Decodificare il presente, raccontare il futuro


ven 22 aprile 2016


Infobesity, fast fashion, immigration and the unsustainability of the modern system according to the Polish sociologist.

In Your analysis of the culture industry, You do not specifically address the media sector. Do You consider this as part of Your general survey, or does it occupy a place of its own? In Your opinion, can infobesity be regarded as an antidote for the malaise currently pervading the broadcasting system, or would it be rather one of its contributing causes?

In “The Multiplication of the Media”, one of the essays included in Faith in Fakes , Umberto Eco points out: “What radio and television are today, we know – incontrollable plurality of messages that each individual uses to make up his own composition with the remote-control switch”.

But “what is a mass medium today? A TV program – that too, surely…” But where it is, that “mass medium”? “Is it the newspaper advertisement, is it the TV broadcast, is it the Polo shirt (imprinted or embroidered with the logo of the producers – ZB)? Here we have not one but two, three, perhaps more mass media, acting through different channels … And at this point who is sending the message? … There is no longer Authority, all on its own (and how consoling it was!) … Power is elusive, and there is no longer any telling where the “plan” comes from” (a “plan” is surely there – “but it is no longer intentional, and therefore it cannot be criticized with the traditional criticism and intentions”.
Eco has penned the quoted essay down in 1983. No wonder Radio and TV figure still as the prime characters in the mass media drama. Were the Author to live up to updating the essay to match the wi-fi, digitalized era of the world-wide-web, the Internet and the pocket-size, touch-screen computers, he would have surely many more questions to ask and much graver trouble with answering them unambiguously. Once upon a time, information was hoped to map the world legibly and equip the laid-up roads with firm and solid, wind-resistant signposts on the crossings. Its business is now to render the signposts eminently mobile by perching them on well lubricated castors pushed easily and send rolling with one touch of one finger on the “delete” key the user-friendly monitor – a facility particularly welcome and gratefully, ever more frequently used by the internauts in search of “comfort zones” inside the infuriatingly yet hopelessly turbulent, notoriously chaotic and confusing world.

With such facility included in every personal computer, decomposing messages from the multi-channel noises comes to its owner as easy as composing them – though in both cases equally risky and “until further notice” only. In the world supplied with such equipment maps fed into the sat navs need to be updated ever more often while most drivers risk to find them nevertheless grossly outdated and guiding astray.
In the second chapter of Your book, You write that “The consumerist market is able to subject our culture to fashion logic”. You thus address the issue from the consumer’s point of view, ravenous and insatiable at the same time. However, let me make another point: fast fashion, or low-cost culture, is associated with enormous human and social costs, as well as declining labor and health conditions. Looking at the true cost of liquid industry, how can this model of production be economically and socially sustainable in the long run?

Sustainability is indeed the crucial (though only one among many) question mark hovering over our present-day mode of life; one  guided by fashion and engineered by the consumption-focused market economy. I agree with you: “in the long run” (however we measure that length), consumerist mode of life if NOT sustainable: the planet, and its ability to support life, won’t survive it for long. According to some estimates, if the rest of the globe raised its level of consumption to that of the US or Sweden – four more planets would be needed to meet the demand… Where to seek them, how to get them?! Voices of alarm are heard ever more often, the awareness of the essential incommensurability between capacity of the planet and the rapacity of our economy of excess and waste is spreading, more and more politicians feel the pressure to do something to prevent or at least postpone the catastrophe – but not much in our mode of life has thus far changed. I believe that the responsibility for rendering ineffective all the efforts to stop the rot lies with the two assumptions that determine our way of thinking and acting: first assumption, that the only proper response to all and any social problems to be tackled is another increase in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rather than a re-thinking and re-forming the way in which that product is distributed and utilized; and the second assumption: that all the roads to happiness and life-satisfaction lead through shops and shopping: through purchasing new goods and getting rid of old. Both those assumptions are blatantly false; rejecting them however would require nothing less that a cultural revolution. Cultural revolution is a long term endeavour: one of the most important, indeed “life or death” question of our time is which one of the two time-spans, that of the sustainability of the planet and that of revising our mode of life, will be longer…
You speak about the so-called “pattern of disengagement”, in relation to multiculturalism. Besides the emulation of the global elite economic component, could this also be a reinstatement of geopolitics, where the lack of a dominant superpower makes isolationist tendencies become stronger and stronger?
We live currently in the shadow of what can only be called “a resurrection of tribal mentality”. That tendency derives from a more or less spontaneous public response to the far reaching while incoherent transformations in existential conditions that between themselves amount to making the present look and feel a no less “foreign country” than (to follow David Lowenthal’s memorable thirty-years old diagnosis) the past has been in our fast changing, notoriously surprising and stubbornly, repeatedly taking aback modern world. Being a foreign country stopped being an exclusive quality of the past, and in the result the boundary separating the past from the present has been progressively washed out and border-posts all but vacated. The future of course is also a foreign country – though one can note among our contemporaries interest in bordering ourselves more strictly and impermeably from the future rather than the past: the numbers of tourists looking forward to visiting and exploring that particular foreign country of future is falling fast and by now is limited to the most optimistic and adventurous (and according to some the most light-hearted and happy-go-lucky) among us. The number of people hurrying to travel there due to hoping to find the future full of more pleasurable experience than they did in successive presents, seems to be falling yet quicker; our sci-fi films and novels are more and more often filed in catalogues in the sections of horror movies and gothic literature. Having lost trust in our collective ability to mitigate its excesses, render them less frightful and repellent, while somewhat user-friendlier, we tend these days to fear rather then welcome the future. What we still, by inertia, call “progress”, evokes nowadays emotions opposite to those it was meant to arouse by Kant, who coined the concept: more often than not it means fear of an impending catastrophe instead of the joy of watching more pleasurable comfort approaching and more worrisome inconvenience about to perish and be cast into oblivion. The first that leaps to mind whenever “progress” is mentioned, is the prospect of yet more jobs for humans (mental as much as the manual, already almost vanished) bound to disappear replaced by computers and computer-managed robots; and of yet steeper hills, up which the battle of survival will need to be fought. According to almost all available research, the “millennials” (the youngs currently entering the labour market and facing the challenges of adult self-reliance and the uncertainties endemic to the search for a decent, satisfactory, gratifying and recognized social position) are the first post-war generation voicing a fear of losing instead of improving the social standing achieved by their parents. Most “millennials” expect their future to bring worsening of their life conditions, instead of paving the way to their further improvements as did their parents’ life stories and which their parents taught them to expect and to work for. The vision of unstoppable “progress” portends the menace of loss, instead of auguring new attainments; it now associates more with social dislocation and degradation than with advancement and promotion. And as David Lowenthal pointed out in his next study, “as hopes of progress fade, heritage consoles us with tradition”. We turn our faces back, to genuine or (more often) to imagined, invented past of warm communal shelter and tribes fighting each other for a better share of the worldly riches, In conclusion of his monumental, multi-faceted study Lowenthal suggests that “myopic rivalry is … endemic to the very nature of heritage. To insist we were the first or the best, to celebrate what is ours and excludes others, is what heritage is all about” (p.239). “Heritage builds collective pride and purpose, but in so doing stresses distinctions between good guys (us) and bad guys (them). Heritage faith, heritage commodities, and heritage rhetoric inflame enmity, notably when our unique legacy seems at risk. Entrenched myopia foments strife; ignorance inhibits reciprocity. Besotted by our heritage, blind to that of others, we not only eschew comparison but forfeit its benefits” (pp.248-9)

At the end of Your essay, You urgently call the State to sponsor cultural creativity.  Besides wishful thinking, could You think of any countries which would be ready and able to implement such policies in today’s world?
The ancient proverb said: inter arma tacent musae – “in wartime the muses fall silent”. This is not entirely true, as many of the greatest creation in cultural history were conceived in dark times of inhuman cruelties – but the governments focusing on promoting and practicing tribal discord, cut-throat competition and tribal-style enmities instead of international cooperation in magnifying the shared treasure of cultural attainments are unlikely to pay much attention to arts and take much care of “sponsoring cultural creativity” of artists (except of soliciting their propaganda services). It is rather the consumer market that takes over the role of a collective “patron of arts” – with however not particularly prepossessing consequences, which I tried to list in the little book to which you refer. In distributing their favours, markets tend to guide themselves primarily by criteria (such as entertainment value or profitability) all too often alien to the spirit of high quality cultural creation.
Speaking of inequalities, You quote Rorty’s criticism of “America’s cultural left”, which You nonetheless regard as a component of cultural diversity and therefore worthy of respect. However, even “traditional” economists are beginning to argue that redistribution policies reflect the political influence of the elites, and not economic imperatives. What would happen, if aggregate inequality proved overall economically inefficient? In a recent article published in American Prospect, we read that “evidence is piling up, and hard to ignore” …
Rising Inequality has many dimensions – allow me to select but one of them, which most recently and most vividly brought to our attention the enormous injustices and inequities of our planetary cohabitation: the masses of homeless people knocking to our apparently safe and well-provided homes. Massive migration accompanied the modern era from its very beginning (though changing, and occasionally reversing, its directions); “modern way of life” includes the production of “redundant people” (locally “inutile” – excessive and unemployable – due to the economic progress, or locally intolerable – rejected in the effect of unrest, conflicts and strife caused by social/political transformations and subsequent power struggles) as a “structural phenomenon”. On the top of it, however, we bear currently the consequences of the profound, and seemingly prospectless destabilization of the Middle-Eastern area by miscalculated, foolishly myopic and admittedly abortive policies and military ventures of Western powers. It has been officially announced that “Statistics updated today revealed that, as of last month, at least 1,001,910 main applicants and dependants had sought international protection in the 28 member states in 2015 (…) In the latest indication of the unprecedented scale of the international refugee crisis this year, the number of asylum applicants and family members registered in the bloc so far this year is already 60% higher than for the whole of 2014. It is also by far the highest tally since comparable records started in 2008”. In a little book titled “Strangers at Our Door” to be published by the Polity Books in May I wrote that “as things stand now and promise to be standing for long time to come, mass migration is unlikely to grind to a halt – neither for the lack of prompting nor for the rising ingenuity of attempts to stop it. As Robert Winder wittily remarked in the preface to the second edition of his book – ‘We can park our chair on the beach as often as we please, and cry at the oncoming waves, but the tide will not listen, nor the sea retreat’. Building of walls in order to stop the anguish of imminent tragedy short of entering our own backyards comes eminently close to the story about the ancient philosopher Diogenes rolling the barrel in which he lived to and fro through the streets of his native Sinope. Asked by the reasons to his strange behaviour, he answered that seeing his neighbours being busy barricading their doors and sharpening their swords, he wished also do something to defend the city from being conquered by the Macedonian troops of Alexander.” “What has happened in the last few years, is enormous leap in the contribution of refugees and asylum seekers to the total number of migrants knocking to the doors of Europe; that leap was prompted by the rising number of “falling” or rather fallen states or – for all intents and purposes – stateless and so also lawless territories, stages of interminable tribal and sectarian wars, mass murders and daily banditry. To a large extent this is the collateral effect of the fatally misjudged, ill-starred and calamitous military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, ending in the replacing of dictatorial regimes with the 24/7 theatre of unruliness and frenzy of violence aided and abetted by the global weapon trade unleashed from control and beefed up by the profit-greedy arms industry with a tacit (though all too often proudly displayed in public on international arms fairs. The flow of the refugees, escapees pushed to abandon their homes and cherished possession by the rule of arbitrary violence, people seeking shelter from the killing fields, only dramatised and floodlighted the routine outpouring of the so called “economic migrants” pulled by the all too human wish to move from the barren soil to where the grass is green – from haunted by poverty lands with no prospects to those rich in opportunities. On that steady stream of people seeking condition of a decent life standards (a stream flowing steadily since the beginning of humanity, and only accelerated by the modern industry of redundant people and wasted lives, Paul Collier has the following to say:
The first fact is that the income gap between poor countries and rich ones is grotesquely wide and the global growth process will leave it wide for several decades. The second is that migration will not significantly narrow this gap because the feedback mechanisms are too weak. The third is that as migration continues, the diasporas will continue to accumulate for some decades. Thus, the income gap will persist, while the facilitator for migration will increase. The implication is that migration from poor countries to rich is set to accelerate. For the foreseeable future, international migration will not reach equilibrium: we have been observing the beginnings of disequilibrium of epic proportions.
Between 1960 and 2000, as Collier calculates with only the statistics up to 2000 available, “what took off, from under 20 million to over 60 million, was migration from poor countries to rich ones. Further, the increase accelerated decade by decade (…) It is a reasonable presumption that 2000 continued this acceleration”. Left to its own logic and momentum, we may say, population of poor and rich countries would behave as the liquid in corresponding vessels. The number of immigrants will go on towards equilibrating until the levels of well-being are even in both. And such a result will, in all probability, need many decades to be reached – even that barring the unanticipated turns of historical fate.”
BIBLIOGRAPHY Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, Vintage 1995 The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Viking 1997, p. IX Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, Abacus 2013, p.XIII Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity Press 2003 Paul Collier, Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, Oxford UP 2013, here quoted from the Pdenguin 2014 edition, p.50-51