Daniel Bell, Pomoid

Sun, 12 Dec 1993 10:56:45 EST

Fellow Anthropoids:
I was looking for a good exponent of the postmodern condition who did
not write about it in a vague and neologistic way, as so many pomoids do.
I think I have found it in sociologist Daniel Bell. Though he is a
sociologist, I think Bell points to three shifts in core/Western societies
that are demonstrable and, yes, can be scientifically examined. We can argue
about the correctness and validity of his observations, but Bell is not
a rhetorician - he is merely examining and describing social change, not
offering programmes, prescriptions, or platforms...
In the *infrastructure*, Bell notes that economies are increasingly
based on more rarified abstractions. Credit cards are representations of
representations (money) of wealth. Computers now move digital wealth with
such rapidity that "liquid capital" seems to be an understatement. Western
societies are moving from modes of mechanical production to electronic
production, and from industrial-based economies to service and information-
based economies. "Etherialization" or miniaturization means that more and more
is being done by less and less - economies are becoming more and more based
on mental labor and movement of information, rather than physical labor and
the movement of matter. Remember, these are processes taking place in the
core, not necessarily in the periphery...
As a good cultural materialist, Daniel Bell sees these infrastructural
shifts leading to changes in the social structure and superstructure-
In the *social structure* and political economy, we see a movement from
fixed capital to Jameson's "flexible accumulation." You know the symptoms -
junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, merger mania - all practices where money is
made but no real physical wealth is generated. We also see a social mobility
of unprecedented nature - people change careers, residences, families, and
even identities with dizzying speed, to keep up with the pace of late
capitalism. And with it, as we've been discussing, the growing importance of
'vitual' communities over geographical ones, since rootedness in any one
spot seems impossible. Most importantly, we can see a change in the political
structure. Anyone who has failed to notice the growing theatricality and
artifice of politics has been asleep for the last 12 years. Candidates have
become commodities, and the spectacle has triumphed... increasinly voter
behavior is becoming based on images of reality and not reality itself. The
current wave of concern over crime is a prime example - actual crime rates
have not gone up, but perhaps media and political rhetoric has...
And in the *superstructure*, we can see the shift that Bell has called
the end of ideology. It is not that people have surrendered their allegiances
to ideologies - Marxism, religious fundamentalism, Objectivism, feminism,
conservativism, or whatever - it is that they are increasingly aware that
the ideologies they hold are matters of choice and not matters of
self-evident truth. There is a growing awareness of the social construction
of reality and knowledge. With it has come an evident sense of irony,
campiness, and hucksterism, especially in the artistic realm; and an
increasing lack of distinction between surface/image/appearance and
depth/reality/actuality. Part of this is due to changes in the infrastructure
of communication and the increased propagation of memes. And part of it is
due, as Bell notes, to the growing influence of the advertising industry, which
increasingly sells consumer identities and fantasies rather than physical
products... but people everywhere are becoming conscious of the fact that,
as Erving Goffman suggested, they are acting out roles, and that life in
this world is indeed a stage.
I would argue that Bell's three shifts, in infrastructure, social
structure, and superstructure, are all ongoing in the core, whether we want
to bury our heads in the sand or not... the question I raised before is,
are they being translated into the periphery? Are these shifts a global
phenomenon or a more parochial occurence? This is an important empirical
question for anthropologists to answer. But as we watch Palestinian youth
on TV fight for their "cultural autonomy," wearing Grateful Dead T shirts
and Levi's jeans, it is not entirely unimportant...