Self and Cybersociety: A Critical Introduction

Book Prospectus

By Ben Agger


Self and Community examines the everyday lives of people in late capitalist societies, focusing on their experience of both "self'' and "community." The book relates people's lives today to large-scale social structures, following in the tradition of Mills, Parsons, and Habermas, who addressed the connections between self and society, micro and macro, and life world and system. The aim is to introduce students to the discipline of sociology, examining its key concerns and debates, while asking whether contemporary society is significantly different from the earlier capitalism in which sociology's founders formulated their basic concepts. Sociology is introduced not by presenting the usual taxonomy of concepts but by situating "self'' and "community" in the lives people lead. Both continuity and discontinuity with the past are stressed as I take up the proposition that our prepostmodern but rapidly changing society requires innovative sociological concepts and theories. Although the book will not replace the 600-page encyclopedic introductions to sociology, it will engage students in courses with ample discussion and supplementary reading. I ask what sociology can be at "the end of the social," a time somewhere between modernity and postmodernity when we can no longer assume that people inhabit a public sphere of civic discourse.

Drawing on a varied theoretical literature stemming from attempts to revise Marxism in response to change in 20th Century capitalism, the book extends Habermas' argument that the public sphere has shrunk in post-WWII society. The abandonment of the public sphere, notably politics and civic discourse, has turned people inward. "Everydayness" overtakes larger issues of social concern and obscures the connection between everyday life and social structure. This turn inward has resulted in the sublimation of political and social impulses in favor of what I call substitute sociality and cybersubjectivity. Electronic communication becomes pseudocommunity as discourse is reduced to chatting, and cybersubjects shop (for a self) and engage in self- improvement.

Where many laud the World Wide Web and CNN as media of personal freedom and enhanced, albeit electronic, democracy, I contend that these are false forms of community and democracy. People shop for commodities and selfhood along the information superhighway, having abandoned politics and society to elites. For many, inwardness is an escape from the cynicism and hopelessness of politics and social movements. Inwardness takes many forms, all designed to supplement the subject with a rewarding and varied personal life: People throw themselves into their careers, relationships, children, shipping, travel, the body beautiful, quest of celebrity. None of these pursuits is inherently harmful. But in narrowing social life 2 to "everyday life" we accept the intractability of institutions, a false premise given the fluidity of history. People forsake politics, social change, helping others. Community is sacrificed to subjectivity.

My argument takes McLuhan's discussion of the global village a step further, enhancing his work with the perspectives of the Frankfurt School and postmodernism on "media culture" (Kellner). Where McLuhan argued that communication, especially the electronic sort, is a form of association, I maintain that today communication is the main or only form of association, given the collapse of the public sphere of civic discourse in what I characterize as an age of instantaneity. The collapse of association into communication--the end of the social--produces the pseudocommunity of the Internet. This requires a critical social science to address the phenomena of "everyday life" in fresh ways, both describing its structure and culture and pointing beyond, toward a transformation of everyday life through the renewal of the social. In a better society, we would no longer clearly distinguish between everyday life and larger, enveloping social structures because these larger structures would no longer appear alien and remote. The everyday would contain the possibility of transcendence-what Marx called "social freedom."

The book addresses major issues in sociology that inform virtually all of student's course work. Of central concern is the relationship between everyday life and social structure in key domains of communication, personality, work/family, leisure and entertainment, and economics. At the same time, the book advances an argument about our stage of civilization, joining dialogue with critical thinkers and theorists who bemoan the loss of community and civic discourse. These perspectives from critical theory and postmodernism can be introduced in readable, digestible ways, especially where discussion of them is linked to standard sociological concerns such as the relationship between self and society.

Beginning with a theoretical and historical discussion of the emergence of capitalism that links McLuhan and Marxian themes in Chapters One and Two, I then address the electronic public sphere and its impact on sociality and subjectivity (Chapters Three and Four). I examine people's everyday practices and sensibilities in the realms of work and family (Chapter Five), entertainment and the culture industry (Chapter Six) and leisure (Chapter Seven). The book concludes with a discussion of opportunities for social changes in everyday life (Chapter Eight) and in disciplinary sociology (Chapter Nine) that involve the creation of discursive communities, including professional ones, in which expert languages are not mystified but are available to all.

Course Adoption Potential and Competitors

The book is suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses in introductory sociology, social problems, family, work, culture, social psychology, social change and theory. It could serve as the main text in discussion-intensive classes or as a supplementary book in classes built around an omnibus textbook. The book can be used across the sociological curriculum because it treats the self/society relationship in ways relevant to students' everyday experiences of family, work, and culture. As such, the student is exposed both to wide and varied sociological literatures and to a critical perspective on self and society. Panoramic perspective is fleshed out with empirical examples that animate theoretical issues. Similar books used to great advantage across the undergraduate sociological curriculum, especially in discussion-oriented introductory classes, are Mills' Sociological Imagination, Berger's Invitation to Sociology, Lemert's Social Things, Bellah et al.'s Habits of the Heart, Gergen's Saturated Self, and Berger and Luckmann's Social Construction of Reality. Like these books, mine presumes no sociological background, cites ample literature for further reference, and is written engagingly. The accompanying reader will draw from empirical literatures that address issues of social change having impact on everyday life. For example, selections on the social impact of the Internet and World Wide Web will relate to material discussed in Chapters Two and Three. Readings on how women and men juggle career and childcare will relate to issues in Chapter Five.

Although intended for sociology students unfamiliar with social and cultural theory, the book inserts itself into the ongoing conversation about our "fate" in the late twentieth century. In addition to surveying relevant sociological literatures, it offers a critical perspective on culture and civilization. Building on the argument in my 1989 book Fast Capitalism, this book takes the concept of "everyday life" from Henri Lefebvre and develops it structurally and culturally. Competing and complementary voices are Russell Jacoby (Last Intellectuals), Lasch (Culture of Narcissism), Habermas (Legitimation Crisis), and Sennett (Fall of Public Man). My book sets the theoretical stage for a discussion of everyday life in the opening two chapters, providing the student-reader relevant bibliographical landmarks for further exploration.

Table of Contents

Section One. Everyday Life in Sociology and Society

Chapter 1. What is Everyday Life?

Doing What comes Naturally: Everydayness as a Sociological Category
A Symptom of Alienation and/or the Foundation of Sociology and Social Theory?
Components: Communication, The Subject, Work/Family, Entertainment/Economy
Historicizing Everyday Life: Limitations of Liberalism

Chapter 2. Capitalism, Fast Capitalism, Cybersociety: The Decline of the Public Sphere and the End of Institutions

What's Different about Capitalist Society Today?
McLuhan and Marx: A Media-Oriented Critical Theory
The Mode of Information Argument
The Internet as a Social Fact: Michel Foucault or Bill Gates?

Section Two: Communication, Not Community

Chapter 3. Substitute Sociality: Acquiring Intimacy Instantaneously in the Electronic Public Sphere

Disembodied Discourse: The End (or Displacement) of the Social
Television as Ontology
The World Wide Web
Chatting I: Cellular Community
Chatting II: Electronic Sex

Chapter 4. Cybersubjectivity: The Manufacture and Marketing of the Self

Subject as Object: Fast Epistemology
Cybersubjectivity I: Shopping for the Subject
Cybersubjectivity II: Self-Improvement
Cybersubjectivity III: Mr. Right
The Politics of Subjectivity: From Feminism to "Girl Power"

Section Three: Work/Family, Entertainment/Economy

Chapter 5. Work and Family: Yuppies and their Children

The Family as the Microcosm of the Public Sphere: Challenges and Opportunities
Working Parents: Childcare as Commodity, Children as Objects
Children's time and Children's Careers
Is Childhood Beyond the Social

Chapter 6. Being and Time: From Reward to Recreation

Career as Leisure
Travel as the Displacement of the Subject
Theme Parks and Simulated Community
Reading, Browsing, Surfing

Chapter 7. We Can Be Heroes: Entertainment/Economy in Fast Capitalism

From Public to Private: Internalized Celebrity
Celebrity as Commodity, Commodity as Celebrity
Fashioning Everyday Lives

Section Four: Rethinking Society and Sociology

Chapter 8. Renewing the Social: Everyday Life and Social Change

Forming Discursive Communities: Habermas' Metaphor of Ideal Speech
New Social Movements: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
Family, Work, and Time
"Indies": Dismantling the Culture Industry

Chapter 9. Sociology Between Modernity and Postmodernity

Reversing the Erosion of Sociology's Community
Sociology as Secret Writing: From Discipline to Discourse
Retrieving the Modernist Promise of an Activist Sociology