Sunday, March 14, 2004

Gary Sauer-Thompson has been making some very good yards of late. Running off half-backs like Don Watson and John Ralston-Saul helps, of course, but good on him. His mention of ol' Max Weber's idea of 'the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality' has kick-started some blogorrhoeaic musings about all this dyingthat's been going on.

In the 911 days since 911, my telly gave to me (again and again)
- three thousand deaths in Manhattan,
- then a couple of hundred in Bali,
- a few more thousand in Afghanistan,
- a few tens of thousands in Iraq,
- a few dozens in places like Morocco,
- Saudi Arabia,
- Russia,
- Turkey,
- and now another couple of hundred in Madrid.

That impressive list of human devastation represents by no means the bulk of orchestrated murder perpetrated in that time (Congo and Sudan come to mind, for instance), but I submit it's enough to give a body pause. Something is going on that should not be going on, and we need to find out what it is if we're not to help it along.

Tariq Ali called his book of essays on what ails us The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a title that instantly impressed this bemused unbeliever as he recalled the murderous piety that spewed from the mouths of the chief protagonists after 911. These were experienced propagandists and agitators, their dark talents forged in decades of politics and its 'extension by other means'. If there existed large audiences for their nonsense, I mused, violence might beget itself as never before.

But whence came these audiences? Well, David Malouf's recent essay on 'The Civil Tongue' suggests one possibility.

Americans are, by and large, a godlier people than ever. More so than the British, Spanish and Australians who joined America in its bloody romp through the Middle East. Perhaps that's because our history hangs on harder than we know; that the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Malouf implies as much when he links differences in political discourse between America and Australia with the moment of their initial westernisation.

"The American colonies, founded in the first decade of the previous century, inherited a different English altogether. Passionately evangelical and utopian, deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time, this was the language of the Diggers, Levellers, English Separatists and other religious dissenters of the early 17th century who left England to found a new society that would be free, as they saw it, of authoritarian government by church or crown. It was far removed from the cool, dispassionate English in which, 180 years later, in the 1780s, a parliamentary committee argued the pros and cons of a new colony in the Pacific. This was the language of the English and Scottish Enlightenment: sober, unemphatic, good-humoured; a very sociable and moderate language, modern in a way that even we would recognise, and supremely rational and down-to-earth."

There may be something in that, but it's not enough to explain the rest of the world's rush to arms. While the rush to evangelical Christian fundamentalism has been strongest in America, there is no doubt that 'revivalists' are doing good business in Australia, too. And while many have marched to what they fondly take to be the certainties of better days (even if they be the end of days), as many others have marched elsewhere. If Jesus ain't your bag, there's always Queen and Country, a host of separatists, new-ageists, deep ecologists, Lucasian Forceists and a phalanx of others - all promising a world for mere passionate allegiance.

I've some sympathy, mind. Life does grow dull hard and lonely among the glittering detritus of our plentitudinous age. This from Lindsay Tanner's Crowded Lives:

"To buy all these things that save time we have to work more. We've created a vicious circle of time consumption, where the cost is borne by our relationships. We spend less time with our families and friends in order to earn the money which will enable us to buy things like microwave ovens, which will eliminate the need to do certain things together … we have less time available, and less reason to spend that time doing things together."

As John Lennon said, life's what happens to you while you're making other plans.

And if you know something's missing, but you don't know quite what, revel in these prescient words, written by one RP Blackmur in 1956:

"The crisis of our culture rises from the false belief that our society requires only enough mind to create and tend the machines together with enough of the new illiteracy for other machines - those of our mass media - to exploit"

The more our mass media 'develop', the more we may be said to live in a media scape, a second-order universe that offers more in the moment than the primary version, but nothing beyond the moment where spectacle trumps significance. As Christopher Lasch noted in 1979, a surfeit of spectacles must engender cynicism, awareness of illusion, desensitisation, and an associated diminution of 'reality':

"Overexposure to manufactured illusions soon destroys their representational power. The illusion of reality dissolves, not in a heightened sense of reality as we might expect, but in a remarkable indifference to reality … This indifference betrays the erosion of the capacity to take any interest in anything outside the self."

But such a self does not fill the whole of an essentially social being. It can't. Eventually that being seeks something beyond itself - anything that promises to feel real, to offer meaning, to confirm our self as one recognised as a self by at least some other selves. In short, we're ripe for the plucking - desperate for belonging and purpose; ignorant about the world and its relationship with us. Recruitment ads for the military appeal to this product of our times. So does the embrace of the street gang. And the trouble with identities thus constructed is that they are built with ways in which we are unlike, preferably the very opposite of, others. We are good and they are bad.

This can hurt societies from within, as Edward Luttwak, of the ever-so-sensible Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argued in 1996. Ed thought the richest economies in the world were bent on more abundance at the price of more fragmentation and instability. He thinks it might be worth swapping a little of the former to keep the latter in check.

But who'd do the swapping, Ed?

You see, Jurgen Habermas reckons capitalist modernity is all about there being no identifiable morally accountable being in charge. It's the system, man. And this system is awfully reminiscent of Weber's iron cage. What's worse is that this disenchanting complex of economic and administrative logic has begun to colonise the realm of 'taken-for-granted' meanings within which we experience the world. Which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't ensure it had an answer for everything by disallowing those questions it couldn't understand.

As far as we westies are concerned, it's been going on for centuries, of course, but to many in today's world, it's all happening at once. And it's an awful lot for one generation to take. So much so that the destruction of the world within, can lead to a very belligerent disposition to the world without. This is how Marx once described the process by which feudal certainties dissolve in the acid bath of capitalist modernity:

"The spoliation of the church's property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a 'free' and outlawed proletariat."

Now, as Ol' Karl readily allowed, there's something to be said for tearing asunder "the motley ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors'" and sweeping away "all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions". But what is it to leave remaining "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest"? To leave him "compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind"?

I mean, just as the inhabitants of these cultures are freeing themselves from the unfreedoms of traditional worldviews, along comes a technocratic and universalising logic whose imperatives rob them of the capacity to negotiate the replacement of lost values and meanings. Where lay the possibility of steering social actions by communicative interaction, now exist 'the anonymous demands of an autonomous system'.

For Habermas, this process has produced a resistence within modernity. He explains as follows:

"Today economic and administrative imperatives are encroaching upon territory that the lifeworld can no longer relinquish … This went well as long as it only touched on functions of material reproduction that need not necessarily be organised communicatively … however, it seems that system imperatives are encroaching on areas which are demonstrably unable to perform their tasks if they are removed from communicatively structured domains of action. This is true of tasks such as cultural reproduction, social integration and socialisation."

In other words, that which we must negotiate and determine as necessarily-social-beings-necessarily-sharing-a-world (oh, and as citizens, if you're one who thinks s/he lives in a democracy) is on the verge of being taken out of the public sphere and into the autonomous and unaccountable dynamics of market forces.

In short, 'the economic has taken on a generalised function of regulating the totality of human existence'.

Fellow Frankfurter Herbert Marcuse and currently cool social commentator Cornelius Castoriadis theorise that, once you live in a system-dominated lifeworld, you've already lost the vocabulary and communicative habits to explore or critique your plight. You merely try to fill the emptiness with more, shinier, quicker acquisitions and the very idea that 'the good life' might be a matter for social deliberation is anathema. This spectre of unwitting unmeaning loneliness is precisely what drove Lasch to write his Culture of Narcissism, of course.

But those blokes are gloomier than Habermas, who sees resistance as a definitive aspect of modernity-gone-wild. For him, our new social movements are the inevitable face of resistance to the system's colonisation of the lifeworld. Our 'fragmented consciousness' is not able to construct satisfying rational narratives of social meaning, and we're not having it.

Processes of global integration inevitably and definitively bring with them also processes of disintegration (International Communications theorist Tom McPhail has modestly dubbed this 'the McPhail Paradox').

This disintegration of the world one knew, indeed of the self one thought one knew, brings to mind Schumpeter's fabled phrase, 'gales of creative destruction'. On the criterion of culture, not all that is destroyed is replaced, and beware the masses looking to fill the gaps. Beware, too, the demagogue bearing identities and the scapegoats that go with 'em. Before you know it, you could have Osama appealing to the suddenly worldless of the east and George to the spiritually gutted ennuiacs of the west. Allies in their self-identifying, meaning-reclaiming, purpose-inventing psychopathic enmity, they fill the system-gouged holes with life-affirming corpses, that we may be made whole again.

Which brings to mind John Maynard Keynes's own fabled phrase - the one about us all being dead in the long run. It's no good assuming the suddenly worldless or gradually gutted will behave sensibly while the system tears them apart on the off-chance of putting them back together later. They'll find alternatives that offer material and spiritual sustenance in the now. And all the saviours, tendentiously warped histories, blood-soaked affirmations, marginalised scapegoats and cathartic vengeance that they so often entail.

The problem is in the now and the solution must be in the now.

Part of that solution is defining 'globalisation' as something more than an economic trajectory (Keynes either thought too much of economics or too much of the discipline's practitioners), polities as more than markets, citizens as more than consumers, our time as more than commodity, audiences as more than commodities or consumers, culture as more than programming, and society as more than an aggregate of individuals. If 'the system' can't relent, culture will avenge itself, and if its life-affirming aspects aren't given sway, its death-dealing side will prevail.

Is prevailing.

To perceive a spiral of evisceration, pulverisation, incineration, disintegration, maiming, famine, desiccation and bereavement is one thing. To realise our fear of empty anchorlessness has led us to subscribe to logics and adhere to institutions part and parcel to this grand obscenity - that the system that destroyed our inner world and foreclosed our capacity to negotiate a new one is now deploying our ensuing angst to make us complicit in the destruction of everything else - well, at least it'd mean we're not as hopelessly committed to our own doom as messrs Marcuse and Lasch thought we were.

It'd prove Habermas had a point.

That we still want to be free.

And that we'll take the responsibility that comes with freedom.
political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

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