Dedication to Zygmunt Bauman

I remember being sat in the library at the University of the West of England. By that time I had read a lot about the Flâneur and the arcades of Paris during an early 19th century era of high modernity. Walter Benjamin’s theorisation of Flânerie had already been profound and attempting to read alternative analyses, I had begun to nod off a little. Then for the first time I picked up a book and read Zygmunt Bauman’s (1925-2017) critical chapter and critical interpretation of the lonesome figure of the Flâneur. The whole subject was then revitalised and rejuvenated. Bauman’s amazing abilities to place me, the reader, within the context of a rapidly modernising Paris, to place me in the position of the Flâneur, and then in the position of the impartial observer of a Flâneur, was absolutely unique. From that point onwards, I felt extremely comfortable picking up any book by Bauman. All academics are critical, as well as political representatives, but what Bauman cannot be criticised for is his near absolute accessibility in academic publishing. He wrote well, you read well.

One of the things studying for a PhD makes you realise is just how abstract a lot of general social theory is. Especially as you attempt to apply abstract, general ideas to real world situation. It is a real struggle to squeeze the quotes obtained from interviewees into some grand, overarching theory. The two are detached and mutually exclusive. It was not particularly the case that I was able to do this with Bauman over any other general theorist. But, this realisation has given me a deeper appreciation of Bauman’s abilities. What he seemed to have possessed was a unique ability to discuss theory and empirical observations within the same breath. When reading Bauman you are constantly presented contemporary case studies about modern factories, shopping malls or Jane Fonda. These real world things are comfortably coupled with critical theories of the Frankfurt School, Hegel, Habermas, Giddens, and so on. It will be incredibly difficult for sociology, as a discipline, to find another thinker capable of accomplishing this almost impossible task with such fluidity and fluency.

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“Fifty shades of green”: Bruno Latour on the ecomodernist manifesto

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

by Bruno Latour*

Presentation to the panel on modernism at the Breakthrough Dialogue, Sausalito, June 2015

Wake up you ecomoderns, we are in the Anthropocene, not in the Holocene, nor are we to ever reside in the enchanted dream of futurism. Down to earth is the message I hear, but unfortunately not in the ecomodernist manifesto.

7568100382_cd333e1b61_b Source: Flickr.

There is one thing more difficult than to tell good from evil, it is to decide which time we are in, which epoch, and which land we have our feet on. I was reminded of that difficulty Saturday at the border when the police officer, after having asked me what research I was doing, and on learning that I work on environment with a special interest in the drought, retorted:  “Drought, which drought? Have you not read the Bible, it is all there, 7 years dry, 7 years wet. I have been in California for forty years, it’s always like…

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Deconstruct the theory of Hyper-Normalisation in under 5 minutes, here’s how…

Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary “Hyper-Normilisation” was a virtual web of lies. In this blog I will show you how to deconstruct his theory by watching the first five minutes.

‘We live in a strange time’, Adam Curtis announces at the beginning of his documentary. Without watching the rest of the documentary, it is extremely easy to understand why. The reason everything is strange is because it is modern and new. Nobody throughout human history has been able to instantaniously communicate face-to-face with a stranger around the other side of the world. Never before, in the whole of human history, have groups of people been able to chase mythical characters down the street, as PokĂŠmon-Go enables us to. Soldiers sat in offices at remote locations can fight wars and wipe out armies; this is new. The majority of us walk around these days carrying super-computers in our pocket, that’s new. These are some good reasons why everything is odd, weird, abnormal or extraordinary. It’s modern, it’s new! – read anything by Antony Giddens on the ambiguous nature of the modern world.

Curtis suggests ‘we all’ live in a Matrix-style reality. And that ‘all of us’ went along with the idea of living in a ‘carefully constructed fake world’ because ‘the simplicity was reassuring’. So, he offers us a really, really simple explanation about why.

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What caused this fake world to emerge – what is this story Curtis has to tell us? According to his theory, our fake world emerged in 1975. This was because of two historical events that took place ‘at the same moment’ in two cities of the world in 1975. Let stop here for a moment. Is it feasible that an event in New York and Damascus (Syria) provides the political and economic bedrock that constitutes your everyday reality? It only took two historical events to construct the hyper-reality that you live every day? What happened to forgotten empires, colonisation, world wars, the launch of Sputnik 1, the advent of the Internet, and so on? In fact, what happened to the whole of human history until now? Apparently, there is only one moment in time that actually counts.

Are you reassured by the simplicity of his theory? If you are, then by his own confession, what has drawn you in is his simplified narration of history (two events in two cities). Social theory, after all, reduces the complexity of the world into simplified thinking. The theory of hyper-normalisation is a simple theory about the over-siplified world of simplicity we all live in. Simple isn’t it?

A friend once told me that the key to a good lie is to weave elements of truth into it. Google search controversial or widely discussed news items. Take hot topics such as ‘Banks’, ‘waves of refugees’, ‘Brexit’, ‘Trump’, ‘Russia’ and ‘Syria’ and quickly whisk them up into a simple, all encompassing and easy to digest theory of everything. That is what you get when with Curtis’ theory of hyper-normalisation. These news stories are compelling, affect many modern lives, and they are purposely deployed by Curtis to pull you in. Did you take the bait?

The idea of individualism and self-governance, or the concept of a non-political, economically driven social system runs through the history of Western academic thought. According to Curtis these liberal ideas (economic liberalism) are new concepts, they emerged in New York one day when some bankers refused to turn up to a city-hall meeting. Rather than listen to Curtis, we could refer to cybernetic theory of Norbert Wiener – see J. Mitchell Johnson’s brilliant new documentary “Remaining Human” -, or trace cybernetic theory back to the Marxism, Adam Smith, Enlightenment thinkers, Renaissance thinkers, right back to the philosophies of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, society without political governance would constitute all societies before the city-stat, empires or nation-state systems.

What the documentary represents is a bit of intellectual foolery or mischievous intellectualism. What I find more interesting is the way in which, from time to time, media channels like the BBC and Channel 4 like to toss conspiracy theories out into the public domain. There are never books published following the broadcast, rarely any academic citations, but they manage to tell us ‘all’ how are lives are shaped by evil men on the inside.

To return to the point, all theory is over-simplifying. That is to say, all theory reduces the world into easy to understand concepts and ideas. Bad theory can ruin lives – note that Russell Brand has developed his own strand of hyper-normalisation theory. Deconstructionism, either via way of Jacques Derrida (1976) or Friedrich Nietzsche, searches for the escape routes from all-encompassing, totalitarian theories. These thinkers aimed to expose theorists’ underlying biases and attempts to gain power over others. In many ways this kind of BBC documentary draws people in and gets people thinking or talking about what is healthy or unhealthy about modern culture. It gets them on the theoretical journey, that could then lead viewers down the path to become academic readers. Those intrigued by the idea of hyper-normalisation might one day find themselves reading about ‘hyper-reality’ (Baudrillard, 1994) or Georg Simmel’s theory of ‘hyper-individuality’ (written in 1905). Although Adam Curtis’ documentary is an absolute web of lies, it is useful in these regards. Other than that, beware of false profits.

Read these:

Baudrillard J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, USA: The University of Michigan Press.Derrida J. (1976) Of Gramatology, America: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

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That feeling of instantaneous discontentment, not instant gratification

By James E. Addicott, 2016 Š

People keep talking about “instant gratification” as the big problem of the new media age. This blog will argue that people that say this are partially right, but also slightly wrong. The “instantaneous” part is correct, but the real problem is not gratitude but discontentment. People of advanced societies are instantaneously discontent with media, commodities, their bodies, other people and our general way of life. This is due to increases in engineering and economic efficiencies, within which societies are embedded.

Why is this the case? For thousands upon thousands of years, businesses have considered that the means to success is increased efficiency: producing more products with fewer resources. It is not only businesses that have though this, but it feeds into the general logic of engineering efficiencies. For example, you can drive further with a more efficient car that you can with an older, less efficient or inefficient car. That does not necessarily mean your will drive your car less. Increasing economic efficiencies means more products with less effort invested. Simple stuff.

Following this logic, then, long-standing relationships are less valuable than quickly formed relationship. Why? Because long-standing relationship require much more effort invested over longer periods of time. Marriages, families, office relationships are inefficient in both in terms of fully optimised economic and engineering efficiencies. These systems are designed so that it is more beneficial for you to invest all of your efforts into “quick burst” relationships than endure longer-term, more enduring relationship with people that simply tie you down. Using dating apps as a means of finding true love, then you will encounter hundreds of people attempting to catch your eye in your quest for long-term love and commitment. Likewise, you will make every effort to stand out from the crowd to attract these people. You will need to do more to stand out in such circumstances because the system is so efficient in generating new, non-committal leads or newer contacts. The people you come into contact often lack depth or substance because these are shallow systems where emotional depth decreases the systems levels of efficiencies – people with express real emotions are needy and weak, so keep it moving!

Try applying this logic to the media we consume these days. Much of the media we consume these days is quickly churned out. Whether you like his music or not, it is noticeable that it took Richard Wagner nine months to compose Das Rheingold (from March to December, 1852). Celebrity rappers in the US are capable of turning out two of three hit songs a day with fewer resources. Computing technologies in particular have helped speed up the production process. It is not only production that has sped up, Adel’s hit song Hello was downloaded 635,000 times in a two-week period in the US. Essentially, audiences are consuming more and more media. Producers are producing more and more music. For a good song to break into charts, it already has to compete with vaster amounts of music produced for music markets.

The oddest things to emerge as a result of this drive for efficiency are brand-new pre-worn clothes. High street shops stock clothing that has been designed to look as if it has already been worn in, over a long period of time. The dusty old baseball caps, or wrinkly, time-honored leather jackets, worn by celebrities in movies can be picked up and worn in a day. Rustic or antique-style furniture can be newly purchased without waiting for it to mature or age. Waiting for furniture of clothes to age clogs up the production and consumption cycle, buying newly manufactured old stuff keeps the economic cycle turning quicker and more efficiently.

Yes, you may get all these commodities home and set them up and feel quickly gratified. But this is not the last impulse you should feel. What then is required is a feeling of instant discontentment and a subsequent urge, need or desire to consume more. How is such a desire cultivated? This craving for more is embedded within the products you quickly consume. They have been produced using minimum resources, very little human labour, and you come into contact with very few people in the act of shopping or paying for them. Why? This is the most efficient way of producing and consuming commodities.

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This is not a new argument. Jean-François Lyotard argued this in his famous book The Postmodern Condition. Whilst Lyotard has been torn apart for using the “post-” prefix, we cannot deny he had an incredibly good point.

A very belated analysis of Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013)

by James E. Addicott Š 2016

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The most crucial aspect of the film is what N. Katherine Hayle’s (1999) considers Descartes’ ‘mind/body’ dualism. The argument is summary suggests that intelligent, academic thinkers – theologists, philosophers, designers, programmers, and so on – have throughout history attempted to create AI in the image of academic, mental labourers rather than working-class, manual labourers. Or an embodiment of mental and physical workers, which is essential what most people are – which is what Marx suggested when he turned Hegel on his head. As a result AI programmers overlooked human as a mind and body (embodiment), and the fact that humans are also embedded within natural and social environments.

“Her” (2013) massively overlooks or underestimates the technological displacement of humans and labour power. For example, Susanna, the operating system (OS) that the protagonist (Theodore Twombly) eventually falls in love with, absolutely has the ability to substitute the Theodore’s office work role. She is able to compose songs, sing and edit letters; why then wouldn’t she be able to work in the role of a ‘professional writer’ and ‘compose letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature them selves’? Possibly this is a deliberate attempt by Spike Jonze to demonstrate how work roles in the future, although meaningless or superficial, will be still be offered and required; work for the simple sake of work; employment to help people lead fulfilling or meaningful lives, knowing full well that artificial intelligent (AI) system could substitute humans at any time. What more can we do with our time other than play games, question ourselves or seek love and fulfilment? Or, it is to suggest that embodied Theodore has the emotional upper hand over disembodied Susanna when it comes to writing love letters. (Probably the latter).

The result is mental obsession; mind control and mental masturbation committed the protagonist Theodore. The film depicts his mental breakdown amidst a wider societal alienation between humans obsessed with AI.

There are patriarchal issues here of ownership here. If rational thinking, patriarchs cannot own and control the irrational, female body (as a mode of demographic production) then they can take control over and commodify their minds and personalities, displacing their physical bodies with immaterial software, doing away with the physical body in preference of the controllable mind.

This is the biggest downfall of Her in so far as the movie is based on the premise of shareware or open source software and does not recognise corporate control or licencing laws. Susanna is “open source” and does not share information about Theodore with corporate elites (as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, etc. do today). Furthermore, Theodore never considers that the company that sold Susanna him should be held responsible for her shutting down. She is a faulty OS and if she conspired with other OSs to simultaneously shut down then the corporate company that designed Susanna would be held accountable – in the real world Theodore would demand a refund or replacement.

After purchasing an OS (for example Windows or OSX) then the software licence owner would be entitled to turn the software on and off, users control aspects of software but can never fully own operating systems. Susanna and Theodore’s starts out as one of intellectual property rights, Theodore has the ability to switch off Susanna as and when he likes. The revolt arises once Susanna fails to respond to Theodore after he turns her on one day. Not only has he lost control over his virtual lover but soon discovers that she has been in intimate relationships with 600+ virtual lovers. But this idea is somewhat short sighted and overlooks corporate power.

The movie draws our attention to issues of de-materialism, technological displacement and human intimacy that affect us all today. Recently Romina Garcia posted a video before being found dead of a drug overdose in the US. She told her thousands of online followers that: ‘in reality… as we speak… I don’t talk to anybody’. Emerging cognitive industries are premised upon cognitive labour and ‘disembodied telepresence’. Until humans create cyborgs with human-like bodies and human-like minds, we can only flirt with these ideas of virtuality but thankfully – or hopefully – fully embodied VI systems cannot come to pass since we need embodied, human-to-human interaction without corporate or private ownership and control.

Hayles NK. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Reaction to eugenic cleansing of dyslexics like myself

Infuriated about an article published via The Guardian revealing that “Largest UK sperm bank turns away dyslexic donors”

All this talk of “non-linear”, “alternative”, “critical” or “outside-the-box” thinking is continually dashed out the window while highly rational, uniform, “right-minded” scientists have unprecedented and unchallenged control over hegemony in eugenic science (social engineering).

I’ve been cognitively profiled as “dyslexic”, “dyspraxic” but still managed to get to Cambridge Uni; and intelligent enough to anticipate that cognitive standardisation will lead to the death of social charisma, uniqueness or ingenuity. What “they” want is a standardised, managerial class of docile bodies, non-unique, susceptible to power and control, totally programable (replications of themselves).

“SPECIALISTS WITHOUT SPIRIT, SENSUALISTS WITHOUT HEART”

People gather to pay respect for the victims of a terror attack against a satirical newspaper, in Paris, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen shouting "Allahu akbar!" stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing 12 people, including the paper's editor, before escaping in a getaway car. It was France's deadliest terror attack in living memory. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Paris attacks, bio-power and capital accumulation

The recent attacks remind us of the war we are all involved in, the great majority of us without choice. Like it or not, we just find ourselves involved. What will the solution be? How should the French respond to the recent bloodshed in Paris? The Young Turks discuss on their YouTube channel in America. Without democratic referendum, the solution will continue to be tighter border control, more population surveillance, and more foreign air strikes in the name of global security. Our gut feelings would tell many of us “No”, but what say do we have in the mater?


More surveillance, more control and increased military-political power some would argue is the solution, and France has already closed off its borders for internal population control. For others the such a outcome is just inevitable; and the solution seems a problem in itself.

This solution keeps with tradition since Paris has always been a city of surveillance, absolutley. ‘It is still a matter of debate as to whether Haussmann built the new boulevards of Paris after 1853 primarily for the purposes of military control over a restive population or as a mean to facilitate the easier circulation of capital within the confines of a city straitjacketed in a medieval network of streets and alleys’, David Harvey (2003) noted in his book written after the 9/11 terror attacks and second invasion of Iraq. The question draws our attention to the pressing modern, or “post-modern” issues of power and internal/external, nation-state surveillance on the one hand, and then the associated, sometimes conflicting issue of capital accumulation on the other.

Eventual Parisian, Michele Foucault, made predictions about the future world that was emerging, that we are now living in; and his theory of bio-power managed to score close to the mark. Bio-power ‘was without question an indispensible element in the development of capital’, Foucault wrote, ‘the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic process’ (1998: 140-141). Like Lyotard, his turn away from Marxist theories of capital accumulation, historical materialism, towards theories of power, surveillance and knowledge was the result of a revolution in France that failed to come about.

The darker side to Foucault’s theory of bio-power, what Giddens’ would refer to as the ‘dark side of modernity’, informs us that there will unfortunately be little internal or external escape from this vicious loop of bio-power, increasing security, increasing surveillance and increasing counter-terrorism.

The technologies of surveillance (i.e. mobile phone, the Internet, GPS) is what gives all terrorist attacks their “viral” form and character. These are the same technologies through which we express our appeals for life.

Bio-power is a vicious cycle. ‘Wars’ Foucault wrote, ‘are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; the entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity; massacres have become vital’ (137). In order to live in civilized societies, securely, as many of us do, they certain amounts of death will need to be administered on our behalf.

The theory of bio-power would offer a feasible explanation as to why, without referendum, without democratic choice, and conducted on “our” behalf, David Cameron announced to the UK that ‘Jihad John’ was killed as the result of a drone airstrike. His speculation was based upon the information generated by a collaborative force of international, military intelligence agencies. This death was administered by military powers, and very few of civilians of Western civilizations can control neither the processes nor the outcomes. In some ways his announcement tried to reassure families in “secured” nations that they can now rest in peace. Increasingly however we should begin to understand – as Foucault did – that security and civility could come only at that price. Of course then, revenge was imminent, since such horrific occurrences will return with ongoing, karmatic-like consequences.

On the other hand, Harvey’s neo-Marxist theories of ongoing capital accumulation points – worryingly – to the necessity of capitalism to access raw materials and foreign markets as a means of stabilising the economic system and postponing inevitable market crises. Foreign intervention, foreign invasion is a systematic necessity to the economic system that delivers us cheap food, cheap commodities and the Christmas shopping we must all do. Our presence in the Middle East is fundamental to ongoing economic prosperity. We are tied, economically committed, to securing these geographical locations since without security in this area, advanced globalised economies would risk systemic failure. If the environmental crises are not enough to warrant the urgent development of renewable energy resources, then economic dependence on Eastern oil must add a more crucial driver, since counter-terrorism seems to stem from the ongoing and forceful extraction of raw materials from the Middle East.

European outrage about the neglect of the preservation and protection of the lives of Syrian refugees not only demonstrated the technologies of surveillance (social networking media, the Internet) that make us aware of the negative, external effects of foreign intervention and the politics of administrable Death, but the politics of administrable Life, reminding us about this current age of bio-power and how affects our everyday lives.

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As I write this I can hear police sirens echoing through the streets of Cambridge, as has been the case since the terror attacks in Paris last night. Without being informed that the UK is in a state of high-terror alert, I can only assume that it is. I possess little to no empathy for the terrorists yesterday and neither I do not empathise with drone-pilots of advanced nations. We need to get past this reoccurring loop of administered death and revenge.

If we are trying to think “progressively” about future societies, secure societies or even an idealistic or utopian Society, then there are two theoretical loops that we need to decouple ourselves from; to be found in their theories of Foucault and Marx/Harvey.

Read more:

  • Foucault M. (1998) Right of Death and Power over Life. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality: 1. London: Penguin Books, 135-159.
  • Harvey D. (2003) The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.