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  • Mark 7:58 am on September 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , epochal theory, , late modernity, sennett, simon susen, , ,   

    Accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age 

    My relationship with the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Richard Sennett and Ulrich Beck has been a complicated one. Discovering their work as an intellectually frustrated philosophy student led me to move sideways into a sociology department rather than starting a PhD in political philosophy. Their approach excited me, opening up the possibility that we could talk about the contemporary age in a way which captures the most intimate aspects of personal experience and connects them to sweeping accounts of historical change. However the further I went into sociology, the more sceptical I became about the capturing and the connecting these accounts claimed to do.

    They have little empirical grounding in their own right, painting complex processes in seductively broad brush strokes, despite their pose of being attuned to the bleeding edge of social change. Much of my eventual PhD was animated by a conviction that the framework of ‘late modernity’ often doesn’t help social analysis, even sometimes hindering it, offering a series of intoxicating motifs for rendering empirical findings in thematic terms rather than offering any practical conceptual instruments for analysing them. This entire body of work has been persuasively diagnosed by Mike Savage as epochal theorising:

    The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.


    In an earlier article, Savage and Burrows describe this as a “kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of its empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research”.

    The manner in which these accounts capture the intellectual attention space, at least under the peculiar epistemic condition of the accelerated academy, renders them much more problematic than would otherwise be the case. These bodies of work become crucial intellectual reference points which enjoy an influence that vastly exceeds their intellectual merit e.g the relatively recent Liquid Modernity has received 11,000+ citations, over four times more than the much older and vastly superior Legislators and Interpreters. They exercise a gravitational pull over the field of empirical research, even when they’re remarkably ill suited for this purpose.

    But perhaps I’ve been too harsh. In this paper Simon Susen makes a casual remark that “One could hardly think of a more ambitious and timely challenge than the task of accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age“. I realise that I agree with him, even if I continue to take issue with many of the attempts that have been made to do this. We deserve better accounts of the distinctiveness of the contemporary age, even if the conditions within which we work makes it difficult to develop them.

  • Mark 8:57 am on February 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , late modernity, , psychopaths, psychopathy,   

    Selling psychopathy in late modernity 

    A few weeks ago, I was browsing the bookshop in Kings Cross while waiting for the Eurostar and came across this disturbing book:

    Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 08.50.56

    Given I was on my way to a much needed holiday, I didn’t buy the book at the time, intrigued though I was by it. I just went on Amazon to finally purchase it and was genuinely surprised to discover that this isn’t the only one:

    Product DetailsProduct Details

    The author is a psychologist at Oxford who seems to be carving out a media career as Dr. Psychopath. However there are also many other texts with ‘psychopath’ in the title which intrigue me. Many seem to be self-published texts offering advice on avoiding manipulation by ‘psychopaths’. Others are confessional texts of various sorts. Whereas others seem to be popular science books which, I imagine, likely come close to the territory of Kevin Dutton’s books at points.

  • Mark 6:31 am on October 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , late modernity, , , , ,   

    Time and Reflexivity 

    In Margaret Archer’s work on Reflexivity, this faculty is seen as mediating between structure and agency. Our capacity to ‘bend back’ upon ourselves, considering our circumstances in light of our commitments and vice versa, constitutes the point at which structural powers operate upon individual lives. On this view, structures don’t operate automatically, they only exercise causal power vis-a-vis the attempting doings of agents, even if the implications of the former for the latter are utterly opaque for the people concerned. In contrast Harmut Rosa sees time structures as the mediating factor, providing “action with normatively binding force, largely stable expectations, and an orientating frame this is experienced as if it were a natural fact” (pg. 225). His argument is basically a functionalist one, with the structuring of time horizons constituting the process through which “systemic requirements” are ‘translated” into “individual action orientations”:

    our sense of who we are (hence of our identity) is virtually a function of our relationship to space, time, fellow human beings, and the objects of our environment (or to our action and experience). (pg. 224)

    The phrase ‘virtually a function’ is rather ambiguous to say the least*. Clearly, he wishes to recognise some independent variability to identity in relation to what may otherwise be convergent circumstances. However he also dismisses this variability, describing it as ‘virtually a function’, such that this variability comes to be seen as peripheral to the subject matter of our investigation. In essence Rosa treats this as if it were not variable, continually describing uniform responses to social change. He occasionally acknowledges that these claims are empirically questionable but this is seen as something secondary to the theoretical inquiry, as opposed to an important matter that should be incorporated into its terms of reference. Unfortunately this variability matters because if we believe action has (any) efficacy vis-a-vis structure then variable individual responses feed back into the social changes that are reshaping time horizons. If we don’t recognise this variable component of feedback then acceleration comes to seem entirely systemic, revolutionising social life but unfolding by its own logic independent of the actions of individuals or groups.

    It’s for this reason that I feel the need to very cautious when engaging with Rosa. The critical theory he espouses is close enough to my own theoretical position (probably because of the legacy of Marxism feeding into both critical realism and critical theory) that much of what he says immediately resonates with me. But there are also these massive points of disagreement that can seem rather small until I stop and think about them. However he does have rather a lot to say about time which fascinates me. What’s particularly relevant for my own work is his account of structural changes to biography:

    the predominance of individualization in the transformation of relationships to self and world in classical modernity leads to a temporalization of life, i.e., to a perspective on one’s own life as a project to be given shape in time, while the same process of dynamization in the late modern phase of its development effects a “detemporalized,” situational definition of identity. (pg. 226)

    His point concerns the temporal dimension to “socially dominant forms of self-relation” (pg. 224). Though she’s retreated slightly on this point, Archer’s early work on reflexivity was concerned with the spatial dimension of dominant forms of self-relation. In Making Our Way Through The World in particular, there was a focus on the way in which patterns of mobility in early life have implications for the forms of self-relation upon which individuals can come to rely as they go through adolescence. Rosa’s quasi-functionalism notwithstanding, I don’t see any reason why we can’t sustain an interest in both: the spatial and temporal  dimensions to socially dominant forms of self-relation, as well as the relational dimension to personally dominant forms of self-relation (with the macro operation of the former being mediated through the micro operation of the latter).

    Rosa sees a mode of biography as “the directed movement of life along alternative development paths” operating in modernity, dependent upon “the liquefaction of forms of life and community, which reached epoch-making levels during the industrial revolution” being “steered onto relatively fixed, institutional rails in the increasingly ‘organized modernity’ of the welfare state” (pg. 228) He cites Martin Kohli’s work here, who argues that

    a life course divided into temporal sequences has a double function: on the one hand, it undergirds the institutional order of the welfare state (the educational system, the social insurance system, the pension system, etc.) and conversely becomes a socially obligatory standard through this system of institutions; but, on the other hand, it establishes an identity-guiding, orientating schema in the concept of the ‘normal biography,” which allows of respective three-stage ‘schedules’ in professional life (education, gainful employment, retirement) and the familial structuring of life (childhood in the ancestral family, own family with kids, older phase after the kids move out) (pg. 228)

    The transition from tradition to modernity is seen as one from a static and situational identity to one that is dynamic and trans-situational. In late modernity this in turn becomes dynamic and situational. This renewed status of being situationally bound is not a function of spatio-temporal immobility as in traditional society but rather a consequence of the breakdown of stable temporal horizons. Identity implies evaluative and action orientations towards our circumstances. Rosa’s claim is that social acceleration creates a tendency to compress those orientations ever further into the boundaries of situations because the context in relation to which we evaluative and act increasingly changes with such speed that our orientations towards it have no trans-situational durability.

    He contrast this to the tempo of modernity in which “the horizons of expectations remains stable enough to allow long-run, time-resistant life perspectives to develop, the gratification of needs to be systematically postponed, and the completion of the biographical pattern to be patiently awaited.” (pg 230). On his view, the identity-constituting task facing adults in modernity was to “find your own place in the world”: “choose a career, start a family, decide on a religious community, and find a political orientation.” (pg 229). While people did revise these choices, these revisions were relatively marginal and incorporated into a life narrative in terms of progress towards authenticity i.e. my previous choice was wrong, I realised and thus I revised it. In the absence of these stable time horizons, Rosa argues that this orientation towards biography becomes untenable and thus far we are left with a situational identity. This means that chronological phases of life are losing their internal coherence and external interrelatedness: the ‘building blocks’ out of which biographies are built become less clearly distinguishable and the sequential relationships between them become less linear

    Key to Rosa’s analysis is the notion that we’ve moved from an intergenerational to an intra-generational rate of social change. This entails an “escalation of contingency and instability” which serves to render identities relative to situations: “it is not one is a baker, rather one works as one (for two years now); not that one is the husband of X, rather one lives with X; not that one is a New Yorker and conservative, rather one lives in New York (for the next few years) and votes for Conservatives (pg. 147).  His argument rests on the sense in which “self-relations have an insolubly temporal structure in which the past, present, and future of a subject are connected”: “Who one is always also defined by how one became it, what one was and could have been, and what one will be and wants to be” (pg. 146). It is through this situatedness vis-a-vis temporality that social change exercises causal power in relation to individual lives. While Rosa systematically underemphasises the role of reflexivity in mediating this process, making universal claims about the consequences for individuals while ignoring the variability of responses by individuals, he is surely correct that intra-generational social change “will have far-ranging consequences for the possibilities and forms of social integration and cultural reproduction” (pg. 114).

    Another important aspect of Rosa’s analysis is his account of how “the temporal regulation and deinstitutionalization of numerous fields of activity in late modernity society has massively heightened the cost of planning and thus the time required to coordinate and synchronise everyday sequences of action” (pg 126). As the rapidity of social change leads to the progressive dissolution of collective time structures, as well as a recognition of how fleeting those that remain must be, cultural synchronisation devices that could once be taken for granted instead “have to be repeatedly planned, negotiated , and agreed upon with cooperation partners all over again” (pg.  126). We can’t take for granted when others will do things or the order in which they will do them and hence there’s an additional cognitive burden involved in day-to-day social life. This also leads to a situation in which we come to be expected to justify our temporal decision making, as socially accepted standards of temporal rationality break down and the consequence for each individual of other’s temporal decisions become more pronounced: the range of ways in which my, say, failing to send an e-mail in time may impact upon a colleague increase because the significance of that e-mail vis-a-vis their own sequence of work commitments has become less standardised. Standards and expectations diverge when collaborative work is no longer embedded within shared horizons and converging circumstances.

    This is partly a consequence of the diversification of system environments, “Since, from the internal perspective of a given system or interaction context, all other activities represent only disruptive delays and eliminable empty times” (pg. 191). This leaves conflicts over time occurring between people when operating across system boundaries (e.g. when I am preparing for teaching, the demands of a research commitment made by a collaborator seem secondary and vice versa) but also within the context of an individual’s life as they’re forced to negotiate the competing demands of divergent contexts. Rosa identifies a trend towards time management as “microtemporal oscillation between the demands of distinct functional spheres that are all running as ‘non-stop’ enterprise” (pg. 192) (which incidentally is a fantastic description of how and why Omnifocus works so effectively once you get the hang of it) – the disjuncture between spheres becomes too rigid for time managements, sometimes leaving too little time for ‘home’ commitments when at ‘work’ (and vice versa) but also sometimes leaving too much time, confining one to working commitments in absence of impending deadlines or anything approaching real urgency.

    These circumstances pose a profound challenge to our capacity to direct our “energy towards a fixed, constant, subjectively worthwhile goal and to express it in action” (pg. 249). In other words, commitment becomes difficult when the things to which we might commit ourselves change so rapidly. This is the part of Rosa’ s argument that really fascinates me and I think he gets more directly to the heart of this issue then any of the other authors who address it. I’m interested in empirical detail about the life strategy through which people negotiate the moral logic of this situation. Where Rosa’s account fails dramatically, surprisingly so given his deep conversance with the thought of Charles Taylor, stems from his lack of appreciation for how ultimate concerns can function as meta-commitments: fleeting things in our lives take on mean relative to higher commitments which can transcend situational change. Certainly, this is not true of all commitments and I agree that sustaining commitments becomes much harder when social change reaches an intra-generational tempo. But I nonetheless think Rosa’s point is a dramatic overstatement and that the reasons for this hyperbole stem directly from his inadequate concept of reflexivity.

    *It’s possible this may be an issue with the otherwise excellent translation, as Rosa is a wordy but precise author.

  • Mark 9:03 am on August 25, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , INTP, late modernity, ,   

    “Oh ‘INTP’. So that’s what I am”: Identity and Alterity in a Digital Age 

    A couple of years ago I did a conference presentation called “The Difficulty of Working Out Who You are: Sexual Culture, Sexual Categories and Asexuality”. Or at least I gave a presentation this title. In reality it didn’t actually do what it said on the tin because I’d rather jumped the gun and given a  definitive title to something which was then (and still is really) a loose amalgamation of thoughts in the progress. I started working on asexuality around 5 years ago now and my immediate interest was in asexuality as something approximating a sexual orientation (sparked largely by how extraordinarily overlooked the conceptual possibility, let alone the emirical reality, had been in the academic sexualities literature I’d engaged with for the MA I’d just completed). Two further interests emerged from this as I got more into it:

    1. The fascinatingly idiosyncratic frame of reference which asexuality (and asexuality studies) offers for engaging with well rehearsed questions about contemporary sexual culture and its history of emergence
    2. The broader issues of identity and alterity in late modernity which manifest themselves in the emergence of the asexual community (as well as the question of in what sense, if any, it’s meaningful to use the term ‘community’ here).

    It’s the second question which has been on my mind recently. I’m talking about this at the Royal Geographical Society conference next week as part of a panel on the politics of anti-normativity and at a conference in Nottingham the following week on ‘normality in an uncertain world’. I like the second event theme in particular because it nicely captures the aspects of Archer’s account of late modernity which she’s only begun to draw out in her final book on reflexivity. This involves a situation where, as Archer (2012: 302-3) puts it, “the differences characterising each agent so overwhelm communalities with others that they increasingly engage in transactions with the system ‘as a whole’ (meaning raiding it for the detection of ‘contingent complemantarities’ and exploiting these novelties)”. What she’s suggesting is that increasingly atomised individuals, confronted with little to no socio-demographic possibilities for collective identification, look towards the cultural system for resources to help make sense of self and circumstances, which might furnish them with an ideal (which later provides a basis for value orientated collective action) but more immediately serves to increase the heterogeneity of their environment. What I think Archer misses is both how the cultural system can provide an immediate basis for social (re)integration and how socio-cultural relations can be digitally mediated. So the individual whose experience of not experiencing sexual attraction has been rendered problematic within their local environment, comes to recognise their commonality with (distant) others through direct and indirect accounts of experience which are encountered online. This in turn leads to an experienced difference (“I’m so weird! Everyone else is so interested in sex”) being transvaluated into commonality (“oh there are other people just like me!”) and provides a starting point through which many, though by no means all, come to pursue ‘offline’ relations on the basis of ‘online’ connections.

    However I don’t think people who don’t experience sexual attraction are the only ones who follow this sort of biographical arc. To be clear: I’m talking about homologies at the level of individual biography and suggesting the existence of analogous structural and cultural factor which condition, though do not determine, the shape of that biography. I’m not subsuming a whole range of disparate phenomenon under one notion of biography (e.g. the existentially crisis prone individual in late modernity) though it occurred recently I sometimes talk as if this is what I’m doing. My point is to draw out a typological connection between disparate phenomenon which because of their particularity often have their connections overlooked (or are even ignored in and of themselves altogether). In terms of Archer’s approach, I’m gesturing towards a few things: a cultural account of contextual incongruity to supplement her structural account, a theory of how cultural systemic properties can provide an immediate basis for social re(integration) and a contribution to her thinking on reflexivity and collective action. After years of doing ‘my asexuality research’ and my PhD side-by-side, it’s really satisfying to have actually incorporated them into the same frame of reference at last… but I digress. What prompted me to write this post, which I’m stunned to realise is now close to 1000 words long without me having yet got to my main point, is the Myers-Briggs typology as another example of the weirdly specific cultural bases for social (re)integration which I’m convinced have come to circulate all around us without us having grasped their full implications yet. To those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs is a taxonomic theory of ‘personality type’ designed for psychometric testing. It was ‘extrapolated’ from the work of Jung by two people with no psychological credentials or training (note: I’m not being a snob here, only stressing the important point that there the MB has, as far as I’m aware, zero empirical basis and little or no credentialised authority for its putative conceptual roots in Jung’s work). In effect it divides people up into 16 personality types through psychometric testing and there’s a massive industry attached to the development, promotion and application of the MB. I first did it long ago (I love this stuff in spite of my chronic cynicism) and have tended to be ‘scored’ as an INTP. This is the attached personality profile from the Wikipedia page:

    Architects are introspective, pragmatic, informative, and attentive. The scientific systemization of all knowledge, or Architectonics, is highly developed in Architects, who are intensely curious and see the world as something to be understood. Their primary interest is to determine how things are structured, built, or configured. Architects are designers of theoretical systems and new technologies. Rearranging the environment to fit their design is a distant goal of Architects.

    Architects are logically and verbally precise. In casual conversations, they may be tempted to point out errors the other speaker makes, with the simple goal of maintaining clarity within the exchange. In serious discussions, Architects’ abilities to detect distinctions, inconsistencies, contradictions, and frame arguments gives them an enormous advantage. In debates, Architects can be devastating, even to the point of alienation from the group with detailed logical arguments, which may be characterized as “hair-splitting” or “logic-chopping“.

    Architects tend to analyze the world in depth. They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them. In social exchanges, Architects’ interest in informing others about what they have learned is greater than their interest in directing the actions of others.

    Credentials or other forms of traditional authority do not impress Architects. Instead, logically coherent statements are the only things that seem to persuade them. Architects value intelligence highly and are often impatient with people with less ability than they have. An architect often perceives himself as being one of the few individuals capable of defining the ends a society must achieve and will often strive to find the most efficient means to accomplish their ends. This perspective can make Architects seem arrogant to others.


    According to Rational Role Variants, by David Keirsey:

    “Architects take their mating relationship seriously and are faithful and devoted – albeit preoccupied at times, and somewhat forgetful of appointments, anniversaries, and other common social rituals. They are not likely to welcome much social activity at home, nor will they arrange it, content to leave scheduling of social interactions to their mate. If left to their own devices, INTPs will retreat into the world of books and emerge only when physical needs become imperative. Architects are, however, even-tempered, compliant, and easy to live with – that is, until one of their principles are violated, in which case their adaptability ceases altogether. They prefer to keep their desires and emotions to themselves, and may seem insensitive to the desires and emotions of others, an insensitivity that can puzzle and frustrate their mates. But if what their mates are feeling is a mystery to them, Architects are keenly aware of what their mates actually say and do, and will often ask their mates to give a rationale for their statements and actions.” The INTP’s long-term mate is the ENFJ.


    I find it hard not to recognise myself in this. Turns out others have the same experience: this is why websites, web forums and twitter feeds seem to have begun to to emerge for those whose response to this subjective recognition has been to seek interlocutors who share this commonality: see here, here and here. What’s going on here seems to be very similar to some of the relational dynamics driving the biographical trajectories of people who identify as asexual. However unlike asexuality, where my outsider status a social researcher imposes certain constraints, something important seems obvious to me when focusing on the INTP: it’s an identity based on an exclusion. The experience of identification depends upon the accentuation of certain points which in turn distract from others. The INTP profiles seem so unerringly to capture certain aspects of my character (“They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them”) that it distracts from those which aren’t incorporated within it descriptively or even run contrary to it (e.g. it’s hard to see a basis for political activism or shared engagement with live music in the NTP profile – both of which have been integral parts of my life since I was a teenager). In other words: the transvaluation of difference into commonality rests on confirmation bias. This is a strong and hypothetical suggestion about something which is ultimately an empirical question but it’s an important point: to what extent do the emergence of these ‘new commonalities’ presupposes the individual actively seeking them? What implications does this have for the putative social (re)integration I’m arguing emerges from these new collective identifications? This is why the asexual community fascinates me: the commonality becomes a basis for the emergence of new differences as dialogue unfolds i.e. behind the ‘umbrella term’ (asexuality as someone who does not experience sexual attraction) a diverse terminology for recognising and expressing (a)sexual difference emergences. I wonder if this is true elsewhere?

    • Cousin It 12:03 pm on January 29, 2014 Permalink

      Mark, two things:
      firstly, I know this is an elderly post now, but it is by far the most interesting thing that comes up when you put ‘asexual INTP’ into Google. So thank you.

      Secondly, I can’t resist giving an answer to your rhetorical question.
      Of all the places where those searching for a ‘tribe’ online might congregate, I think the M-B forums are among the least likely to have new, divergent labels/identities arise from the interaction.

      This is simply because the M-B typology is a top-down theoretical system. (Fundamentally flawed, as you point out, but not without its attractions, especially to literate, self-analytical introverts.) Its whole rationale rests on the idea that cognitive functions can be sorted into discrete, binary categories (which is pretty absurd, really). Those categories are everything, and are worked out and described in fine detail. So, while there’s plenty of stuff online that uses the categories to riff on (which Star Trek character is which Type, for example), there’s very little scope there for divergence, beyond routine (and inconclusive) comparisons of which of the preferences one is strongest and weakest in.

      AVEN is an identity pick-and-mix by comparison. Though, of course, for most of us, nature and/or nurture did the fundamental picking, we’re just mixing the labels.

      (PS – yes, I am: INTP and asexual.)

    • Mark 7:25 pm on January 31, 2014 Permalink

      I see where you’re coming from but I disagree. I think the categories have been produced in different ways (and this is really interesting in its own right – my sociological interest in asexuality is as much to do with when/why/how asexual discourse emerged and circulated as it with the experience of being asexual) but that people still relate to categories in fundamentally similar ways. I’m fascinated by quite how widely M-B categories have spread – I agree that they’re fundamentally absurd but, with my sociological hat on, I want to explain this capacity to identify with categories that are part of a “top-down theoretical system”. I suspect it’s how all-encompassing they are which makes them plausible, at least for some people, despite making them social scientifically silly – everyone fits into the schema and everyone is potentailly able to locate themselves, as well as what they experience as different about themselves (which i think is the motivation for this kind of identification) in terms of the traits of other people.

  • Mark 10:36 pm on February 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: heroism, , late modernity, , the dark knight, ,   

    ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain…’ 

    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?

  • Mark 12:35 pm on December 14, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: , late modernity, ,   

    Solitude and Interiority 

    The historians taught us long ago that the King was never left alone. But, in fact, until the end of the seventeeth century, nobody was ever left alone. The density of social life made isolation virtually impossible, and people who managed to shut themselves up in a room for some time were regarded as exceptional characters: relations between peers, relations between people of the same class but dependent on one another, relations between masters and servants – these everyday relations never left a man by himself.

    I originally came across this passage by the historian Philip Aries quoted in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self a few years ago and it’s something my mind has intermittently gone back to. What effect has the possibility of solitude had on the form human interiority takes?

    I think it was a necessary though insufficient condition for the widespread development of autonomous reflexivity: monological decision-making with practical criteria about achieving one’s ends. In any particular situation where an individual is alone, their solitude acts as an enablement for the practice of purely internal deliberation. Conversely the omnipresence of others serves to constrain such practice, with the constant possibility of interruption and concomitant attempts to draw the individual into dialogical decision making.

    Solitude represents the possibility of escape from social normativity. In its facilitation of purely internal decision-making, it allows possibilities to be voiced which would meet conversational sanction with others and frees the individual from the need to articulate their deliberations in terms which are conversationally and socially acceptable. Lack of solitude doesn’t prevent this process but it makes it much more difficult. Furthermore, the kinds of internal conversations which take place in solitude tend to have different properties to those which don’t. They’re easier to sustain at length without the risk of interruption. Physical aloneness can often lead to an easing of social concerns. Their greater possible duration creates more opportunities for internal discernment and deliberative experimentation. I suspect that until much of the population was having these experiences on a semi-regular basis, it was not possible for autonomous reflexivity to develop in a widespread way. Monological deliberation may have been practiced but it was the exception rather than the rule: both in terms of how often people did it (much less) and what they did it about (practical concerns).

    The development of monological deliberation is an iterative process. As progressively more deliberation takes place in a silent and internal way, greater difficulty is faced in the practice of dialogical deliberation. It takes a very real act of translation to articulate inner speech to external others. Our inner speech is more contracted, we use language idiosyncratically, it has non-linguistic components (images, feelings)  and draws on tacit understandings which may not be shared. Furthermore, this increases with practice. So the more we practice monological deliberation, the more difficulty we experience in extending our deliberations to include external others. It renders the interface between external and internal speech at least potentially conversationally problematic in all situations.

    Once a certain qualitative threshold of monological deliberation has been reached (the individual has begun making rudimentary life choices in a way which is conversationally insulated from the standards of  her ‘similars and familiars’) then all situations possibly require an act of translation between the internal and the external: conveying decisions made using internal standards to external others who might not share those standards. This changes the experiential texture of social life  and gives the individual’s interiority a feeling of irreducibility which would otherwise be lacking. The interface between the internal and the external comes to the fore and neither is experienced as even potentially dispensable. Once autonomous reflexivity ‘takes hold’ in the internal life of an individual, it largely becomes self-sustaining and permits of no return. The individual might lack the social, culture or personal resources to practice autonomous reflexivity effectively (i.e. their practice is impeded) but this doesn’t entail a return to their pre-autonomous mode. Indeed the stress and uncertainty seems likely only to amplify their internal deliberations both quantitatively and qualitatively. Solitude changes everything.

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