse Facism as doing the same in the 20th century.
The tension between the stability that state regulation imposes, and the fluid motion of capital flow, remains a crucial problem for the social and political organization of capitalism. This difficulty is modified by the way in which the state stands itself to be disciplined by internal forces (upon which it relies for its power) and external conditions – competition in the world economy, exchange rates, and capital movements, migration, or, on occasion, direct political interventions on the part of superior powers.
The relation between capitalist development and the state has to be seen, therefore, as mutually determining rather than unidirectional. State power can, in the end, be neither more nor less stable than the political economy of capitalist modernity will allow.
There are, however, many positive aspects to capitalist modernity:
The potential for reducing the powers of nature-imposed necessities over our lives.
The creation of new wants and needs can alert us to new cultural possibilities (of the sort that avant-garde artists were later to explore).
Even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual.
The reduction of spatial barriers and the formation of the world market not only allows a generalized access to the diversified products of different regions and climes, but also puts us into direct contact with all the peoples of the earth.
Above all, the passage to postmodernity opens up new vistas for human development and self-realization.
Revolutions in technology rendered possible by the division of labour and the rise of the materialist sciences had the effect of demystifying the processes of production (aptly called ‘mysteries’ and ‘arts’ in the pre-modern period) and opening up the capacity to liberate society from scarcity and the more oppressive aspects of nature-imposed necessity. This was the good side of capitalist modernization.
The problem, however, was to liberate us from the fetishisms of market exchange and to demystify (and by extension demythologize) the social and historical world in exactly the same way. This was the scientific task that Marx set himself in Capital.
However, until we reach socialism, there is always the possibility for nature to be re-mythologised.
It is out of the tension between the negative and positive qualities of capitalism that new ways to define our species being can be constructed: Capital may well create Bourgeois society and all of the exploitation and fetishisms that go along with it, but Capital also drives beyond national barriers and prejudices and beyond nature worship…. [beyond] all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproduction of old ways of life. (Grundrisse, 410)
Marx gives us plenty of advice on how we might fuse all the sporadic though widespread resistances, discontents, and struggles against the oppressive, destructive, fragmenting, and destabilizing aspects of life under capitalism so as to master the maelstrom and become collective creators of our own history according to conscious plan.
What Marx depicts, therefore, are social processes at work under capitalism conducive to individualism, alienation, fragmentation, ephemerality, innovation, creative destruction, speculative development, unpredictable shifts in methods of production and consumption (wants and needs), a shifting experience of space and time, as well as a crisis-ridden dynamic of social change. If these conditions of capitalist modernization form the material context out of which both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and cultural producers forge their aesthetic sensibilities, principles, and practices, it seems reasonable to conclude that the turn to postmodernism does not reflect any fundamental change of social condition.
The rise of postmodernism either represents a departure (if such there is) in ways of thinking about what could or should be done about that social condition, or else (and this is the proposition we explore in considerable depth in Part II) it reflects a shift in the way in which capitalism is working these days.
In either case, Marx’s account of capitalism, if correct, provides us with a very solid basis for thinking about the general relations between modernization, modernity, and the aesthetic movements that draw their energies from such conditions.
What appears on one level as the latest fad, advertising pitch and hollow spectacle is part of a slowly emerging cultural transformation in Western societies, and change in sensibility for which the term ‘post-modern’ is, for now, wholly adequate. I don’t want to claim that there is a wholesale paradigm shift of the cultural, social and economic orders, but in an important sector of our culture, there is a noticeable shift in sensibility, practices and discourse formations which distinguishes a post-modern set of assumptions, experiences and propositions from that of a preceding period.
With respect to architecture, Charles Jencks dates the symbolic end of modernism and the passage to the postmodern at 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972 when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s machine for modern living) as dynamited as an uninhabitable environment.
From thereon, architecture was to be about diversity and learning from local landscapes, to build for people rather than for man.
In planning there as a similar evolution – in the 1960s planning was all about developing large-scale integrated models of cities, but by the 70s it had become more pluralistic, employing ‘organic strategies’ – rather than pursing grandiose plans, development would be approached as a cottage of highly differentiated spaces and mixtures.
Shifts of this sort can be documented in all sorts of fields – McHale (1987) argued that the postmodern was a shift form an ‘epistemological’ to an ‘ontological’ dominant – Rather than seeking to find the best perspective from which to understand complexity, questions about how radically different realities might coexist, collide and interpenetrate came to the foreground. The boundary between fiction and science fiction thus effectively dissolved.
In philosophy, there was a rage against humanism and the Enlightenment legacy, and a deep aversion to any project that sought universal human emancipation through mobilisation of the powers of technology, science and reason.
Even the Pope (John Paul II) and the Prince of Wales resorted to postmodern rhetoric in the 1980s.
Yet there was still abundant confusion as to what the ‘new structure of feeling’ might entail – Modernist sentiments may have been displaced, but there was/ is little certitude about what had replaced them:
Does postmodernism represent a radical break with modernism, or is it just a revolt against certain forms of high modernism – is it a style, or a periodising concept? Does it have revolutionary potential, or is it simply the commercialisation of modernism and part of neo-conservative politics? And how does it fit in with post-industrialisation and late-capitalism – is it just the cultural logic of late-capitalism?
Harvey now suggests that we can use the schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism as laid out by Hassan in 1975/1985, as in the table below in which Hassan sets up a series of stylistic oppositions in order capture the way in which postmodernism might be a reaction to the modern.
Hassan’s oppositions may be caricatures, but there is scarcely an arena of present intellectual practice where we cannot spot some of them at work.
The most startling fact about postmodernism is its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire’s conception of modernity.
Postmodernism does not look for the other half, the immutable, it swims, even wallows in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that’s all there is.
Foucault instructs us for example to ‘develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and to ‘prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity’.
Nietzsche (who Foucault draws on) made much of the deep chaos of modern life, and how rationality could not make sense of it or control it.
Embracing fragmentation and ephemerality in an affirmative fashion brings consequences – Firstly there are those such as Foucault and Lyotard who attack the possibility of there being any kind of ‘meta-theory’ – condemning meta-narratives such as Marxism and insist upon the plurality of ‘language-games’. Lyotard of course defines postmodernism simply as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’.
Foucault’s ideas focus on the relation between power and knowledge. Foucault (1972) breaks with the notion that power is ultimately located in the state and argues that we should conduct an ‘ascending analysis’ of power with infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, and then see how these mechanisms are invested, colonised, utilised and transformed by more general mechanisms and by forms of global domination.
The prison, the school, the hospital and the psychiatrist’s office are all examples of sites where the micro-politics of power is played out, and there is an intimate knowledge between the systems of knowledge (discourses) and the exercise of social control (power) which is independent of any systematic strategy of class domination and cannot be understood by appeal to a general theory.
The local is everything for Foucault, and the body is the site on which all forms of repression are ultimately registered – and no grand Utopian scheme can help any individual to escape the power-knowledge relation in non-repressive ways. The only way to ‘eliminate the fascism in our head’ is to explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse and thereby intervene in the way knowledge is produced at the particular sites where a localised power-discourse prevails.
Foucault believed that it was only through a pluralistic attack upon localised forms of oppression that any global challenge to Capitalism might prevail and his ideals appealed to various social movements in the 1960s such as feminists, gays and ethnic groups, but this strategy leaves open the question of how such localised struggles might add up to a progressive rather than a regressive attack on the central forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
Lyotard argues that the social bond is linguistic, but it is not woven with a single thread, but by a number of indeterminate ‘language games’, and the social subject dissolves in the dissemination of these, with ‘social reality’ consisting of nothing more than flexible networks of language games, with each individual resorting to a quite different set of codes depending on the situation in which they find themselves.
Given that knowledge is the principle source of production these days, power is dispersed within the heterogeneity of language games – individuals can bend the rules of ordinary conversations to shift meanings.
Lyotard made a lot about how institutions (Foucault’s non-discursive domains) try to circumscribe what can be said and how it can be said – the law, science, politics for example – but the limits the institution imposes on potential language moves are never established once and for all – so we ought not to reify institutions prematurely, but recognise how the differentiated performance of language games creates institutional languages and powers in the first place.
Lyotard also suggests that if there are many different elements to language games they can only give rise to institutions in patches – local determinism.
One way of trying to understand Lyotard is to think of social reality as consisting of various interpretative communities made up of both consumers and producers of knowledge within particular institutionalised contexts such as the university, or divisions of cultural labour, such as architecture, or places, such as nations, and groups control mutually within these domains what they consider to be valid knowledge.
Within resistance movements – writers such as Aronowitz have taken this on, railing against master discourses, and emphasising that all groups have a right to speak for themselves – women, gays, blacks etc. etc.
This same preoccupation with otherness and other worlds exists in postmodern fiction – heterotopia is an important aspect of the genre – characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask ‘which world is this’ and ‘what is to be done in it’ – Blue Velvet is a good example of a Postmodern film, in which the central character co-exists in two world, one a conventional small town American world, the other a crazed underworld of drugs, dementia and sexual perversion.
Lyotard’s postmodernism is rooted in Bell’s and Touraine’s thesis of the passage to a post-industrial society – modernism is no more because the technical and social conditions of communication have changed and the use of knowledge is now the principle force of production.
Postmodernists also accept a different theory to what language and communication are all had about – modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relationship between what was being said (the signified) and how it was being said (the signifier), postmodernism sees these as continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations.
Deconstructionism here is a powerful stimulus to postmodern thought. Deconstructionism is a way of thinking about ‘reading texts’ – writers who create texts do so on the basis of all the other texts they have read, while readers deal with them in the same way, and thus cultural life is a series of intersecting texts which produce more texts. This intertextual weaving has a life of its own because whatever we write conveys meanings we could not possibly intend, and it is vain to try and master a text because the perpetual weaving of texts and meanings is beyond our control.
Derrida thus considers the collage/ montage as the primary form of postmodern discourse. Culture is inherently heterogeneous and both producers and consumers engage in the postmodernist style – hence the postmodern focus on performance and ‘happenings’, and the effect is to break to the power of the author to impose meanings or offer continuous narrative.
There is more that hint of this sort of thinking within the modernist tradition – Marx observed how Capital was continually breaking things apart for example.
One problem for postmodernism is that of how we aspire to act ‘coherently’ within the world – Rorty argues that action can only be understood (judged?) by reference to localised contexts, while Lyotard argues that the idea of consensus is outmoded and suspect – the challenge then is to arrive at an idea of justice that is not linked to that of consensus.
Habermas tried to combat this kind of relativism by arguing that within communication speaker and hearer are necessarily oriented to the task of reciprocal understanding and that consensual and normative statements do arise, and thus ‘communicative reason’ is grounded in daily life (part of the problem with the enlightenment being that instrumental reason overtook communicative reason). However, Habermas has many critics.
The most problematic facet of postmodernism is its suppositions with respect to personality, motivation and behaviour:
When the signifying chain snaps, we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers, and there is an inability to unify past, present and future in our own biographical experience of psychic life and experience is reduced to a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.
Delueze and Guattari hypothesis a relationship between capitalism and schizophrenia – ‘our society produces schizos is the same way it produces Prell shampoo or Ford cars, the only difference being that the schizos are not saleable.’
A number of consequences follow – we can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense because the concept of alienation presupposes a coherent self in the first place.
The Modernist idea of pursuing a better future through focussing on projects over time rested on the idea of a centred self; the theory of the schizoid self posits a self which fails to find a coherent reality in the first place, let alone a strategy to improve it (although Modernism did have its schizoid moments, and failure to live up to one’s ideas of progress led to paranoia).
To sum up the above ‘the alienation of the subject is replaced by the fragmentation of the subject in postmodern aesthetics’.
The reduction of experience to a series of pure and unrelated presents means that the present becomes overwhelmingly vivid and material – the spectacle becomes everything (following Jamieson)
The idea of progress and continuity are eschewed – postmodernism takes bits and pieces from the past and mixes them together at will. For example Rauschenerg simply reproduces, whereas Manet produces.
The only role of the historian, as with Foucault, is to become an archaeologist of the past – ‘to decry the notion of having a view while avoiding having a view about having views.’
Postmodernism can only judge the spectacle in terms of how spectacular it is – Barthes for example suggests we judge something in terms of the extent to which it produces ‘Jouissance’ – sublime physical and mental bliss.
Another consequence is the loss of depth, Jameson describes postmodern architecture as ‘contrived depthlessness’.
The collapse of time horizons and the preoccupation with instanteity have in part arisen through the contemporary emphasis in cultural production on events, happenings and media images – and this re-emphasises the fleeting qualities of modern life, and even celebrates them.
This raises the difficult question of the relationship of the postmodern movement with, and integration into daily life – there are many intersections – in architecture, advertising, fashion, and the ubiquitous television.
Exemplary examples of postmodern culture include Disneyland, the Las Vegas Strip, and Pop Music, the kind of things which Venturi et al (1972) say appeal to the middle middle classes in the suburbs.
Venturi et al see nothing wrong with such cultural artefacts as being the ‘new norm’, they believe that architects should ‘learn from Mickey-Mouse’, and that ‘Disneyland is the symbolic American Utopia’, but others are more critical:
Daniel Bell sees this as a sign of the mindless hedonism of capitalist consumerism, the exhaustion of modernism through the institutionalisation of creative and rebellious impulses through what he cause the ‘cultural mass’ of the millions of people working in the creative industries.
Still others (Chambers 1986/7) see postmodernism as the democratisation of taste across a variety of subcultures as greater diversity of youth started to pro-actively shape and re-shape their identities from the 1960s onwards.
Harvey also sites mass television watching as crucial to understanding the shift to preoccupation with surfaces rather than roots and a collapsed sense of space and time given that this is the first time in human history that the mass population can see a range of events mashed together as one via this medium.
Television didn’t simply cause postmodernism, it is itself part of capitalism which encourages consumerism, and television is a very useful tool for creating ever new needs for new styles, part of the economic fabric of postmodern society.
Still other analysists see Postmodernism as the logical extension of the power of the market over the whole range of cultural production (e.g. Crimp 1987/85).
Harvey now seems to have a subtle dig at the ‘heritage industry’ noting that 3 museums a week open in Britain – suggesting that history forever is out of our reach in midst of more simulacra.
Finally there is Jameson who argues that ‘postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism’, in which the production of culture has become integrated into commodity production more generally – the need to produce more new products at a higher rate of turnover means we have to emphasises the aesthetic aspects of production much more.
To round off the chapter Harvey summarises:
‘While some would argue that the counter cultural movements of the 1960s created an environment of unfulfilled needs and repressed desires that postmodernist popular cultural production has set out to satisfy in commodity form, others would suggest that capitalism, in order to sustain its markets, has been forced to produce new desire and so titillate individual sensibilities to create a new aesthetic over and against traditional forms of high culture. In either case I think it important to accept the proposition that postmodernism has not emerged in a political, social or economic vacuum’
In other words, postmodernism is fundamentally related to capitalism.
A summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change, chapter 2.
In chapter 2, Harvey deals at length with the contradictions within Modernity, from the Enlightenment project to the 1968 counter-culture, suggesting that the fundamental contradiction is between Modernity’s quest for the immutable, which it continually undermines by producing constant change.
‘Modernity’ wrote Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable’.
There are many conflicting meanings associated with Modernism – the cojoining of the ephemeral and the fleeting with the eternal and immutable’ is very important – and modernism as an aesthetic movement has wavered between both extremes.
Berman’s description of modernism is generally agreed on…..
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, we know and everything we are. Modernity cuts across all boundaries, it unites all mankind…. but it is a paradoxical unity – a unity of disunity, it pours us into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration, of contradiction and struggle… to be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said ‘all that is solid melts into air’.
In his excellent book, ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity’, Marshall Berman shows how a number of writers tried to deal with this sense of chaos – such as Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Simmel – the common theme in their writing being a concern with the experience of space and time as transitory and arbitrary.
One of the pithiest examples of this is in W.B Yate’s lines…
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The consequence of this transitoriness is that modernity can have no respect for its past – if there is any meaning in history then it has to found within the maelstrom of change, but because everything is changing, the question of how to interpret the past and the meaning of change, and the attempt to find the universals, is a fundamental problem.
The quest for the Internal and Immutable were a central concern in Modernity
Where to look for the eternal and the immutable has been the central concern of modernity since the Enlightenment.
What Habermas calls the project of Modernity came into focus during the eighteenth century. That project amounted to an extraordinary intellectual effort on the part of Enlightenment thinkers ‘to develop objective science, universal morality and law and autonomous art according to their inner logic’. The idea was to use the accumulated knowledge of individuals for the pursuit of human emancipation from scarcity and the arbitrariness of nature – scientific domination of nature promised liberation from scarcity and rational forms of social organisation promised liberation from arbitrary power based on religion or despotism.
Enlightenment thought embraced the ideal of progress and activity and sought a break with the past… Doctrines of equality, liberty and universal reason abounded… Writers such as Condorcet truly believed that the arts and the sciences would promote control of natural forces, and understanding of the world and the self, moral progress and the happiness of human beings.
The 20th century, with its death camps and death squads, its militarism, two world wars, and threat of nuclear annihilation, shattered that optimism.
Writing in the aftermath of the holocaust and Hiroshima, Adorno and Horkheimer (in their book, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’) even argued that the enlightenment project itself was doomed to turn in on itself and transform the quest for human emancipation into a system of universal oppression in the name of human liberation. For them Nazi Germany was the revolt of ‘human nature’ (culture and personality) over many decades of the dominance of purely instrumental reason over everything else.
Today there are those who still support the enlightenment project, but believe we need to rethink the relationship between means and ends; and there are those who are postmodernists who insist we need to abandon the project in the name of emancipation.
Enlightenment thought has always internalised a whole load of contradictions, and there have thus been many competing voices which seek to answer the following questions:
what should be the relation between means and ends? (with the role of ‘utopias’ being particularly interesting as far as I’m concerned)
who possesses the claim to superior reason? (and what is the role of science is central here)
under what conditions should that reason should be exercised as power? (obviously politics here is crucial).
There have been many competing visions put forwards to try and answer the above questions/ solve the above contradictions– from Adam Smith’s invisible hand to Marx’s work… but contradiction has been a mainstay of Modernity.
Critics of Modernity
The Enlightenment has always had its critics, but by the early 20th Century there were two major branches of criticism:
Firstly there was Max Weber who saw a strong necessary linkage between the growth of science, rationality and universal human freedom but saw the ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment as the ultimate triumph of instrumental rationality which led to the creation of an iron cage of bureaucracy from which there was no escape.
Secondly, there was Nietzsche’s earlier attack on the premises of the Enlightenment which is the nemesis of the above. Nietzsche saw the modern as nothing more than a vital energy, the will to live and to power, swimming in a sea of disorder, anarchy, individual alienation and despair…. Beneath the surface of knowledge and science the essence of humanity was primitive, wild and merciless, and the only path to self-affirmation was to act in a maelstrom that at the same time destructively creative and creatively destructive…. The end was bound to be tragic.
The image of creative destruction is very important to understanding modernity – and one of the classic characters which illustrates this is Goethe’s Faust who, in the very process of development transforms the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, but recreates the wasteland inside himself, in an ethical sense – Faust ended up killing a much loved old couple who lived in a cottage by the sea because they didn’t fit in with his ‘grand plan’.
Hausmann’s creative destruction of second empire Paris is a good example of a real life Faustian figure; while the entrepreneur, championed by Schumpeter, is another more generalised figure, destroying that which was in order to profit and ‘drive society forwards’.
By the beginning of the 20th century it was no longer possible to accord reason a privileged status in the definition of the eternal and immutable essence of human nature… this gave a role and a new s. impetus to cultural modernism, basically the arts and philosophy.
This shift had a long history, in the romantics and Saint Simon, for example, saw it coming….
The problem with such sentiments is that aesthetic judgments are influenced by the societies in which they are embedded – and artists can just as easily sway to the left or the right, even if the protagonists themselves think their artistic endeavours ‘eternal and immutable’.
Harvey now makes some very general points about the evolution of cultural modernism since 1848 (because it’s necessary to do so to make sense of the postmodern reaction).
The successful modern artist tried to distil the eternal and the immutable and the question of how to represent this in the midst of change was a key question, and they sought to innovate representations of the eternal and immutable – e.g. Joyce with his use of language; also Jackson Pollack. Modernism tried to ‘freeze time’ in order to represent the eternal – collage and montage were popular, however, the ephemerality and change was a central part of modernism – equilibrium had to be continually re-established.
Commodification was a major part of modernism – every new artist attempted to change something in order to sell it…. ‘artists for all their anti-bourgeois rhetoric spent much more energy struggling against each other to sell their own products’. The resulting art and movement was arrogant and individualistic…. As with the Dadaists and early surrealists.
Ultimately Modernism internalised its own maelstrom of ambiguities, contradictions, and pulsating aesthetics at the same time as it sought to affect the aesthetics of daily life, and the facts of daily life had a profound effect on modernism – many modernists had a fascination with technique, speed and motion, inspired no doubt by the factories and production lines of modernity.
Modernism before the first world war was a reaction to the conditions of production (the factory), circulation (transport and communication) and consumption (the rise of mas markets and advertising) than a pioneer in the production of such changes.
Modernism consisted of diverse reactions to these changes (from William Morris to The Bauhaus) – it encompassed the futuristic, nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolistic, and it moves between different centres with different feels – London, Paris, Munich for example.
There were many tensions within it – between nationalism and internationalism and between globalism and parochialism for example. For a while it had an international and universalist stance – but eventually diversity based in different cities such as New York and Berlin came to be one of its major defining aspects.
Modernism was also an urban phenomenon – most notably emphasised by Simmel in his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (published in 1911).
Simmel theorised that in the city we were liberated from the chains of subjective dependence and thus allowed more individual liberty but this was achieved at the expense of treating others in objective and instrumental terms. We had no choice but to relate to the other except through faceless, cold and calculating money exchanges which could co-ordinate a vast division of labour, and we also submit to our sense of time and space being disciplined by surrendering to the hegemony of economic rationality.
Simmel argued that this produced a psychological response known as the blasé attitude – we block out most of the external stimuli and cultivate a sham individualism through the pursuit of signs – the best example of which is fashion, which according to Simmel allowed for both differentiation, as it changed rapidly, and yet conformity.
Harvey argues that in the USA the city and the machine were important drivers of modernism in the 20th century, art less so, but in Europe, the arts were more important.
Five Periods in the Development of Modernism
Harvey now suggests there are five broad periods within the development of modernism:
The Englightenment Project
The Enlightenment project argued that there was only one possible answer the every question – there existed one correct mode of representation – we see this in Condorcet and Saint-Simon for example, and Comte.
After 1848 the idea that there was only one possible mode of representation began to break down – there is an emphasis on the diversity of representational modes – we see this in Baudelaire for example, which exploded in the 1890s
1910 to 1913
Most commentators believed that was a further qualitative shift between 1910 and 1913. Works published around this time which demonstrate this shift include Saussure’s structuralist theory of language; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and Taylor’s principles of scientific management. The changes in this short space of time were affected by the loss of faith the progress and by growing unease with the categorical fixity of enlightenment thought.
This shift between 1910-1911 had much to do with class struggle – it was very unclear whether it should be the workers or the bourgeois who should direct the modernist project, it was also a response to the increasing sense of anarchy, instability and despair which grew with Modernism as emphasised by Nietzsche.
Modernism between the wars
Modernism between the wars was more ‘heroic’ – as the appeal to the eternal myth became more imperative. One wing of this appealed to rationality and the machine – logical positivism for example, and the Italian Futurists, and of course Nazism.
This was a period when the always latent tensions between internationalism and nationalism, universalism and class politics were heightened into absolute and unstable contradictions…. It was hard to remain indifferent to the Russian Revolution for example.
Modernism after 1945 (what Harvey calls universal or high modernism) exhibited a much more comfortable relationship with the centres of power – the search for an appropriate myth abated because (Harvey suspects) of the international power system organised along Fordist- Keynseian lines and under US Hegemony this became relatively stable.
The belief in linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders was particularly strong – and the result was a positivistic, rationalistic and technocentric system to be gradually wheeled out to the third world from the first.
In the realms of planning there was a real belief that we could organise cities and housing and transport so that everyone would have access to a decent standard of living.
Its nether side lay in the celebration of corporate power and rationality and the return to the efficient machine as a sufficient myth to embody all human aspiration. Aesthetic modernism also became depoliticised, it became part of the establishment. Art basically became part of the Corporate machine – Coca-Cola and consumerism subsumed modernist art during this period.
The Counter Culture as the Harbinger of Postmodernity
It was in this context that the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s sprang to life – Antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality as purveyed through institutionalised power the counter cultures explored realms of individualised self-realisation through embracing an anti-authoritarian critique of daily life.
All of this came to the fore in the global turbulence of 1968 -it was almost as if the universal pretensions of modernity had, when combined with liberal capitalism and imperialism, succeeded so well as to provide a material and political foundation for a cosmopolitan, transnational, and hence global resistance to the hegemony of high modernist culture.
Though this 1968 movement failed, it was a cultural and political harbinger of postmodernism.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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