Last updated: 23 December 1998
High-consequence risks form one particular segment of the generalised
'climate of risk' characteristic of late modernity - one characterised
by regular shifts in knowledge-claims as mediated by expert systems.
The thesis that risk assessment itself is inherently risky is nowhere
better borne out than in the area of high-consequence risks.
High-consequence risks have a distinctive quality. The more calamitous
the hazards they involve, the less we have any real experience of what
we risk: for if things 'go wrong', it is already too late.
The body is in some sense perennially at risk. The possibility of bodily
injury is ever-present, even in the most familiar of surroundings.
Life-planning takes account of a 'package' of risks rather than calculating
the implications of distinct segments of risky behaviour. Taking certain
risks in pursuit of a given lifestyle, in other words, is accepted to be
within 'tolerable limits' as part of the overall package.
The risk climate of modernity is thus unsettling for everyone: no one
Risk concerns future happenings - as related to present practices -
and the colonising of the future therefore opens up new settings of risk,
some of which are institutionally organised.
To live in the universe of high modernity is to live in an environment
of chance and risk, the ineveitable concomitants of a system geared to
the domination of nature and the reflexive making of history. Fate and
destiny have no formal part to play in such a system, which operates (as
a matter of principle) via what I shall call open human control of the
natural and social worlds.
Both life-planning and the adoption of lifestyle options become (in
principle) integrated with bodily regimes. It would be quite short-sighted
to see this phenomenon only in terms of changing ideals of bodily appearance
(such as slimness or youthfulness), or as solely brought about by the commodifying
influence of advertising. We become responsible for the design of our own
bodies, and in a certain sense noted above are forced to do so the more
post-traditional the social contexts in which we move.
The body is an object in which we are all privileged, or doomed, to
dwell, the source of feelings of well-being and pleasure, but also the
site of illnesses and strains. (...) [I]t is an action-system, a mode of
praxis, and its practical immersion in the interactions of day-to-day life
is an essential part of the sustaining of a coherent sense of self-identity.
Fateful moments are threatening for the protective cocoon which defends
the individual's ontological security, because the 'business as usual'
attitude that is so important to that cocoon is inevitably broken through.
They are moments when the individual must launch out into something new,
knowing that a decision made, or a specific course of action followed,
has an irreversible quality, or at least that it will be difficult thereafter
to revert to the old paths.
Fateful moments are times when events come together in such a way that
an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence; or
where a person learns of information with fateful consequences.
Time has to be killed is also, interestingly, quite often called 'free'
time - it is time which is filled in, in between the more consequential
sectors of life.
The protective cocoon is the [mantle of trust that makes possible the
sustaining of a viable Umwelt - kursiv].
Mastery, in other words, substitutes for morality; to be able to control
one's life circumstances, colonise the future with some degree of success
and live within the parameters of internally referential systems can, in
many circumstances, allow the social and natural framework of things to
seem a secure grounding for life activities. Even therapy, as the exemplary
form of the reflexive project of the self, can become a phenomenon of control
- an internally referential system in itself.
To a greater or lesser degree, the project of the self becomes translated
into one of the possession of desired goods and the pursuit of artificially
framed styles of life.
Achieving control over change, in respect to lifestyle, demands an engagement
with the outer social world rather than a retreat from it.
While emancipatory politics is a politics of life chances, life politics
is a politics of lifestyle. Life politics is the politics of a reflexively
mobilised order - the system of late modernity - which, on an individual
and collective level, has radically altered the existential parameters
of social activity. It is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively
ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems
of global scope. (...) [L]ife politics concerns political issues which
flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts,
where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project
of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence
Death is only a 'problem' when it is premature death - when a person
has not lived out whatever, given certain risks, a table of life expectancy
[D]eath is unintelligible exactly because it is the point zero at which
Apocalypse has become banal, a set of statistical risk parameters to
Abstract systems depend on trust, yet they provide none of the moral
rewards which can be obtained from personalised trust, or were often available
in traditional settings from the moral frameworks within which everyday
life was undertaken. Moreover, the wholesale penetration of abstract systems
into daily life creates risks which the individual is not well placed to
confront; high-consequence risks fall into this category. Greater interdependence,
up to and including globally independent systems, means greater vulnerability
when untoward events occur that affect those systems as a whole.
Thinking in terms of risk certainly has its unsettling aspects (...),
but it is also a means of seeking to stabilise outcomes, a mode of colonising
the future. The more or less constant, profound and rapid momentum of change
characteristic of modern institutions, coupled with structured reflexivity,
mean that on the level of everyday practice as well as philosophical interpretation, nothing can be taken for granted. What is acceptable/appropriate/recommended
behaviour today may be seen differently tomorrow in the light of altered
circumstances or incoming knowledge-claims.
[C]ultivated risk-taking represents an 'experiment with trust' (in the
sense of basic trust) which consequently has implications for an individual's
self-identity. (...) In cultivated risk-taking, the encounter with danger
and its resolution are bound up in the same activity, whereas in other
consequential settings the payoff of chosen strategies may not be seen
for years afterwards.
The difficulties of living in a secular risk culture are compounded
by the importance of lifestyle choices.
The self in high modernity is not a minimal self, but the experience
of large arenas of security intersects, sometimes in subtle, sometimes
in nakedly disturbing, ways with generalised sources of unease. Feelings
of restlessness, foreboding and desperation may mingle in individual experience
with faith in the reliability of certain forms of social and technical
The body cannot be any longer merely 'accepted', fed and adorned according
to traditional ritual; it becomes a core part of the reflexive project
of self-identity. A continuing concern with bodily development in relation
to a risk culture is thus an intrinsic part of modern social behaviour.
As was stressed earlier, although modes of deployment of the body have
to be developed from a diversity of lifestyle options, deciding between
alternatives is not itself an option but an inherent element of the construction
of self-identity. Life-planning in respect of the body is hence not necessarily
narcissistic, but a normal part of post-traditional social environments.
Like other aspects of the reflexivity of self-identity, body-planning is
more often an engagement with the outside world than a defensive withdrawal
1. In contrast to close personal ties in traditional contexts, the pure
relationship is not anchored in external conditions of social or economic
life - it is, as it were, free-floating.
Democracy hence implies not just the right to free and equal self-development,
but also the constitutional limitation of (distributive) power. The 'liberty
of the strong' must be restrained, but this is not a denial of all authority
- or it only becomes so in the case of anarchism. Authority is justifiable
to the degree that it recognises the principle of autonomy; in other words,
to the extent to which defensible reasons can be given as to why compliance
enhances autonomy, either now or in the future. Constitutional authority
can be understood as an implicit contract which has the same form as conditions
of association explicitly negotiated between equals.
In the pure relationship, trust has no external supports, and has to
be developed on the basis of intimacy. Trust is a vesting of confidence
in the other and also in the capability of the mutual bond to withstand
future traumas. This is more than a matter of good faith only, problematic
as that may be in itself. To trust the other is also to gamble upon the
capability of the individual actually to be able to act with integrity.
Intimacy is above all a matter of emotional communication, with others
and with the self, in a context of interpersonal equality. Women have prepared
the way for an expansion of the domain of intimacy in their role as the
emotional revolutionaries of modernity. Certain psychological dispositions
have been the condition and outcome of this process, as have also the material
changes which have allowed women to stake a claim to equality. On the psychological
level, male difficulties with intimacy are above all the result of two
things: a schismatic view of women that can be traced to an unconscious
reverence for the mother, and a lapsed emotional narrative of self. In
social circumstances in which women are no longer complicit with the role
of the phallus, the traumatic elements of maleness are thus exposed more
plainly to view.
Each of us not only 'has', but lives a biography reflexively
organised in terms of flows of social and psychological information about
possible ways of life. Modernity is a post-traditional order, in which
the question, 'How shall I live?' has to be answered in day-to-day decisions
about how to behave, what to wear and what to eat - and many other things
- as well as interpreted within the temporal unfolding of self-identity.
Emotion becomes a life-political issue in numerous ways with the latter-day
development of modernity. In the realm of sexuality, emotion as a means
of communication, as commitment to and cooperation with others, is especially
important. The model of confluent love suggests an ethical framework for
the fostering of non-destructive emotion in the conduct of individual and
communal life. It provides for the revitalising of the erotic - not as
a specialist skill of impure women, but as a generic quality of sexuality
in social relations formed through mutuality rather than through unequal
power. Eroticism is the cultivation of feeling, expressed through bodily
sensation, in a communicative context; an art of giving and receiving pleasure.
Shorn of differential power, it can revive those aesthetic qualities of
which Marcuse speaks.
Democracy means discussion, the chance for the 'force of the better
argument' to count as against other means of determining decisions (of
which the most important are policy decisions). A democratic order provides
institutional arrangements for mediation, negotiation and the reaching
of compromises where necessary.
Addiction signals a particular mode of control over parts of one's day-to-day
life - and also over the self. The specific importance of addiction can
be understood in the following way. Addictions has to be understood in
terms of a society in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away
than ever before and in which the reflexive project of self correspondingly
assumes an especial importance. Where large areas of a person's life are
no longer set by pre-existing patterns and habits, the individual is continually
obliged to negotiate life-style options. Moreover - and this is crucial
- such choices are not just 'external' or marginal aspects of the individual's attitudes, but define who the individual 'is'. In other
words, life-style choices are constitutive of the reflexive narrative of
It refers to a situation where a social relation is entered into for
its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association
with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by
both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay
within. Marriage - for many, but by no means all groups in the population
- has veered increasingly towards the form of a pure relationship, with
many ensuing consequences. The pure relationship, to repeat, is part of
a generic restructuring of intimacy. It emerges in other contexts of sexuality
besides heterosexual marriage; it is in some causally related ways parallel
to the development of plastic sexuality. The romantic love complex helped
carve open a way to the formation of pure rlationships in the domain of
sexuality, but has now become weakened by some of the very influences it
The emergence of what I term plastic sexuality is crucial to the emancipation
implicit in the pure relationship, as well as to women's claim to sexual
pleasure. Plastic sexuality is decentred sexuality, freed from the needs
of reproduction. It has its origins in the tendency, initiated somewhere
in the late eighteenth century, strictly to limit family size; but it becomes
further developed later as the result of the spread of modern contraception
and new reproductive technologies. Plastic sexuality can be moulded as
a trait of personality and this is intrinsically bound up with the self.
At the same time - in principle - it frees sexuality from the rule of the
phallus, from the overweening importance of male sexual experience.
Romantic love became distincr from amour passion, although
at the same time had residues of it. Amour passion was never
a generic social force in the way in which romantic love has been from
somewhere in the late eighteenth century up to relatively recent times.
Together with other social changes, the spread of notions of romantic love
was deeply involved with momentous transitions affecting marriage as well
as other contexts of personal life. Romantic love presumes some degree
of self-interrogation. How do I feel about the other? How does the other
feel about me? Are our feelings 'profound' enought to support a long-term
involvement? Unlike amour passion, which uproots erratically,
romantic love detaches individuals from wider social circumstances in a
different way. It provides for a long term life trajectory,
oriented to an anticipated yet malleable future; and it creates a 'shared
history' that helps separate out the marital relationship from other aspects
of family organisation and give it a special primacy.
It can be defined as a patterned habit that is compulsively engaged
in, withdrawal from which generates an unmanageable anxiety. Addictions
provide a source of comfort for the individual, by assuaging anxiety, but
this experience is always more or less transiet. All addictions
are essentially narcotising, but the chemical effect, if there is one,
is not an essential element of the addictive experience.
Confluent love develops as an ideal in a society where almost everyone
has the chance to become sexually accomplished; and it presumes the disappearance
of the schism between 'respectable' women and those who in some way lie
outside the pale of orthodox social life. Unlike romantic love, confluent
love is not necessarily monogamous, in the sense of sexual exclusiveness.
Romantic love depends upon projective identification, the projective
identification of [amour passion - kursiv], as the means whereby prospective
partners become attracted and then bound to one another. Projection here
creates a feeling of wholeness with the other, no doubt strengthened by
established differences between masculinity and femininity, each defined
in terms of an antithesis. The trait of the other are 'known' in a sort
of intuitive sense. Yet in other respects projective identification cuts
across the development of a relationship whose continuation depends upon
intimacy. Opening oneself out to the other, the condition of what I shall
call [confluent love - kursiv], is in some ways the opposite of projective
identification, even if such identification sometimes sets up a pathway
Modernity is inseparable from its 'own' media: the printed text and,
subsequently, the electronic signal.
A lifestyle can be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices
which an individual embraces, not only because such practices fulfil utalitarian
needs, but because they give material form to a particular narrative of
'Taking charge of one's life' involves risk, because it means confronting
a diversity of open possibilities.
Regimes are modes of self-discipline, but are not solely constituted
by the orderings of convention in day-to-day life; they are personal habits,
organised in some part according to social conventions, but also formed
by personal inclinations and dispositions.
In a world of alternative lifestyle options, strategic life planning becomes of special importance. Like lifestyle patterns, life
plans of one kind or another are something of an inevitable concomitant
of post-traditional social forms. Life plans are the substantial content
of the reflexively organised trajectory of the self. Life-planning is a
means of preparing a course of future actions mobilised in terms of the
self's biography. We may also speak here of the existence of personal calendars
or life-plan calendars, in relation to which the personal time
of the lifespan is handled.
Lifestyles are characteristically attached to, and expressive of, specific
milieux of action. Lifestyle options are thus often decisions to become
immersed in those milieux, at the expense of the possible alternatives.
A lifestyle involves a cluster of habits and orientations, and hence
has a certain unity - important to a continuing sense of ontological security
- that connects options in a more or less ordered pattern. (...) [T]he
selection or creation of lifestyles is influenced by group pressures and
the visibility of role models, as well as by socioeconomic circumstances.
The body is thus not simply an 'entity', but is experienced as a practical
mode of coping with external situations and events.
Anxiety is essentially fear which has lost its object through unconsciously
formed emotive tensions that express 'internal dangers' rather than externalised
Trust itself, by its very nature, is in a certain sense creative, because
it entails a commitment that is a 'leap into the unknown', a hostage to
fortune which implies a preparedness to embrace novel experiences.
The sustaining of life, in a bodily sense as well as in the sense of
psychological health, is inherently subject to risk.
A person's identity is not found in behaviour, nor - important though
this is - in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular
It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of
her or his biography. Identity here still presumes continuity
across time and space: but self-identity is such continuity as interpreted
reflexively by the agent. This includes the cognitive component of personhood.
To be a 'person' is not just to be a reflexive actor, but to have a concept
of a person (as applied both to the self and others).
Since anxiety, trust and everyday routines of social interaction are
so closely bound up with one another, we can readily understand the rituals
of day-to-day life as coping mechanisms.
Copyright © by Eberhard Wenzel, 1997-2001