Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Cultural Citizenship in Contemporary America, by Alan N. Shapiro

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The damaged life of the fragmented individual, performing his duties in the system of production, is circumscribed by a universe of self-referential images and solipsistic spaces which sustain his socialization in that system. Walking amidst the skyscrapers and luxury boutiques of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one has the impression of being in an underground city of loyal citizens, cut off from all other possible space and stories, real in history or imagined in dreams. Dwarfed by the immense monoliths, beset from all sides by an unblemished futuristic-technologized décor, the individual is called upon to exonerate his presence in this apparently complete world. He is compelled – within himself, in relation to others, to organizations, and to the undivided ambience – to make known which of his qualities and skills give him the right to participate in the scramble to belong. From how he speaks and dresses to the technical knowledge and credentials that he carries, he is like an African American in the 1950s being scrutinized by White Cops, a Kafka man permanently On Trial, seeking to decipher the intricate workings of the Court. Immersed in a world of unfathomable complexity presenting itself as a closed perfection, the aspiring Cultural Citizen of contemporary American society must conceal his human weaknesses, scratch and claw to plant a stake, and strive to resemble in his being the rigid geometry of this system of survival.

The processes and modes of legitimation, participation, identity, and solidarity in late capitalism cry out for thorough re-examination in the context of a renewed Critical Theory of American Society and Consumer Culture. This project involves the revitalization and rethinking of the vanishing genre of Cultural Theory, as well as the elaboration of a concept of Cultural Citizenship. Since the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of political citizenship has dominated our thinking about participation in society to the virtual exclusion of other approaches. But the New Left in the 1960s, at least in its most lucid and audacious moments, initiated a critique of politics which continues to  ring true. Those who partook in the assemblies and action committees in France in May-June 1968, voiced the demands for “participatory democracy” of the early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in America, marched in the Civil Rights Movement or against the Vietnam War, or actively refused the collaboration of the major political parties during the 1977 student uprising in Italy, shared a critical perception of politics as having becoming a separate sphere, a Simulation of Democracy, a realm reserved for experts and professionals and divorced from everyday life. After the 1970s, voting became more and more of an absurd ritual, politicians were held less and less accountable for their deeds, and ordinary people stopped almost entirely to hope for improvement in their lives coming about as the result of actions in the traditional political sphere. After the scandal and Legitimation Crisis of Watergate in 1972-1973, the victory of Jimmy Carter over Nixon’s chosen successor Gerald Ford in 1976 was a meaningful election. But after Carter’s Presidency failed, there followed a long precession of Simulacrum-Presidents. Carter was a well-intentioned person and in some ways a genuine intellectual, the last such non-simulacrum before Obama. During the Presidencies after Carter, legitimation no longer resided in a notion of political citizenship. Reagan was a Hollywood actor and broadcaster of Chicago Cubs baseball games which he creatively imagined while absent from the stadium reading wire reports. George H. W. Bush orchestrated the deceptive spectacle of the Televison War that “did not take place.” Clinton was a mediagenic clown brought reduced by a lie about oral sex. George W. Bush was, from the point of view of democracy, a an almost complete disaster. The election of Obama in 2008 signaled the possibility that a more authentic human being was now President and that it would be possible to develop new ideas concerning political citizenship.

The classical statement about citizenship in the sociological literature was provided by T.H. Marshall in his essay “Citizenship and Social Class”.  The general concern of Marshall’s writing was the study of the class structure in Great Britain and its relationship to the history of democratic rights. Following an evolutionist schema, Marshall regarded modern history as the progressive unfolding of rights and extension of participation to more and more sectors of the population. The essential meanings of citizenship are equality and “full membership in the community,” and the historical extension of its influence has taken place through three stages: the emergence of the components of civil, political, and social citizenship.

With the rise of the bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, according to Marshall, came the idea of the Universal Rights of Man and “civil” citizenship. This involved the most familiar set of individual rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, equality before the law, and the right to choose one’s livelihood. “Political” citizenship developed in the nineteenth century. It entailed various rights of participation in the exercise of political power: voting, universal suffrage, etc… “Social” citizenship (the third stage) was, for Marshall, the culmination of the whole process. Beginning its maturation in the twentieth century, social citizenship promised greater economic equality, improvements in social welfare, services and education, and the opportunity for individuals to “share to the full in the social heritage and … live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society”. Rights which had previously been recognized in principle now had the chance of being realized and enjoyed in practice.

The history of citizenship, for Marshall, is progressive and “revolutionary.” Social movements and democratic politics, issuing from the lower strata of society, endeavor to “stretch” the domain of citizenship and “universalize” society. The stratification of the capitalist class system obstructs the “universalizing” process, but this social inequality tends to be overcome by the advancing body of citizenship rights. It is ultimately a history of progress, an incessant reweaving of the fabric of citizenship, the history of the “enrichment of the universal status of citizenship” and “an increase in the number of those upon whom the status is bestowed”.

Most political sociologists have endorsed Marshall’s interpretation. Bendix  follows Marshall’s argument to the letter. Marshall’s outline of the history of modernism and the role of social movements (presented in the guise of the history of citizenship) is not so far from the more sophisticated versions of prominent radical critics like Jürgen Habermas and Claude Lefort – the defense and amplification of bourgeois democratic rights, the expansion of the public sphere, etc… The present essay suggests a different direction for Critical Theory than that of “communicative rationality.”  I contend that new approaches to the comprehension, critique, and positive transformation of American society are possible through the elaboration of the notion of “Cultural Citizenship.” The thinkers who have most influenced me in developing this concept are Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes.

There is no simple definition of Cultural Citizenship. It is a reality of many layers. Understanding is possible through tentative formulations, illustrations, case studies, literature reviews, and approaches from different angles and through different languages. The critical analysis of whole areas of social life can be reworked and deepened through the diffusion of the concept and its implications. Although the term is probably being introduced here for the first time in a rigorous way, no claim to originality is made. In his first book, The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard refers to the “rights and duties of the consumer-citizen” (“les droits et devoirs du citoyen-consommateur”). As Roland Barthes reminds us, the power or force of the writer is to mix and rearrange previous texts, and to situate himself at a particular intersection of writings, styles, and tissues of the world and of culture. It will be more than apparent to the reader just how much I am indebted to certain prominent philosophers and social critics. My hope is that this “rearrangement of texts” will help to resuscitate the stagnating radical critique of American society and a positive strategy for its transformation.

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