Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Reading from Leeds, 2016: ‘Lash, S and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs & Space. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage’: A diary.

Image: 'Dream' by Ling, 23 March 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)



GROUP CONVENOR Professor Adrian Favell

Reflexive mourning
This post summarises impressions from my zillionth reading of a book that has shaped the way I approach the social world. Not having received formal sociological education, save my undergraduate travails into anthropological theory and subsequent personal investment during and then continuously after my PhD in multiple the social sciences, meant that I needed a stimulus and concrete human inspiration to proceed in uncharted territory. John Urry’s work provided this, amongst other intellectually sophisticated voices. This time I read Economies of Signs and Space in three phases/acts: first like a Lacanian dreamer, allowing my unconscious to pick what matters most to me and kill what does not; then as a collector of impressions, in John’s sociological fashion, to generate a meaningful repository of ideas; and finally, like a Foucaultian archivist, who does some violence to past realities. I hope that those who dip into this post forgive me for my custom and the fact that Scott Lash takes a back seat in this narrative – he too is of course very important in my current work and I know well that his contribution to Economies was pivotal. I guess this post is my own tribute to John. It produces thanatourist pilgrimage in conjunction with a friend’s posting on Facebook of photographs from John’s funeral and wake. I am almost sure he would have appreciated the performance.
It is rather difficult to summarise this 326-page book. Its conceptual, analytical and empirical span covers as diverse questions as those of (post)modern subjectivity, contemporary class transformations, the changing structures of capitalist accumulation, mobilities such as migration, travel, tourism and technologies, new social movements tied to new concerns such as environmentalism and the role of locality within global consciousness and globalisation processes. These are only few of the themes covered in this magnum opus. I would argue that in John’s case Economies contained the seeds from which his 21st-century mobilities project grew and budded into a ‘paradigm’ embracing aspects of global socio-cultural transformations, as well epistemological frameworks connected to the development of science, technology and complexity. Poignantly, his latest interest in futures, concretised in the recent foundation of a centre at Lancaster University (Social Futures), will not be developed by him. But I would say that, in some respects, even this centre is laterally connected to the early vision of interconnected mobilities that he proffered in Economies in collaboration with Scott Lash.

Reminiscing on Economies’ archival roots
Before presenting some impressions from the book, a note is necessary on the conceptual background of the project. Like most ‘grand projects’, it did not spring out of nowhere but was connected to intensive intellectual deliberations over the status of late 20th-century economic, socio-cultural and political changes in the UK and globally. I guess here the dreamer meets the romantic historian in me. But I strongly believe that place and context prove crucial coordinates in our reading of the book – that more specifically, we should try to understand its dominant discourses as a reaction to the impact of state and de-centred, organisational policies on local community, peripheral and central regions in increasingly globalised contexts. As a follow-up from The End of Organised Capitalism, Economies tried to respond to critics on the authors’ typification of economic ‘branching out’ of economies by country. The call to consider ‘dis-organisation’ was not of course to be taken literally, but this is precisely what a shallow reading of The End invited at the time. Gracefully, Lash and Urry proceeded to develop their thesis further in Economies – but of course the book does a lot more than this, as it provides a cultural outlook that was missing from The End.

As a self-contained project, Economies belongs to a vision of the future in difficult times for the British North, where Lancaster is located (in which both Lash and Urry were professionally based at the time). To understand who the authors’ immediate interlocutors were, one may inspect the short Preface, which is populated by a blend of people who were educated and/or worked in Northern regions of the country and went on to become internationally renowned scholars (such densely populated by names prefaces would become a norm in John’s books). Several of these names belonged to a Lancaster University sociology reading group on regionalism. One of them is today my colleague at Leeds. Again, this is crucial for our understanding of the overall thesis: as the authors themselves acknowledge indirectly in the latter parts of the book (Chapter on ‘Post-industrial Spaces’), the impact of Thatcherite policies on the North in the 1980s (largely held accountable for the rapid de-industrialisation of the region and the rise in unemployment) was connected at least in Lancaster (also in other parts of the North) to a political shift to the left.

 In reality, Thatcher came into focus in this picture for Lancaster a bit later but still with a vengeance. Mostly a pro-Conservative town, which experienced de-industrialisation from the 1960s and an extensive service growth sector, Lancaster became pro-Labour in the 1980s and 1990s, then also Green (these days we see a shift backwards in local elections, as if we come full circle). In the 1980s, when the regionalism group was active (see P. Bagguley, M. Lawson, D. Shapiro, S. Walby and A. Warde (1990) Restructuring: Place, Class and Gender. London: Sage, a much-cited book in Economies), the ward was Labour, slowly shifting from manual working to professional middle class and with an emerging activist ethos tied to the role of the public intellectual. There is a Frankfurt School ‘undercurrent’ that flows in Lash and Urry’s project that never surfaces in Economies, but, rest assured, it is flowing freely and generously, with all its pros and cons. This stream intersects and hybridises with third way voices. Giddens’ critical and creative use (‘reflexive modernisation’) in the book is not random; nor is the belief in the emergence of aesthetically-informed social action, which also manages to counter first generation Frankfurt School distaste for the popular aesthetic (in cultural industries). The authors were recording what was going on around them as much as they were reflecting on their own agential role in these new realities. I would argue that Economies’ overarching cultural and political discourse matches its authors’ already by that time established interests: Urry’s early concern with interest groups and revolution and later investigation into tourism-informed systems of mobility, and Lash’s earlier industrial/organisational sociology and later more culturally-orientated focus on social theory, modernity and the new cultural industries. The ‘shift’ in their collaborative work from purely political to socio-cultural processes as an economic overlay is filtered through a distinctively Simmelian reading of Marx’s second volume of Capital in Economies. Where Kantian aesthetics is used in conjunction with Baudelaire and Baudrillard’s poststructuralism to criticise Giddens’ ‘cognitive’ emphasis on reflexivity, Economies figures the most obvious (to me!) innovative fusion of Lash and Urry’s sociological vision. But more on this below.

Economy, culture and the moral sphere
In an overwhelmingly Marxist academia, Economies’ poststructuralist emphasis on cultural, rather than purely political, economy, was not received well. These days I make the extra mile to teach my students the difference between the two economies, stressing that the former is not Marxist but Marxian-inspired only! Economies innovates on this question but at the time many raised an eyebrow at its authors’ ‘culturalist’ discourse (an English anti-French malaise, in my opinion). Another thing that critics shunted aside was an emphasis on moral economies of mobility (one of John’s colleagues, Andrew Sayer, is a world expert on this subject). There is a number of key terms employed in the thesis, some of which return in different parts of the book. The term ‘economies’ in the title connects to Marxist political economy only to some extent, as the concern with processes of signification in contemporary markets stresses the novelty of reflexivity and hermeneutics in contemporary socio-cultural change. Also, the term ‘space’ suggests the presence of delinking of production and consumption from social milieus in line with Baudrillard’s dystopianism and urban sociology’s concern with place socialities. There is, however, also a less pessimistic note in such transformations, connected to new class formations: interpretation by the new reflexive subjects, the authors argue, is pivotal for social change and triggers creative innovation. There we detect the influence of Bourdieu’s sociology of distinction, rather than of Marx’s; also, of consumption rather than production practices.

Note how the book begins with an acknowledgment of Marx’s circuits of production as central to modernity. The two-tiered capital-flows that the authors proceed to discuss across different chapters (money, commodities, means of production and labour power) move through space and work across different temporalities. They clarify that they intend to concretise (in terms of context, geography and social practice) what Marx left abstract in his work as ‘production circuits’. Lash and Urry’s ‘circuits’ exceed those of money and embrace the human plasticity of social reality: they become constitutive of meaning-making as a creative but not a priori determined process. I cannot forgo the feeling that Schumpeter somehow affected their elaboration on this, but as he does not appear in the bibliography, I note this as my own suspicion.

There we have the beginnings of the theory of mobility, which in recent years moved through prominent critical readers of Marx – most notably, of course, Foucault and his conception of ‘governance’. Interestingly, Economies says little about ‘power circuits’ in governmental terms and even less about the biopolitical base of production, accumulation and consumption. It does stress, however, the role of race and gender in ‘Ungovernable Spaces’ (Ch. 6), but sidelines them in favour of class, poverty and inequality indicators in the ghetto. If space is important in the central thesis, time is even more important for the conceptualisation of contemporary transformations in work patterns and lifestyles. In chapters 9 and 10, which are dedicated to the analysis of time and mobility, we find the voices of both authors in unison, considering the temporal dimensions of technology as the organisation of the social. Though neither Urry nor Lash would become Foucaultians, again we see parallels with Foucault’s poststructuralist consideration of economic-come-political structuring of institutions and organisations. But of course Economies takes a decisive turn away from all this when it pronounces a post-Fordist separation of forms of capital as objects and labour power as subjects. The new consumer capitalism order, the authors argue, is based on the continuous production of signification from objects, with which subjects (who are now cast as both producers and consumers) struggle to cope.

What is ‘aesthetic’ in aesthetic reflexivity? (Not the senses! L)
As soon as we encounter Baudrillard’s dystopia, we are moved to a counter-argument and one of the book’s core theses: if such proliferation of meaning confuses, it also opens up possibilities for the reconstitution of community, subjectivity, work and leisure (a point notably figuring in Urry’s reflections on digital mobilities after 2000 and in his Mobilities (Polity, 2007)). This proliferation leads to the heterogenisation of space and contemporary life, providing the contours of a reflexive human subjectivity. There is an element of Giddensianism in this argument, but the idea that contemporary subjects reflect upon phenomena and material objects only cognitively is replaced in Economies with the progressive aestheticisation of production and consumption. Aesthetic reflexivity entails self-interpretation, rather than self-monitoring (as is the case with Giddens’ cognitive reflexivity), is self-hermeneutic and based on pre-judgements in Gadamer’s tradition of hermeneutics. Thus, ‘being-in-the-world’, being a cosmopolitan in everyday life, is externalised and shared with others through expressive practices that at least in socio-economic terms are manifest in product design. For Lash and Urry design enables aesthetic reflexivity both at production and consumption ends, but not in a Thatcherite ‘entrepreneurial individualism’ in the absence of society. Here I state what I think that the authors want to argue: design makes social cohesion possible in novel forms (subculturally, ethnically, neotribally etc.) through the pervasive and exponential use of information and communication structures. I think (and this is my interpretation) that Hollinshead’s () recent playful tribute to Urry’s contribution to the social sciences as the ‘harbinger of the death of distance’ can be connected to Economies’ discourse.

There are more influences the authors acknowledge in the formation of their argument – Charles Taylor’s take on the aesthetic/allegorical sources of the modern self, Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘effectively pre-cognitive understandings and classifications and the habitus’ (Economies, 7). But, as is the case with Bourdieu, they never resolve the conundrum generated by their passage from the cognitive to the aesthetic: both appear to belong to the domain of the conscious as hermeneutic products. Bourdieu never clarified whether habitus is a fully articulated product of the conscious layers of modernity – nor did he answer to elitist accusations concerning the material basis of social distinction. Instead, he devised a second term, hexis, to address the embodied and pre-conscious aspects of habitus. Economies does not fully resolve this gap either: its authors speak of pre-cognition in aesthetic reflexivity. But one wonders: how can we reflect before reflecting upon social reality? Another problem that follows from this black spot is the role of emotion in aesthetic reflexivity: if affect can be pre-cognitive (but largely useless at least in production processes), then emotion (the fully articulated feeling, ridden with intentionality) is certainly a crucial component in production and consumption circuits (hence in the hermeneutics of the aesthetic). Economies is full of sporadic references to affect but there is no systematic analysis of emotion, save some specific references to Hochschild’s Managed Heart that do little to address the question in its theoretical totality.

In fact, the emphasis on the significance of aesthetic reflexivity in the production of expert systems and new knowledge economies errs on the side of the conscious, so we are left we little to learn about the heart. I hope I am forgiven here, as this has been part of a long-standing interest of mine, partly inspired by this book. There is little clarification of Kantian aesthetics in Economies, leaving open a door to those hostile to the book’s thesis on circuits of production-consumption that places the visual at the top of an aesthetic hierarchy. Economies’ Kant ought not to be read as a proponent of the sensory aesthetic – unfortunately, the emphasis on design principles gives the impression that Kant is misread by the authors, when this may not be the case. Interrogations of the postmodern nature of aesthetic reflexivity by allegorical means (allegory transcends theological moralism but remains a moral project, as opposed to premodern symbolism, they claim) stand at the centre of the less structured, nearly anarchist, contemporary social formations. But, again, where is the emotional component in these new configurations? Note also, that new movements need symbols to communicate belonging rather than fully formed allegories – but, again, we fall back on a visual evaluation of aesthetic reflexivity. I would argue that to understand Economies’ postmodern ethos, visual hierarchies should give analytical way to pathial ones – after pathos or emotion – if we are to study for example the role of our 21st-century individual and communal belonging.

Structure (in defence of agency J)
The book is divided into four parts. Here I have to work a bit in Foucault’s style, to guess who did what in the overall structure of the work, as well as what each bit contributes to the overall thesis. Again, I stand corrected by those who may have more first-hand knowledge on the book’s history. Part I examines theoretically the global economy of flows and the rise of postmodern reflexivity, with chapter 3 as its best exposition of the authors’ readings of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens on expert systems and individualisation.

Part II looks at the structural conditions of reflexivity in chapter 4, through examples of production systems (Japanese, German and Anglo-American). The model/thesis of Economies is closely connected to the Anglo-American reflexive accumulation, which is seen as a corollary of reflexive consumption – in contradistinction to the German and Japanese highly modern reflexive production. Chapter 5 applies these models to culture industries (Scott Lash’s main interest at the time) to reflect on the ways these now function more as service industries. This observation links to the book’s main thesis: the main aesthetically reflexive agents in contemporary capitalist environments represent a service class that both produces and consumes. There is a strong Americanised edge in this aspect of the argument that I would attribute to Scott Lash. The following two chapters (6 and 7) read closer to Urry’s classical left-wing education (though work on industrial structuring in them is probably done by Lash), with a strong emphasis on the losers of reflexive modernity: migrants, the underclass and ethnic minorities. Here we see a strong emphasis on the moral economies of mobility that classical Marxist critics of Economies ignored.

In Part III chapter 8 looks at the intensification of design service provision in both public and private sectors and its consequences. Chapter 9 examines changes in conceptions and organisations of time (though, personally, I would have liked to see more clarification on how and if the two connect). The argument is that, especially changing work and leisure patterns led to the replacement of clock time by an increasingly instantaneous, glacial or evolutionary time, leading to reconfigurations of memory. This ‘speeding up’ argument became part of Urry’s later elaborations on mobilities. However, I do think the chapter places unilateral emphasis on the public domain, leaving private configurations of time and sociality largely unacknowledged. Clock time is still very present in the private sphere, where possible, and I fear that discarding its intimate presence may actually endorse rather unsavoury slides to social evolutionism. Whereas Economies’ argument on the aesthetic maintains a distinctively neo-Romantic ethos, this chapter re-rationalises contemporary life, bringing Giddens’ influence back into focus.

In Part IV Chapter 10 completes the argument with a focus on travel and the prevalence of risk. The claim that aesthetic modernisation is followed by a shift from ‘legislation’ to ‘interpretation’ (borrowed from Bauman’s (1987) thesis), both in expert systems and in lay environments, is also connected to the ‘end of tourism’ and the rise in combined mobilities. Chapter 11 deals directly with the role of localities and regions in globalisation processes. The reflexive demand to think globally but act locally is viewed as the core of contemporary global culture, increasingly dictating a shift from national to cosmopolitan patterns of civic belonging. The prevalence of informational flows and post-national networks of mobility usher humans to postmodern domains and patterns of belonging and action.

Brighter futures in dark times
And there you have it: a series of impressions on a book that was inspired by a collection of dreamers and concretised/written by two future leaders (as both of them would become). My personal engagement with John Urry – a sensitive, thoughtful and rather modest person for his status – suggested that, just like his other books, Economies must have been a project that spoke first from the heart, rather than the brain, but in a quiet tone. I am sure his globally spread students and collaborators will agree with me in one thing: that his intellectual engagement with social phenomena was always forward-looking, always in favour of opening closed doors and examining possibilities. His collaboration with Scott Lash yielded great results, as is the case when two highly creative minds meet. I hope that new strong leaders like John will emerge in the social sciences, as kind and creative as he was. I hope that they will also speak about John’s work in innovative ways, critically or not, in favour of better futures.

Bauman, Z. (1987) Legislators and Interpreters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hollinshead, K. (2016) ‘A portrait of John Urry – harbinger of the death of distance’, Anatolia, 27 (2): 309-316.

Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. London: Sage. 

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