Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Unsettler: Sociology and Demobilisation

By Dr Mark Featherstone

After having been away from blogging for a few months because of research leave and teaching commitments, I decided to return after a research visit to Paris to finish talking about the sociology of immobility. I was curious to essay my own situation upon my return, but it has taken me more or less a month to get around to writing this piece. This is, of course, no advertisement for the high speed society, nor the advantages of blogging where information moves lightning fast. I wish that I could claim laziness, say that I had plenty of time on my hands, and that I simply hadn’t been bothered to write, because this would mean I had taken time off. But there is no laziness in the high speed society and unfortunately the truth is much worse. I simply have not had the time to write anything. Now, as research projects stack up around me, must-read books pile up in ever increasing quantities covering my office, and my diary swells with meetings, and many more appointments I have probably not written down, I thought I needed to sit down to write about the paradoxical relationship between mobility and immobility in contemporary society. So here we are.

There was something interesting about flying off to Paris, spending a day and a half in the suburbs of the French capital, and then returning to the UK in a desperate attempt to secure a visa for entry into China a week later. I never made it to Beijing in the end and had to postpone my trip. But by the time it became clear I was going nowhere the very effort of trying to organise a visa, flights, foreign currency, not to mention finish off papers to present in the Chinese capital, made me feel as though I had been to China and back without ever having left my office. Email went back and forth, and I made aborted phone calls to Beijing, without getting anywhere, before I eventually accepted I was staying put. In the end I had achieved very little, apart from discovering I had the wrong documentation to enter China on a lecturing visa. I had remained completely immobile in every sense of the word, and yet by the end of the week, I felt in a state of panic.

Admittedly, I may be prone to this kind of reaction when confronted with the prospect of travel. Those who know me know very well that I have never really considered myself a member of the global elite, having been brought up in a particularly immobile environment where nobody seemed to do anything and nothing ever seemed to change. On a continuum spanning those who belong to, or dwell in a place and those who live nowhere and everywhere at the same time, I fall very much into the former category, having never found mobility very easy. Unfortunately, having said all of this, I am, perhaps, in the worst possible position, being somebody who wants to dwell somewhere, but is also an exile from that place. So I live between somewhere and nowhere, which really means nowhere or a kind of liminal place. As a researcher of utopias I know that nowhere should be best possible place, or at least that’s what Thomas More told us, when he called his perfect world utopia meaning both good place and no place, but I can’t really sustain that belief. Nowhere is really no good. It is like the non-places French sociologist Marc Auge talks about. These places, airports and the like, are only good for moving through on your way somewhere else.

But then again, I’m ambivalent. Nowhere has its attractions. For example, I like airports. They’re transitory places and I feel a great sense of freedom in them. The paradox of airports is that even when you’re loaded down with bags, you have no baggage. You’re on the move and you could go anywhere. Unfortunately, the problem with non-places is that its easy to get stuck there. Nobody wants to be stuck nowhere, like the traveler in the Tom Hanks’ film, who ends up living in an airport for months on end, because its impossible to settle and grow any kind of roots there. There is some kind of freedom in that admittedly, but it becomes a bit tiresome in the end. So nowhere, and the non-place of the exile is nowhere to be, even though sociologists have long known that aliens make the best critical thinkers because the normal looks absurd to them. That’s okay, and it may make for good academic work, but it’s hard to live on the outside looking in. Having said all of this, I should not over-egg my status as melancholy exile. I spent my early life thinking about escaping from my immobile situation. Everybody I knew did. That was life. In this respect, roots and the idea of dwelling are based on a kind of imaginary situation for me. In the language of Benedict Anderson, I have an imaginary view of what it was like to live in a working class community.

But I also know that in a society premised on the idea of mobility, immobility kills. Perhaps this is why airports are the best and worst of places to be – we are all mobile in the airport, until we get stuck, and then our immobility is thrown into sharp relief by the very fact that the place we occupy is a kind of transitory non-place that exists for no other reason than to move people on. You absolutely do not want to get stuck there. In fact, perhaps we should learn to appreciate airports more for what they can tell us about contemporary society and our mindset today because the condition of the airport which enables movement but also invariably malfunctions and breaks down causing panic-inducing immobility symbolises the great problem of the mobile society. That to say that the great problem of moving around and running about without stopping to take stock is that you end up getting nowhere and nothing ever happens.

As such, there is a point where mobility folds into immobility, with the added ingredient of the desperate need to move in a society geared towards dynamism and change. Herein resides the difference between me now, stuck between Paris and Beijing in a kind of twilight zone, and me twenty years ago, caught on a council estate on the edge of Hull, wondering how I could escape. In the past I had nowhere to be. I had no reason to leave, even though I knew there had to be more to life, whereas now I have somewhere to be, but have come to see everywhere as a kind of transitory place on the road to somewhere else. In the past everywhere was an end, a kind of dead end, and now there is no end, but only endless movement. What is more is that I am not unusual in this view – I use myself as an example of a particular world view, the world view of the contemporary global nomad, the unsettler, who is propelled ever forward by the demand to move contained in contemporary society.

Unlike the nomads of the past who went to a place and eventually settled somewhere, today we are unsettlers because we never stay anywhere for too long. My own case is hyperbolic, because as I am well aware that I have a dislike of both mobility and immobility, and this puts me in the difficult, even comic position of not wanting to go anywhere, but also not wanting to stay where I am for too long, wherever that may be at any given time. Perhaps this makes me the ideal of citizen of More’s utopian city that did not exist, a place that was also a no place. But I don’t think so. The problem with More’s people was they were far too settled where they were and that’s not how the unsettler is today. Caught in a place that’s not a place, but rather a non-place, the unsettler displays a strange psychological condition we might want to call topophobia – the fear of places. More’s people don’t show any symptoms of this problem. They seem happy where they are. By contrast the contemporary topophobic does not like any place that exists, but instead wants to imagine places they would like to inhabit and then inhabit these imaginary places through mental constructs made up of equal parts of melancholia and desire. Imagination and the desire to move are, therefore, key to understanding the topophobic. As I see it, there is none of this unrest in More’s people.

This is, of course, paradoxical since one would imagine that unrest is exactly what makes one a utopian. Is unrest not what defines the utopian imagination? But we know that unrest is difficult to live with and nobody wants to live between places. It’s not easy. Does this amount to saying that utopia is bad, and that social dreaming is no good, because what it means is that you will never be happy where you are, and always want to find somewhere else that doesn’t really exist? Does this mean that the utopian topophobic is a person who is addicted to movement, but at the same time hates going anywhere because what they want more than anything is to stop moving and rest for a little while in some imaginary place they will never find? In many ways this question touches upon the key point of utopian thinking and practice. What most utopian dreamers have done over the course of history is to try to design imaginary places where people could rest and would have no more need of their imaginations. In utopia other places cease to exist. You are where you are and that’s it.

This is exactly what communists of all types have sought to do over the course of history – from Plato through Stalin to Pol Pot, reds have sought to destroy our ability to think otherwise. Let’s imagine imagination out of existence, because its too hard to keep wanting something that you can never have, a place that does not exist. The response to this strategy has, of course, been the great dystopias which say exactly that. From Diogenes the Dog to George Orwell, the utopians of freedom have told us that even though its hard to keep moving, nobody wants to be subsumed in a place that is completely immobile. So accept your desire to move and live with it. I think that’s true, and I would go along with the radical critique of Plato’s Republic and the Orwellian attack on Stalinism, but the problem is that our own society has taken the idea of mobility too far.

Nobody wants to be stuck in a hopeless situation, where all you can do is dream but never go anywhere, but equally topophobia is no good either. In many respects this is where we are today in contemporary global capitalism. We are all supposed to be ‘super-busy’ - and smile about it. If we have any time we are meant to cram it full of work or leisure. There is no time to do nothing. But it’s enough to drive anybody mad and I’m not sure what’s worse – sitting on a council estate bedsit somewhere wondering what could be or finding yourself caught in a similarly immobile position frantically struggling to manage an overloaded work and leisure schedule.

Although the nature of the collapse of time may have changed, the experience of immobility remains the same. In the case of the bedsit dweller, time has no meaning and it is impossible to go anywhere, because they have nowhere to go and no reason to be anywhere. By contrast, the member of what Zygmunt Bauman would call the contemporary liquid class has no time and can’t get anywhere because he has to be everywhere and has no time to do anything. The outcome of both situations is the same, I think: topophobia, the desire to move, and escape, into a stable yet imaginary place which does not continually propel one forwards.

The great founder of liberal philosophy Thomas Hobbes would have considered any such attempt to find a place beyond mobility ridiculous, since he thought about life in terms of a race. In his view people are like atoms bouncing around in abstract space. They possess trajectories and this is what keeps them alive. Unfortunately, however, nobody can ever have an unimpeded trajectory through life. The very nature of human existence means that people desire similar objects and therefore invariably clash in their life trajectories. As such, we must compete and struggle to ensure that we come out on top in the great race that is life. Obviously, Hobbes was no Darwinian before Darwin, and he did not simply advocate natural selection and the survival of the fittest, but rather thought that it was necessary to take the natural inclination of people towards struggle and competition and lift it onto the level of economic competition where it could be safely controlled. Or at least, this is how the great Canadian theorist of liberalism, C. B. MacPherson, thought about Hobbes' most famous work on the emergence of society.

Although his work is not so well known today, I think that MacPherson provides us with a useful insight into the nature of contemporary society because what it illustrates is that the root problem of our situation – and the problem of the simultaneous divergence and similarity of the experiences of the bedsit dweller and the global traveler – is the result of an economic system that imperils us in equal measure every minute of the day. Why do we fear staying anywhere for too long? Why are we all topophobic today? The answer is quite simple. In the great game of capitalist survivalism, it does not pay to stay still for too long. In order to stay in, and preferably ahead of, the game you absolutely have to keep moving and stay mobile. However, as we have seen, there is a limit to how far this is possible, and in the end it is likely that our society will congeal into a kind of immobile opposition between those who cannot go anywhere because they have nowhere to go and those who cannot move because they have to be everywhere all at the same time. We really need to avoid the emergence of this kind of society because it will result in one outcome – a massive outpouring of psychological unrest in a society committed to mobility.

What should we do, then, to oppose this situation? First, we have to resist the utopian temptation to oppose the addiction to movement with the resolution of stasis in a society where nothing changes. This has been tried by communists throughout history. It does not work. Total immobility is no way forward and only results in the reemergence of the obsession with change and dynamism. Second, I think we have to try to transform our society into a less competitive place, which is not geared around endless change and transformation, but rather takes care of those who cannot keep up and stops challenging people to do more and move faster. As Marx saw in the 19th century, and Simmel recognised early in the 20th century, the society premised on the notion that ‘all is solid melts into air’ is not easy to stand. We all know this to be true and yet, in many respects, we have yet to learn the lesson of the classical sociologists. I think this is the challenge for our society in the immediate future – we must learn from Marx and Simmel. We must learn to demobilise. But how can we do this in a society which functions like a race track? Perhaps this should be the subject for another blog. But for now I fear I must suspend my commitment to demobilisation - I need to try to re-book my flights to Beijing.

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