Book Review: The End of Illusions

Andreas Reckwitz, The Society of Singularities (Polity 2020);The End of Illusions (Polity 2021)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University


(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Reckwitz’s Iceberg

Who will replace Zygmunt Bauman? The question is rhetorical. I posed it in an earlier review here of books by Bauman and Hartmut Rosa (posted below, January 29).

The bigger question is obvious: what’s new in social theory, with the passing of the dominant seniors and the radical transformation of the global landscape?

So here is another candidate: Andreas Reckwitz. After a fascinating study of creativity, we now have two books from Polity, whose program is also a kind of weathervane (need a new metaphor for that; any offers gladly received).

Let’s begin with the bigger book, The Society of Singularities, 2017/2020. The title doesn’t capture the extent of the book. Singularity is taken to signify the transition away from the generality of Fordism in culture and production.  We now lust for the authentic and the unique. So far so good. But there is more, a great deal more, and this is the real strength and promise of the Reckwitz project, which is a line into this labyrinth rather than a sprayon about ‘singularity’ as such. Singularity here is one keyword among others, rather than merely The Next Big Thing. On balance – and Reckwitz seeks out balance – this is also an emergent trend. There are new processes of value, and valorization in play, and they are unevenly distributed.

There is no shortage of Fordism around us, but it is more clearly sectoralized than before. Reckwitz periodizes: he differentiates between three phases of modernity – bourgeois, organized and late. But these social forms are unequally distributed across time and place. And this is another key to Reckwitz’s approach: a keen and steady focus on inequality, or the asymmetrical distribution of these new life chances. Reckwitz wants to retain a focus on developing class configurations, and also on the spatial distribution of these new cultural and economic worlds – in the USA, for example, between the cosmopolitan cities of the coastal regions and the rustbelts that feed populism. The new, late modernity holds these two trends together, and apart. If there is a key concept here, methodologically speaking, it is rather contradiction. For what he detects as characteristic of late modernity is social polarization, of goods and values and of life worlds and working conditions, of social spaces and politics. There is no singular ‘we’ here.

The quest for Singularity, as Reckwitz’s leitmotif, can be traced back to Romanticism. But the pitch here goes right through to algorithms. It is a world inhabited now by a new class, whose dream is the curation of life. But its tandem is the newer poor, those who may not shop in Amazon but work for it, food stamps and all. This is not a society, or an economy of singularities, but a world in which the pursuit of the singular is supported by the excluded, a new dangerous class.

This is a totalizing view: it seeks systematicity, though its reach feels more transAtlantic. It anticipates that more is to come from the land of the panda. Sometimes its reach is tenuous, as when it claims for example the Vespa as a singular object; sitting in a penthouse, maybe; buzzing round the streets of Milano, hardly. Or, where do Warhol’s images fit, in this worldview? Here the work of Jeff Alexander on the icon may have come in handy. The examples given in this book are not comprehensive, but the approach is open-ended. It is the most interesting book of its kind that I have read since Fred Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or … (1991), for here culture and economy come together. The examples taken up in the field of cultural sociology are suggestive. The production and consumption of food across the class divide provides endless possibilities for the pursuit of these challenges, innovating and dividing at the same time. There are endless possibilities for its application.

This is a big book, demanding of time and elbow. An executive sampler of sorts, or postmodern scanner by way of alternative, may be found in the second book here: The End of Illusions, 2019/2021. The first book closes on the note of dispelling the illusions of progress, the nostalgia of what Bauman called solid modernity and the postwar corporatist pact. The second book is half its length, more user friendly (though for those in a rush, there is a home deliveroo speed menu on the net: Google Reckwitz). The second book features five chapters: one on culture, hyperculture and essentialism; one on new class formations; one on polarized postindustrialism and cognitive capitalism; one on the weariness of self actualization; and the last, ending in politics again, on the crisis of liberalism and populism. If the big book follows a more magisterial and linear logic, the second is more like a moving cardboard flip wheel. Reckwitz indeed here encourages the reader to cherry pick, or mix and match. The result is suggestive, but lacks the conceptual grandeur of Singularities.

Jameson’s aforementioned big book began as an essay in New Left Review. Given the further compression of reading and reading time across those three decades and more, perhaps what would be helpful now is the reverse procedure from Reckwitz – a shorter, or condensed version of the big book. Its theses deserve more widely to be heard. As Bauman understood, there is an audience for little books.

What is the implication of the emerging cult of singularity for the book form as we know it? The Fordist book may well become obsolete. Yet there may also be an audience for books like this, and not only among the readers of the curatariat.

There may well be a young audience, even in China, where my students gobble up the Frankfurt School and are keen to know what comes next, with and after Bauman. Then the Chinese experience of modernity may also offer the most fascinating of feedback loops for the project of sociology.

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