Felix Stalder on 14 Aug 2000 13:30:04 -0000

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Re: <nettime> castells

At 9:43 PM -0400 08.08.2000, richard barbrook wrote:

>Look at the uncritical reception given over here to
>'Wired' in '95 - and to Manuel Castells today...

I can understand the appeal of this comparison (once again ahead of the
crowd) but we have yet to see a substantive Castells' critique. Not that
it wouldn't be worth it (or possible) but some snickering just isn't


First, it's simply a matter of comparison. No one has recently attempted
to present an analysis as broad and inclusive. Second, and more
importantly, the basic thesis, which spans this breadth, appears to be
quite solid and carries considerable analytical power. 

The thesis is that the dynamics of the "informational society" are shaped
by a tension between the "Net" and the "Self" -- between the power of
abstract, highly flexible patterns of organizing and the power of
expressions of new forms of identity, rooted in something supposedly
unchangeable. Considered in isolation each dynamic is not particularly
original. Both trends have been analyzed for quite a while now. Castells
acknowledges this by putting himself into the tradition of both Daniel
Bell and Alain Touraine. 

However, the combination of these two perspectives is what is the most
significant achievement of Castells and he is at his best analyzing their
interplay. For Castells, the crisis of liberal democracy stems from the
fact that its institutions are torn between conflicting demands. One the
one hand, they need to operate on the level of global institutions (net) 
far removed from the lifes of their constituency, on the other hand, this
constituency becomes not only more heterogeneous, but also demands more
representation of their specific, yet conflicting identities. 

The globalized crime, on the contrary, prospers under this tension because
organization with strong (regional and or cultural) roots can link into
globally operating syndicates that control the trafficking of illegal
goods in a highly flexible manner without losing their identity. 

The strength of this thesis is not it theoretical complexity (perhaps he
has been in the US for too long, thinking lazy thoughts....) but the
diversity of empirical material that it can integrate. 

Others, of course, have tried a similar argument, for example, Thomas
Friedman in _Lexus and the Olive Tree_.  What differentiates Castells,
however, is that he frames the conflict less as one between new
(globalization) and old (traditional identities) asking how much of the
old can we preserve, but more as a conflict between two tendencies that
are both constitutive for dynamic, innovative (or good or ill)
characteristics of the emerging social patterns. 

Of course, not everything in the 1500 pages is of equal quality. The
section on the European Union is superficial, he is a bit too fond of
Catalunya and his notion of culture seems not much broader than social

But all in all, unless your expecting to have all questions answered, its
very much worth reading. 

I have treated this in greater detail in two reviews. One more general

The Network Paradigm: Social Formations in the Age of Information
The Information Society 14(4) [1998]
Essay on Manuel Castells' 3 volume The Information Age: Economy, Society
and Culture. 1996, 1997, 1998.

and the other focussing more on the theoretical underpinnings:

The Logic of Networks: Social Landscapes vis-a-vis the Space of Flows
CTheory [February 1998]
Review of volume 1 & 2 of Manuel Castells' The Information Age: Economy,
Society and Culture 1996, 1997

Les faits sont faits.

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