The History of Grime Music: A Bristol Perspective

Where does Grime come from? This question has been posed to Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, So-Solid or Heartless Crew and many others. DJ Target from Pay As You Go Cartel has recently begun an interview series on BBC One Xtra to address this very question. With UK artists such as Skepta and Stormzy breaking into American markets, and international newcomers introduced to the rawness of Grime Music, there has been an emergence of interest into the roots of this raw, underground sound. This blog will offer a Bristolian perspective on the roots of Grime – Bristol being an hour and a half drive away from London, and my hometown. This blog will discuss various, interrelated factors that caused Grime to emerge. The most significant include: cultural and musical influences, advancing technologies, tensions between social classes and the establishment, and shifts in levels of wealth and prosperity.

To understand how Grime Music evolved it is important to understand the social and political atmosphere within which Grime emerged. In most accounts of the emergence of Grime these factors are easily overlooked. The most crucial factor, I feel, was Nine-Eleven (9/11) terrorist attacks across America in 2001.  From the perspective of a young, working-class youngster, particularly young black youngsters, it seemed that 9/11 gave Tony Blair and George Bush a green light to conspire, declare an ‘Axis of Evil’ and send troops and bombs into the Middle East. The Global War on Terrorism also enabled national leaders to activate police forces against urban youths on the streets. Operation Trident, new stop and search laws handed to the police, and the introduction of Anti-Social Behavior laws, seemed to target and victimize urban youngsters of lower-income households, particularly of African, Muslim or Afro-Caribbean decent. In Bristol I remember a row of around ten police helicopters flying in a straight line over ‘ghetto’ districts of Bristol City. Residents were told that the police were scanning these city areas using infrared cameras to identify council houses where crops of marijuana were being grown. Rightly or wrongly, for those growing weed to earn an alternative income, the state-system was clamping down on any potential earnings.

Tighter government control, authoritarian at times, generated an atmosphere and feelings of tension at a street level. If Tony Blair and George Bush were prepared to lead the UK into an oil ‘War on Iraq’, considered by many demonstrators an act of daylight robbery, then at a street level, gang warfare, robberies, stabbings and even killings were somewhat justified – if the ruling powers are doing it, why shouldn’t we? Since the police are targeting us, criminalizing us, then what commitment do we owe to the state or acting according to ‘civilized’ or socially acceptable rules? The political and state-system was hypocritical every time it told gang members to back down or disarm. Different cultures of violence emerged: gang culture, knife culture and gun culture. There is a famous video online of a clash between Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch (Titch, later imprisoned for 30 years for murdering a ‘disrespectful’ MC with Mach 10 machine gun).

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The Dizzee vs. Titch clash is still a tense video to watch. Looking back it is easy to see how hostile things were at that time. Undeniably, this was a clash of egos; a fierce lyrical battle between competing MCs that got out of hand. At the same time, gang wars; international war and police hostility would have amplified tensions within this pirate radio studio in East London. For those living in deprived areas during this time, targeted by a hypocritical state system (‘Islamophobia’), then it did feel as if the UK was reduced to a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. This provided the background for the aggressive sound and violent content of Grime Music; ‘grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture’.

Another factor in the emergence of Grime was technological, a shift from analogue to digital media formats. Vinyl records, cassette tapes or Technics 1210 turntables were being slowly replaced by CDs, mini-disks and MP3s. Whereas pirate radio stations were once the main outlet for underground music, gradually digital cable channels such as Channel-U became another outlet for unsigned urban talent. Underground acts such as So-Solid Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel that who blew up on cable network channels, were signed and pushed into mainstream markets, eventually performing on BBC Radio or Top of the Pops. Later on, MySpace offered music producers and MCs a free forum for connecting with fans, promoting events and distributing music. Throughout this transition, no longer was an MC or group of MCs a host to the DJ as the main act, but MCs started to become musical artists and the main act over the DJs. Ravers would go to events to see Baseman, Skibadee or Shabba D as much, if not more, as the DJs they were performing with.

In the analogue era of decks and vinyl records, listeners and fans typically stuck to one genre of music, had a favorite music shop or a favorite radio station. Youth culture was separated into clicks of ‘Hip Hop Heads’, ‘Junglists’ or ‘R&B Fans’ with their own languages and fashions. Sound systems and DJs began to change this. From a Bristol perspective, London sound systems such as Boogie Bunch, Rampage Sound or Heartless Crew were more popular because they mixed of genres of urban music. I remember Boogie Bunch’s DJ Swing playing a Ragga track at an R&B night and considering that groundbreaking and revolutionary – normally dancehall music was played in the ghetto areas of the city alone. No longer did urban music fans need to go to a strictly R&B night but you could hear a sound system spin Jungle, Garage, R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall and Soca. Were the DJs becoming more selective, and setting new musical trends, or were the crowds becoming more picky, wanting more variety from DJs? As analogue culture slowly transformed into digital culture, it was more likely a mixture of the two (supply and demand).

In the digital era and the Internet, made music free and more accessible and merged cultures and sounds. Like music fans, MCs did not want to be restricted to one pirate radio station or one specific genre of music. MCs wanted to diversify and embrace a wider range of musical tastes, as well as tap into and make money from different musical markets. General Levi was an early example of a lyricist able to perform across genres, embracing Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga music. Multi-genre music went in two creative directions. On the one hand, MCs such as General Levi became mixed-genre artists, performing on Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga tracks. On the other hand Grime Music began to mix and amalgamate different genres into one distinct sound. As I remember, East Connection, Heartless Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel were some of the first distinguishable example of Grime Music to hit Bristol, Swindon or Cardiff. Later down the line, Nasty Crew or Roll Deep with DJ Slimzee, Dizzee Rascal and MC Wiley were to develop that raw and dark sound we know today as Grime Music.

The emergence and evolution of Garage Music played a fundamental role in setting the foundations for Grime Music. Deriving from Soulful House, borrowing baseline elements from Jungle and Drum & Bass music, Garage Music radically transformed the R&B, Dancehall and Hip Hop nightclub scene. The Garage Scene was all about wearing expensive designer shoes, dapper suits, looking intelligent, wearing crisply ironed shirts whilst drinking champagne (‘champagne bubbly’). What came with Garage Music was a real feeling of emancipation, liberation, freedom and joy. Night clubbers felt set free and empowered by this celebratory sounds of Garage. Any aggression associated with badman-Dancehall music (e.g. Bounty Killer’s “Anytime” or “Can’t Believe Me Eye” (1998)) or New York Hip Hop (e.g. The Lox ” We Are The Streets” (2000), DMX “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” (1998)), was momentarily suspended by the smooth vocals and skipping beats of UK Garage (e.g. Roy Davis Jr ft Peven Everett – Gabriel (1996), Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (1997), MJ Cole – Sincere (2000)). UK Garage or Speed Garage was a motivational music. People would work hard, save hard, dress up ‘stush’, travel long distances and spend hard-earned money in order to enjoy a Garage rave. The clientele was sophisticated, upbeat and intelligent, with less chance of outbreaks of trouble associated with Dancehall or D&B music scenes.

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Gradually UK Garage Music got darker as it evolved from its Soulful House roots to what has become Grime Music today. It merged a lot more with the darker elements of Drum & Bass music. MC Bushkin of Heartless crew recently made an interesting point of how Garage DJs began to reduce the vocals on garage tracks, and extend the break beats; amplify the baselines, to allow Ragga, Jungle and D&B MCs to spit vocals on over the tracks. This allowed a greater integration between D&B and Garage. But the mixing, merging and integration was as much social as cultural and musical. In several interviews Wiley or Dizzee, mention being that the tracksuit wearing, under-class, street-youth they represented were often barred from entering the black-middle-class Garage raves by nightclub bouncers. Essentially, in the eyes of the Garage Music scene these Drum & Bass MCs and their fan base represented trouble. Both Wiley and Dizzee would be the first to admit to that.

Gradually, Garage Music became darker, more aggressive, more troublesome, and later evolved into Grime Music. Wiley’s anthem “Wot U Call It?” (2004) is the most noticeable point in the transition from Garage (2-Step, UK Garage or Speed Garage) to Grime. With people speculating about names for the new genre, such as “Eski Music” or “Sub-Low”, it was eventually termed “Grime” by either music journalists or industry employees. Heartless Crews’ MC Bushkin mentioned that nigh clubbers would say to him: “Your music sounds Grimy!” That was a popular term at that time with N.O.R.E.’s thug-life anthem “Grimy” (2001) or Dillinja’s ultra-dark Drub & Bass anthem: “Grimey”.

Whereas UK Garage seemed to represent a cultural celebration of new wave of wealth and middle-class prosperity entering into black communities within the UK (from mid-1990s to 2001), post-9/11 Grime Music signified marginalization, despair, anger and rage against the establishment, as the title of Dizzee Rascal’s cornerstone LP “Boy in the Corner” suggests.

Grime can be considered a by-product of political and military Blairism. Grime has now become a sell-out scene, not as in watered-down, but sell-out as in commercially successful. Not only are Grime MCs making their mark around the world, but selling out huge stadiums within the UK – for example, Red Bull’s Culture Clash or Dizzee Rascal’s opening of the British Olympics. Any anger, rage and despair embedded within the sound has evolved into mainstream sound; a part of British national consciousness. The fury that Grime expressed, which stemmed from poverty, class and racial tensions, aimed at the corporate and social state-system, is paradoxically vented and celebrated at a national-level.

The views in this blog are mainly my own. Please a comment below if you see the emergence of Grime from another perspective. Thanks for reading.

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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 Pokémon-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.

 

#Ecomodernism, EMT, neo-Marxism; Some Key Problems with the Current Informatic “World View”

Not long after NATO’s declaration of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals a group calling themselves “ecopragmatists and ecomodernists” uploaded their future world vision and manifesto to the Internet.

What is noticeable from the outset of the manifesto is the absence of any reference to a European and mainly Dutch school of thought commonly know as ecological modernisation theory (“EMT” abbreviated). Key EMT thinkers would include Joseph Huber, Arthur P. Mol, Martin Jänicke or Gert Spaargaren and many others (see Wikipedia here). The integration of science and technologies and ecological systems and the general futurological worldview presented by the ecomodernists (“Eco-Mods”) is somewhat similar in places to EMT school of thought but differs drastically in others.

The Guardian blogger George Monbiot’s recent criticism of the ecomodernists’ manifesto really hits the mark. The public debate raises some of the main arguments within environmental sociology that exists between EMT theorists and neo-Marxists.The main point Monbiot picks the eco-mods up on, and the point that needs criticizing, is that: ‘The ecomodernists talk of “unproductive, small-scale farming” and claim that “urbanisation and agricultural intensification go hand in hand.” In other words, they appear to believe that smallholders, working the land in large numbers, produce lower yields than large farms.’ He corrects this mistake by stating: ‘But since Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work in 1962, hundreds of papers in the academic literature demonstrate the opposite: that there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the crops they produce. The smaller they are, on average, the greater the yield per hectare’.

While I remain somewhat reserved in using global stats to counteract global stats, to back Monbiot’s argument it should be pointed out that 80% of the world’s food comes from small, family farms. Of which 72% are under the size of one hectare (UN/FAO, 2014). Of course, smaller-scale farms are also part of the fabric of rural societies and cultures that exist in England and around the world too.

The current predicament that the English farmers that I am researching face is that they are continuously being told to intensify food production by groups like the Eco-Mods because of a “growing world population”. Currently within global markets the supply of milk, wheat and barley is in a state of overproduction and commodity prices reflect this since they are hitting rock bottom – £98 a ton for wheat which reflects market prices of the 1980s, a farmer told me the other day. Why then are farmers in England being pressured to produce more and more, invest into more chemicals, communication technologies, solutions or machines, when supply is higher than demands and growing more will only further push prices down? One can only begin to speculate that the push to intensify is to boost GDP or net-income by getting farmers to invest into more technologies, more chemicals, more machinery and to boost the growth of what is being called the “Agri-Tech” sector whilst spurring on the agri-food industry. This push for rapid-intensification is mainly coming from the agri-equipment and agrichemical companies, pro-modernisation political parties and pressure groups.

The more authentic EMT school offers more alternative, well-considered and potentially practical solutions than the Eco-Mods, (see for example: Mol, 2003; Mol, 2008). I would suggest this is the case since there has been a ‘fierce’ academic debate raging between the EMT theorists and ecological, neo-Marxists (and de-industrialists, post-modernists or eco-feminists). EMT’s general ‘optimism’ towards modern, environmental reform has been thoroughly and rigorously questioned, probed and debated – continuing without conclusion.

To summarise the debate in brief, the neo-Marxist’s main criticism is that EMT theorists’ social and ecological optimism or utopian idealism is being used as an ideological veil to mask issues of inequality and exploitation that are not being addressed in already-developed nations. The concept of ecological modernisation simply develops a rather handy, academically legitimised, marketing tool for a multi-billion dollar, global industry and home of the multinational seed and agrochemical companies (of which there are only six), the agri-equipment multinationals and boost GDP in developed nations. Furthermore, this line of thinking simply backs up the political parties that support a mainly American, neo-liberal agenda that seeks to expand and develop a system that not only further exploit natural environments but human beings too (see for example: Dickens, 2004).

While the academic criticisms of EMT are harsh, there are that there are some progressive gems to be found with EMT theory, such as Joseph Huber’s social and economic theory of TEIs which targets accumulation and processing of the raw materials that are used product life cycles (products such as food) in global, industrial, modern, capitalist societies and cultures (2004). These thoroughly thought-out and more intricate EMT ideas have not made it into the Eco-Mods’ rather exclusive manifesto, which offers lots of unreferenced global statistics, without citation to this long trail of academic research by the EMT theorists. This certainly makes the eco-mod’s manifesto look like an incredibly dumbed-down reiteration of a more complicated and well-researched EMT position.

Narrow-minded, Informatic Worldviews

‘Beware of simple solutions to complex problems’, Monbiot states. Although the Internet, transport networks and information communication technology shrinks space and time in such a way as the world, or “Spaceship Earth”, has become a “global village”, my concern is that it is leading to an incredibly narrow-minded worldview. We can click and see Samoa, for example. Infographics do the neat trick of condensing lengthy global reports into a sharable JEPGs. but this also makes sumerisable the complex dynamics that deliver people their food. This oversimplified worldview that technologies such as Google Earth offers might develop incredibly over-simplified, monolithic understanding of “The World”. Thereby encouraging certain cultural insensitivities and ethnocentric value judgments; cultivating morals and ethics that promote and unwarranted use of the word “We” and the development of ideal-type “World Goals” in economic and political policy designs.

As history has taught us, generalised goalposts tend to drastically overlook vast complexities of humans populations, human cultures, at national, regional or local levels – I agree with Monbiot. Marx and Engels’ theories of society and nature contributed to the starvation of 40-60 million people in China under Mao’s uncritical deployment of Marx’s theory of social and agricultural advancement (Dikötter, 2011). Any anthropologists, ethnographer, social scientist critically engaged in local-level research will tell you from local interactions that general, broad theories are quickly blown apart by the levels of complexity experienced first hand within local human populations. These needn’t be ethnographic observations of indigenous communities or “developing” nations. It could also be observations of peripheral, rural communities or impoverished urban communities held within these so called “developed” nations. These more local observations might well include issues of patriarchy, capital-labour relations, social power relations, police brutality, as well as more general and ineffable feelings of discontentment, ambiguity, frustration or confusion that seem to stem from modern globalisation, global market volatilities, mass production and mass consumption processes, and a growing metabolic rift between society and nature.

Whilst entering into global debates you get dragged into global debates, so I will conclude with a local insight. The other day I went to a farmers market in England on a village green. Trailers from the 1950s and tools from the 1930s were being bought and sold there with £10 or £20 paper notes. Not as ornaments or collectors items but to be put back into agricultural production systems that continue exist in “Modern England”. While people throw around ideas of “modernisation”, the problem is that people have to pay for these new technologies and if they money is not around while commodity prices are down. Smaller-scale farmers  are not only unable to purchase these technologies but the larger farmers on global markets who can afford them are benefiting more from intensification, thereby pushing small-scale further into smaller-scale production, and further into the depths of rural poverty. These smaller farmers, farm workers, farming sons and daughters or downshifting ecologists or “eco-freaks”, thrive on the countryside land and rural culture. It is entirely unfair that they should be forced to ecologically modernise or perish for the sake of unwarranted and futurological visions of progress, modernisation and development.

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Dickens P. (2004) Society & Nature, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Dikötter F. (2011) Mao’s Great Famine, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Pls.
Huber J. ( 2004) New Technologies and Environmental Innovation, Cheltnhman: Edware Elgar Publishing Limited.
Mol APJ. (2003) Globalization and Enviromental Reform: The Ecological Modernization of the Global Economy, London: The MIT Press.
Mol APj. (2008) Environmental Reform in the Information Age: The Contours of Informational Governance, New York: Cambridge University Press.
UN/FAO. (2014) Family Farmers: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth. http://www.fao.org/family-farming-2014: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

G7 outcome and playing the “Climate-Change, Blame Game”

I was delighted to discover that plans had been made at the G7 summit to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. Oliver Burkeman’s article on the Guardian Website, “We’re all climate change deniers at heart”, brought home a lot of personal truths about my relationship with nature. It also raised concerned about how much responsibility “I” (or, “We”) should personally take onboard for causing environmental damage.

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There seems to be an environmental blame game going on here that forces some of us to become climate change deniers. Very few of members of advanced societies are willing to take onboard the civil responsibility for walking further (rather than driving) to purchase organic ingredients, or digging deeper into our pockets to support local producers, or turning taps off in between brushing our teeth and washing our faces, or approaching politicians or supermarkets with demands for more environmentally friendly produce. Quite simply because someone else, somewhere else, is doing more damage to the environment than us. Climate-change, and all environmental issues, are mixed up in this general, ecological or environmental contandrum. Call it “Nature” if you will.

Environmental sociologist Raymond Murphy (1994) raises the issue of environmental accountability. On the one hand, more accounts (as in calculations or metrics) are being taken about environmental resources, waste outputs and environmental destruction by those in higher positions of power (experts, researchers, academics). On the other hand, accountability for environmental destruction is being distributed out. This accountability for environmental degradation is dispersed between developed nations and “undeveloped” nations (or, “under-developed” nations), multinational corporations and local businesses, urban and rural communities, celebrities and non-celibrities, and so on. How accountable are you for environmental degradation?

The term and concept of “collective actions”, or the ‘slow workings of complex impersonal systems’ that Burkeman refers to , denotes a disproportionate assignment or blame, in so far as some collective actions cause more damage than others.

– Let’s just make it clear that what are often refereed to as “undeveloped” nations are often the most advanced and developed nations in terms of environmental and ecological sustainability. –

I think the most import and fascinating issue is that of the distribution of environmental accountability between individual consumers, or “Us”, and multinational corporations, or the ‘industrial elite’. While environmental damage can be considered the result of “collective action”, some should be held more accountable than others; some have profited financially more than others; some have accumulated more power than others. The exploitation of nature has always been an integral part of wealth and power accumulation.

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Why should I feel accountable for environmental destruction by not separating my plastics from my food waste? Especially when there is a huge cloud of industrial pollution hovering over cities in Latin America or China, or bombs being dropped in Bagdad? What personal responsibilities should “we”, as members of advanced nations, take onboard in light of the environmental degradation caused in the international trade of agrochemicals? What personal sense of responsibility should I feel in light of the ecological footprint that the launching of a remote sensing, satellite into outer space? Why should I cycle out of town to visit the farmer’s market – and pay extra for the produce – when the supermarkets in my city profit more from selling mass-produced, non-organic food?

Each of us seems to shift the blame from one source to another. Either our next door neighbours is using their hosepipe during a summer’s drought and hosepipe ban, which tempts us into using our own; or, we are constantly in an uproar about how weapons of mass destruction – damaging to human populations and to natural environments – are being deployed around the world without our democratic consent.

– Fu*k it then, I will use water my garden, why care if no one else cares?

Q: Why should I fly less or have less children if Jeremy Clarkson and collogues get paid to test-drive supercars to their absolute limits?

These political or military elites, the ruling classes or company owners, also have a much different worldview than your average citizen of the global economy. The environmental damage viewed from above – from satellites and drones – paints a much different picture of the earth than the general public can observe stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. We need these elites to gather scientific information about climate change, implement economic goals or policies, inform citizens about dangers, stand up and make changes. It is beyond the capacity of the average consumer to inspect each product in their shopping basket as to determine its environmental footprint. We need to trust the future in the hands of trust-worthy, uncorrupt, leaders.

We can theorise collective action and accumulative results, but quite clearly some have more power and wealth to action social change, social or economic reformation than others. The G7 goal to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century matters because the ideas of the experts and ruling elite are being put into action. These ideas can bring about a more fundamental change than any one, everyday individual can achieve on their own. This is not to abdicate each individual of industrial society from their environmental responsibility, but hopeful this move (followed by lots of other movements) will lead advanced nations into the right direction, at least.

In this light, our “moral licensing” will be much more valid if we believe that our actions are legitimate to those of a greater society, and the ruling ideas of the time. This is a step towards changing the environmentally unfriendly narrative, or metanarrative, of our current epoch. However, we need to get the accountability balance right, between agency (what we individuals can personally do) and structure (what the politicians, scientific experts, corporate and military elites) can do.

Murphy R. (1994) Rationality & Nature: A Sociological Inquiry into a Changing Relationship, Oxford: Westview Press.

Russell Brand’s universalism and “The Truth”

If Jesus did actually exist but was not the son of God, as many Christians around the world believe, then what kind of person was he? Many would say delusional or possibly even mad. One thing is for sure; he was defiantly egotistical. Imagine considering and believing that You and only you have been given authority by God to walk around the planet Earth making universal declarations to people about how they should or should not live their lives.

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English stand up comedian and actor Russell Brand has recently diversified his career into three directions: (1) an apolitical politician (paradoxically), (2) an unqualified academic slash cultural theorist, slash sociologist, slash social physiologist, slash, neo-Marxist, slash critical theorist or perhaps even an all round academic don of the arts and humanities without a masters degree or doctorate in philosophy (?!?), and finally (3) he has also become a spiritual guru and claims to espouse universal truths that many of us are being held back from by a marginal, 1% ruling class of capitalists around the world. While I enjoy Brand’s sense of humour sometimes and sympathise with many of the social issues he comments on (he does pick out evocative topics after all), I consider that this combination of points one, two and three are not just slightly worrying but bloody dangerous.

For starters, I do not believe that the Church or any form of religion or spiritualism should have any direct influence on democracy, politics or the general running or a national society or nation state. I am a disestablishmentarian then. Many have pointed out the paradoxical position that Brand has features in all types of political debates while attempting to be as “apolitical” as possible.

For someone who has studied “media and culture studies” for an undergraduate degree and attended advanced lectures on discourse theory, deconstructionism, ideology, mass media, etc. then listening to Brand’s off the cuff analyses of the FOX News Network in the US is just painful. This is the most bigoted and atrocious news network in the world so I would fully support anyone’s criticisms. Sometimes he does manage to extract some general “truth” from FOX’s propaganda through his analyses for his “True News” network. However, by and large the word “Truth” is something all social scientists are skeptical about these days. After all, different types of Truth have been used by dogmatic leaders throughout the past to legitimist the most heinous crimes. Because Brand wants the general public to become more critical of bias news channels – which he or anyone else should – then why should we not also be critical about his version of the news, or the Truth?

What legitimizes Brand’s version of the Truth? This for me is the scariest part. It all boils down his personal, subjective or “spiritual” experience of life and the universe. At the end of almost every Trews report he makes appeals to the universal, collectivised source of energy and love, which apparently we have all become disconnected from through the division of labour, capitalism, consumerism, the mass media, and so on. The universe, as in every solar system, planet, person, molecule, cell, atom, etc. legitimizes his own thoughts, his own arguments, and his opinions and converts it into a “Truth statement” which is entirely and universally valid. How can anyone argue against such universal Truth? Well, quite simply no one can. There is no arguing with someone who honestly believes that her or his opinion is universally absolute.

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Throughout history there have been rulers of civilizations that have had access to the universal truth; Egyptian Kings, Chinese Emperors, religious leaders, and even cult leaders. The whole idea of the Enlightenment movement was that through science and philosophy, rational critical debate, then we could overcome blind faith and dogmatism to create a more just and fair society that is no led by rulers who blindly believe that whatever they say is universally true, forever. Russell Brand seems to overlook this point. Not only should spiritual faith re-enter politics and science, but we should accept that his spiritualism and universality is the only true, valid or reliable source of knowledge.

To sum up then, according to the universal logic of Brand then at the very core or epicenter of politics, science and education, and religion, is Russell Brand. His understanding of the universe goes beyond all worldviews (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) and binds them together in a universal “Force”. This force, energy and ‘collective universal consciousness’ is used to legitimise every argument he presents to us on the topics of religion, politics, critical theory, and so on. I am of the opinion that this force and this universal energy is simply his own universally inflated ego, which appeals for followers (people he calls “Trusers”) like all forms of religion or cult leaders have throughout the past. If critical media theories are to teach us one thing, then that is to remain critical to the media and not be easily led by universal appeals.

Social Science, Big Data and Gut Instincts: The General Election 2015 in review

Reflections on the 2015 General Election
by James Addicott, 2015© 

During the 2015 elections in the UK, what I found quite baffling was that, even as a PhD student (without blowing my own trumpet), I really did not feel that I had enough knowledge or facts to make an educated decision about who to vote for. I don’t think anyone did. The peculiar thing here is that we are constantly being told that we live in an age of “big data”; an age of metrics and digital solutions; an age of “transparency”. If this is the case, then why did I feel that I was going on sheer gut instinct when ticking the boxes to elect our future government?

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Although I can read now – in hindsight – about the statistics of which parts of the population or general demographic voted for which parties, the stastistical facts prior to the election were simply not to hand. So many unanswered questions: which party invested the most into the military efforts in the Middle East, Conservatives or Labour? Which party made the most cutbacks on public expenditure overall? Which party reduced unemployment the most? What exactly were the statistics on immigration? Did gross domestic produce increase or decrease while Labour was in office or during the Conservative’s run?

The obvious answer is that all these facts are infinitely complex. They are therefore open to interpretation – and, perhaps it’s a cliché of our time to say “the facts are open to interpretation”?

The other odd thing is that I can download an analyse OECD, NATO, EU or UK Gov. statistics for myself. Anyone can.

Russell Brand seems able to commit himself to an acting career in the US while also managing to download statistics to support his own political arguments (which by the way, are crap). But are the facts that he cites actually valid? Who knows? The way that he presents them is as if these statics just simply “tell it all”, but we are never actually sure where he gets his information from, and how this data is being collected, and by whom, and to what end. I know for certain that Brand never cites from actual academic sources such as journal publications; whereas social scientists are forced to.

The point about Brand is that he is an example that demonstrates how it seems like a fore drawn conclusion that whichever party presents whatever “facts of the matter”, there will always be some degree of biasness behind those statistics, the way they have been compiled, or an even greater likelihood that an opposing party will contest that data with another data set, or an even more “credible” sources. It is pointless then to even compile factsheets or databases given this constant tussle between the “to-be-believed” and the “unbelievable”. The only solution seems to be to reside to voting on gut-instincts or blind-faith – or to play the “national lottery game” and close your eyes, tick a box and wish for the best of luck.

The facts are out the windows then? Well, clearly not because not only to scientific facts help to generate energy, make humans live longer, aid plant growth, or inform political policies around the world.

It seems that it is not only the civilians that are having problems with scientific data but the government too. Right until the night of the elections all media networks reported that the parties were literally “neck and neck”. However, the outcome was fairly unanimous. How was that so impossible to predict in this big data age of algorithms, social surveillance? To the conspiracy theorists, this might seem like a ploy to draw people to the voting booths. I am happy to accept that literally no one actually knew; not even the elites at GCHQ.

As part of my PhD I am currently studying and supervising students on the idea of “reflexive modernity”, put forwards by sociologist Antony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. According to these two, this is the current status of modern culture or modern societies of which we Brits are a part. The idea in short is that environmental degradation, media and communication networks, global markets and economic crises, cause modern people and modern societies to reflect upon their actions. Another aspect of their argument is that in this day and age people have become a lot more critical of scientific knowledge or the knowledge of the experts. For example, no-one is absolutely, 100% sure weather on not we are experiencing “climate change” (a natural change in weather conditions) or “global warming” (a change in weather patterns caused by aerosol cans or the burning of fossil fuels), even though the vast majority of sciences around the world confer that changing weather conditions are caused by industrial processes.

This idea of reflexive modernity also ties in quite neatly with what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1986) suspected and predicted about our contemporary age. For Lyotard “post-modernism” or “post-modern” societies and cultures were distinguishable by a breakdown in trust, or rising skepticism, towards ‘grand narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’. Such grand narratives are the overarching narratives to Life itself. They would include religious narratives (e.g. Christianity), politics (e.g. Marxism) or even scientific or philosophical thought (e.g. the Enlightenment). Again, the idea is that modern societies are loosing faith in scientific knowledge, and our sense of “Truth”, correctness or validity. For some people, that’s a good thing.

The other odd thing is that classical sociologists theorised that modern, scientific knowledge would eventually lead to an end of mythology and spiritualism – Max Weber or The Frankfurt School in particular. This would reduce the feeling of enchantment obtained from Life. This would lead to increased political disenchantment, of the sort expressed by non-voters such as Mr. Brand. Brand’s contempt for politics could therefore be rationalised or explained according to such theories. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the media-spin game; the celebrity-based campaigns, and the gut-feelings or impulses that lead me to tick the boxes I ticked in the general election of 2015, were only marginally informed by socially scientific research. My vote this year was based around a whole game of enchantment, mythology, and lots of new “soon-to-be-broken” promises. In this sense, I would have preferred to make a well-informed decision, but it seemed impossible to do so. It just falls down to a trust game; whom do you trust to lead your country?

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I would like to be able to make better decisions about which political parties to vote for. More than likely, this is an age-old observation and an age-old argument put forth by civilians voting in democratic states. We want “The Truth!” Again, the truth is so open to interpretation. Is this feeling of disenchantment, rising skepticism in scientific evidence really that new then? This really calls into question the whole idea of a “Big Data Society”. So what if we have big data? What does it tell us? What use is it to us is it won’t help us to answer the most simple of questions: “red, yellow, green or blue party?”

Lyotard J-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Samsara, The Culture Industry and The Enlightenment as Mass-Deception

Lots of undergraduate students struggle with the idea of The Culture Industry. For many students these days the Frankfurt School’s theory has lost its relevance. Possibly, during the build up to the First and Second World War, when the Power Elites used mass media much more as a propaganda tool to instigate world wars, the notion of the culture industry as a critique of may have been liberating to a few. These days Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity and theory of the Enlightenment as mass deception is just out of date, elitist and rather depressing to read. It depicts humans as zombie-like, morons who are systematically oppressed by a massive social mechanism; an “Iron Cage” as Weber called it, or a “unicity” as Lyotard termed it; “bio-power” to Foucault. Subsequently, The Culture Industry theory lacks agency to such an extent it reads somewhat like the contemporary conspiracy theory. We humans possess agency, the idea of The Culture Industry is too structurally-deterministic.

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But the students I have spoken to during supervisions generally empathise with the idea of the culture industry; there seems to be “something there”. They are not entirely sure what, but the ideas hold to an extent. But their refusal to accept these out-of-date arguments seems to rest on the liberation that large cities, the Internet or communication technologies delivers; we live in a new world now, one of communication, knowledge sharing, imagined communities, hope and change.

I entirely sympathise with their opinions. I studied Media and Culture for my undergraduate and then Social and Cultural Theory for my masters. I tended to reject totalitarian theories of social structure for more nuanced theories of social power dynamics. My opinion has been changed after studying industrial agriculture and industrial food production systems.

The vast majority of the students tend to focus on the overwhelming complexities of cultures, sub-cultures, resistance groups and so on. They largely reject the notion of monoculture, global-culture or mass-culture. The content of their research is generally content analysis: the culture we consume on television or through fashion magazines. Focusing on the immaterial aspects of culture (ideas, language, semantics, fashions, trends, ideologies, etc.) and how they merge, influence, permeate, hybridise or intertwine. This is all fine, great indeed, but does it really constitute an adequate or even holistic understanding of culture?

The problem that I find, and I have been guilty of this in the past, is there is very little emphasis on the material or physical tools, machines, automobiles, transportation networks, communication networks (telegraph poles, fiber optic cables, wireless routers, servers, etc.) that deliver the media content or cultural content to us. We are too fixated on the celebrities, fashion models, personas or branding to accept the television sets, satellite networks or mobile handsets that deliver us the imagery as cultural artifacts. “Culture” or the cultural forms that are often analysed are songs, literature, artworks, poems, fashion items, hairstyles, etc. rather than chemistry, physics, technologies, mechanisms, wood, plastics, metals, and so on that mediate or enable this cultural content. In Marxist terms, the emphasis is generally on the culture or systems of ideas, or ideologies of a societies rather than the material, economic “base-structure”, which is by-and-large massively overlooked. We are only seeing one side of the coin.

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Samsara reemphasizes the point about modernity, the Enlightenment and mass culture that it is so easy to overlook or take for granted in our everyday lives. What gives us modern people or “post-modern” and “post-industrial” people this sense of freedom, autonomy, liberty, independence or agencies are the material, objects or things of culture that surround us; such as underground sewage systems, taps, sinks and plumbing, radiators, light bulbs, cars, trains, busses, washing machines, lawn mowers, computers and mobile phones etc. With all of these cultural artifacts in place, we have less physical work to do in our everyday lives. Post-modern people don’t have to walk to get water, wash dishes and cutlery, prepare meat and cook with our bare hands, move geographic locations to communicate with other people, and so on.

Different machines or specialist sectors of society do much of our “life work” for us that we no longer recognise these social systems or material objects as relevant to our lives. We look back at the metanarratives of history as constructed events and the idea of Truth as a falsehood or mythology. We do not consider that the chemicals we put in our hair or in our mouths everyday, or the perfume or cologne we spray on our bodies, or the chemical preservatives in our food or milk as the end products of thousands of years of scientific endeavor. Science has always been socially constructed, as too is the truth that it has aimed for. The truth is scientific discovery continues on, as to do the rational and systematic cultures it encourages, and we are “privileged” enough to benefit from thousands of years of backlogged scientific disputes, processes and knowledges.

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What gives many of us postmodern people the right to argue that we have agencies or that we are free-people, are the material, industrial, mechanised, and now computer automated processes that take place beyond our local horizons. It will always fright, shock and disgust us to see chicks being liquidized, cows being slaughtered or pigs being caged in pens for their entire lives, because the advanced division of labour or specialization of work roles in our contemporary society has become so advanced that we have become preoccupied by the end products; what appears on the shelves or on our screens; the Phantasmagoria; the social spectacle. We never see the cotton fields where the materials are grown to make the clothes we wear; we rarely visit the sewage works where our bodily wastes are disposed of or recycled; certainly many of us would be put off eating processed meat if we were to see the materials used to compose these “crafted” foods.

We can celebrate the pluralism and diversity of our postmodern and multicultural societies and much as we like, however, at another level of postmodern societies we neglect that there are very standardised, uniform and systematic processes in place that work twenty-four hours around the clock to deliver us with the food we consume and convert into energy, the materials that construct our city landscapes, the clothes that we use to keep us warm or attract attention. Samsara reminds us that The Enlightenment movement is as strong as ever, and The Culture Industry (singular) is still in tact, and that we also need to maintain some level of critical awareness of these industrial processes that give us this sense of entitlement to liberty and autonomy. We would be deceived to think otherwise.

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More importantly, as we watch chickens being systematically herded up by machines; mono-crops being grown on “auto-farms”, production lines of workers packaging the food we will eventually eat, we should also remember how people are also systematically herded, processed, commoditised, packaged and put into cubicles. “The World Factory” a group of nine Chinese sociologists called it in an open letter about labour exploitation and worker suicides. That is the challenge if we are to understand modernity fully. And, any right-minded and critically engaged student will react against these claims. Arguing for complexity, diversity, choices, possibilities, changes and potentials to confirm their sense of agency, to confirm their own sense of power, control and self.

Maybe its too depressing to research these particular dimensions of postmodern life? The Culture Industry is depressing; Samsara is a depressing film to watch. While medics have to deal with cancer victims, firefighters have to pull mangled bodies from wreckages, or Chinese workers have to package meat on conveyor belts; why should we consider that sociology or culture studies (the humanities) should neglect the more depressing flip side of postmodern lifestyles?

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