In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant wrestled with precisely what it was that defined the times in which he lived. Two hundred years later, Michel Foucault, recognising the importance of what Kant had been trying to do, challenged his readers to notice how different the situation was. Both Kant and Foucault offered texts they titled “What is Enlightenment?” In its non-technical form it is perhaps one of those questions that needs to be asked again and again.
Foucault made the observation that in Kant’s time questions were often put up for readership with the assumption the reader did not know the answer. By the time Foucault came to write his material readers could be assumed to have a set of answers to the questions he set about discussing. The issue Foucault faced was could what he wrote influence his reader? My position and Foucault’s are quite similar in this way, mind you he has a track record regarding an impact that I wouldn’t even begin to come near!
For today’s reader a piece of writing titled What is Enlightenment? might not catch their eye, but I do think threats to what the Enlightenment brought for Western society and culture are very much front and centre for many. Put simply our ideas about freedom, democracy, and critical thought owe a great deal to what the Enlightenment was all about, and currently societal fears about these issues are referenced every day in media items and pop culture. In this regard a person cited in other posts on this blog is Frank Furedi and he is well worth listening to.
What is noteworthy is how freedom, democracy and critical thought are not top of the list; what we are afraid of is. Social fears about the loss of freedom, democracy and the lack of critical thought are considered to be real concerns. The American leadership talks of the War Against Terror and the threat of Al-Qaeda and locally we encounter media items about drugs, alcohol use, threats embedded in how youth behave, and sex abuse of children. Currently the major threat coming to us via the media are economic concerns and the ever increasing cost of houses.
Al-Qaeda is regarded as a threat because it is seen as a group pushing for a return to a time and a way of life that is organized using a pre-Enlightenment way of seeing things. In an interesting twist local groups in our setting, such as government agencies who would see themselves as fighting against Al-Qaeda, are also being positioned as a threat to the ideas of the Enlightenment as well. Democracy and freedom are seen by some in the West as very much at risk from the very groups that govern the country.
Here in New Zealand the government defends a need for surveillance both to fight threats from outside the country but they are also seen as willing to spy on its own citizens. This blog item is not written with the intention of feeding the reader’s fears, but it is valid to say there are things to take note of. This blog does not join the populist cries for increased surveillance and ever stronger punishment for those labelled bad and dangerous.
When I look out my apartment window I don’t see people running down the street in a state of panic, nor do I see images of this on my TV screen, and yet there is this feel that change is happening. In New Zealand it is that odd combination of apparent quiet and fear that is striking. It is a calm that has me worried. It is not that calm one links to personal or social balance, nor is it a calm that suggests peace is here amongst us, it is the calm of cultural hegemony.
It might help to offer some examples. I will offer three.
A couple of days ago the NZ Prime Minister, John Key was interviewed on Radio New Zealand National about a report where NZ homes are described as the most overvalued in the developed world relative to rents and incomes. He expressed the view this is not an indicator of a problem for housing in NZ. The issue here is not the absence of any debate, it is the confidence John Key has that in the face of such a report he can say what he says.
A second example is a plan for Auckland city to have a CCTV city-wide surveillance network which incorporates facial recognition software (this ability applies to vehicle licence plates as well). Again it is not the absence of a counter view, but rather the positing of the plan as if any other view is of no value – of course we should do this … it is what any reasonable society has to do, there is no other choice.
The third example is an update from Corrections Minister Anne Tolley that NZ is to have a sex register: “We want a register with everyone on it.” This includes those with name suppression. What is interesting here is how the only apparent counter point to this plan is the question can a database of this kind be secure, especially when NZ’s recent reputation for unsecure data on NZ citizens is well known. The NZ Privacy Commissioner’s Annual Report 2013 acknowledged a number of high-profile data breaches and security failures involving various government agencies including the Ministry of Social Development, EQC, and our GCSB was accused of spying illegally on NZ citizens. The issue of the civil and human rights of sex offenders is not even brought up by the most radial of social voices. The perspective is deemed not exist.
Of the three examples offered here – the housing crisis for New Zealand; city-wide surveillance systems for our largest city; or a sex register for those seen as the country’s most dangerous sex predators, the hegemonic calm is most evident in talk of a sex register. The mood in the country runs along these lines, ‘well of course we need one’ and ‘any sensible, caring person would want this.’ Information coming from other countries about how such strategies not only don’t deliver, they also bring new social problems and push social stigma even further for sex offenders, seems to have no impact on how views are shaped and sustained.
This term cultural hegemony links back to the Italian Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Writing near the turn of the last century he used words like domination, class (as a real social grouping), a ruling class, ideology, power, and invasion. To us now, 2014, it may appear hard to connect with what he was making reference to. That is one of the difficulties when working with classical Communism, it seems another world, not our own. There are writers in our time who would say Communism is not dead, that the Spectre of Marx still walks amongst us. That argument can be left to another post, but what is central here is how Gramsci is right. There are groups inside our society who seek to dominate. Our beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores are not merely the outcome of our individual free choices. There is a dominant ideology at work, and in our own way – yes, different from Gramsci’s day – we have our ruling class.
The telltale signs of what is argued here is the way power becomes invisible, how talk of dominant ideology is denied strongly, how what is put forward is the view that our modern day dominant views are in fact merely ‘natural’, these are the views any reasonable, caring person would hold. Lastly I argue it is the presence of the threat of violence – if you should question this naturalness of these modern dominant views, and note how there is an ongoing claim of an absence of any power at play, then you will be crushed.
A prediction about New Zealand’s social and cultural future for the next year is not that it will fall apart because of deep social divisions, nor is it likely that there will be some large scale turn where the mistakes we make now will be abandoned. The image I have is of a country that is marching into the future, confident, quietly sure of what it wants, but what is most telling about that quiet is how the marching is being done – lock-stepped (imagine the marching done by a group of soldiers celebrating some event inside a fascist setting like Mussolini’s Italy 1943 or closer to our own time a military parade in North Korea 2014). In New Zealand 2014 ideology lives, power is very much part of what can happen and must not happen inside our media and popular culture, but there is no boy to say the Emperor has no clothes (here what is being pointed to is that well known children’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes), for if any such voice emerges, there is a very good chance that voice won’t live long.
Derrida, J. (2006) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. First published by Routledge in English in 1994. New York and UK: Routledge Classic.
Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 32-50). New York: Pantheon Books.
Furedi, F. (2006) Culture of Fear Revisited. New York: Continuum.
Morton, A. (2007) Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Economy. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press