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.

 

On Studying at the University of Cambridge

Dumbfounded. The only word to describe the feeling I had when I discovered that I would be studying for a postgraduate PhD at the University of Cambridge. I began my academic career at the age of thirty, studying at what some Brits refer to as a “red-brick” university – an old “working-class” polytechnic that later transformed into a “prestigious” university (English classism, I know, I know). After doing fairly well there, I went back to work and felt that laborious “9-to-5” lifestyle slowly grinding me down and sapping me of the will to live. I returned to the University of Bristol to study for a masters of science (MSc) in social and cultural theory, which was a real step up the social ladder for me. Again, my results there were fairly good too.

My advice to anyone applying to do a PhD course is to take a gap year out after finishing their master’s degree to get in touch with a range of potential supervisors, network, email and visit departments, while at the same time taking a look around for funding options, working out expenses, etc. Doing a master’s degree is very stressful and with some universities closing their application deadlines in December – the time when most master’s students are in the thick of their studies! – delaying your application by a year can reduce that stress and give you time to get a cracking PhD proposal together. What is more, you can really take time to think about what it is that you really want to study for three years, and, discover what niches there are in the knowledge market. That would be my advice.
While discussing my PhD application with a friend, I mentioned, cheekily, that I was considering applying to Cambridge. Their response was: “Well, someone’s got to do it: so why not you?” This prompted me to email the sociology department with my research idea, to, which they replied: “Yes! Very interested. Please apply a.s.a.p.” It wasn’t as easy at that, after applying online I had to negotiate my place and make sure that my project sounded realistic and theoretically/methodologically viable. This must have been the case because after going back and forth with my potential supervisor for months, I was eventually offered a place. And, like I’ve already said, the only way to describe my feeling was: “Dumbfounded!”

Welcome to Cambridge
So, in terms of climbing the academic ladder, I have gone from the University of the West of England (#56) to the University of Bristol (#15) to the University of Cambridge (#1). – see here. There are several important reasons I have been able to climb this ladder, too in depth to mention here now, but my advice to any students looking to get on and up would be just to believe in your own talent, be realistic about your abilities and goals, be prepared to interrogate yourself and an academic with ideas and a human with real feelings and real bills to pay.
Anyway, this is the next part of the blog. I will keep anyone out there in the online “Blog-Sphere” informed about life at Cambridge and helpful advice on what to do and what not to do. Furthermore, I’ll be dropping some social commentary on the differences between studying and living at the top of the University League table as compared with being further down the bottom. Bottom line: “Stay tuned!”. Peace.

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?
By James Addicott (2012, jamesaddi@hotmail.com)

DISCLAIMER: THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN A RUSH AND DESPERATELY NEEDS EDITING – TAKE IT AS IT IS! (UNLESS ANYONE WANTS TO VOLUNTEER TO EDIT IT)

Postmodern and systematised theoretical frameworks such as Actor Network Theory (ANT), Posthumanism, Complex Theory, Organisation Theory and Cybernetics increasingly blur the boundaries that were drawn during the modern sociological era. Firstly, an overlaps between everything “social” and everything “natural”, such as cells, organisms, fungus, coral, trees, animals etc. Secondly, contemporary discourses pay as much attention to the material products of a society than the social body (or bodies) that construct these cultural phenomena. Therefore, the question has arisen: should sociology be concerned with the non-human? Or, should the nonhuman aspects of society be left to more expert academic disciplines such as culture studies, biology, ecology, etc.? For this question to be addressed, this essay will cumbersomely lump everything nonhuman into one single category and everything ‘human’ in the other. So, on one hand there stands a Durkheimian clear-cut vision of ‘society’ and on the other is a vision of society mingled with everything distinctly ‘non-human’. This essay will argue that the sociology should be concerned with everything non-human in order to define what is ‘human’, and furthermore, sociology requires such a division to critically assess the socio-cultural impact of cybernetics. To achieve this, firstly this essay will take a look at the role of the nonhuman in classical sociology. Then, it will consider how the ‘cybernetic turn’ that took place during World War II and developed further during the Cold War has impacted upon classical sociology. Finally, the impact of cybernetics on sociology will be assessed in a consideration of Actor-Network theory, sociological ecology and Steve Fuller’s ‘Humanity 2.0’.

The Non-Human’s Role in Classical Sociology:

During the industrial revolution, Marx (1867) became concerned about the relationship between human-labourers and their mechanical counterparts. What would differentiate the two, in the eyes of the capitalist, would be the cost of labour-power (either human or mechanical) in relation to the cheapening of commodity production and the subsequent increase of surplus value (239). In those days, the battle between the human and non-human was about the substitution of body power or ‘muscular strength’ (240), rather than the mind. Mechanical power, as a means of production, had two effects of the social working organism; on the one hand it sped up and lengthened the working day ‘excessively’, and on the other hand it opened up new employment markets to the capitalist. Skilled workmen were no longer required; instead, the capitalist required a new working-class, the ‘minders of the machines’ (244-246). These factory workers (including in those days men, women and children) were to fall victims to the exploitative nature of the machinery that employed them: ‘it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman’ (248). Therefore, modern and industrial society was founded on the exploitative nature of capitalism and that philosophy of exploitation was embodied into the machinery. It was part of Marx’s calling for revolution that the proletarian class to become aware of the ‘real’ relationship between the human and the nonhuman. The nonhuman played a significant role at the economic base-structure of Marx’s sociological perspective.
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Weber (1947) recognised the rise of the modern Western state as a economic and legal organisation underpinned by a ‘bureaucratic machinery’, which structured all types of institutions such as the, ‘church and state, of armies, political parties, economic enterprises, organisation to promote all kinds of causes, private association, clubs and many others’ (309). Weber goes on to mention that what would develop along with these ‘fiscal conditions of efficient bureaucratic administration’, are, ‘extremely important conditions in the fields of communication and transportation’, furthermore, the ‘precision of the functioning’ of bureaucracy ‘required the services of the railway, the telegraph and the telephone’, and, ‘becomes increasingly dependent on them’ (311). As a result the, ‘whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework’ (309-310). Nonhuman elements play an implicit role in his sociology as the speeding up of bureaucratic administration towards increased economic efficiency.
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Nonhuman elements take an invisible role in Durkheim’s sociology. It can be quite confusing at first that Durkheim would refer to pre-modern societies as ‘mechanical’ societies and modern industrial societies as ‘organic’ but this really outlines his priority in concerns about the network of social bonds rather than the technologies they employ. ‘Mechanical’ therefore describes the functionalistic or mechanical way the pre-industrial communities behave; for example, there is an emotional reaction in a collective towards a crime, which therefore leads to punishment. Punishment is a natural reflex, or a defence mechanism, within the social unit (46). His theory was then focused on the strengthening of social bonds as these pre-modern or primitive societies developed into organic societies. For example, the relationships between ‘carrier and consignor’, ‘bearer of the bill of exchange and the drawer’, the ‘shipowner and the creditors, or the shipowner and the captain and crew’ are the objects of his analysis, not the package, the money, or the ship. It is the relationships exposed in the rights to property that sociology should be concerned with and not the material property itself. Macnaghten and Urry (1998), refer to the, “Durkheimian desire to carve out a separate realm or sphere of the social which could be investigated and explained autonomously” (quoted in Murdoch, 2001: 115). As we shall see later, this pure sociological vision was to become increasingly unclear, as modern technology was to become cybertised.
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Simmel (1898) defines sociology in this way:

‘The subject matter of sociology is… the forms or ways in which human beings exist beside, for, and with each other…By this method we discover, for example, as such forms, superiority and inferiority, the erection of hierarchies, competition, division of labour, imitation, representation, and countless other types of human socialization’.
(663. Italics added)

By ‘forms’ Simmel is referring to ‘abstracted’ phenomena; ideas or ways of thinking that have been taken from the real world, such as geometry, linguistics, logic, epistemology, rather than ‘content’: economics, law, fashion, religion, and art (see Varga, 2009: 148). Therefore, culture is not the primary concern for sociology, Simmel (1908) states that: ‘neither hunger nor love, work nor religiosity, technology nor the functions and results of intelligence, are social’, rather, ‘(t)They are factors in sociation only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolated individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another, forms that are subsumed under the general concept of interaction’ (1908: 24). Sociology’s primary concern is social interaction while paying attention to the forms, which channel, force, mediate these interactions and the way that these forms are influenced by their content. For example, cybernetics (algebraic in its form) can control satellites and aircraft (content), which therefore affects air traffic controllers, holidaymakers, and fighter pilots; by increasing precision and spatial detachment (interaction). However, aircraft collisions may lead to refinements of the form, recalculations of trajectories or timetabled schedules. In Simmel’s sociology nonhuman objects play a part in shaping the way humans interact, however, the main focus of the sociological perspective is fixed on a ever-changing image of the forms of social interaction.
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We can conclude so far that since the birth of sociology the nonhuman has already played a role in three of the four establishing sociological theories. The sociologist most ‘concerned’ with the nonhuman was Marx while Durkheim presents himself as the puritan of sociology.

The Cybernetic Turn:

During World War II the relationship between the human and the nonhuman was to take a radical turn in direction. While conducting research into anti-aircraft weaponry at MIT Wiener was led to develop a mathematic formula (an algorithm), which could be programmed into a machine giving it the ability to predict human responses as positive and negative feedback. As a result his AA predictor helped anti-aircraft weaponry to bring down German aircraft with a startling degree of accuracy – (Galison’s essay gives a wonderfully comprehensive account of this process, see 1994: 229). The outcome of this research led to the development ‘cybernetics’ (taken from the Greek ‘steersman’). Galison goes on to argue that, at the heart of cybernetics, ‘was a vision in which the enemy pilot was so merged with machinery that (his) human-nonhuman status was blurred’. Galison continues: ‘In fighting this cybernetic enemy, Wiener and his team began to conceive of the Allied antiaircraft operators as resembling the foe, and it was a short step from this elision of the human and the nonhuman in the ally to a blurring of the human-machine boundary in general’ (223). Therefore the radar techniques of the AA predictor created a cybernetic feedback-loop; an automated system, which created a communication based relationship between guns, shells, allies, airplanes, and enemies. From a sociological perspective the boundary between the human and non-human is thoroughly breached.
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For Wiener, societies were not simply distinguishable by race, but rather, ‘the community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information’ (1962: 157-158), furthermore, ‘any organism is held together… by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information’ (161). Therefore, ancient Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, and even colonies of ants or beavers, or herds of baboons, are bound together by processes of intercommunication. Such an understanding of society echoes Simmel’s study of ‘forms’ that cause and effect social interactions. His cybernetic technologies were to model themselves on Wiener’s own sociological and philosophical understandings.
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Wiener’s blurring of boundaries is addressed in Haraway’s Cyborg-Manifesto:

‘Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we find ourselves freightingly inert.’
(1991: 152)

At the heart of Haraway’s manifesto is the self-empowering image of cyborg, which she defines as a ‘cybernetic organism’, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (149). In Haraway’s vision, Durkheim’s view of society as a social organism was transformed into a hybrid cyber-organism, as Wieners maths and philosophy began to underpin communicative technologies. While Haraway exposes the ambiguous, freighting and ‘trapped’ emotional response to such phenomena, she calls for the socialist-feminist movement to seize this blurring of linguistic divides that have been brought about since the introduction of cybernetics. For her, this ‘liminal transformation’ offered women a political opportunity to overcome categorical labels imposed on societies by the men of modernity (177). In a similar spirit, Hayles argues that in a posthuman and cybernetic era, ‘when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine’, then, ‘you have already become posthuman’ (1999: xiv).
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The ambiguity cause by fading divides is well expressed in Bauman’s (2000) book Liquid Modernity. Bauman recognises the shift into cybernetic ‘intertwined trends’ as the beginning of the era of liquid modernity, he states that, ‘men and women would be reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole, that proud invention of the pioneering years of cybernetics immediately acclaimed as the harbinger of the times to come’ (14). The ambiguous nature of cybernetic technologies that is identified in Haraway and Hayles’ work is problematic for Bauman, especially as moral boundaries such as good/evil or right/wrong have also been fragmented (1995: 1-10). He sees t call for action, and states that, ‘sociology is needed today more than ever before’, and that the job of contemporary sociology is, ‘restoring to view the lost link between objective affliction and subjective experience’ (2000: 211). Therefore, as postmodern communication technology melts down modern stability into liquid modernity, sociology should be concerned with reconceptualising a new moral code with the well being of the individual at the top of its agenda. What should also be understood from Bauman’s work it that modern divides reveal their strength as they begin to fade away.
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The divides that separated nations and states have also been blurred by information-communication technologies. Ulrich Beck’s (2000) refers to postmodernity, or Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’, as the ‘second age of modernity’. For Beck, the world has undergone a massive a paradigm shift; time-and-space-compression, interconnectivity and no-liberalism, have led to transnationalism. Consequently, a new form of global consciousness has shattered former ideas of nation states; the process has been termed ‘globalisation’. The phenomenon that Beck identifies in the second age of modernity is ‘risk societies’ (21). These are reactionary groups that are formed across cultural boundaries and nation states to combat ‘invisible’ issues of global concern, such as economic crises, terrorism, global warming, organised crime etc.: He argues that, ‘(t)The accepted definition of a risk thus creates and binds – across national boundaries – cultural value frameworks of more or less compensatory, responsible counter activities’ (95). Beck states that his risk society is, ‘also the science, media and information society’ (46). However, unlike Bauman, Haraway, or Galison, the expanse of cyber-space does not play an exclusive role in his theory. Rather, the self-reflexive nature of modernity (‘reflexive modernisation’ (21)), mediated by time-and-space compressing technologies, are the exacerbate risks making them invisible in the local world of the individual.
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In the transition from a modern industrialized society to an advanced stage of human evolution four trends have developed. Firstly, there is a blurring of linguistic boundaries caused by communication-information-technologies. Secondly, there is the development of invisible risks, threats or enemies. Thirdly, there appears a sense of abnormality, ambiguity or ambivalence. Unlike Durkheim, all of these theories have played close attention to nonhuman objects since there is a developing sense of the embodiment of human intentions into manmade objects.

Mapping Humans or Non-Humans?

Haraway (1991), citing Latour, argues that for the socialist feminist movement to advance, ‘we need fresh sources of analysis and political action’ (165). Actor-Network Theory offers the sociology a semiotic method, and a new set of vocabulary, designed for mapping human and nonhuman interaction or interconnectedness. A system of analysis perfectly suited for cyber-theory, hence Haraway’s appraisal. Latour asks the question, ‘(i)Is sociology the study of social questions, or the study of associations?’, and argues that, ‘what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans’ (1988: 310). In his amusing analysis of the broken groom on the back of a door Latour argues that such a nonhuman device has been delegated human characteristics, which in turn delegates a prescribed set of characteristics or behaviours back to the actors who come into contact with it. Within the ANT framework the interaction between machines, animals, and humans are all analysed in relation to each other. The absence or presence of an actor (human or nonhuman) within such a network would give the sociologist an idea of the role that element plays within the overall network. Latour also acknowledges how ANT blurs the boundaries of former linguistic divisions: ‘(i)In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory’ (1999: 3). This is a vision of society that is not much different to Wiener’s radar image merging man and machine within a cyber-space. The mapping of a network of human and nonhuman interaction offers new ways of thinking about museums (Hetherington, 1999), electronic disability chairs (Moser and Latour, 1999), and economic markets (Callon, 1999).
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ANT’s  “levelling of the playing field” has been criticised for promoting ‘human exemptionalism’ in sociology (Murdoch, 2001). From an environmental sociological perspective, Murdoch is interested in debates that stem from the boundary that divides anything “social” from “natural” and how that affects his subject matter. Murdoch asks the question, ‘if a perspective that divides society from nature is deemed to lie at the heart of the ecological crisis, should sociology be attempting to resubstantiate this supposedly damaging division?’ (112). To address this question he turns his attention to ANT as theoretical framework that can re-establish the complex relations that exist between humanity and nature. The semiotic relationships that ANT maps out is criticised for neglecting to account for the way in which human’s have the ability to use language: ‘humans must still be seen as having distinctive characteristics (linked primarily to their use of language) that mark them out from the nonhuman world’ (121). This was not Wiener’s vision since all communication is levelled down to networks of information-communication. Murdoch continues to argue that ‘ANT scholars have highlighted the heterogeneous make-up of the world and have shown that… social and natural entities are indeed mixed up rather promiscuously’ (128) However, Murdock concludes that, ‘the act of distinguishing natural and social entities should not be allowed to hinder our identification of those circumstances where the social causes of a given phenomenon are decisive’ (129). While ANT gives sociology the ability to think beyond the divide between nature/society, sociology still has a “Green” obligation in re-establishing some of the former linguistic divisions, especially the social/nature divide. Opposed to human exemptionalism is the ‘human distinctiveness’ approach that would argue that for sociology to address ecological concerns by recognising humans as being beyond nature and therefore capable of making decisions that affect their ecological environments. However, in achieving this, the framework of ANT is criticised since it, ‘is unable to reach any conclusive understanding of the social forces that often determine how heterogeneous sets of socio-natural relations are composed’. Furthermore, ‘distinctive differences inevitably emerge between humans and non-humans’ (128).
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The human exemption or distinctiveness debate reappears when sociologists turn their mind from the nonhuman animal to nonhuman technology. Fuller (2011) argues that ‘converging technologies’, ‘promise to transform the very constitution of the human species’ (4), thus a ‘transhumanist’ agenda appears with the will, ‘to re-engineer the human body to enable us to live longer as to work and play harder’ (242). Fuller throws the gauntlet down and asks social scientists to decide which side of the political fence they fall upon: ‘naturalist’ or ‘cyber-spiritual’. On one side of this ‘bipolar’ sociological disorder is the human exemptionalism stance (‘our reabsorption into nature’) or human distinctiveness (‘our transcendence of nature’) (69).
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The former ‘naturalist’ position promotes a social-Darwinianist attitude towards biosocial enhancement since it would view the unfair balance as survival of the species as it, ‘treats the human as an animal gifted in the adaptations to the environment’ (95). Such a stance therefore would view the hybridisation of human and nonhuman as part of an ongoing evolutionary process. Alternatively, the creationist, religious perspective, would presume human’s dominant position over nature. In this light the human exist as a, ‘virtual deity aspiring to a universal status that transcends earthly moorings’ (95). Spirituality, like cyber-space, is about transcendence beyond the nature and the worldly.
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For Fuller, the intelligent design of Humanity 2.0 can advance in two ways. Either sociologists can take a utilitarian approach (following Kant’s ‘Golden Rule’) or allow this hybridisation of humanity to be governed by economic forces (or Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’). He argues that social sciences – which represent the academic ‘party of humanity’ (69) – have always been concerned with human wellbeing and therefore enhancement. Fuller states, ‘it is crucial that social scientists do not capitulate to Darwinian bluster… that would downplay, deny, if not outright reverse, the advances that the social sciences have already made in the name of humanity’ (68). The blueprint for Humanity 2.0 therefore demands sociology’s proactive theoretical guidance: ‘our sense of social justice is tied to redistributions being conducted in a timely, targeted, and proportional fashion’, therefore, ‘the 21st century will demand from social theorists unprecedented levels of realism, imagination, and will’ (246). In such a theory, sociology’s concern for the nonhuman is unavoidable and will increasingly become a source of political negotiation.
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The issue of fading boundaries appears in Fuller’s work. Fuller, citing Foucault’s ‘death of man’ and states that,

‘…the general prognosis of the re-absorption, if not outright ‘withering away’, of the social sciences into a broader conception of nature has also advanced by a consensus of postmodern social theorists who have queried the ontological significance of the human/nonhuman distinction and the need for disciplinary boundaries altogether’ (71).

Adam Smith, Darwin, Latour, Nietzsche, Foucault, Haraway, would fall towards this side of his anti-humanitarian (naturalist) and pro-humanitarian (cyber-spiritual) divide in attitudes towards human/nonhuman categorisation. ANT is commended for the way in which it offers sociology a ‘heterogeneous’ vision of society that has been used, ‘to model phenomena in the life sciences’, thus, ‘social sciences are extending their influence across disciplinary boundaries’ (69-70). Wiener, Galison, Latour, Haraway, Beck, and even Bauman indicate, in theory clear-cut divisions are to be liquidated, fragmented, or extended beyond by communication-technologies. It is paradoxical then that Fuller would recognise this merging while drawing his own ‘bipolarised’ divide through the subject of sociology and beyond. While Murdoch’s motivation is provided by an ecological risk, Fuller’s is a socio-bio-technological risk. Like Murdoch, Fuller recognises recognised that clear-cut division can advance his own academic and political agenda. It would seem then that in the process of rationalisation the ability to blur or draw divides is still necessary and as political as ever.

Conclusion:

Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic sociology and philosophy is embodied in information-communication networks leading to new forms of human transcendence: either Fuller’s transhumanism and or Beck’s transnationalism. Cybernetic feedback loops continue to blur former linguistic divides and boundaries, subsequently, academic disciplines that were originally divided into rigid areas of specialism are now beginning to overlaps; the sociology of ecology; sociology of culture studies; sociology of technology etc. While theorists can take advantage of this blurring of boundaries (Foucault, Haraway, Hayles) some (Bauman, Fuller, Murdoch) realise the strength of linguistic divisions as they attempt determine the human and define human responsibility – this symbolises a recourse to a rational and pre-postmodern mentality. Therefore, sociology has been and should continue to be concerned with the nonhuman in its attempts to define the human and human responsibility. While actor-network theory helps to map out the networks of social interaction, it is guilty of human exemptionalism. In a cyber-society, for the human determinist goal to be achieved sociologists would need to establish disconnected space away from cyber-networks and develop a critical stance towards their subject matter, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘disconnect’ from these technological networks. The benefits of ANT is that it can be used as a tool for understanding the complex networks within which sociologists could extract Marx, Durkheim or Simmel’s vision of social beings – if they, as individuals, should choose to do so.

Bibliography:

  • Bauman, Z. (1995) Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodernity Morality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 
  • Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage
  • Durkheim, E. (1984) The Division of Labour in Society, London: Macmillan.
  • Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.
  • Galison, P. (1994) ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision’, in Critical Enquiry 21 (1): 228-226.
  • Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.
  • Hayles, N, K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Litrature and Informatics. Chicargo: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Latour, B. ‘Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer’, in Social Problems, 35 (3): 298-310.
  • Law, J. After (1999) ‘ANT: complexity, naming and topology’, in Law, J., and Hassard, J. (eds) Actor Network Theory and After, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Marx, K. (2007) Das Kapital, Iowa: Synergy International of The Americas.
  • Murdoch, J. (2001) ‘Ecologising Sociology: Actor-Network Theory, Co-construction and the Problem of Human Exemptionalism’, in Sociology, 35 (1): 111-133.
  • Simmel, G. (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in On Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 324-339.
  • Simmel, G. (1898) ‘The Persistence of Social Groups’, American Journal of Sociology, 3 (5): 128-42.
  • Varga, I. (2010) ‘George Simmel: Religion and Spirituality’, in Flanagan, K. and Jupp, P (eds) A Sociology of Spirituality, Ashgate, pp. 145-160.
  • Weber, M. (1947) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, London: William Hodge and Company Limited.

The Future of Music-as-Information

BY JAMES ADDICOTT (jamesaddi@hotmail.com)

DISCLAIMER: THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN A RUSH AND DESPERATELY NEEDS EDITING – TAKE IT AS IT IS! (UNLESS ANYONE WANTS TO VOLUNTEER TO EDIT IT)

The Future of Music-as-Information 
Hi

iPod Nanos - The Future of Music-as-Information
The Future of Music-as-Information

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Music in the form of information is being set-free by material cybernetic technologies of the music industry. Frith (1998) describes this process; historically music was ‘musicians and their instrument’ where ‘musicians would perform for ‘music in return for payment’ (28). ‘The first revolution in musical storage’ he states, ‘was the combination of notation and printing’ – ‘Music could now be stored, and that score could be reproduced any number of times’ (ibid). The printing press, he continues, was the basis of the music industry with the development of publishers, composers, and a distinction between commercial and non-commercial music types. Following this development, Frith argues that notated music was ‘commercial music’ and non-commercial, or unnotated music was regarded as ‘folk music’ (30). Frith then recalls the ‘second major music industry revolution which ‘followed the technology of recording’ and enabled the ‘commercialisation of folk music’ (31). Finally, the last revolution in musical storage is describe by Frith as ‘the storage of music as information’, which has caused three industrial effects, the questioning of ownership of music, changes the nature of musical composition, and lastly ‘disintermediation’ means that musicians can ‘send their world to their listeners directly’ (32). Now, music-as-information is comparable to liquid or water (see Kusek and Leonhard, 2005; Wikström, 2009). Technological shifts in the production and consumption of music-as-information have led to many industry workers wondering what the future will hold. Therefore, the question this essay will address is: What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? To achieve this, it will critically examine current transformations and likely developments resulting from recent technological innovations such as the iPod. In response to Bull’s (2005) work on the iPod, will present the thesis that classical sociological studies often neglect the cybernetic forms, which are increasingly more relevant to contemporary sociological debates. To achieve this, the debates will be contextualised the within Hayles’ (1999) posthuman view.

Defining “The Music Industry”

Trying to critically examine transformations in ‘The’ music industry is from the outset a dubious task since its definition is problematic. In light of the music industry’s information-age dilemma, Kusek and Leonhard still argue that ‘the music business is still in very good shape today. The problem is with the record industry and CD sales’ (6). Whereas, Williamson and Cloonan (2007) argue that the ‘notion of a single music industry is an inappropriate model… Instead it is necessary to use the term ‘music industries’ (plural)’. They argue that the term ‘Music Industry’, ‘suggests simplicity where there is complexity and homogeneity where there is diversity’ (305). Alternatively, in an attempt to capture the same sense of diversity, Wikström rejects the Frankfurtian notion of the ‘culture industry’, or ‘cultural industries’, or ‘creative industries’ (Caves, 2000; Hartley, 2005) or ‘experience industries’ (Pine and Gilmore, 1998) and argues that ‘a useful way to categorize the music industry is to consider it as a copyright industry’. By labelling the music industry in this way, he argues that it emphasizes ‘the nature of the product that are created and traded in within that industry’, and furthermore the ‘term also has a clearer definition… which makes it more useful during analyses of the dynamics of these firms and industries’ (2009:17). Kusek and Leonhard (2005) seek to mythologise the ‘vastly outmoded canons of copyright law’ (51) by pointing out how complex the process of copywriting “original” material, and furthermore, how web-technologies enable creative processes and ideas to morph into each other at an increased rate: ‘We will likely need to get used to the fact that copyright is becoming nonlinear, that the paces of exploitable ideas has vastly accelerated, and that most of the content, media, and art is never finished because the process itself is also part of the “art”’ (51). On one side of this apparent dualism stands a conservative, bureaucratic, and homogeneous “Music Industry”, and on the other is a liberal, flexible, fluid dynamic of creative social processes which seems too slippery for a fixed label. For the purposes of this essay, the term ‘music industry’ will be deployed broadly in an attempt to capture both sides of this solid vs. liquid dynamic.

Material Music vs. Music-as-Information

Since music has lost its material body then selling it as a commodity has become problematic. However, Frith (1998) points out that ‘(m) Music is, by its nature, non-material. It can be heard but not held…How to turn this intangible, time-bound aural experience into something that can be bought and sold is the question that has driven popular music history’ (6). Similarly, Kusek and Leonhard (2005) argue that ‘(t) The distorted view of music as a product is a manifestation of the late Industrial age, when companies were able to fix music in time on sound carriers, then control and exploit it to their benefit’ (38). As music commoditised as a material product looses its body, the question for the future is what will be left for the music industry to produce, manufacture, retail and profit from?

Music-as-information can be sold as a service. Hayles notes about information that ‘the contrasting factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much possession as access’ (1999: 39). A similar line of thought leads Kusek and Leonhard (2005) to their idea of on-tap music. They relate paradigm shifts in the music industry caused by the digitalisation or informationisation of music to the way water is commoditised as sold. Taking the metaphor of information as a water almost literally, they state, ‘music was only sold in “Pellegrino” bottles, but customers are starting to discover the unstoppable “tap water” music that seems to be flowing freely on the ‘Net’ (11). Wikström (2009) strongly objects to, ‘both water and electricity as metaphors of music’, and argues that, ‘(m) Music is an art form – it is not water. Great art which moves people is created by unique individuals which exceptional talents and is defiantly not chargeable by the minute or the megabyte’ (6). He has a point, if you are given some of water from a glass, the glass is half empty and not half full. Hayles points out that ‘If I give you information, you have it and I do too’ (39). Despite the dispute over appropriate metaphor, by asserting that music is no longer sold as a material commodity but more of a service, Wikström meets eye to eye with Hayles, Kusek and Leonhard. Wikström continues: ‘In a world where information is abundant, people may not be willing to pay a premium for basic access to that information, but they are most likely willing to pay for services which help them navigate through the vast amounts of information’ (7). Therefore, servers (Logic, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud) and service provision (ISP) are becoming the money earners.

However, since the invention of the instrument, music has also has a material dimension, and thinking of music only as information is as problematic. Auslander, in his definition of the reproducing affects of the CD, argues that, ‘(a) Although digital technologies are based on binary logic, they have had the ironic effect of dismantling cultural binaries, including distinctions between original and copy, producer and consumer, music and nonmusic… human being and machine’ (104). Auslander is close to the posthuman mark in this statement. Hayles’ reminds us that, firstly ‘Information wants to be free’ (2002: 235), and secondly, ‘cybernetic systems are constituted by flows of information’ (1999: 84, italics added). Although the bites of information are relevant, it is the material systems the information flows through is also relevant. In this sense, Auslander is observing just one part of a greater whole; the content devoid of the form. The binary nature of digital information is far less significant as the way in which that information moves; Frith (1988) recognises that what is important is the way music is stored (29). Auslander’s work is slightly restrained by his considerations of ‘digital technologies’, rather than viewing them as information-communication-technologies. It is precisely because of the fact that information can flow within communications systems, that unreleased records, celebrity sex-tapes, or important governmental information, can be ‘leaked’ onto the Internet or become viral. If any one phenomenon can be credited or blamed for dismantling, fragmenting, bypassing, or travelling through, cultural and linguistic binaries, then it is not only digital information but its role within cybernetic systems (such as the iPod) – of which, digital information and technologies are just one small buy-product.

Cybernetics & Posthumanism: The Human and Machine Merger

As communication-technologies such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad evolve a question pops up: how are these technologies reshaping the human users? For Hayles ‘Cyborgs actually exist’. In 1999 she argued that, ‘(a) About 10 of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin’, moreover, ‘(a) A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screed, microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade’ (115). With the introduction of wireless technologies, advancement of computing technologies and music, communication technologies such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, it would be naïve to consider that her argument has not but strengthened over the years.

Since 1999, evidence of cybernetic music consumption is everywhere. Kassabian (2002) refers to the Computer Research Group ‘have built a wearable “DJ” that tries to select music based on a feature of the user’s mood’ as in indicated by skin conductivity data collected by the wearable computer’ (Picard, 2000: 176, in Kassabian, 132).

In its technological evolution the iPod itself have become more cybernetic. Bull’s (2005) research into the iPod reveals a ‘desire for solitude’ that is revealed when the iPod is considered as technological remediation of the mechanical personal stereo. Since his article was accepted in 2004 and published in 2005 Bull can be forgiven (slightly) for not anticipating the evolution of the iPod. Bull almost picks up on the inevitable evolution of the iPod by mentioning that, ‘(u) Users now take their whole music collection with them in a machine that is not much larger than a small mobile phone’ (344). However, in 2005, Kusek and Leonhard had the foresight to predict the inevitability of the iPhone: ‘(c) Cross an iPod with a cell phone and you have an networked mobile music player’ (70). With the release of the iPhone in 2007 Apple announced that their new product “iPhone” ‘is a widescreen iPod with touch controls that lets music lovers “touch” their music by easily scrolling through entire lists of songs, artists, albums and playlists with just a flick of a finger’ (Apple 2007). The iPhone itself would communicate more directly with the users (vibrations, interactive displays, fingertip scrolling, sonic notifications) while at the same time allowing them the ability to ‘share’ music with their virtual social networks and wireless transmissions via Bluetooth. Furthermore, the ability to download an App like “SoundCloud” allows users to upload, download, and share independent and commercially produced music with friends the iPhone (and iPad) enables them to network access – at a premium.

Nodes in The Cloud

Wikström’s refers to the Internet using the classical metaphor of the ‘Cloud’ that is accessed by nodal arrangement of users. He states, ‘(a) A cloud was considered to be a useful and vague enough symbol which could be used to summarize all the resource cables and gadgets which connected the computers at the nodes of the network’ (2009: 3, italic added). When speaking about the future Kassabian (2002) mentions that: ‘The same music will be sold yet a third time, in more flexible packages, precisely because it makes it easier to use the music as an environment technology, conditioning and conditioned by a new kind of subjectivity’ (139). This subjectivity is created by the formation of a new information age network. She explains that, ‘In this extreme model of distributed computing, each home computer is a little lump of node in an enormous array of computing activity. Likewise, we are each nodes in an enormous array of listening’ (139). In a nodal arrangement activities like torrent or P2P file sharing are made possible; as well as the outbreaks of musical viruses.

This concept of nodal or monad like social formations was explained and rigorously discussed at the advent of cybernetics during and after World War II (see Hayles, 1999: 94). Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic vision was one that envisioned men, women, nonhuman animals and technologies as nodes in a communication matrix. Galison (1994) explains that, ‘Black boxes, as Wiener used the term, meant a unit designed to perform a function before one knew how it functioned’ (20). He continues on to explain about Wiener’s monadic philosophy that ‘(w) We are truly, in this view of the world, like black boxes with inputs and outputs and no access to our or anyone else’s inner life’ (256). Thus, ‘I would argue that the associations of cybernetics (and the cyborg) with… the black-box conception of human nature do not so simply melt away’ (260). From this technological deterministic and posthuman viewpoint, Wikström’s allegory of the human ‘node’ in the information ‘cloud’ is very fitting. This concept of nodal distribution of social members, and subsequent isolating affects, are best celebrated in the concept of the “silent disco” where people gather to listen to music with headphones on iPod-like technologies. It also explains the matrix of torrent networks, or P2P networks where music files are dispersed and shared. This paints the picture of the future posthuman paradigm.

Feedback: The Future of Music Production?

In terms of the material technologies, the dialect between the posthuman and the nonhuman is achieved through a feedback loop; much like the biological process of homeostasis. Hayles explains the historic process in which feedback became relevant:

Like animals, machines can maintain homeostasis using feedback loops. Feedback loops had long been exploited to increase the stability of mechanical systems, reaching a high level of development during the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the growing sophistication of steam engines and their accompanying control devices, such as governors. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s however, that the feedback loop was explicitly theorised as a flow of information. Cybernetics was born when nineteenth-century control theory had joined with nascent theory of information.
(1999: 8)

Feedback has always played a role in music production. Théberge (2011) explains that ‘(w) When a microphone or guitar pickup is placed in close proximity to a highly amplified loudspeaker the phenomenon know as ‘feedback’ occurs’ (8). In this example, the relationship between the human and nonhuman is governed by the feedback that the musical equipment produces – referred to by Théberge as the ‘‘proximity effect’ (2011: 5). However, feedback is not such a bad thing and artists such as Jimmy Hendrix have incorporated electronic feedback into their live and recorded performances. Théberge notes that, ‘the sound of amplified guitar distortion has become a key aural sign of the heavy metal and hard rock genres and an important signifier of power and the emotional intensity in the music’ (6). Therefore, feedback can be used in the analogue creative process.

There are many forms of feedback. Artists look to their crowds for feedback as a form of performance evaluation; record companies might also consider ticket and album sales in the same light. Wikström takes note of how recording artist Imogen Heap has used feedback from about 50,000 fans who, ‘regularly followed the blog and commented on what they saw’. He continues to explain that; ‘Heap picked up these comments, entered into a conversation with her fans using different types of digital channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, and allowed the feedback to influence her creative process’ (2009: 176-177). Thus, the feedback that an App like SoundCloud can provide the producer (in an almost real-time feedback-loop) could be taken onboard to shape the sounds produced.

Feedback: The Future Marketplace?

The business model of an organisation competing in the music industry can also incorporate feedback into its systemic design. When Bauman points that in the liquid modern world, ‘Today’s business organization has an element of disorganization deliberately build into it: the less solid and the more fluid it is, the better’ (154), there is a reason. In terms of organisation theory, Hatch (1997) outlines the ‘cybernetic model of control’ that can be adopted by organisation and business alike. By comparing the business model to that of a thermostat she states, ‘organization control processes… are designed to recognise differences between current and desired levels of performance and to trigger adjustments when discrepancies are noticed’ (1999: 328-329). Hatch offers the analogy of student feedback in a classroom dynamic to demonstrate how feedback can change to shape of an organisation. To obtain their goals, corporate organisations need to adjust in accordance with the feedback they receive from customers. Chaos, disorder, or negative feedback and be measured as noise therefore making a business model more flexible, customer focused, interactive and therefore more fluid, and as a result more cybernetic. It the cybernetic model is but one choice from many models a record company could choose from and tweak if required.

Thus, if feedback plays a central to a corporation’s business model, it can therefore be considered more interactive, cybernetic, communicative, and democratic and therefore what Bauman would refer to as “liquid-modern”. However, if a record company is sterner, more authoritative, or tyrannical then we could use the term “solid-modern” to describe it.  The latter solid-modern model was the Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager) model, which is described by Kusek and Leonhard as  ‘a textbook example of the traditional music-business operating mode’, since, ‘Parker in many ways can be considered the personification of the larger than life manager, and he profited from audaciously exploiting Elvis’ (2005: 7). Exploited or not, how big would Elvis have been without the Colonel?

The dialectic between solid-structure and light-liquidity is apparent in the work of Frith (1998) and Negus (1999) on the music industry. Frith analysis paints a Marx-inspired picture of a “Colonel Parker-style” market controlled by the music industry, whereas Negus paints a more ‘liquid’ picture of record companies struggling to maintain control of the markets they are consequently – to some extent – controlled by. While Frith recognises that the music industry is a business ‘organised around the bureaucratic organisation of chaos’ (33) he also argues that, ‘(m) Mass markets are in the hands of, controlled by, large corporate powers’, and, ‘pop records, commodities, a technological and commercial process under the control of a small number of large companies’ (19). Negus, on the other hand, argues that: ‘Corporate strategy aims to control and order the unpredictable social processes and diversity of human behaviours which are condensed into notions of production and consumption and which riddle the music business with uncertainty’ (31). Divisions of large record companies are established or dissolve in response to shifts in what is essentially a musically inspired buyers-market. While Negus notes that at present the record industry’s marketplace is essentially shared between a handful of major record labels (EMI, BMG, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, Universal/PolyGram), who have since the 1980s have shared 80% of the worlds music marketplace (35). He also states that, ‘whole divisions of a company’s structure and either fold and collapse or expand and develop: the delivery of a good album from a major artist can significantly affect a company’s market share’ (46). In Negus’ argument, music or sound plays a role in the industry, whereas in Firth’s argument, music itself, the popular sound, is a product of the industry.

In Negus’s text there is less of a sense of corporate control, manipulation and domination (described as ‘top-down analyses’ by Bennett, 2008: 425) that is more inherent in Frith’s work (although Bennett points out that Frith was aware of the importance for the music industry to maintain ‘an engagement with the aesthetic practices and value judgements of music audiences themselves’ (2008: ibid)). Negus’s text also points out how the industry is vulnerable to the buyers-market, and the stresses the importance of the sonic relationship between composers and audiences. To cite Negus: ‘(a) Although companies continually engage in market research, and seek to persuade and manipulate public behaviours, they find it difficult to predict which new artists are going to succeed and how successful they are likely to be’ (33). This idea of market research, as a posthuman form of communication and control between label and marketplace, can only increase in the information-communication age where companies will have access to greater levels of individual demographic information and continuous (increasingly real-time) customer feedback.

Conclusion:

 What will the structure of the music industry be in 2020? In the future, cybernetic technologies will be programmed to adjust themselves in accordance with the feedback their users offer; users will adjust themselves to the feedback their technologies provide. The information these users transmit from their communication technologies will offer feedback for artists and record labels. This feedback will provide real-time demographic profiles for both corporate and independent bedroom producers can use (if they should choose to) to accordingly shape their sounds and marketing strategies in real-time. In a global environment of inter-looping feedback loops producers, consumers, and marketers will have the option of taking onboard feedback (as an open system) or disregarding feedback (as a closed system). Since feedback lies at the heart of cybernetic control; it would be easy to conclude that companies which direct market their products in accordance with marketing feedback will maintain control. However, was Jimmy Hendrix made famous for responding to the feedback of all his fans? Ultimately, if we attend the main stage of Glastonbury musical festival we are subjecting ourselves to a solid-modern form of tyrannical control or benevolent dictation. While the solid world is melted into liquid information this dogmatic approach will still hold a place in the future marketplaces. I would rather loose myself in a sea of Glastonbury fans than find myself in a silent disco of iPod shufflers.

Bibliography

  • Apple (2007) ‘Apple Reinvents the Phone with iPhone’ available at http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2007/01/09Apple-Reinvents-the-Phone-with-iPhone.html, accessed 8 May 2012
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  • DeNora, T. (2000) Music and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Hartley, J. (2005). ‘The Evolution of the Creative Industries: Creative Clusters, Creative Citizens and Social Network Markets’, in Proceedings, Creative Industries Conference, Asia-Pacific Weeks, Berlin, September.
  • Hatch, M.J. (1997) Organisation Theory: Modern Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hayles, N. K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Kassabian, A. (2002). ‘Ubiquitous Listening’, in Hesmondhalgh, D. and Negus, K. (eds) Popular Music Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 131- 142.
  • Kusek, D. Leonhard, G. (2005) The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution. Boston: Berklee Press.
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  • Théberge, P. (2011) ‘‘Plugged in’: Technology and Popular Music’ in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock Firth, S. Straw, W. and Street, J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Williamson, J and Cloonan, M. ‘Rethinking the Music Industry’, Popular Music, 26: 305-332.

Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography

Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography
By James Addicott (2012): jamesaddi@hotmail.comtwofaces

“Phallogocentrism” is defined by Jacques Derrida as: ‘the system of metaphysical oppositions’ (1978: 20) predominant in Western philosophy that has until recently been written by men. Donna Haraway argues that this black/white and divisive logic has produced ‘dualisms’ that ‘have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals’. The examples she offers of these ‘troubling dualisms’ are ‘self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resources, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man’. These divides have been written into Western culture and it is difficult to conceive of society and culture, or produce knowledge about the phenomenon of the world, without the use of them. Haraway determines that ‘the phallogocentrism of the West’ as being inscribed by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (1991:117; 175; 197).Like Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles argues that it was not necessarily Derrida’s philosophy that exposed this logic of binary divisions but the new age of ‘Informatics’[1]; communications, technology and science were to highlight these divides and this ill-conceived Western logic in knowledge production. Hayles states that:

‘…the dialectic between absence and presence came clearly into focus with the advent of deconstruction because it was already being displaced as a cultural presupposition by randomness and pattern. Presence and absence were forced into visibility, so to speak, because there were already losing their constitutive power to form the ground for discourse. In this sense deconstruction is the child of an information age, formulating its theories from strata pushed upward by the emerging substrata beneath. (1999: 44)

This suggests that in the postmodern era the information-revolution will expose binary distinctions set in place by bourgeois, white, Western men. Living without binary division set in place by language should resolve social oppression such as sexism (man/woman), classism (bourgeois/proletarian) or racism (black/white). Hayles and Haraway argues that Informatics offer posthuman cyborgs an escape from the ‘maze of dualisms’ (Haraway, 1991: 181) and ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (Hayles, 1999: 290). However, deconstructionism was not everything it was cracked up to be. Haraway notes:

I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electro-shock therapy, what far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder. (1991: 197)

To this problem of a “self-induced multiple personality disorder”, Haraway confesses that: ‘Binaries, rather suspect for the feminist I know, can turn out to be nice little tools from time to time’ (111). It seems that binaries remain an essential part of language and theory. But one problem exists; by feminists re-deploying male binaries, Dely argues that there is a ‘risk is that feminism might model itself after the phallogocentric exemplar in an inverse manner, taking up again its norms and representations’ (2007: 9). The question this leaves deconstructionism is with, is: between the men and woman whose texts are more binate in their logic, and, therefore phallogocentric?
In response to this, this essay will critically compare the writing strategies adopted by male and female ethnographers. It will cross compare a selection of ethnographic texts written by men and women on the topics of sexuality, prostitution and autoethnographic representations of the self.  In these areas this essay will look for the uses of binaries in the construction of the author’s arguments. It will present the thesis that written binaries, far from being “useful little devices” – as Haraway claims –, are in fact being deployed power-tools; appropriated (knowingly) in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Informatic and post-deconstructs age in ethnographic reports written by men and women. In this respect, like language or writing, phallogocentrism persists in Western academia; it is a logic of domination that academics are bound up in and cannot become disengaged from. In the conclusion the finding presented will show that the ethnographies written by women (more than men) are inclined to deploy phallogocentric logic as counter-active form of argument construction as Dely (2007) suggests. Although women are more susceptible to phallogocentrism by inverting its logic they also mediate and prolong the continuation of phallogocentrism. It is of my opinion that men/women should not shy away from this masculine logic, since it seems impossible to extinguish, but persist in using it as a power-tool to advance or deconstruct both pro-masculine and pro-feminine arguments until some kind of middle-ground can be achieved.

Written Gender & Sexuality

The first male and female ethnographic texts to analyse are both written on the topic of sexuality in Greece. Hirschon’s (1993) essay Open Body/Closed Space: The Transformation of Female Sexuality was published as part of a series of papers in a book entitled Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society. Shirley Ardener edited the book with the task of examining ‘certain basic assumptions relating to the definition of women’ (Ardener, 1993: vii). Hirschon had spent a year in Piraeus (Kokkinia) in the main port of Greece. The focus of her study was ‘the examination of certain perceptions of the sexual nature of women, showing how this is thought to differ from men’ (51).
Conversely, Loizos’ (1994) essay entitled A broken mirror Masculine sexuality in Greek ethnography, was published in a book entitled Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (eds. Cornwall and Lindisfarne). In the preface the editor’s describe the aim of the book as, ‘a sustained cross-cultural enquiry (into) local experiences of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (which are) deconstructed to reveal the complexities of gendering and gendered difference’ (1994: intro). Loizos argues that, ‘I am not happy with statements about ‘masculinity’ in Greek culture as substantive generalizations, even though it is easy to concede that some clustering of related concepts exists’, furthermore, ‘(t)he idea has been to suggest that not only is there no single sense of masculinity in that abstraction called ‘Greek culture’, but that from one local context, institution, domain or discourse to another we can easily find contrasting ways of being masculine’ (66; 78). Therefore, one hand there is a feminist text that aims to deploy binaries and one the other hand a masculine text that aims to deconstruct any clear-cut generalisations.

From the outset Hirschon’s text depends heavily on the use of binary distinctions to construct her argument. The text aims to, ‘examine beliefs regarding (women’s) physical and biological attributes and their position as these relate to the states of ‘open’ and ‘closed’’ (51). She argues that, ‘(t) The theme which unites these is that of control and restrain, which is exercised both externally – through social convention, and internally – as a moral force’ (52). Before entering into the main body of the text, Hirschon’s introduction has already established the dichotomies: men/women, open/closed, external/internal.

In his attempt deconstruct the binaries that Hirschon reveals, Loizos citing Demetrios J. Constantelos’ anthropologic work on Greece, states, ‘young men… since they do not know women, are pastriki, that is, clean and pure’, and consequently, ‘male virginity is the ideal’ (1994: 75). Thus, Hirschon’s rigidly constructed nature/culture dichotomy becomes slightly blurred by Loizos assertion that the sexuality of young Greek men are also constrained by cultural determination. However, it should be noted here that this is not a direct, empirical observation made by Loizos himself, but in referance to Demetrios. Nevertheless, a strategically placed shadow of doubt begins to appear over one of Hirschon’s clear-cut division: men/women.

In regard to issues of gender and space in Greece, Hirschon notes that an important part of Kokkinian culture is expressed in the idiom: ‘Get married and open your house’ (1993: 55). Hirschon continues to note that ‘to the sexual dichotomy is added a spatial dimension: the locus of the woman is domestic, within the home… while the place of the man is… in the outside world’ (ibid). Her argument places open/closed woman inside the inside/outside divides in socio-symbolic spaces. On the topic of domestication and social space, Loizos presents to the reader another ‘kind of man’, ‘who whom I term ‘domesticated men’’. Loizos explains that ‘(t)hey cannot stay at home, but their participation in coffee-shop and tavern is a much more measured affair. They do not emphasize their autonomy, but stress their constrained condition as responsible householders with obligations to support women and children’ (1994: 77). While such a statement supports Hirschon’s arguments that the male space is the public space, it also compromises Hirschon’s idea of the inner moral force that women alone are subjected to by the use of the words “some” and “kinds”; some men are also internally restrained by external moral cultural codes in male spaces.
What we can draw from the analysis of these first two texts is that they have both been written in a post-deconstructionist era. Whereas Hirschon actively deploys several binaries to construct a collective narrative for the group of women she wishes to empower (men/women, internal/external, inside/outside, open/closed), Loizos writing aims to fragment blur or complicate any fixed boundaries. The pro-feminist text deploys phallogocentric logic while the pro-masculine text is deconstructionist.

Writing Prostitution

Carla De Meis ethnographic research into Brazilian prostitution (2002) and Neil McKeganey research into Scottish prostitution reveal similar inside/outside, home/street divides to those discussed above.
De Meis fieldwork with prostitutes began in 1989 as part of a medical research group working in a prostitution zone called Mangue in Rio de Janeiro. Her ethnography borrows Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Da Matta’s (1991) idea of there being two ‘complex dichotomies’ in Brazil. According to Da Matta, these complex dichotomies ‘create the metaphors of “house” and “street” as two essential sociological categories for understanding Brazilian society’. De Meis explains that, ‘(t)he universe of the street… is a place of distrust, anonymity, incomprehension, and… “every man for himself,” the law of the jungle. Accordingly, the symbolic space of the house is orderly and peaceful, while the street is a dangerous place characterized by its lack of rules’. The idiom “every man for himself” does imply, as Hirschon has argued, that the outside world of the street is a masculine space. However unlike Hirschon, De Meis’ text does briefly take into account the troubles that men also encounter in this outside space. She proceeds to argue that this dichotomy ‘reflects the rationale frequently found in traditional societies’, in which ‘the ideas of “good” and “bad,” “pure” and “dirty,” and “high” and “low” are intrinsic’ (2002: 4; 7). This suggests that that social dilemma that a Brazilian prostitute repeatedly faces in her line of work is crossing the binary inside/outside: inside the feminine space of the home (good/pure/high) and outside in the masculine space of the street (bad/dirty/low). This would suggest that De Meis’ findings draw many parallels with Hirschon’s work in Greece; that social spaces are divided into inside/outside, male/female but De Meis goes one step further.
De Meis concludes that the Brazilian prostitutes she has researched are not outcast from society but rather trapped within a third “liminal space”. Victor Turner argued that ‘liminal situations or liminal personae’ are to be found in-between rigid social structures in a dimension he refers to as “communitas”. He explains that, ‘(c)ommunitas is almost always thought of or portrayed by actors as a timeless condition, an eternal now, as “a moment in and out of time,” or as a state to which the structural view of time is not applicable’ (1974: 265; 238); like an eternal-reoccurrence or continuing present continuous. De Meis explains that for Brazilian prostitutes ‘(l)ife is lived moment by moment’, she further states about Da Matta’s complex dichotomy that: ‘(w)e must be careful not to view this model as static. As with any other model, it is, in essence, arbitrary. Reality is dynamic and defies classification. People’s subjectivity is like a river that never stops flowing’ (14; 20). The issue of Brazilian prostitution is clearly not as clear-cut or black and white in a cultural, social, spatial, and linguistic sense as Da Matta’s division might suggest. Therefore, by a pre-existing binary in her text and then incorporating her research findings, backed by Turners theory of liminality, her text deconstructs Da Matta’s “complex dichotomies” by positioning Turners liminal space in-between his static division.
While De Meis is concerned with the spread of the HIV virus in Brazil, McKeganey’s text considers political idea of decriminalising prostitution zones in Scottish urban spaces. What is strikingly strange about his research is that it takes an approach that can only be described as ethnographic “curb-crawling”. He notes:

When I drove past a few minutes later she did not look into the car at all and I was not at all sure she was working although when I then pulled up she approached the car and asked if I was looking for business. When I explained to her what I was doing she said that I should have been in the area the previous night because it was ‘really busy’. When I asked her to estimate how many women had been working on the previous night she said, ‘At least three that I know of’. (154)

The divide that separates the interviewer from interviewee, self from other, is defined by the boundaries of the car’s windows and shell that draws a division between external and internal space.
McKeganey’s text is also spatially aware. He writes: ‘small numbers of women could be seen walking slowly along the harbour front or standing in doorways in the adjacent streets’ and has a quantitative focus on numbers and prices: ‘During a series of two-hour fieldwork visits to Aberdeen it was common to see around 30 to 40 women working on the streets within the tolerance zone area, with additional small numbers of women working outside the zone’ (154-156). The legal boundaries that define these zones are taken for granted; his observations are on multiple bodies in space, as a means of politically challenging those divisions. By including their own interview responses, and taking a more qualitative approach to issues of space, his text relies a lot less upon binaries in constructing the narratives of the prostitutes he observed. However, by researching prostitutes working inside/outside the legal/illegal zones in urban spaces his own ethnographic observations are naively phallogocentric and re-establish the divisions that are already set in place. While considering ways to redefine these boundaries he seems blissfully unaware of the enumerative, objective and ‘pimp-like’ domination of the spaces he observes as he calculates and quantifies human bodies in those spaces in capitalist terms.

Writing ‘The Self’ Strategically

Autoethnography, or writing ethnography about personal experiences is a practice that Ann Oakley (2007) explains, ‘is often seen negatively, as a form of inexcusable self-indulgence, especially in academia’ (23). Geertz (1988) refers to this form of ethnography as an “I-Witness account”, which he distastefully refers to as ‘author-saturated texts’ (141). It is on these grounds that Geertz picks apart Malinowski’s diary that was written in New Guinea in 1914-15 and 1917-18 and criticises him for contracting, what Barthes called, “diary disease”. Oakley takes a totally different view of autobiographical texts and argues that, ‘writing autobiographically is especially important for women: words, the text, construct subjectivity and therefore the authentic self in opposition to distorting cultural ideas’ (2007: 23). In terms of linguistic divisions, it is important and relevant to this essay how the self – the “I” – is represented within the text in opposition to the “Other(s).”
Malinowski’s diary continuously establishes a boundary between “I” and “They”. “The village” and “villagers” are referred to in derogatory racist terms: ‘neolithic savages’ (Geertz, 1988: 74): ‘I was terribly vexed by the fact that this nigger has dared to speak to me in such a manner’ (1967: 272), ‘”Exterminate the brutes’” (Geertz, 1988: ibid). “They” are fixed into a subordinate position while Malinowski’s “I” is placed into a dominant position. This racist, ethnocentric, Western, discourse is precisely the type of phallogocentric science that has prompted Derridaian deconstructionism.
Oakley’s text also constructs a binary between I/Them. She writes herself as Othered from the doctors she visited after breaking her hand in an ice skating accident. This is achieved by stating that the notes they wrote about her body where written in, ‘a foreign language, a language of insiders, like the freemason’s handshake’ (12). The deployment of freemasonry as a metaphor is significant since it suggests white, western, masculine, and ruling-class control – similar to the ‘bourgeois, male-dominant, and racist’ (133) superiority that Haraway rejects. This forms her written-based dichotomy between “I” and “Them”. However her diary notes are written to appeal to an external feminist audience. Aware of this, by separating “I” from “Them”, she also alienates “Us” from “Them” insiders. “They” are fixed into a dominant position while “We” readers are placed into her subordinate “underdog” position. The distance is formed through the medium of two texts, “her” writing versus “their” written notes.
Although Malinowski’s self/other, superior/interior divides are painfully obvious, the most striking thing about his diary is the way that the local villagers, customs and cultures are all subdued to the external world; nature. The environment, places or surrounding space are the main focus of his text and often subsume his own self. ‘Cold, damp day, sky and sea great; the mountains blue, hung with mist’, he writes, ‘(m)arvelous sheet of rain hanging over the sea like a curtain, coming closer’ (129; 157);

I sat on the beach for a while; start; I thought about objective reality: the stars, the sea, the enormous emptiness of the universe in which man is lots; the moments when you merge with objective reality, when the trauma of the universe senses to be a stage and becomes a performance – these are the moments of true nirvana.
(120)

In his text he is connected to the external world. Sometimes losing his sense of self to become an object of that universe. He is continuously reminded of this objective world as it affects his moods, feelings, health, and emotions. He describes this as a “mixed identity of circumstance.” His feelings, moods and emotions are all associated to the external environment and issues of physical health: ‘The dark (mass) of the island rising behind (creates) a strange mood’ (227), he writes in one passage. Normally, he writes himself as active, male, Western authority. But at the same time in a passive role, subject to the control of his ‘objective’ environment – of which women and savages are also described objectively, as objects (see women: 273, natives: 235).
Active/passive is a binary that Oakley also deploys. She manages to grammatically position herself into the role of the subject by changing the active sentence into the passive: ‘I broke my arm,’ is what I find myself saying, but, of course, I didn’t. My arm was broken by the sinister ice’ (14, italics added). Therefore, the external ice, and the rules of the ice-skating ring where she broke her wrist, is written as an active, external phenomenon that violently, forcefully, and suddenly intrudes into her internal world – ‘she’ becomes the victim, the subject of the sentence. The corporeal violation is external, and is written so that she is the internal victim, her recovery process is written in the active: ‘I’m am doing something for myself’ (19). Both authors write themselves as having agency but victims of an external world. However, in this active/passive division Oakley writes herself as a sudden victim of the external world, and split between the ridged divides of internal/external, active/passive, whereas Malinowski’s text represents him as constantly connected to an external objective world that affects him in waves or a tidal-like motion. This suggests that Oakley is more susceptible to the external, sharp, divisions that extrude into her “Self”.
‘Needless to say a terrible melancholy, gray like the sky all around, swirling around the edge of my inner horizon (54), writes Malinowski while filling up with despair about the realization of the outbreak of World War II; ‘Suddenly I tumble back into the real milieu with which I am also in contact’ (235), he writes about his daydreams while sitting on a beach. Malinowski’s inner world is a subjective dreamland and the relationship between his mind and body is never discussed other than in the sense that the mind can sometimes drift away. Ultimately, the mind, body, and environment are connected. Conversely, Oakley writes about the mind and the body as separate phenomenon. She states: ‘Although we live in our bodies, our social and personal identities are separate from them’ (15). She then begins to relate this division to academia by stating that, ‘academics repeat a prominent cultural motif in shunning corporeality as a subject of discourse: the cerebral is better’. (19, italics added) Her division between body/mind (identity), corporeal/cerebral, becomes engendered when she argues that ‘studying the body is a bit like studying women, who historically have been seen as more about bodies than mind and personal identities’ (20). Therefore, the mental, the mind, the ‘dominant’ academic appreciation of the cerebral, becomes engendered as ‘male’ while the body is engendered as ‘female’. Her appeal is for the latter (female) to overcome the former (male). “Women” in her argument are internal, embodied, subjective, passive, recipients of an external, active, academic, rational and culturally distortive, “Malinowskian-style” world. Academia is one political site where passivitvity, domination, external victimisation, rape can be overcome, rationally, actively, through the body, through the hand, and through writing. In the spirit of Haraway and Hayles, she argues that the aim is for feminists to overcome the divides her text identifies.
Malinowski book includes several binaries (e.g. self/other, mind/body, male/female, civilized/primitive, active/passive) but these still need to be “dug-up” from the text before they can be deconstructed. However, the construction of Oakley’s argument actively toys with similar sets of dualisms, which are all exposed and lay on the table for the reader to relate to. Written in a postmodern, poststructural, and post-Derridean era, we can only accept that this was a deliberate strategy on her behalf.

Conclusion

This essay has presented a selection of texts written by men and women, masculinists or femininists. While Phallogocentrism has underpinned the theoretical frameworks that this essay has deployed and understood as a dominant, patriarchal, masculine, construct, the logic of phallogocentrism has been more evident in feminist texts. It seems as if in the battle of genders, feminists are fighting fire with fire. On one side of the spectrum, Hirschon, Oakley, McKeganey and Malinowski’s texts can only be descried as binary-heavy. While De Meis’ anthropology also deploys several binaries, they are opened by her inclusion of Turner’s concept of liminality. On the opposite side of the spectrum Loizos has actively deconstructed feminist arguments by complicating any fixed notions of male/female sexuality. All the writings from men have shown little or no awareness of the binaries in social spaces that Hirschon and De Meis have written about. This is interesting as it suggests that space is still appropriated by men, as it was by Malinowski in the 1910s – particularly McKeganey’s legal/illegal approach to tolerant/illegal zones for prostitution. Whereas the binary constructions set in place by men, especially in social spaces, feminists in retaliation are using logic of the phallogocentric.
Most academic texts extend two hands to the readers: ‘on the one hand… on the other hand’. Situations in the ‘real’ social world are far less clear-cut than academic texts – which are all written strategically – would often like to admit. As De Meis argues: “reality is dynamic and defies classification.” However, since theory itself is based upon generalisations, then social movements such as feminism, masculism, multiculturalism, liberalism, socialism and capitalism, etc. will require the binary logic of metaphysics and language, as well as the protection from the oppositional forces that deconstructionism can provide; a build and destroy logic. Mastering the dynamic of solid-modern phallogocentric logic with liquid-modern deconstructionism is the challenge for situating knowledge in the postmodern future.

Bibliography

Bletzer, K.V. (2003) ‘Risk and Danger among Women-Who-Prostitute in Areas where
Farmworkers Predominate’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, 17 (2): 251-278.
Dely, C. (2007/10) Jacques Derrida: The Perchance of a Coming of the
Otherwoman: The Deconstruction of ‘Phallogocentrism’ from Duel to Duo’,
available at http://www.sens-public.org/article.php3?id_article=312, accessed 19
April 2012.
De Meis, C. (2002) ‘House and Street: Narratives of a Liminal Space among
Prostitutes in Brazil, Ethos, 30 (1/2): 3-24.
Derrida, J. (1976) Of Grammatology. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Geertz, C. (1988) Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.
Hayles, K. N. (1998) Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press.
Hayles, N, K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and
     Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Hirschon, R. ‘Open Body/Closed Space: The Transformation of Female Sexuality’,
in Ardener, S. (ed) Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society. Oxford: Berg
Publishers Limited.
McKeganey, N. (2006) ‘Street Prostitution in Scotland: The Views of Working
Women’, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 13 (2): 151-166.
Loizos, P. (1994) ‘A Broken Mirror: Masculine Sexuality in Greek Ethnography’, in
Cornwall, A. and Lindisfarne, N. Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies.
London: Routledge.
Malinowski, B. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London: Routledge.
Oakley, A. (2007) Our Bodies, Ourselves, in Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body. Bristol:
Policy Press
Skeggs, G. (1994) Situating the Production of Feminist Ethnography’, in Maynard, M.
and Puvis, J. (eds) Researching Women’s Lives from a Feminist Perspective. Great Britain:
Burgess Science Press, pp. 72-92.


[1] ‘Following Haraway’, Hayles defines “Informatics” as ‘the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development’ (1999: 192)

Terry Eagleton ‘On Evil’

In a postmodern and secular society, the dilemma of knowing when and how to use the word ‘evil’ persists in the absence of God. With a rise in divorce rates and sexual liberation it would now seem completely bizarre to refer to sexual acts that happen outside of wedlock as being ‘evil’. Terry Eagleton’s book On Evil is an attempt to track down and locate the true source of evil and define it by its characteristics.
HI
Eagleton’s book trawls through fictitious modernist literature in a quest for the meaning of ‘evil’, ‘hell’ and ‘Satan’. His work draws from works such as William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. While at the same time, he and aligns his finding with an incredibly broad range of philosophical ideas on evil – drawing from authors such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Žižek, whose definitions are often left to stand alone as independent statements without any interrogation or cross-comparison. The psychoanalytical framework that he deploys in his analysis of these texts is provided by Freud’s notion of the id, ego and super ego. What he explores is a terrain of paradoxical dualisms – time/space, order/disorder, meaningfulness/meaninglessness – leading to some relatively earthly, and, incredibly abstract considerations.

What he observes from there are several reoccurring characteristics that offer non-biblical definitions of evil. Firstly, evil has a liminal property. It is nether something or nothing and it exists somewhere between life and death, ‘which is why we associate it with ghosts, mummies and vampires. Anything which is neither quite dead nor quite alive can become an image of it’ (p. 123).

In his reading of Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, and his interpretation of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Eagleton argues that evil has a spatial property, which defies time, while at the same time finding itself involved within time. Much like Nietzsche’s concept of the re-eternal occurrence, ‘cyclical time also belongs to a vision of evil-to a world in which the damned are those who have lost to capacity to die and, being unable to make an end, are doomed to eternal repetition’ (p. 50). This notion of being trapped in the self, in a space, detached from temporality and the structure provided by time, life becomes painfully boring. Moreover, ‘Evil is boring because it is lifeless’ (p. 123)

Rationality, logic and reason, provide the momentum of modernity. Bauman argues that an excess of such principles underpinned the inhumanly rationalised execution of Jews during World War II. However, Eagleton argues that evil can be found in both reason and disorder, what he describes as the ‘two faces of evil’, ‘(t)he more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mess of sensation. The more abstracted reason becomes, the less men and women are able to leave a meaningful creaturely life. So the more they must resort to mindless sensation to prove to themselves that they still exist’ (p. 76). Therefore, we can consider that evil can occur in an imbalance of reason (super ego) and primeval impulse (id).

If we were to strip the structure of life away (the finite), what we would be left with (amidst infinity) is chaos and disorder. Therefore, another of Eagleton’s characteristics of evil is meaninglessness, or nihilism, is the dark space that exists at its core, which wills and attempts to demolish everything godlike and meaningful, ‘Evil would actually prefer that there was nothing at all, since it does not see the point of created things’ (p. 60-61). Paradoxically, by willing for the destruction of meaning, evil would destroy its own context thereby extinguishing itself.

  • Does searching for evil in literature provide an adequate, and objective, definition of evil? Should Eagleton have considered some more subjective perspectives to evil, including his own?

Bibliography

Eagleton, T. (2010) On Evil, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.