Reviewed by Christine Magerski (University of Zagreb)
(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)
None other than Jürgen Habermas recently credited the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz with establishing a new view of society. But his praise is not free from criticism. “If you like,” Habermas added, “he is the sociologist of the ‘Generation Golf'” (Habermas 2020, Illies 2001). According to Habermas, Reckwitz has the descriptive power of representation of a David Riesman but transforms his ´inner-directed´ character from a late-romantic libertarian perspective to what he believes to be the decisive ´outer-directed´ character of the subject in late modernity. The richness of the phenomena that he opens up with this social character eager for recognition of his uniqueness is impressive but it disconnects a social-psychologically expanded notion of culture from its social-structural distortions. Habermas does not shy away from criticism but nonetheless recognizes that Reckwitz has changed our view of society. Given that the ´Golf´ is anything but singular Reckwitz´ view of society may not change everything after all. Reading it as the prominent voice of a generation which simply wanted to enjoy the prosperity that their parents’ generation has achieved, it echoes a largely uncritical “ego society” that values fashion orientation while acting rather apolitically.
In order to understand this view, it is not enough to just look at his last three works, which are also available in English. Reckwitz`s perspective, as the present critique wants to show, is more than the specific view of a hedonistic ego generation or a social character eager solely for the recognition of its uniqueness. Rather, Reckwitz, currently professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt University Berlin, developed an independent research program very early on. This program can be understood as a radical social-theoretical processing of the aestheticizing tendencies that have been observed since the 1960s. Comparable in its rigor to Niklas Luhmann’s theoretical program, Reckwitz anchors a paradigm at the center of his writings. If with Luhmann it was difference, with Reckwitz it is aestheticization or culturalization. In both cases, a paradigm observed in and taken from the social world guides all further observations and descriptions of the social world; a procedure that, given constant socio-cultural change, naturally runs the risk of losing its way.
I. Extensive inventories of social and cultural theory
The consistent culturalization of social theory undertaken by Reckwitz was preceded by a close examination of the classic sociological concept of structure. Struktur. Zur sozialwissenschaftlichen Analyse von Regeln und Regelmäßigkeiten (Structure. On the Sociological Analysis of Rules and Regularities), (Reckwitz 1997) is the title of Reckwitz’s first monograph. Even before completing his dissertation, however, the graduate of sociology, political science and philosophy from the universities of Bonn, Hamburg and Cambridge had published a study in which the social sciences are identified as structural sciences, the subject of which is not the individual and the specific but the general and structural dimensions of the social world. Here already Reckwitz emphasized that the key concept of structure is ambiguous and controversial. What is needed is an analytical procedure in which statements about structural change of the social system can be made with limited knowledge. With this in mind, the different structural concepts are assessed and an overarching structural heuristic slowly designed.
Three years later, this process is taking shape. With the publication of his doctoral dissertation Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien. Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms (The Transformation of Cultural Theories. On Developing a Theorectical Programme), (Reckwitz 2000), Reckwitz presented an extensive study that continued the historical-systematic assessment of sociological theories but now shifted the focus from social to cultural theory. Reckwitz traces the far-reaching cultural turn of western social sciences during the last third of the 20th century. In addition, he attests to a homogenization of cultural theories, in which the dualism between a ‘subjective’ and an ‘objective perspective’ disappears. Theories of social practices, such as those of Pierre Bourdieu or Charles Taylor, are based on a cultural re-establishment of social theory – a reconstruction that Reckwitz wants to undertake for the German theoretical tradition.
This academic starting point is crucial for an understanding of Reckwitz´s new view of society that goes beyond the ´generation Golf´. On the solid basis of a comprehensive assessment of Western social and cultural theories, Reckwitz initially traced the development of theory. By presenting the problematic history of both disciplines in detail, Reckwitz not only informed German sociology about the French structuralist and the Anglo-Saxon hermeneutic traditions but also tried to think both together. What Habermas calls his ‘constructive talent’ is the result of an impressive ability to analyse and synthesize. Without prejudice Reckwitz explores the wide field of social and cultural theory, uncovers the spectrum of positions and systematizes the existing with the aim of constructing a theory of social practices in which structuralist and phenomenological tendencies converge.
II. The social scientific (re)discovery of aesthetic modernity
At the centre of what could be termed Reckwitz’ synthesizing theory of social-cultural practice stands the hybrid subject. In fact, Das hybride Subjekt. Eine Theorie der Subjektkulturen von der bürgerlichen Moderne zur Postmoderne (The Hybrid Subject. A Theory of Subject Cultures from Bourgeois Modernism to Postmodernism), (Reckwitz 2006) is the title of his third, seven hundred-page habilitation, submitted to the University of Hamburg in 2005. In this work Reckwitz shows that it is primarily from the form of the subject that the characteristics of modernity can be studied. The form of the modern subject itself – like the social structures in which it finds itself – is understood as a deeply ambivalent one: since the 18th century neither the process of ‘individualization’ nor the process of ‘disciplining’ has gained the upper hand in the struggle over the question of the perfect personality structure. This very struggle produces the hybrid modern subject marked by fractures. The broken structure of this subject is the phenomenon that Reckwitz uses to exemplify his theory. In a comprehensive historical-cultural analysis, the struggle for form is reconstructed as a field of conflict in which divergent definitions of the ideal modern subject compete up to today. Reckwitz refers to both European and North American history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and emphasizes the importance of individual achievement behind ´subject cultures´.
Using numerous examples from art, literature and everyday life, Reckwitz recalls the ´pleasure wars´, which were based on the tension between the bourgeois and the boheme at the beginning of modernity. Reckwitz reads this tense cultural history entirely as a history of the subject, determines the specific nature of the late modern subject through historical comparison and generalizes his observations with the help of his ´Theory of Subject Cultures´. Three distinct hegemonic subject cultures are distinguished: the “morally sovereign subject” of bourgeois modernity/modernism, the “post-bourgeois employee subject” of organized modernity, and the “consumption-based creative subject” of postmodernism. Each subject culture is understood as “a palimpsest of cultural set pieces of subjectivity” (Reckwitz 2006: 15), which is realized in a “selective processing of the earlier in the later” (88). Subject formation itself is tied to a variety of modifying factors, ranging from forms of work and new technologies to those of intimate relationships. The contemporary consumption-based/consumerist creative subject characterizes the milieu of the urban creative class that has grown out of the upper middle classes In his habilitation thesis, Reckwitz works largely historically and follows the history of the bourgeoisie from the 18th century through the avant-garde to the counter cultures of the 1960s. He defines the subject of ‘counter culture’ as “one of unrestricted and playful desires for intense experiences” (Reckwitz 2006: 442). With it, the employee subject is replaced by the consumerist creative subject, defined as a “risk-taking, activist authority” (506) in which economism and aestheticism are combined. Thus “where sovereign work on one’s own, unmistakable aesthetics of the self is no longer recognizable, lack of style appears as a sign of a lack of individuality of the self.” (565) The contradictory requirements of the bourgeois subject between self-discipline, self-representation and self-realization are constantly in tension. Inner friction remains the hallmark of the subjectification program that started with Romanticism.
Das hybride Subjekt marks the critical point of Reckwitz’s social thinking. No longer satisfied with the evaluation of existing social and cultural theories, Reckwitz wants to immerse himself in an aesthetic modernity, which from then on becomes the focus of his writings. Reckwitz` discovery of modernism, however, is essentially a rediscovery of the early German cultural sociology of Georg Simmel or Max Weber. In line with his concept of the palimpsest Reckwitz follows this tradition, values modernism as a cultural semantics of high quality and turns it into a political project: a project bound to the idea of a sociological enlightenment, in which sociology demonstrates how the propagated boundary markings in the history of modernity repeatedly negate themselves at various levels and a completely different picture of modernity emerges. This new image of modernity Reckwitz outlines in his last three monographs and examines in its cultural, social and political consequences.
III. From aesthetic modernity to creative society
With The Invention of Creativity (Reckwitz 2012/2017), Society of Singularities (Reckwitz 2017/2020) and The End of Illusions (Reckwitz 2019/2021), all translated into English, Reckwitz demonstrates what the concept of culture as a category of observation is capable of. The concept of social practices is enriched with the concepts of subjectivation and identity, and the importance of the aesthetic is underlined. The title The Invention of Creativity. Modern Society and the Culture of the New points to the premise of the study: creativity has become the most influential social expectation in late modernity. A culture of the new, in which the logic of modern art was transferred to society, is based on what Reckwitz calls the “creativity dispositive”. According to Reckwitz, the processes of aestheticization intervene deeply in the structures of contemporary society and result in a seemingly endless, uncontrollable dynamic of increase.
The model for the ´social regime of the new´ is the field of art. The way it works becomes trend-setting in late modernity, starting with the change in management discourses, the creative industries and the star system in the mass media, right through to developments in psychology, fashion, education, consulting and urban development. The thesis of a massively accelerated de-limitation of art and its ability to dynamically create something new is developed as the key to a cultural ensemble that makes the production of the new permanent and nourishes the fascination with the creation and perception of new, original objects and events and identities. In a close interplay of socio-theoretical considerations and detailed analysis, the consequences of an aestheticization of society as a whole are illustrated. And just as art has moved into the center of society so in turn it has moved into the centre of studies on this very society. In that it defines the social as a place of production and reception of aesthetic objects and events, the social field of art presents itself as an exemplary format for the development of modern culture as a whole. According to Reckwitz, contemporary society, driven by the creativity dispositive, is ending in an ´aesthetic capitalism´.
The rise of the idea and practice of creativity is described in a four-phase model: The first phase extends from the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th century. In it, the model of the creative as a creation of the artistically novel gains its characteristic form. The second phase begins around 1900 and lasts until the 1960s. Only then does the creative dispositive actually crystallize; a process, in which the avant-garde plays the leading role. According to Reckwitz the avant-garde had pursued a far-reaching dissolution of artistic practices and aesthetic objects and demythologized the artist’s individuality. Only then could the restriction of the aesthetic and creative to art in the classic, bourgeois sense be blown open from within. The crystallization of the creativity dispositive was followed by a third crisis-ridden phase, which encompassed the 1960s and 70s, accelerated by counter and youth cultures and the critical protest movements. In the end, according to Reckwitz, not only does the art event take the place of the dissolved work of art, but a remarkable reversal takes place: ideas and practices of former counter cultures and subcultures become hegemonic.
In concrete terms, this means that the creativity ideal of the apparently hopelessly marginal aesthetic counter-movements penetrates the dominant segments of contemporary culture (its forms of work, consumption and relationships). At the same time, however, the creativity ideal itself changes as a result. In this context, Reckwitz emphasizes the central importance of the bohème and the transformation of the individual artist’s existence into a generalized counter culture. Only then does the social field of art become centrifugal by breaking down boundaries and extending its logic of innovation and singularization to society as a whole so that society becomes aesthetic. Border transgressions, networking and border zones are the characteristics of this development. In this way, the avant-garde logic of scandalization becomes the paradoxical logic of the expectation of surprise. The development of the post-bourgeois field of art is accompanied by an affective de-dramatization and a de-limitation of aesthetic objects. For the fourth phase, beginning in the 1980s, Reckwitz speaks explicitly of a new hegemony of the creativity dispositive.
IV. Creativity and singularity as a political challenge
The considerations presented by Reckwitz on the genesis of modern art and the status of the avant-garde are not new and are essentially reminiscent of the relevant theories of the avant-garde (Magerski 2011 and 2014). But unlike Peter Bürger or even Pierre Bourdieu and Niklas Luhmann, Reckwitz sees the programmatic goal of the historical avant-garde – the transfer of art into life – fully achieved in the present. Art has dissolved its borders – a ‘victory’ of modern art with far-reaching consequences not only for all social fields and practices, but also for the subjects of late modernism. The focus on the history of the subject and thus on the subject itself not only marks the singularity of Reckwitz’s approach, but also explains its attractiveness far beyond the rather narrow field of social and cultural sciences. To a certain extent, Reckwitz shares the interest of the late modern individual in the early romantic question of the right way of life.
Behind this question stands the problem of balance or the right measure, as Reckwitz shows through the comparison of organized and aesthetic modernity: the fact that society has embarked on aestheticization at all is explained by a fundamental deficit of organized modernity, namely the systematically-produced lack of affect and thus ultimately lack of motivation, which in turn is to be remedied by the aestheticization processes and the creativity industry. Aesthetically socialized and massively mobilized, the subject of late modernity then finds himself trapped in the imperative of creativity, accompanied by all the dissonances already known from bohemianism (Magerski 2015). The Invention of Creativity accordingly concludes with comments on ´overstretching the aesthetic´ and a reminder of alternative aesthetic practices such as the everyday aesthetics of repetition and a ´profane creativity´ that has emancipated itself from the public and the ‘heroic creativity’ of the cult of the artist as genius. But comparable to the forms of life in organized modernity, desires and duties can hardly be separated from one another. Creativity becomes a duty, that is, a prerequisite for social recognition. But what if there is no creative success? Art and its society then abandon the subject. A psychology solely based on positive emotions is no longer of any help either. What is needed, Reckwitz concludes, are strategies of self-limitation. The aim must be to counter over-aestheticization by locally reinforcing the ethical and the social, responding to the obsolescence-cycle of the regime of novelty by cultivating tranquillity and concentration while sidestepping constant audience observation and the demand for originality by multiplying the opportunities for withdrawal from the gaze of the other.
The overstretching the aesthetic attested in the study The Invention of Creativity recurs as a ‘veritable society of valorization‘ in The Society of Singularities (Reckwitz 2020: 6). Reckwitz once again describes the structural change of modernity from the social logic of the general to that of the particular. ´Doing generality´ becomes ´doing singularity´. The latter is found in the post-industrial economy and working world as well as in the technological and socio-cultural realm. However, the role of the new singularistic middle class is now strongly emphasized and evaluated much more critically. According to Reckwitz, their insistence on cultural difference promotes a general culturalization, which in turn unleashes a massive process of valorization and devalorization. The struggle for successful self-realization leads to a ‘curated life’ (Reckwitz 2000: 214), in which culture serves only as investment material for the status and prestige of the unique. Just as in Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural sociology, eating, housing, travel, the body and education turn into battle zones.
According to Reckwitz, however, this struggle is less about marking social belonging than about supposed self-realization and it is in this way that the society of singularities provokes a fundamental transformation of the political. The result is a new liberalism, which only the well-educated new middle class can enjoy. With the advent of competitive singularities and hyperculture, not only lifestyles but also social inequality have become culturalized, and at this point the social diagnosis presented by Reckwitz itself becomes eminently political. Reckwitz shows a polarization that reaches deep into the political present: a locally-based cultural essentialism responds to the rise of the cosmopolitan, apertistic, differential liberalism of the new middle class. The result is a ‘crisis of the general’, in which not only individual subjects but cultural, ethnic and religious identities fight for the right to self-realization – and that up to point of ‘Terrorism and Mass Shooting as Celebrations of the Singular Act’ (305).
The formulation cited above might be seen as an overstretching not only of the concept of singularity but of an interpretation of society from the perpective of aestheticization in general. In fact, due to the constant repetition and broad exemplification of the core theses, along with the obvious urge for perpetual conceptual innovation, the first two books by Reckwitz translated into English at times feel a bit redundant. But just at the point where the reader begins to tire of the plot his narrative of a comprehensive aestheticization picks up speed again. The End of Illusions (Reckwitz 2019/2021) marks a social change, which in turn becomes a change in the story line presented by Reckwitz. The processes of aesthetization and singularization have now reached their dangerous dead end. The “crisis of the general” is no longer questioned here. Instead, only two years after The Society of Singularities, Reckwitz is assuming a real crisis and feels compelled to outline possible ways out. This is done very carefully and yet in a language that makes you sit up and take notice, especially since committed social theory in Germany has hardly been practiced as critical theory in the sense of the Frankfurt School since the 1970s.
At the heart of The End of Illusions remains the assumption that the social logic of singularization will predominate, and with it an valorization system that distinguishes what is special and unique. This applies to the social world as well as to the individual form of life. Like the later Zygmunt Bauman, Reckwitz attests in his last work – for the time being, a compulsion to live an aesthetic or a creative lifestyle. Not by chance does Peter Beilharz ask whether Reckwitz may be one of the possible candidates replacing Bauman (Beilharz 2021). And although his question is rather rhetorical, it points to an important fact, which helps to better understand Reckwitz´s approach. The common ground of both thinkers of late modernity is the concomitant rise of art and of the art of life. But were the late Bauman saw The Art of Life (2008) as a way out of the subject’s dilemmas, Reckwitz a decade later has become increasingly sceptical in this regard (Beilharz 2021, Magerski 2018). The art of life is seen as a compulsion and traced back to the new middle class. Its devaluation of the non-singular is identified as the actual trouble spot. The conflicts over (re)valuation and devaluation (especially among the new lower class, but also the old middle class) provoke an opposition which, for Reckwitz, heralds the real end of the illusions. Trump or Brexit not only stand for populism, but, to put it bluntly, for an awakening of the leading milieu from the conviction that their world is the whole.
Reckwitz himself seems to have woken up by 2019 from the story of a progressive history of aestheticization that he himself told so fascinatingly. Faced with the real crisis of the general, he switches from diagnosis to therapy. The disillusioned present of late modernity is diagnosed as a cognitive-cultural capitalism and a confrontation between hyperculture and cultural essentialism that is growing into a culture war and a political crisis of liberalism. Not only has the leveled middle-class society completely dissolved and a three-class society consolidated, in the face of self-realization and self-individualization the subject of late modernity is exhausted by its own culture of emotions. In view of this bleak picture, Reckwitz recommendations seem rather unconvincing: the subject should fundamentally decelerate and learn how to deal with losses, while politicians should search for a new paradigm. The latter is imagined as an ’embedded liberalism’ able to provide freedom and security in equal measure. How this paradigm is to be presented in concrete terms remains open. The sociologist is content with his role as a warner.
V. Preliminary assessment of a singular sociologist
Reckwitz joins the ranks of the theoreticians of late modernity, which with Ulrich Beck, Gerhard Schulze, Niklas Luhmann and Peter Wagner, also has prominent German representatives. He refers to all of the above and extends their approaches to the writings of well-known representatives of Anglo-Saxon and French social theory, including the poststructuralists. Everything is taken into account and incorporated that corresponds to the premise of a progressive aestheticization of society since Romanticism and a subject-theoretical perspective that inevitably results from it. Anything that runs counter to this narrative is dropped or marginalized. Mention should be made here of the reflexive character of the second modernity emphasized by Beck, as well as the role of cultural policy, emphasized by Schulze, in the consolidation of society bound to emotionalized experience. Along with the moment of self-reflection what connects Luhmann and Wagner also gets lost: the self-reflective critique of a traditional sociology that believes it can describe – and criticize – society from the outside, without realizing that it itself (as experience and interpretation) is part of a system that has always been contingent. In other words, Reckwitz’s writings lack self-reflection and the irony that comes with it.
The reasons for this may lie in the context. The risks of western (self-) experience societies are perhaps only becoming so emphatically apparent today that all hopes of improvement through further differentiation and interpretation are out of the question. Nevertheless, it is surprising that a social theory based on the realization of the Romantic notion of an aestheticization of the social world marginalizes the core principle of Romanticism – self-reflection – in this way. This is even more so in that a rather ironic view leads to a crucial question unanswered by Reckwitz. Why did the sweeping aestheticization claimed in his writings not lead to a contingency-conscious, ironic, solidary subject? Or why is there a disillusioned subject, exhausted by self-centered creativity, at the end of the development and not rather a relaxed life of art?
The criticism touched on here should not belittle Reckwitz’s work. The intensity and productivity with which the sociologist dedicates himself to the observation of modernity is extremely impressive and has stimulated the social and cultural sciences in a significant way. With good reason, Reckwitz, who graduated 1994 in Cambridge, overseen by Anthony Giddens, is today one of the world’s best-known social scientists. His writings have been translated into numerous languages. Terms such as subjectivation, creativity and singularization of the social life have long since reached the mainstream. And not only are readers looking for his diagnosis, Reckwitz is also looking for a public. He writes for the left-liberal newspaper Die Zeit and appears frequently as an interview partner on the radio. There is also no lack of advisory board memberships and highly endowed awards, which can be read on his Wikipedia entry. The star economy, one could say, has caught up with its observer.
Certainly the enormous success lies not only in the validity of the aestheticization and singularization thesis. One also has to take into consideration the enormous appetite of the public for catchy descriptions of the present. Here one could point to the generation Golf. At least in Germany, many readers recognize themselves as part of the leading milieu vividly illustrated by Reckwitz and can study their own genesis and characteristics here with interested satisfaction or disillusionment. Given the interest of a certain and possibly crucial proportion of the public in the writngs of Reckwitz, his last, manifest-like work could function as a purifying corrective, in which the drivers of the valorization dynamics are confronted with their own swan song.
But hopes are likely to remain limited, not least because the inner balance that the late modern subject so urgently seeks was denied even to the historical model of today’s creative minds. The conversion of leading early German Romantics to Catholicism should give food for thought here, as should the ambivalent bohemian way of life in general. However, change may come from a completely different direction. Following the logic of counter-cultures outlined by Reckwitz it is at least conceivable that the counter-movement of the near future could emerge from a different milieu, a milieu that takes up the inner contradictions of hegemonic culture so brilliantly uncovered by Reckwitz and challenges its claim to universality. It would actually be foreseeable what would follow as a new paradigm in a hegemonic culture radically based on openness, diversity and cosmopolitanism. Understood in this way, the writings of Reckwitz are a provisional summary of the rise of an art-loving, liberal educated middle class which only now is being seriously confronted ‘by the excluded, a new dangerous class’ (Beilharz 2021). Given this challenge an upgraded sociological version of Thomas Nipperday’s brilliant classic Wie das Bürgertum die Moderne fand (How the Bourgeoisie invented Modernity, 1992) will not be enough.
To sum up: Not everything changes with Reckwitz. On the one hand, his works translated into English tie in with Boltanski & Chiapello and attest to a profound implementation of ´artist criticism´ in the working and living environment of late modernism. On the other hand, however, Reckwitz describes with The hybrid subject a late modern individual, torn between rather anti-bourgeois tendencies and bourgeois work ethos. For him, this tension becomes the polarity between the new and old middle classes. This is not new if one sees the bourgeoisie with Nipperdey as a class that has always combined bourgeois-anti-bourgeois tendencies. Nevertheless, the concept of class which went out of fashion in German Sociology of the 1980s and 90s is brought back by Reckwitz. By directing the focus entirely to the middle class and pointing to its inevitable disillusionment, Reckwitz focuses on the individual costs but also increasingly sees the new social and political tensions. If we connect the hybrid subject with the end of illusions, we have a new, open constellation: socially, culturally and politically.
Thus, it remains to be seen what follows The End of Illusions – a balance which seems to be both aesthetically increasingly sober and sociologically alarmed. In view of the general crisis, Reckwitz may have the actual work still in front of him. To get it done, he himself should step out of the logic of the new and take more time to reflect. Also, he should leave the narrow framework/world of his own milieu even further and ask more radically about the conditions and the costs of the rise of the educated middle class, including its theorists. By doing so, his own position would have to be put into perspective and its basic assumptions questioned. Why, for example, shouldn’t a hyperculture that sets itself up as absolute be understood as cultural essentialism as well? How far does a forced dualization of the general and the particular go, and does the particular not become the general when it is raised by the normative milieu to become a general model? Behind these questions, the old problem of the criteria for any process of valorization and therefore consensus-building emerges. Culture wars, ecological challenges and the social question do not make the search for solutions any easier. Nevertheless, what is needed is a convincing discursive reconciliation of norm and deviation, security and freedom, and ultimately also life and art beyond the dualism of Enlightenment and Romanticism. And why shouldn´t a still young, highly educated and eager representative of the ‘Generation Golf’, which is becoming progressively aware of the temptations and risks of western affluent society, not be able to do so?
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