6. Politics of Recognition


In what Stuart Hall has called the Kilburn Manifesto, he outlines a need for a new attack on the current unique configuration of capital and the havoc it is wreaking on social and political life. Hall suggests,

Market forces have begun to model institutional life and press deeply into our private lives, as well as dominating political discourse. They have shaped a popular culture that extols celebrity and success and promotes values of private gain and possessive individualism. They have thoroughly undermined the redistributive egalitarian consensus that underpinned the welfare state, with painful consequences for socially vulnerable groups such as women, old people, the young and ethnic minorities. 

Is celebrity culture simply an ideological support of new capital?

With his Kilburn Manifesto, Hall is looking to form a new political coalition, one that recognizes that the past welfare state is inadequate and that the current configuration of capital post–Global Financial Crisis is actually advancing on the dismantling of further efforts of social support. He indicates that capitalism, instead of suffering a retreat, as it had done under other massive threats to its organization, for example, the Great Depression (which led as a consequence to the New Deal and the social welfare state), nothing is building coherently in the polis to counteract these forces. Despite interesting movements and forces, none has cohered to challenge this dimension of capitalism.

And wedded to this, from Hall’s perspective, is a celebrity culture that supports it—that doesn’t allow the emergence of collectives in its celebration of the public person and possessive individualism. So here is the question: is this kind of popular culture leadership really producing a culture that cannot organize, that cannot produce a different constitution of a public and relies instead on its divisions based on the hyperindividual model of celebrity?

The answer is classically yes and no—we do have a culture that pushes each of us to present ourselves, to draw attention to ourselves and differentiate ourselves. We could use all sorts of monikers to describe this organization of not the self so much as the public self. I am leaning toward terms derived from Raisborough (2011) and her book Lifestyle Media and the Formation of the Self, where she talks about the push to recognition. We are living in a recognition culture, one that I have described as a “specular economy” in some of my writing (Marshall 2010b), that draws our own attention to how we present ourselves to others. Anthony Giddens (1991), in his description of late modernity, identifies that our contemporary culture organization has intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions: the intrinsic is how we are focused on self-improvement, which manifests in efforts such as cosmetic surgery, fitness, and economic well-being, and even in the practice individualized religions that rely less and less on traditional culture’s notions of connection and solidarity. Authors such as Micki McGee (2005) and Alison Hearn (2013) have taken this focus on the self as being a way that the self is now branded across our culture—inescapably linked to the system of capital in its individualization—and also linked to a systemic sense of our own inadequacies and of making the self in new, improved ways that rely on the material and social psychology of consumer culture. I will come back to elaborate on this further in a moment. Giddens’s extrinsic reading of late modernity points to our outwardly focused qualities—those where the dimensions of globalization are part of our every day and the differences in the way we are drawn to these larger dimensions are equally an assault on what might be defined as more traditional conceptions of collective identity.

What has expanded since Giddens wrote those dimensions and challenges to the self in 1991 have partially been taken up by those such as McGee (2005), Banet-Weiser (2012), and Christine Harald (2013), and it is clearly a sense of how self-branding in its structure is dependent on a global anxiety of inconsistency and a sense of perpetual inadequacy that are as much a part of work culture as the way we present ourselves in and through our leisure. What Giddens could not have captured in his reading in 1991 was the emergence of the techniques and technologies of expression that have allowed individuals to map themselves—really present themselves—not necessarily globally but publicly. In the public presentation of the self, there is the sense and sensibility of the local connections and the global programs and applications intersecting. Thus Facebook, as much as its origins are American, is global in its application to the needs of users to express themselves to others; in this way, it resembles the telephone system in its facilitating a new sociality. To link them to the past and position them in their present and future, I have called these social network applications that are associated with the Internet, computers, and other apparatuses of mobile connection technologies of the social. These technologies of the social thus resemble apparatuses such as television—in other words, they draw people together, they create collective experiences, and they provide some of the tools through which we imagine connection (what I would call here our techniques and ideologies, where the collective “we” is effectively used and accepted). However, these new technologies of the social—such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—position the individual differently in the chain of communication, in the organization of engagement, and in the play of connection. They privilege the individual starting point in an elaborate intercommunication chain to constructed micropublics or networked publics. This is different, this is new, and it is the technologies that have been producing a new sociality. Think of it this way: Lady Gaga has tens of millions who follow her on Twitter; I have hundreds, but we are on a spectrum of presentation of the self. Both of us are producing our personas for publics. It is not so much that the individual starting point—whether it be a focus on celebrity or a focus on a friendship circle on Facebook—takes away the power of the collective; it is that the public individual—modeled very much on the celebrity presentation of the self—produces a different and valued politics of the social and the collective. Our objective, then, is to see how these various dimensions of a new public individuality intersect and produce and foster a shifted politics and a new cultural affect that engenders the play of the individual self so closely to a new politics, a new public, and a new cultural collective. Harnessing this specular economy, building its affective dimensions via the public individual, via the persona, is the challenge—is really my challenge to comprehend it, perhaps facilitate it, read it for all its different flows of power, responsibility, and collective formation. It is an anxiety-ridden culture, but it is a different culture that builds from a new constitution of use of technology to establish the relationship between the individual and the social.

We are in an era of the politics of recognition—there is a pragmatic dimension, and there is an interesting social and psychological dimension that actually shifts our politics in novel ways that can be recaptured into forms of social power. Stuart Hall, you are correct: it is a kind of possessive individualism that celebrity, as it intersects with the pervasive culture of public persona, elevates; but the social dimensions of the technologies of the social are underexplored as these personas intersect and build their mutual forms of recognition. I find the directions of this politics not clearly aligned with the past, not clearly unharnessable, but demanding a much closer look at how we reach for recognition and for different configurations of collective experience that establish a quite different political and public sphere.