Paul’s Safety Lecture (2012)

I was invited to give a lecture to all graphic students at CSM. I showed slides and spoke about the concept of safety in modern society and how this had come about as a consequence of the conjunctions of democracy and industrialisation. We need to be safe, otherwise the system will kill us. We didn’t mean it to; it’s just the way of the machine. The machine is big and implacable. It stops for no-one.

I began with some stills from Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). This film shows how quickly the system can become deranged when we go off-the-rails. This led neatly to the student riots of May 1968 and the counter culture. I then described why the state of flux, epitomised by the 1960s, is so unsettling for the ruling class.

I tried to explain how the contemporary idea of safety has come about. Here are my notes…

The concept of safety is quite straightforward. At a basic level we understand it as safety from predatory violence. We are animals; and animals are involved in a relentless struggle to eat; and to avoid being eaten. Think of all those BBCTV wildlife documentaries…

It’s a long time since we, in the developed economies of the West, have been there. We, thankfully, have moved beyond this red-in-tooth-and-claw subsistence. That’s not to say that life isn’t a struggle. But nowadays, we struggle against something different – It’s OK, as long as we are safe as we struggle.

In practical terms, the idea of safety is understood in a relatively abstract way. We take it to refer to the provision of a consistent, and therefore safe, physical environment for our engagement with the machine-ensemble of contemporary society. These meanings devolve specifically from the conjunction of democracy and industrial capital.

 

The 18C Philosophical Enlightenment rejected the arbitrary rule of autocracy in favour of a system and structure of reason. The age of reason was predicated on the application of scientific methodology. This was a process of empirical observation, measurement and classification, derived from the scientific revolution, and subsequently applied to issues of political economy and society. This, in turn, led to the founding of institutions based on a balance of rights and responsibilities. Enlightenment values came to be expressed through institutions whose processes were universally applicable, and transparent, and accountable.

Of course, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds; reason always ends in despotism. It was very frustrating for the well-intentioned Enlightenment philosophers to discover that people would not do as they were told. The imposition of reason; through conditioning and training has to be achieved through an increasingly brutal process of social formation. This conditioning effectively standardised the social body, so that its parts engaged evermore consistently with the political and economic and industrial institutions of the machine-ensemble.

Implicit in this notion of consistency has been the idea of a good, or model, citizen. As the machine-ensemble developed and quickened pace, the worker citizen was obliged to keep-up. Throughout the 19C, the complexity of the machine system grew through developments in automation and integration. It’s not surprising that, in these circumstances, the machine seemed to develop something that looked like intelligence!

The 18C Philosophical Enlightenment rejected the arbitrary rule of autocracy in favour of a system and structure of reason. The age of reason was predicated on the application of scientific methodology. This was a process of empirical observation, measurement and classification, derived from the scientific revolution, and subsequently applied to issues of political economy and society. This, in turn, led to the founding of institutions based on a balance of rights and responsibilities. Enlightenment values came to be expressed through institutions whose processes were universally applicable, and transparent, and accountable.

Of course, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds; reason always ends in despotism. It was very frustrating for the well-intentioned Enlightenment philosophers to discover that people would not do as they were told. The imposition of reason; through conditioning and training has to be achieved through an increasingly brutal process of social formation. This conditioning effectively standardised the social body, so that its parts engaged evermore consistently with the political and economic and industrial institutions of the machine-ensemble.

Implicit in this notion of consistency has been the idea of a good, or model, citizen. As the machine-ensemble developed and quickened pace, the worker citizen was obliged to keep-up. Throughout the 19C, the complexity of the machine system grew through developments in automation and integration. It’s not surprising that, in these circumstances, the machine seemed to develop something that looked like intelligence!

Eventually, all of these various systems and structures became progressively more-and-more-integrated. The result is that, nowadays and at an individual level, we understand environments, experience and performance, as a single undifferentiated matrix. Weirdly, in the fast-moving urban environments of the world’s great cities, this seems to make us more intelligent. That called the Flynn Effect.

 

There are various books that describe the historical development of this ensemble. Nearly all the books are quite specialised. My work has been about trying to join these parts together…

These are the books that I mentioned in my lecture

Darley G(2003)Factory London, Reaktion

This book describes the historical development of industrial architecture. The structural form is explicitly connected to the command-and-control mechanism suggested by Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic (1791). This form and function of this organisation is applied specifically to prisons, factories and schools.

The evolution of the bureaucratic structures and institutions of control – the prison and the clinic – have been described by Michel Foucault. The administrative implacability of these systems has been satirised by Franz Kafka and George Orwell, amongst others.

In factory organisation, the Portsmouth Block Mill (1795) provided the first systematic integration of environment, activity and resources. Charles Babbage described the efficient deployment of resources in terms of mathematical logic in the 1820s. (Simon Schaffer has written about Babbage and the logical basis of economic and technical standardisation). You can read his paper, here

Schaffer.Babbage

These ideas were rolled out across the whole nation, as a consequence of the Great Reform Act (1833). The 1840s provided for a period of political, economic, technical and moral standardisations.

Joyce P(2003)The Rule of Freedom London, Verso

Describes the emergence of a new sociology of civil society in relation to these standardisations. He describes this in terms of Manchester in the mid 19C.

David Harvey’s new book Rebel Cities describes how the design of cities is a specific expression of the system. You can read his book, here

MOBOOK7256

Actually, I make a similar point about visual culture and the modern city in my Modern British Posters. The poster is, by virtue of its display environments something that is associated with wide streets and vistas. These provide for a form of urban panoptic.

The modern poster would not have existed without the specific environments of outdoor display advertising. Without opportunity, the technological possibility of the poster would have remained theoretical.

It is widely acknowledged that city planning, and Haussmann’s schemes in particular, formed part of a plan to rationalise, or control, the increasingly chaotic politics of post 1848 France. The wide boulevards of Haussmann’s redevelopment were conceptualised to replace the warren of narrow streets that were a reminder of medieval Paris.

The narrow streets were understood, by the bureaucratic powers of the administration, as an uncontrollable environment. The medieval street scene was interpreted, in these circumstances, as insecure and unsafe. In times of political hiatus, the narrow streets could easily be commandeered through the spontaneous erection of barricades. The forces of law and order were excluded from the chaotic environments of narrow streets and their tenements. This was clearly unacceptable. So, one of Haussmann’s objectives was to make the city, as the expression of the system, unstoppable!

The rational ordering of society, implicit in Enlightenment republicanism, required a new kind of civic environment that spoke of liberal democracy. The balancing of rights and responsibilities around issues of individual freedom and social control became the distinguishing characteristics of the new civic environments. (See Benjamin and Joyce).

Interestingly, the new visual technology of photography was appropriated by the administration, at precisely this time, so as to provide evidential support for the new regimen of social order. So, the poster and the photograph may be understood as visual expressions of two, opposing, systems of representation in modern society – the regulatory regime and metropolitan spectacular (footnote).

In contrast to the technical precision of photographic processes and imagery, the lithographic poster offered an exciting and explosive visual expression of the Babylonian metropolis.

The city can never be stopped or be allowed to stop. The modern city is, by definition, the city that never sleeps. It is this implacable relentlessness, expressed as idea, machine or environment, from which we need to be safe!

Pick D(1993)War Machine London, YUP

Daniel Pick describes the emergent brutality of 19C industrialisation in terms of the abattoir and WW1 (1914-1918). Zygmunt Baumann has described the Holocaust as the inevitable end-point of this kind of modernity.

Notice where the railway leads…

The principle expression of the machine-ensemble is the development of the railway system. This is something that we can all relate to and is why I write this blog. Beaumont & Freeman describe this in relation to ideas of psychoanalysis and cultural geography. The railway is understood to imply the annihilation of time and space…

The machine can’t be stopped. Everything facilitates its progress.

Beaumont M & Freeman M (2011)

Railway and Modernity Bern CH, Peter Lang

Paul Verilio describes how the acceleration of modern life has significant implications for our political institutions, the social body and democracy

Virilio P(1977)Speed and Politics NYC, Semiotext(e)

The general acceleration of modern life is experienced as a speeding up of the machine-ensemble. The survival of the fittest requires, in these circumstances, a heightened level of visual acuity. The impact of visual technologies and control mechanisms on our cognitive development and our sense of personal identity is described, here

Crary J(2001)Suspensions of Perception Cambridge MA, MITP

Virilio P(1984)War and Cinema London, Verso

Of course, the machine-ensemble being described here is based on Newtonian mechanics – it’s made up of cogs, wheels, levers and pulleys (just like the Portsmouth Block Mill). Nowadays, the command-and-control systems of the global economy are integrated into the data-flows of digital networks. The Internet is a machine and the iphone is the panoptic…

Lyon D(2007)Theorizing Surveillance Devon, Willan

During the 1940s and 1950s, the computer pioneers Alan Turing and John von Neumann conceptualised the possibility of self-replicating machine intelligence. The subsequent lessons of cognitive psychology suggest that, actually, we are those self-replicating machines!

No wonder we need to feel safe. We need it to survive.

I’ve posted about these themes on my various blog sites. These are

Pamphleteer

http://areopagitica.blog.co.uk/

superseded by

the New Pamphleteer

http://paulrennie.rennart.co.uk/

Just search the posts for “standardisation” or “machine.”

The back-catalogue on the old site is more extensive.

This new blog explores all the stuff I’m interested in – systems, architecture, technology, design and communication (and restaurants) through the prism of trains…

Obviously, all this provides a distant historical context to what is happening now. I firmly believe that we are stuck in the long shadow of the 18C. If you want a more up-to-date perspective, check out the films of Adam Curtis

http://thoughtmaybe.com/browse/video/adam-curtis

especially, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The Enlightenment conceptualised the application of reason, and contrasted this with emotion and feeling. This is understood as a conflict between reason and romance. Either way, we are stuffed.

Reason always ends in the despotic imposition of systems and structures. Conversely, the world of feelings is inconsistent and chaotic…

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