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Or, books I have been reading for class, Part 2. Skipping The Century and Postmodernism and Discipline and Punish to post this, since I have it typed up already:

Bauman is awesome because he speaks directly to young people – he talks about "searching out ways of being" and "looking for job skills to be employable" – and because he gets all his metaphors from physics (time/space, heavy/light, solid/liquid), so that I can understand them. I found his books the easiest to read of all of the books we've been assigned so far, with Foucault a close second (because his references are historical and he includes novelistic descriptions of them within the text, so you don't need to read anything else to understand him).

To bring in contemporary events: Bauman is a true 99%er, because his enemies are those in the ruling class who are absolutely free to flit from place to place, and who never have to worry about the consequences of their choices. These are the people who can afford unlimited instantaneous travel (being able to afford an internet connection counts for Bauman – it was 1999). Moreover, they can "afford" travel because their assets are liquid, in the form of stocks and property investments, so that they don't have to live where they work, or can change where they work to match where they live. Or maybe they just don't have to work at all, XD.

The 1% (my phrase not Bauman's) are, additionally, the people best served by our modern consumer society. This is because being a good consumer means being able to make good choices, and these people have so many resources that they can't make a truly bad choice - if they buy something they don't like, they can discard it and buy something else. They therefore don't suffer the choice paralysis suffered by the people who have to worry about choosing wrongly.

Bauman's really popular, and I think this focus on the very wealthiest is part of the reason for his popularity (although he includes academics in the ranks of the elite). Apart from all the other reasons (brilliant writer, sympathetic to those on the very bottom, good at naming things, etc), I mean.

Specific books under the cut: mostly just a summary without a critique. The blanket critique would be that these books are full of broad, sweeping statements not backed up by empirical evidence, I guess.

Globalization: The Human Consequences is a short book, and I recommend it! It hypothesizes that power comes from the ability to move freely. People who can travel freely rule the world and the world has been altered to cater to their preferences. Examples include: rules that make it easier for wealthy passport holders to cross borders without a visa, to keep money overseas, and to keep multiple houses. Contrasted with this group is the group of laborers who can't move, who are bound in place, either through legal means (immigration law), social means (prison, gutted public transport), or lack of resources (including the mental resources to cope with the unknown). For those who are tied in place, the places they live have become degraded and empty as the travelers leave and take resources with them. There's no public common and no public life left in the degraded communities. The flip side of globalization allowing some people to travel freely is that others are even more stuck in place than before.

Such bound people, lacking the ability even to mentally travel via the internet (remember it was 1999), watch television as their sole means of escape. They are shown on TV a "vision" of the traveling class, which Bauman likens to a vision of heaven, because his writing is provocative like that XD. In his account, the place-bound are absolutely passive, unable to do anything but suffer. Their lives and communities have been gradually degraded by invisible forces they can't see, and therefore can't fight. Up to this point I was in agreement with Bauman, but it seems to me that all people must have SOME agency, even if that agency isn't clear to an outside observer, or is mostly illusory (i.e. you can make choices but they don't matter).

As for the (most numerous) middle: they can always become the second group, and so they live in a state of constant anxiety. Because they fear becoming the place-bound, they detest and try to further restrict the movements of that group. In fact, in order for the system to work, the conditions of the place-bound must be made AS HORRIBLE AS POSSIBLE, so that everyone – even the 1%ers – can convince themselves that the somewhat ambivalent pleasures of a consumer society are better being shut out of that society completely, for instance by having a bad credit score. Another issue I suppose I will take with Bauman is the very marginal role the actually most numerous group plays in his analysis, although – in fairness – MOST social analysis tends to focus on this group and its values and needs, and the world is becoming more inequitable and polarized by the day.

Liquid Modernity: "liquid" is Bauman's metaphor for "post"-modernity, and "light" is his metaphor for "late"-capitalism. He expands the idea that power comes from being able to move, and adds that modern power can't be pinned down, is fluid, doesn't have to engage, escapes confrontation. In Marx's "solid" or "heavy" capitalism, the factory foremen were bound to the same place as the factory workers, and so they had to confront each other. Systems of discipline (per Foucault) had to be put into place to keep order, so that the workers would continue at the same speed, in a monotonous way, in the service of the foremen. Henry Ford had to double the wages of the workers to keep them from leaving his factory, and he himself had to live in Detroit to oversee the factory. In an example I will add, he had to build local public monuments like the Detroit library, because he couldn't simply choose to live in Paris or some other "cultured" place instead. Instead of moving to Culture, he had to bring Culture to Detroit.

In the new era, the owners of wealth-producing objects – the stockholders – and the people who manage wealth – the boards of directors – don't have to be in the same places as the factories, so they aren't. They don't have engage with the workers, so they don't. They don't have to keep the workers pinned in place, because they can threaten to move the factory somewhere else, or to hire other workers, since automated efficiency gains mean there are more workers than jobs. In this way, they are able to secure compliance from (often temporary) workers and politicians. And they all live in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, etc.

In an era when the power holders can't be confronted and the centers of power are walled off and mobile, people are kept apart through the absence of public space and the paucity of public discourse. There is no single authority, rather there are a multitude of competing authorities; therefore there is no agreement about what steps must be taken toward commonly held goals, and no possibility of gathering everyone together in order to discuss shared objectives. There are too many means, and not enough ends. Furthermore, public space is removed, or designed in a way that focuses attention on an activity ("shopping") rather than on other people who share the space. Skills for dealing with strangers who think differently ("civility") therefore don’t develop, further creating the need for communities of similar-minded individuals and eroding the potential for fruitful public political discourse.

In this atomized society, devoid of shared goals, each individual is individually responsibility for ensuring his or her individual well-being. Therapy is popular because it is an "individual" response to issues that may well be driven by shared ("public") conditions. The role of the public figure in this atomized society is not to carry out public duties toward a public good, but to serve as an example of how to live appropriately (or not). People watch Oprah and other daytime chat shows, discuss the private lives of celebrities, and vote to impeach philandering politicians because they need public figures in order to supply examples for how they might conduct their own lives – steps to take or pitfalls to avoid as they individually tackle their individual problems. Private matters have therefore become the backbone of public life.

Liquid is the more popular book, maybe because of the points it makes about the erosion of public discourse (OK no it's probably because people love a novel metaphor), but I liked Globalization better, partly for its focus on the very poorest and very richest (kind of rare in sociology?), and partly for the way it directly links the fortunes of the two groups. I just worry that I can't really evaluate the stuff he says about the experiences of the poorest and most marginalized, since they are outside of my direct experience (except through daytime chat shows etc).
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January 2013


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