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"Resilience and resilience become ideals in times of crisis."

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)
MODERNITY / Sociologist Andreas Reckwitz (b. 1970) has increasingly become a provider of premises in the German social debate. MODERN TIMES meets him at home in Berlin, close to the Humboldt University, where he is a professor. Among other things, he talks about three cultural crises: a political crisis, a crisis in terms of recognition, and a crisis of self-realization.


- What is new about your trilogy about the modern: The Hybrid Subject (2006, revised edition 2020), The Invention of Creativity (2012) and The Singularity Society (2017)?

These books are closely related and have developed from each other. They try to take a new look at the modern. Jean-François Lyotard's formulation that one has to edit the modern, amounts to the same thing. In the current phase, which I would rather call late modern than postmodern, one sees new aspects of the modern. So what were the basic characteristics of the modern in the first place, and what changed with the late modern from the 1980s?

«Singularity markets are often winner-takes-allmarkets."

Traditional characteristics such as the rule of the commons, rationalization and purposive rationality are undoubtedly important dimensions of the modern. I study another side of modernity: individuality and the aesthetic dimension. I have called this singularity, phenomena that do not fit into the rational and the general rule. The singular has gained increasing importance in late modernity.


- They claim that singularity is an important driving force in the economy?

There have long been markets for books and art and products that claim to be unique. In the late modern period, the cultural products characterize society. They are ascribed additional meaning, such as narrative, aesthetic or ethical values. This production of meaning for the goods is central. Therefore, the singularity plays an important role in the late
the modern economy: the item must not only be useful, but also original and rare. New markets are emerging around these cultural products.

- If I buy a book and write my name in it, doesn't the mass-produced item become singular? However, this singularization also appears å be completely independent of an aesthetic capitalism.

What does singularization mean? What are the cultural and societal driving forces behind the singularisation? The unique does not simply exist, it is always socially fabricated. When you write the name in the book, it is relevant to you, but not to others. The sociological question is how something becomes unique through social determinations. Such singularization processes also exist outside capitalism. For example, two people in a romantic relationship can mutually singularize each other and see the unique in the other. Singularisation is thus a tendency in modern culture in general. If you were famous, the book could become a collector's item. It would be a successful singularization in cultural capitalism. The frustrating thing is that things that seem completely unimportant can become outstanding in this way.

Men orienteringan approach to the singular should not be elevated to something utopian. It has its problematic flip side: the successful artist or business owner appears to be unique, while the workers in the service sector are perceived as replaceable. Singularity markets are therefore often winner-takes-all-markets: A few cultural products are successful, but very few succeed. A classic example is the film industry. A few films become box office hits, while most are quickly forgotten. This is typical of cultural capitalism.


- They have described the historical change in needs well. But when all needs are by definition artificial, doesn't the basis for cultural criticism disappear? Don't you then end up in postmodern nihilism?

I would rather say: in realism. From a sociological perspective, I try to consider as much as possible as socially, culturally and historically produced. Aren't there natural needs such as everyone having to eat, etc.? Yes, but what what you eat is culturally conditioned. The majority of what people want, which products and services they demand, is in fact culturally shaped and therefore also changeable. The ethical value of the products has risen in recent years, people are talking about it moral consumption. Is the product produced in an ethically acceptable way, for example with regard to animal welfare? This cultural transformation of production makes it possible to say that one wants to live ethically and only buy products that comply with a certain standard.

- They claim that the singularization has led to three cultural crises: a political crisis, a crisis in terms of recognition, and a crisis of self-realization. The political crisis is associated with the split into autonomous sub-publics. But can't a colorful diversity of part-publics be healthy for democracy?

It would be too easy to say that there has always been a general public which is now being torn apart by digitalisation. But in the phase after 1945, from organized industrial modernity to late modernity, there was public logic in the realm of politics. From the 50s it was a state broadcaster. All the parties were represented in advisory bodies, and heated political debates played out in media everyone related to. This has changed with media developments.

"Google me a singular media offer."

- But there is still state television!

Fewer and fewer people watch it, in Germany only older people over 50. Young people no longer watch television, they get information from the Internet. In the old mass media, there was a transmitter, and the receivers all heard and saw the same thing. With digitization, this is different. When we get one Newsfeed, it is individually adapted. I get different news than you. Based on what I have previously seen, Google gives me a singular media offer. And already through this the general public is weakened.

- How does this affect social development?

We have talked about cultural capitalism and the erosion of a general public. The structure in terms of classes and social groups has changed in the late modern period. In industrial modernity – from the 1950s to the 1980s – there was a relatively homogeneous middle-class society. The economic differences were small, and culturally the society was relatively uniform. The time after this is described differently: The sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944–2015) spoke of individualization processes, others of the pluralization of lifestyles: Society became more open, more colorful and heterogeneous. But I want to emphasize that a new late modern class society was also created. New social groups arose: Those who profit from the erosion of industrial modernity, and those who suffer from it and are declassified.

From the 1980s, a new middle class emerged in all Western societies that differs from the old one. The expansion of universities and colleges has created a larger group of people with higher education. This is closely connected with cultural capitalism. The knowledge workers consume singularized products. They have profited from the economic and cultural development and perceive it as a process of self-realisation.

The precarious class

- Ulrich Beck stated that although social differences have increased, class consciousness has decreased. What consequences does it have?

One can measure that the economic differences have become greater. The difference between the new and the old middle class is not only economic, but even more cultural: in values, preferences and sense of life. Who is in favor of the new climate policy, who says we must live more ecologically? The cultural differences affect people's interpretation of themselves: Do you have a sense of life that is characterized by new opportunities, or are you on the defensive? I would argue that in recent years a certain class consciousness has been re-established. Not in Marx's economic sense, but rather in the cultural sense. Populism exploits the sense of loss of value and being on the defensive in the traditional middle class: We are not white trash! Hilary Clinton is calling us deplorables, but we are not at all! A new collective consciousness certainly arises here.

- The old industrial working class has halved in Germany since 1970-the years. The new middle class is both culturally and economically setting the tone. What does this lead to in the future? If deplorables are organizing, can they challenge the new middle class?

They already do – just look at France! The fight over the pension reform is a textbook example of how this class conflict is fought. How this will look in the future, we do not yet know. A new class conflict may arise between the new middle class and those parts of the old middle class that descend into the precariat. It's almost like in the 19th century: bourgeoisie versus proletariat. But it is also possible that the new middle class itself will lose importance. There were always forecasts that digitization and artificial intelligence would weaken knowledge work. This will lead to declassification. A third possibility is that the precarious class in simple service provision, which has previously been devalued, fights for increased status. The demographic development has created a shortage of labor in the care professions. This group thus gains stronger bargaining power.

Andrew Reckwitz

Do we really have to work?

- Or it can be replaced by care robots! In the book Jäger, Hirten, Kritiker ("Hunters, shepherds, critics", 2018), the popular philosopher Richard David Precht dreams of a utopia taken from the early Marx: Everyone pursues their interests in a kind of leisure society. Do we really have to work?

The work was important for identity in modern times. Modern subjectivity cannot be imagined without work. In German sociology, there was already in the 1980s the thesis of 'the downfall of working society', which was the title of an anthology. This was 40 years ago, but working life has developed further. I am skeptical that work will lose its importance – leisure time is not out of the question, though innenfor the economy. People don't just buy goods, they also travel. This leisureorienteringone spreads cultural capitalism and has given it new power.

The effect of climate change and the shift from fossil to renewable energy is also important. Many believe that consumption must be reduced. Ulrike Herrmann has in the book The end of capitalism ("The end of capitalism", 2022) claimed that climate change will force us back to a war economy like in England in the 1940s. In this economy, more work has to be done than today. There will also be more physical work! This is the exact opposite of Precht's utopia. Even without going as far as Hermann, I don't think the work is going to disappear.

A new subject form

- What does the subject look like in the future? The American sociologist David Riesman (1909–2002) distinguished more than 70 years ago between the internally-directed and the externally-directed. What do we need: A malleable human being, or a character who always follows inner principles? Or is there a third type?

“What are my needs? What do I feel? In what direction do I want to develop?”

In late modern culture, a new subject form has formed. From my perspective, it is a combination of interior and exteriororientering. A central late modern ideal is individual self-realization. What do I want? What are my needs? What do I feel? In which direction do I want to develop? It separates the late modern subject from Riesman's inner-directed type. It relates more to itself and has greater sensitivity. But on the other hand, the late modern subject is also externally governed. There is always the question of how it is perceived by others, for example on social media. It is a kind of double bookkeeping – internal and external at the same time: I experience something, and how am I perceived? This contradiction cannot be resolved.

- Will the subject change?

A decisive factor is the consequences of climate change and how they are processed culturally. It is precisely in the new middle class that one hears that "we must limit ourselves more". Because not everything that is possible needs to be realised. Resilience and resilience become ideals in times of crisis. We are in a new transformation process that does not correspond to the late modern model from the last 40 years. Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens claim in How Everything Can Collapse (2015) that the collapse will somehow come anyway. And how do you live on after it? This no longer corresponds to the criteria of modern times. Because at the moment it becomes possible to think more things that were beyond the horizon ten years ago.

An ecological superego

- Democratization in modern times has been understood as a reduction of authority. A strong superego was the basis for the authoritarian personality. Such politicians as Charles de Gaulle are missing in Europe today. Do strong leaders need to be on the field to handle the crises?

"One can doubt how much the charismatics have accomplished."

I doubt that. In modern politics, there was always the administrative type – in contrast to Max Weber's charismatic leader. It is no different today. In Germany, we had Mrs. Merkel as administrator for a long time. The new Chancellor also seems to be of this type. Obama was charismatic. And so is Macron. One can doubt how much the charismatics have accomplished.

I find the question of the superego interesting. In the bourgeois culture of Freud's time, authority was normal, and then this superego was reduced. Now one can ask whether the discussion about ecology, ethical living and climate change does not lead to the emergence of something like a new conscience. The hedonistic postmodern subject is again confronted with conscience. Perhaps something like an ecological superego is forming in the younger generation. It is therefore possible that a certain authority is once again built up.

- Mr. Professor Reckwitz, many thanks for the talks!

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