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Normal Catastrophes and The Industrialization of Thinking
by Florian Sander, Melanie Muhl and R Sucheland
Tuesday Jul 23rd, 2013 6:17 AM
Instead of offering enlightenment about social reality, the media function as an amusement enterprise and immobilizing machine. Information mutates into infotainment... Advanced civilization is marginalized in many social areas into a sanctuary of the elites. Fear-mongering, exaggeration, sensation and excitement dominate; hype is a permanent state.

For Another View of Crises

by Florian Sander

[This article published in April 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet.]

We aim at a zero-risk society. But people forget how to deal with misfortune.

In the 1980s the American sociologist Charles Perrow developed a risk sociology approach that he paraphrased with the term “normal accidents.” He created a sociology of catastrophes that helped in the social systematization of technical accidents and offered the thesis that accidents and catastrophes are unavoidable and therefore part of normal conditions.

In view of the “crises” around the Euro finances, state debts, terrorism and nuclear power constantly discussed today, it is time to remember this thesis and ask how far it can and should be applied beyond technical-sociological questions.

In times like these in which a new kind of political utopism arrives on the scene through the new hegemony of the left-green zeitgeist (vision: an eco-socialist, multicultural super-state EU fixing the quotas), dealing with crises and risks has also become different – as always happens when semi-totalitarian utopism becomes mainstream.

Another example of risk sociology comes into play here. The anthropologist Mary Douglas paraphrased this kind of political culture in her “cultural theory” with the term egalitarian “sectarians.” This political and social approach tends to “zero risks.” Risks should be completely avoided. Crises and disasters should be eliminated by state intervention. At the end there is the vision of a morally pure utopia making people secure and happy.

In her typology, Douglas contrasts this political culture with the cultures of hierarchy (conservatism), fatalism (political weariness) and market individualism (liberalism). The first would regulate things politically without any utopias or visions. Fatalists are simply resigned. The individualist follows the trial-and-error principle. Progress is understood as a chance, absolute security dismissed as unrealistic and freedom revered as the highest value.

Sociological typologies always create analytical categories... With the new dominance of the green mainstream, the question is raised whether we aren't steering to a pure form of the moralist-egalitarian sectarian type and whether we should take counter-measures with elements of other political cultures.

The culture of market individualism offers a refreshing starting point, an idea that agrees political culture cannot manage without hierarchy if it wants to function. Mixed conditions in better doses is the goal, not new “pure forms.” This should be explained to readers in advance who now fall into a common anti-liberal reflex.

Genuine or supposed crises were used to bring about political chances. Attentive observers of political affairs saw this again and again in the last years. This is very clear in cases of terrorism (Al Qaida or NSU) and tightening security laws. However the presuppositions for a new super-state and an inefficient economic system are created through the backdoor in the Euro crisis.

The consequences are increasing violence in Greek cities, hostility to Germans there and in Italy as well as mass protests in Spain. The Fukushima catastrophe that did not turn out as dramatic in its radiation effects as dozens of German journalists predicted made a whole political class into an hysterical swarm of chickens that turned a whole national political field (environment and energy) completely upside down within a few days. We are now paying the bill for that.

The concentrated attempt at avoiding crisis leads to the opposite. The non-acceptance of “normal catastrophes” intensifies them and makes them “abnormal catastrophes”... either through hysteria (energy turn) or undemocratic commotion and prevention of learning (desperate prevention of Euro withdrawals, metaphorically “supplying alcohol to alcoholics”).

The parallels of the macro-plane with the micro-plane of everyday life are clear here. Learning is consistently prevented and crises drag out more than necessary by desperately trying to cushion crises and hard crashes. Something similar is now occurring in education policy. Repeating a year should be abolished. There should be no unhappiness or negative consequences. We prefer creating paradise on earth.

People who have never seen shadows cannot rejoice in the light. Whoever has never experienced crisis and has never been aware of his own mistakes cannot learn from them. Children who were never shown limits, youths whose mistakes – whether violence, drugs or laziness – were never sanctioned will probably fail in life.

Experiencing and accepting a crisis first creates happiness afterwards. Errors, crises, catastrophes and accidents are parts of life and society. Therefore it must be a political goal not to abuse these as nightmares for panic-mongering and totalitarian utopism but to label them as sources of error, learn from them and accept them with the necessary composure.

“Distress makes people inventive.” This old proverb correctly summarizes this discovery. There are crises, emergencies and problems that bring the best out of us, whether us means society as a whole or as individual persons.

This may be hard for us. We should dare a more composed and thoughtful relation with crises. Often we have everything under control except when there is immediate danger for body and life or special psychological factors are involved – whether in the form of the financial system and its crises or in the form of personal crises.

Crises are socially constructed and therefore develop their panic – or at least fear-producing power over perceptions, interpretations, reflexes and associations that can be deconstructed. To be sure, this does not always succeed. However this is always healthier and more effective than trying convulsively and in a panic to prevent every crisis, every feeling of nausea and every sense of unhappiness right from the start (and only making everything worse).


The first victim of crisis is always our trust in the future. Youth are struck especially hard. Permanent alarm is a social and political problem and not only an individual problem.

By Melanie Muhl

[This article published on 5/14/2013 is translated from the German on the Internet, Disillusioned young people took to the streets in May 2012 against the austerity-, labor market- and education-policies of the Spanish government in Madrid.]

Parents prepare their children for life by giving them a primal trust of escaping the whirlpool to unhappiness in whatever may happen to them. The feeling of absolute security is always an illusion. But it is one of the most important illusions because illusions act as defense mechanisms. The system of illusory convictions allows us to function in the world and experience the world as stable, certain and foreseeable.

Robert D. Stolorow, psychoanalyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, calls it the absolutism of the everyday. This form of naive realism is existential and imbues us with despondency – dependent on the respective personality structure. Therefore we take risks. We set out on the way with the conviction that our work is rewarding.


What happens when supposed certainties are acutely threatened on all sides is manifest. Our inner security framework takes a beating. At first the tears are very miniscule but with time become larger and larger. In the worst case, the framework caves in. Permanent state of alert is poison for the mental state. This is a social and political problem and not only an individual problem.

We live in the age of insecurity. In America commentators already speak of the age of trauma that began with the terrorist attacks of September 11. We know how history continued: two wars, the bursting of the housing bubble, the Lehman crash and the near-destruction of the domestic auto industry. The increasingly severe terrible news is reported faster and faster. There was the running amok at Virginia Tech University and at a movie theater in Aurora while the new Batman film was shown on the screen. In Newtown a young man executed students. Hardly any time has passed since the terror assassinations in Boston.


Bad news is part of our everyday but the intensity is new. Many suffer under the feeling that more and more bad news will crash in on us in ever shorter intervals. They strike younger and younger recipients who stand on shaky ground. The International Labor Organization in Geneva recently presented its trend report with an extremely alarming sentence: the well-being of a whole generation is endangered. In 2013 the worldwide you9th unemployment rose from an unacceptable 12.4 percent to 12.6 percent. On first view the increase of 0.2 percent seems hardly disturbing. However it could be the famous “tipping point,” the point where a system tips over because the confidence about improvement finally fades or disappears.

Take Greece as an example. Youth unemployment is now at 64 percent, in Portugal it is forty and in Spain more than fifty percent. What do such numbers mean for the impacted societies? Above all this means a part of European youth is losing all trust in the future, in its own government, in the solidarity of its society and perhaps in democracy. Its absolutisms of the everyday, to return to Robert D. Stolorow, are permanently destroyed.


Young persons in these countries protest on the streets that their life is sold off dirt cheap. Sentences like “Bailout people, not banks” can be read on their signs. But the opposite happens. Whoever can leaves his home after the cries for help die away. This “brain drain” is an economic and social catastrophe. A country that loses a large part of its well-educated youth loses its future-friendliness.

Despite everything one would lean back and object that the island Germany is not reflected in these depressing future predictions. Youth unemployment is only eight percent. That is the good news but is only a snapshot. A deterioration in ou8r neighboring countries will soon reach us. German youth know this. The labels attached to the young generation in Germany are generation senior poverty, generation traineeship or generation fixed term contracts. In Italy the term 1000-Euro generation is circulated. Youth are called the 700-Euro generation in Greece where the situation is even more miserable.


These descriptions do not reflect the picture of optimistic persons who joyful about the future pay for their lives. One of these persons is Katharina Nocun. She is 26 years old and was even elected as the new political party chairperson at the Pirates party convention in Neumarkt. Anyone can read how furious Katharina Nocun is in “DIE ZEIT,” a Hamburg weekly newspaper. Like many others from her generation, Katharina Nocun feels cheated and deceived. The young woman is disappointed by the politics of the German government that soothes everything except the future of her generation. Under the title “My Generation Doesn't Have a Lobby,” she writes: “I feel sometimes as though our parents had a party and we must now clean up and pay.” This constant devaluation of future chances taking place before our eyes produces fear. “The generation contract is based on a foundation of solidarity across age- and social strata. When this foundation crumbles, our future is endangered. The worst that can be done to a person is taking his/her hope for a better future.”

At the end the questions asked constantly”Can I pay my rent next month? Will I find a job after my study? In what city will I find this job? What will happen with my social relations? Wear down even those outfitted with great optimism. The question iss not only whether and where persons like Katharina Nocun find a job. The question is simultaneously what personal possibilities are given in the signed contract. In reality these possibilities shrivel.


On the website of the International Labor Organization, we read: “Stable full time jobs regarded as normal for past generations at least in industrial countries have become unattainable for many youths. The growth of limited work and part-time work since the outbreak of the global crisis shows this is often the only possibility for youth seeking work.”

The sociologist Hartmut Rosa once described the flexible person as a surfer on the waves. But today's media users think of a Tsunami rolling over everything so a little surfboard cannot survive. “We are driven,” Katharina Nocun writes. In such emotional worlds, the only constant is provisionality. Formulated differently, one sits on packed bags continually waiting for the leap to the next life project. Who can think of settling down? Who can muster the courage to start a family? Who should have children? So the great alarming global news engender a fragile field of individual worries of young adults whose courage for ventures including creative risks is lost. Thus the crisis intensifies.



On the Decay of Political-Cultural Information

by Rudiger Sucheland

[This article published on 11/21/2007 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,]

Hype is a permanent state. Banalization and populism mark current political-cultural public opinion. Instead of offering enlightenment about social reality, the media functions as an amusement enterprise and immobilizing machine. Information mutates into infotainment and doesn't even guarantee the most banal basic necessities for the citizen. The standard in the general public today is the illiterate person, the culture-free, politically-uninterested person. Instead of increasing the capacity of the public for political decisions, the mainstream of the media acts as a culture-less universal dementia machine and as a result becomes an instrument of the self-destruction of western democracies.

“Reflection first begins when something is lost... However if the public is lost, the world for reflection is also lost.” Alexander Kluge

That public opinion changes and succumbs to popularization tendencies is not new. But where does this lead? The picture of the democracies of the West is alarming. Advanced civilization is marginalized in many social areas into a sanctuary of the elites. The latest incidents in the life of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton are always more important in Germany than the policy of the German government or the Iran policy of the US government. Who would suspect that Europe's democratic public could tolerate undiscussed and glossed over massive breaches of international law and scandalous human rights violations for which the Guantanamo camp is symbolic. The daily excesses of the trash culture and the findings of the PISA-study are only two consequences.


On May 16, 2007 the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in its entertainment section published an essay [1] of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Titled “No Democracy Can Afford This,” the thinker continued reflections on his media classic “Structural Change of Public Nature” first published in 1962. Pointing to the newspaper crisis, Habermas refers to purchases of noted US papers by mammoth conglomerates, the increasing reduction of journalist quality, to “the special nature of commodified education and information” and concludes “no democracy can afford a market failure in this sector.”

Emphasizing that readers, hearers and onlookers are “citizens with a right to cultural participation, observation of political events and forming opinions” and not only consumers, Habermas recalls that the right to media guaranteed by the German basic law also includes independence from advertising and the influence of sponsors. Habermas sees this independence endangered today.


Matthias Greffrath goes a step further. In an essay “Imitate the BBC” [2] in Le Monde diplomatique, the journalist and Jean-Amery prize winner proves he is a sharp observer of media corporations.

“The worry could be formulated in a more alarmist way. We will only cope with the challenges of the next decades halfway democratically when national governments and parliaments become capable of acting again and a consensus is built among citizens on the distribution of burdens and sacrifices.

Citizens – all citizens – must be well-informed and understand themselves as participants with good chances in these revolutions. In the last three decades, the media have fallen to the market law. Their new “diversity” does not reflect the superstructure of the economic base. Lower classes learn at lower class schools, eat lower class food and watch lower class television. Elites go to private schools, eat and jog with style and read FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper), SZ (Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper) and Die Welt if necessary.”

Greffrath stresses the development of public television. This is “the most effective and last lever” of politics on the Internet for at least limiting the seizure of power by commercial interests. Analogous to the BBC, the public should make available its broadcasts and archives on the net as completely as possible to compete with youth-friendly Internet platforms...


...Popularization tendencies and processes in the media are by no means new. After the “readers' revolution” around 1800, there were popular ways of spreading knowledge for a mass public. Illustrated magazines came into fashion, photography and film. They acted as popularization media like the Internet today, produced new forms and strategies of knowledge presentation and changed the practices of production and reception...

In some circumstances, the economy and the majority will are not the measure of all things. When does info-tainment become an intellectual drug?


Since the murder of John F. Kennedy, television has replaced print media as the central media...


The public programming mandate imposed by German legislators is clearly defined and consists of the triad “education, information and entertainment” - in that sequence. The sequence has long been reversed.

Entertainment is in first place and education mostly falls flat – as a result of years of criticism that moved demanding and “strenuous” programs to the edge of the time track. In 2003, 13 well-known book publishers protested against this “marginalization of culture on German-language television” in an open letter and criticized a “disastrous violation of the program mandate.”


The dwindling quality of what is shown is also pitiable. Many television news programs have long mutated into parodies of themselves. The speakers rush from news to news and shower the viewers with senseless statistics. Breathless live connections to reporters follow although they really have nothing to tell. Nevertheless the “circuitry” is technically successful. Fear-mongering, exaggeration, sensation and excitement dominate. Hype is a permanent state. At the end after a dead poet or actor was announced, a little grinning or the casual transition to the weatherman follows. The weatherman must often stand on the roof of the television station in the sun or on some mountain top in a storm as though that somehow made his information more credible.

Pseudo-journalism, junk and marketing combine and dominate public media today.

Journalists are neither representatives of the public nor helpers, lawyers, privileged informants or teachers. They no longer understand themselves as neutr5al or partisan supporters of the public and their participation in society. They don't want to organize any dialogues, solve problems from the citizen perspective or mobilize citizens. They also don't want to weigh themes and evaluate the relevance of a subject. Rather everything has the same value or is rated highest when the interest of the public is the greatest. On one side they are today service providers and on the other side sellers of their end product. The goal of the broadcast is the attention and contentment of the target group. The public information leads to de-politization.

Independent observers make an unequivocal judgment. The “Media Tenor,” a Bonn media research institute that analyzed media opinion leaders for ten years speaks of the “trend to banalization.” “There is hardly a substantive difference between German public and private television news... The contributions are often a hasty mix of information and emotion – the opposite of presence of mind...

Culture is simplified beyond recognition in television broadcasts. The only alternative is called “service orientation”...


Whoever repressed 40 years ago when Hans Magnus Enzensberger ran down television as a “zero-medium” must grudgingly agree with him today. This thesis is true for the reality of present-day television. An industrialization of thinking seems to characterize conditions and has taken over in the heads of the men of action. The culture-less universal dummification machine called television actually seems to have become the decisive instrument of a self-destructive process of western democracies. The West sinks with the evening program.

In the middle of the 1970s, US thinker Richard Sennett spoke of the “decline and end of public life.” The increasingly fragmenting television cannot really act any more as the Agora and forum of a telepolitan democracy. Television devolves to the psycho-couch made of glass of the trash talkmaster for repressing the res publica described by Sennett. Social meaning arises out of the emotional life of individuals, the “return to tribal life” and the dominance of individuals who are rated “credible” and “effective” and promoted to the rank of leaders...

Television today hardly offers enlightenment about social reality. Rather it reduces its complexity to a level where not much is left. In a globalizing world, experience is localized and personalized by television. At the same time it is personalized, emotionalized and slandered – like politics with its questions, power relations and connections. There is hardly any attempt to make politics transparent. Depolitization dominates the presentation of politics. Politics is nothing but another jigsaw puzzle in the amusement business of television.


Whoever urges standards, criteria or even quality for this soft melodious tyranny, instead of switching off his brain, turning off the equipment and assumes that themes are only matters of taste is regarded as a snob, not only as a wet blanket or spoil sport. The question why the education-free person is raised as the standard reflects our elitist media reality.

Whoever wants equal chances for understanding “cultural time” resists reducing people to the lowest common denominator. Some of the television of the future will be primarily an immobilizing medium for the jobless masses. When society drifts apart more and more, that is also because of a television that divides and doesn't join together and makes the dumb dumber without making the wise wiser. On the other hand, upper class television is for everyone...


The real crisis of the public occurs beyond the television. It is the disappearance of a common political vision and a political will. Public originally meant the ability to produce, create and implement the common will of the Civitas. The disappearance of this political idea, the idea of a state as a political community (polis), is the real crisis of the general public. A public understood this way simply does not exist; it has to be established. Citizens must resist the current process of expropriation and exploitation.

Paradoxically it isn't the disappearance of plurality but its increase, the decay of society in many communities, scenes and lifestyles that promoters the crisis of the public. Thus public should not be left unconditionally to the chaos of the market. What are the democratic and cultural chances of a public television independent of the market? 20 stations are not necessary; two, three or four could be enough.

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