Politicians say they are not in charge, that they at most regulate the framework for the market. Scientific experts say they merely create technological opportunities: they don’t decide how they are implemented. Businesses say they are simply responding to consumer demand. Society has become a laboratory with nobody responsible for the outcome of the experiment. — Ulrich Beck

The usefulness of Beck’s language depends upon who is reading the text. Is the very act of implying the possibility of taking responsibility for “the social experiment” somehow absurd, naive, utopian, subversive, socialist, elitist, populist, proto-fascist, neo-colonialist, totalizing, and every other possible attribution worthy of credulity and loathing?

The meanings of responsibility are difficult to sustain even from sentence to sentence; they are transformable ( a la Derrida, depending upon the scope of what is considered a plausible sphere of action. For example, I may discuss altering my own behaviors in light of a description of the world and consider this sufficient for discharging self-imposed obligations constructed during the present occasion of writing; or I may consider this insufficient due to the complexity of the world outside the text and the self-awareness of my own naivete.

This morning I ventured into the cool, crisp air and continuous sunlight of Phoenix, Arizona to read an interview with Ulrich Beck in Nicholas Gane’s 2004 book The Future of Social Theory, and to ask just this question: what does the world look like from where I sit? Obviously, this is a shifting reference point, one that is constituted momentarily, subject to moods, vulnerable to inputs/unexamined attitudes/flaws of all sorts.

I was struck by Beck’s mention of the “globalization of emotions” through media. This is a feature of cosmopolitan identity:

“One constructs a model of one’s own identity by dipping freely into the Lego set of globally available identities and building a progressively inclusive self-image. The result is a patchwork, quasi-cosmopolitan, but simultaneously provincial, identity whose central characteristic is its rejection of traditional relations of responsibility.” (5)

Is the sense of responsibility for the outcome of the social experiment thus exposed as a merely mythic tool for constructing a cosmopolitan identity? I think so. “Taking responsibility” is an experience that seems disconnected from an all-important expectation that in taking responsibility one deserves the trust of others.

Perhaps the reason why Ulrich Beck speaks as a sociologist, about gathering data and building models of reflexive modernity, is that this critical relationship between taking responsibility and trustworthiness — legitimacy and reliability issues — extends far beyond (and before) the individual to the social/ecological process of subjectivation as such. How do we promote conditions in which individuals will formulate their own cosmopolitan identities more effectively? How can we assist in reconstituting the techniques individuals use to decide who to emulate, who to model, who to follow, whose plan is worthy of adoption, whose economic and social policies are most likely to solve complex problems, who to vote for, et cetera? Taking responsibility for the outcome of the social experiment in this sense entails describing and explaining emergent forms of identity, constantly revising “the Lego set of globally available identities” that circulates through network culture.

I don’t have a model or system for deciding how to relate to technoscience, military power, and politics, social movements, and the contemporary. I swim idiosyncratically through network culture, but I find myself wondering: Is my growth as a cosmopolitan subject somehow stunted due to the cognitive and emotional habits I demonstrate in this particular suburban milieu in Phoenix?

This is the situation in which the desire to migrate to another country arises.

Ulrich Beck suggests that I do not have to travel to another country to experience alternative experiences of modernity, other cultures, other modes of interaction between domestic and foreign — other realizations and formulations of responsibility. I could simply alter my relationship to the place where I find myself. My desire to migrate to another country is actually — perhaps — a symptom of what Ulrich Beck considers a nationalistic fallacy. In fact, traveling to a distant land geographically for a shift in perspective may not be necessary.

However, there is something to be said for immersion. To provide but one example, consider the call from Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) against all forms of Israeli culture, which is starting to pick up steam. The movement has 3 main aims:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Now, while I have empathy for Palestine, it seems strange that anyone demonstrating solidarity with the BDS movement is implicitly committing to a cultural boycott until these demands are fully accomplished. What would I do, for example, if I were a famous musician headlining the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel this coming January, asked to cancel my gig in solidarity with the BDS movement? My spiritual condition is somewhere between empathy and solidarity. But I cannot go all the way to solidarity because of my cognitive reservations with UN Resolution 194, and a deep consequentalist uncertainty related to the possible outcomes of a successful boycott.

In response to this, Palestinian activists say there is no substitute for traveling to Israel/Palestine and seeing for oneself. The cognitive apparatus one constructs through network culture, on this view, is insufficient for motivating one to do the right thing. This is a serious problem for theorists of network culture and liquid modernity to deal with. Do new forms of digital culture need to be constructed — information aesthetics, digital humanities, cloud filmmaking, etc — that can visually motivate people to change behaviors despite the fact that users have detailed and sober knowledge of the massive complexity of social and ecological problems, and thus are aware of the naivete and hypocrisy of an incomplete, insufficient, and perhaps unnecessary call for behavior change?

There are risks involved in deciding what to do, what to take responsibility for. One’s life is but one venue in which responsibility for the outcome of the open-systems socio-ecological reality experiment plays out. Assessing my situation gets dizzily complex the more I sit in the crisp Phoenix sunlight. It’s time for a breather.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

—You are a great stranger now.
—Yes. I was born to be a monk.
—I am afraid you are a heretic.
—Are you much afraid?

from James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man