Consumption and survival

Lately I’ve been reading Thorsten Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. This has been as part of my general reading list. My general reading list consists of everything from about Aristotle to Confucius up to about Philip K. Dick. I have a big list of books to read, and that doesn’t include new books or journals, and I have said to myself jokingly but half seriously that it will probably take most of my life to read them. Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure class’ (henceforth: Leisure) is one of them.

Veblen’s Leisure was introduced to me in first year sociology. I then found that it was referenced by a few people who talk about subcultures, consumption and even a few economists. Veblen’s Leisure is said to be one of the first serious works of Sociology, when the academic discipline was at its burgeoning stage. Veblen’s initial part of Leisure consists in a pseudo-anthropological thesis, about how human communities have moved from a base stage of co-operation in order to survive, this involves a division of labour oriented towards fulfilling necessary tasks towards human survival, the later parts of the book, which I shall touch on in this post concern how when the human community is affluent enough, reaches a stage where items are produced and goods are procured that are less about survival, but status.

I think it must have been Veblen who conceptualised the term Conspicuous Consumption. The notion that we spend our money and use certain goods just for the sake of using and obtaining them. There is no need about certain items in the way that we may need sustenance or shelter or warmth, but we use things for a sense of pleasure. Society had reached a point by Veblen’s period where a greater number of people engaged in this conspicuous consumption.

So what is an example of conspicuous consumption? Veblen gives some very interesting and odd instances. Women are conspicuous consumption objects. By that, I take him to mean, the furnishing of women’s wants (by men, and the women themselves), in terms of makeup, fancy outfits and so forth.The status of having affluence can be indicated by a male partner looking very ornate. I think there’s an interesting dimension of objectification here, women in this courtly sense are portrayed as arm candy accessories and confer status. The more one Victorian can spend on his wife, the greater sense of upper class sensibility can be accorded to him. Women are treated instrumentally in this sense of conspicuous consumption.

Another aspect of conspicuous consumption offered by Veblen is horse racing. The pursuit of going to see horse races, betting on them, to be seen at the races and even the cultivation and sponsoring of race horses. These are eccentric 19thC examples, but I can see how it still resounds today. Consider for instance how people pride themselves in an ever so bourgeois way on their book shelf. As a way not of showing their intellectual prowess (although it is under the pretense of doing so), but indicating fundamentally how useless their sense of interests are in the wider scheme of human survival. To have a bookshelf seems to suggest that you are not hungry or destitute in life. That said, half of my book collection is in a shed at the moment because I life in a small place, I fear my Aristotle will suffer a fate worse than the burning of Alexandria’s library: winter damp.

The pursuit of social activities such as going to the pub, drinking alcohol for pleasure (instead of sustenance), theatre, gaming, gigging or even shopping when one has enough clothes, all show our obsession with consuming beyond need. I think that the frame of conspicuous consumption is a good analytical tool, I understand it has been used as such in economic research. There is apparently a legacy that Veblen has for economics beyond sociology, which is interesting for a sociologist to have such a legacy.

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is something that has come to my mind lately, because it is essentially the pursuit of status, and expressing to social others that one lives towards a financial and material means that they produce enough for survival that they can spend their time and money on leisure. Anyone who lives in a country with poor economic growth right now can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Resources are spent on both leisure and survival, even when we don’t have enough to fully cope with the latter. Economic conditions are making life difficult for many families, business and individuals, but the culture of leisure pursuits and conspicuous consumption is not changing in accord, if anything, it’s exploding even more.

Leisure seems to be the outlet, the lightning rod of the frustrations from struggling to make ends meet. Industrialisation has shown that its possible to live in a way that sustains survival, but the post-industrial reverses this trend due to wider economic factors, but leaves the economic system of conspicuous consumption in tact. We still have ‘industries’ that work towards consumption and away from need, it may be the case that for many people, the presence of these industries provide jobs and a means of survival. There isn’t quite the equilibrium in today’s climate that Veblen saw that there was in his description. But maybe it wasn’t the case either that humanity had reached a point where its survival was guaranteed for all either, but rather conspicuous consumption highlighted an upper and middle class. One thing that is certainly true today, is that conspicuous consumption is encouraged for all economic groupings. To the point, I would say, of undermining other issues of importance.

I’ve come to think about consumption in other ways lately. Thanks to Transition Town Tooting hosting earlier in the summer a series of discussion groups called ‘Carbon Conversations’. I came to think about consumption in relation to sustainability and environmental impact. One of the themes addressed in the talks by many people was the concern about the way their decisions as consumers have an impact upon the kind of world they want to have. Consumption therefore has a much deeper dimension in relation to survival. It is not an opposition between conspicuous consumption and survival, but a relation on how our mass decisions as consumers (for instance, consuming beef products which has a high carbon footprint, or driving a car) impacts on wider global issues.


Reading Goffman (1): The Definition of the Situation

“Hello, is this Mr. Peartree?”
“I’m here from xxxx marketing and I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of yo-” [conversation abruptly ends]

“Hello madam how are you today?”
“[any answer]”
“That is lovely to hear, how can I help you today?”

“Hello sir, I love your umbrella”
[no response]
“I would like to talk to you about the charity….”

I’m sure you have heard many kinds of conversations like this. People in business, communications, politics or any kind of endeavour where currying favour is required, will be familiar with the notion that first impressions matter. Goffman’s Doctoral Dissertation on the subject of the interactions in a Shetlands hotel between the staff and customers, as well as between staff and the behaviours exhibited in front of staff and away from staff, formed the basis of his thought on interaction.

I have two contradictory feelings about Goffman, one is that I found it incredibly difficult to grasp the first time I read his monograph Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (henceforth ‘Presentation’), the second time reading it is similarly difficult, but perhaps I have a differing perspective on it now. The second thought that I have is that I see Goffman as relevant to everything in society insofar as it relates to people interacting in a dyadic (that is to say, one node to another, or ‘one on one’ in a more informal manner) manner, when it comes to polyadic, well, maybe I’ll get to that later.

The second time reading Goffman has made me think of the wider context in which he wrote. Goffman was a contemporary of Robert K. Merton; seems to be familiar with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; and was influential to a number of sociologists who took interaction more seriously. I believe that Goffman’s work on the Total Institution  was referenced by Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a basis for the latter’s own work, but that is a subject beyond my current comprehension, and the topic of this post.

The definition of the situation is a term that sounds opaque to me, it is even more unhelpful to find that it has an existentialist origin. I think there is something interesting to be said about the fact that Goffman leans heavily on Sartre’s thought in discussing this issue. What is the definition of the situation?

As I have read it, the Definition of the Situation is a social confine within a singular interaction between at least two agents, this reflects the nature of what this social interaction is. The Definition of the situation reflects macrosocial features but only in a crude sense, within the macrosocial construction an agent can navigate within. Insofar as interactions allow for more fine grained manoeuvre of outcomes from the crude macrosocial colouring of interactions, we have a layer of the microsocial.

Lets start with a distinction. By macrosocial impacts upon interaction, I mean features such as ethnicity/race, gender/sex, class/status, or other situational factors (such as facial disfigurement, wearing a wedding dress etc) imposing on how one may see another. If I were to write like Goffman, I would cite cultural examples like how a Black man in the United States during the Jim Crow period may be referred to as ‘Boy’, or how in contemporary society, diminuitive terms for women or affectionate others may be denoted as ‘honey’, ‘babe’, ‘sweets’, ‘love’ etc.

The best elaboration of the Definition of the Situation comes from my Sociology Lecturer who taught me Goffman, Kieran Flanagan, who spoke of an anecdote of a ‘young student during the 1970s’ in the US speaking to a hotelier. The hotelier asks the young man politely, ‘and how was your day sir?’, the young Sociology Masters student  man replies: “I’M FUCKING AWFUL”. There was a slight pause, and the young man realised that the hotelier was mortified. The older woman was working along a constructed social script, and had faced a reaction that she was incapable of responding to, in this response, the young man had broken the interaction and shattered the message that was trying to be conveyed by the hotelier.

For me, this example says everything about what the Definition of the Situation is, and perhaps made me understand the real meaning of ‘losing face’. the Definition of the Situation is, to put it in business parlance, trying to communicate a message, and trying to put forward a pitch. What I find personally revolting about this kind of agency, is that the message you are putting forward in the definition of the situation (such as a kind receptionist appearing simultaneously sexually available, attentive, helpful and courteous) is that much of this is defined by her or his role. What exactly are the features of this role are often tacit. Goffman presents a world of agency where our interactions are often an alienation of our true self and more a communication of what we are prescribed to do. This is at least the case in the ‘Front’ side of our social interactions (which I have planned to talk about in my fourth post).

The Definition of the Situation is the confine of rule-following behaviour in interactions between social agents. In a coffee conversation with Destre, I mentioned my thoughts on Goffman to him and I said almost disparagingly, in relation to another conversation we had about Kant’s Categories: maybe this is what Kant meant by the ‘receptivity between agent and patient’. The interaction between people is a fundamental social aspect, and there is something distinctly fluid about its nature.

From a personal perspective I feel that I fail as a social person. I’m very awkward and difficult around new situations and I’m not good at working within the ‘Definition of the Situation’. However there are agents who could perhaps play very well in these constructions: people who have something to sell, pick up artists (usually men) trying to pick up (usually) women; or anyone working in the service industry. I find usually that having a presence of fixed items or aspects to a role make my anxiety about social interactions a lot easier. There is a sense in which I colloquilally consider Goffman to be a justification or theoretical eludication of my own perspective to social anxiety.

In my next post I shall attempt to discuss the role of ‘props’.


Thinking about gender, sexuality and methodology

This month I have begun another book review assignment. I will be reviewing Catherine Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital: The power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom’ for its US release. The monograph was released in the UK under the title ‘Honey Money’, which, Sinistre informs me, is a reference to a furry 7 foot British cereal mascot. I am also reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano. The former book is a sociological study on the role of attractiveness as a means to social advancement (particularly with reference to women). There is a lot of reference to a lot of international data, as well as very interesting and instructional anecdotes. The latter book concerns a set of essays on the topic of trans female prejudice, and the multiple layers of discrimination for trans women, as well as an dddress of the variety of issues involved in transexual life. I think its fair to say that both books are totally opening my mind right now. For someone who was planning to read Aristotle’s ‘Topics’ as leisurely reading, I’ve really improved on my awareness about gender issues.

I am thinking about a variety of related issues, some of which take place within the guise of thinking as a feminist, others do not, but relate to reading these two books. These issues are as follows:

  1. How is understanding of gender informed? In particular: do putative accounts of comparative male hypersexuality to female sexuality find justification in the datasets? Is feminism blindly committed to an ideological commitment to gender where the stats give a different picture? Further: what justificatory scheme should our our understanding of gender be based upon? These are questions of epistemology, metaphysics, methodology and ideology
  2. Are we at risk of overemphasising the ‘goths over the ski jumpers’ when we look at hypersexual activity and extremely attractive people as our candidates for analysis?
  3. Thinking about interaction: what does Hakim’s monograph tell us about the nature of interactions through the prism of gender. Are we no different to the victorian attitudes put forward by the likes of Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ or Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’? Does the myth of physiognomy still exist as a social reality?

These are topics for consideration in my reading. I’ll try to pan this out through April as part of a series (series is at least more than one, right?) of posts.


History through youth cultures and the commodification of ‘genres’

At the moment I’m doing a book review for the book: “Sells like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis” by Ryan Moore. Since I’m allocated only a few words for the review I’d have to be brief, and clinical in an assessment. For this blog, however, I would like to wax lyrical and passionately on whatever I want to. This is a monograph which is part cultural history and part social analysis. Th narrative of this book begins in the mid-late 1970s. At this time, Punk, Heavy Metal and Hip Hop emerged almost contiguously. I interpret the book as making the claim that it was from the same social conditions that such youth cultural constructions emerged as symbolic responses to the contemporamous situation, and the malaise of the time.

Social History and Youth Cultures

When we look at the late 1970s in the US, there is much of a comparison to today. The time of prosperity is over, the economic ideologies of Keynsianism/Liberalism and Fordism are replaced by Post-Fordism and Neoliberalism. Where Liberalism  represented investment into urban spaces and publically funded projects for social innovation and growth; neoliberalism represented the cutting of the public funds over the presiding priority over the free market. Where Fordism represented an economy comprising of predominantly production and manufacturing based employment which precipitated an economic renaissance and age of upward social mobility; Post-Fordism represented downward social mobility, the decline of production and manufacturing industries and the rise of the service industry.

These aforementioned social changes had far reaching implications: employment became scarce, the public sector was in decline and there was an increase in service-based vocations. Punk and Heavy Metal emerge as thematic responses to these phenomena either through the confused mix of political identification and awareness paired with nonchalant irony of Punk; or through the mysticised and proletarian-friendly imagery of Heavy Metal, which externalises a symbolic ‘other’ that is derided and representative of the lack of oppurtunities of upward social mobility and economic stability, or the authority figures that constructed this situation.

It is far to say that the ideologies of say, Punk or Heavy Metal are consistent, or unitary. Location, or ‘scene’ has a distinct impact upon a genre, and its underlying values. There were distinct conflicts or nuances in the portrayal of how such genres may be historically understood. Much of Punk can veritably be described as a hedonistic endeavour with little social criticism but poseur ironic distance where by contrast there are more politicised circles and offshoots which make distinct ideological statements, such as the Staightedge which eventually became an autonomous subculture.

Heavy Metal in the 1980s

A lot can be said about the chapter on Heavy Metal. Of particular note was Moore’s own personal testimonies (and interviews) that he addresses in this chapter. Moore was admittedly into the Thrash scene, which was a symbolic and musical combination of Hardcore and NWOBHM. The case of Thrash metal represent, in a similar way of the Straightedge movement to apathetical punk, a critique of a genre. Thrash Metal tried to respond to the contemporamous social situation and create a social criticism. Thrash Metal was a critique of the contiguous emergence of Glam Metal’s hedonism and emphasis on ‘rags to riches’ celebrity stardom and the crash and burn of having the rock star life.

Interesting about these metal movements are the inconsistencies of seeing a ‘scene’ as a unified or consistent entity; famous Thrash metal band, Anthrax which emphasised social issues, such as in the song ‘Indians’ [as in Native Americans] had members in a side project ‘Stormtroopers of Death’ which had racialised characterisations. Glam Metal likewise perverted masculinity by the band members dressing in makeup and female clothing. This was percieved as an oppurtunity to attract female fans to a genre which is typically completley male, and to depict aspects of male sensitivity with the iconic archetype of the girlfriend who works while the rock star ‘tries to make it’. This archetype led to the joke (so Moore tells us): “What did the stripper do with her asshole before she went to work? Drop him off to band practice”.

In Penelope Spheeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’, fans admit to the homosexual urge of wanting to ‘fuck’ the members of glam metal bands such as poison because of how girlish and attractive they looked, irrespective of identifying with being a homosexual. This kind of masculine brutish sexuality was not too far from the Glam Metal scene, for while bands such as Poison and Twisted Sister dressed like women, they were still patriarchs. The women they dressed as were reminiscent of the Hollywood Strip sex workers. By dressing as women, they promote the symbolic sexual objectification of women as they make themselves the object. By having sex with groupies and feeding financially off of various girlfriends and fans, the Glam Metallers were less of revolutionaries than wasters. In similar irony, the Straightedge movement which emphasised nonconformism had distinctly militaristic and conformist tendencies. Of course, who expects consistency from teenagers.

Heavy Metal after Thrash has an interesting history. Moore’s history is by his own admission a narrative which is predominantly from US fans (his narrative of Punk addresses the emergence of UK Punk following Malcolm McClaren’s importation of the New York style). Heavy Metal is known nowadays to have an emergence in mainland Europe, which has led to very interesting and unique flavourings. The predominance of US culture as culture sui generis or as a global narrative is quite powerful but not a comprehensive story. I am intending in a future post to write about Black Metal as it emerged from Norway in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. That story is one which take places in particularly different and perhaps unique socio-historical circumstances.

The folks from Olympia, Washington

The chapter that I’m currently reading is one which personally strikes me the most, even more than Heavy Metal (which I quite like), I have had personal experience of the 1990s, and in my earlier years, lived through many of the records of my older siblings. I’m just a bit too young to be a Generation X-er, but I been close to a few (such as on this blog’s authorship).

Kurt Cobain, like Hendrix before him, or even Joplin (Janis, not Scott [perhaps my love for Ragtime will be in another post]), has been reified and made into a cultural demigod, or saint. So much so that ‘Kurt would be turning in his grave’ is an oft- said response by Sinistre in critical interpretation of ‘Alternative’ music. I’ll try not to dwell too much on the well-trodden story of Nirvana and its famous blonde rogue, but perhaps one detail is very interesting. Cobain was based in Olympia, Washington initially. Rather than the more trendy and commercialised Seattle: home to American cultural exports such as Pearl Jam, Starbucks and Fraser Crane.

In Olympia was a distinctly Do-it-yourself scene. This DIY approach to promoting music was also a forum for raising social issues, particularly for young women. I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the same place where Cobain started out, was where the Riot Grrrl (sic) movement also proliferated. Cobain was sympathetic to the aims and feminist sensibilities of the movement and was friends with key figures in the Riot Grrrl scene (I had to look these people up as I am completely ignorant) such as Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna.

Reading about the Riot Grrrl movement upset me in the nature of the issues that they addressed. Through zines, self-defence courses and other such fora of organisation, the Riot Grrrl represented a truly grassroots movement where young girls could find expression and raise the consciousness of issues that affected them, which included abuse, sexuality and mental health. Distinct themes were established which created solidarity in terms of shared experience, such as sexual abuse and experiencing self esteem issues/eating disorders. I’ve yet to discover the music of the Riot, I must admit. This is a case of where the scene is so much more than the music that comprises it. Of course, a musicological analysis never hurts. One has to use his music theory education at some point doesn’t he?

Back to Grunge. The story of Grunge can be encapsulated in the commercial success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at the end of 1991. In a sense, the ‘real’ Grunge music was the music that culminated in Nirvana’s success, and very much came before in the lesser known bands such as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. The so-called commercial ‘big four’ of Grunge are in many ways an artificial grouping: Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were more of a Hard Rock band and Alice in Chains are now recognised as a Heavy Metal band. The cultural influences behind Cobain’s Nirvana were quite diverse, and much overlooked, such as Pavement or the Pixies. This in itself was the story of Nirvana’s success. The story of Grunge’s immediate implosion came from the commercial apprehension of the brand grunge, and the branding of generation x.

Advertisers learned to take advantage of the nonchalant generation x audience, and some caught on and saw its fakeness. Moore cites Sprite’s slogan ‘Image is Nothing’ as an example. The female deoderant ‘Teen Spirit’ (from which the song ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was named) was marketed with the implication that everyone knew the song with slogans that tried to capture ‘a scent of a generation’ and such. Nirvana and so-called grunge ceased to become an underground genre of authenticity, but became a category in the local Tower Records or HMV. ‘Alternative’ as a genre took a commercial degree of success in trying to make formulaic what was once organic in an underground scene; to replicate the ‘grunge’ sound effectively became the thing that destroyed its meaning. Perhaps this is the best and clearest example of how a marketing of a genre’s ‘authenticity’ is the formula for it’s demise. It is for this reason that I don’t see how ‘folk’ can be a musical scene but a genre.

A thought on authenticity

Authenticity is a category or concept that seems elusive to me in popular music (I use this term in a broad sense). For some genres, maintaining a connection with the grassroots and the core fanbase is crucial to authenticity. Indie fans are often derided for boasting some special knowledge or claim to a band, it is often derided of indie fans that they boast ‘I knew x before they were cool’, and the Joke by Guardian columnist (so-called indie professor) Wendy Fonarow: ‘(Q): How many indie bands does it take to change a lightbulb? (A): Oh, you don’t know?’.

Authenticity seems to be like one of those concepts Wittgenstein described as a family resemblance. Perhaps there is no unified notion of authenticity, but it should be said that the varying notions of authenticity whether between musical genre or geographical scene WILL have an impact on other genres. Classical music, for instance, has many considerations of an ‘authenticity’ of a recording which I think very much draw from the categories of popular music. Perhaps it is in this way that ‘classical music’ becomes as a commercialised medium in continuum with popular music (and therefore, perhaps there is no such thing as classical music as we knew it; in the tradition going back from Gregorian Chant to Mozart to Schoenberg).

How classical music becomes youth-culturalised

Classical music autheniticity have emerged as a result of various factors: new technologies in recording, as well as restorations. In the late 20thC, organ restorations have allowed for instruments from the 18thC and even before, to be played. One can now enjoy Bach recordings played by organs from Bavaria; or Gabrielli played by period instruments. Recording technologies also play a complicated role in authenticity. On the one hand, there is the old story of how recordings have commodified music away from live performances. This discourse is quite well worn in popular music so I will not go further into this. There is also another sense of technological authenticity, where the ‘flaws’ of a piano piece are seen as perfections: Glenn Gould’s piano works often are quite low quality by today’s digital standards (his humming during piano playing is notorious as well); Performances where ‘bum notes’ or mistakes are seen as ‘interpretative uniqenesss’ characteristic of the likes of Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatostav Richter. Classical music afficionados have become spoiled by numerous recordings and it has become an art to ‘interpret’ the same piece by different recordings and record label publications. This is no different than how one might compare listening to ‘Heart Shaped Box’ between ‘In Utero’ and its recording on ‘MTV Unplugged’ (note to readership: persons of a certain age know see how tired and repetitive it is to make Nirvana comparisons – that’s exactly how tired it is to talk about Sviatostav Richter compared with Evgeny Kissin for many piano music afficionados).

Glenn Gould himself acknowledged the difficult place of technology in the social role of classical performance. Gould saw recording technologies as the ‘death’ of live music, but also an oppurtunity to portray the perfection of a musical performance. Countless takes so that a recording is right on every note, and rigorous studio processes can make an allegro more pronounced (play the tape faster) or gives a fortissimo more oomph! (up the volume). As social changes affect popular music scenes, so too do discourses of authenticity and technology affect all music as a whole.


The benefit of empirical data in relation to moral reasoning

After some consideration about the recent interest in experimental philosophy, I must state some charitable features of the role of psychological data:

1. (perceived) Asymmetries: Moral theorising is often percieved and practised as an a priori excercise. A utilitarian may say that moral decisions may be made on the basis of the amount of welfare or gain or investment into one’s own ends ( which include, inter alia, happiness); but this kind of view may be too simplistic. Why?

If we were to accept a few propositions a priori we may asses moral situations with these generic principles, this seems obvious. If we consider utility as our moral desiderata, we may say that some moral situations are parallel; such as whether to forsee the death of a minority to save a majority, or to perform animal testing. We may find, through empirical studies that what moral situations are a priori (through these normative ethical principles) symmetrical are in fact, perceived as asymmetrical. To follow up on this thought, consider the Knobe effect.

The conclusion of these kinds of studies is not to say something simple like, there is empirical data to refute a normative thesis (this never will work), but it is simply not as easy to apprehend moral situations viz moral principles without considering the influence of our background psychological dispositions (c.f. priming studies [Doris 2003 et. al])

2. The Kantian appeal: This argument comes straight from my dissertation, which in itself is more or less an argument from Kant. Kant believed that human anthropology assists us in knowing about human beings. We know about human nature in various ways; through the people we meet in our lives; through media, like television, film, literature; and through empirical and ethnographic study of others. Sociological and anthropological data can tell us about the ways in which human beings do in fact behave, my favourite examples for this kind of thing is Goffman in the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he spend some time analysing hotel staff in the Shetland isles.

The crux of Kant’s point was that given a moral system (in his case that was his deontology, but we don’t need to commit to any moral system for this line of argument), we still need empirical knowledge of people so as to know how to apply it. Consider the platitude of do not lie, we might be able to manipulate a social situation so as not to lie, but not to tell the truth, or not to bring the offending issue at hand, or non-participation in any situation where you may be brought to lie. Knowing how to apply moral principles is not enough to help us as agents, having the know-how and practical wisdom of the conduct of human beings would help as well.


Fuck fuck shit Kelly Clarkson (on the recent interest in offensive language)

A note about the title

Okay, two notes here. The first ‘Kelly Clarkson’ remark is a reference to The 40 year old virgin (in the male chest waxing scene, as it was said as an expletive). The second thing was that I decidedly did not put any racist or homophobic language in the title, as I thought the title might be too offputting for readers to actually read the article (so I’m putting in this video instead to highlight what my piece today is about):

A list of gaffes

I have found a lot of interest in offensive language and gestures, the notion of offense and political correctness lately. Here’s a list of stories I’ve found:

1. Prince Harry’s use of the word Paki (yeah I said it!)
2. Prince Charles’ use of the word Sooty as a noun for a friend
3. Carol Thatcher (Journalist, Broadcaster and daughter of former PM) and her offstage use of the word golliwog
4. Miley Cyrus’ slant-eyed gesture
5. Jeremy Clarkson being himself, see also this, and also this

I can find more if I really wanted to, oh yes, there is the all-famous Christian Bale incident, where the BBC had broadcast it uncensored.

Clearly, all of these incidents have unique features to them (Miley Cyrus, for instance, has a desire to want to be contraversial (such as wearing that Iron Maiden shirt the other day; Jeremy Clarkson is just being Jeremy Clarkson, and the Royals and Thatcher seem to represent an upper class of the political elite (at least, of their families, anyway.

Howeverr, there is a general moral panic about offensiveness and political correctness. Anyone Tsar or Romanov in broadcasting and media should be shitting themselves, cos the villagers could be burning their homes any time now. Question is, why is it happening now? I think it’s the economy, this seems to be a referred pain of social ills, like in the film Children of Men, when the extinction of humanity reminds the British about the ills of….terrorism and illegal immigration?

Antisophie (source material provided by Michael)

Same matter, different subject

Crime, how do we study it?

There are many different ways to look at crime. The most conventional way it would seem to me is to look at it as a human and social behaviour. There are many perspectives on crime, and that there are perspectives on crime reflects the way we construe our subject manner. We might say for instance:

1. Crime is a social construction (constructivist)
1*. (therefore, there is no such thing as crime)

2. Crime is a natural phenomenon, we shall see it as while inevitable, there should be a rate to define a healthy rate of crime (positivist)
2*. Crime, or evil is a necessary pervailance in the immanent world (a religious-leaning viewpoint)

3. Crime is a situational behaviour established by a series of circumstances to dispose one to deviant action (generic psychological)

4. Crime is a situational occurence established by a system or social organisation which oppresses people to commit crime (Holist)

There are so many different ways to cut a phenomenon such as crime, here are some distinctions:

1. Focus on the individual vs. Focus on society or groups as a whole
2. Focus on the agent’s preferential and motivational set/Focus on causal factors
3. Focus on quantification of recorded occurences/Focus on speculative insights to which fit best to explain data
4. Focus on a scientifically validated measure or dataset, and establish as tight a methodology as one can/Focus on instituting change

Note that these distinctions are not mutually exclusive.

There has been recent talk as to the establishment of teaching sexology as a subject in universities. While a similar point is to be made about crime, there is an established ‘criminology’ that is taught in many universities (how it is organised often, is as  a collaboration of law scholars, social scientists and sometimes psychologists).

I may pose a similar question: how do we understand sex? There can be many ways to understand sex, how we determine this question leads to what kinds of answers we have. Is sex a natural phenomenon wherewhich we may address issues of medicine? Is sex a social issue, that represents at its most fundamental, the power relations between men and women, the complexitity of social identity (sexuality), and the relation with other important social notions (criminality, deviance, education, class, work).

Sex and criminality bring up many issues: the notion of paedophilia, for instance has a question-begging notion of childhood. A study like Philippe Aries and many others shows how our attitude towards the pre-pubescent and pubescent has changed over the past few centuries with industrialisation. Some criminalised sexual behaviours can reflect social attitudes, why is it criminal to put out a cigarette on one’s partner if they both want it [there are many documented stories like this]?

Legal issues can come up; age of consent is an obvious one, borderline cases, what about sex and legislation on an international level; where homosexuality is a corporal punishable offence at one sovereignty and acceptable at another. What about the plight of those who are between cultural identities and yet torn apart by them by virtue of their sexual identity (transexuals in Iran; the double discrimination of homosexual Israelis; the custom of forced marriage in British Pakistani communities).

Biological issues: does it make sense to classify between sexes of male and female? If sexual intercourse is a notion held by other species, is sexuality a workable notion? Can we for instance, use the insights of observing animal sexual behaviour as to understanding our own? Are we sufficiently genetically comparable?

Education: how do we properly teach sexuality in the classroom? How do we teach sexuality to children as parents and adults?

Normative: is it ethical to study sexual behaviour? What are the provisions required for ‘ethical’ study? Does the ‘is’ of animal sexual behaviour entail the ‘ought’ of sexual behaviour genera? (the answer is no).

To speak of a ‘sexology’ is a bit of a misnomer in some respects. While there are many insights to be made as the biological scientist, the social psychologist, the clinical psychologist, the sociologist, the philosopher, or even the educator; those issues of sex often presuppose or come to bear upon wider issues of those subjects. To have a ‘sexology’ would be at worst a failed understanding of the underlying issues which lie far beyond sex itself, or at best, an understanding simultaneously of many many disciplines at little depth or only one subject at much depth. There are some subjects that, while are importantly interdisciplinary, are not subjects suis generis, that is, without some failure or exclusion of one discourse.

This is not fair to say that some interdisciplinary efforts are irrelevant.

Many subjects in the mathematical sciences often have specialists who are non-mathematicians. Calculus as applied to the many aspects of chemistry, or the subject that has now come to be known as computer science; are noble species of wider genera subjects.

There is a sense of question-begging to which I have decidedly not answered, as to how to understand crime, or sexuality. While we may be conciliartory between the biologist interested in evolution, or the law scholar who is also an amateur marxist; we find not necessarily competing theses, but rather; competing ideologies and methods. To group them as one exclusive category excludes the manifold within each subject matter.


Reading Foucault: Some observations

Reading Foucault is difficult; but one questions how it is that Foucault shall be read: for this question determines the latterly question: how shall Foucault be judged?

It is, despite my confidence about social theory, a whole minefield, of which I admit nothing interesting I can say about Foucault; comparatively however, the observations can be made:

1. It is strangely familiar to read Foucault, not in the writing style, nor even in the context; but in the conclusions made.

2. This is for a few reasons: Foucault’s terminology and work has been dispersed even if not by name unto many subjects: literary studies, social sciences, the humanities, (continental) philosophy..

3. There is a strange parallel to be made between Goffman (of whom I know a little bit more about) and Foucault:

i. Both seem to have interests in control mechanisms
ii. Both have ‘campaigning’ elements to them
iii. Both leer into the more morbid and dark and ‘outside’ (to use Goffmanian terminology) subjects of social relations and social structure; stigma, homosexuality, the ‘total institution’.

4. This parallel isvery unsubtle and there are many complexities to Foucault that I am not acknowledging.Very much, it is to say that Foucault’s work took place in the intellectually isolated environment of France, where little outside of it came through (except, of course, for the real ‘titans’ of the past – Freud, Marx, Hegel etc.)

5. It is interesting to read Foucault as a historian for two reasons:

i. If we understand Foucault as a historian, it sets a prospect for the kind of thing history can be: social commentary of the past to understand the present and future. I hold this wider perspective of our social and natural history to be ‘history par excellance’.
ii. Seeing Foucault as making a statement about our understanding as a result of, or in context of, past social beliefs/attitudes and institutional build makes Foucault look very favourable (much more so, than if we were to consider him a ‘social theorist’, or ‘philosopher’).




Anyone who is under 35, or, who hardly engages in the drudgeries of celebrity culture and the ultramodern world of bloggospheres, heat magazine (my perennial enemy), and other such nonsenseries, may not have come across the phrase, or expression “noughties”.

Noughties is a parody of a term, it is a bricolage (breaking up of words and fusion of a new concept), and as such, it fulfills two aspects of the postmodern social condition. Noughties is a pun on ‘Nineties’, but ‘nought’ referring to 00s. To refer to something as xx-ties is a late 20thC convention; noughties represents the continuation of this concept, but demonstrating the ineptitude of actually having a xx-ties about a ‘nought’ . As such, it is an empty, redundant term, much like the emptiness and redundance of normal social interactions in this bleak, plastic, social world; and it is a sad remnant of a generation of people who had lived and enjoyed the late 20thC.

What defines the noughties?

What defines the age of today? In a lot of ways, it seems to be a continuation of the nineties; in a way, it seems to be a self-aware parody of the past; celebrating era like the 1970’s, 1980’s, as if they were characterised only by its music, and its attire. Overshadowing the historical events like the cold war, vietnam, or Thatcherism.

I was with Michael at a talk a week or so ago, by a philosopher named Morgan; talking on the issue of Seduction. There was a passing comment where Morgan said “I’m a noughties man, I meet girls on the internet…”. I thought then, what is it that consists when we say someone is encapusulated by a period of time; there used to be a phrase “it’s the nineties”, which denoted that it was a positive time for change, in terms of ecology and our attitudes towards society and nature. Now, the noughties seems to be a time of self-indulgence and cynicism. The noughties seems to be an age where men are obsessed by appearance (metrosexual), ambivalent about social issues, but only providing lip service to causes (slacktivism – an actual word, I looked it up).

What defines us today? I suppose it is that we care so little about things; where doctors and teachers care not for their duties, but league tables; where academic funding bodies care about reputation and bureaucracy; where help is as long as the money notes from whence it came.

Someone once said “It is not an enlightened age, but it is the age of enlightenment“; what a sad day when not even that is true…

Sapere Aude…