Monday, January 24, 2011

Manuel Stimulation

Only just spotted at Occupied London, a very interesting interview with Manuel Castells, author of the Information Age trilogy briefly reviewed here. At the time of my review I described him as a "self-described neo-Marxist," but it seems from this article that he's moved closer to anarchism in recent years. Although I complained about the intrusiveness of the extensive documentation in the Information Age trilogy, the sociologist in me found his respect and advocacy for fieldwork and research in preference to theorizing very refreshing. He takes no prisoners in this interview either. Some highlights (selected as much for their tone as their content). Interviewer's questions in bold:

In 1903, Georg Simmel referred to the blasé attitude as the most typical psychological condition in the metropolis: “The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli” (“The Metropolis and Mental Life”, included in Man Alone:  Alienation in Modern Society, Eric & Mary Josephson, 1962). In that way Simmel touched upon the results of this continuous shift of stimuli during the early development of the metropolis. His position brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s metropolitan shock as well as Bauman’s liquid modernity. They all highlight the importance retained in stable structures and relationships in the urban setting precisely at a time when these come under threat. Network technologies intensify the level of swift and shift of these stimuli, in turn intensifying the threat of rupture in stable relationships and structures. What is your position in relation to the said danger? What levels can the blasé phenomenon reach within the network condition (see for example the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan)? And how can the notion of community be defined today, amidst a fluid and network condition of constant shifts, swifts and transmutations?

I published a book in 1972, The Urban Question, to debunk what I called “the myth of the urban culture”. Although the book presented a Marxist framework that by and large I consider superseded, it did make a number of important points, this being one of them. Spatial forms per se do not produce certain psychological reactions or social behavior. The notion of community was ideological nostalgia, and most of the so-called effects of the metropolis were in fact characteristics linked to the expansion of capitalism, the individualization of relationships under the influence of market relationships, and the dissolution of traditional forms of association. Similarly today, my empirical studies on the Internet have shown that we do not have less but more sociability in a networked context, but it is a different kind of sociability, what is know as networked individualism. There are communities, but of different types, from instant communities of practice to self-defined communities of resistance or of projects. The major trend, supported but not caused by communication technologies, is the culture of autonomy and the ability of people to define their own projects and build their own communication networks. Most of the characterizations are built by contrast to a mythical view of the industrial society or of the traditional societies. Most sociological theory nowadays is based on words, not on observation.

. . .

When Hannah Arendt insists upon the importance of the presence of others for political action, she presupposes an in-between space, a political topos wherein freedom gains meaning – freedom as is visible in the eyes of others (e.g. in the agora, the polis). And when she touches upon the classic notion of the law (nomos) she reminds us this refers to the relationships between subjects and that these relationships require an in-between space in order to be articulated. In a network condition where the notion of space is liquefied, how can the political action in the presence of others exist? What type of in-between space is produced via network technologies and relationships?

This question is simply too complicated for me. Hannah Arendt is a normative philosopher, not an analyst. If you mean how network technologies enhance the chances for political action it is very simple: by increasing the chances for people to network with each other. Since state power and capital power is based on disconnecting people, workers, and citizens, so to make their common interests more opaque and their fighting chances less coordinated, anything that helps connection helps social change. You do not need fancy words to say that. Make things simple, they are usually more simple than our concepts. Some social scientists use abstraction to enhance their status rather than their knowledge.

. . .

An example highlighting the inversion of technology’s potentially liberating capacities: The demands of the autonomist movement (influenced by Deleuze and Guattari) for flexibility, ephemeral relations, nomadism etc. were absorbed and recuperated by capital and state formations in such ways, that today we witness the descendants of this movement organising against the precarity brought with the way of life it had itself demanded. This brings up, once again, the element of stability and continuity, this time at the level of social movement procedures. To what extent could it be argued that these demands were unbearable first and foremost for those who were the first to experimentally set them? And what space exists for redefining them today, when the technologies of information impose this liquid condition as an urban axiom built upon the importance of control and security?

No idea about what you mean about liquid condition, another of these fancy terms to say societies have changed (but were they solid earlier? When? How?) What we observe is that social movements are constructed around shared practices rather than formal organization, and around the capacity to connect global networks with local existence. Thus, networking technologies are a constitutive element of the new social movements, such as the movement for global justice or the environmental movement.

. . .

In an article published by Catalonia’s La Vanguardia, you argue that anarchism might seem to be “an ideology for the 21st century”. This is a very tempting proposition and yet, the following question emerges from it: Given that as you state yourself, it is the “old” anarchist doctrine that has become suitable for our time (after being ahead of its own), why is there a need to describe it as “neo-” anarchist? And secondly, if it is true that anarchism’s newly-found relevance is based more on a structural disposition, a failure of communist governments to absorb productive forces and equally of capitalism to prevent undermining the foundations of the nation-state that fed it: If anarchism’s relevance is being initiated by these structural failures, to what extent could we be talking of anarchism, rather than anarchy emerging? And crucially, how can social movements and civil society make sure that we head for one, rather than the other?

The main ideas of anarchism (anti-statism, freedom, communes, peace, international solidarity, rejection of bureaucratic organizations, love of nature, gender equality, and the like) are present today as they were in the 19th century. But similar ideas in an entirely different historical contexts have a somewhat different meaning, this is why I call it neo. The main proposition is that the new technological environment and the network society induce social and political conditions in which Marxist categories appear to be obsolete while the Anarchist themes resonate with current social movements. Anarchy is utopia, anarchism is ideology. Social movements are increasingly rooted in anarchist themes, even if they would not call themselves anarchists. However, what will be the historical outcome of the practice of these social movements is an open question.

. . .

When referred to your work is often distinguished in two distinct periods (the so-called “old” and “new” Castells). How do you feel about this distinction and further, about the often-found obligation in academia for one to retain a unchanged position throughout their career? How does that compare to one’s political orientations and possible changes to the latter?

I never think of myself as a theorist, and so I am just amused by this categorization. I am a researcher, a worker of social science research, and in different periods of my life I did different types of research, and used different methodologies, and different conceptual systems to understand what I was studying. And I keep doing the same now. So, it is normal that I change the conceptual framework because I evolve, my work evolves, and more importantly, the world evolves. When theory does not match reality, I throw away the theory rather than forcing useless concepts on the complexity of what we observe. But I find essential not to build closed theoretical systems with the only purpose to win a share in the intellectual market of social theory. I always go back to the drawing board. It is so much more fun to try to understand new social forms and processes than to play with words. Theorists are usually very boring chaps. Do not fall in such a trap. Live in your practice, not in your books. Stay close to the facts, ask your own questions, and build your own conceptual systems with whatever is useful to your work. Ignore words or concepts that even their authors only half understand. Escape from theory courses, the last refuge of the intellectual gentry. Look around you and try to understand the world as it is, your world. And keep changing. The day you stop changing you are basically dead. Life is change. We live in a world of zombies that were programmed not to change. This is true for science, and also for politics. A different matter is some basic values, decency, dignity, democracy, equality, solidarity, intellectual curiosity, search of truth, as you understand them. This should not change, you should stick to the good values you got when you were young, the moment of openness, hope, and generosity. But which politics reflects these values keeps changing all the time, and you keep changing in finding out about political options. Keep living, thus changing. This is what I tried to do. In research as in politics. So, there never was a young and old Castells, because there was never a Castells. There was, and there is, myself, me as a person and as a researcher, resisting any reification (ummm, another fancy word: I can do it too!)

Some video interviews and lectures by Castells can also be found on YouTube.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I always steered clear of him because I thought he was "one of them", ie, one of those who "use abstraction to enhance their status rather than their knowledge". Turns out he's as clear and interesting as a Chomsky. Noted! Thanks!

John said...

No worries, Stuart. You're welcome.

There's a lot of "them" about these days. At least Castells is honest enough to own up when he doesn't understand a question or recognize a term, but then I guess his status is firmly enough established for him to get away with it.

He can be hard going at times, not because of any opacity or jargon but because of the sheer weight of material he takes into consideration. Bourdieu sometimes causes me the same problem. But I think their work generally typifies what sociology ought to be (and once was): testing hypotheses against the real world and formulating theories on that basis (whatever else about the particular methodology used).

Not that there's no place for theorizing in sociology, of course, but if it's not backed up by research, really it's just philosophy, isn't it? ;-)