Archive for August, 2012

Several years ago, I described a tendency in current societies, a tendency of  Virtualization that is comprised of two hyper-accelerating processes – hyper-universalization and hyper-specialization/-differentitation, fueled by two phantasms that took hold of the imaginary budgets of modern political imagination in the course of the 19th century, which I have sometimes called the phantasm of total control and the phantasm of continuous interioralization. The discourse of medicine and health care was and is one of the  fields where these phantasms, their respective (social) processes and tendencies play out. But, as I have also previously argued, they do affect the political imagination in general and are found at the core of higher education, political action and decision-making, etc., etc.

What I have never done, however, is to claim that this idea is particularly original or novel. What I have argued is, only, that my reflections on current and past developments have led me to a conceptualization of the phenomena in-play, while very likely resembling the expressions of other great scholars, are useful in the way I compose them in light of the semantic agency paradigm.

I have only recently discovered that in his book on Violence (2008: 13f.), Slavoj Žižek does portray a Hegelian distinction that he adopts from Etienne Balibar for the analysis of violence in “virtual capitalism”, which neatly affirms my position conceptually and allows  constructive bridging of our views (minus our different conceptions of what a positive adoption of ‘abstraction’ means, since I am ‘a biological Kantian with a flat ontology’):

“Hegel’s fundamental rule is that ‘objective’ excess – the direct reign of abstract universality which imposes its law mechanically and with utter disregard for the concerned subject caught in its web – is always supplemented by ‘subjective’ excess – the irregular, arbitrary exercise of whims. An exemplary case of this interdependence is provided by Etienne Balibar, who distinguishes to opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence: the ‘ultra-objective’ or systemic violence that is inherent in the social conditions, which involve the ‘automatic’ creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, and the ‘ultra-subjective’ violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short, ‘fundamentalisms’.”

It is noteworthy that inherently referenced processes of social marginalization have produced both hyper-universalization and hyper-spezialization in ways that make us reconceptualize the issues of globalism versus globalization (Beck) from the point of view of a discursive institutionalism. Within the fields of ideological/religious fundamentalism, we can tentatively diagnose a continuous process of internal fragmentation and specialization: Terrorist groups that are formed around ideological ideas diverge into ever more splinter groups which each create their own version of the ideology, at times proceeding to stages of infighting.

At the same time, we do find an emerging class of the global poor or global precarious, who each live in poverty or precarity as if it was a social structure or institution that is constituted as isomorphism. I distinguish between poverty and precarity. Poverty, in my view, is defined by a lack of access to resources, wherein it is recognized by other social actors that social actors that are poor (we.g.individuals, families, communities, or even [so-called failed/third -world] states) do not have access to resources to even guarantee a level of subsistence. On the other hand, precarity constitutes a lack of  security for loose collectives of individual social actors, regardless of their access to resources and symbolic forms capital (‘access to’ here being very different from ‘possession of’); this means that to belong to the precarious class does not mean you do not have means, such as for example education, quite on the contrary, this spectrum reaches from low- and no-skill workers to people with PhDs. Members of the precarious class do have access to a lot of resources, for example they can make use of a nation’s unemployment service or social welfare in the present, however, whether they can continue to develop their careers, whether they will have health care, etc. in the future, or if they will drop from precarity into poverty is uncertain. Moreover, they are losing their faith in the symbolic currencies, such as contained in the ideas that “better education means a better future” or that “doing a good job means to move ahead in your career”, etc. While a growing number of people is suffering from this kind of disillusionment, social structures of “developed(?)” Western societies, but also a growing number of industrialized (or industrializing) and digitalized (of digitalizing) non-Western societies, still function on the myths on motives of progress  and growth that guided the Western 19th and most of the 20th century and lead to the paradoxical effect that both playing along with these structures as well as abandoning them can doom an individual actor to fall down the ladder, depriving her/him of resources or access to resources. As a result, many actors have fallen to a general pessimistic outlook and a polemic or cynical stance towards their own future and the lives of others, “you’re doomed if you do and you’re doomed if you don’t”. At the same time, another class of actors (individual, corporate, shareholder collectivities [and these constitute different types of agencies and rationales]) who control access and resources directly, have contributed to this an (political-)economy which promotes both the isomorphic structures  and institutions of poverty and precarity while it maintains, at the same time, the believes in symbolic capital, currencies and interests (Bourdieu: ‘illusio‘), including the promotion of the Protestant work ethic.  These ‘elite class of actors’ are yet also hyper-universalized and hyper-specialized. The structures, methods and  the ‘legalities’ in-play are highly universal, while at the same time, these elite actors are, at the same time, very different each: It is is impossible to compare a high-ranking Chinese government official with a p0litician-capitalist like Mitt Romney or a tech-guru like Mark Zuckerberg or a media-mogul like Rupert Murdoch or a celebrity like the ‘Kardashian circus’ or a talking head or pundit like Krugman or Friedman.

Even inside academia, for example, it is unfathomable why one person (usually white, usually male) is showered in research grants and demands between 10,000 and 25,000 just for speaking, while another is teaching insane course loads for scraps and has to drive a cab on the side and still can’t afford to her/his own apartment or a healthy diet.

We are only now beginning to understand what the processes are that we are facing here, and we are not moving fast enough to steer our social systems, specifically our education systems, in directions where emerging generations of students will be able to navigate and master the massive social, ecological, medical problems that are on the horizon: We are currently only seeing the early onset of the troubles to come and many of today’s complaints about health care, financial, ecological crises are more resembling of tourists complaining that the sea water has retracted too far from the beach for them to go swimming, not realizing or wanting to realize the tsunami that follows: The complaint is virtual in the face of the real catastrophe that looms.

We must understand this process of virtualization and make it explicit. At present,  hyper-differentation and hyper-universalization just continue in structuring global and local policy-making, which the current politics and rhetorics in the American election cycle and European debt crises illustrates: In neither case are the visible and audible actors doing anything other than engage in virtual actions on virtual problems: Their handiwork does not take into account or does it interact with actually real people, while at the same time a large enough number of people buy into the virtual economies that they know to be dysfunctional in the hope that still they themselves might be the last one or the clever one to profit from it. But from a realistic point of  view on living as a member the precarity, holding on these myths has become like playing the lottery: Believe it or not, the house always wins.


Beck, Ulrich Power in the Global Age. Polity, 2006

Stingl, Alexander I. “The Virtualization of Health and Illness in the Age of Biological Citizenship” Telos: TeloScope, 2010 at: http://www.telospress.com/main/index.php?main_page=news_article&article_id=372

Stingl, Alexander I. “Truth, Knowledge, Narratives of Selves” in: The American Sociologist Vol. 42, 2/3, 2011

Žižek, Slavoj Violence, Picador, 2008


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