Wednesday, 29 December 2010

We don't choose the stuff we buy, the stuff we buy chooses us

Decentering of the subject

(From Firat and Venkatesh Postmodernity: The Age of Marketing; 1993)

The modernist project placed the human

being at the center, as the subject-that is,

as the agent that acts through and upon

others; nature and objects. The Cartesian

idea of the subject, as it is known, has dominated

modern thought. This subject is endowed

with the ability to act independently

and autonomously in the choice and pursuit

of one’s goals. This subject is also constituted

in terms of the separation between the body

and the mind (Rorty, 1979, pp. 142-145); a

precondition for the subject to graduate from

a state of being to a state of knowing. The

existential subject has now become the cognitive

subject. Knowledge acquisition for this

subject is possible by separating or distancing

oneself from a pure experience of being in

order to cievelop a cognitive understanding

of being; its context and conditions. Modern

society is organized to reflect and actively

promise the potential of the cognitive subject

by providing the knowledge and the means to

act through science and technology, The

products of modernity (of science) arc really

meant to serve the ‘subjects’ of modernity.

Postmodernists see this narrative of

modernity to be mythical or illusory. According

to them, there is, a confusion between

the subject and the object (products of the

market) as to who or what is in. control

(Hassan, 1987; Jameson, 1983). Rather than

the subject controlling the circumstances and

processes of life in one’s interactions with

the object, the objects are viewed as determining

the conditions and procedures of

consumption (Baudrillard, 1983b). In driving

cars, using microwave ovens, washing machines,

computers, and the like, the human

being is generally the follower of instructions,

the correct ways of doing things. One’s

actions are determined by the features and

structures of the products. One can as easily

visualize that the role of the human being is

to allow products to perform their functions

rather than products enabling the achievement

of human goals. Concerns for the health

of the economy, the market, often seem to

override the concern for the goals of individuals

in policies adopted by the state and/or


The confusion between the subject and

the object is further reinforced by the fact

that consumers tend to perceive themselves

as marketable items. This tendency is reinforced

by the marketing system in encouraging

representations of oneself as images. The

marketing orientation dominates not only the

positioning of products in the market by organizations,

but also in positioning of the

consumer itself, say, in the social market

(Far-at, in press). As briefly discussed earlier,

consumers assume different images and personalities

in different situations to make

themselves acceptable in each case. This is

much in evidence in today’s “body” culture.

For example, many consumers, male and female,

are increasingly buying plastic surgery

and body implants to customize parts of their

bodies to cultural expectations. There is a

distancing of one’s own gaze from one’s own

body to “view” oneself and scrutinize

one’s own images, assessing each fragmented body

part in terms of its contribution to these

images. This scrutiny often occurs from the

perspective of the other; that is, not from

one’s own, autonomous perspective, but from

the perspective of cultural expectations which

are internalized by the consumer (Emberley,

1987; Kroker and Kroker, 1987). This is really

a test of how well we fit the images

required for success. In this sense, fashion

becomes the metaphor for culture (Faurschou,

1990; Sawchuk, 1987). Such objectification

of one’s own body and self allows one

to be consumed; just like a product, acting

only to fulfill a prespecified function determined

by the market system. Specifically,

consumers become products consumed for

the production of other objects, in the offices,

production lines, and elsewhere.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Churlish reflections on a heartwarming story

Amid the heartwarming scenes that have accompanied the rescue of the Chilean miners over the past couple of days, I couldn't help but be reminded of Baudrillard's stubborn refusal to countenance the reality of the 1991 gulf war, as the TV broadcast nightly images of American missiles raining down on the Iraqi desert. It first struck me when, in a "context" piece on Radio 4, we were reminded that between 10 and 20,000 miners lose their lives every year in mining accidents. Put in the context of this loss of life, the joyous escape of the Chilean miners starts to look like a decoy, a distraction from the far more significant everyday reality which does not lend itself to the event-based format of news presentation. However, I'm not sure that it is the thousands of annual deaths that we are being distracted from.

The spectacular nature of the rescues and the tidy narrative structure lends itself irresistibly to the requirements of rolling news providers who have, consequently, fashioned from what are probably rather scrappy and confused raw materials in the Chilean desert, a global media event. Thus packaged by the media, the event takes on an irresistible reality. But the reality that is triumphantly being affirmed is less that of the very personal dramas of the people involved and rather a universalist notion of human sentiment, as refracted through the global media. How could it not be real, look at the joy on the faces of the loved ones as each miner emerges safely from the capsule. So we consume the joy that other people elsewhere are experiencing and associate it vaguely with an idea of common humanity, but one that is stretched so thin across the surface of the globe that it could only ever be symbolic.

I live in Barcelona and both the Chilean desert and the events that are unfolding there are very distant. Not, however, in the specially selected and packaged world of global news events. The media has erected, and struggles to keep aloft, a fictitious globalised world stitched together from scraps and fragments that can be re-packaged to conform to the narrative requirements of that world.

The media traffics in symbols of a globalised world which is not in fact any different from the symbols that represent it. In this tenuous version of reality, the story in the Chilean desert has proved to be a gold mine.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Change of Course

I'm going to put the cycle of posts "Globalisation, space-time compression and symbolic exchange" on the back burner for the time being. This is for two reasons; first because the extended piece of writing that I was hoping to develop wasn't really taking shape, suggesting that I probably need to approach it in a different way and second, because I haven't got so much time at the moment. Instead I intend to treat this blog more like a blog and post regular self contained shorter pieces. As well as this I will post more links and the like. I will post the writing and links that relate to my academic interests on this site and more free-form pieces over at my other blog The Long-Legged Fly.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Globalisation, Space-Time Compression and Symbolic Exchange. Part Two.

Human beings living at the beginning of the 21st century are freaks, and abnormalities. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing to be an abnormality, but there it is. In the 50,000 years or so that Homo sapiens has been recognisably human, that’s to say using language, playing music and inventing mythologies, our cultures and societies have been articulated, reproduced and recorded orally. An oral culture is not simply a culture without writing and literacy, to be characterised purely negatively. It is a different culture with a different way of conceiving of and inhabiting the world (Ong, 2002). It is a culture in which knowledge is not contained in books which must be silently studied, but in the body of the one who knows, who will then transmit that knowledge by means of stories, poems, song and mnemonic devices (Mignolo, 1995). This must establish a far more intimate connection between people than that that to which we are accustomed in literate societies. There is no reason to suppose that oral transmission is inferior to literary transmission. There is increasing evidence that the oldest and most venerated texts of western culture, the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, were imperfect transcriptions of older oral “texts” (Ong, 2002). What’s more, there is no reason to suppose that the world of someone in an oral culture is in any way deficient with respect to the world of a literate person. Rather it will be qualitatively different, articulated exclusively within the resonant, intimate and inclusive medium of sound (McLuhan, 1963). Just as a bat inhabits a qualitatively different world from that of a human, one which is constructed through the medium of sonic echoes, so the oral conception of the world is qualitatively different from the literate one.

This matters when it comes to thinking about globalisation, because one central, yet often overlooked, feature of globalisation is the globalisation of a peculiarly European form of literacy. At its inception, with the advance party of missionaries preparing the territory, teaching the natives to read and write went alongside clothing them and converting them to Christianity. This represented, and continues to represent, an unquestionable hallmark of civilisation and development. I doubt that many people would raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of literacy in the United Nations Development Agency’s Human Development Index (HDI). Given the de facto development of the world since the early days of colonialism, this is hardly surprising. However, this doesn’t mean there is anything natural or inherently superior about a literate conception of the world, it simply demonstrates the extent to which colonialism and European influence generally, were able to dominate the territories that they encountered not only through force, but also through the imposition of alternative conceptual frameworks, in terms of which the dominated were obliged to re-orientate themselves.

None of which is intended as post-colonial hand wringing. I think territorial aggression and domination seem to be a virtual universal constant in human history so we can hardly be surprised that European peoples exploited their technologies for just those reasons. It is equally unsurprising that their conceptual apparatus should end up suffocating indigenous schemata much as the Strangler Fig smothers its host. What’s more, whilst the capitalist political economy that currently dominates the world clearly has its origins in European thought and practice, it no longer respects the well-ordered geo-political system of nation states. Rather those in a position to mobilise capital are able to link up with each other irrespective of geography and tradition (although both these still exert a powerful influence). However, the conceptual framework which we employ in order to map and understand the world and which, consequently, lies at the heart of our understanding of the process of globalisation could have been very different. An interesting, though unfashionable, way of exhibiting this is to try to imagine how peoples unaffected by European colonialism might have conceived of, or still conceive of, time and space.

In his article, “Steel Axes for Stone age Australians” (Sharp, 1952) Lauriston Sharp described how the Yir Yoront aborigines, in what was fast becoming Australia, orientated themselves within a temporal framework that was quite different from that of modern Europeans, one that must have produced an entirely different sense of identity.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Europeans imagine themselves to be irreducible individuals, existing at one moment along a temporal sequence that stretches far into the past and will, presumably, stretch far into the future. The individual is, of course, greatly influenced by his predecessors and by the historical conditions that gave rise to the present, but he is essentially different from them, by virtue of the fact that he is just this one here, occupying precisely this position in the historical progression of time and the geographical expansion of space.

The Yir Yoront, however, did not experience themselves as just this one here. The name of a member of the tribe refers to an ancestral archetype which both defines who the person is and how they are expected to behave. That behaviour, the basic pattern of the person’s life, his or her relations with others in the village and, to a certain extent, his or her personality, is thus experienced as an ahistorical garment which the tribe member wears, the origin of which is to be found, not within the person, but within the archetypes which, in fact, define who the person is.

“A man called Dogchasesiguanaupatreeandbarksathimallnightlong had that and other names because he believed his ancestral alter ego had also had them; he was a member of the Sunlit Cloud Iguana Clan because his ancestor was; he was associated with particular countries and totems of this same ancestor; during an initiation he played the role of a dog and symbolically attacked and killed certain members of other Clans because his ancestor (…) really did the same to the ancestral alter egos of these men; and he would avoid his motherinlaw, joke with a mothers distant brother, and make spears in a certain way because his and other peoples ancestors did these things. His behavior in these specific ways was outlined, and to that extent determined for him, by a set of ideals concerning the past and the relation of the present to the past.(Sharp, 1952)

In one sense this doesn’t seem so different from the European experience. I’m English because my forefathers were English. I associate myself with certain places and symbolically important objects because of my antecedents. What seems to distinguish the case of Dogchasesiguanaupatreeandbarksathimallnightlong from John Smith is that whereas the later has a personal identity which is constituted in large part by the idiosyncratic choices he makes and fortunes that befall him, the later seems to be defined entirely by his communal heritage, right down to the most idiosyncratic details of his life story. In no aspect of his life can he be considered just this one here, he always orientates himself with respect to a mythological past which is, in fact a-historical. A reasonable objection by a European observer would be that, whilst the psychological disposition of this relation to time might be comprehensible, it would surely not stand up to the contingencies of the real world which would guarantee that the events of an individual’s life would not conform to any pre-ordained archetype. Sharp acknowledges this, but explains it in the following way,

“But when we are informed that Dogchasesetc. had two wives from the Spear Black Duck Clan and one from the Native Companion Clan, one of them being blind, that he had four children with such and such names, that he had a broken wrist and was left handed, all because his ancestor had exactly these same attributes, then we know (though he apparently didnt) that the present has influenced the past, that the mythical world has been somewhat adjusted to meet the exigencies and accidents of the inescapably real present.” (Sharp, 1952)

To this extent, the mythical world, as well as producing and defining the world of the present, is also always in the process of being produced. So this oral relation to time might be considered to be homeostatic in nature. Whereas the past for European peoples is nailed down in books and on databases, for the Yir Yoront it is, or was, contained exclusively in memory and that which is forgotten, consequently, ceases to exist. That which does exist, in terms of mythological memory, is in need of continual adjustments to ensure its isomorphism with experiential reality just as experiential reality needs constant adjustments to ensure its isomorphism with the mythological past.

An illustration of the extent to which the Yir Yoront is capable of regulating its reality is shown by the fact that some eighty years before Lauriston Sharp carried out his research, in one of their rare encounters with Europeans, the Yir Yoront were confronted by, and confronted, a party of cattlemen, who, in response, opened fire on them, killing 30 of their number. This was all well recorded by the cattlemen, however in extensive interviews with Yir Yoront just 70 years later they had no collective memory of the events. It had obviously not been considered expedient to preserve that aspect of reality, so it was discarded (Sharp, 1952)

Once again, the reasonable European observer would reasonably say that irrespective of what the Yir Yoront choose to remember or not, the event did take place. It is hard to argue against that. Nonetheless, I am inclined to think that this gets to heart of the conceptual colonialism that the European peoples have so successfully imposed upon the rest of the world. This will be a recurring theme.

Mignolo, W. (1995). The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Colonization and Territoriality. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

McLuhan, M. (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge

Sharp, L. (1952). Steel axes for stone age Australians. Human Organization, 11(1 )

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


The series of posts, "Globalalisation, Space-Time compression and Symbolic exchange", will continue just as soon as I've worked out what the hell it is I want to say. In the meantime, a couple of things.

First, some further reflections on the treadmill on my other blog, The Long Legged Fly. This loosely connects to my discussion of Hartmut Rosa's metaphor of the treadmill in the series of posts, "What is Social Acceleration".

Also, further to the discussion of Earth and World in the last posting on this blog, I came across this short piece by Heidegger entitled "Why Do I Stay in the Provinces". Let's say it provides ballast to postmodern fripperies. I want to ridicule the piece, especially the last lines, but can't quite bring myself to do it.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Globalisation, Space-Time Compression and Symbolic Exchange. Part One.

What a disorientating, exhilarating image that must have been the first time it was beamed back to Earth and then put out for general consumption, not just in the western world, but everywhere where there were television sets or newspapers.


Even the word has a dislocating, uncanny quality to it. Sunrise is a word, an image and an idea, which takes its place seamlessly in the framework of words, images and ideas with which we are well familiar. Sunrise; signifying the dawn of a new day, signifying the romantic contemplation of our relation to nature, signifying a precise moment in the morning, it contains a potential potency, albeit one that requires the poet or the artist to retrieve it from the anesthetising familiarity of its habitual usage. Earthrise, however, did not require the poet or the artist to exhibit it in its strangeness and singularity. It didn’t fit into any prescribed contexts of usage or practice, save from the imaginings of science fiction. Earthrise did not simply show the Earth as it had never been seen before, it showed the Earth for the first time; a whole, unsupported, sphere situated in… what? Space? Nothingness? The Solar System? Our central nervous system did not evolve to make sense of perspectives such as this. Here was visual evidence that we didn’t only inhabit London or Delhi or Mexico or China, but that we also lived on a terribly fragile looking planet, what Carl Sagan was soon to liken to a mote of dust.

And I imagine the moment when people from all over the planet first saw that image and were, momentarily, wrenched from the familiarity of the many and various worlds that they inhabited, both individually and collectively, captivated by the image of what, within a hitherto unknown way of thinking, might be considered home. Was there, in that moment, an acknowledgement, however fleeting, of the reality of the planet, of Earth and of space? And would not such an acknowledgement inevitably impel a radical relativisation of the systems of meaning in which people found themselves, be they religious, familial or nationalistic. Did this not represent a reality upon which everyone was compelled to agree?

I don’t know. Perhaps it was nothing like that. I was one at the time and so probably had different priorities. What is clear is that any force that the image once had has long since been drained away as it has taken its place in the field of images that we consume and discard in the traffic of our everyday lives. In fact, it is striking how, in the intervening period, interest in space exploration seems to have evaporated and we seem to be more entrenched than ever in the networks of meaning that constitute our various worlds, as if we were intolerant of the absolute non-functionality of this extra-terrestrial perspective on terrestrial existence.

What I find interesting about this is that the image of the Earth from space seems to represent the culmination of a process of mapping, rationalising and objectifying space that was set in motion at the start of the renaissance. This was the proof, that was no longer even required, that all of those maps really did represent an objective reality. And yet now, 40-odd years on, that proof no longer seems quite so incontrovertible and the rationalisation of space which it vindicated no longer seems quite so secure. What was dislocating about Earthrise was that it referred to an ungraspable, inconceivable reality in the face of which we could only wonder. Now, however, thanks to Google Earth, the updated version of Earthrise, the manipulable globe that shimmers on our screens is fully incorporated into the networks of meaning and significance that constitute our everyday lives. From planning holidays to zooming in on familiar places in our home-town, the Earth has been truly domesticated and assimilated into our mundane routines.

All of which raises the question of Earth and of World and the relationship between them. Is the Earth an objective reality upon which we can agree? Does the Earth take its place within the play of signifiers that constitute our world? Is our world grounded upon the Earth or is the Earth dynamised by the place it holds within our world? Can a sense of the Earth resist such assimilation?

Heidegger addressed this question in his article, The Origin of the Work of Art (1). For Heidegger the work of art provided the locus for a struggle between the antagonistic, but mutually dependant phenomena of Earth and World. In Heidegger’s account, ‘World’ is the less problematic of the two terms. World is concerned with human goals and meanings and constitutes a totality of such meanings. Put simply, it corresponds to our everyday usage of the term when we speak of the “world of work”, the “art world” or the “Islamic world”. In this sense we obviously inhabit multiple worlds all of which interpenetrate each other at various points. Importantly, such a notion, while being well understood, is not grounded upon, or dependant upon, any geographical, or objectively quantifiable idea of space. World, in this sense, is a world of significance and significations. From this point of view, we can rightly assert that the Earth exists as an object in the world, in so far as it, or at least its representation, its idea or its image, is operable within the flow of significations that constitute our world (in the worlds of astronomy, geology and climate studies for example). For Heidegger, Earth is the problematic term. While the work of art seeks to uncover a world, Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes” evoke the world of the peasant who wears them, Earth is that which both provides the possibility for such an uncovering, being the material with which the painting is created, and that which resists human attempts to make it intelligible, to draw it into the web of human signification.

It is not my intention to engage with Heidegger’s terminology or use it in a way that remains faithful to his vision. It is enough, for my purposes, to point out that he is obviously not employing the term “Earth” in any of its habitual uses here. He does not mean planet or soil or anything that is immediately familiar to us and operable within the flows of human meaning. If he is not employing the term in a metaphysical sense, then it is always right on the edge of metaphysics in so far as it is that which resists assimilation into the networks of human meaning. For ‘metaphysical’, one could read ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’.

So much for Heidegger. But what do we mean when we talk about the Earth? Is it an objective reality? Does it provide the ground upon which, within which, we construct our various worlds? Is it an ungraspable something which resists our attempts to represent it and incorporate it into our worlds of significance and meaning? Or is it a perfectly functional concept which operates seamlessly within the everyday exchange of meaning? Is it possible that the reality of Earth as a body in space is achingly vast and exterior to any ideas that we might have about it? Earthrise, or Google Earth?

I don’t think this amounts to semantic quibbling. ‘Globalisation’ is a term that is exchanged freely and unproblematically. It operates seamlessly within our discourse, albeit a discourse dominated by the semantic fields of economics and global politics. Yet with what model of the globe are we operating here and what theory of space does it presuppose? If globalisation defines the new horizon within which cultural, economic and political meaning is articulated, then surely it is only natural that we should subject that horizon to some interrogation.

What is clear is that for virtually all of the natural history of human beings, there was no recourse to this idea of Earth as an objective reality. What’s more, there was no recourse to space and time as objective constants, independent of the lived reality in which people were embedded. Pre-renaissance maps of the world, such as the O-T maps of Christendom, were symbolic in nature. They didn’t presume to map an objectively existing space, but the symbolic world within which people orientated themselves. Hence the O-T maps always placed Jerusalem at their centre. The question that this raises is whether the geographically accurate mapping of space corresponded to an objective reality, or whether it represented the triumph of a culturally specific way of conceptualising the world, which proved to be a highly effective tool in the service of colonial and capitalist domination.

In the following series of postings, I want to explore the concept and phenomenon of globalisation, taking as my point of departure the rupture with the symbolic world of the middle ages and the production, at the time of the renaissance and the voyages of discovery, of universal and objective conceptions of time and space. I will then go on to consider how such conceptions are bearing up in the media saturated world of instantaneous electronic communication.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Is more flexibility the only answer?

Last week UK government floated a proposal to offer subsidies to people who want to re-locate in order to find work. It seems people are just still not flexible enough.

The solution to the economic crisis of the 1970's, was to introduce a series of measures designed to make the global economy more flexible and dynamic and thus create new possibilities for growth. Floating exchange rates were introduced, the principals of free trade were advanced and increasingly countries that didn't get with the programme were punished by international financial organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF. What this meant domestically was that as manufacturing industry was decimated, at an accelerated rate during the 1980's, the workforce was expected to be highly flexible in its pursuit of employment. They had to be willing and able to re-skill, re-locate and reduce their expectations in terms of salaries and workers rights. While the salaries of the rich have grown exponentially since the 1970's, average salaries have fallen in real terms.

This flexibility affected every area of our lives. We were expected to be flexible in our employment choices, flexible in our working practices, flexible in our choices of where to live. Such flexibility inevitably extended to other areas such as values, social bonds between people, loyalty to a region or a specific place and our way of seeing the world.

Of course the narrative is that all of this flexibility has been in order to make the UK more competitive. What this really means, if you don't view it through a nationalist prism, is that people are expected to live their lives increasingly in the service of capital accumulation. Not their own accumulation of capital, of course, but that tiny minority who, in one way or another, are playing the stock market. Any doubt about this should have been dispelled by the role the markets played in UK elections. Political and social processes were subordinated to the reaction of the market.

So the government's response to the crisis is more of the same, but with greater intensity and at a faster rate of acceleration. Why are we collectively incapable of seeing how manipulated we are? Why are we not talking about the damage which has been done to the social fabric by so much flexibility and thinking seriously about alternatives. Have we given up on trying to assert the value and importance of, for example, social relationships over and above the demands of the economy?

It seems to me that the economic crisis should provide an opportunity for a major reassessment of the values that we have been pursuing up until now- but nothing of the sort is happening. The government in the UK, and in other countries, has committed itself to a continuation of the policies of the 1980's and 1990's that got us into this mess in the first place and we believe them when they say there is no alternative. Talk about subdued!

In this video David Harvey talks about this and related themes.

Friday, 2 July 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Seven: Conclusion

Capitalism, like any term is loaded. It activates a series of narratives related to Marxism, economics and politics and establishes, for many people, a prescriptive evaluation regarding what is under discussion. Of course nowadays there are plenty of people who, following the likes of Freidman, will hear the term in a broadly favourable way, but for many the term contains an implicit condemnation. This duality is a problem- it introduces a form of oppositional thinking which disfigures that which is under discussion. That’s not to say the term can be circumvented or abandoned. I think that the term captures the central dynamic of the acceleration which is taking place in our societies and in our lives. Not perfectly and not exhaustively; the narrative could be and frequently is recast in quite different terms and is both revealing and compelling. Nonetheless, I don’t think there is anything that captures the dynamic of social acceleration quite as completely as does the designation of capitalism, for all the many reasons that I have discussed in previous postings.

However the problem of evaluation remains, and it is a serious one. After a discussion on some related issue in a class recently a student who quite understandably wanted to defend some facet of the modern world, added somewhat forlornly, “but I don’t want to be a capitalist”. Who would? It hardly secretes ideological glamour (if such a thing is possible). Self-interest, aggressiveness, a dour work ethic perhaps, but not any idealistic desire to right the wrongs of the world. It is not the case that there is, on the one hand, this avaricious capitalistic system driving an acceleration of social processes and on the other, human beings caught up in, but ontologically different from, such processes. We are, rather, its agents, propagators and medium. And what that means is that claims to being in favour of, or opposed to capitalism and the social acceleration that it implies are either superficial or disingenuous. When I attended classes for my Masters in Globalisation at the University of Barcelona, some of the more ideologically committed students would frown upon those of us that drank Coca Cola in class, as if abstinence from certain totemic symbols of capitalism could exempt one from complicity in its logic. This is an obvious example, but examples abound from NGOs and aid organisations to indie rock bands and student demos. All, to varying degrees, ostensibly oppose themselves to the logic of capitalism, whilst carving out niches within its overall architecture. All of which is to say that the logic of capitalism is totalising, leaving barely any corner of our lives or thought processes untouched. Which raises the question of whether, given this totalising characteristic, it really makes sense to designate the manifold processes which are transforming our lives and our world in terms of an economic system. And if we do, does it not, at least, become important that the term resonates slightly differently, so that it does not lend itself so easily to a rather un-nuanced form of oppositional thought.

We might wish to condemn capitalism, but in so doing we will often be implicitly reinforcing a form of traditionalism. Capitalism may have brought us alienating labour practices, massive social inequality and global warming, but it has also been instrumental in the development of rights and inclusiveness for all sorts of previously marginalised or persecuted groups, all the gadgets and technologies that have come to dynamise modern life (see the posting on David Harvey for a description of his views on time-space compression) and a sense of personal autonomy and freedom from the asphyxiating effects of traditional values.

On the first of these points, exclusion of certain groups from the social mainstream also excludes them from the market. This is an intolerable barrier to capitalism, which will then seek to re-insert them within the commercial field. Consider what a boom-market the gay scene has provided since the 1960’s. On the second, there are few among the relatively affluent of the planet who would be willing to dispense with the tools, the internet foremost among them, that have enabled us to so comprehensively overcome barriers of space and time. This can be seen in many different guises from the various dynamised production networks that enable us to buy cheap Chinese imports or provide novel Christmas present ideas on Amazon to the anti-globalisation activists who are able to communicate and organise globally thanks to the space-annihilating new technologies. These processes have been greatly facilitated and accelerated by the tendency of capitalism to creatively overcome barriers to capital accumulation. The third point mentioned above also relates to overcoming barriers, but this time the very intransigent barriers of social values and customs. Here the question of evaluation is particularly problematic and shifting. What seems like an unpardonable breach of a social value today can appear in a very different light with the passing of time. Sunday opening in the UK (the overcoming of an important temporal barrier to capital accumulation) seemed like a big deal when it was first introduced. Nowadays people would probably feel their rights had been violated if they were unable to shop on a Sunday. And how are we to judge the undermining of social institutions like marriage? It could be viewed negatively, in terms of the atomisation of society, or positively in terms personal liberation from confining social conventions. Either way, in the case of this example, people are being forced to re-evaluate and often re-negotiate the ground rules for their relationships. Even if a couple goes for a church wedding followed by a nuclear family, they are well aware that, these days, that this is but one option among many. Previously such an arrangement had not been option, or if it was, it was so to a much lesser degree, and so could not really be seen in terms of a choice. However, once it becomes optional, it also becomes a choice. This phenomenon of optionality is highly subversive of social institutions and identities (see T. de Zengotita, Mediated).

The key words and phrases here seem to be ‘overcoming barriers’ and ‘dynamism’. This seems to get to the heart of the acceleration of societal processes that is taking place. Over the course of the previous postings we have seen repeated examples of systems becoming increasingly dynamic, and how the rhythm of that dynamism is accelerating. This could be seen during the introduction of the factory system, which spelled the end of the craftsman, and the introduction of specialised, repeatable tasks controlled by the rhythm of the machinery. It is clear that technological innovation has been right at the heart of social acceleration as human beings are increasingly forced to adapt to the new technologies that are foisted upon them and which, increasingly, they greedily embrace. The paradigm example was the ‘just-in-time’ production method, where speed of turnover and the tight coupling of the system are of the essence. People have to adapt to the accelerated rhythm of such a production method as best they can. Stress in the work place is not an undesired consequence of imperfect institutional organisation, it is oftentimes a virtual condition of employment. We also saw a similar dynamic at work with airline scheduling, household chores, the working day and the timetable. As people adapt to these technologies and organisational forms, they become subtly reconfigured. In the same way as you can often spot an ex military man because of his mannerisms, way of walking and talking and values, so the curious, but rarely fully committed browsing and skimming of the internet subtly reconfigures our expectations, attention span and tolerance for mental effort (see Nicholas Carr).

It’s as if we have broken free from well established conceptions of time, space and historical development to occupy instead a timeless, spaceless universe in which anything of value from any time or space is decanted into the present in order to extract that value. Such a transformations could not be achieved without some violence to existing systems, conventions or values. Hence the breaking of barriers. Collectively the relatively wealthy of the world, which almost certainly includes everyone reading this blog, are acting like the loving middle class boy who becomes a junky and quickly fritters away all of the emotional and literal capital that he had accumulated over the course of a lifetime of good behaviour, all in service of the next fix. First he drains his trust fund (literal capital) and then starts using his parent’s credit card and stealing from them (emotional capital). The paradigm illustration of this is the stock market which operates both figuratively and literally.

Some embrace this whole transformation. There are a lot of people who simply see technology as the saviour. And the religious language is no accident. The highly influential Ray Kurzweil is convinced, and argues persuasively, that the accelerated rates of technological innovation form an unbroken continuum with the development of RNA and DNA, the evolution of species and the first use of tools by humans. He predicts that the current exponential rate of transformation will result in a paradigm shift sometime around the middle of this century at which point the rate of technological change will be too fast for human beings to cope with from within their existing conceptual paradigms. Technological enthusiasts and futurists of this sort would advocate riding the wave of technological change. It’s heady stuff, although I can’t help being struck by the strong parallel with Christianity and wonder whether it is not an unconscious attempt to redeem religion. Arguments of this sort tend also to be strikingly uncritical and fail to satisfactorily locate technology within a broader social context.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Baudrillard who would have no argument with the idea that society is undergoing a rapid acceleration, though he would see this in terms of the production and consumption of signs. Having replaced the physical commodity as the source of value in society, all manner of signs and symbols are manipulated towards the end of extracting value. This can be clearly seen with companies like Nike which produce nothing. The production of their sportswear is subcontracted to hidden-away sweat-shops in China where the workers can be exploited in 19th century European factory conditions. The brand, however, is everything and that’s where the money goes and that’s where the value is generated. His vision is ultimately pessimistic in that he senses an extreme desperation in the extraction and utilisation of all types of value, wherever they might be found. For Baudrillard this is what explains palaeontology, archaeology and history. This is not exclusively capitalistic, but part of a social imperative for symbolic meaning which has been largely forgotten and obscured in the West, though it remains alive and well in the Muslim world.

Broadly speaking I am sympathetic towards Baudrillard’s approach, especially the direction in which he took Marxist thought, and in subsequent postings I would like to explore some of the areas that this blog is dedicated to, in the light of Baudrillard’s emphasis on symbolic value. However, with respect to evaluating the social acceleration that I set out to define with this series of postings, I think that before any sort of evaluation can be proffered the multi-faceted phenomena that I have tried to capture with this term must be recognised. That is difficult because we tend only to see what is in front of our noses. We don’t really see the historical processes which we are caught up in, we don’t recognise the degree to which the planet is interconnected and networked and we treat with an apathetic shrug the extraordinary transformations that are being wrought on the planet and on our species. Evaluation tends to be a way of fore-stalling further thought about any of these matters.