Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Remaking the Future: Horizon Scanning with Martin Heidegger and Frank Sinatra

Mark Featherstone 

I was recently asked to take part in a horizon scanning exercise with the idea that I would gaze into the future in the name of figuring out likely hot research topics for years to come. Although I know that all major organisations undertake these exercises and had recently taken part in discussions about a Labour Party horizon scan – what would we do in the case of capital flight brought about by Brexit and so on? – I found scanning the future more difficult than I had imagined. Apart from feeling uneasy about the neoliberalism of the term, the horizon scan (in this terminology the horizon is not phenomenological but rather capitalist – what we are looking for is potential profit), my problem went like this - whatever I came up with seemed either absolutely presentist or absolutely speculative and more like something one would expect to read about in the pages of a science fiction novel. This left me in a quandary. It seemed that there was no point saying anything totally presentist – the future will look like today, but worse – but equally pointless to start talking about wild science fiction. So what, then, should I do? How to connect the present to some possible future?

As a sociologist, cultural historian, and theorist of utopia I am, of course, acutely aware of these kind of problems of handling time and the relation of the now to the future to come. How to think the future? If I become too realistic in the name of pragmatism, nothing changes and I can’t step outside of the present. On the other hand, if I throw myself into imaginary futures, I end up similarly trapped in the present because my thought experiment is so remote as to be effectively meaningless. Here, I have to rely on the idea of irony – that my critique will reflect back on the present to produce action in clever readers who understand the relevance of my sci-fi to the real world. But since my task wasn’t to write a fictional utopia, what I needed to try to do was to find a way to move from the present to the future on the basis of some kind of reason. But what reason? In the case of the utopian the trick has always been about being able to mobilise the necessary resources – first of all, basic rationality, and second, organisational capacity – to move from the present to something else we might call the future. Every utopian movement has struggled with this problem, which is precisely why the left in particular has historically had so many organisational issues around the relationship between the people who have concrete demands related to immediate social problems (we want more food etc.) and the Party or organisational unit of the people which has to try to deliver on these demands in a way that is sustainable and will change society in the long run. The tension here is obvious to anybody who knows anything about history. Let’s take a quick detour to explain this tension historically.

We might say that the problem of the people is how to make things happen. They know they have a problem, but they don’t have the organisation to do anything about it. What about when they get the organisation? Well, things don’t really improve when they invent the organisational form – the Union or the Party. At this point they become caught up in Party politics and the movement takes on a kind of inertia. They have to compromise, settle for less, and everything gets bogged down. Their leaders become cynical. Nothing changes. This was in a way the problem of modern and post-modern utopian history. How to really invent the future? After the Russian revolution, and the realisation of the problem of the Party (Stalinism), the left decided the people were the way to go. This is why horizontal organisation is considered the best democratic way forward these days, even though this comes with its own problems – how to organise etc. without a vanguard?

The problem of modern utopia, the problem of organisation, is one thing, but I think things are much worse now. Let me explain through reference to two concepts, the end of history and the risk society, which emerged in social thought at around the same time (the early 1990s). The strange paradox of the end of history thesis is that it has its own long history, dating back to the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, his Russian follower Alexandre Kojeve, and moving forward, the American political thinker, Francis Fukuyama, and finally the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard. Beyond Hegel and Kojeve, who imagined an end of history in an empire of reason, Fukuyama and Baudrillard saw the end of history operative in post-modern, American capitalism.

The story goes something like this. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama argued that there would be no more great or epochal political change. American globalisation was it. Baudrillard went slightly further, as he always did, by arguing that the future had been cancelled in a swirling permanent present of signs, symbols, and consumerist junk that ultimately meant nothing. We thought 9 / 11 put paid to this talk, because people started to see that American capitalism wasn’t the end, and that there was something else – Islamist terror, the rise of China, climate change etc. etc. But, of course, none of this is really representative of the rebirth of history. We all know there are all kinds of global, social, problems now and we can signpost these endlessly, but the questions remains how do we move into the future without a dialectical model to explain where we are going? How do we map the movement between now and what follows in order to create some kind of narrative, some kind of story, we could talk about in terms of history?

It is precisely this which would allow us to talk seriously about the future and solve my problem of the horizon scan. At this point I realised my problem – there is no real way to scan the horizon today with any kind of seriousness because the ideational structures linking past, present, and future together have been dismantled. Dialectical theory, which had allowed us to understand the movement of history from the Greeks through to Hegel and later Kojeve and Fukuyama, no longer works today. Why? In one sense Baudrillard hit the nail on the head. We live in a swirl of stuff and we cannot think beyond it. Baudrillard didn’t meet Trump and he didn’t live to hear about post-truth and fake news. But he didn’t need to. He had already predicted the rise of this nonsense which prevents us from thinking rationally long ago when he wrote about post-modern hyper-reality. This theory is all about endings. But what brought this situation about?

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck provides an answer here. Today we live in a risk society. Our global society is totally connected and moves at such speeds that our rational powers to link cause to effect in order to understand the relationship between the past, present, and future start to break down. Despite what we have been told since 9 / 11 (history is back on with the clash of civilizations), I think the tradition of Hegel, Kojeve, Fukuyama, Baudrillard, and Beck is correct – history is history. Unfortunately reaching this conclusion left me in something of a tricky position. How to scan the horizon and tell my colleagues what I think might happen in the future when I really have no way to do this because there will be no future in the real sense of this term. I can either project from the present – more of the same, but even worse, because we have no way to imagine the future and solve problems – or make some wild utopian or dystopian speculations on the basis of what? A hunch, a feeling?

I still don’t have an answer to the ‘what will happen next?’ question, so I am afraid I can’t provide a social forecast likely to make anybody any money, but I do have a diagnosis and a view about what we must do in order to imagine realistic futures which will in turn allow us, where ‘us’ refers to social beings who move into the future in more or less motivated predictable ways, to begin to challenge the seemingly intractable problems of the present. What is this diagnosis? Centrally, I think that we must reconstruct our sense of human temporality. We must remake our sense of the connection between past, present, and future. We must remake our history itself. How? Well, let me finish by saying a bit about how this would work through reference to two thinkers – the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Bernard Stiegler – who both have a lot to say about time.

Let’s start with Heidegger. I don’t have the space to get into the detail of Heidegger’s Being and Time in this short piece, but what I do want to do is pick out one of the key ideas of this monumental book – the difference between inauthentic and authentic time. Basically Heidegger tells us that inauthentic time happens when we allow ourselves and our path through life to be defined by external forces. Here, he talks about the fall into everydayness, das man or ‘the they’, where the basic idea is that the way we think about ourselves and where we are going collapses into received opinion and the banality of everyday life. How to understand this? Well, we could say that we allow ourselves to be measured by external yardsticks. ‘This is how you should live’. ‘This is what you should be doing’. ‘You have this, that, and the other value’ and so on. By contrast to this, authentic time comes from within me. Here, I map my own sense of self, who I am, what I am doing, where I am going, onto the world and resist colonisation by external forces. I create my own values and live by the measure they provide. In this situation my sense of self comes from inside me, not from some external point of view.

According to Heidegger, when I think about life and time in this way I am resolute. ‘This is what I am doing, no matter what, and I will not bend to external forces’. I am true to who I am regardless of what is happening in the outside world because one day I know that I will die and when that time comes I need to be able to say to myself that I followed my real inner being. In the words of Frank Sinatra, I need to be able to say that I did it my way.

But what has this got to do with the end of history, the problem of horizon scanning, and the collapse of the future today? The answer is that if my self is externalised today, in an end of history, an end of future, chaotic risk society, then I won’t know what I am doing from one moment to the next. There is no predictability in the world. If I am not resolute and stick to who I am, then my entire sense of self will collapse and with it my ability to contribute to a human future. In effect I will stop being human or at the very least I will become absolutely inauthentic and potentially psychopathological. In the language of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan I will become psychotic. This is what I think we must resist today. Essentially, I think the reason we find ourselves in a situation where it is so difficult to understand our world, to map history, to scan the horizon, to think the future, is because we have allowed ourselves to be objectified by economy and the forces of capitalism and turned into so much flotsam in a world that has become increasing post-human.

This is what we must fight. We must fight the forces of estrangement that are, let’s face it, what capitalism is all about in order to re-establish the human world and human reason. Unfortunately, the problem of capitalism today is no longer simply one of inequality, and this is why it is so important to understand what neoliberal thought is all about. Neoliberalism is capitalism on crack, capitalism absolutely committed to dehumanisation, and the transformation of every aspect of life in capital value. Nobody can stand this for very long. No wonder we have become stupid and lost touch with our future possibility. We cannot think today because of the media that thinks for us, telling us to buy this, that, and the other. Despite what Marx thought, we cannot really work either, because we now work to pay off our debts. In this respect we no longer work, we labour like beasts of burden. Thus our species being, the way we make ourselves into the future, has been colonised by debt and the need to make repayment for ever more.

Under these conditions the future starts to look grey, murky, and gloomy, like no future worthy of the name. There is nothing here but buying more stuff and paying off debts in an endless present that never really changes. We cannot even hold onto the utopia of retirement because even our pensions are being cancelled because they are too expensive and investors have no intention of putting themselves at risk. How will we live in old age? Without a future where things might be different there is nothing but the control society of the present which invariably decays because we have no way to repair social problems. Indeed the attempt of the elites, governments, and investors to withdraw from risk in a catastrophic form of social policy only further destroys the future because they are completely unwilling to take a chance on investment (which always has a future orientation). No wonder I couldn’t scan the horizon! There is no horizon or even worse, the contemporary horizon is what the French writer Paul Virilio called a negative horizon. This is not a horizon I head towards that forever vanishes into the distance, but rather a nightmare, a horizon rushing towards me, a catastrophe heading straight for me.

It is precisely this situation that led Beck to write of the catastrophic society, which seems locked onto future disaster because it has no way of thinking anything new, and Heidegger’s student, Hans Jonas, to conceive of what he called the precautionary principle. This is an interesting idea, and one worth thinking about in relation to our (here ‘our’ means human) need to save the future from becoming an endless parade of unrelated events out of our control, because what Jonas says we need to do to reanimate the present and imagine the future, is project forward into some future catastrophe – the catastrophe bearing down on me. In much same that Heidegger said that we must live meaningful lives in the knowledge that we may die at any moment (death is a certainty, but we don’t know when it will happen), Jonas says that we must live our common social life thinking about what will happen if we do nothing. We will inevitably end up killing ourselves. Human civilization will collapse. This is, then, what I think we need to do today…

We need to imagine the worst, and think about the end, because it is only when we do this, when we create a dystopian future, that we will start to be able to animate the present and live with resolution about who we are, what matters, and what must change. Of course, even though we know the present is miserable, and the neoliberal capitalist system is a disaster for the majority of people, it is not easy to be resolute for the sake of some abstract ethic, which is why our resolution must be based upon experience and causes close to us – family, children, people close to us who we are willing to fight for. It is on the basis of this ethic of proximity and closeness that we must resist the alien forces of objectification, forces that will turn us into stupid commodities, flotsam unable to think the future, because we know what these conditions will eventually mean for these other people close to us. The catastrophe will happen and it will happen to them.

This is a basis for social action, action based in a defence of social security, a defence of social identity, a defence of the value of experience, and understanding, and having a place in history which is the history of people and people who make meaning, not the history of an anonymous system that towers over people who become so many things that are largely irrelevant to the progress of some mysterious, reified global process. This is a different history, the history of non-human processes studied by scientists, but humanity cannot be swallowed by this natural history. Humans cannot live under this anonymous system because we are meaning making creatures and we need to understand the relationship between past, present, and future in order to control our fate. What are we if we are not this? It is our ability to think through a temporal horizon that makes us human and gives us a sense of our humanity. This is not about saying I am the centre of the story and that everything revolves around me because this is megalomania, but rather understanding that I have a history, that this history matters, and that my history is part of a bigger story that gives it some kind of wider meaning relevant to other people. In this story, this social history, individual experience is suspended in the whole, and matters for this reason. Despite what capitalism thinks (because we have reached a situation where the machine thinks us today) we are not base resources, meaningless objects to be used and abused by an economic machine, but rather historical creatures who become human precisely through our ability to understand ourselves and our present situation in terms of the past and possible futures. 

Finally it was in thinking through the problem of horizon scanning today, and the fact that I could not easily make the leap from the catastrophic present to some imagined improbable future, that I realised that it is precisely this situation that the French writer Bernard Stiegler seeks to solve today through the reconstruction of a sociological history based in deep cultural understandings. This is, I think, Heideggerian sociology, a project we badly need to pursue through education and our universities, because it is here, in these places, that we can tell people that they matter, that they are not things, that their experiences are significant, that they are part of history, and part of a potential future beyond the horrors of objectification that transforms people into so much junk floating about on the stormy sea of capitalism.   

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Stiegler’s University and the Horror of the Orphan in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn


Mark Featherstone

Apart from spending the summer working on a number of projects concerned with the idea of utopia in eastern thought; the philosophy of the German thinker Peter Sloterdijk; and debt and indebtedness, a couple of pieces I have been thinking about and working on for a year or so appeared in print. 

My article on the French writer Bernard Stiegler and ideas of higher education called Stiegler’s University was published in the journal, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. This article, which concerns Stiegler’s theory of higher education as a battleground between stupidity and intelligence, connects to very real debates in education today about the impact of financialisation upon the way people learn and think about knowledge. Do people enter into education in order to pick up information that they can use in the world of work? Or do they want to learn and translate information into knowledge that will change their understanding of the world around them and the way they behave in that world with the consequence that they might be able to change it for the better? While Stiegler privileges the latter model of education in the name of improving people and society, the problem with higher education defined by debt is that people need to pick up knowledge, and more precisely information (which I think about in terms of undigested knowledge), that will enable them to make repayments and ultimately survive in a world defined by money and monetary valuations of everything. For Stiegler, the financialisation of higher education is, thus, what ensures its stupidity, and prevents the production of real intelligence that comes when people are able to think, change themselves, and as a result, the world around them. But, what, then is to be done? For Stiegler, we must rethink the role of higher education, which is not simply to teach skills for the workplace, but also to encourage people to think, explore, and develop with a view to both individual and social improvement. Of course, this can only happen in the context of an institution that enables and foregrounds freedom of thought, as opposed to a model of education concerned with economic returns, which in turn relies upon educational policy sensitive to the need to protect this space from market forces that constrain freedom by forcing people to think in narrow economic terms.

Following the publication of this piece, I also published an article on the cinema of the Danish-American Director Nicolas Winding Refn, called The Letting Go: The Horror of Being Orphaned in the Cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn in the Journal of Cultural Research. This piece emerged from a long standing engagement with Winding Refn’s film, which led me to include a chapter on his cinema in my recent book on utopia and globalisation (Planet Utopia), and my desire to extend my exploration of his focus on estrangement and loneliness in urban environments. After writing about Winding Refn’s lost child in my utopia book, I extended my discussion into orphan identity in his three most recent films, Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, in order to show how he envisages the fate of the individual in contemporary global society. In Drive the main character, who importantly has no name (he is simply called Driver), lives a lonely life characterised by a desperate search for family which is endlessly thwarted by criminality, violence, and the evil of money. The same is the case in Only God Forgives which tells a similar story in the Thai capital, Bangkok. The difference here is that where Drive represents the main character endlessly on the run, trying to escape violence and find some form of comfort, Only God Forgives introduces Buddhist thinking to suggest that the solution to the problem of loneliness is ‘the letting go’ of the self and its various desires which translate into economic imperatives to consume and so on. Finally, I turn to Winding Refn’s most recent film, The Neon Demon, in order to show how he restages the problem of Only God Forgives in the LA fashion world. The choice that faces his central character (Elle Fanning’s Jessie) here is between the living death of the model (the women who is transformed into a thing by the fashion industry) or the real death she finally experiences when her vampyric rivals throw her into an empty swimming pool. That her rivals then consume her body in the name of trying to steal her beauty, which was always premised on her purity and naivety, shows that Winding Refn wants to leave the horror of the orphan in a state of suspension. While Jessie’s death symbolises her escape (her Buddhist ‘letting go’ of the world), her rivals continue their battle ‘to be somebody’, ‘to make it’, and ultimately ‘to belong’ somewhere in a world defined by alienation and estrangement.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Keele Sociology: Megan's experiences

Megan Hilditch graduated from Keele in July with first class honours in Sociology. She was awarded the prize for 'best overall performance in Sociology' and in this post she reflects on her experience of studying at Keele. 
After enjoying studying Sociology at A-level I decided to continue to study the subject at degree level. Sociology at Keele University appealed to me because of the variety of topics covered by modules and the breadth of research conducted by the sociology department, both of which have helped to make my time at Keele an enjoyable experience. This not only gave me the freedom to tailor my degree towards my own areas of interest due to the range of choices but also gave me the opportunity to learn about new and interesting issues; helping to make my experience a positive one. This positive experience was furthered by the Sociology staff who taught their areas of interest with passion and enthusiasm, making modules enjoyable and lectures worth turning up for.

During my time at Keele, I particularly enjoyed modules which dealt with the family, migration, and new technologies, as these modules addressed important contemporary issues and enabled me to view such topics through a critical lens. I also enjoyed modules concerned with urban living which involved individual research projects; as this allowed me to choose a specific area of interest which I wanted to learn more about and encouraged me to think creatively. Such modules have sparked my interest in city life and have led me to wish to pursue a career in city planning.

As well as enhancing my knowledge of sociology throughout my three years as an undergraduate at Keele, studying sociology has allowed me to develop a range transferable skills such as; communication skills, organisational skills, research skills and analytical skills. These have all helped me to develop as a person and will be beneficial to me in my future employment.

Overall, my experience of studying Sociology at Keele has been interesting and pleasurable and a choice that I am glad I made. I am extremely pleased to have achieved the award for best overall performance in Sociology and could not have done so without the Sociology staff who were always happy to offer help and advice.

 By Megan Hilditch

Thursday, 20 July 2017

First winner of the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology

Chloe Dawson is the first winner of the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology. This prize is awarded by Keele University and the Sociological Review Foundation Limited. In this post, Chloe reflects on winning this prize and her time studying at Keele.

Chloe on her graduation day.
Winning the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for my dissertation was one of the proudest moments of my life. It is an honour to be associated with such a figure who has shaped and challenged the way we study sociology today. This is also a notion I have always held when studying sociology at Keele, that we should always challenge the way we view people and their behaviour, never taking stereotypes or popular views as something not to be explored. Due to this, my dissertation focussed on the ways in which women were excluded from the renowned sociological narrative of urban city life in the nineteenth century. For instance, I explored the way the department store revolutionised women’s new-found access to the city; from the Victorian, middle class values that chained women to domestic life, towards the possibility of them experiencing the city as males have always done. 

My research also led me to examine the portrayal of women in nineteenth century impressionist art, especially their activity within the public sphere. This allowed me to uncover how they have been excluded from the sociological writing of great urban theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, Charles Baudelaire and David Harvey. Throughout, contemporary views were considered, such as Janet Wolff and Mica Nava’s, who tended to disagree on whether women were ignored within the nineteenth century city or that they simply were not very active during this time.
Interest in this topic has always been a part of my studies at Keele, as a History and Sociology dual honours student I have always enjoyed exploring the views and experiences of the past. The modules available to me have continuously allowed me to enhance this knowledge over my three-year degree; especially due to ‘Classical Sociology’, a first-year module, that introduced me to Georg Simmel and urban sociology thought. Meanwhile, history modules constantly expanded my understanding of the nineteenth century and the way women experienced life, they also deepened my skills of researching and writing about the past. Also, sociology at Keele aided my ability to view historical narrative with a critical eye, but also how these small individual accounts can help us to understand how society, as a whole, was experienced.

These are a few of the skills I will continue to use during my next chapter at Keele for my Masters in Social Science Research Methods. I have decided to stay at Keele due to my incredible experience over the past three years, not only for the beautiful campus or the people I have met but also because of the fantastic support I have been given from the university staff. My lecturers and tutors have always been there to guide me and help me achieve what I have today, providing constant assistance and encouragement. 

When I left school 3 years ago, with average A-Level results, I never could have imagined being given such an award – Keele has taught me that with enough time, dedication, and support, you can work hard enough to achieve such things as the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology. I think he would be very proud of Keele’s sociology department today.