Today’s summary and reflection comes from Michael Burns, a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Dundee. He occasionally blogs at Daily Humiliation.
Goodchild begins this chapter stating, “Modernity has always been a utopian myth (43).” Part of this myth is based on a vision of reality that is coherent, consistent, and well ordered; in other words, stable. The end of modernity is the realization that this supposed stability of human, physical, and economic reality is little more than a myth which is beginning to unravel. In opposition to the dying picture of modernity as inherently stable Goodchild argues that “It is a brutal, physical, overwhelming reality. It is the breakdown of stable alliances between environmental, human, and meta-human processes (43).” Whereas for a small portion of those in the places of prestige in the decaying project of modernity life was, and still is, characterized by a stability largely grounded in finance; Goodchild notes that this “wealth is built on poverty (43)”, and thus while the project of modernity is alive for some, it is little more than a cancerous socio-political ailment for most.
The main thrust of this chapter, simply stated, is that the stability in physical, conceptual, economic, and market life has always been exceptional (44), and that when this underlying instability begins to emerge through the cracks in the edifice of a seemingly well ordered reality, the project of modernity has already sung her final tune.
To make this argument Goodchild divides the chapter into four sub-sections: Physical Instability, Conceptual Instability, Economic Instability, and Market Instability.
In this section Goodchild argues that the seeming mastery of physical reality by human agency has only been successful insofar as the physical world behaves in a predictable fashion. When a stable nature is taken for granted, human projects can go forth with a confidence in their future; but when nature acts in a way in which it is not ‘supposed to’, we end up with the violent tragedies seen in recent situations such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Along with the trauma that comes along with nature acting out of the order that man has projected on it, Goodchild also notes the impending disaster which will be caused by overconsumption. He notes that “In 2002, some 1.2 Planet Earths were needed to sustain levels of consumption (47)”, and due to this rate of over consuming finite resources, we are thus “consuming our own collective body (47)”. An important aspect of this, as Goodchild notes, is that the effects of this collision between supply and demand will have a far less (initial) impact on the lives of the wealthy, but will likely mean certain death and tragedy for those on the underside of the system.
“In Modern thought, concepts are formed by a process of abstraction and representation (49).” For Goodchild, this process leads to the instability of concepts, and the necessity of a sovereign decree of definition to provide stability to these concepts. This lack of conceptual stability thus creates a situation in which abstract concepts end up unknowingly infiltrating the thought of the thinking subject, and as Goodchild puts it, these concepts “are like the bureaucrats who govern elected politicians without those politicians knowledge (49).” He moves on to provide a critique of the concept of democracy along these lines, and notes that “the stability liberal democracy depends on the stability of its concept of wealth (51).” This also leads Goodchild to cast a serious doubt on the efficacy of the concepts of both ‘the will’ and ‘freedom’ within liberal democratic thinking. He closes the section by noting that “The freedom of modernity entails an unlimited debt to the future that it has created (57).”
In this section Goodchild discusses the way in which money responds to the crisis of representation by providing a stable medium in which exchange value can be represented. Ontologically speaking, money also serves the role of mediation between representation and reality (60). While commodities must be sold to realize their exchange value, Goodchild notes that “money represents its exchange value without needing to be exchanged” and as such “money is the object of an unlimited desire for accumulation (61).” Money thus becomes the true sovereign power of our age, as it controls representation, and provides the only space which seems to be ‘real’. Thus, “In the face of money, even sovereignty lacks power. Modernity is at an end (63).”
Relating to the problem of physical instability, Goodchild notes that the market’s desire for continual growth “produces instability when consumption uses up resources and reaches its physical limits […] economic crisis results from physical instability (64).” To counter this instability, credit is created to further encourage the rate of production and consumption. But this creation of credit leads to the accumulation of debt, and “The spiral of debt can increase indefinitely, progressively enslaving democratic citizens to contracted debts until the physical limits of economic growth are reached (66).” This impending economic collapse is thus another outcome of the end of modernity.
Goodchild seems to paint a stark picture of the future efficacy of concepts like Will and Freedom for thinking political change, but are these concepts only seemingly dead when considered from the perspective of the powerful centres of modernity? I wonder if these concepts still have an invaluable importance for those on the underside of modernity, as many of the radical political movements taking place in South America and Africa seem to be marked by a conception of collective will and radical freedom. In a similar sense, I also wonder if this ontological picture looks the same to those existing on the underside of modernity? Are those who have already been systematically thrown outside of the system not the ones existing within the very space of political potential?