Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Giddens’

Here’s the last interesting bit I am lifting from Anthony Gidden’s The Consequences of Modernity. Then I will be done with this particular book-blogging project. As part of Gidden’s discussion of the risk profile of modernity, he characterizes risk as either objective or perceived and further divides in into seven categories:

  1. globalization of risk (intensity)
  2. globalization of risk (frequency)
  3. environmental risk
  4. institutionalized risk
  5. knowledge gaps and uncertainty
  6. collective or shared risk
  7. limitations of expertise

Some overlap exists, and I will not distinguish them further. The first two are of primary significance today for obvious reasons. Although the specter of doomsday resulting from a nuclear exchange has been present since the 1950s, Giddens (writing in 1988) provides this snapshot of today’s issues:

The sheer number of serious risks in respect of socialised nature is quite daunting: radiation from major accidents at nuclear power-stations or from nuclear waste; chemical pollution of the seas sufficient to destroy the phytoplankton that renews much of the oxygen in the atmosphere; a “greenhouse effect” deriving from atmospheric pollutants which attack the ozone layer, melting part of the ice caps and flooding vast areas; the destruction of large areas of rain forest which are a basic source of renewable oxygen; and the exhaustion of millions of acres of topsoil as a result of widespread use of artificial fertilisers. [p. 127]

As I often point out, these dangers were known 30–40 years ago (in truth, much longer), but they have only worsened with time through political inaction and/or social inertia. After I began to investigate and better understand the issues roughly a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that the window of opportunity to address these risks and their delayed effects had already closed. In short, we’re doomed and living on borrowed time as the inevitable consequences of our actions slowly but steadily manifest in the world.

So here’s the really interesting part. The modern worldview bestows confidence borne out of expanding mastery of the built environment, where risk is managed and reduced through expert systems. Mechanical and engineering knowledge figure prominently and support a cause-and-effect mentality that has grown ubiquitous in the computing era, with its push-button inputs and outputs. However, the high modern outlook is marred by overconfidence in our competence to avoid disaster, often of our own making. Consider the abject failure of 20th-century institutions to handle geopolitical conflict without devolving into world war and multiple genocides. Or witness periodic crashes of financial markets, two major nuclear accidents, and numerous space shuttles and rockets destroyed. Though all entail risk, high-profile failures showcase our overconfidence. Right now, engineers (software and hardware) are confident they can deliver safe self-driving vehicles yet are blithely ignoring (says me, maybe not) major ethical dilemmas regarding liability and technological unemployment. Those are apparently problems for someone else to solve.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve barrelled headlong into one sort of risk after another, some recognized at the time, others only apparent after the fact. Nuclear weapons are the best example, but many others exist. The one I raise frequently is the live social experiment undertaken with each new communications technology (radio, cinema, telephone, television, computer, social networks) that upsets and destabilizes social dynamics. The current ruckus fomented by the radical left (especially in the academy but now infecting other environments) regarding silencing of free speech (thus, thought policing) is arguably one concomitant.

According to Giddens, the character of modern risk contrasts with that of the premodern. The scale of risk prior to the 17th century was contained and expectation of social continuity was strong. Risk was also transmuted through magical thinking (superstition, religion, ignorance, wishfulness) into providential fortuna or mere bad luck, which led to feelings of relative security rather than despair. Modern risk has now grown so widespread, consequential, and soul-destroying, situated at considerable remove leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, that those not numbed by the litany of potential worries afflicting daily life (existential angst or ontological insecurity) often develop depression and other psychological compulsions and disturbances. Most of us, if aware of globalized risk, set it aside so that we can function and move forward in life. Giddens says that this conjures up anew a sense of fortuna, that our fate is no longer within our control. This

relieves the individual of the burden of engagement with an existential situation which might otherwise be chronically disturbing. Fate, a feeling that things will take their own course anyway, thus reappears at the core of a world which is supposedly taking rational control of its own affairs. Moreover, this surely exacts a price on the level of the unconscious, since it essentially presumes the repression of anxiety. The sense of dread which is the antithesis of basic trust is likely to infuse unconscious sentiments about the uncertainties faced by humanity as a whole. [p. 133]

In effect, the nature of risk has come full circle (completed a revolution, thus, revolutionized risk) from fate to confidence in expert control and back to fate. Of course, a flexibility of perspective is typical as situation demands — it’s not all or nothing — but the overarching character is clear. Giddens also provides this quote by Susan Sontag that captures what he calls the low-probability, high-consequence character of modern risk:

A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms — and it doesn’t occur. And still it looms … Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but ‘Apocalypse from now on.’ [p. 134]


Here’s another interesting tidbit from Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is the subject of a series of book blogs I’ve been writing. In his discussion of disembedding mechanisms, he introduces the idea of civil inattention (from Goffman, actually). This has partly to do with presence or absence (including inattention) in both public and private settings where face-to-face contact used to be the only option but modern technologies have opened up the possibility of faceless interactions over distance, such as with the telegraph and telephone. More recently, the face has been reintroduced with videoconferencing, but nonverbal cues such as body language are largely missing; the fullness of communication remains attenuated. All manner of virtual or telepresence are in fact cheap facsimiles of true presence and the social cohesion and trust enabled by what Giddens calls facework commitments. Of course, we delude ourselves that interconnectivity mediated by electronics is a reasonable substitute for presence and attention, which fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian bemoans with this post.

Giddens’ meaning is more specific than this, though. The inattention of which Giddens writes is not the casual distraction of others with which we all increasingly familiar. Rather, Giddens takes note social behaviors embedded in deep culture having to do with signalling trust.

Two people approach and pass one another on a city sidewalk. What could be more trivial and uninteresting? … Yet something is going on here which links apparently minor aspects of bodily management to some of the most pervasive features of modernity. The “inattention” displayed is not indifference. Rather it is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement. As the two people approach one another, each rapidly scans the face of the other, looking away as they pass … The glance accords recognition of the other as an agent and as a potential acquaintance. Holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other couples such an attitude with an implicit reassurance of lack of hostile intent. [p. 81]

It’s a remarkably subtle interaction: making eye contact to confirm awareness of another but then averting one’s eyes to establish that copresence poses no particular threat in either direction. Staring too fixedly at another communicates something quite else, maybe fear or threat or disapprobation. By denying eye contact — by keeping one’s eyes buried in a handheld device, for instance — the opportunity to establish a modicum of trust between strangers is missed. Intent (or lack thereof) is a mystery. In practice, such modern-day inattention is mere distraction, not a sign of malevolence, but the ingrained social cue is obviated and otherwise banal happenstances become sources of irritation, discomfort, and/or unease, as with someone who doesn’t shake hands or perform others types of greeting properly.

I wrote before about my irritation with others face-planted in their phones. It is not a matter of outright offense but rather a quiet sense of affront at failure to adopt accepted social behaviors (as I once did). Giddens puts it this way:

Tact and rituals of politeness are mutual protective devices, which strangers or acquaintances knowingly use (mostly on the level of practical consciousness) as a kind of implicit social contact. Differential power, particularly where it is very marked, can breach or skew norms …. [pp. 82–83]

That those social behaviors have adapted to omnipresent mobile media, everyone pacified or hypnotized within their individual bubbles, is certainly not a salutary development. It is, however, a clear consequence of modernity.

Another modest surprise (to me at least) offered by Anthony Giddens (from The Consequences of Modernity) follows a discussion of reflexivity (what I call recursion when discussing consciousness), which is the dynamic of information and/or knowledge feeding back to influence later behavior and information/knowledge. His handy example is the populace knowing divorce rates, which has an obvious influence on those about to get married (but may decide to defer or abjure entirely). The surprise is this:

The discourse of sociology and the concepts, theories, and findings of the other social sciences continually “circulate in and out” of what it is that they are about. In so doing they reflexively restructure their subject matter, which itself has learned to think sociologically … Much that is problematic in the position of the professional sociologist, as the purveyor of expert knowledge about social life, derives from the fact that she or he is at most one step ahead of enlightened lay practitioners of the discipline. [p. 43]

I suppose “enlightened lay practitioners” are not the same as the general public, which I hold in rather low esteem as knowing (much less understanding) anything of value. Just consider electoral politics. Still, the idea that an expert in an academic field admits he is barely ahead of wannabes (like me) seems awfully damning. Whereas curious types will wade in just about anywhere, and in some cases, amateurs will indulge themselves enthusiastically in endeavors also practiced by experts (sports and music are the two principal examples that spring to mind), the distance (in both knowledge and skill) between experts and laypersons is typically quite far. I suspect those with high intellect and/or genetic gifts often bridge that gap, but then they join the ranks of the experts, so the exception leads nowhere.

Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.

I revisit my old blog posts when I see some reader activity in the WordPress backstage and was curious to recall a long quote of Iain McGilchrist summarizing arguments put forth by Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self-identity (1991). Giddens had presaged recent cultural developments, namely, the radicalization of nativists, supremacists, Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), and others distorted by absorbed in identity politics. So I traipsed off to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and sought out the book to read. Regrettably, CPL didn’t have a copy, so I settled on a slightly earlier book, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), which is based on a series of lectures delivered at Stanford University in 1988.

Straight away, the introduction provides a passage that goes to the heart of matters with which I’ve been preoccupied:

Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by many, we stand at the opening of a new era … which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather than a preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close … Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the manufacture of material goods to one concerned more centrally with information. More commonly, however, those controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the the author who has been primarily responsible for popularising the notion of post-modernity, Jean-François Lyotard. As he represents it, post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to ground epistemology and from from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative” — the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as being having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place. [pp. 1–2, emphasis added]

That’s a lot to unpack all at once, but the fascinating thing is that notions now manifesting darkly in the marketplace of ideas were already in the air in the late 1980s. Significantly, this was several years still before the Internet brought the so-called Information Highway to computer users, before the cell phone and smart phone were developed, and before social media displaced traditional media (TV was only 30–40 years old but had previously transformed our information environment) as the principal way people gather news. I suspect that Giddens has more recent work that accounts for the catalyzing effect of the digital era (including mobile media) on culture, but for the moment, I’m interested in the book in hand.

Regular readers of this blog (I know of one or two) already know my armchair social criticism directed to our developing epistemological crisis (challenges to authority and expertise, psychotic knowledge, fake news, alternative facts, dissolving reality, and science denial) as well as the Transhumanist fantasy of becoming pure thought (once we evolve beyond our bodies). Until that’s accomplished with imagined technology, we increasingly live in our heads, in the abstract, disoriented and adrift on a bewildering sea of competing narratives. Moreover, I’ve stated repeatedly that highly mutable story (or narrative) underlie human cognition and consciousness, making most of us easy marks for charismatic thought leaders storytellers. Giddens was there nearly 30 years ago with these same ideas, though his terms differ.

Giddens dispels the idea of post-modernity and insists that, from a sociological perspective, the current period is better described as high modernism. This reminds me of Oswald Spengler and my abandoned book blogging of The Decline of the West. It’s unimportant to me who got it more correct but note that the term Postmodernism has been adopted widely despite its inaccuracy (at least according to Giddens). As I get further into the book, I’ll have plenty more to say.