The cultural hype about designer drugs, like that of designer babies, deserves analysis. But while cultural representations may be of “designer moods,” what is sold to the patient is a dream of control. Take control of your moods, treat anxieties that are the symptoms of illness, feel like yourself again, get your life back: these are the hopes, and the narratives, that mobilize the relations between the drug companies, the prescribers, and the consumers of psychiatric drugs.

Indeed, despite the worries that this is an ethic that offers happiness without requiring an exertion of the will, getting your life back is seldom framed as a simple matter of taking a pill. A rapid trip around the websites for depression, for example, shows that the restoration of the self requires work. The subject must engage in self-analysis of the ebbs and flows of mood, thought, and emotion. The subject must learn new ways of self-reflection, self-assessment, and insight. These forms of self-scrutiny are often materialized in the form of questionnaires to complete or diaries to maintain, meticulously charting the variations in feelings, moods, behaviour, and thoughts in different situations. Frequently the subject is recommended to engage in other forms of therapy, for example cognitive therapy, which requires that thought works on thought itself. Here, as elsewhere, we are obliged to work on ourselves to make ourselves what we really are.

Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, Pg 101

This gap between cultural representations of cosmetic psychopharmacology and the clinical reality  undoubtedly stems, in part, from the information ecology of late capitalism (i.e. the tendency towards hyperbolic simplification which results from content producers in the media being impelled to generate ever more copy with ever fewer resources) and the economic interests implicated in the subject matter (i.e. building hype around forthcoming products to ensure the buoyancy of market capitalization). Nonetheless, there is more to it than this. The promise of control Rose suggests functions as the level of both marketing strategy and consumer reception. The idea that we can escape from the Reflexive Imperative (the need to conduct internal conversations in order to determine a course of action, given our objective circumstances and our subjective concerns) in our attempts to negotiate a rapidly changing social world is tied up with a desire to escape our corporeality. As reflexivity becomes ever more imperative, it is generative of reflexive pathologies (failures of self-management  in the broadest sense of the term) which can manifest themselves as escaping behaviours e.g. compulsions, addictions, obsessions.

However the successful exercise of reflexivity over the life-course is also generative of existential tensions from which we seek to escape. The more successfully we exercise control over ourselves, using our deliberative capacities to negotiate a path through the world which meets our moral needs and shaping a life which reflects what we want to do and who we want to be, the more we run up against the limits of human capacities. One such limit is our corporeality. We can exercise agency over our bodies and, in many cases, this can produce the effects we desire. Yet our control can only ever be partial and fallible. Maximising this control can be a life strategy in its own right but it is one  which is endless (e.g. the concept of ‘health’ has no natural end target, one can always be healthier) and, in many cases, can produce pathologies of its own. Conversely, even when we exercise this control successfully, there is always a lag. At any given moment, we act in a setting which is constrained and enabled by our bodily characteristics. Even those most-committed to corporeal self-discipline can never achieve an immediate mastery over their own body, such that it is subjugated to our reflexive projects and the promise of the resurgent Cartesianism which Rose and others detect in contemporary cultural can be fulfilled. The body always exceeds our capacity to control it and, within a society which valorises individualism and instrumental rationality, it can be profoundly difficult to accept this. Hence the attraction of the ‘dream of control’ sold by over-eager advocates of transhumanism and technological self-enhancement (not to mention big pharma).

In 1986 DC Comics published a four issue mini-series called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. While few would have predicted it prior to its publication, this work of Frank Miller was soon regarded as one of the touchstones for the medium and, through commercial success and critical controversy, almost single-handedly reinvigorated a moribund character. Time magazine suggested the portrayal of a ‘semiretired Batman [who] drinks too much and is unsure about his crime-fighting abilities’ was an example of trying to appeal to ‘today’s sceptical readers’.

Regardless of the criticism which the series received in some quarters, it undoubtedly did appeal to readers and the manner in which its ‘dark’ and ‘adult’ approach were progressively taken up by other comics points to the ‘scepticism’ of those readers being a widespread condition rather than the aberrant property of a cynical minority. The same dark approach lay behind the critical and commercial success which Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight enjoyed at the box office in the summer of 2008. Why is this kind of approach so popular? What explains its manifest resonance amongst vast swathes of the cinema-going and comic-buying public?

Perhaps the answers lies towards the end of the film when Batman and Jim Gordon attempt to make sense of Harvey Dent’s actions, as the brave and virtuous district attorney was driven to attempted murder by the cruel machinations of the joker. The public regard Bent as a hero, but the public face of heroism becomes a fiction, crafted by powerful men in midnight schemes because the masses could not countenance the grim truth and social order necessitates the illusion. The heroism of Harvey Bent becomes a cruel joke, which Batman, alter ego of the billionaire Bruce Wayne, attempts to hide in the best interests of the public. If it wasn’t for his own personal biography, as a man forever damaged by the murder of his parents as a child, he might have channelled this patrician impulse into philanthropy. As it is stands he rushes off into the night, chased by police and dogs, taking the blame for the crimes which Bent committed. His parting words sum up the ethos of the exchange: ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’. This is the bitter truth which the public must be protected from at all costs. The closest thing to heroism which The Dark Knight portrays is the attempted deception of the public towards this end.

Compare this critically lauded portrayal of heroism within that of another popular film series. While The Dark Knight was an enormous critical success, the Rocky films were, with the partial exceptions of the first and the sixth, critically panned. Yet both, in a sense, portray heroism. Once you look beyond the crass jingoism which frames large aspects of the Rocky series, a rather earnest narrative about heroism and virtue soon comes into focus. Each of the films follows the same format, as constancy and courage enable Rocky Balboa to triumph over adversity. The virtues the films portray have a long moral history in Western culture and yet for most of us the narrative which portrays them is one we struggle to take seriously. While the moralisation of professional boxing probably takes some blame for this, it is by no means the whole story.

What we can take seriously however is The Wire, and, its gritty social realism notwithstanding, it comes equally equipped with its heroes. Foremost among these is stick up boy Omar Little. He prowls Baltimore in his trench coat, with his shotgun slung at his side, robbing drug dealers. With his facial scar, ethical code and fearsome reputation, he becomes a mythic figure known throughout Baltimore. He crafts a mythology from the ruins of deindustrialised desolation and he sustains a heroic existence one day a time. Yet he cannot, ultimately, escape from his surroundings, and he dies ingloriously on the floor of a convenience store after being shot to death by a child.

What message can we take from this? Perhaps that when a hero is reduced to a daily struggle for survival, his or her heroism is unsustainable. The Wire’s realism ultimately conveys, perhaps inadvertently, the impossibility of heroism in the late modern age. We can struggle against the constraints of circumstances and the debasing forces of contemporary times. We can craft an honourable life in the midst of violence and suffering. However the effort required is herculean and inevitably, at least in the long run, beyond us. This is the message conveyed by the sudden and pointless death of Omar, as well as by this sort of social realism more generally.

Yet if we accept this realism I think we have lost something important. Though The Wire itself admirably retains the capacity for imminent social critique, this is the exception rather than the rule and it’s primarily a consequence of the sheer talent of the creators of the series. The ‘scepticism’ which Time magazine suggested was responsible for The Dark Knight’s success has only grown since 1986 and it’s far from a positive cultural trend. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls it ‘capitalist realism’: the aestheticisation of capitalist hegemony. As Fisher puts it, ‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’ and, as such, dominates the sensibility and aesthetics of cultural production. However unlike historical instances of a politicised aesthetics, the ensuing cultural style is neither narrowly aesthetic nor superficially political. It manifests itself in a ‘machismo of demythologisation’ which proudly undercuts heroism in the name of psychological realism (‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’) and hope in the name of sociological realism (everything ultimately comes down to power and deceit). It counsels suspicion and scepticism in the name of an acceptance of reality which will help protect us against the ideological machinations of the powerful.

In fact its acceptance helps, in a sense, bring about the reality it purports to reflect. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that, far from being a post-ideological acceptance of sheer reality, contemporary cynicism is profoundly ideological in character because its hyperbolic fixation on the worst the world has to offer (cruelty, corruption, deceit) and its suspicion towards those ideals and practices seen to provide masks for that deceit (heroism, morality, authority) leaves us mired in an apathetic irony (unable to take the possibility of social change seriously or think beyond present circumstances). The sad truth is that, as he puts it, ‘even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them’. The error lies, he argues, in an overvaluing of belief. Far from representing an act of resistance, the subjective disavowal of the cynic (eg, ‘don’t you know all politics is manipulative bullshit?’) facilitates their objective complicity (a passive disengagement from political life). This cynicism precludes critique as well as protection. It simply engenders an subjective anger and an objective impotence. It also cruelly erodes the kind of social historical vantage points which would be necessary to address the question of overcoming it. Therefore in their absence perhaps the first step is to take Rocky a bit more seriously and Batman a little less so?

England’s riots shouldn’t be blamed on ‘moral decline’, says Tony Blair | UK news | The Observer.

Rather interesting. This is without doubt the most sensible thing I have ever heard this man say. My only point of contention is the apparent contradiction inherent in what he’s saying: he talks about ‘these people’ not being symptomatic of wider trends within society and yet also claims that you find them ‘in virtually every developed nation’. So perhaps he’s quite adroitly identified a pervasive trend in late capitalist societies (disenfranchised working class youth trapped between deindustrialisation, rampant consumerism, cultural individualization) but is unable and willing to identify its structural origins?

In this keynote from Virtual Futures, Mark Fisher, author of the stunning Capitalist Realism, talks about the role which innovations in communicative technology play in the unfolding of late capitalism.

He talks about the growing ‘digital communicative malaise’ which can be observed in contemporary society while suggesting that there’s still to much reluctance to address this issue on the left. Yet why should attacking a technological development be seen as reactionary? He suggests that digital technologies can be seen as communicative parasite that destroy other enjoyments: it destroys our capacity to attend to the pleasurable (described by others as Continuous Partial Attention) and tightens the grip of disciplinary power on our everyday lives. As he observes, “as soon as you have e-mail you no longer have working hours”

As I’m sure many others can, this point is an intimately familiar one from everyday experience. For instance not being able to focus on a film or book because of the urge to check e-mail or twitter. Nonetheless does he overstate the technological aspect to this? My e-mail checking got horribly obsessive for much of 2010 and, although I didn’t put it as articulately as Fisher does, the idea he’s suggesting what on my mind a lot during that time. Phenomenologically it was a loss of agency, as a basically unsatisfying habit (scratching an itch) frequently undermined the decision to switch off and relax. Yet in 2011, as my life circumstances have changed and my life has gone back to being fun, the compulsion has waned massively. E-mail’s gone from something that actively draws me in to being a much reviled chore. While experientially it feels like a reclamation of agency, the change is only contingently related to the technology itself.

When we’re unhappy, bored and/or dissatisfied we often choose to absent ourselves from the situation we’re in using whatever means are available to us.  A retreat into internal dialogue is a universally available form of self-absenting (with ‘daydreaming’ etc being its most obvious social label) with our digital communicative parasites (be they e-mail, twitter, mobile phones, mindless web browsing, facebook or whatever else) being a recent and rapidly growing addition to our escapist arsenal. Yet could the technology be said to be meaningfully causing this? In a way, yes, in that it is the necessary condition for the expansion of this process which Fisher highlights. But in another more important way no because the technology is merely one pervasive means of meeting a need which it does not itself generate – athough frequent self-absenting, as a product of situational dissatisfaction, may breed more escapism because of its capacity to erode prolonged enjoyment and experiential immersion. So we shouldn’t decry communicative technology for finding itself implicated in everyday practices which lead to effects like this – instead we should be looking to explore how this technology can be used to enhance rather than debase human sociality.

Longer version of a post on Sociological Imagination