peter nesteruk (home page: contents and index)
Recognition and the Politics of Mass Society (after
The bearded Herod, whether of recent or
of more distant paranoid memory, holds no monopoly over massacres of the
innocents. The killings at shopping centres, buses, the high
school/Columbine-type killings and other forms of 'loser' revenge, all are
becoming frequent in advanced (but still mainly, white Protestant?) societies.
These actions involve a form of revenge extracted, not from those 'responsible'
for the 'losers' state of affairs, but rather more often upon those precisely
not directly responsible - in some way contiguous to the original problem or
trigger event (from the murder of ones own children as an act of revenge
against an ex-partner, to those anonymous murders occurring in public spaces.
with all variations in between). This kind of mass terror is harder to
understand than the revenge murder on behalf of a disposed or damaged people
(Palestinians, Iraqis) looking for attention and amelioration (recognition and
cure) and therefore targeting societies deemed responsible for, or even seen as
beneficiaries of, their plight. Those in the former category share our culture
and religion: yet recognition too lies at the heart of their actions, and
recognition in a mass society appears to function as a speaking to that
mass, and so through the media, through 'media-worthy' events. Society,
if not actually 'to blame', is nevertheless the addressee of such responses.
The same might be said, but with more a more overtly political motivation, of
actions carried out by the extremes of left or right, whether communitarian or
individualist. Such actions too suggest the same basic structure of blame and
appeal. Suddenly the behaviour of Al Qaeda is no longer a novum
(watching events on the
If 'mass society' (advanced capitalist democracy) entails mass terror based upon recognition as enabled by its stage or conduit (the media), this entailment must now be taken to include acts of internal origin as well as those demands for recognition from an external, or other national, source. Yet the sacrifices required by mass society (whether of communities of identity felt to represent the Same or to represent someone's Other) appear quantitatively astronomical when compared with the sacrifices demanded by previous social formations. Certainly the Incas and other early civilisations shed less blood for their gods, for their social cohesion, than do ours for our secular gods or goals (which are largely unrecognised as such but manifest themselves in the negative; ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ gods indeed). Yet what if there is no difference in the fundamental manner of exchange involved, whether on a short circuit of return, or a longer, more distant one (out of sight, out of mind, it is easy to pretend that something has no price when one does not see who pays; from cheap meat to climate change). Except that eventually we do. Whether in the exchange relations of economics (desire and commodity consumption/production) or of identity (desire and recognition) the brave new world of the twenty-first century will no doubt call (in a parody of enlightened progressivist and fundamentalist appeals everywhere) for yet greater sacrifices, ever greater returns of gift. Carefully calibrated in heaps of dead. It is as if the blood price of the feud (and of feudalism as a society), the price of social stability within a given community, had never gone away. If the unconscious or structural price is set so high, can we really be surprised if all manner of grudges, causes, and appeals (as conscious acts) must also demand a quantitatively comparative toll? And if the blood price is an internal mechanism, as well as a rationally conceived form of intervention (terror), does this perhaps begin suggest a new mass interiority which 'we' all now inadvertently share (consciously or unconsciously, as with the world market for commodities)?
Yet, in this way the world becomes a world; and international disputes may just begin to suggest mechanisms for their resolution. But it takes the blood of many, many dead, to irrigate this slow birth of responsibility. And always there must be a body count before mass institutions move. And sometimes even then, it is not enough. Witness: the price of speed, of mass movement, the endless thousands of road dead; the price of low tax rates, the countless dead of hypothermia, influenza, cancer (and internationally, AIDS, TB, malaria) - this list is as endless as the consumer desire the tax rates feed. All are exchanges made with death (sacrifice, whether of the Same or of the Other). All are exchanges which constitute our present identity.
Perhaps the only true enlightenment is quantitative; is that of the accountant. A recognition of the true cost, a costing that takes into account the real if hidden exchange-rate, a calculus that includes the price of identity (our sense of self and community, and our place with the universe). Not least that of entropy and the environment - all the rest is self-delusion, self-serving self-justification. In this more complete computation of value, care must be taken not to ignore the virtual and ineffable, invisible, even sublime, price of identity: a force more powerful than even that of the commodity - to which it is now ineluctably yoked. (The commodity, allied to the processes of rationalisation, has not displaced the gift relation that gives succour to identity, rather it exploits it, feeding from identity's proximity to desire and recognition). No Free Lunch (every free lunch a sacrificial ritual, a burnt offering, somewhere, somewhere else, until now). One World. One ritual stage. One currency.
Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk.