In this talk (from a few years ago, 2011 I think), sociologist Ulrich Beck outlines and updates his theory of reflexive modernization and the ‘risk society’. He suggests that, to the extent that risk is experienced as omnipresent in the current age, there are only three possible reactions: denial, apathy or transformation. The first, he says, ‘is largely inscribed in modern culture, the second resembles post-modern nihilism, the third is the “cosmopolitan moment” of world risk society’.
In the talk that follows he structures his argument around three key points. In the first he outlines the distinctive, new features of this world risk society. There is a distinction between risk and catastrophe – they are not the same things. Risk is about the anticipation of catastrophe. This is why, despite the fact that Europe and ‘The West’ are relatively safe, globally speaking, or perhaps even ‘objectively’ so, it is the global anticipation of catastrophe (propagated via symbolic forms in the mass media etc) that is fundamental to the shaping of contemporary societies. These global perceptions of risk have three features: de-localization ( in spatial, temporal and social terms), incalculableness, and non-compensatibility.
His second key point stresses the fundamentally global character of these process, over and against the nation-state as a political level of analysis, and transformative action. Against this methodological nationalism he offers a defence of his cosmopolitan vision for the social sciences, outlined in more detail in his Power and the Global Age (2005). His final point offers some consequences of his position, in general, and a (sympathetic) critique of alternative theoretical conceptions of risk, most notably those of Mary Douglas and Michel Foucault. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the social sciences – the emergence of a cosmopolitan social science – a ‘cosmopolitan turn’.
This defence of cosmopolitanism – his cosmopolitical realpolitik – is, of course, open to many criticisms and questions, as are his wider arguments about risk, decision-making etc. There are some questions/discussion after 26 mins or so.
I am affiliated with the wonderfully named ‘power cluster’ in the School of Political Science & Sociology at NUI Galway. This occasionally makes me feel like a superhero. This intrepid group, somewhere on a scale between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom, meets once a month to discuss work related to our own research interests that has some relation to the notion of power, broadly defined. This month we are reading the first chapter from Prof. Wendy Brown‘s recent book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010). The lecture posted here basically covers the same ground. Her argument is that the proliferation of walls and walling that we are witnessing worldwide, such as ‘The Wall’ separating Israel and Palestine or the one on the US-Mexico Border, is a feature of contemporary globalization and (paradoxically, despite the theatrical show of physical dominance that such walls might symbolize) signals the waning of sovereignty for the nation-state. These walls are not built to defend states from other national actors but rather to target nonstate, transnational actors, such as migrants and ‘terrorist’ groups etc. For Brown, who wishes to differentiate her argument from Agamben (Homo Sacer) and Hardt and Negri (Empire), key to the loss of this national sovereignty are the domination of free-floating global capital and ‘God-sanctioned political violence’. Rather than being a sign of nation-state dominance, these walls actually represent a deep-seated national anxiety about increasing sovereign impotence and an aspect of the ‘theater state’ (though she does not mention Geertz here). What is perhaps most interesting is her discussion of the ‘state of emergency’/’state of exception’, always provisional and temporary, yet a perpetual and seemingly permanent feature of the contemporary world. This, of course, is well-trodden ground, particularly by (again) Agamben, following Schmitt. But this is perhaps where I also part company with Brown and her analysis of the waning of the nation-state, which may be a little over-stated. Is it not the case that, for Schmitt, this discourse of the state of exception, or more specifically, the capacity or power to declare a state of exception is central to the notion of state sovereignty. Far from being a sign of a weakened nation-state, is this capacity not a sure sign of the state’s enduring power? And one which is exercised, when it is exercised (power is a capacity and should not be confused with it’s exercise), often in the face of vocal international opposition, such as in the case of Israel.
In any case, I enjoyed the chapter and hope to finish the book. Enjoy the talk.