Academic journal article Capital & Class

Fear and Loathing at the Multiplex: Everyday Anxiety in the Post-Industrial City

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Fear and Loathing at the Multiplex: Everyday Anxiety in the Post-Industrial City

Article excerpt

The adoption of risk as a common part of contemporary societal construction has been tied to an environment of proliferation, multiplication, specialism, counterfactual guess-work, and, above all, anxiety. Deliberations on the growth of anxiety and fear have concentrated largely upon the impact of globalisation and the advent of new technological regimes. However, as discussed here 'ambient fears' and anxieties can saturate the social spaces of everyday life. Hence, this paper examines a mundane and routine social activity-cinema-going--to demonstrate that fear, risk and anxiety are deeply embedded in the fabric of contemporary capitalist cities, shaping all manner of social practices. A central argument within this paper is that fear is inescapably caught up in the fabrication of social difference, with the strategies of risk avoidance that people practice in their everyday lives reinforcing boundaries between Self and Other.

Risk is something which has not happened yet, which frightens people in the present and therefore they might take action against it. Risk is not catastrophe; if catastrophe happens it is a fact, an event. Risk is about possibility, a future possibility... (Ulrich Beck, cited in Boyne, 2001: 58).

Since the German sociologist Ulrich Beck first outlined his concept of 'risk society' in 1986, it has been widely adopted by social scientists and media commentators as they seek to make sense of the culture of fear that pervades contemporary society (see especially Furedi, 1997; Glassner, 1999). In Beck's formulation, the contemporary risk climate is one of proliferation, multiplication, specialism, counterfactual guess-work, and, above all, anxiety. In caricature, he suggests this has resulted from the breakdown of the stable modes of social regulation associated with industrial capitalist process and their replacement by the more diffuse and amorphous flexible production systems associated with postindustrial accumulation processes. Forms of (national) state regulation, financial management and welfarism appear increasingly unable to provide certainty and order in the face of global fluctuation and instability, while transnational organisations like the UN, World Bank and International Labour Organisation seem distant, obscure and out-of-touch. Beck argues that this perceived 'breakdown' has prompted individuals to reflexively confront risks and manufacture new certainties in an era characterised by global fluidity, flux and uncertainty (for example, by opposing GMO crop testing, organising consumer boycotts or picketing company headquarters). Hence, while there is little evidence to suggest that the contemporary world is any more dangerous than in the past, Beck suggests we are now profoundly anxious about the fact there are many risks for which there is no 'insurance policy', with globalization introducing international risk parameters which previous generations did not have to face. Successive scares concerning the hazards of global society--air pollution, climate change, drug side-effects, food safety, genetic modification, rogue bankers, computer viruses--all seem to add weight to Beck's thesis, reinforcing the impression that we live in an era of rapid technological innovation and scientific development, but where no one fully understands the possible risks and dangers we face.

Though Beck and those who have subsequently developed his ideas have focused mainly on the global spectres of environmental disaster, stock-market meltdown and, post-September 11th, international terrorism, it is important to stress that the risk society has another, more invidious, aspect; namely, the 'ambient fear' and anxiety that saturates the social spaces of everyday life. This is a fear that requires us to vigilantly monitor even the banal minutiae of our lives, with Doel and Clarke (1997) arguing that fear is no longer confined to the exceptional or the extreme (epidemic, catastrophe, meltdown etc). …

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