Category Archives: Sociological Theory

Sociological Perspectives on Advertising

A brief summary of pages of 27-32 of Joel Stillerman’s ‘Sociology of Consumption': The Effects of Advertising and Branding on Consumers (with comments!).

The theories covered in this section include:

The Manipulation Thesis

(1) This originated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay ‘the culture industry’ which was inspired by their observations of 1930s Hollywood and the way the Nazis used propaganda.

The basic idea is that advertising manipulates consumers into buying goods. Mass entertainment is produced in a similar way as mass produced auto-mobiles and other products. Adorno and Horkheimer viewed advertising as standardised, artless and manipulative. Products offered people cheap thrills which provided them with compensatory pleasures after a day at a dissatisfying job. Playing to consumers’ emotional vulnerability, music, film and advertising offered instant gratification without true satisfaction while helping them to tolerate unacceptable working conditions.

In short, the culture industry was a form mass manipulation which helped to keep the working masses happy in order to discourage them from protesting about poor wages and working conditions.

A long line of scholars has followed this basic idea – through with different foci -

(2) Kenneth Galbraith argued advertising played the same function of manipulation but rather than seducing the masses into political apathy served the function of convincing shoppers to buy new goods and keep industry profitable.

(3) Jean Baudrillard argues advertising helps businesses solve the ‘realisation problem’ – namely how to sell the increasing number of goods which are produced as Capitalism ‘evolves’. However, Baudrillard accords advertising a more central role in changing our culture. He argues that rather than focussing on the functional properties of a good advertising articulates their emotional or symbolic properties, thereby unleashing an endless process of consumption that has lost its connection to exchange and only reflects a symbolic system which classifies goods into different categories.

Furthermore, goods are no longer appealing because of their individual properties, consumers only recognise them as part of a particular style: in a particular living room set, combined with certain objects and colour combinations for example.

As a result, for Baudrillard, advertising has overtaken our culture and we are trapped in a world of symbols and the incessant need to consume.

(4) More recent analysis focuses on the emotional aspect of advertising – how advertising attempts to link particular emotions and sex to certain products (e.g. Zukin 04 and Smart 10)

(5) Other analysis focuses on how society is increasingly organised around consumption rather than work and thus individuals are expected to consume at a certain level or else face rejection by their peers (Bauman 2007).


I’M broadly sympathetic to Manipulation Theory in that I believe we can distinguish between ‘basic’ and ‘false’ needs and the primary function of advertising is to manipulate people into buying shit they don’t simply need.

Taking all of the above together I think the primary function of advertising is that it reinforces a world-view in which it’s it’s normal to shop, it’s normal to consume at a historically high level, it’s normal to link happy states to products (or rather sets of products in Baudrillard”s case), it’s normal to construct your very identity using consumption, and it’s normal to spend a lot of time alone and with others, engaged in consumption.

In short the effect of advertising is to convince us that consuming is a normal part of everyday life which should not be questioned, and we are right to assume that shopping as a strategy can provide us with individual and collective emotional fulfilment as human beings.

However, I don’t actually think advertising is necessary to a high consumption society – the various reasons outlined in this post explain the emergence of a high consumption society – we’d probably consume at similarly historically high levels without advertising – advertising exists because of surplus production – broadcast by producers to get our attention amidst a whole load of other producers churning out what is essentially the same shit-we-don’t need.

The other bit of manipulation theory I agree with is that advertising has a sort of ideological function – it masks the truth of its existence and the truth about unnecessary consumption which is as follows

(a) Advertising primarily exists to help the capitalist class sell the shit they produce.

(b) Despite what advertising tells us about this or that shit we really don’t need any of it.

(c) If we ‘buy into’ the messages of the advertisers (which are a bunch of lies) we’re being stupid/ shallow

(d) In the case of Bauman – if we pursue happiness through consumerism, we’re probably going to end up being miserable in the long run.

(e) We don’t freely choose to consume, we are buffeted into it by social and economic pressures (meaningless work, pestering kids (who have been manipulated by advertisers), busy-hurried lives, the strange desire to stand-out) and the causes of these pressures-to-consume need to be put under investigation but the very act of consuming at a high level prevents us from doing so, and advertising helps in this.

(f) There are more effective ways to pursue happiness which aren’t about consumption – producing things, and ‘sprituality’ being the two most obvious.

‘Active Theories of Consumption’

Having outlined the above five aspects of Manipulation Theory, Stillerman now turns to more active approaches.

(1) Other scholars have criticised the manipulation thesis. Douglas and Isherwood (1996) argue that goods are a ‘communication system’ and that most of our consumption is ritualistic. There are essentially three reasons we consume

Firstly – we consume to remain connected with others and stay involved in the ‘information system’.

Secondly – people can also find their place within the group and mark of stages in the life cycle through engaging in consumption rituals.

Thirdly – consumption is also about boundary maintenance – the wealthy try to monopolise certain events and goods, the middle class try to gain access to them and the working classes try to maintain their consumption at a certain level.

COMMENT – All of this is true – we consume actively, BUT – the frame within which we consume has changed radically over the last few decades – the pace of consumption and overall level of consumption have increased, and so (inevitable) has the amount of choosing people have to do – as a result, we are devoting more and more time to keeping up with consuming… Take the average cost of weddings, houses and raising children increasing for example. Also, people may well consume actively in various ‘neo-tribes’ but the fact that this is the norm, also means more time has to be devoted to consumption – THUS society has made us into consumers, this is the thing I find most interesting, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers just isn’t interesting….!

(2) Colin Campbell (2005) rejects the manipulation thesis for two reasons – first, he argues that this thesis distinguishes ‘needs’ from ‘desires’ but there is no easy way to know what ‘basic needs’ are because needs are always cultural defined in all societies (No they are not – food, water, shelter, clothing for warmth, security, this is straight up post-modern BS). Second, he argues that advertising tries to appeal to consumers in order to convince them to make a purchase, rather than manipulating them. (OK – I accept the fact that consumer are more active, but I’d like to see Cambell distinguish between the act of manipulation and appeal).

(3) Slater (1997) rejects the idea that consumers are cultural dopes, and argues that they buy products in response to their own individual or cultural needs and dispositions.

(4) DeCerteau (1984), Fiske (2000) and Miller (1987) also argue that consumers are more active – they use goods in their own ways, often appropriate goods and creatively recontextualise the meanings of them in ways which are specific to their own live (this sounds like Transformationalism and cultural hybridity in Globalisation), and some of these consumption practices are forms of resistance against advertisers.

(5) Other scholars emphasise the liberating aspects of consumption, arguing that because shopping and and consumption were not traditionally coded as masculine, these became the domain of women and women gained status, satisfaction and a degree of freedom by becoming skilful consumers.

Comment – I fully accept that people make active choices when it comes to consumption – however, to reiterate the above point – It is society which has made us into consumers, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers sort of misses the point – As far as I’m concerned, for the majority of people, consumerism is a pathetic strategy toward ‘agency’ – agency within a sub-optimal framework, which is based on false promises and false hope of realising happiness and satisfation.

Beyond the Active Passive Debate

Recent scholarship has moved ‘beyond’ (sideways?) debates about whether individuals are active or passive in relation to advertising.

(1) Leiss (2005) argues that advertisers study society, recycle existing beliefs and practices and broadcast those ideas back to society. The importance of advertising lies in the fact that it has become integrated into our culture and affects how we view ourselves.

(2) Finally Holt and Holt and Cameron (2010) argue that advertising reconfigures existing beliefs and practices in a way that resolves psychological needs for specific groups of consumers, which arise because of social and economic challenges they face.

Advertisers create adverts based on profiling certain groups and try to strike a chord with them – advertising recycles existing cultural practices in a manner that resolves psychological distress and uncertainty among people within these groups.

Leiss and Holt and Cameron all argue that we should understand advertising as the product of a dialogue between creative professionals and specific social groups.

Once again to reiterate the above, advertising may well help people resolve psychological crises they’ve developed because of having alienating jobs and busy-hurried lives, but the consumption that one’s encouraged to do in order to resolved such psychological distress is only ever going to offer short-term release, a quick fix if you like.

Overall I think all of these active theories of advertising which (a) fail to contextualise its function within the broader social and economic context (alienating/ insecure/ liquid) and (b) fail to recognise the fundamentally false nature of advertising’s promises to alleviate the suffering induced by this social and economic context are ultimately incomplete theories (and probably derived from people with career-histories in advertising!)

Tyranny of the Moment – A summary

Tyranny of the Moment (A Summary/ Notes)

A summary of/ notes on Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2001)

The general focus of the book is on why social life has become so hurried and accelerated and what the (negative) consequences of these changes are for family life and leisure-time.


We face a double paradox – Despite the proliferation of time-saving technologies we seem to have less time to spare than ever, and the information revolution has not created a more informed population, but a more confused one.

The book stems from a sabbatical in which the author got very little work done, because his time seemed to filled with lots of minor tasks – he had no time to sit down to a long project. So it seems with life today – we seem unable to think a thought more than two inches long.

This book is not luddite, it is an attempt to create understanding of the unintended consequences of the information society.

The general focus of the book is on how life is hurried and accelerated – how working days are overloaded, leisure-time is chopped up and the consequences of these changes for family life.

Chapter One – Introduction – Mind The Gap

A central claim of this book is that the unhindered and massive flow of information in our time is about to fill all the gaps, leading as a consequence to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical series of saturated moments, without a ‘before’ and ‘after’, a ‘here’ and ‘there’ to separate them.

We seem to live about two seconds in the future. When one is on the receiving end of a mass of information, the scarcest resource is slow, continuous time.

In the information age it could be that more flexibility makes us less flexible and more choice makes us less free – Why do most of us have less spare time, and why does more information result in less comprehension?

Chapter Two – Information Culture, Information Cult

We need to understand the move from an industrial to an informational society – a term which can be traced back to The Frankfurt School, MacLuhan and of course Toffler.

The move to the informational society is only one of many trends leading to greater complexity, uncertainty and individualism.

The twenty first century began in 1991 with three major events – firstly the collapse of the USSR, secondly the emergence of geopolitical instability, for example the Balkan Wars and the USA’s New World Order – heralding more wars in far flung places.

The third major event was the emergence and rapid growth of the Internet, which changes knowledge through linking chunks of it together differently and leads to constant updating, which heralded the move to an informational society, which is a society in which IT is integral to all production, as it is in many other spheres of social life.

Information has now become the new scarce resource – Information processing is increasingly integral to many jobs.

In the information society, freedom from information is a scarce resource. The skill we really need to learn is to learn to filter out the 0.001% we actually need.

Many of us are coming to see living in a world of colourful fragments of knowledge – and engaging with this knowledge without being able to grasp everything in its entirety as not being a problem. People used to worry about knowing everything – now they don’t.

however, even though we do not regard this as a problem this represents a profound transformation of knowledge.

In information society, the gaps are being filled with fast time (NB Mgraine has something to say about this).

For those on the supply side of the economy, they are competing for attention – and they want our attention NOW because information can quickly become obsolete. For those of us who are consumers, freedom from information is our scarce resource. (Interesting).

People are uncertain of who they are, where they have to re-invent themselves on a day to day basis. People are free to choose but not free not to choose.

In Information society – The point of gravity in the global economy has moved from things to signs. The sign economy changes at astonishing speed, and requires other organisational forms and a greater flexibility than the economy of things, since signs float more freely than things…. The free availability of ideas simultaneously implies that many of them compete for the free spaces in our heads, leading to confusion and uncertain identities – identity has become disembedded from tradition, or major, continuous narrative. Hybridity and blurred boundaries are the norm.

Another feature of the 21st century is that freedom and vulnerability are synonyms – the bipolar world has been replaced with a unipolar world. That pole is called market liberalism and indivdualism, and its beats the drum with catchwords like flexibility, freedom and openness. Resistance is scattered and uncoordinated. New tensions result and new types of scarcity might emerge as a result:

  • Slow time
  • Security
  • Predictability
  • belonging, stable, personal identity
  • Coherence and understanding
  • Cumulative, linear, organic growth
  • Real experiences.

What matters is not whether any of this is new, what matters is the fact that our age is the information age.

What is the relationship between technology, time and culture? You have to understand this by looking at the recent past… which is where we go back to in chapter 3…

Chapter Three – The Time of the book, the clock and money.


Acceleration is at the heart of the last 10000 years of cultural history – Writing lasted 4500 years, the printing press 500, while radio only had a few decades of dominance before the TV. Today, it is feasible that a product can be obsolete before it hits the shelves.

He now apologies for making some general comparisons of the traditional, the modern era and the information era…..

In this chapter Eriksen looks at five technological innovations which indicate those ‘peculiar institutions’ of modern society which are precursors of the information society: Writing, clocks, money, and notation,

Writing – Has been an essential tool in the transition from a concrete society based on intimate, personal relationships, memory, local religion and orally transmitted myths, to an abstract society based on formal legislation, archives, a book religion and written history.

The emergence of Clock Time – Time used to be event-determined – Something would happen when everything else was ready – You find this in some traditional societies today – where trains arrive when they arrive, not at a pre-given time. With the invention of the calendar and especially the clock, time becomes external and something which we are expected to sign a contract to stick to from cradle to grave – It becomes something objective which can be chopped up. It also now becomes something which can be used to coordinate us – the basis of modern business.

Bergson in ‘Time and Free Will’ has criticised how quantitative empty time now regulates us from outside rather than letting tasks at hand fill time from within.

Money does roughly the same thing to payment, value measurement and exchange as clocks and writing do to language and time. They make the transaction abstract and impose a standardised grid on the whole world. They place individual, mundane transactions under an invisible umbrella of abstraction. Money renders personal connections and trust redundant, as long as we agree on the value of the digit.

Musical Notation is his final example – manuscripts make music abstract, separate them from the individual. He argues that classical music would not have been possible without musical notation.

All of these changes together lead to a small-scale society based on local knowledge to a large scale society based on an abstract legislative system and abstract knowledge founded in logic and science.

The printing press and the industrial revolution were also necessary to pull all of the above together in modernity – a society where external abstract systems regulate huge people into being part of of one machine in which they are expendable. ‘Particular individuals are expendable because language, economy, memory, morality and knowledge are all externalised’.

Linear time is not part of the problem…

In addition to all of the above, possible because all of the above, a key feature of modernity was faith in progress – that things were getting better – however, now we are living in a postmodern age. People think things are about to go horribly wrong. This is not caused by linear time, but by a time perception which is not sufficiently linear. Time has been partitioned into so many pieces that the only time in existence is a single, manic, hysterical moment which is continuously changed, but which does not point to anything other than the next moment.

This could well be an unintended consequence of the efficient society concerned with speed.

Chapter Four – Speed (and the consequences of time speeding up!)

The chapter starts off by drawing on Paul Virilio, a theorist of speed (dromology)

Virilio studies the military – pointing out that invading a country used to take another country months to organise, then weeks and now possibly minutes – even more rapidly if we include the potential of cyber-war.

In response to Mcluhan’s global village, V prefers the term global megacity – characterised by anonymity and disintegration – Where everyone communicates to everyone and nobody really speaks with anyone. Time dominates place, everyone is close by in an instant.

The chapter now goes into an interesting description of how acceleration took place in the industrial revolution which was caused by the IR and new productivity demands in commodity production.

This acceleration was aided in the second half of the twenty first century by Information Technology – IT is simultaneously catalyst, source of coveted goods and economic powerhouse.

There are eight consequences of acceleration which are unique to post-modernity:

One – Speed is an addictive drug…

Because it is easier to communicate today, we communicate more – previously, the labour in writing a letter precluded the writing of unnecessary letters, emails are easier to write, and we we can be contacted anywhere, so we send more emails. Also, we are now more impatient in waiting for a response. In the age of email, we now expect, demand, a rapid response to our communications –

Because we demand a rapid response, this interrupts slow time.

It is not just email, everything moves faster now.

Two – Speed leads to simplification…

For example paintings to photos, and summaries of books in Readers Digest (actually the reference to Readers Digest dates this a bit!)

Three – Speed creates assembly line effects….

Quite a weak section – speed leads to a reduction in quality generally, but sometimes fast products are OK and especially better than nothing!

Four – Speed leads to a loss of precision…

Today decisions have to be made almost immediately. Those who pause for thought are overtaken by those prepared to act immediately. This can lead to bad decisions and uncertainty – unsurprising maybe when we no longer stop to reflect.

In politics, politicians react immediately and short termism is in fashion – those who play the long game get nowhere (the greens?). While in financial markets, ripples in one country rapidly domino to others.

Finally he turns to Journalism where accuracy and complexity have been replaced by speed and what’s interesting. What matters is beating the other guys to getting something published.

Erikson notes that this is correlated with declining trust in journalists – an interesting dialectic where increasing freedom = increasing distrust.

Five – Speed Demands Space…

Because they complete over our attention, every spare moment is precious in the information age – There are less empty spaces, less time for the free flow of thought, messages on mobile technologies fill every gap.

Six – Speed is Contagious…

Short wins out over long – and what’s lost along the way is context and understanding and credibility. We also speed up…. Plays are faster…

A political scientist recently studied the development of the annual financial debate in the Norwegian Parliament, comparing the speed of speech in selected years from 1945 to 1995 – Looking at Phonemes per minute…

584 in 1945

772 in 1980

863 in 1995

In other worlds the average politician spoke 50 percent faster in 1995 compared to 1945.

Increasing speed also makes us more impatient – If a plane journey takes an hour, a delay of 15 minutes is less bearable than if the same journey took two hours. Similarly we are now impatient when it takes a computer 30 seconds to log on.

Seven – Gains and losses tend to equal each other out…

For example — Although computer processor power doubles every 18 months, so does the complexity of the software.

Worse, more complex software means more chances of crashing.

Also it means more choice, and more time spent negotiating these choices, and hence less efficiency.

Eight – Technology leads to unpredictable changes

Who could have thought that time saving technologies and more information could have made time scarcer and us less enlightened?

Chapter Five – Exponential Growth

Basically involves the doubling of a number over a certain time period – Growth is slow at first, and then there is a sudden leap upwards, leading to a qualitative shift in a very short time – for example when a village becomes a town.

Exponential growth creates scarcity of space…

There is now a dearth of information – and when there is more information, we spend less time looking at any one piece of it…. And thus the producers of info change the info to fit in with this – Movies are more action packed and commercials shorter for example. Speed is also a narcotic, it is easier to speed up the info rather than to slow it down.

Side effects become dominant -

Quantitative growth leads to qualitative change – For example Bateson’s Polyploid Horse and the tendency to larger institutions towards Bureaucratisation. Basically larger organisations are less efficient, and more time is spent in wasteful activities.

There is more of everything – he now spends some time outlining the rapid growth of books and journal articles (most of which are never read?) and air traffic. Before stating that the growth rates in cyberspace surpass everything (p97)

Changes in cyerbspace represent compression in time – more and more information, consumption, movement and activity is being pushed into the available time, which is relatively constant. When the growth line hits vertical, time has ceased to exist – this happens when news is outdated the moment it is published.

When more and more is squeezed into each moment, the result is stacking…

Chapter Six – Stacking

We have moved from the relatively slow and linear to the fast and momentary – novels and old style dramas evolved based on passed events and assume you read progressively. The internet and new style dramas (Dynasty) stand still at enormous speed – the web is not hierachical and new dramas despite the cliffhangers do not generally progress – you can pick up the narrative thread after being away for several episodes.

The most important part of navigating the web is filters, but filters do not remove the fragmentation .

We are forced to customise the content in the internet – this gives us freedom of choice but we lose internal cohesion, meaningful context and slowness.

In the Informational Society pieces replace totalities…

Industrial society

Informational Society

CD/ Vinyl record


Sinlge channel TV


Stationary Telephone



Mutli-channel TV


Mobile Telephone

Lifelong Monogamy

Lifelong work


Linear Time-saving

Scarcity of Information

Serial Monogomy

Flexible Work


Fragmented Contemporariness

Scarcity of Freedom of Information

The tidal waves of information fragments typical of our kind of society stimulate a style of thought that is less reminiscent of the strict, logical, linear thinking characteristic of industrial society than of the freely associating, poetical, metaphorical thinking that characterised many non modern societies. Instead of ordering knowledge in tidy rows, Information Society offers cascades of decontextualised sings more or less randomly connected to each other.

Contemporary Culture runs at full speed without moving an inch

The close cousins of acceleration and exponential growth lead to vertical stacking. Since there is no vacant time to spread information in, it gets compressed and stacked in time spans which become shorter and shorter.

He also uses music to point out that nothing new has been created since about 1990. The new now emerges from stacking – new combinations of old phenomenon. This has consequences for human creativity.

When this happens it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic. This has consequences for the way we related to knowledge, work and lifestyle. Cause and effect, internal organic growth, maturity and experience are all under threat in this situation.

The law of diminishing returns strikes with a vengeance

Media appeal is the most important thing politicians can have – their ideas are less important. Those who take time and prefer complexity have less influence.

Today, there are diminishing returns of media participation following information explosion… Basically the more channels, the less valuable a media appearance. Also, a stronger effect is needed to get the message across.

News has a decreasing marginal value – the first ten seconds is valuable, and after that…?

Information destroys continuity….

A section on today’s typical HE student who has to vertically stack activities – a lecture is something one goes to between many other activities – slow learning is marginalised – and universities adapt – they teach faster. This is like his own life, but his is because of information lint.

Very few academics today have five years to spend writing a book – especially since the marginal value of new information is next to zero, and so easier to produce something rapidly that grabs attention, even if it is cut and paste from a conference paper.

Because of all this stacking, the moment is ephemeral, superficial and intense. When the moment dominates, everything must be interchangeable with everything else in the immediate NOW – even if some things only make sense with duration.

Chapter Seven – The Lego Brick Syndrome

The relationship between time and space has undergone dramatic transformations in the IS -

  • Baudrillard talks of the implosion of the time/ space axis
  • Giddens says there has been a collapse of time and space
  • Castells talks about how the space of flows has been replaced by the space of places
  • Harvey of Time Space Compression.

It is no longer viable to pretend that a certain duration corresponds to a certain distance, and for this reason delays, gaps, slowness are threatened.

When time is chopped up into sufficiently small units, it ceases to exist as duration but continues to exist as moments about to be overtaken by the next moment.

The same pattern can be observed in many apparently unrelated fields…. We used to receive a set of lego bricks at birth with a number of sets of instructions to choose between – now there are no instructions – this must have been what Giddens meant when he spoke of the self as a project – it is not a given entity, it has to be created again and again.

He now looks at how fixation on the moment, stacking and the lego brick syndrome influence labour, family life, leisure, and consumption.

An accelerated professional life offers flexibility but leads to a whole host of other negative consequences….

In the Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett describes how successful people in the emergent economies of the 1990s – flexible, adjustable, technologically capable people – experienced a vacuum in the very centre of their lives. They work in sectors such as finance, web design, e-commerce, advertising and journalism, in sectors which have been radically transformed in the information age.

New technology in many ways makes up the backbone of these industries, but at the same time it also forces the labour market to adapt to it. Old-timers with long and vast experience do not have much value in this new setting.

Sennett describes people who have been liberated from the monotonous drudgery of the labour market, but they live under constant pressure to reinvent themselves, update and change their perspective on the job they are doing. There is little of routine in their work, and they enjoy the opportunities on offer, but they experience serious problems in attempting to make their lives hang together as something other than a discontinuous series of events, career moves, and so on.

Some of them are virtually burnt out by the time they are 35. He now quotes some stats (30% of the workforce report mental health issues in the UK) and early burn-out is already in a good position to contend for the title of the civilizational disease of the new century.

Also, long-term planning seems to have disappeared as a concept in the world of work. Short-term stays in jobs are much more common than they used to be and contract work has increased enormously. (I guess this means more intense working?). This means job security is reduced.

This new world of work also favours a particular personality type – adaptable, opportunistic etc, which helps to explain why teaching is now seen as a low-grade profession.

Finally, these changes result in increased uncertainty, not least because the present is opaque but also because the demands of this moment are terrorised by the next.

The effects on family life and leisure-time

Given that fast time beats slow time, when the concept of working at home was introduced, the former was bound to win. Workers may not be expected to be on time any more, but they are expected to be online.

Work has invaded our home lives, and one of the most profound effects is that our family lives have become ‘Taylorised’ (following Bateson) – because increased flexibility in one area of life means less in other areas:

We now have to negotiate how to keep the kids busy so I can fit in with the flexible demands of work. We have lost the sense of slow time in which we just live for the sake of living, family life has become a tit for tat process of negotiating.

Family life is not particular labour-intensive, or capital-intensive, but it is time-intensive – and this is precisely what is absent in today’s society, hence these changes

Furthermore, family life in general is by nature slow and fits the current era badly – frequent changes of life partners are clear indications of the spread of the tyranny of the moment into the intimate sphere. The number of failed marriages and the number of Peter Pans and Bridget Jones are also testimony to this.

Serial Monogamy is a good example of standing still at great speed – the same debates in relationships had over and over again.

Marriages are also under direct pressure from the Tyranny of the Moment in which ever more exciting things are just around the corner, and there is no sense of continuity. Duration and continuity lose out, spontaneity and innovation win.

The Cult of Youth is Caused by the Tyranny of The Moment

When knowledge changes quickly, what role for the older generation? They lose at least some of their relevance and the youth are minded to fashion their own values from fragments – from a mixture of the older generation and X box!

Until quite recently 15 year olds were quite happy to start their adult life – to become properly independent persons – while at the other end of the scale, with age came established certainty and authority.

Today, however, youth, or that ambiguous phase between childhood and adulthood, has extended in both directions – through marketing to the very young and those in their 40s to remain younger. Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’ is now truly relevant.

Two of the most serious symptoms of the tyranny of the moment are the cult of youth and the crisis of knowledge transmission – A society which does not value ageing has no interest in where it has come from – and thus no real handle on where it is going.

Our society values spontaneous energy over historical experience (in the new economy) and this is often blamed on advertising and pop culture, but it is all of the above that is really to blame.

Leisure-Time becomes a stressful rush to get more things done…

Staffan Linder talks of The contradictions of Capitalism – a healthy growth rate requires us to produce more efficiently and consume at a faster rate. Leisure time thus turns into a mad rush for intensified consumption. Leisure time becomes like work – we have to organise it, learn to multi-task and stack, to consume more efficiently and spend less time doing just one thing.

The fragmentation of work, consumption, family life and the public sphere brings us to a world where each must construct their own identity – but is such a task manageable or is life inevitably becoming collage-like and filled with singular events and impressions, arbitrariness and spontaneity with no over-arching direction, is the fast-mode becoming hegemonic rather than a mix between fast and slow modes?

Finally, the further social consequences of a life in fragments…

Bauman is far from alone in publishing books such as life in fragments – the dividing of time into ever decreasing units and the lost of internal coherence lead to….

  • Fundamentalism
  • Extreme Opportunism
  • Burn-Outs
  • Politics devoid of vision.

Does the Information Revolution actually increase efficiency?

Obviously with more complex technology we are required to go on courses to learn how to use their functionalities.

But also when we have mobile technologies, the quiet times disappear because we are expected to be always on! When emails reach a certain threshold, we loose convenience and they become oppressive. Similarly he argues that many transport connections designed to speed travel up are cancelled out by traffic jams and queuing….And now we have impatience, which is the transition between fast and slow time , and journeys are filled with things we should be doing.

Chapter Eight – The Pleasures of Slow Time…

Not everyone is affected by the pressures of fast time – but a growing number of people in the developed world are and because fast time affects the production of culture the majority is exposed to such pressures – when you switch on the TV for example.

A brief summary of the main points in Tyranny of the Moment

  1. When there is a surplus, and no scarcity of information, the degree of comprehension falls in proportion with the growth of the amount of information. The more you know, the more you do not know.
  2. The main scarce resource for suppliers of any commodity is the attention of others
  3. The main scarce resource of the inhabitants of an IS are well-functioning filters
  4. Acceleration removes distance, time and space.
  5. When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins
  6. Flexible work causes a loss of flexibility in the non-work areas of life.
  7. When time is partitioned into sufficiently small units it ceases to exist as duration.

There are many academics who write about exponential growth, stacking and acceleration – Giddens and Beck are the figureheads but also Bordieu, and their theme seems to be that there is now a generalised inability to get a coherent overview of everything in this fast moving world.

There are few solutions offered to acceleration and information overload:

Castells just warns against ‘building castles’

  • Giddens talks of dialogic democracy but provides no substance about how this might be achieved
  • Bordieu – simply suggests we hit the off button
  • Baudrillard escapes into dark humour
  • Virillio says he has no solutions

So what to do? Some suggestions:

  • What can be done fast should be done fast
  • Remember that dawdling is a virtue as long as no one gets hurt
  • Recognise that slowness needs protection
  • Treat delays are a blessing in disguise
  • The logic of the wood cabin needs to be globalised
  • All decisions need to exclude as much as they include
  • It is necessary to switch consciously between fast and slow time
  • Recognise/ accept that most things one will never need know about
  • We also need to put the breaks on fast time by….
  • Establishing press rules for the slow production of more types of news.
  • Establishing the rule of less is more – quality over quantity.

He finishes with a number of fairly obvious public/ work level policies for introducing slowness, which I won’t go into.

Daniel Miller’s Stuff – A Summary

Stuff Daniel MillerA summary of Stuff by the anthropologist Daniel Miller

The premise of this book is that things make people as much as people make things. Following Bordieu, Miller argues that individuals learn to become members of society, not through formal education, but because they are inculcated into the general habits and dispositions of that society through the way they interact in their everyday practices, which is already pre-structured in the objects they find around them.

For example, in modern society, we grow up to think of cars as being a normal part of life not just because of the fact of cars themselves, because so much of our environment is shaped around cars (the layout of cities and houses for example), and thus few of us ever seriously question the place of the car in our society.

Miller is also at paints to point out that it is not just in more materialist cultures where stuff is important in framing people’s life experiences – things are just as important in those cultures which have many fewer material items – even in Aboriginal cultures stuff is intricately bound up with the the processes of human communication and the construction of self and society. (He is an Anthropologist after all!)

For Miller, the primary process in society is social interaction, or communication – and things are part of this process, not separate from it (things don’t precede and shape culture like crude Marxism suggests and things are not just made to perform functions that have been predetermined by previous generations) – hence the concept of ‘material culture’, things are intimately bound up with the processes of identity construction and boundary maintenance, in all cultures.

Following Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx, material culture develops (I think for Miller ‘evolve would be the wrong word) through a dialectical process that is contradictory, paradoxical ambiguous and full of doubt. The agentic process of ‘doing material culture’ is a means whereby some people empower themselves, but the process of making and using things can disempower others, and things themselves become objectified and (almost?) take on an agency of their own, developing a kind of power over us. In this later aspect of his theory of material culture Miller draws on Gofmann to argue that the real power of things lie in their ability to frame our view of the world – certain objects come to have power over us because we are so used to them – something which Miller refers to as the ‘humility of things’

So what you see in any material culture (which is all culture) is people using stuff to facilitate communication, and as a result some people become empowered, but at the same time, this stuff becomes objectified and constrains people in unanticipated ways – leading to a range of responses (people always have agency).

Miller gives the classic example of the Kula Ring (a classic example in anthropology which I won’t repeat here) -his point is that the goods in this trading ring don’t have to be traded, they are traded as a means to facilitate social communication – and some people get wealthy through participating – however, the fact that the trading rings exists means that anyone who doesn’t participate (and some people choose not to) risks being branded a witch.

Elsewhere he analyses the ‘normal’ clothing strategies in London as a blasé response to a material culture in which there is too much choice – London is one of the shopping capitals of the world for fashion, and yet look around the streets and so many people choose very similar looking clothes – (blues, blacks and greys!). Millers theory seems to be that fashion is used by some people to empower themselves (women in particular, although personally I don’t buy this, excuse the pun) – but the majority of us fashion appears as bewildering and so we revert to choosing not to choose by wearing very similar clothes to everyone else.

Elsewhere he focuses on housing – In modernist council housing, which was very much imposed on the poor, people feel a sense of alienation because it was built for them and has since become associated with a sense of drugs and crime – however, people try to undo this sense of alienation by decorating them – but mainly couples – because of a combination of woman providing the aesthetics and men providing the DIY – where singles live together, hardly any changes have been made.

He also says that he feels inferior to his own early 1900s house – because it is a period property which he feels he can never decorate appropriately – objects have agency in some way, power over the individual. Simply having a nice house doesn’t lead you to a utopic state he says.

In Conclusion – what I like about the book…

  1. Well, if you want depth you can’t really fault anthropological methods – the on the ground research, using Pobs and interviews over several months in each case does reveal the complex ways people use material objects in a variety of ways. These methods are useful in understanding how people use stuff!

  2. I also buy the whole material culture existing everywhere argument too – I think he’s correct to remind us that less material cultures are still material

  3. And, yes he’s right in that stuff can empower us – it is employed socially – part of the fabric of social life, and yes it does create opportunities for some and constrain others.

In conclusion – what I don’t like about the book…

I guess I’m uncomfortable about the fact that all of the above is where it stops – the point is to elucidate on a theory of material culture rooted in in-depth observations – there’s no real critical analysis – despite the fact Miller says he’s left-leaning at one point.

I’m especially uncomfortable with the chapter on housing – where he seems to be suggesting that couples in council housing have more material freedom in relation to their house than he does in his period property, and I don’t buy the idea that shopping is a means for people who are traditionally marginalised to empower themselves.

I think the whole study needs relating more to the amount of money people have – shopping for sure, is probably liberating for the wealthy, but is unlikely to be so for people who cannot afford to shop.

Also, I think we need more of an objective position on what liberation viz stuff actually means – if you can empower yourself with less stuff – such as a monk who has expert knowledge and perceived rights to access and interpret and manipulate scarce religious symbols, I think it’s fair to say you’re a lot more liberated than an uneducated 40 year old house wife who needs to spend £1500 a month on clothes to feel empowered, and is about to regret that pre-nup she signed because her high-income earning husband’s on the verge of upgrading to a younger model.

Is any one who thinks this  woman is liberated an idiot?
Is any one who thinks this woman is liberated an idiot?

Sociological Theories of Consumerism and Consumption

consumerism and consumptionMany of us spend a lot of time thinking about the things we might consume, and how we might consume them, and we do this not only as individuals, but as friends, partners, and families, and so intensely do we think about our consumption practices that the things we buy and the experiences we engage which are linked to them become invested with emotional significance and central (crutches) to our very identities.

The consumption of goods and services is so thoroughly embedded into our ordinary, everyday lives that many aspects of its practice go largely unquestioned – not only the environmental and social consequences have got lost on the way, but also they very notion that consumption itself is a choice, and that, once our basic needs are met, consumption in its symbolic sense is not necessary and thus is itself a choice.

In sociological terms one might say that contemporary reflexivity is bounded by consumption – that is to say that most of the things most of us think about in life – be they pertaining to self-construction, relationship maintenance, or instrumental goal-attainment, involve us making choices about (the strictly unnecessary) things we might consume.

Even though I think that any attempt to achieve happiness through consumption will ultimately result in misery, I would hardly call anyone who tries to do so stupid – because all they are going is conforming to a number of recent social changes which have led to our society being based around historically high levels of consumption.

There are numerous explanations for the growth of a diverse consumer culture and thus the intense levels of unnecessary symbolic consumption engaged in by most people today – the overview taken below is primarily from Joel Stillerman (2015) who seems to identify five major changes which underpin recent changes in consumption since WW2.

The first explanation looks to the 1960s counter culture which despite having a reputation for being anti-consumerist, was really more about non-conformity, a rejection of standardised mass-consumption and promoting individual self expression. Ironically, the rejection of standardised consumption became a model for the niche-marketing of today, much of which is targeted towards people who wish to express themselves in any manor of ways – through clothing, music, foodism, craft beers, or experiences. Some members of the counter culture in fact found profit in establishing their own niche-consumer outlets, with even some Punks (surely the Zenith of anti-consumerism?!) going on to develop their own clothing brands.

A second discussion surrounding the normalisation of consumerism centres around changes in the class structure, following the work Bourdieu and Featherstone (2000). Basically these theorists see the intensification of consumption as being related to the emergence of the ‘new middle classes’ as a result of technological innovations and social changes leading to an increase in the number of people working in jobs such as the media and fashion.

Mike Featherstone focuses on what he calls the importance of ‘cultural intermediaries’ (who mainly work in the entertainment and personal care industries) who have adopted an ‘ethic of self-expression through consumption’ – in which they engage in self-care in order to improve their bodies and skills in order to gain social and economic capital.

The values of these early adopters has gradually filtered down to the rest of the population and this has resulted in the ‘aestheticisation of daily life’ – in which more and more people are now engaged in consumption in order to improve themselves and their social standing – as evidenced in various fitness classes, plastic surgery, and a whole load of ‘skills based’ pursuits such as cookery classes (yer signature bake if you like).

A third perspective focuses on individualisation – as advanced by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck.


In their view, after World War II, universal access to higher education and social welfare benefits in Europe led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity provided by family, traditional authority, and work. Today, individuals are ‘free’ from the chains of external sources of identity, but this freedom comes at a price. Individuals are now compelled to give meaning to their lives without the certainty that they are making the right choice that in the past had come from tradition. Individuals are forced to be reflexive, to examine their own lives and to determine their own identities. In this context, consumption may be a useful vehicle for constructing a life narrative that gives focus and meaning to individuals.

As I’ve outlined in numerous blog posts before, Bauman especially sees this is a lot of work for individuals – a never ending task, and a task over which they have no choice but to engage in (actually I disagree here, individuals do have a choice, it’s just not that easy to see it, or carry it through!).

Fourthly, Post-modern analyses of consumption focus on the increasing importance of individuals to consumption. Building on the work of Lytoard etc. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) argue that changes to Western cultures have led to the erosion of modernist ideas of progress, overly simplified binary distinctions like production and consumption and the notion of the individual as a unified actor. They suggest that in contemporary societies production and consumption exist in a repeating cycle and retail cites and advertiser have increasingly focussed on producing symbols which individuals consume in order to construct identities.

These changes have led to increasing specialising of products and more visually compelling shopping environments, and F and V argue that these changes are liberating for individuals and they seek meaning and identity through consumption, which they can increasingly do outside of markets.

Fifthly – other researches have looked at the role of subcultures in contemporary society, where individuals consume in order to signify their identity as part of a group, and doing so can involve quite high levels of consumption, even if these groups appear quite deviant (McAlexander’s 1995 study of Harley Davidson riders looks interesting here, also Kozinet’s study of Star Trek fans).

Something which draws on numbers 3,4 and 5 above is the concept of consumer tribes (developed by Cova et al 2007) which are constantly in flux, made up by different individuals whose identities are multiple, diverse and playful – individuals in fact may be part of many tribes and enter and exit them as they choose.

Finally, Stillerman points out that underlying all of the above are two important background trends

  • Firstly, there are the technological changes which made all of the above possible – the transport links and the communications technologies.
  • Secondly there is the (often discussed) links to the global south as a source of cheap production.

Very finally I’m going to add in one more thing to the above – underlying the increase in and diversification of consumption is the fact that time has sped up – in the sense that fashions change faster than ever and products become obsolete faster than ever – hence putting increasing demands on people to spend more time and money year on year to keep up on the consumer treadmill….

So there you have it – there are numerous social trends which lie behind the increase in and diversification of consumption, so the next time you think you’re acting as an individual when you’re getting your latest tattoo, maybe think again matey!

Related Posts 

Consuming Life (Bauman, 2007) – A Summary of Chapter One


If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!

Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – A Summary of Chapter One

A summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life (2007) – Chapter One

I use paraphrasing heavily below, so a lot of this is Bauman’s own words, just cut down a lot and also simplified in places. Love the guy’s literary style but it doesn’t always result in accessibility. The chapter is broken up into about nine sub sections, but I’ve knitted a few of the ideas together below to condense these into

Chapter One – Consumerism versus Consumption

1.1 – The basic characteristics of consumer society

The chapter only briefly deals with consumption – which is part of all societies – at the beginning, the remaining 90% deals with consumerism, or the unique features of the consumer society, which emerges with the decline of the society of producers some years after WW2.

Consumerism describes that society in which wanting has become the principal propelling and operating force which coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of identity and life-policies.

In consumer society wanting, desiring and longing needs to be, just as labour capacity was in the producers’ society, detached (‘alienated’) from individuals and recycled/reified into an extraneous force.

In the previous society of producers desires were always, after deferred gratification, eventually meant to be satisfied.Moreover, the function of objects of consumption, once acquired, was to provided a sense of durability and long-term security. In contrast, the consumer society associates happiness with an ever rising volume and intensity of desires, which imply in turn prompt use and speedy replacement of the objects intended and hoped to gratify them.

Consumer society has the following characteristics (my numbering)

  1. An instability of desires and insatiability of needs – Consumer society thrives when we want more and when those wants have a high turnover rate – i.e when the goods we buy provide satisfaction for a limited time period only.

  2. The desire for Immediate gratification – which has given rise to a ‘Nowist culture’ – or a curiously hurried life. However, because today’s products only have a limited life span and a stigma once its date is reached the motive to hurry is only partly the urge to acquire and collect, the most pressing need is to discard and replace.

  3. Pointillist time – Time is experienced as ‘broken up, or even pulverised, into a multitude of ‘eternal instants’ episodes which are not connected to each other. Bauman suggests that these episodes are like ‘Big bangs’ – they are pregnant with possibilities of magnficent things happening, however these moments rarely live up to their promise and it is in fact the excess of promises which counters each promise not lived up to.

1.2 How the consumer society effects our worldview/ inner pysche/ general way of seeing the world.

In the consumerist economy product innovations grow at an exponential rate and there is increasing competition for attention. This results in a flood of information which we cannot cope with which manifests itself in vertical stacking (think multiple windows on the go at the same time).

Images of ‘linear time’ and ‘progress’ are among the most prominent victims of the information flood: when growing amounts of information are distributed at growing speed, it becomes increasingly difficult to create narratives, orders, developmental sequences. The fragments threaten to become hegemonic.

This in turn has consequences for the ways we relate to knowledge, work and lifestyle in a wide sense.

Firstly this results in a blase attitude toward knowledge – the essence of which is the blunting of discrimination

Secondly it results in melancholy – To be ‘melancholic’ is ‘to sense the infinity of connection, but be hooked up to nothing’ – a disturbance resulting from the fatal encounter between the obligation and compulsion to choose and the inability to choose. (This seems like an evolution of the concept of anomie)

The crucial skill in information society consists in protecting oneself against the 99.99 per cent of the information offered that one does not want.

1.3 The consumer society promises but fundamentally fails to make us happy

The society of consumers stands and falls by the happiness of its members

It is, in fact, the only society in human history to promise happiness in earthly life, and happiness here and now and in every successive now – also the only society which refrains from legitimizing unhappiness.

However, judged by its own standards it is woefully unsuccessful at increasing happiness.

Bauman now draws on research carried out by Richard Layard to remind us that once average income rises above approximately $20K per head then there is no evidence whatsoever that further growth in the volume of consumption results in a greater number of people reporting that they ‘feel happy’.

In fact a consumption-oriented economy actively promotes disaffection, saps confidence and deepens the sentiment of insecurity, becoming itself a source of the ambient fear it promises to cure or disperse.

While consumer society rests its case on the promise to gratify human desires, the promise of satisfaction remains seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified. Clever!

A low threshold for dreams, easy access to sufficient goods to reach that threshold, and a belief in objective limits to ‘genuine’ needs and ‘realistic’ desires: these are the most fearsome adversaries of the consumer-oriented economy.

Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members (and so, in its own terms, their unhappiness) perpetual.

Necessary strategies to maintain this involve hyping a product to the hilt and then soon after denigrating it and creating goods and services such that they require further purchases to be made – so that consumption becomes a compulsion, an addiction and shoppers are encouraged to find solutions to their problems only in the shopping malls.

The realm of hypocrisy stretching between popular beliefs and the realities of consumers’ lives is a necessary condition of a properly functioning society of consumers.

In addition to being an economics of excess and waste, consumerism is also an economics of deception.

1.4 Individualised life-strategies are the principle means whereby consumer society neutralises dissent.

The society of consumers has developed, to an unprecedented degree, the capacity to absorb all and any dissent. It does this through a process which Thomas Mathiesen has recently described as ‘silent silencing’

In other words all ideas threatening to the existing order are integrated into it.

The principle means whereby this is done is through individualisation – whereby individual life strategies become the route to Utopia to only be enjoyed by the individual – changing lifestyle, not society.

To follow the metaphor used by schoolboy Karl Marx, those visions are attracted like moths to the lights of domestic lamps rather than to the glare of the universal sun now hidden beyond the horizon.

The possibility of populating the world with more caring people and inducing people to care more does not figure in the panoramas painted in the consumerist utopia.

The privatized utopias of the cowboys and cowgirls of the consumerist era show instead vastly expanded ‘free space’ (free for myself, of course); a kind of empty space of which the liquid modern consumer, bent on solo performances and only on solo performances, always needs more and never has enough.

Lifestyle strategies smack of adiaphorisation – removing sense of moral responsibility for others.

Related Posts 

Consuming Life – A Summary of Chapter 2

If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Individualised Society (Part Three: The Way We Act)

Zygmunt Bauman – The Individualised Society – Part Three: The Way We Act

Thirteen – Does Love Need Reason?

Love and Reason will forever fail to communicate… for three reasons.

Reason is about use, love is about value. The world as seen by love is a collection of values, as seen by reason, a collection of useful objects – Value is the quality of a thing, usefuleness an attribute of the things’ user. The usefuleness of an object stems from a sense of lack in the user – to use something to fulfil that lack. Usefuleness, and the use of reason to get what we want, is about using up the other, it is about gratifying ourselves. Love on the other hand is about valuing the other for the sake of the other.

Use is about annihilating the other for the sake of the self, love is about bolstering the other in one’s otherness and protecting them. Love means self-denial.

Secondly, reason has boundaries – it is about closing off the realm of possibilities, limiting, while love is boundless – it is forever open ended and has no limits.

Reason cuts infinity to the level of the finite self, love extends the self to the infinite.

Finally, reason prompts loyalty to the self while love prompts loyalty to the other. Reason tells us how to manipulate the other to fit around my desires, love encourages us to bend to the will of the other.

There is more to love than this – it is like signing a blank cheque – giving oneself to the forever changing uncertainty of what the other might be like in the future.

For Levinas ethics precedes ontology – ethics is better than what is – the starting point is that I put them first – my neighbour – this is the starting point, and from this point forwards there are no rules. Talking, engaging in dialogue, figuring out what is right and what should be the ‘is’ moves on from here. But care for the other should be the starting point!

Also following Logstrup – Together these propose ‘responsibility for the weakness of the other’ as the fundamental human condition – always making the effort to put the other first, and figuring out what this means is the basis of human social life – not just obeying commands and deferring to authority. This means a state of uncertainty.

To love means to be in a state of perpetual uncertainty, but people still need to get by – and reason is necessary for this – And to make things easier we often defer to authorities. However, authorities themselves use reason in the wrong way – take their attitude to the welfare state for example– they put reason first – the starting point is that we cannot afford it and so how can we reduce it – it should be the other way around – how can change society so that we can afford it?

Authorities use reason without love. It is up to us to love first (he doesn’t say this here, but he does elswhere)

Bauman seems to be casting an individual or a society which premisis reason as a fundamentally selfish person or society – I’m no philopsher, but I think he’s talking more about cost-benefit analysis than ‘pure reason’ – or instrumental rationality – Whatever, I don’t want to get lost in semantics – I get his point – the society or person which puts the question of ‘how do I use this to ahcieve my goals’ first is selfish – because the logic of use will always end up using the other – bending them to my will.

The logic of what Bauman calls love is the opposite – putting the well-being of the other first. (NB Bauman does mention that there is a danger of becoming a patsy to the other – and all of the above is assuming you don’t yourself end up being manipulated by them….which is something we need to be on our toes about.)

I guess the principle of the welfare state is the first ever in world history where we’ve had this on such a large level. It is interesting to think how little we focus on how many lives have been saved or turned around by the welfare state, while instead we focus on the very few ‘welfare scroungers’. My suspicion is that the reality of welfare is the former, not the later, something I need to look into for sure!

I also like the question rephrasing in this – everyone should get a minimum level of care – how do we change society to make sure this happens? This is what labour should be focusing on in the election, fat chance of course!

Chapter Fourteen – Private Morality, Immoral World

For Levinas, his starting point is the moral party of two – where we are both for the other. This is morality. This is the primal scene in which both are unconditionally responsible for the other. However, when a third party comes into being (society), this necessary and sufficient condition of the moral party does not suffice any more.

Here in society I am confronted with many others and their companions – and the concepts of difference, number, knowledge, time, space, truth and falsity – my intuitive reality is not enough to cope with this anymore. In order to deal with this third other, I must leave my primal realm, and here I encounter social order and justice.

In society, with the third party, we lose our primal connection with the other as a face – and we become individuals who have roles and are governed by laws. To interact with society (following Simmel) is to engage with people who wear masks, engage in fraud, and we must learn the appropriate rituals for dealing with these people. This is far, far removed from original duality.

To return to original morality, if we can, we need to get back to connection with the other with all forms of social status dropped. We need to be reduced to the level of bare humanity given to us at our birth.

Kindness and charity are the two basic human characteristics – naturally, in the moral universe of two, they overflow…brcause we recognise our common humanity. However in society, the concept of violence is introduced through making comparisons – differentiation and then the liberal state wades in to put limits on charity – and justifies these limits through reason.

The basic problem is that there is a gap between micro and macro ethics – because I cannot be limitlessly for many others – it is impossible, so the state, that vehicle which Levinas thought would translate ethics into the social realm, can never be as ethically pure as the original two-person ethical ideal.

Following Jonas, the gap between micro and macro ethics has really come to the fore in the age of globalisation – technology and capitalism have altered the world massively, and not everyone benefits, and it seems that we have a decreasing capacity to know and predict the consequences of our actions. In fact the growing knowledge of the dangers ahead goes hand in hand with our incapacity to deal with them.

Jonas suggests that ethics (normative regulation) needs to catch up with Capitalism and technology – what we need is a sort of categorical imperative mark 2.

Bauman rounds off by pointing out that ethics are under siege mainly because of Free Market Forces being freed from the control of the nation state (and repeats what he’s written elswhere) This process basically polarises.
Can intellectuals provide moral guidance?

A weird end to the section – He basically seems to argue that the current knowledge class by delcaring the end of ideology have effectively become the organic intellectuals of the post-modern era —- They provide no ethical guidance to us. However, it may be immoral to simply lurch from one crisis to the next thinking that there are no better ways to live.


In short, I agree with the end points, but not the ‘hypothetical ontology’ the end point rests on.

So in a hypothetical situation in which I am just with one other person (as a face) I cannot help but feel compassion (this is what he is talking about) for that other person, and I am naturally for him.

This sounds like it’s got something in common with the Buddhist concept of one’s true nature that ‘just is’ – Intuitive, overflowing with compassion, but in Levinas’ view this requires a dualism, an other, just one other, to bring all of this out. I’m inclined to say this is utter nonsense – It such a state of overflowing compassion exists it is self-less, and universal, beyond the self, not dependent on one (hypothetical?) other.

I think an ontological flaw (because it’s coming from a hypothetical idea generated by the intellect maybe) is that ‘my’ ability to be a moral being (basically limitless compassion) is dependent on there only being one discrete object – ONE OTHER (which, for clarity presumes that morality depends on a subject (me) and an object (ONE other) – Of course if this is the premise, then universal morality to more than one other is impossible.

There is no necessary reason why the ability to be moral requires one other in particular. I prefer the idea of morality defined around a pure-motive to do good for others which stems from self-transcendence, thus the basis of morality is not self-self it is non-self.

I am aware btw that I may be talking utter nonsense.

However, I do agree that it is much harder to be limitlessly for a range of others rather than one specific other, what I don’t agree with is the necessity of the other as the basis for morality. And the idea of the state as providing normative regulation because of the complexity of this makes sense – although obviously this is a very idealised conception of the state.

I also agree that there is a difference with dealing with ‘people stripped down’ as human beings, compared to dealing with people in society, because in society people take on roles and wear masks, this is something we do need to get over if we are to be more compassionate.

Finally, I also agree with the idea of using ethics to tame Capitalism. I also agree that to abandon ethics to relativism is to provide sustenance to the forces of Capital.

Chapter Fifteen – Democracy on Two Battle Fronts

Democracy requires an active agora, which in turn requires autonomous individuals and an autonomous society – a society in which people are free to form their own opinions and in which agreement around those opinions becomes law.

Democracy is under threat in the sense that the public body finds it more and more difficult to enact what is good and more and more people retreat from the agora.

The professional politicians no longer visit the agora, and for the citizens taking part in it seems increasingly like a waste of time and effort.

But the public space has been filled with private concerns.

Thus we have a Gordian knot that will be difficult to untie.


This is basically a repetition of what’s already been said in previous chapters.

Chapter Sixteen – Violence Old and New

Terrorism is a form of violence, but it is more than the acts themselves which attract the label – it is only those who lack power who get defined as terrorists by the powerful.

The essence of violence lies in coercing people into doing things they would not otherwise do, it lies in restricting their freedom.

The essence of all power struggles is the right to define with authority and to deny the right of others to define fields of action.

P209 – In all order building enterprises legitimacy (the right to define) is key – in other words the right to coerce, and in such enterprises, fighting (violence) means getting rid of anyone else who might contest your right to categorise….. your right to limit other peoples’ freedoms – thus the fight against violence in such a way is unwinnable.

Modernity has enlisted the fight against violence as one of its major concerns, yet it cannot document much progress – firstly because it is impossible to measure the actual amount of violence suffered by individuals and secondly because the very concept of order building rests on there being enemies to defeat.

However now that our institutional frame is crumbling, coercion is no longer working – people have more power to assert themselves, and violence is one way through which we can push boundaries… hence things like sexism.

At the level of the nation state – for those new nations, ethnic cleansing seems to be the way forwards. This, and making countries accommodate capitalism – both forms of violence.

17 – On Postmodern Uses of Sex

Sex, Eroticism and Love are linked yet separate. They could hardly exist without each other but each exists in an ongoing war for independence, and their boundaries are well-known for being contested.

Sex is simply the biological urge to reproduce – It hasn’t changed much, but eroticisms is cultural experimentation around sex – and lord knows there is enough surplus sexual energy to be inventive with.

In the past society dealt with this surplus sexual energy (the tendency towards eroticism) by either chaining it to sex for reproduction or to love – either people were encouraged to just have sex for reproduction and then any aspect of eroticism was hidden (either repressed or dealt with via porn, prostitution and affairs) OR it was linked to the romantic ideal of love.

Nowadays, however, eroticism is free floating – Why>? It isn’t just market forces manipulating it – There are two main underlying reasons.

Firstly the end of the ‘panoptic model’ of securing social order – which was necessary to turn masses of men into an army of industrial labourers.

However, today, the vast majority of people are integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrination, need creation rather than normative regulation. Most of us are trained as sensation seekers and gatherers rather than as producers and soldiers. We have a constant need for every deeper experiences, more intense than the ones before – this is the basis of a society based on seduction. It is not health but fitness which describes this society – being prepared to always be on the move!

There are three problems with the sensation gathering life-strategy in general…

Firstly, Fitness is always on the horizon, and is shot through with anxiety – you can always be fitter!

Second because fitness is solely about the Erlebniss, about sensations, it can never be intersubjectively reported or compared in any meaningful way – sensations remain entirely subjective – thus it breeds loneliness.

Finally – in fitness one is both the subject and the commander – you have to split yourself into two in order to drive yourself on – fitness requires total immersion, yet you also have to stand back and evaluate yourself – this is an impossible task for one person to accomplish.

All three of these lead to uncertainty, an unfocused free-floating anxiety.

Eroticism which ultimately focuses on the most extreme form of pleasure – organism has all of the above features – and thus eroticism is always a project – never complete, rarely fully satisfying.

Secondly sex is the material substratum of the cultural production of immortality and the supreme metaphor for the effort to transcend individual mortality and stretch human existence beyond the lifespan of individual humans. When sex is linked to reproduction or love then it reflects the efforts of humans to make themselves immortal, when it is detached from these then it loses this (?)

PM eroticism is perfect for constructing those PM identities which require Maximal impact and instant obsolescence.

Identities are now free floating, part of this is plastic sexuality – it has nothing to do with gender norms anymore. Parental control over child sexuality used to be regulatory – now we are suspicious of parents – child abuse etc. so we keep our distance. In short – all bonds of identity are being eroded.. This encourages us to rethink everything……

The problem for postmodern sexuality is that it is contradictory! Full of ambivalence!

18 – Is there life after immortality? This is a very obscure final chapter, quite an irritant to read.

Following Heidegger we know that our life means living towards death, and we know that our life is short.

Life appears to us (NB this is merely an assertion) as the only window of opportunity we have to transcend death, and culture is what we have (laughingly) built up to make our existence more permanent, less transient. (NB he’s getting all of this from Ernst Becker).

One way in which culture has convinced us of our immortality is through life after death: in the idea that the soul lives on after the body. He argues that this has not been disproved. However, following Weber, and to Nietzsche – Modern society no longer believes in God – but only because his existence cannot be proved.

In the absence of God, we build two bridges to try to deny our own mortality – individual level bridges, through a legacy of posterity and memory, but these are for the few only that stand the test time, so for the rest of us there are public bridges – two stand out – the family and the nation, both efforts to achieve ‘collective immortality’. There are others, such as football clubs, but none of them are serious competitors compared to the previous two.

However, families and nations have now ceased to be about perpetual duration.

Nations are now powerless compared to capital, and (interestingly) one thing which testifies to this is the ease with which new statehood is granted – smaller nations are easier for TNCs to deal with. Similarly with the family in the age of cohabitation and confluent love, relationships are not expected to outlive the people who make them up.

Given the crumbling of institutions which link the individual to universal values, then for this first time in history counting days and making days count is irrational. The consequences are as follows:

Firstly, the routes to individual immortality become crowded and as a result fame as a strategy is replaced with notoriety – which is results in a situation of maximal impact and immediate obsolesce.

Secondly, because even fame is now no longer a guarantee of immortality, then there is more urgency to enjoy mortal life, hence the moment becomes more precious.

Thirdly, the body, as all we have left (rather than the soul I presume) becomes the focus of our attention.

Fourthly, because the body becomes our temple, but we cannot be sure what effects this or that product has on it, we exist in a state of anxiety.
Ours is the first culture in history to not value the durable, we live to cast off, we live our life in episodes.

We have not been here before – we live in a state of continuous transgression and we do not seem to mind, but it remains to be seen what ‘being here’ and its consequences are like.

A Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’, Part Two – The Way We Think


Part Two – The Way We Think

Chapter Seven – Critique – Privatised and Disarmed

More than anything else so far this chapter represents a nice summary of some of Bauman’s major ideas.

What is wrong with our society is that it has stopped questioning itself. We are reflexive but it is a limited reflexivity which focuses on our own personal circumstance, or own strategies for navigating through life, but this reflexivity does not extend to looking at the conditions which determine or limit the kinds of strategies available to us.

There is criticism of society, but its nature has changed because the way ‘citizens’ engage with society is different – we now treat it like a caravan park rather than a shared residence – we expect most other people to keep their distance, and for minor changes to be made for our convenience, we no longer approach society like a house (or somewhere where we feel at home) –  in which we all share a lot a more in common and need to muck along together in order to get by. The later offers the chance for genuine autonomy and self-constituion, the former does not.

The causes of this change are deep rooted, to do with the transformation of public space, and the way in which society works and how it is perpetuated – summarised in the shift from heavy/ system society to a liquid/ network society.

The heavy modern society was one of Fordism and Panopticons and with the threat of Big Brother – and critique was aimed at liberating the individual from totalitarianism. This is no longer the case. We are still modern in the sense that creative destruction lies at the heart of our society, but two things have changed – firstly, the disappearnce of the idea of there being an end point, and secondly the disappearnce of the notion of the just society – that we can legislate our way through change – now adapting to changes has been privatised – it is up to the individual to find a way using his own resources.

Commentary – So Bauman is saying now that society is based on constant and rapid change  we are forced to continually adapt – we are told this is freedom, but it is not because we are compelled to choose, we have to make choices, and we are not free to not make choices (at least if we want to integrate into society in the normal ways rather than retreating from it, which, as Bauman mentions eleswhere, is a mere reaction to globally mobile capital rather than genuine autonomy). Moreover, we no longer have control over our society, because our globalised society is shaped from above by extraterritorial forces of Capital, and so we narrow our agency to small-things – such as building our CV or constructing our identity. In both of these things we settle for being consumers – we use the products provided by the market to differentiate ourselves, and we integrate a the level of society with other people as consumers based on these limited, apolitical, non-autonomous, individualised biographies. And bleakly, at the end of the day, limiting our reflexivity to identity construction via consmumption perpetuates our powerlessness viz political economy. 

All second modernity means is that experts dump their contradictions at the feet of individuals and leave them to make the choice – to seek biographical solutions to systemic contraditions – the problem is there are very few that are adequate, especially when you do not have the resources.

We live in the age of small change, not big government, and in the age of TINA – but individuals are individuals by decree, not de facto, and they lack the resources for genuine self constitution (which would require them to have some kind of control over their political economy). 

The privatisation of critique means constant self-critique – but because none of the strategies on offer are up to the task we also end up with scapegoats – various groups to blame our troubles on – what we need to do instead is to get back to Politics – and to translate private troubles into public issues and seek collective solutions to these.

This is difficult when the public realm has been colonised by private affairs – and the task of critical theory is now to reclaim this space, to repoliticise private concerns and public issues.  The task of politics today is to reconnect the abyss beetween the individual de jure and the individual de facto.

Further comment

(I’m mashing this up with bits from elsewhere) Whatever we do as individualised individuals is never enough (most of us at least) to guarantee us some kind of security and/or get everything we want (Capitalism in fact depends on this) – but we do not blame the system for this, we blame ourselves, because we have internalised to such an extent the message of individualism – mainly through TINA (this looks like a dig at Giddens’ 3rd Way) but also because the public realm has become colonised by private affairs – basically the media does not talk about politics, and if it does so, it does so through the lense of indivdualisation.

As a result rather than criticising society, we have constant self critique – rather than social critique – and if we fail we end up blaming ourselves, or others for their failure. However, we also have scapegoats emerging – most obviously the Underclass.

The solution is to reclaim Politics at the level of the Agora.

Questions/ tasks students could consider

Locate some examples of TV shows and websites which focus on privatised critique (hint- BB3 an C4 are good places to start!)

Locate some social-scapegoats and analyse the media discourse surrounding themselves

Locate some groups which are atempting to reclaim Politics. 


Chapter Eight – Progress – The Same and Different.

Having a grip on progress means having a grip on the present – it is little to do with the future. The problem is that today (following Bordieu) we have little grip on the present. These are the reasons…

  1. Not knowing who is going to steer us through postmodern times – the old power bases are gone – the Fordist Factory is uprooted, the political domain powerless, we are in the age of free-floating capital. It is as if we are all on a plane, but the pilots have left the cockpit.
  2. The absence of a vision of the good society – Economic Liberalism and Marxism are both dead, this is probably a good thing given the tendency of metanarrataive to the tendency for metanarratives to end in genocides.

Progress today is ongoing – constant improvement without an end – and it is privatised – it is up to us to lift ourselves up and get out of those elements of social life which we do not like.

However, because we live in a world of universal flexibility, Unsicherheit is everywhere, and thus very few people have a grip on (the ability to control) their present – and this means the goal of long term progress is hard to establish for most.

Instead, short termism seems to be the norm – coping, adapting, surviving is what most people do!

Life becomes episodic as a result.


Finally an easily understandable essay – a classic statement of progress in relation to modernity and postmodernity – Once again we could point to the Green Movement as a counter-exmaple fo this, but for most people I think the notion of ‘progress’ has become individualised and short-term.

Here he goes a bit further than previously – not only does Unischerheit individualise, it also changes the way we percieve the future and time in the present. Life has become short term and episodic This is an idea which Bauman develops in future books – suggesting that many of us no longer operate in ‘linear time’ but rather in ‘pointilist time’ – life has become a series of uncrelated episodes not really joined together by a coherent narrative – following, as I understand it, Erikson’s Tyranny of the Moment.

Unischerheit caused by free-floating capital and the declining power of the Nation State  flux, this individalises so we are left to construct biographical solutions to system contradictions, but so fluxy is the flux that it even changes our relationship to time – we are left in pointlist time, and so find it difficult to even construct an individualised biography – because doing so requires some purchase on the present, which we don’t have.

If this is correct hen we may in the future come to redefine ‘success’ ‘utopia’ ‘the good life’ or even ‘normality’ as the ability to construct a coherent (individualised) narrative of the self – even if that self is thoroughly depoliticised. In fact, through the CV building activities I’ve witnessed where I work, this could already be happening. In the realm of the social, Facebook is the other example.

In short we are forced to constructed biographies and then we become dependent on the system (CV industry and Facebook -etc.) to help us navigate our way through a Pointilist world. All of the time of course, we are thoroughly depoliticised in the process.


What would count as resistence to this system? Possibly groups like Adbusters that seem happy with Pointlilism but just aim to perpetually subvert, but then again are they self-constuting? Again, maybe the radical greens.

Chapter Nine – Uses of Poverty

We live a world of growing inter and intrasocietal inequality, this is the gravest problem we face. Much has been said about this, but little has been done to arrest it. This chapter questions the frame in which we address the problem and explores some possible solutions.

When we discuss poverty we only discuss the economic dimensions – we do not discuss the following….

‘the prescence of the large army of the poor and the widely publicised egregiousness of their condition… offsets the otherwise repelling and revolting effects of the consumer’s life lived in the shadow of perpetual uncertainty. The more destiute and dehumanised the poor of the world and the poor in the next street are shown and seen to be, they better they play that role in the drama which they did not script and did not audition for….The poor today are the collective other of the frightened consumers, the modern day hell which induces the average person to carry on working-consuming. What one learns is that the fate of certainty in poverty is worse than daily dealing with the uncertainties of working life, while focussing on their depravity rather than their deprivation enables anger to be chanelled to them (like burning effigies).’

The problem is that there are fewer and fewer jobs – there is a crisis of unemployment – capitalism does not need that many people to be in work, it is that simple!

This is a serious problme because beyond providing income, work, or livelihood, employment is the activity on which genuine, progressive self-assertion rests, and in the era of flexibilsation, this is lost – This is our probllem, without stable work we have a mass existential crisis.

Our crisis is caused by the political economy of uncertainty – global capital moves around dismantling order – to which neoliberal nation states capituaulate by competing in a race to the bottom, through the processeses of dregulation and further privatisation. Today capital maintains power not by legislation but by destabilising – by leaving behind privatised individuals who lack the capacity to organise effectively. Crippling uncertainty is the latest tool of globally mobile capital.

What we need is for politics to catch up with the power of capital. We need to challenge capital (especially finance capital) based on a concept of the common good.

Can nation states rise to the challenge? Basically no, their problem is that they are inward looking, doomed to be local. Following Alain Gesh – what we need is a New Internationalism, and to date there are few agencies doing this – Mostly the large NGOs but then the solidarity they garner is sporadic.


By now it is becoming clear that for Bauman the biggest challenge facing humanity is that of how to regulate international Capitalism – again, drawing on what he has said elsewhere –

Tasks – Find out some of the worst examples of harms done by ‘Capital Flight’ – This shouldn’t be too difficult! Research into some of the proposed solution (beyond the Robin Hood Tax!)

Chapter Ten – Education: Under, For and In Spite of Modernity…

What is functional in education today is not the knowledge we learn, not learning to learning, but learning to unlearn the habits we have learned. In the postmodern world, with no fixed frame of references, forgetting is the key skill.

Universities do not fit the postmdodern era –

They offer a model of learning in which there is a clear body of knowledge to be learned, passed down by authorities, which does not fit a world in which there are knowledges and no clear authorities, but huge cultural relativities.

Knowledge has now become radically democratised – in the age of the internet – and episodised – rather than it being linear.

In the age of flexibilised working, quick training and re-training courses fit better.

A university education does not make economic sense.

The kind of long-term linear, structured learning they offer only makes sense within the time of eternity or the time of progress – modernity put paid to the former, postmodernity to the later.

The intellectual authority of the unviersity, and of academics has been undermined by the mass media – Intellectual authority use to be measured by the number of people who would come to listen to a person, then the number of books sold, but now it is the amount of air time someone gets – and here Dallas has more importance than Philosophy. In the era of the media public attention is scarce and notoriety the main currency – maximium impact then immediately forgetting is the name of the game – the kind of long search for truth you find in universities will not hold the public’s attention – so academic knowledge will not make it into the public domain.

Finally, the claim that scientific and technological knowledge is superior is open to question following Foucault and Beck.

So what do universities do – they can either subject themselves to market forces – and compete – letting the market judge what is socially useful knowledge – or they can withdraw into ivory towers – both change fundamentally the role of the university – (note the later is not autonomy, it is irrelevance.)

The future of the university lies in mutlivocality – the task of pilosophers of education is how to plan for this when there is no one central authority and how to incorporate open-ended knowledges into the process.

No Comment, other than to say I am wondering how long teaching has a profession?

Chapter Eleven – Identity in the globalising world.

In the mid 1990s the issue of identity became immensley popular in the social sciences – this chapter explores why.

(142) ‘Anxiety and audacity, fear and courage, despair and hope  are born together. But the proportion in which they are mixed depends on the resources in one’s possession. Owners of foolproof vessels and skilled navigators view the sea as the site of exciting adventure, those condemned to unsound and hazardous dinghies would rather hide behind breakwaters and think of sailing with trepidation. Fears and joys emanating from the instability of things are distrbuted highly unequally.

The idea of identity as an unfinished project and that individuality is a product of society is by now a trivial truth but what needs to be stated more often is that our society also depends on how the process of individuation is framed and responded to.

The notion that we have to become what we are has been around for a long time, the renewed focus on this is because of the radical disembeddedness of postmodern life – the places we might embed ourselves into are shifting – If we are running, the finishing line keeps moving, the lanes change and the track itself shifts.

The task of identity now is not that of a pilgrim – knowing where he is going, and figuring out the best way to get there but of a vagbond, not knowing where to go…. The task of identity is to make a choice and then defend the frame you construct from being erroded, which it might well be.

Eriksen said that the identity crisis of adolesents end when one feels one has a grip on oneself – when one has developed a sense of sameness and continuity. This view has aged – today we live in era when a constant identity crisis is the norm – in a world where things shift – having a continuous identity means to shut off options, it restricts one’s freedom too much – and so people prefer light identities – fluid connections which involve non-binding commitments – so that they may move on quickly. The postmodern subject has to be flexible, so when you reach your goal, you are not yourself!

The power of global capital has escaped inditutional politics, and in response people have retreated into the narrow, local concerns of life politics rather than Politics — These are self-perpetuating – and it is in this context that the growing interest in life-politics needs to be scrutinised.

P150 – Cristopher Lasch — Quoteable — In the age of precarity where we have no grip over global capital we retreat into that which does not matter – but people kid themselves – thus we get into therapies, the wisdom of the east, jogging… These are things which do not matter, and away from things that do matter but about which nothing can be done.

In all of the above ways, we retreat from what really matters (which is figuring out how to control global capital, and how to get on in an increasingly diverse world).

Today we use the word community to refer to fleeting connections, but it is not real community we are forging… and in doing so we also put up boundaries, and we create pegs on which to hang our fears.

The process of identitification as it stands lubricates the wheels of globalisation – The fact that we retreat from Politics allows Capital even more freedom.


This is basically something I have thought for a long time – Cultural studies is simply irrelvant as are many studies on identity, indeed the whole focus on postmodern identities – absolutely pointless – espeically when not grounded in the constext of political economy.

Nice little summary this – Globally mobile Capital makes us retreat from Politics and into the realm of identity construction and the formation of communities based on weak ties (which are not weak communities on which Sociology focuses – but focussing on these and ‘telling their stories’ can tell us nothing.

I guess what’s interesting about the end bit is that Bauman’s suggesting that Sociology should be focussing more on the alternatives – how we control globally mobile Capital – it should have a Political agenda rather than focussing on what is immediately obvious (which is just identity-fluff). Useful for teaching value freedom this!

Chapter Twelve  – Faith and Instant Gratification

Starts with Seneca –  In his dialogue ‘On Happy Life – he notes that the problem facing those who seek the pleasures of instant gratification is that the pleasures fade quickly – thus there is no lasting happiness in such a strategy. He also noted that the kind of people who seek such pleasures care not for the past, present or future.

What in Seneca’s time was limited to a few people is today the case at the social level – The past offers us no guidance in the present, which is out of our control and the future seems full of hazards – hence more of us escape into the short-lived pleasures of instant-gratification.

It is unclear whether a long-term investment will be useful to us in the future – assets all to easily may become hinderances, and so times are hard for faith/trust/ commitment.

I’m not actually sure Bauman means when he says ‘assets’ – this doesn’t seem to apply to property, for example? Perhaps he means investments in ‘consumer commodities’, or in education?

The primary reason for this is the flexibilised nature of work – soon market demand will be met by 1/3rd of the population – unemployment and thus precariousness is structural.

Also, in the realms of consumption, we have learnt to see products as things we buy for short-term use, not long-lived.

In such a situation it makes sense to seek only temporary commitments with others, no investment in lasting relationships, because we know not what the future will bring. We tend to see relationships as things to be consumed, rather than produced (dating sites a such a great example of this!). Relationships are more likely to last until further notice – when they stop providing gratification, rather than being worked through.

Uncertainty and episodic lives tend to go hand in hand – it is unclear which is cause and which is effect.

An important aspect of faith is to invest in something which lasts longer than an individual human life – This used to be the family, but the typical family today may be made and unmade several times in the course of one’s life.

There is little else that we can look to to provide lasting values to commit to… And until we do something about the looming threat of insecurity this is unlikely to be the case.


I wonder if some people now regard their social media profiles as symbols of their immortality? Where you gather together photos and comments with you at the centre,  rendering the need to make a more serious investment in anything even less necessary!

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s The Indivdualised Society (preface)


It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the signficance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorzing the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the indivdual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuus invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a pyschological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierearchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most viscious when they are biograpical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrataive that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitutue society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first. 

Why does it cost so much to raise a child?

How much, on average, does it cost to raise a child?

It topped £225 000 in 2014, for the first 21 years of a child’s (/kidult’s) life, including university tuition fees. (No prizes for spotting the middle class bias in this analysis). The costs break down as follows:

  • £86 K – Childcare
  • £74K – Education (includes university fees)
  • £20K – Food
  • £17K – Holidays
  • £11K – Clothes
  • £10K – Hobbies
  • £7K – Leisure
  • £5K – Pocket Money

How does this compare historically?

To be honest, I spent several minutes digging around the net and couldn’t find anything specifically focussed on this relating to the UK, but I did find this infographic from the US…..

rising costs of kids USA

From my own experience in the UK, if I think back to my own childhood/ kidulthood (’73 -’94) the cost of raising moi would have been nowhere near £225K. The combined cost of childcare and education would have been precisely £0, I couldn’t comment on food, but the cost of everything else would have been about half of what it is in 2014. Then again I am proper working class roots, so I would have had below the average amount spent on me (and it never did me no harm!)

Why are parents spending more money on children today?

In this article Christopher Carr points out that we need to look at what exactly parents are spending more money on – He points out that relative expenditure on basic needs such as food and housing have decreased since the 1960s, and most of the increase is being spent on caring for children’s emotional and psychological needs – With the biggest areas of increased expenditure being on child care, education, and (in the US) health care, and to a lesser extent hobbies and leisure.

He interprets this as a positive trend – simply indicative of the average family being wealthier now than they were in the 1960s, able to invest money in their children’s well-being. He does, however, point out that poorer families still struggle to meet their children’s needs on low incomes and some of the health-care expenditure is being spent on managing new health problems amongst kids such as obesiety and range of emotional disorders, so this is good for most but certainly not for all.

Personally I don’t see this as a positive trend at all. This analysis misses out a number of underlying ‘structural’ changes which effect the cost of raising a child….

(1) Given that the largest expdenditure item is on childcare, the single most obvious trend which lies behind this is that today both parents work which means they have little option but to spend £86K on childcare.

(2) The changing nature of childhood – children grow up later, and parents increasingly think its normal to assist their children financially into their 20s, by paying for some of their children’s university tuition fees for example (of course the introduction of these fees is something which has itself raised the cost of raising a ‘child’).

Behind this second factor lie a number of other factors (which I’m not going into here) – Such as greater gender equality, social policies (or lack of them), rising norms of consumption, probably house-ownership, probably also the ageing population.

(3) Originally I thought this would be more signficant, but advertising to children and pester-power also contribute –  as parents feel the need to give into their children’s demands for unnecessary crap. However, given that the major expenditure areas are on childcare and education, and only a measly £30K on leisure etc., this only makes up a relatively small part of overall expenditure on children. However, for lower income families, this kind of figure will serve to ‘lock them in’ to the system for a couple more years at least.

(4) Finally, you might like to consider whether the colonisation of the lifeworld of today’s love-struck couples have anything to do with the rising costs of childcare – It could be that today’s 20 somethings have been socialised into a historically unusual high-consumption norm – so they spend a fortune on keeping their relationship going (holidays/ home-decor/ 2 cars/ shopping trips/ gifts/ days out) during their 20s, which pushes them into a situation where they have a relatively small deposit for their first house,  and so require a large mortgage, with the attendant massive interest payments over 25 years, and it is this in turn that causes number one above – both partners needing to work – in order to maintain this high-consumption lifestyle which they then go on to socialise their children into.

In Conclusion…

If you’re a parent reading this I suggest that you grow up yourself (in the spiritual sense of the word) and stop buying crap you don’t need. If you’re a child, ditto. Instead, try and find ways of being happy/ constructing an identity (if you must do this) which are not rooted in uncessary consumption, ultimately you’ll end up being much less shallow and much more interesting.

Finally – Here’s a nice alternative parenting style - which avoids spending shed loads of money on them. Or you could just not have kids, and save yourself £225K, not to mention the planet.

Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Five – Community

Bauman starts of the chapter summarising the liberal-communitarian debate about the relationship beetween the individual and society.

He reminds us that the individual according to the likes of Kant, Descartes and Baccon, could come to truth by using pure reason, and that all individuals if just left alone from the distortions of community would arive at the same notions of truth.

Communitarians criticised this by pointing out that the individual could never be free because individuals are socialised – e.g. through language.

But Bauman points out that it was never clear whether the critiques were saying that the image of the self-contained individual was untrue or just harmful.

Today, says Bauman, the liberal-communitarian debate concerns whether or not liberating the individaul from communal constraints is good or bad. Also today, communities are more like a light cloak rather than an iron cage and the reason why we are concerned for community is because it is in decline. Furthemore, communities when spoken about are postulated – we can comment on them because we are not really bound by them, they are a choice.

Sociologically speaking, communitarianism is an expected reaction to the liquification of life…. yet today the word community is used loosely… the community in today’s communitarian gospel is not that of Gemeinschaft, it is to be chosen (and we have no choice but to choose) – a choice between different identity reference groups.

However…. the communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is… hostile – a wilderness with enemies. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle outside. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter. In Jock Young’s words ‘The desire to demonize others is based on the ontological uncertainties’ of those inside. An ‘inclusive community’ would be a contradiction in terms. Communal fraternity would be incomplete without that inborn fratricidal inclination.

(172-176) Nationalism, mark 2

The community of the communitarian gospel is an ethnic community – the choice is either between being at home or being homeless – it is an essentialising idenitity, (a master identity?).

Here Bauman argues that the nation state was the only success story of ‘community’ in modern times.  he discusses the similarities between nationalism and patriotism (both are basically agressive, not gentle) before suggesting that both are based on exluding others – nationalism is closed, and relies on the vomitting out strangers approach, but at least patriotism is more open ended, it invites people in – but only with the aim of ingesting their difference, still leaving others outside.

(176 – 182) Unity – through similarity or difference?

Both Nationalism and Patriotism depend on ‘othering’ – Unity comes from setting up a boundary and then emphasising the difference between us and them.

He now draws on Bernard Crick to propose another type of unity – that based on unity and conciliation – were people pursue self-identification in a multitude of ways and the ‘polis’ is one of onging negotiation and conciliation of differences.

This later, argues Bauman is the only one which is compatible with liquid modernity (so nationalism is no longer relevant?) – Now that disembededness/ individualisation etc. are so advanced, we must either construct a society in which different people can live together collectively, negotiating and reconciling their differences, or we create a society in which we basically avoid eachother and those who are different to us.

We seem to be in the process of creating the later, at least those in power do….. as evidenced in cyber-enclaves and gated communities, which are privatised solutions to insecurity which cost (while we leave the poor outside in ghettos).

He now sites Sennet who puts a pyscho-sociological gloss on this….

The image of the community is purified of all that may convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who ‘we’ are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual…. What is distinctive about this mythic sharing in communities is that people feel they belong to eachother, and share together, because they are the same… the ‘we’ feeling, which expresses the desire to be similar, is a way for men to avoid the necessity of looking deeper into each other.

Bauman goes on to say that this is also a bid to avoid confronting vexing questions such as whether the self, frightened and lacking in self-confidence is actually work loving in the first place and whether it deserves to be the basis of a design for society.

In another place (In search of politics 1999) I have discussed the unholy trinity of uncertainty, insecurity and unsafety… each one generating anxiety… with the access to the sources of these out of reach, the pressure shifts elsewhere, to the realm of bodily, domestic and environmental safety. As a result the ‘safety problem’ tends to be chronically overloaded with worries and cravings it can neither carry away or unload. The unholy alliance results in the perpetual thirst for more safety, a thirs which no practical measures can quell since they are bound to leave the primary and perpetually prolific sources of uncertainty untouched.

(182-184) Security at Price

Communitarianism assumes that the cost of increased security is individual freedom. The two cannot be increased simultaneously. Also, the vision of communitarianism is one of an island that protects against the stormy sea, the idea of mastering the sea itself is already abandoned.

Bauman now draws on Durkheim – Society for Durkheim (a view credible at the time) is that body under whose protection we shelter from the horror of our own transcience…. he cites the following quote to emphasise how irrelevant Durkheim’s vie are today… ‘Actions which have a lasting quality are worthy of our volition, only pleasures which endure are worthy of our desires’.

The body and its desires are now longer lived than in Durkheim’s day, but nearly everything else is more transcient – hence the body (along with community) is the only place we can look to for security.

He rounds off this section by suggesting that the body and the community are the only places where we might find security and certainty, and they are lonely places. This has happened because the Nation State has dissolved itself of the responsibility of providing security, or of guaranteeing the security of its citizens.

(185-192) After the Nation-State

There is little hope of salvaging the security and certainty servicecs of the state. This has been erroded by the new global powers (of capital) with the awesome extraterritoriality, speed of movement and evasion/ escape ability; retribution for violating the new global brief is swift and merciless. Indeed, the refusal to play the game by the new global rules is the most mercilessly punishable crime, which the state powers, tied to the ground by their own territorially defined sovereignty, must beware of committing and avoid at all cost….. More often than not, punishment is economic. Insubordinate governments, guilty of protectionist policies or generous public provisions for the ‘economically redundant’ sectors of their populations’ would be refused loans or denied reduction on their debts; local currencies would be made global lepers, speculated against and pressed to devalue, local stocks would fall head down on global exchanges… global investors would withdraw.

Sometimes actual war is necessary, as was the case with Yugoslavia….

Bauman now outlines how history up until heavy modernity was a war over space….. between the settled and the nomads, bewteen the bigger and the smaller,  no longer, today the war is between the quick and the slow. He then argues that what global capitalism wants is the right to be free from commitments, while leaving the tricky issue of security to local goverments, at whatever level these exist.

Four pages are now devoted to outlining the failures of NATO’s attempts to police conflicts. Bauman argues the trend is likely to be to less engagement in local conflicts (the let the war burn itself out approach), before rounding off the chapter suggesting that globalisation has lead to increasing conflicts between communities rather than promoting the peaceful coexistence of communities.

(192-199) Filling the Void

Following Hobsbawm – TNCs would prefer a world with no nation states, or at least smaller states, because these are less powerful and easier to buy. Bauman likes Gidden’s juggernaut analogy, and further suggests that nation states desperately try steer it competitively – they have no choice but to try and attract economic forces favourably because votes depend on it.

The future is one of either supranational regulatory institutions or increasing precariatisation (following Bordieu) – Either way the NS will decline… If this continues, and possibly loses its monopoly on coercion (one if its defining features according to Weber and Elias), it is not at all certain that less violence would be the result. We might just see violence descend to the neo-tribal level.

What could fill this void are what Bauman calles explosive communities, which are born in violence and require violence to continue.

Bauman now draws on Rene Girard’s work on the role of violence in community. Gerard argues that a violent urge is always seeting beneath any community….. To deal with this it needs to be channelled and it is channelled outside of the community – Boundaries are drawn, others created, and unity of the community is periodically enforced by choosing victims from the others to sacrfice. (NB this is all very abstract!)

He now makes a few qualifications, but to be honest I only skim read the rest of this section as I’m not especially interested in this aspect of Bauman’s work at this time, although the point seems to be that explosive communities require violence to define themselves.

Cloakroom Communities

Bauman rounds off by saying that such explosive communities are also cloakroom communities – I’m not sure the word works, it’s supposed to capture their addiction to spectacle the high emotion. He also calls them carnival communities, a better choice of word.

Finally, Bauman mentions that such communities offer no means of grounding the individual, they do not adequately address the destabilising forces which give birth to them!