Hazel Ashton writes: I decided to post my lecture notes to share with students and with a wider audience. I welcome comments, challenges to my interpretation and links to other material and resources.
In an article in the International Herald Tribune Magazine, December 2, 2010, philosopher Slavoj Zizek points to the problematic examined in today’s lecture.
Instead of looking to science to stop our world from ending, we need to look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world…
For us, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than serious social change. Witness the numerous blockbusters about global catastrophe and the conspicuous absence of films about alternate societies…
Maybe it’s time to reverse our concept of what is possible and what isn’t; maybe we should accept the impossibility of omnipotent immortality and consider the possibility of radical social change…
Possibly as a response to the dystopic futures Zizek refers to such as concerns about global warming, resource depletion, food and water security, not to mention the current global economic crisis, in the Western world anyway, the idea of community or village life appears to be reasserting itself.
If asked what such village life would entail, people may well be thinking of ‘the good life’ where they feel happy and safe with one another.
Good life principles were articulated by Aristotle in the 4th century BC when he was lecturing in the city state or polis of Athens. At that time citizens regularly engaged with one another in direct democratic decision-making, competitive drama festivals and open air market places.
For Aristotle, the goal of human activities was happiness.
In order to be happy, humans need sufficient material goods to meet basic needs (necessities of life) and opportunities and amenities to understand and develop their talents and possibilities. However, for Aristotle, women and slaves and non Greeks (barbarians) were expected to help provide the ‘necessities’ of life. However, they were not considered fully human and could not expect to be truly happy.
Today, it is generally accepted that most people want happiness for themselves and those they care for. Furthermore, it is accepted that most people do not want to suffer and will often take desperate measures to avoid suffering.
Given the goal of human life is happiness, then it would seem valid and necessary to ensure that each person is treated as an end, not a means, and that every person has sufficient for meeting basic needs (necessary for life) and opportunities to develop talents and potential.
Aristotle is clear that the good life can only be found in a social setting, since human beings can only become fully human in shared political or social contexts.
It follows that the well-being of the individual is bound up with the well-being of the community and individuals can only be happy when they are able to rationally harmonize their outer and inner worlds. We tend to focus on the inner and forget about the outer.
Currently much real power comes from coordination at global levels – particularly of information, communication and powerful networks (Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, Manuel Castells).
No matter how well intentioned, it is difficult to make real change. It is difficult to even to have conversations about making social changes such as Zizek calls for. What would such change look like, how it could be done?
As structures of modernity (nation state coordination, welfare state, everyday life work, education and family) break down, there has been more reflection on what is going on and more challenges to the way things are done.
For Ulrich Beck, such reflection has been on the unintended consequences or risk of modern living. His concern is especially about global risks to our environment and of course to life itself. For Anthony Giddens, the reflection is on the expert system and the need to ensure it works more effectively, both for the individual and society.
At issue are people’s feelings of ontological insecurity (fear and anxiety that their existence, meaning and well-being are challenged or threatened).
For both Beck and Giddens the main focus is on both the individual and institutions.
Scott Lash does not talk of the good life, but he refers to Hegel’s Sittlichkeit (ethical community) where otherwise abstract values are grounded in everyday concrete practices.
To this reflexive turn, Scott Lash introduces community – the ‘we’ of community. It was he in fact who introduced the term reflexive community.
It is useful to examine this concept of reflexive community given that, as Zizek indicates, “we need to look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world.”
Lash asks: “is reflexive community possible in our time-space distantiated societies, in which meaning is by definition emptied out? (p. 162). And – with respect to attempts to find a community where people can participate, “why do such analyses end up with the same atomized, abstract phenomena that they began with…” (p. 153).
I will outline the main points Lash makes in addressing these questions:
As a starting point, there needs to be a sense of ‘we’ out of which the individual can grow and flourish. Many “I-s” don’t make a “we”- at least not an authentic “we”. For an authentic “we”, participation by “me” in the construction of the “we” is needed and it has to be an on-going process.
Modern human life is individualized. Many of us have become so used to it that it is tempting to think that somehow many individuals will become happy together and know how to act simply by working on personal growth, being kinder and thinking positively.
Whereas Beck and Giddens referred to the structures of modernity breaking down leaving individuals free to create their own narratives and reflect and challenge the way things are done, Lash points out that information and communication structures now shape much of life (1994).
That trend continues:
The point is that global communications themselves are coming increasingly to inhabit the real. Power becomes communicational… We are human beings, but our psychology is also mediated by communication machines, channelling, accelerating, blocking, re-routing the flows. Intersubjectivity and recognition become machine mediated and communicational (Lash and Featherstone (2001)
In these “communication machine mediated” environments, full reflexivity requires full participation in communication and information structures in communities. To do this, community members need to be able to act at the creating end – not just to find themselves at the receiving, or reacting end of what others decide they should think or do.
While Beck and Giddens focus on the individual and cognitive aspects of reflexivity, Lash refers to community and aesthetic.
Deliberation on the good life, what it is and what is needed, is ongoing and it is concerned with action. Action requires judgement, making decisions and ongoing evaluations. It requires citizens who can exercise and share their phronesis or practical wisdom. It requires persons to be able to deliberate finely about what is good and beneficial for themselves and others in the community.
We have tended to think of deliberation as being a cerebral, cognitive affair where the best argument is supposed to win. However, by introducing aesthetics, Lash enables us to also appreciate the value and need for aesthetic judgement, which is about taste.
I do not wish to spend too much time on this other than to say that there are many things to attract and distract us away from local community matters and there is very little to encourage us to be involved. It can be done, however, as was demonstrated when the Student Volunteers came out in their thousands to help following the Christchurch earthquake. The challenge is to make engagement with the local community an ongoing practice after the emergency – Johnson and his team now appeal to aesthetics to attract and engage students. ( Sam Johnston on Radio New Zealand Afternoons with Jim Mora)
The problem is that when people come together locally in an emergency, such as in the Christchurch earthquake, after the emergency life reverts to normal – or as is said in Christchurch – the “new normal”– old ways but more pressures.
For ongoing benefits of community to be experienced, Lash refers to the need to find and develop ground. In other words, it is not enough for a few people to have a few meetings and make some decisions and expect community to exist and thrive.
Lash refers to middles that ground – and gives examples such as third spaces, narratives, story, parks etc. The point Lash makes is that in this ‘age of speed’ (see Virilio) where decisions, actions, flows from anywhere can and do impact, taking the ground from under our feet, there is a need to retrieve.
Academics and community activists who are interested in community still tend to be of the Gutenberg generation – those who read printed news media and hear or watch broadcasted media which goes from few to many, whereas most of the world, particularly younger members, are living in the McLuhan generation, making intensive use of “many to many” communications technologies – where all are experts especially about flourishing and suffering as they experience these things.
St Albans in the 1990s tried to introduce McLuhan; however, now, like most community organisations, as far as I can tell, it tends to rely mainly on Gutenberg ways though often using social media.
The final point I wish to discuss is the term “local”.
Those with a more universalist perspective (e.g. human and other rights, UN agreements etc) may find the communitarian agenda I am advocating worrying, seeing it as relativist and putting people in danger of unfair or arbitrary use of power.
I would like to conclude by addressing this point:
All but a handful of people in the world are now both locally and globally inter-connected (think about where food comes from, people in the locality, think about personal and formal networks, technology, media, etc). My point is that individuals (human and non human) by themselves are vulnerable with little or no agency. Meanwhile global corporates come together and form powerful networks with little regard for human and other rights – unless, that is, ordinary people can come together in their own mutually-supportive networks.
For a good life, happiness and well-being there is a need for necessities and leisure -time and amenities for internal and external development. In order for humans to have time to do more than survive there is a need for trade beyond one’s locality. For instance, in Greece people grew grapes and olives and made and painted pottery which they traded for wheat and linen from Egypt. For there to be a good life for all there will be a need for markets and a certain amount of trade and there will be a need for harmonious relationships – local and international.
It will be easier to form mutually beneficial relationships for all if the whole community can participate in building relationships from the bottom up, rather than leaving it to top-down institutions to get it right for everyone. It will also, in Zizek’s word, become easier to “look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world…” that we all might want if ‘we’ who are now mainly atomized individuals, can come together in the first place.