Apocalyptic City

June 1, 2010

Mark Featherstone

I recently watched the cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Akin to the book, the film presents the viewer with a post-apocalyptic scene, an imaginary depiction of the end of civilization, the end of culture, and the end of community. In short, the film perfectly captures the idea of the end of humanity. But perhaps more than anything what The Road talks to is the idea of the end of the city, the urban form that enables civilization, culture, and community, and allows us to be human. As Lewis Mumford saw, without the city there is no family, there is no tolerance, and there is no time for sentiment.

McCarthy’s work captures the impact of the end of the city, through its central premise, the road that must be walked, and the idea that in the wake of the collapse of the urban form humans have reverted back to being a nomadic species, permanently on the move, searching for food, struggling to survive. Mumford makes a similar point, but from the opposite direction. In Mumford’s view the city emerged once humans located a stable source of food and settled down. Once survival was secure everything else followed – civilization, culture, community, and humanity. Unfortunately, what else followed was what Mumford calls ‘purposeless materialism’ or desire, which as any psychoanalyst will explain, cannot be satisfied and is fickle in its choice of desirable objects. In many ways McCarthy’s The Road represents the end point of Mumford’s story, the point where ‘purposeless materialism’ has nowhere else to go, and collapses under its own weight.

In terms of the individual experience of the satisfaction of desire the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan captured this idea in the notion of jouissance. Lacan uses this term to describe the point where the self gives way to ecstasy and disappears. Similarly the philosopher Georges Bataille wrote about the limit experience and le petit mort or the small death which everybody experiences in ecstatic moments. But what does this have to do with the city, civilization, and the apocalypse?

Raised to the level of a social condition the Lacanian-Bataillean theory of the ecstatic explosion, or moment of orgasm, can be seen to refer to the terminal state of modern civilization, which we currently seem to be confronting in the form of over-population, excessive technologisation, de-humanisation, and environmental destruction, with the result that we may soon have to face up to the exhaustion of our society of progress, improvement, desire, and satisfaction in an ecstatic moment, an apocalyptic moment of revelation, where it becomes clear to us that there is nowhere else to go and that our current model of urban society is finished.

If this idea of exhaustion, the exhaustion of modernity, is exactly what post-modern thought is all about, then the idea of post-modernism has a very long history that we would have to date back to ancient Athens. We know that the very first philosopher of the city, Plato, understood the problematic of desire and urban society. In his Critias he wrote about the mythic city of Atlantis, a city of desire, luxury, and over-expenditure, which eventually sunk to the bottom of the sea under the weight of its own hubris.

What is McCarthy’s The Road about if it is not about surveying the catastrophic scene following the sinking of Atlantis, the catastrophic scene confronting the survivors of the apocalyptic burn out of modernity, and trying to imagine how it would be possible to survive under these conditions?

If this is in fact the case then what makes The Road so powerful is that in many respects it appears that we are approaching this situation today. For so many people in the world, who live on the edge of survival, the urban environment is already a catastrophic environment. For these people the city is about as far away from Plato’s shining utopia, the Republic, as it is possible to get. In fact it seems to strain the conceptual boundaries of the idea of the city to the very limit to continue to use it to describe the Platonic utopia and a place like Kinshasa, which is why we now talk of city-regions.

But of course the problem of calling a place like Kinshasa a city is not simply about size, as may be the case with Tokyo or Los Angeles, because what makes the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo strain the limits of the term city is the very lack of security, civilization, and humanity afforded so many of its inhabitants, such as the witch children abandoned to the streets to starve. Beyond this point, the point where the city as a centre of civilization starts to collapse, there is really only one way to go and that is the road, the place of nomadic life and the struggle to survive which characterises the lives of so many people in the world today, and approximately 2 million people in the DRC alone.

This is what The Road is about, the collapse of the city, culture, civilization, and society, the moment when the catastrophic condition that currently characterises the situation of so many people in the world, comes back and transforms the West into a wasteland. This apocalyptic vision of the collapsing city is, of course, embedded in so many of McCarthy’s works, such as No Country for Old Men, and in many respects characterises his Americanism, an Americanism perfectly suited to the post-9 / 11 landscape of our global asociety.

Under conditions of globalisation characterised by the war on terror, fear, and insecurity, we live in a state of existential anxiety that means that the city is endlessly teetering on the brink of collapsing back into the wilderness from whence it came. This is, of course, the classic story of the birth of American city in reverse, the classic story of the origins of America replayed in a new tale of the West and the collapse and reformation of the city, culture, and society from the ruins of what had passed into history. McCarthy finds his expression of redemption that refounds the city in the love of the father for his son, a love which endures even after the family has collapsed and the mother has departed, a love which survives the harsh conditions of the wilderness, where social relations dissipate before the law of self-preservation at all costs.

The final message of The Road, represented by the moment when the father dies and in doing so founds a new family, the basic unit of a new city and a new society, is that the end of the road, and the emergence of the city, and the civilization, culture, and society it sustains, are ultimately premised on the existence on something far more basic than a social contract, the kind of legal document thinkers such as Hobbes thought could give birth to a city. This thing, the thing that enables the city to endure, that makes it work in the worst possible conditions, is not something that can be legalised, written down, or made policy in fantastic documents that pretend to be realistic.

It is this truth that is perfectly captured by McCarthy in The Road in its most fundamental form, the truth that when everything else collapses, there is nothing left but the love of a parent for their child, and it is this that has to sustain the city, civilization, culture, and society.


What is a City?

March 10, 2010

Mark Featherstone

What is a city? In his classic book, The City in History, Lewis Mumford tells us that the city is primarily a space of culture, society, and civilization. Before the invention of the original cities humans were a nomadic species who lived to survive and survived to live. It was only upon the invention of the first cities that humans settled down, formed cities, became domesticated or civilized beings, and invented culture, where culture means the ability to represent what matters in life in order to better understand human existence. If this was everything, and the city was simply a space of sociability and civilization, there would be nothing more to say because we would, of course, be living in utopia. As we know, this is not the case.

By the late 19th century and early 20th century what the classical thinkers of the city, from Plato onwards, had always known, had become completely transparent: that the urban project, and the drive to design well ordered human living spaces, was continually plagued by the problem of human nature, what the classical thinkers called passion. In the works of the modern German thinkers of technology, Marx, Weber, Simmel, and Tonnies, the city is a labyrinthine place, an anomic space, where the ancient ideal of civilized living has more or less collapsed into the capitalist desire for accumulation and luxury. It is this theme, the theme of the fragmented city, that carried over into the Chicago School theory of the atomisation of urban space and the rise of the notion of sub-culture. In the works of these American writers, the notion of a unified city was not even idealised, since it was no longer possible to conceive of urban community, in anything but the loosest sense.

Where the Americans were interested in thinking through the politics of the fragmented city, a desire that was translated into the British cultural studies’ concern for sub-culture, the French writers of situationism, and later post-structuralism and post-modernism, wanted to take advantage of the splintered state of late modern urban space and oppose the technologies of state power through various strategies, such as Debord’s theory of derive or drift. Against the regimes of power Lefebvre conceptualised through the idea of abstract space, the post-modern theorists of space turned to strategies of everyday life forms of resistance. In these theories, expressed in works such as Michel De Certeau’s work on everyday life, the alienated, de-industrialised, landscape of the post-modern city became a battleground between humanity, imagination, and desire, and the post-human forces of technology, administration, and capitalism.

Torn by the forces of high speed capitalism, the contemporary post-modern city barely resembles the space of social interaction, cultural exchange, and civilization imagined by Mumford’s early urban dwellers. Instead the post-modern city is a space of suspicion, paranoia, and violence, conditioned by deep divisions between the rich who seek to buy a protected civilized world at the expense of the poor who are left to fight it out in the state of second nature that closely resembles the violent pre-historic world that pre-dated the emergence of the first cities. The sociologist Loic Wacquant imagines this urban future through the concepts of the hyper-ghetto and advanced marginality. Where the term hyper-ghetto conceives of the city in terms of totally enclosed spaces of civilization and violence, the notion of advanced marginality explains that urban violence is not some kind of atavistic throw back that will be eradicated through processes of modernisation, but rather a product of modernisation itself that we can expect to increase in intensity until the future city is realised under the sign of the barely civilized neo-Darwinian principles of contemporary capitalism, such as competitive advantage. We can already trace the outline of Wacquant’s concepts if we consider the social condition of our most futuristic cities, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Lagos, and it may not be entirely hyperbolic to suggest that the best exemplars of the ideas of the hyper-ghetto and advanced marginality in the contemporary world are Baghdad and Kabul, with their sprawling slums, safe green zones, and ultra-violent hinterlands.

What I think we can see, then, in the contemporary world is a strange situation, where the urban form is simultaneously everywhere, since now, more than ever before in human history, we are an urban species, and nowhere, because none of our contemporary cities would measure up to the ancient ideal, in respect of the way they fall well short of the Platonic principle of the urban as well ordered, socially secure, civilized space. Given that my sense is that we are today caught somewhere between the complete realisation of the urban form and the total collapse of the idea of the city into some new form, my interest in the notion of urban futures resides in the way this basic tension will be played out. In this respect I am concerned with the predictive capacity of culture, and academia, even though this faculty is also under attack from the forces of capitalism that seek to quantify all cultural production, turning it into a commodity to be sold on the free market.

Against this situation, where it is no longer possible to ask ‘what is means?’, and the only relevant question is ‘how much?’, the role of what critical culture we have left is to think through our potential urban futures in order to oppose the virus of anomie, which is characteristic of the contemporary city, and is, if we believe Simmel and the other classical urbanists, a condition of the way the free market commodifies human existence. This is precisely how we must conceive the task of constructing sustainable communities. What is a sustainable community if it is not a creative response to reasonable projections about our potential urban futures coloured by decay, decline, inequality, and violence?

What is Sociology for?

August 6, 2009

In the face of global recession academic disciplines, such as Sociology, are being called upon to justify the value of their research to government and wider society. This questioning of the value of academic work is not unusual in a period of crisis. Sociology itself was born in an age of crisis with the collapse of feudalism and the rise of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The value of Sociology to this historical period was to enable people to understand the changes that were taking place in their world and to help them to orientate themselves within it. In this respect, Sociology began life as a reflexive practice: the first Sociologists, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, took the material conditions of their societies and tried to explain them through theoretical models in order to first understand them and second predict how they may evolve in the future.

The classical sociologists were not new in this regard. The history of abstract thought about the world and society began in Ancient Greece in order to cope with the harsh conditions of life. In this way, it is possible to say that the Greeks were the first utilitarians, since the original purpose of their thought was to find ways to cope with and improve their lives through understanding the world around them. Centrally, they were only able to do this because they lived in an environment that simultaneously offered them little shelter and great freedom. The central principle of life in Ancient Greece was, therefore, exposure. It was exposure that caused them to think about their world and enabled this thought to happen.

Later, as the Greek city began to evolve, political systems developed that attempted to stifle the free thought and enterprise that had led to the evolution of the original political cities in the first place. The most famous form of political system set on preventing free thought was, of course, tyranny. Ancient tyrants tended to want to limit free thought because it was considered threatening to their rule. On other occasions, the limitation of freedom of thought was not necessary because the people could not muster the energy to engage in politics and chose to live under some tyrant or other who would make decisions on their behalf. In this instance, the idea of tyranny loses the violent connotation it carries in the modern world, where it is assumed, I would say mistakenly, that people always want to be free. In the ancient world tyrants could be elected, or take power, over an apathetic mass that did not want to be free. This situation, that people did not always want to be free, was understood and accepted by Greek thinkers.

We should be thankful however that Greek culture never evolved into a culture of apathy and its people were willing to argue the toss, state their case, and not sit back and be told what to do by tyrants and aristocrats. The Greeks called this practice of argumentation, politics. They thought that politics was central to the expression of free thought, the development of a better society, and sharply differentiated it from economy, which they associated with basic survival, getting by, and the preservation of the status quo. Although their thought originated in this effort to survive, it soon became about improvement and progress in general and they resented the reduction of philosophy, politics, and debate to the level of base economics.

Centrally, in his book on politics Aristotle argued that tyrants often encourage obsession with economy because it deflects people’s attention from political questions about whether this, that, or the other way of living is better or worse and allows social, economic, and political inequalities and injustices to remain unquestioned. In this respect Aristotle saw that obsession with economy erodes critical thought by encouraging people to busy themselves with private matters concerned with the continuation of their way of life. The effect of this was, in his view, to leave the public sphere, the space of politics and debate about social issues, wide open for colonisation by those interested in preserving the status quo.

In many respects the original sociologist Karl Marx took the same view. In Marx’s view monetary economy is modeled on natural metabolism comprised of the simple circulation of food and other resources to sustain life. In the social world, this model is organised on a higher level to sustain a civilized way of life organised on a basis of a complex division of labour. Despite the differences however between the natural and social world the point of similarity that has been taken up by contemporary bio-economists remains the same: economy is simply an unthinking eating and shitting body on a sociological scale. However, much like the Greeks, Marx was aware that economy was cut across by power relations between the people, who either think for themselves or sink back in apathy and simply try to ‘get by’ by keeping the economic metabolism moving, and the aristocratic class, who know that encouraging easy apathy and an obsession with economy is good for keeping politics clear so that they can call the shots.

But we must be clear about this: like Aristotle’s tyrant, Marx’s capitalist aristocracy was never really interested in calling the shots for the sake of calling the shots. As Aristotle pointed out, the problem with tyrants is that they are not reasonable, but rather spend their time obsessing about money, wealth, possessions, and power in general. Marx’s ruling class is the same. The capitalist is not political for the sake of being political. He is not interested in making decisions about the way the social world is organised. Instead, what matters to him is lining his own pockets, maintaining the status quo, and generally promoting the view that economic metabolism is what matters in life because he believes this to be case.

In Marx’s view, the capitalist world is a thoughtless world. Capitalists exploit workers to make money. The capitalist obsesses over money simply because he has no sense of the difference between needs and wants and comes to consider the pursuit of money and later on luxury an end in itself that can somehow make his life better. Since this is not the case beyond the level of basic need, the capitalist’s desire for money that will somehow make life better knows no limits. His obsession with money is endless. The workers who live miserable lives making a profit for the capitalist and a living for themselves are similarly obsessed with money because it is necessary to sustain their lives and provide them with a distraction from the boredom of their lives.

For Marx, both parties are lost and neither are really in charge of their own lives. In his language they are alienated from (a) their true nature, which is not simply about metabolism and economy because humanity is capable of more than survival, (b) each other, because they become enemies who vie for a larger share of the pie, and (c) the world around them, which is seen as little more than a resource to plunder in the name of profitability. On top of this situation, which causes people to live our emotionally miserable lives, the economic system, the stupid eating and shitting machine that cannot think but simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume and so on ad nauseam, seems like a monster to both of groups because neither bosses nor workers really control it. Both parties fear the monstrous economic machine because, as various capitalist Gods have discovered over the last year or so, it is completely inhuman in its judgement of success and failure. Capitalism is a fickle master. All that matters is the bottom line. It can, and will, chew anybody up. Nobody is safe. Life is precarious.

The Marxist response to this situation was to return to the Greek model of politics and to think about finding ways to put people back in charge of their own lives. In this way Marx sought to resolve the original paradox of philosophical thought, which is that it evolved in order to try to combat problems of exposure and solve concrete problems leading to the eventual dominance of economy and the creation of a new man-made state of nature that reduced people to the level of beasts, by creating a new revolution in thought on the basis of state managed socialism or communism. I do not think it is necessary to tell the story of the rise and fall of socialism in the limited space available here. Instead we should note that the rise of the new version of laissez faire capitalism and collapse of socialism as a viable model of government in the 1980s coincided with a profound crisis in Sociology itself.

In the face of neo-liberalism, or the total ideology of the new capitalism, everything was subsumed under the economic model and the kind of critical thought advanced by Sociology, and thinkers such as Marx, was seen to be irrelevant. Elements of the subject considered to have utilitarian value in the new economic world were hived off and became new disciplines. But even these new disciplines, which have become especially popular in the New Labour years where personal freedom has been undermined by both an economic system that is completely out of human control and an enormous socialistic state machinery set on managing every aspect of life in order to control the masses who are hammered on a daily basis by said economic machine, are under threat today because the mindless economic system has finally crashed. This has left everybody wondering how the state is going to not only save the collapsing financial system, but also continue to bank roll its own massive bureaucratic machine, which is meant to absorb the social problems caused by the monstrous economy that continues to lay waste to individuals, families, cities, and on a global scale, entire nations.

The answer to this question is probably that the state will not continue to fund the entirety of its bureaucratic machine, but that it will instead cut, slash, and burn many of its public service functions in the name of trying to maintain its primary commitment to the mindless economic machine which has plunged us into our current predicament, simply because the ideology of laissez faire capitalism advises that (1) economy is everything and (2) everything is economy and should be judged on the basis of its ability to measure up to economic criteria of profitability and competitive advantage. One would imagine that in the wake of our recent economic crash the thinking person, the descendent of Aristotle or Marx, who is also incidentally the descendant of the Greek hoplites who fought for the city and therefore felt that they were owed a say in the way the city was run, would have reached the conclusion that it is probably better to stop thinking about the world in economic terms, because these principles have proven to be more or less stupid in their support of an economic machine that is essentially little more that an enormous eating and shitting body.

One would have thought that the thinking person, the descendant of Aristotle, Marx, and the hoplites, would have made the link between (a) the obsession with economy, (b) the economic crash, (c) the immorality of the financial sector, which has been run to line the pockets of the banking class for the best part of three decades, and (d) the petty corruption of the political class, which has recently been exposed as being more, or at least as, interested in lining its own pockets as it is serving the public good, and stopped talking about value. Yet in the face of all of this academic disciplines, such as Sociology, which, since its break from more so-called useful disciplines, has become purely about critical reflection on society, are expected to justify themselves in terms of value, where value is a thinly veiled reference to economic worth. The truth is that the value of disciplines, such as sociology, is that they enable people and, as a consequence, society to think reflexively.

This thinking takes place through teaching and learning and critical research that contributes to societies knowledge of itself. That this cannot be made subordinate to concerns with economic value is evidenced by the fact that in the wake of three decades of economic tyranny that have resulted in the emergence of a fragmented anomic society characterised by monstrous levels of inequality and the most serious economic crash since the 1930s we continue to listen to renewed calls to justify the value of social research. If this fact, which testifies to the scarcity of even the most basic levels of thought in our society, does not teach us that we have to stop thinking of the economic system in religious terms, then I do not know what will.

Perhaps now is the time to reject the tyranny of economy and return to the critical thought of Aristotle and Marx, accepting that although we may not be able to think in world historical terms, we have the right, like the modest Greek hoplites, to engage in critical debate on the basis that we are our society, not simply beasts of burden meant to supply some unthinking over-blown eating and shitting body that simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume ad nauseam.

Dr Mark Featherstone

By Siobhan Holohan

The Hughes Family

The Hughes Family

I have recently returned from The British Sociological Association’s 2009 annual conference held in Cardiff, where I gave a paper on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Family. The paper focused on the relationship between the documentary remit and sociological research into families. Here I explained the traditional links between to the two forms of social investigation and how these have altered in light of both recent changes to the documentary form and theoretical developments in the sociology of families.

Originally conceived as a means to observe everyday practices in order to better understand the world we live in, factual film-making has been reinvented enormously from social observation to its most recent transformation into reality TV. In 1974 Paul Watson’s The Family pioneered the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique to build a picture of family life that also exposed inequalities contained in British society. Recently in the new Channel 4 show also called The Family, film-maker Jonathan Smith updated this format using technologies such as motion sensor cameras usually found in reality programming such as Big Brother to focus on the mundane everyday practices of family life. However, I suggested that instead of the meta-narratives of class, race, etc, displayed in the 1970s documentary, the naughties version appears to have been stripped of politics. While it is true to say that today’s family loves the same, argues the same and slams doors the same as it did thirty years ago, I argued that it is problematic that its documentary presentation is solely concerned with the minutiae of everyday family life and contains no broader social narrative. At its most straightforward The Family simply becomes another form of display for the participants, the same kind of display that we now see everyday on our TV screens through numerous ratings driven reality programmes. However, on another level this form of representation reveals a society confessing its own disconnection from the bigger picture.

In addition I also wanted to suggest that the apparent lack of social reflection in the documentary form of The Family has been mirrored in sociological research into families, which has in recent years also de-contextualised families to the extent that wider social conditions have taken a back seat behind the individualisation thesis. Here thinkers such as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995: 2002) have lead the way in conceiving the negotiated family as one that makes its own (very fluid) meaning regardless of (and also perhaps because of) global and/or local social conditions. The problem with the individualisation thesis, which in part suggests that we are able to pick and choose our ‘families’ and how we relate to them in any number of ways, is that it ignores our desire to be embedded in something bigger. While I accept that kinship has altered greatly in recent decades, I suggested that this does not mean we want to be fragmented individuals; that instead we want to find meaning in terms of our social position, our family history, or whatever. I situated this idea by referring to Carol Smart’s recent work, Personal Life (2007), which suggests that sociology needs to start paying less attention to the ways we deconstruct ourselves and more attention to the ways in which we build our identity, often around heritage, memory and tradition. This idea was augmented by one of the other speakers on my panel, Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University, who discussed this process in terms of the recent increase in people attempting to trace their family history via dedicated internet sites or specialist genealogists.

While The Family is set to return for another series later this year, thus perhaps finally discarding its documentary credentials, it is important that sociology re-imagines how it investigates everyday social life in order to reconnect these practices to both local and global social conditions.

I am currently preparing this paper for publication. The paper was abstracted from my current research into the history, cultures and technologies of confession. My book, The Culture of Confession, is due out next year on Palgrave.

Obama, Anti-Dubya

November 7, 2008

By Mark Featherstone

I was interested to see Steve Bell’s Anti-Bush response to Obama’s victory (see previous blog entry) because it nicely captures the political iconography of Dubya and illustrates the essential ‘negativity’ of the utopianism of the new President-elect. But before I explain what I mean by this idea of the ‘negative’ utopianism of Obama, let me set-up the notion of political iconography.

It is possible to make the claim that the first political icons can be traced back to pre-history and the kind of totemic symbols Sigmund Freud wrote about in his famous book Totem and Taboo. The same logic underpinned Thomas Hobbes’ early modern image of the ‘Leviathan’. In Hobbes’ image, the King, or big man, is comprised of lots of individuals who come together to form political society. Thus political society, or what social theorists call the body politic, is represented by the symbol of the King who embodies the will of everybody. But what was the purpose of these images? Clearly, the image of the totem or body politic was not meant to undermine the leader, but rather to boost their power in the eyes of the masses. All of this changed with the emergence of the mass media and in particular the printing press because it was now possible for revolutionaries to oppose the official view of power with satirical illustrations that exposed the ridiculous or grotesque dimensions of those in positions of authority.

One of the first examples of this new symbolic critique of power took place in 18th century France and played no small part in undermining the authority of the French monarchy in the eyes of the masses. Of course, this new form of revolutionary symbolism never completely overtook the old method of imaginary boosterism. By the time the Bolsheviks sought to realise Marx’s vision of a completed-revolution in feudal Russia, the totemic strategy was back on top. We have all seen images of Lenin striding across the Russian landscape and many of these symbols were realised in statue form. We also know that later on Stalin made use of the Leninist cult of personality to cement his own position, but that he was never able to embody the Marxist utopia in the ways in which Lenin was in the 1920s. It is similarly well known that Hitler was successful in simultaneously presenting himself as a living God and demonising the European Jewry in Nazi Germany with catastrophic results. However, thankfully the authoritarian, or totalitarian, attempt to totally control symbolic, or imaginary, politics was never feasible in western democracy and, despite notions of ideology and hegemony, the symbolic critique of power has continued to thrive.

In the second half of the 20th century, and particularly in America, one of the homes of modern democracy, the symbolic critique of power expanded in line with the enormous expansion of the mass media and the emergence of the image-obsessed society sociologists refer to through the term, post-modern. The problem of political critique in post-modern society is not so much one of the ability of openly expressing critical views, but rather of making these views heard in a blizzard of opinions, views, and what has come to be called info-tainment. By the 1980s, when French post-modern theory began to reach America, commentators started to critique the post-modernism of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Although it is possible to claim that JFK was the first mass media president, it was Reagan who became the original post-modern president, simply because of the ways in which he embodied the American mythology of the west through the conflation of his political and B-movie personas in a new form of post-modern totemism.

Although this mythic persona made Reagan immensely popular with the masses, it also opened him up to elite critique based on the view that there was no real substance to his politics. For example, the American writer Neil Postman famously wrote that America was ‘Amusing Itself to Death’ under Reagan. Similarly, the political analyst Michael Rogin said that America had evolved a new form of political demonology based on the Republican administration’s use of mythology to separate good from evil and justify a new form of hyper-moralistic, quasi-religious, foreign policy. Beyond these elite critiques, which did not really touch the masses, popular critique savaged the great communicator. Grotesque images of Reagan mercilessly depicted him as senile or literally Brainless. Following Reagan, George Bush Snr was similarly mocked. He was represented as a Satan figure on the basis of CIA connections. In much the same vein, Bill Clinton was symbolically lambasted for his womanising. However, I would argue that it was not until the rise of George Bush Jnr, Dubya, that a President was almost completely constructed through grotesque imagery that variously depicted him as a drunk, a draft dodger, a complete idiot, and a chimpanzee.

But whatever reality conditions the construction of the political iconography of Dubya, whether he truly conforms to every stereotype which has come to define his character or we must seek deeper reasons for the grotesque imagery that surrounds him, I do not think that it is any stretch to say that this imagery has largely come to symbolise everything ‘we’ collectively think is wrong with America today. In many ways, then, the image of Dubya captures the idea of the idiocy of America, explaining fundamentalism, excess, and irresponsibility, and encouraging the deep paranoia that somebody else must really be running the show. Thus, I think that the image of Dubya, perfectly captured by Steve Bell’s chimpanzee, represents the dystopic face of America. In response to this image, Obama, whose presidential campaign has been conditioned by ideas of ‘change’ and ‘hope’, remains a blank canvas waiting to be illustrated. As such, Obama currently represents utopia negatively, by virtue of the fact that he is not Dubya, and like all real utopias, or utopian figures, before they are painted and fleshed out, he embodies the promise of a better future for everybody. Unfortunately, this pristine unreality cannot endure and we will not be able to maintain the empty image of the Obama utopia as negative expression of Bush dystopia for much longer than it takes for the comic fool to hand over the presidency to new pretender. Whether Obama can deliver on his promise of ‘change’ will rely on his ability to flesh out his negative critique of the Bush dystopia with a positive, realistic, imaginary of his own.

Mark Featherstone

Two totally unrelated pieces in the current London Review of Books caught my eye: the famous art critic Hal Foster’s piece on the art market and an advertisement for the John Templeton Foundation containing excerpts of a debate on moral character and the market contained on the organisation’s website. In the former piece, Foster focuses on the expansion of the art market and the irresistible rise of Damien Hirst who has continued to sell work and make enormous profits despite the onset of the global credit crunch. The latter piece excerpts essays from some of the world’s most famous writers and theorists, including Bernard-Henri Levy, John Gray, and Michael Walzer, organised around the question ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’ Although I read the two pieces independently, I could not help but think that Foster’s piece could shed some light on the Templeton debate and provide an interesting angle on the various positions taken by Levy, Gray, Walzer, and the other essayists.

Foster begins by suggesting that Hirst is the market artist par excellence who makes Andy Warhol’s original attempts to fuse pop culture and art look amateurish. As his article develops towards its conclusion, Foster notes that there is some kind of connection between Hirst’s embrace of the market and his preferred subject matter, death. From his famous formaldehyde tiger shark ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ through ‘Adam and Eve under the Table’ to his diamond encrusted skull, ‘For the Love of God’ the idea of death dominates Hirst’s work. However, Foster suggests that the type of mortality that Hirst’s work symbolises is less natural death than the kind of deadness that occurs when living objects are subjected to what sociologists call commodification. In other words, it is less that the shark or skull represent the horror of natural mortality, but rather that they embody the deadness of the commodity, and the ways in which it undermines all forms of qualitative human meaning in favour of quantitative monetary value, simply by virtue of their position on the market (‘The Physical Impossibility…’ sold for $12 million and the diamond skull is priced at £50 million) where they have no value or meaning beyond their exchange value.

This is a familiar thesis. In the 19th century one of the founders of sociology, Karl Marx explained that the transformation of the objects of human production into commodities to be traded on the market mortifies both the worker, who produces the object in the first place, and the commodity, which no longer embodies the living labour of humanity but becomes instead a kind of zombie, a thing that seems to possess a will of its own simply by virtue of its estrangement or alienation from its creator who no longer understands his own creation. In many ways, then, Hirst’s most famous contribution to the culture of death, ‘The Physical Impossibility…’, is the perfect embodiment of Marx’s commodity because it is a creature that throws our own status as living beings into doubt. The shark confronts us with our own mortality, precisely because it stands before us, less the product of humanistic artistic production, and more a kind of quasi-natural commodity, which saps our life force and grows more powerful as we shrink before it. But, of course, there is room for confusion here. Is it that Hirst’s shark is commodity that deadens people or a work of art that represents the natural condition of human mortality? The artist intended the latter, but various art critics have argued for the former view on the basis that Hirst never made the work himself, but rather paid a fisherman to catch the shark and then oversaw the production of the piece in much the same way that any capitalist oversees the production of commodities.

In light of this view, let me repeat Foster’s key point: the reason Hirst’s tiger shark has a deadening effect on viewers is less the result of its embodiment of some Schopenhauerian ultimate reality, the primal life-death drive that eventually swallows everybody and everything in order to simply reproduce itself, and more because of the way it represents the effect of the market on the things that humans make, the process of commodification that transforms the fruits of our labour into monstrous things that feed off our life energy, killing us in the process. This is exactly how Marx understood capitalism. He famously declared mors immortalis and told us that capitalism is a culture of death ‘…that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. But what is the difference between Schopenhauer’s terrible reality and Marx’s vampire-like system? The precise difference between Schopenhauer’s vision and Marx’s system is that the former was a theory of natural or even cosmic reality, whereas the latter was a sociological theory of the human-built world. This is an extremely important distinction because it changes the way we (humans) must think about our moral responsibility for other people.

Given the difference between these two visions of the world, it is clear that there is less pressure on humans caught in Schopenhauer’s terrible reality to be moral, simply because morality cannot exist in nature, whereas people existing in human-built capitalist society really should know better than to treat each other like worthless objects. Unfortunately, as Marx showed through his various works, this is not how capitalism works precisely because people are keen to unload their responsibility for other people onto a naturalised vision of the capitalist world that they can do nothing about. In other words, the human-built capitalist reality becomes Schopenhauer’s cosmic reality, Hirst’s shark is transformed from a commodified symbol of avoidable premature death by human neglect to an artistic symbol of the kind of natural death that will eventually visit every one of us, and people are excused from worrying about the morality or immorality of their behaviour towards others.

It was this thesis that I took to my reading of the Templeton debate on the relationship between moral character and the market. Against the famous idea of being-towards-death, which the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger developed in order to suggest that the knowledge of death makes life worth living, and contemporary free market ideology, which rejects social security for the notion of the totally autonomous individual who does not care about other people, my view is that the problem with the culture of death and the free market is the way that the latter creates and fuels the former by mortifying the products of human living labour, endlessly replacing quality with quantity, and prohibiting the possibility of morality, which is an emotive category beyond mere calculation. In other words, I think that the market and money, which sociologists from Marx to Simmel have seen as dehumanising developments, cannot produce a moral system, beyond the kind of degraded neo-conservatism of those who attack the poor for their human failings in the face of monstrous, dead, vampire-like system Marx taught us about. Following this conclusion, it struck me that Hirst’s tiger shark was the perfect complement to the Templeton piece. What better way to answer the question of the relationship between moral character and the market, and assert the immorality of economism, than through reference to the $12 million corpse of a killer shark?

Bad Bank, Bad Capitalism!

September 24, 2008

Mark Featherstone

The day after I posted my most recent piece on the Sociology Criminology Blog concerning the credit crunch I spoke to my father about the current economic situation. Although he is technologically illiterate and had not read my post, he asked me what I thought about the American Treasury’s proposal to open a ‘bad bank’. He told me that he thought it was problematic that the tax payer was being expected to bail out private banks that had made enormous profits from the boom economy over the past twenty years. More especially he explained that he was surprised that the Bush Administration, which has always championed Friedmanite neo-liberal economics, would turn away from free market ideology in order to embrace socialistic principles of state managed economics.

Given that my father completed his formal education at the age of 15, I was surprised that he had immediately grasped the problem with the American Treasury’s multi-billion dollar proposal to set up a publicly funded bad bank. I responded that I thought the current situation, which has seen the nationalisation of various private banks, presented Anglo-American society with a choice: either our political leaders will recognise the moral dimensions of the credit crunch and democratise the economy, by providing the public with economic rights equal to the financial outlay required to stabilise the crashing market, or they will use tax payers’ money to stabilise the economy only to allow the robber barons of capitalism to go about the business free of regulation once political intervention has successfully rebooted the failing markets.

The problem with the second option is that it will not only restart the unsustainable credit boom, but also leave the Anglo-American political elites with no money to fund the already minimal welfare states they currently operate. If the former political champions of neo-liberalism, who are currently conveniently condemning the banking elites for their reckless behaviour, choose the second option we can therefore expect to see cut-backs in public provision and the subsequent condemnation of outsider groups, such as the unemployed, single mothers, and refugees, over the next couple of years. In much the same way that it is prudent for our politicians to scapegoat the banking elites at the moment, because they need public money to stabilise the market thrown into chaos by deregulated bankers who were simply following the economic ideology laid out by a generation of neo-liberal politicians, it will be necessary to condemn welfare scroungers in the near future, when it becomes clear that there is no money left in the public coffers to pay for social security.

At this point, the credit crunch will be forgotten. Instead, we will be confronted with new ‘social’ problems – overblown myths concerning the evils of unemployed welfare cheats who want to get paid for sitting on the backsides, single mothers who have children in order to get a council house, and refugees who want to come to our country to ‘steal our jobs’. It may even be the case that global terrorism will make a serious come back in the media in order to unseat economic uncertainty in the pecking order of public fears and re-establish radicalised Islamic youth as the key internal enemy. What better way to deflect our attention from the identity of the real internal enemy, the political-economic elite, what Naomi Klein calls the corporatist class, who are set on making money whatever the social cost, than by invoking the racist fear of the other, the outsider masquerading as insider.

Following our short discussion, my father and I agreed that the Anglo-American political elites should not be allowed to take the second route out of the credit crunch and that the result of any public rescue package should entail the democratisation of the economy: regulation of the market, restrictions on private credit, and the redistribution of resources from rich to poor in order to fund new welfare programmes. But how can we ensure that this happens when it is likely that Klein’s corporatists will simply play the masses and re-establish the existing balance of power? The answer is that we, the citizenry, must ensure that we are not robbed by the corporatists who have led us into the credit crunch. Whether we are capable of this critical action is a different matter.

What we need to make sure the credit crunch ends with the correct, moral, outcome is sociological intelligence or sociological vision. Clearly, this is a faculty that my father possesses, probably because he was schooled in the class politics of post-war Britain, and never bought into Thatcherite ideology in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the children of Thatcher and Blair cannot fall back on such everyday critical faculties, which is probably why I was so surprised by his insights, and must learn our sociological vision through engagement with the old masters in the classroom. This is what I have understood through a combination of early socialisation and higher education.

Finally, let me reiterate the key point of my previous post on the credit crunch which was reinforced by my conversation with my father: we need sociological thought more than ever today in order to provide some kind of moral / ethical / social vision in a world which has been emptied of any sense of responsibility for other people. Under current conditions, characterised by neo-liberal Thatcherite ideology which undermines every form of critique, it is unlikely that we will seize the opportunity for redress provided by the credit crunch. However, this is what we must insist upon. Neoliberalism may be over, but we cannot allow the corporatist robber barons of capitalism to restart their unsustainable programme of global plunder with public money. The fallacy of scientific monetarism, the belief that the market will run itself, has been exposed. Akin to the 1930s, when laissez faire thought was first laid bare, and Keynesianism appeared on the scene, we must seize this opportunity to evolve a new redistributive social order. In short, we must impose sociological thought upon the current situation. We must use the bad bank to kill bad capitalism.