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.
The two authors are (respectively) a volunteer priest and one volunteer vicar in their local parishes, and this voluntarism ticks the postmodernism box straight away – no doubt being a volunteer enables them to ‘dip into’ their religions and be involved without any of the more unpleasant commitments associated with going ‘full clergy’.
To be honest I haven’t read it, but I caught a review of it by two people who had on Radio four on Sunday morning. (FINALY I get some payback for all the religious content I’m not normally interested in on a Sunday morning!).
I’ve a had a quick browse of it and it basically provides tips on how to ‘lead a good, happy life’ and reflections on some of life’s ‘deeper questions’ and ‘moral issues’ – and the advice comes from people of many faiths, and no faith, which is kind of blurring the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.
You might describe the book as well suited for our pick and mix approach to religion today, and it certainly seem to be ‘anti institutional’ yet ‘pro-spirituality’, at least judging by the brief extract below…
Anyway, just a quick update….. seems like a relevant piece of contemporary evidence for aspects of the beliefs in society course!
David Lyon argues that religion is not declining with the shift from modernity to postmodernity, rather it is simply relocating to the ‘sphere of consumption’ as people selectively choose which aspects different religions to use at different points in their lives.
David Lyon suggests there are two main social changes which characterize the shift from modernity to postmodernity:
The spread of computer and information technology- which allows for information to spread much more rapidly and much more globally.
The growth of consumer culture. The normalizing of consumerism means that people have come to expect choice in every aspect of their lives: not only in terms of the products they buy, or where they go on holiday, but also in terms of their religious beliefs and practices.
David Lyon thus argues that the shift to postmodernity does not mean that religion has necessarily declined in purpose, it has simply moved to a different sphere of social life – to what he calls ‘the sphere of consumption’. People expect choice in every other area of their life, and they expect to be able to choose their religion too.
Lyon uses the example of religious belief in Canada to illustrate that religion remains important to most people, but only when they selectively choose it to be, in line with their own individual needs.
Lyon pointed out that 80% of those who did not attend church on a regular basis still drew selectively on religion during critical times of their lives, such as during marriage and death.
This is far from religion ‘disappearing’ from social life altogether, and thus Lyon theorizes that religion has shifted from a social institution which imposes norms on people to a cultural resource which people selectively draw on when they see fit.
To put this another way, rather than Christianity (for example, in the Christian West) being the grand narrative which dictates what people’s lives should be like, people now construct their own ‘narratives’, their own life stories, but they still look to religion to help them write the stories of their lives, but only at certain times.
People also seek a greater diversity of ways to express their faith in postmodern society, and religion has actually been very successful at adapting to fit these needs.
Jesus in Disneyland
Lyon uses the example of Christian singers appearing on stage at Disneyland during religious festivals, amidst all of the other Disney paraphernalia going on around them, to illustrate how religion has adapted to fit the postmodern society: it is no longer confined to traditional settings, and has become part of a more diverse, chaotic and fluid postmodern social landscape.
Finally, Lyon suggests that another important feature of postmodern society is de-differentiation, which involves the distinction between different areas of social life becoming blurred – and the example of ‘Jesus’ in Disneyland demonstrates this: religion has adapted to become part of a ‘fun’ leisure environment….it has become detraditionalised, but this does not necessarily mean that it has become any less important!
Anthony Giddens argues that the shift to late modern society results in religion becoming more popular.
Giddens is one of four ‘sociologists of postmodernity’, all of whom argue that postmodernisation results in the nature of religion changing, but not necessarily declining in importance.
NB – see this post (forthcoming) on how to avoid getting confused over the terms ‘postmodernism/ late modernism etc…
Anthony Giddens: late modernity and religion
Giddens recognizes that ‘religious cosmology’ is undermined by the increasing importance of scientific knowledge in late modern society. However, he argues that is traditional ways of life rather than religious beliefs and practices which are more profoundly affected by this shift.
In Modernity and Self Identity, Giddens argues that the conditions of late modernity actually lay the foundations for a resurgence of religion.
Giddens argues that as tradition loses its grip on individuals, they become increasingly reflexive: they increasingly question what they should be doing with their lives, and are required to find their own way in life, rather than this being laid down by tradition.
However, individuals face problems in constructing their own, individual self-identities for two main reasons:
Competing experts provide different advice – scientific knowledge may have taken over from religion, but different scientific experts provided different, and often conflicting advice on ‘how to live’.
Existential questions become separated from every day life – according to Giddens, the seriously ill and dying and the mad are separated out from ordinary every day life and hidden from view in institutions. These are precisely the kind of people which would make us confront the big questions of existence, but in late modernity society is structured in such a way as to stop us thinking about the ‘big existential questions’.
The institutions of modernity thus fail to provide sufficient structure to guide people through life, and people’s lives are lived in a moral vacuum with a sense of personal meaninglessness the norm. People en mass suffer from what Giddens calls ontological security – they don’t really know who they are, or what to do with their lives.
It is in such a situation that religion can perform a vital function – by providing a sense of moral purpose, as well as answers to the big existential questions of life.
However, unlike modern or pre-modern societies, individuals now have to choose for themselves which religion to follow…. an this might be anything from New Age religions to one of the various strains of religious fundamentalism…
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 chapter one of David Harvey’s (1989) Condition of Postmodernity
A summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.
This is a summary of the introductory chapter of part one of this book, in which Harvey introduces us to some basic definitions of modernity and postmodernity.
Part 1 – The Passage from Modernity to Postmodernity in Contemporary Culture
Starts with a quote by Max Weber…
‘the general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals.’
Jonathan Raban’s Soft City – a highly personalised account of London in the 1970s written in 1974 was written at the cusp in intellectual and cultural history when something called postmodernism emerged as a cultural aesthetic in its own right (developing into something more than just being anti-modern).
Raban rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead the spread of individualism and entrepreneurialism, where social distinction was broadly conferred by possessions and appearance – the city was an emporium of styles, and primarily about the production of signs and images – something not rationally planned and rigid, but more like a theatre in which people acted out a multiplicity of roles. Rather than a place of lost-community, the city was a labyrinth, a honeycomb, consisting of diverse networks.
Harvey recognises that this is just one view of the city, but his purpose is not to judge its accuracy, but to ask why this particular view was so well received at that time.
Raban’s vision of the city was one which could not be disciplined by rational planning, one where imagination and fact fused together – his vision appealed to ‘subjective individualism’ – casting it as a place where people were relatively free to act and where personal identity was fluid. – (it’s sort of in the title ‘soft city’…..
‘The city invites you to remake it into a shape you can live in…. cities, unlike villages and small towns are plastic by nature. We mould then in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistances they offer.”
Raban also recognised the downsides of urban living – too many people lost their way in the labyrinth and it was too easy for us to lose each other as well as ourselves; there was a lot of violence beneath the surface, and although we were free to play with images, ‘creative entrepreneurialism’ had the potential to impose an ‘imperialism of taste’ which could create a new hierarchy of values….
‘the very plastic qualities which make the great city the liberator of human identity also cause it to be especially vulnerable to to psychosis and totalitarian nightmare’.’
Raban was influenced by Roland Barthes, and Le Corbusier’s modernist style of architecture is the bête noire for Raban, however the text is more than simply anti-modern, and the tension between the two mark this text out as a sign that postmodernism has arrived.
Harvey now points to Cindy Sherman as one of the major figures of the postmodern movement.
Sherman’s work parallels the theme of the plasticity of the city in Raban’s work – All Sherman does is take photographs of herself in different walks of life (and somehow convinces people to pay her enough to earn a living doing it?!) – emphasising the ‘malleability of appearances and surfaces and self-referential positioning of the authors as subjects’.
So what is this postmodernism of which many now speak?
No one agrees as to what is meant by the term except that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to or departure from ‘modernism’. Since the meaning of modernism is also very confused, the reaction or departure known as postmodernism is doubly so.
Terry Eagleton (a literary critic) defined postmodernism thus in 1987:
The typical postmodernist artefact is playful, self-ironizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetics of squalor and shock.’
The editors of the architectural journal PRECIS (1987) see postmodernism as a legitimate reaction to the monotony of universal modernism’s vision of the world.
‘Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, being about linear progress, absolute truths, rational planning of ideal social orders and the standardisation of knowledge and production. Postmodernism by way of contrast privileges heterogeneity and differences as liberative force in the redefinition of cultural discourse. Fragmentation, indeterminacy and intense distrust of all universal or totalising discourses are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.’
Examples of postmodernism include:
– The rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy – Rorty (1979)
– New ideas about the philosophy of science – Kuhn (1962) and Feyerbrand (1975)
– Foucault’s focus on polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality in history.
– New developments in maths emphasising indeterminacy – chaos theory a fractal geometry.
– the concern for ‘the other’ in anthropology and politics.
What all of the above have in common is the a rejection of metanarratives (large scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application.
Eagleton’s full description of postmodernism…
‘Post-modernism signals the death of such ‘metanarratives’ whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with it manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous rnage of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legitimate itself… Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives’.
A summary of the work of three postmodern thinkers: Lyotard, Baudrillard and Bauman who argue that we need to think differently about the social world now we have moved out of the modernity.
Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.
The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.
Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.
Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.
Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.
For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.
Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?
The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.
The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.
Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.
Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.
Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.
Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology
Signposting and Related Posts
I typically expose students to postmodernism in the first few weeks of first year teaching, but the above material might be better saved for the end of the second year which is the best time to teach social theories, postmodernism coming towards the end after the classic modernist theories such as Functionalism and Marxism.
Before thinking about theories of postmodernity you need to be familiar with the main differences between the two historical eras mdoernity and postmodernity, summarised (with pictures) in this post: From Modernity to Postmodernity.
A summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – Chapter One
I use paraphrasing heavily below, so a lot of this is Bauman’s own words, just cut down a lot and also simplified in places. Love the guy’s literary style but it doesn’t always result in accessibility. The chapter is broken up into about nine sub sections, but I’ve knitted a few of the ideas together below to condense these into
Chapter One – Consumerism versus Consumption
1.1 – The basic characteristics of consumer society
The chapter only briefly deals with consumption – which is part of all societies – at the beginning, the remaining 90% deals with consumerism, or the unique features of the consumer society, which emerges with the decline of the society of producers some years after WW2.
Consumerism describes that society in which wanting has become the principal propelling and operating force which coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of identity and life-policies.
In consumer society wanting, desiring and longing needs to be, just as labour capacity was in the producers’ society, detached (‘alienated’) from individuals and recycled/reified into an extraneous force.
In the previous society of producers desires were always, after deferred gratification, eventually meant to be satisfied.Moreover, the function of objects of consumption, once acquired, was to provided a sense of durability and long-term security. In contrast, the consumer society associates happiness with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them.
Consumer society has the following characteristics (my numbering)
An instability of desires and insatiability of needs – Consumer society thrives when we want more and when those wants have a high turnover rate – i.e when the goods we buy provide satisfaction for a limited time period only.
The desire for Immediate gratification – which has given rise to a ‘Nowist culture’ – or a curiously hurried life. However, because today’s products only have a limited life span and a stigma once its date is reached the motive to hurry is only partly the urge to acquire and collect, the most pressing need is to discard and replace.
Pointillist time – Time is experienced as ‘broken up, or even pulverised, into a multitude of ‘eternal instants’ episodes which are not connected to each other. Bauman suggests that these episodes are like ‘Big bangs’ – they are pregnant with possibilities of magnficent things happening, however these moments rarely live up to their promise and it is in fact the excess of promises which counters each promise not lived up to.
1.2 How the consumer society effects our worldview/ inner pysche/ general way of seeing the world.
In the consumerist economy product innovations grow at an exponential rate and there is increasing competition for attention. This results in a flood of information which we cannot cope with which manifests itself in vertical stacking (think multiple windows on the go at the same time).
Images of ‘linear time’ and ‘progress’ are among the most prominent victims of the information flood: when growing amounts of information are distributed at growing speed, it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.
This in turn has consequences for the ways we relate to knowledge, work and lifestyle in a wide sense.
Firstly this results in a blase attitude toward knowledge – the essence of which is the blunting of discrimination
Secondly it results in melancholy – To be ‘melancholic’ is ‘to sense the infinity of connection, but be hooked up to nothing’ – a disturbance resulting from the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose and the inability to choose. (This seems like an evolution of the concept of anomie)
The crucial skill in information society consists in protecting oneself against the 99.99 per cent of the information offered that one does not want.
1.3 The consumer society promises but fundamentally fails to make us happy
The society of consumers stands and falls by the happiness of its members
It is, in fact, the only society in human history to promise happiness in earthly life, and happiness here and now and in every successive now – also the only society which refrains from legitimizing unhappiness.
However, judged by its own standards it is woefully unsuccessful at increasing happiness.
Bauman now draws on research carried out by Richard Layard to remind us that once average income rises above approximately $20K per head then there is no evidence whatsoever that further growth in the volume of consumption results in a greater number of people reporting that they ‘feel happy’.
In fact a consumption-oriented economy actively promotes disaffection, saps confidence and deepens the sentiment of insecurity, becoming itself a source of the ambient fear it promises to cure or disperse.
While consumer society rests its case on the promise to gratify human desires, the promise of satisfaction remains seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified. Clever!
A low threshold for dreams, easy access to sufficient goods to reach that threshold, and a belief in objective limits to ‘genuine’ needs and ‘realistic’ desires: these are the most fearsome adversaries of the consumer-oriented economy.
Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.
Necessary strategies to maintain this involve hyping a product to the hilt and then soon after denigrating it and creating goods and services such that they require further purchases to be made – so that consumption becomes a compulsion, an addiction and shoppers are encouraged to find solutions to their problems only in the shopping malls.
The realm of hypocrisy stretching between popular beliefs and the realities of consumers’ lives is a necessary condition of a properly functioning society of consumers.
In addition to being an economics of excess and waste, consumerism is also an economics of deception.
1.4 Individualised life-strategies are the principle means whereby consumer society neutralises dissent.
The society of consumers has developed, to an unprecedented degree, the capacity to absorb all and any dissent. It does this through a process which Thomas Mathiesen has recently described as ‘silent silencing’
In other words all ideas threatening to the existing order are integrated into it.
The principle means whereby this is done is through individualisation – whereby individual life strategies become the route to Utopia to only be enjoyed by the individual – changing lifestyle, not society.
To follow the metaphor used by schoolboy Karl Marx, those visions are attracted like moths to the lights of domestic lamps rather than to the glare of the universal sun now hidden beyond the horizon.
The possibility of populating the world with more caring people and inducing people to care more does not figure in the panoramas painted in the consumerist utopia.
The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show instead vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course); a kind of empty space of which the liquid modern consumer, bent on solo performances and only on solo performances, always needs more and never has enough.
Lifestyle strategies smack of adiaphorisation – removing sense of moral responsibility for others.
Tinder and other dating apps certainly seem to be changing the way we meet people in the postmodern age, but does the normalisation of these technologies represent a significant change in the nature of intimate relationships more generally?
Some basic stats on Tinder certainly suggest its use is very widespread, and growing….
Tinder boasts 9.6 million daily active users
20% of Tinder users say they’re looking for a hookup, 27% said they’re looking for a significant other, and 53% said they are looking to find friends.
Only 13% of Tinder users reported relationships lasting beyond the one month mark.
In 2016 Tinder expects to double the number of subscribers it has.
On average Tinder Users spend 35 minutes a day on the app and swipe (left or right) 140 times.
The Washington Post reported one man’s success rate on Tinder. He swiped right 203,000 times and got 150 first dates. That is a success rate of 0.6%.
Tinder is valued at $1.2 billion according to Deutsche Bank.
Qualitative research suggests that there are a diverse number of ways in which people use these dating apps – somewhat obviously the major reason people use them is to to meet people, with the possibility of a hook up, but within this there is a huge variety of experiences – from people who use them several hours a day without a single catch, to those who use them successfully to enrich their sex-lives, or materially, by only dating rich guys who buy them things.
Two interesting documentaries to check out which explore dating apps (albeit in a non-representative way) are the BBC’s ‘addicted to dating apps‘ (only available until November 2016) and Vice’s ‘Mobile Love Industry’
The relationship between Postmodernity, dating apps and changing relationships
The types of relationship facilitated by dating apps certainly illustrate many aspects of life in a postmodern society – such as individuals having more choice, and relationships being shorter lived, and thus more unstable and more insecure; while the fact that women are just as likely to use them as men demonstrates increasing gender equality and breaking down of traditional gender roles.
The question of whether the normalisation of these apps affects relationships and family life more generally remains to be seen – as it stands, it seems that it’s mainly younger people who use these apps before they ‘settle down’, and thus most people see them as something to use in your 20s, before looking for a serious long term partner later on in life.
However, it could be that now these apps offer the possibility of a life of continuous hook-ups, that fewer people see the need to settle down with a life-long partner, but that remains to be seen.
A further question we could ask is whether or not Marxist or Feminist analysis of these dating apps might be applied to better understand their impacts? To what extent are these apps really about promoting consumption, for example, or to what extent might they perpetuate or challenge traditional gender norms?