Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
Author: Alan Shapiro
The damaged life of the fragmented individual, performing his duties in the system of production, is circumscribed by a universe of self-referential images and solipsistic spaces which sustain his socialization in that system. Walking amidst the skyscrapers and luxury boutiques of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one has the impression of being in an underground city of loyal citizens, cut off from all other possible space and stories, real in history or imagined in dreams. Dwarfed by the immense monoliths, beset from all sides by an unblemished futuristic-technologized décor, the individual is called upon to exonerate his presence in this apparently complete world. He is compelled – within himself, in relation to others, to organizations, and to the undivided ambience – to make known which of his qualities and skills give him the right to participate in the scramble to belong. From how he speaks and dresses to the technical knowledge and credentials that he carries, he is like an African American in the 1950s being scrutinized by White Cops, a Kafka man permanently On Trial, seeking to decipher the intricate workings of the Court. Immersed in a world of unfathomable complexity presenting itself as a closed perfection, the aspiring Cultural Citizen of contemporary American society must conceal his human weaknesses, scratch and claw to plant a stake, and strive to resemble in his being the rigid geometry of this system of survival.
The processes and modes of legitimation, participation, identity, and solidarity in late capitalism cry out for thorough re-examination in the context of a renewed Critical Theory of American Society and Consumer Culture. This project involves the revitalization and rethinking of the vanishing genre of Cultural Theory, as well as the elaboration of a concept of Cultural Citizenship. Since the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of political citizenship has dominated our thinking about participation in society to the virtual exclusion of other approaches. But the New Left in the 1960s, at least in its most lucid and audacious moments, initiated a critique of politics which continues to ring true. Those who partook in the assemblies and action committees in France in May-June 1968, voiced the demands for “participatory democracy” of the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in America, marched in the Civil Rights Movement or against the Vietnam War, or actively refused the collaboration of the major political parties during the 1977 student uprising in Italy, shared a critical perception of politics as having becoming a separate sphere, a Simulation of Democracy, a realm reserved for experts and professionals and divorced from everyday life. After the 1970s, voting became more and more of an absurd ritual, politicians were held less and less accountable for their deeds, and ordinary people stopped almost entirely to hope for improvement in their lives coming about as the result of actions in the traditional political sphere. After the scandal and Legitimation Crisis of Watergate in 1972-1973, the victory of Jimmy Carter over Nixon’s chosen successor Gerald Ford in 1976 was a meaningful election. But after Carter’s Presidency failed, there followed a long precession of Simulacrum-Presidents. Carter was a well-intentioned person and in some ways a genuine intellectual, the last such non-simulacrum before Obama. During the Presidencies after Carter, legitimation no longer resided in a notion of political citizenship. Reagan was a Hollywood actor and broadcaster of Chicago Cubs baseball games which he creatively imagined while absent from the stadium reading wire reports. George H. W. Bush orchestrated the deceptive spectacle of the Televison War that “did not take place” (Baudrillard, 1995). Clinton was a mediagenic clown brought reduced by a lie about oral sex. George W. Bush was, from the point of view of democracy, a an almost complete disaster. The election Obama in 2008 signaled the possibility that a more authentic human being was now President and that it would be possible to develop new ideas concerning political citizenship (Obama, 2006).
The classical statement about citizenship in the sociological literature was provided by T.H. Marshall (1964) in his essay “Citizenship and Social Class”. The general concern of Marshall’s writing was the study of the class structure in Great Britain and its relationship to the history of democratic rights. Following an evolutionist schema, Marshall regarded modern history as the progressive unfolding of rights and extension of participation to more and more sectors of the population. The essential meanings of citizenship are equality and “full membership in the community,” and the historical extension of its influence has taken place through three stages: the emergence of the components of civil, political, and social citizenship.
With the rise of the bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, according to Marshall, came the idea of the Universal Rights of Man and “civil” citizenship. This involved the most familiar set of individual rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, equality before the law, and the right to choose one’s livelihood. “Political” citizenship developed in the nineteenth century. It entailed various rights of participation in the exercise of political power: voting, universal suffrage, etc… “Social” citizenship (the third stage) was, for Marshall, the culmination of the whole process. Beginning its maturation in the twentieth century, social citizenship promised greater economic equality, improvements in social welfare, services and education, and the opportunity for individuals to “share to the full in the social heritage and … live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society” (Ibid.:72). Rights which had previously been recognized in principle now had the chance of being realized and enjoyed in practice.
The history of citizenship, for Marshall, is progressive and “revolutionary.” Social movements and democratic politics, issuing from the lower strata of society, endeavor to “stretch” the domain of citizenship and “universalize” society. The stratification of the capitalist class system obstructs the “universalizing” process, but this social inequality tends to be overcome by the advancing body of citizenship rights. It is ultimately a history of progress, an incessant reweaving of the fabric of citizenship, the history of the “enrichment of the universal status of citizenship” and “an increase in the number of those upon whom the status is bestowed” (Ibid.:84).
Most political sociologists have endorsed Marshall’s interpretation. Bendix (1964), follows Marshall’s argument to the letter. Marshall’s outline of the history of modernism and the role of social movements (presented in the guise of the history of citizenship) is not so far from the more sophisticated versions of prominent radical critics like Jürgen Habermas and Claude Lefort – the defense and amplification of bourgeois democratic rights, the expansion of the public sphere, etc… (see for example, Lefort, 1980). The present essay suggests a different direction for Critical Theory than that of “communicative rationality.” I contend that new approaches to the comprehension, critique, and positive transformation of American society are possible through the elaboration of the notion of “Cultural Citizenship.” The thinkers who have most influenced me in developing this concept are Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes.
There is no simple definition of Cultural Citizenship. It is a reality of many layers. Understanding is possible through tentative formulations, illustrations, case studies, literature reviews, and approaches from different angles and through different languages. The critical analysis of whole areas of social life can be reworked and deepened through the diffusion of the concept and its implications. Although the term is probably being introduced here for the first time in a rigorous way, no claim to originality is made. In his first book, The System of Objects ( 1996:156-58), Jean Baudrillard refers to the “rights and duties of the consumer-citizen” (“les droits et devoirs du citoyen-consommateur”). As Roland Barthes reminds us, the power or force of the writer is to mix and rearrange previous texts, and to situate himself at a particular intersection of writings, styles, and tissues of the world and of culture (Barthes, 1977). It will be more than apparent to the reader just how much I am indebted to certain prominent philosophers and social critics. My hope is that this “rearrangement of texts” will help to resuscitate the stagnating radical critique of American society and a positive strategy for its transformation.
II. Approaching Cultural Citizenship
In one terminology, cultural citizenship is a process which takes place in the context of a specific historical relationship between the individual and the social. In what may be the most highly socialized society that ever existed, Americans tend to almost completely deny that there exists a social or cultural realm. We can speak of a situation of extreme socialization without solidarity or social integration. In a pseudo-individualized way (because what people regard as their private affair is something eminently social), there is a confused urgency to acquire what are essentially mass produced, impersonal, non-solidary, socialized symbols. Cultural citizenship is not guaranteed to anyone. It is a universal scramble in almost all areas of life to secure a place for oneself against everyone else’s pursuit of the same things. What has been called “post-modern society” is a paradoxical situation of extreme pseudo-personalization (narcissism, the non-ethos of individualistic advance, the scramble for credentials, security and positional goods) within a context extreme socialization and regulation by an abstract code of signifiers (the mass media, consumerism, reified language, money). In a “sociological” terminology, cultural citizenship can be seen as an action or pragmatics embedded in consumer culture as a system. It comprises the “strategies of the actors” or deep existential dimension of an “objective” social situation of simulation, the myth of resolution, the freezing of history, the spectacle, the star-system, etc…. Almost all objects and experiences that we desire, although appearing to be personal agencies of satisfaction, are bearers of social meaning and the shared production of a universe of values. But we experience the scramble in a more or less subjective dimension. There are aspects of this world (narcissism, the scramble for positional goods) which have been explored by previous writers. One of our tasks will be a review and elucidation of their work.
Cultural citizenship is a world of securities and protections which we attempt to construct against the world of our fears. We seek tokens of security in all domains of life: homes in the suburbs, air-conditioned cars, coziness, narratives, identification with celebrities. This is the project of constructing a coherent “subjectivity” or unified “self” in the face of its disintegration. A radio commercial for a bank presents a dialogue between husband and wife. The husband is complaining about all of his problems, his over-burdened life, and his sense of anonymity. The superintendent of the apartment building knows him only as an apartment number, and even to his own mother he is “what’s his name.” The wife responds: “I opened an account for you at the Amalgamated – it’ll be good for your ego.” The husband is soothed. The increasing fragmentation of the self, assaulted from all sides, is covered over in simple resolution rather than being faced. We live with the myth of the “I,” a constituted entity disconnected from histories and contexts beyond the isolated “personal history.” What should instead be confronted is the termination of this limited and mythical “subjectivity” and the rebirth of an historical self. The latter involves a much deeper sense of projects, truths, and commitments beyond one’s own isolation and private sphere. This historical self is a rich, chaotic reservoir of variegated and contradictory elements. As Barthes observes in The Pleasure of the Text, it is at the tangled intersection of biographical, neurotic, sociological, and historical components that the true self exists (Barthes, 1975). But the good cultural citizen prefers to present to the world a unified “self,” with all the contradictions covered over in plastic. He jumps over himself to get to those commodities and images which he is persuaded will reinstate his ego for him.
It is the way of life of the suburbs, appearing on the social landscape in the 1950s, and spreading over a course of thirty years to homogeneously cover almost all of American society, that captures most succinctly the terrain of cultural citizenship. Millions of people have now grown up from this background of private, split-level houses, shopping centers, shopping malls, donut shops, and fast-food restaurants. From such an environment, it would be hard to imagine young people aspiring to be much more than dentists, accountants, astute critics of stereo equipment, and consumers of Caribbean vacations. The possession of consumer objects is one of the most basic forms that cultural citizenship takes. As Baudrillard says, “the vital minimum today, the minimum of imposed consumption, is the standard package. Beneath this level, you are an outcast” (1981:81). Today, the “standard package” would have to include video recorder and personal computer as well as television, washing machine, etc… Juan Corradi, Professor of Sociology at New York University, suggested the case of upper- and upper-middle class Argentineans as, purely on the level of commodity consumption, an extreme case of cultural citizenship. These people, according to Corradi, spend their time arguing the relative virtues of different models of personal computers, or the difference between the 300 BMW series and the 600 BMW series. They have little relation to their own tradition or history as Argentineans. They are little else but aspiring cultural citizens of the West. They belong neither to Argentine nor to American society. In terms of a metaphor that we shall develop later, they have nothing but the “casino chips” (money) they have been given to participate in the scramble to procure cultural citizenship.
III. Paradoxical Individualism
Within a range of literature which could be designated as ‘cultural criticism’, a few works appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s which advance toward an understanding of the extreme ‘individualism’ which now characterizes American/European society. Individualism is the plague of capitalism in its current configuration. There have been discussions of narcissism, ‘privatization’, the myth of an authentic self, the decline of morality, the alien nature of collective action to Americans. These works have aided in the germination of the concept of cultural citizenship, and we shall explore them in ascending order of the degree and depth of their contribution.
Albert O. Hirschman, in Shifting Involvements, approaches the question of ‘privatization’ in relation to the hypothesis of an unending historical cycle or oscillation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ commitments (1982). The individual, in his view, is both a consumer and a political citizen. He is perpetually divided between pursuit of personal and family ‘happiness’ and engagement in the public arena. Emphasis on one orientation or the other characterizes periods of history, as has obviously been the case in the transition from the sixties to the eighties. Hirschman believes that disappointment is at the core of human experience, and that shifts from public involvement to private concern or vice versa result from deep disillusion. People construct expectations of satisfaction in the consumer realm, and then turn to public action when they meet with frustration; or, as is more commonly the case, they withdraw to private life in response to ill-defined doubts and uncertainty.
The ‘exit’ from one set of activities to the other is in large measure impelled by well-known ideological currents. The push towards private existence is sustained by two beliefs: the promise of gratification in the sphere of consumption, and a diffused faith in the ‘invisible hand’ of the capitalist market mechanism. Since it is widely believed that the common good is best served by individuals acting in their own interests, feelings of guilt are easily sidestepped by people ‘retreating’ to projects which entail primarily a search for personal gain.
The most interesting aspect of Hirschman’s argument is his discussion of the phenomenon of disappointment. From within the tradition of the study of collective action, and through an immanent critique of economic theory, he contributes to the ripening of a theory of cultural citizenship. The dread of disappointment is an element of the complexus of fears and anxieties which nourishes the individual’s craving for a polyvalent system of protections. Following German sociologist Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, Hirschman takes note of the distinct appeal of money as an object of eminent possession: ”Insofar as money is desired purely for the purpose of accumulation… its possession is immune to disappointment” (Ibid.:26; see also Simmel , 2004). Money is the quintessential token of cultural citizenship, and most perfectly embodies the unity of its antipodes: the regulation of an abstract code and the illusions of ‘personalization’ and individual freedom.
Richard Sennett, writing in the tradition of Tocqueville and strongly influenced by Lionel Trilling, observes that the balance between public and private life has been grievously upset in modern society (Sennett, 1978). People have withdrawn into themselves, and relate to society or public life only as a matter of formal obligation. In eighteenth century Paris or London, for example, people interacted freely in all kinds of situations because the ‘public self’ was a vehicle of sociability. The contemporary city, by contrast, is a world of strangers. There is little artistry in everyday life because people “are unable to tap the fundamental creative strength of the actor, the ability to play with and invest feeling in external images of self” (Ibid.:37). Here Sennett has anticipated the perception of the myth of the ‘I’ or of subjectivity. “Masses of people are concerned with their single life-histories and particular emotions as never before” (Ibid.:5). Following Trilling, he speaks of the new private realm as an arena of ‘authenticity’ where one relates to others through a mania of self-disclosure and belief that one can express the core of one’s feelings. It is this mode of authenticity, for Sennett, which has ravaged the public self, and eroded distinctions between public and private. [In another context, it would be important to examine the particular relegation of women to the private realm (see Elshtain, 1981)].
Trilling (1971), was chiefly concerned with changes in moral life in relation to literature. He located a prototype of the mode of sincerity in the words of Polonius in Hamlet as the old man is giving advice to his son Laertes on the occasion of the latter’s departure for Paris: “This above all: to thine own self be true And it doth follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man”. It is the meaning of this ‘self’ which interests Trilling. Although the modern reader might misconstrue Polonius’ words as an injunction to self-interested behavior, Trilling contends that they are the articulation of ‘sincerity’ and a public self. The elegance and moral lyricism of the speech induce the hope of inseparable sincerity toward others and oneself, with an immutable public end in view.
Trilling’s diagnosis of the ‘authentic’ self of the twentieth century is straight and to the point. “The new kind of personality which emerges … is what we call an ‘individual’: at a certain point in history men became individuals” (Ibid.:24). The spread of autobiographical writing is indicative of this evolution. It betrays the widespread assumption that what one has lived is somehow separate from one’s times. Finally, Trilling shows himself to be a better sociologist than most who go by that name. He says it straight out: “The American self can be taken to be a microcosm of American society” (Ibid.:113).
Christopher Lasch is one of the few authors in the last several decades to have had the courage to attempt a thoughtful critique of American society. He perceives a deep cultural crisis in the Western capitalist countries, which has its epicenter in the United States. In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch made a preliminary approach to assailing the myths of the ‘self’ and individuality in our society. He noted a shift from the values and neurotic personality traits associated with early capitalism (achievement, work ethic, authoritarianism, repressive sexuality, guilt) to those of late capitalism (restlessness, self-absorption, desire for immediate gratification, anxiety). This new ‘psychologistic’ or narcissistic type, appearing dramatically after the sixties, lives only for himself and in a de-contextualized present. He feels no ties with the past, concern with tradition and posterity, or deep solidarity with others. The decline of social involvement and despair of changing society led individuals in the seventies to the cults of ‘personal growth’ and ‘pseudo self-awareness’, jogging, yogurt, and astrology. Lasch also saw the decadence in private life (the ‘narcissistic anguish of contemporary America’) as coinciding with other crucial socio-historical developments. These included the degradation of work; the debasing of education, sports and play; the perverse fascination with spectacles and celebrities; the information-ization of language; and the increased dependence in public life on experts and professionals, bureaucracies, corporations, and the state. Narcissism was, in effect, the psychological dimension of a bureaucratized world.
In The Minimal Self (1984), Lasch tried to add subtleties and nuances to the ideas about narcissism that he felt had been misrepresented by his critics, as well as to move, in some ways, to a notion of a culture of ‘survivalism’ (Lasch, 1984) [It is curious that, in his chapter on contemporary images of the Nazi concentration camps, Lasch seems more concerned with those few who survived than about the millions who were killed]. Although much of his argument is standard radical fare, he does point in some ways to elements of the theory of cultural citizenship. People, according to Lasch, do not see that there is a sociological reality because consumer culture makes all of reality appear to be an extension of inner psychic life. Due to the omnipresence of fantasies, symbols and images, the individual comes to feel that the world only exists to “gratify or thwart his desires” (Ibid.:30). As it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy, people are unable to deal with the serious problems of life. They have little sense of sustained projects or commitments, bonds with family and friends, or patience for hard struggle related to deeply held values and convictions. The self has contracted to a defensive core, and ‘life’ has become a search for psychic survival, We feel ourselves to be powerless victims, and are lost in a tyrannizing world of anxieties and compulsions. Social life is a jungle, a daily battle to survive in the land of corporations and bureaucratic organization.
In psychoanalytic terms, Lasch sees the problem as the incapacity of most Americans to deal with the reality of separation. Painfully severed from the womb and, later, the surrounding environment, the onerous task that a human being faces is the acceptance of tensions and framing of an equilibrium between self and others, oneness and separation. A genuine ‘achievement of selfhood’, for Lasch, would be “the acknowledgement of our separation from the original source of life, combined with a continuing struggle to recapture a sense of primal union by means of activity that gives us a provisional understanding and mastery of the world without denying our limitations and dependency” (Ibid.:20). To accept and live with basic contradictions would be the consummation of a healthy individuality. But this is nearly impossible in our society, since a narcissistic culture promotes regressive solutions to the riddle of separation. The technologized and computerized world, where everything seems beyond our control, generates ‘infantile feelings of helplessness’. Narcissism “seeks to restore the undifferentiated contentment of the womb” (Ibid.). In effect, Lasch sees contemporary society as a tragic wedlock of Promethean technology (the domination of nature) and Narcissistic self-absorption (the dream of symbiotic reunion with nature).
In a more emphatic language, we might say that it is the denial of history in American society which is related to the reality of relations of power and conflicts going ‘underground’. People emerge from the war-like or prison-like situations of family and school ready to burst at the seams. They are ill-equipped to cope with an adult reality because they want happiness, freedom and romantic love so desperately. The tragedies which are played out in the emotional lives of American adults are the bad patterns of behavior which are innate to Western culture, and which the Greeks warned us about: the stories of Narcissus, Icarus, Heracles, Orpheus.
Although written many years earlier, and in a simple, intuitive style, Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness probed basic issues of American culture with insight far surpassing that of other works of the time of like genre (Slater, 1970). Exemplary of the cultural radicalism of the late sixties, Slater’s effort was directed against the fanatic individualism and privatization of Americans. Although we live in an intensively interdependent society (economically, logistically), we seek privatization of practically everything. Our individualism repudiates the interdependence on which all human societies are based. “An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business” (Ibid.:7). Even within a given family, one of the designs of suburban life seems to be for each ‘member’ to have his own room, television, telephone, car. We live in fear of each other and spend enormous sums of money in maintaining ‘security’. Americans, in general, are inclined not to believe that they are part of the same species. Slater offers a humorous anecdote of how Americans would imagine the ‘fun’ they could have should flying machines or flying saucers become available as a mass product: “Americans are trained by advertising media to identify immediately with the person who actually uses the new product. When he thinks of a saucer the American imagines himself inside it, flying about and having fun. He does not think of himself trying to sleep and having other Americans roaring by his window. Nor does he think of himself trying to enjoy peace and quiet in the country with other Americans flying above. Nor does he even think of other Americans accompanying him in his flight and colliding with him as they all crowd into the city. The American as consumer rarely thinks of other Americans at all – it is his most characteristic trait that he imagines himself to be alone on the continent” (Ibid.:131).
There is, for Slater, a wide gap between reality and the images and fantasies of ‘fun’ and happiness with which we live. The mass media diffuses a whole symbolic network of fantasies which ‘trains’ us for happiness. We know what to buy or to do to be happy. We know how to smile or how to look when happy. But running on the beach or making love under the moonlight are rare experiences, When things are not going well, our sense of disappointment is intensified further by the feeling of guilt that we ‘should be happy’. Conscious negativity is taboo, but widespread disillusionment, bitterness, discomfort and deprivation are unparalleled. (The psychiatric and pharmaceutical industries would like to convince us that ‘depression’ is an ‘illness’ for which we require heavy medications. “Thank you, doctor. I feel better already!”) Romantic love, according to Slater, is also promoted as a way out of problems and hard realities. It is the easiest way to grab ‘happiness’ in the midst of unhappiness, the myth of integral love against culture. Finally, Slater has one serious glimpse of the operation of cultural citizenship when he observes poignantly that “Americans have created a society in which they are automatically nobodies, since no one has any stable place or enduring connection… An American has to ‘make a place for himself’ because he does not have one (Ibid.:110).
More than any other recent writer, it is the economist Fred Hirsch (1976), in Social Limits to Growth, who anticipates the theory of cultural citizenship. Hirsch is primarily concerned with examining the myth of growth in the so-called ‘affluent’ societies. Like Hirschman, he focuses on the phenomenon of disappointment, and wants to unearth the reasons why the fruits of economic advance, when finally achieved, rarely meet people’s expectations. His discovery is that there is a ‘paradox of affluence’ related to social factors and the social or environmental ‘conditions of use’ of any good or experience which people desire. The more people attain to a certain level of professional or vocational education, the less value that education has in the scramble for jobs. The more people acquire homes in the suburbs (because of the simultaneous proximity to the city, offering access to jobs and entertainment; distance from the city, offering escape from urban problems; and proximity to the country, offering open space and fresh air), the more the suburbs are transformed and gradually attract all the problems and blight of the city. The more tourists flock to an engaging or unique locality, the more that locality takes on the environmental qualities of universal tourism, and loses much of what it was. In short, Hirsch argues that ‘conditions of use’ tend to deteriorate as use becomes more widespread. The satisfaction returned from a car or a suburban home depends on the conditions in which they are used, which is strongly influenced by how many others have them. The search for cultural citizenship, on this level, has limits, and becomes involved in paradoxes of overuse.
What Hirsch defines as the scramble to ‘maintain position’ or acquire ‘positional goods’ is not far from one aspect of what we have called the pursuit of cultural citizenship. Positional goods are “goods, services, work positions, and other social relationships” that exist in contexts of scarcity, congestion, or crowding (Ibid.:27) What makes the contemporary situation particularly self-defeating is the predominance of exclusively individual channels through which positional goods are sought. We live in a culture of individualistic advance which has step by step eroded any social conventions or morality which may have counter-balanced the frenzy of self-interested behavior. Adam Smith, according to Hirsch, assumed the existence of a complementary social morality as an integral part of the equilibrium and success of the ‘invisible hand’ economy (Ibid.:137). But modern society has become “a system that depends for its success on a heritage that it undermines” (Ibid.:12).
In an economy which is increasingly ‘positional’, steeped in a culture of individualistic advance, people become excessively preoccupied with money and monetary gain. They are more likely to take uninteresting, high-paying jobs than interesting, low-paying jobs. More and more cash income is needed to maintain status. Time is purchased with money. More and more activities are drawn into the cash nexus. People speak more and more about money in everyday Conversation while economists rewrite the discourse of citizenship into one of consumers and stakeholders.
In a world of individualist calculation and the scramble, sociability and friendliness tend to vanish. They are too time-consuming. Truth, obligation, restraint, responsibility and trust also go on the endangered species list. Much of the playfulness and human contact which remains is in the realm of ‘leisure’ and is sold to us in the form of packaged commodities. “Increasingly, social contact, relaxation and play become bought commodities.”34 Hirsch has clipped from an Oakland, California newspaper – already in 1973 – a magnificent description of a ‘total security environment’ of cultural citizenship: “Only residents with special keys can drive through the four entry gates. Once inside, private underground parking is available. Visitors park outside and enter through lobby doors which are controlled by intercoms to each apartment. The front door of each apartment is equipped with two locks, including a high security deadbolt. Inside the complex, residents and their guests can enjoy nearly four acres of privacy. Islanded in the centre of the lake is a spacious recreation center containing saunas, gym, steam room, tanning-rooms, billiards, fireplace lounge, lockers, color TV, stereo system and a kitchen” (Ibid.:90 n.).
The aspiring cultural citizen has boxed himself into a corner. In indiscriminant pursuit of his own affairs, he has inadvertently constructed a society of the desert. He achieved this dubious feat without knowing too well what a society is or that he was constructing anything.
IV. The Culture of Resolution
A television commercial for Whirlpool washing machines and dryers shows a woman going through the extremely difficult tasks of her daily life. From dawn ’til dusk she has barely a moment of repose. “Sometimes, it seems like the day never ends, and your chores are never done.” She is weary, with a haggard look on her face. The ad arrives at its denouement: “That’s why Whirlpool made its new series of washers and dryers for you!” In other words, the same society which gave you such a hard life then sells you products ‘to make your life easier’.
Fearful of thinking for ourselves, unable to face anxiety, uncertainty and the truth that life is to be invented, we look everywhere for answers and resolution. The culture is only too willing to provide these ‘solutions’. “Objects, and the needs that they imply, exist precisely in order to resolve the anguish of not knowing what one wants” (Baudrillard, 1981:205). My life is reconciled, it has a solution, because I bought “x”. Consumer goods, of course, are exhibited to us under the guise of ‘choice’. But as Derrida notes incisively, “today we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial” (Derrida, 1968:293).
The tragedies and social disintegration represented during the TV news are interrupted by commercials: a catchy jingle, a sexy voice, a stylized presentation, buy this product (or, as a minimum, consume these images) and the problems will be resolved. Products are sold in the name of America (one of our supreme signs of reconciliation). “Buy this Dodge Omni, because America loves it.” The enactment of the news is itself already permeated with resolution. Much of it is concerned with the world of stars, celebrities, new gadgets. The depiction of violence in the city – murder, rapes, subway crimes, heart attacks – is also a form of resolution: as if the malaise of society could be symbolically captured by specific and coded infractions. The presentation of chaos also strengthens and reinforces the viewer’s dependence on the ascribed ‘coherence’ of the media.
The acquisition and accumulation of money as a goal in life is obviously the epitome of a search for resolution. Consider the trajectory of many young people in the seventies-eighties. After exploring many alternatives or ‘paths’, one arrives at the summation: “Well, there’s no answers there. I’ll make money instead.” I study literature, art history, political science, etc … I travel in Europe for a couple of years, work part-time, etc … Heck, I’ll go to Law School. Heck, I’ll go to Dental School, like my father who is a dentist.
The study of television and consumer culture could be revived through the introduction of the concepts of cultural citizenship and the myth of resolution. The mere possession of a television set is an act of cultural citizenship. Baudrillard: “As a certificate of citizenship the TV is a token of recognition, of integration, of social legitimacy… this can be seen in middle (and lower) class interiors, where the TV is enthroned on a sort of pedestal, focusing attention on it as an object” (Baudrillard, 1981:54). Television commercials also offer a vast and largely unexplored territory for cultural critical investigation. All of human history can be resumed and distorted in any five minutes of TV commercials.
Television is also one of the cardinal axes of the contemporary myth of communication. Many people are inclined to believe that television provides immense possibilities of communication. According to Desaulniers, on the contrary, what is offered is a wide diversity of contents coupled with an extreme homogeneity of forms (Desaulniers, 1982). Although the subjects always vary, the forms of presentation remain the same. The heterogeneity of content is routinized. In the United States, television fashions a very strict time-narrative: a cycle of morning shows, afternoon soap operas, ‘reruns’ in the late afternoon, local news, national news, evening ‘prime-time’ shows, late movies, etc… There is also a rigid weekly cycle, and a seasonal cycle (13 weeks of new episodes, followed by ‘reruns,’ etc…) Desaulniers refers to these as ‘cycles of redundancy’. “Television will sell politics, the family, sports, love songs or games, in short, just about anything, provided that it symbolizes communication as the ultimate value of the social” (Ibid.:34). Goethals adds the interesting point that calamities, tragedy and grief are only consistently depicted in serials about the super-rich (Dallas, Dynasty, etc…). In shows about middle-or lower-class families, difficulties in life are tempered by humor and accessible resolution (Goethals, 1981:53).
VI. Money and Gambling
Money is the decisive emblem of security and cultural citizenship in our society. Money could be studied in a myriad of ways: money and cultural citizenship, money in circulation, the handling of money, money as signifier, money and identity, money and the myth of resolution. Money could be thought of as related to a myth of ‘freedom in resolution’. It is suspended between its abstraction and fixed artificiality as signifier and the almost universal doctrine that it is a bestower of freedom and self-determination.
Gambling and ‘gambling-style’ events (sweepstakes and contests, lucky number drawings, corporate giveaways) have become more and more ‘present’ in American society in recent years. The casino ‘chip’ is the undefiled ‘floating signifier’ of our culture. In an undisguised procedure of simulation, the chip has been cleanly severed from its referent or signified. The player, almost as a prerequisite to participation in casino gambling, must suspend all normal associations of the value of money outside the casino. He must forget what he could buy or enjoy with the sum of money that he puts into the game. He cannot mentally afford to imagine each meal or record album lost as the $10 chips gravitate away from him. The chip tends to lose its relation to money on the outside. It is only distantly related to actual goods and services. Money won in the game is directed back into the game or other games, or it is immediately spent. Money lost seems like play money.
I participate in a universalist simulation of equality, but only through my money. I can sit down at the same table with the owner of a company or a stockbroker. But as soon as I am out of money, I no longer exist. The casino is done with the player as soon as his cash is gone.
Gambling in the present-day context is neither purely an entertainment activity (consumer commodity) nor an activity pursued with the hope of making money without effort. It is a paradox because it is an entertainment activity that has as one of its key elements of attraction the possibility of making money without work. Its appeal to the player consists in the elusive tension between these two elements. In casino gambling, the management’s strategy is to seek to immerse the player in a highly controlled and packaged environment. But the player would never consent to gamble if he knew that the exchange consisted only of the purchasing, for a certain sum of money, of a temporal unit of participation in this environment. Contrarily, the player never really believes that he frequents the casino in order to make money. If he did, he would not pass through the ritual of persuading himself that his expenditure is the price of a legitimate consumer activity in which he has the right to indulge periodically.
The casino ‘lends’ us chips so that we may play out our time and rid ourselves of our pile and our illusions of instant wealth. In the same way, the society ‘lends’ us money so that we may follow its dictates, purchase its imperatives, and live out our illusions of self-determination. The casino chip is the signifier of money, which is the signifier of the culture of signifiers.
VII. Stocks and Bonds
In traditional political theory (John Locke, Thomas Hobbes), the idea of landed property and property rights included the notion of possession and appropriation as media for one’s completion as a subject. Property rights were an extension of the self and an arena of individual expression. Today, property has been largely socialized or has passed into the hands of large corporations. The closest we can get to it is through the simulation of buying and selling ‘shares’ on the stock market, trying to anticipate the moves that the majority of other traders and investors will make. One feels no special attachment to the stocks and bonds in one’s portfolio, and the decision to hold shares in a given company has little to do with personal valuation, pride of ownership, or solidarity with other shareholders. People who actually attend annual shareholders’ meetings are usually regarded as eccentrics. We see numbers rearranged on our monthly statement (like on our banking and credit card statements), and feel more secure when the numbers are larger. Simmel perceived the attraction of money as a pure potentiality that has not been actualized, the anticipation of ownership which comes to have its own attraction as abstract form (Simmel. 1900:326-28). But in the era of computerization, we are even a step beyond this abstraction. Like in casino gambling, where the chips ‘belong’ to the player only in the dimmest of ways, credit systems remove the individual from any tactile relationship to money used in an exchange. Transactions take place internally between the computer systems of two or more organizations.
VIII. Getting Physical
As private property in the traditional sense recedes and shrinks from view, there is a corresponding inflation of the body (and the psyche) as a semiotically charged arena of meaning and personal salvation. Citizenship, participation, property, solidarity and sociability are all disappearing in favor of a much more confined and restricted variant of self-possession. The contours and limits of one’s estate are now the boundaries of the body and the mythified ‘personal history’. The well-known ‘psychologization’ of society and super marketing of therapies testifies to the decline of any sense of an historical-sociological self. Even the practice of psychoanalysis, which was supposed to bring the individual back into contact with a history larger than himself, has tended to enter the logic of techniques of salvation and the culture of resolution. Its contemporary bent is towards the project of saving the individual from his supposedly demented personal history and restoring the ‘functionality’ of a constituted personality. There is much emphasis on the ‘transference’, and little recognition of traces, absence, and the open structuring of memories as a text. The truth is that the ‘individual’ is little else but history, society, and his family which are inside him as his neuroses, and what he needs is critical consciousness in order to grasp this. Unfortunately, most attempts by the analysand to think critically rather than free associate are dismissed as defenses or ‘resistance’. In spite of growing awareness of the issue of ‘narcissism’, American psychoanalysis has yet to interrogate the myth of the ‘I’ and the confinement of our notion of self within asocial and ahistorical boundaries. Stripped of so much territory, the ‘patient’ is sent out with his patched-up psyche and body to compete in the universal scramble.
In Season Seven episodes of Dallas, Lucy Ewing (Charlene Tilton), grown older and more cunning, has adapted some of the character traits of her notorious uncle, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). After a series of disappointing love affairs, Lucy is gradually learning that her natural sweetness and generosity are insufficient capital resources for securing what she wants. She has become more pugnacious and manipulative in the competition for the man she desires. Not only has money become a weapon (like J.R., she offers to ‘keep’ the sexual partner she is wooing), but she has discovered new manipulations of the body. Her poses, her movements, her gaze, her shapely blonde hair, are now all harnessed in a strategy of procurement. Her body has entered the arena of the scramble in full ascendance.
This is an evolution entirely acceptable to the viewers of Dallas. Since J.R.’s finesse and craftiness were the show’s main attraction for years, it is only natural that a female version of him should come forth and that she should be a ripening member of the Ewing clan. Lucy Ewing’s slow discovery of the social uses of the body marks her entrance into the culture of signifiers: in this case, the models of functional eroticism and seduction.
Our bodies are one of the most important fields for the skillful management of citizenship strategies. My body appears to be my private property, just as do my car, my personal computer, and my bank account. The ethos of individualistic advance (Hirsch) is founded on the assumption that the relationship between a person and his physical objects of possession is one solely of property, and not of implication in matrices of social logic and meaning. As a member of this society (a contestant for cultural citizenship), my body is not really mine. It, and my sexuality, belong to a tangled collective history. My body resists or conforms to cultural codes on all levels. I want to look like the actors, actresses, and models on TV, in order to be attractive to others, and to be professionally and sexually ‘successful’.
In an episode of Dallas, Jena Wade (Priscilla Presley) and Rinaldo (her Italian ex-husband who has kidnapped her) are physically struggling in a motel room. Rinaldo desires sexual contact and Jena is resisting. The motel manager, overhearing the sounds of the struggle, comes beating on the door. Immediately, Rinaldo ceases his aggression, approaches the door and informs the manager that everything is all right. He has left the code of conflict and entered the code of a pretended resolution. We are then switched to a commercial for “Sure,” the underarm deodorant: “Be confident! be confident! be dry and secure! Be confident! Raise your hands if you’re Sure!”
Human history is filled with the horror stories and tragedies of domination. Slavery and servitude, prisons, harems, psychiatric hospitals, wars, physical mutilation, humiliations and perverse uses of power fill the history books we read. But today’s society claims to have transcended history and arrived at a stage of ‘universality’ where peaceful and secure existence is supposedly available to all. But in this situation of the denial of history, all the brute dominations of the past go ‘underground’ into psychologistic struggles and traumas on the level of the individual, the family, personal relations. Without public avowal of history, life becomes sunk in a universe of anxieties, fears, and frustrations. Instead of actual slavery, we have symbolic slavery. Instead of open brutality, we have the secret closets of wife-beating and child abuse. Instead of physical castration, we have psychological castration. Instead of treating apprentice seamen who show signs of excessive spirit with time in the brig or floggings from the whip, we dress up our youthful rebels in suits and ties and seat them behind computer terminals.
As Nietzsche and Foucault have taught us, one of the clues to the secret of human history is the will to power. Fearing to be exposed and unprotected, having been abused, having covered it up, and yet fearing more abuse, we direct our actions outward and seek to exercise power over others. This is a constantly recurring mode of behavior in our society, and is accomplished even in the smallest gestures: beeping one’s car horn or making a nasty face at a stranger. The pleasure which many motorists seem to take in shouting “fuck you!” at someone with whom they have had a minor skirmish is not unrelated to the thrill which a section of the audience on a TV quiz show feels when the ‘master of ceremonies’ or the guest celebrity identifies their presence. “Today we have with us the entire graduating class of Podunk high school!” The quiz show is a beautiful metaphor for our current social condition. We are all ‘contestants’ for identity and cultural citizenship; and we are less and less bashful about exposing our single-minded preoccupation with making money. After all, one of the most popular daytime programs in America in the 1980s was called Anything for Money!
About the Author
Alan N. Shapiro is a trans-disciplinary thinker who studied science-technology at MIT and philosophy-history-literature at Cornell University. He is the author of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2004), widely recognized as a seminal work in science fiction studies and the conception of futuristic technoscience. He is the editor and translator of “The Technological Herbarium” by Gianna Maria Gatti (Berlin: AVINUS Verlag, 2010), a major study of art and technology. He is a practicing software developer. Alan has worked as a consultant to many large companies in several European countries. He is the co-inventor, with Alexis Clancy, of the “New Computer Science,” which promises to be something like a new Manhattan Project. He is currently founding a utopian company called Shapiro Technologies, which will be based on the principles of friendship and “not working.” A recent interview of Alan is posted at: http://www.redroom.com/blog/alannshapiro/the-revolution-will-not-be-televised-it-will-be-led-radical-software
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