Tag Archives: Postmodernism

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)

Commentary
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.

Commentary

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.

Comment

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.

Holiday snaps – or not being in the moment as it actually is in order to represent the moment as it never was.

I’ve traditionally regarded tourists flocking to a photo opportunity as no better than flies flocking to shit. OK the analogy doesn’t quite work, given that the tourist taking a photo is engaged in a conscious reflexive act, while the fly heading for shit is behaving unconsciously, but it’s too good an opening line to miss, and I think we can all agree that a gaggle of flies and a gaggle tourists are irritating in equal measure.

The inspiration for this post comes from a recent experience of tourists-obsessively-taking-photos – during an excursion between the city of Asmara and the hovel of Nefasit. In fairness to the tourists this particular excursion did provide for particularly excellent photo-opportunities given that the journey was on a restored steam train, originally engineered during the Fascist occupation of Eritrea in the 1930s, which romantically chuffed its way through dramatic mountainous dessert terrain (ya know – tunnels, bridges, etc), finally ending in a poverty stricken rural village full of desperately poor, but not starving, and thus photographically acceptable, children.

The train was occupied nearly exclusively by wealthy tourists – (no surprise given that a ticket cost $50 dollars, the equivalent of a month’s wages for the average Eritrean) –all of whom had cameras – and they spent most of the journey alternating between taking pictures and cycling through their camera menus to check the pictures they’d just taken, and then back to taking even more pictures.

Now the one big gripe I have against the whole tourist-on-holiday-photo-obsession thing is this – when someone sees an inspiring vista, for example, and takes a photo of it, to my mind what they are doing is forgoing the opportunity to ‘be in the moment as it actually is’ (i.e. enjoying the scenery) in order to represent the moment as it never was (by capturing the ‘moment’ you never fully experienced on camera).

The gripe is rooted in the fact that I’m a big believer of being consciously rooted in the moment – being aware of whatever comes up – good or bad –that is, actually living in the moment. Surely the whole act of taking photos takes the individual away from the lived experience of the actual moment as it happens, away from our actual life as it really is?

In order to put this long held theory (some may say prejudice – although they would be wrong) to the test I decided to forgo taking in the scenery first hand, and instead donned a camera, and immersed myself in the touristic mire, and joined the merry throng of happy snappers. During the journey, we enthusiastically threw ourselves from left to right, or rushed back to front, to capture various images of the dramatic scenery –clickity clicking to the train’s chuffity chuffing.

As a result, I have a rare photographic account of half day in the life of Karl. What I find most interesting is just how totally unrepresentative these images of the day’s events are, as well as how little information they provide about the broader context of the excursion.

Just some of what the photographic account misses is the following – The sense of mild boredom as the train waits at the station in the morning for 30 minutes; the sense of my general irritation of not being able to get a ‘pure shot’ of the landscape because all the other bloody tourists are getting in the way; inevitably landscape photography can never portray the actual excitement of being there; once we’d stopped in Nefasit, you get no sense of the aimless meanderings of the tourists and their range of embarrassed reactions as the cheeky, local poor children hassle them for pens; and no sense of my thinking ‘ is this it? – One train line in the whole in country and it ends at this dead end place;  photos give you get no sense of the mild frustration of having to hang around for an hour and a half while the steam engine built up steam on the three stops it made on the return journey; and finally photographs don’t portray the headache and sick feeling that started to build up on said return journey – a sickness that got much worse later that day resulting in my lying in bed for the next day and a half – and of course the later event, which lasted four times as long as the train excursion, is not captured on camera, even though the experience of it was just as real.

So at the end of the day, my photos are not telling you about my actual experience of this half a day of my holiday, they are providing you with a highly selective account that gives you no meaningful insight into the actual context in which the pictures were set. In fact I don’t believe that it would actually be possible to reliably reproduce with any level of accuracy my actual experience of that half day. Photos can help provide an insight, but words, preferably delivered face to face, are necessary.

Now if I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to faithfully reproduce the experience through the medium of photography, then it is reasonable to assume that others are able to do so. So if people don’t take photos to reliably reproduce lived experiences then why do people take photos?

Why do people take photos?

While there are many individual-level reasons why people will take will take photos, in many instances, the actual act of photo taking is just the first stage in the broader process of identity construction. This broader process, of taking, selecting, and presenting photos, is all part of constructing what Anthony Giddens would call a ‘narrative of the self’ – one takes photos in order to publish them, along with a series of other photos from other places and other times, which together tell the ‘story of one’s self’.  Typically this presentation will be done through a social networking site such as Flickr or face book, or, for those closer friends and family, photos might be shared through a face to face session mediated through the computer or television.

So going back to my original ‘tourist-on-the-train scenario’ – when tourists take photos the chances are that they will be spending some of their time thinking about how one’s current photos compare and relate to one’s previous photos as well as contemplating how various members of one’s audience will react to some of the photos being taken – photos, in other words, may well be taken in the present, but they are taken with the past, and especially the future in mind.  Of crucial importance to most people’s photo taking here is the fact that photos are not merely taken for private enjoyment, they are taken with the intention of sharing them with others – photos are to be shared, they are not a private act but a public act – and this means there are a number of things we expect from our potential audience when photographing our lives.

Taking photos – sharing photos

The expectations of, or the demands we make on, our prospective audiences of course depends on the forum in which we intend to share our photos – sharing photos on Faceboook with hundreds of ‘friends’ is clearly different to sharing photos with closer friends in a face to face to face setting – but with both we are assuming certain things.

Firstly, when we display our photos we expect some kind of reaction – rather than no reaction – people don’t generally put photos on display to illicit zero affect – we except some kind of interest from at least some people.

Secondly, we probably expect this reaction to be positive rather than negative, we expect people to affirm that the events depicted are as special, exciting, dramatic, or as fun as we ourselves imagine them to have been. Even better would be comments affirming that we are ‘looking good’, and I imagine that the holy grail of positive commentary would be an affirmation that the photos we have taken, in conjunction with previous arrays of photos, confirm something about me as a person – ‘x loves his holidays’, ‘there’s y in da club – what a party girl’ – etc. etc. yada yada yada.

Thirdly, one might expect some kind of slightly deeper and more qualitative interaction based on shared experience – someone else may comment in more depth on one’s photos having been to the same destination or club for example. This is much more likely if photos are being shared with closer friends in a face to face context, which will allow for the possibility of some more detailed commentary on the photos and for some deeper questioning on the part of the audience about the context in which the photos were taken, and possibly about the rational for selecting certain photos over others.

In either case, what one doesn’t expect is disinterest or honesty – when one displays one photos, and thus when one takes one’s photo’s, one is expecting a positive reaction from one’s friends and family that affirms their positive life experiences and their own selective understanding of their self-identity.

Gatekeeping and the process of selecting photos for public consumption

Even in the initial phase of taking the photo, people are already involved in the process of gatekeeping – as taking photos involve selecting certain shots over others. Also, and contrary to popular opinion, one’s photographic repertoire probably doesn’t arise out of decisions freely made – the choices about what to take photos of and which ones to later display and which ones to exclude – are not choices freely made – rather they fit in with a set of pre-existing norms of photographic display – to go back to the example of the train – landscape pictures were definitely in, as were pictures of hovels in the landscape. Pictures of the train and train staff seemed to be popular, but I noticed very few people taking photos of tourists taking photos – which was the overriding theme of the journey in my mind. Furthermore, people were less inclined to take photos of Nefasitians in poverty, or of the juxtaposition between the poor children and wealthy tourists. So there were definitely general rules of photographic gatekeeping applied to the experience.

To generalize this out from the specific issue of holiday- snaps, a quick analysis on Facebook reveals that there are a set of rules that apply more generally to the selection and presentation of self through the static visual medium of the photograph.

  1. Photos will typically be of leisure activities not work activities
  2. Photos will typically be taken out in the public realm, not at home, except for when one hosts a party, is about to go to a party, or at Christmas. Good public venues for photos include pubs and night clubs, spaces with scenic vistas, and global cities.
  3. Photos will typically be of the subject and at least one other person, although the occasional photo of the subject alone is acceptable.
  4. Photos will be of the subject and friends engaged in ‘fun activities’
  5. Photos will be selected that always capture the subject, but necessarily all of one’s friends, in a flattering light.
  6. There will be a disproportionate amount of photos showing the subject doing atypical activities – such as ‘holiday snaps’ (going on holiday is, in reality, unusual, but it becomes usual on Facebook.
  7. Some photos will be of a humorous nature – fancy dress photos and silly poses are a good way of indicating that the subject has a sense of humour.

OK so there are some odd profiles that diverge from the rules above, these are just the general rules of expressing self identity through the static visual medium of the photo album. What conformity to these rules means, of course, is that the images with which we are presented are not indicative of the actual lived experience of the actual events that took place.

According to Jean Baudrillard, what we are effectively doing on Facebook is constructing a form of hyperreality – to go back to my example of the train journey -the actual event – the actual 6 hour train excursion is left behind – on Facebook I reconstitute it as something new and different in a virtual space – the actual event doesn’t matter – what becomes significant is the photographic storyboard I display – these selected fragments of the event become the new reality – more important than the actual reality – it is these flash points of the actual day which will be the things that people identify me with, these selected moments that I get remembered for, and it is these things that I will expect to discuss with friends in the future.

But there is another level of removal from reality – typically, the photos one takes of a particular event once uploaded to whatever social networking medium one prefers, will merge with other photos of other events – so say one has been on Facebook for half a decade and has hundreds or thousands of unrepresentative photos – what you end up with is a hyper-real social identity that is in no way indicative of the actual self being represented.

Conclusion – taking, selecting and presenting photos for public consumption – creating a fiction.

So taking photos means that we forgo the chance to merge the self with the actual experience and become one with the moment and instead we distance ourselves from the moment so that we can capture the experience on camera. We then combine some of the images taken with a selection of other images and present this visual collage to others, constructing, in Gidden’s terminology, a narrative of the self, and thereby a social identity more generally.

An important part of this process is that others reflect and comment on the selection of images that make up my ‘self-narrative’, reinforcing the idea that the atypical, exciting, fun, and dramatic events selected are of intrinsic value and should be those things which I identify with, and, simultaneously, that the typical, mundane events that I spend most of my time engaged in are not worthy of social commentary and not significant enough to be constitutive of my self- identity.

Of course in order for me to reasonably expect people to reflect upon and reinforce my visually mediated construction of my own self-identity I must reciprocate by reflecting and commenting on other people’s ‘self narratives’  – this ultimately means that this whole process of taking, selecting and presenting photos for public consumption forms the basis of fictitious relationships in which we relate to each other on the basis of a hyperreal representation of a tiny proportion of our actual life experiences – and this representation is typically an unrealistic selection of the exotic, the fun, the good, the desirable.

So I guess what I’ve taken 2500 words to say is that the reason I am slightly uncomfortable with the act of taking photos is that all too often this act perpetuates a collective denial of the reality of lived experience – an experience which is much more up and down , involves much more suffering, and much more mundanity than the images of life and the narratives of self that we construct for public consumption through our social profiles would suggest.

Given that I don’t want anyone to understand and relate to me through an account of my life which is so partial that it amounts to fiction, I think in future I may leave photography and the construction of the virtual narrative of self for others.