The Centrality Of Security

            An acquaintance sent holiday greetings in the form of a forwarded email. It was from the OP Ed section of the 12-25-11 New York Times. In an article entitled A Victorian Christmas, Maureen Dowd looks at the life and writings of Charles Dickens through a contemporary lens (comparing the insecurity of his childhood “homeless” experience and society’s economic inequities, and the outcome on his writings, particularly his Christmas variations). Christmas for Dickens (according to Dowd) involved a reflection on what could have been, what didn’t occur, and what was. This led me to reflect on the times of Dickens’ writing, and what was contemporary to it. In other parts of the world was social upheaval. Slavery was on the verge of ending while industry was forming a proletariat. Marx was responding to this. Darwin was of that day. Historians like to say that the writings of Melville, Dickens, Flaubert and others give insight into the times, what moved the age, the workings of society and the individuals that comprised it.

            A punch line that arises in many angst permeated liberal discussions is that “the revolution took place, and we lost”. The joke relies on the lead up conversation advocating for some kind of radical social enterprise. To a limited extent, the “failed” upheavals in Europe and North America of the 1960’s lend credence to this form of gallows humor. Though lacking the enormous historic detachment (necessary for analysis) of events from over a century ago, most agree that something took place in the 60’s, that what occurred failed, that what didn’t occur was relegated to utopian aspirations, and that the outcome of failure led to what it is we have today. One could liken the resolution of that upheaval of a half century ago to the Father Knows Best TV sitcom of roughly that same time period. The upheaval was around how society “ought” to be structured. In the end, something in charge of society (father), as opposed to society itself (the family), determined what became priority and policy. The revolution took place and we lost. The outcome was of an accelerated social inequity, in earnings and worth as well as opportunity, resulting in the contemporary situation that Dowd connects with Dickens’ life and writing.

            Presently there is social upheaval recurring almost globally, with slow but continuous frequency. We do not have the luxury of chronological distance to assist us in grasping its significance or character. In an essay entitled What To Do With Pictures (October 138) David Joselit likens formatting to the art medium of today. Unlike the material mediums of previous art (paint, metal, paper, etc.), formatting permits digital operations in terms of actions and activity through the use of data. Underlying this insight is the consideration that the art of the last 50 years has shifted and become entwined with the market political economy of today. With the end of art, the “romantic” notion of ideas and utopias has been eschewed for the “realism” of economics. Folks created art for the Medici’s, the burghers of Antwerp, and the European bourgeoisie because ultimately it paid the bills (and sent the kids to college), not because it created new forms of knowledge (which version one subscribes to becomes a matter of formatting the data!). According to Joselit, omnipresent is current art’s involvement with market culture. One would look in vain today for writers or artists whose works reflect the “spirit of the age” (in the manner of the 19th century), in contradistinction to the driving force of the age. But then again, maybe that very collaboration is indicative of the spirit of current social upheaval. Analogous to the grammar of nouns and verbs, the art before the end of art was more concerned with nouns, the subjective elements. The art after the end of art is more concerned with the verbs, the action words that predicate a service economy. Perhaps the upheavals of today are about the disappearance of the subject, the emphasis on the predicate, the ultimate mobility and fluidity of labor totally and solely determined by market force. Symptomatic of this is the increasing pressure to always be connected via an individual mobile communication device, so that anywhere, at any time, the bearer is prepared to accommodate any needed change in activity or action required by the market (always available to be accessed or appropriated). A perfunctory review of some of the issues precipitating upheaval- job security, health care, housing as a “home”, reassurance of retirement consideration, the uncertainty of the everyday ecological environment, etc.- reveals the centrality of “security”. For the limited 1% determining priority and policy, security against terrorism and financial chaos supersedes the “security” issues of the 99%.

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