:: Article

The Vertigo of Late Modernity

Jock Young, The Vertigo of Late Modernity, Sage Publications, London, 2007


Usually, I prefer to absorb ideas, philosophy and understanding from novels. The form is my obsession, my joy, even my escape. I openly admit to finding direct reading of Nietzsche, Sartre, or Foucault (of which most modern ‘intellectuals’ cite as being so important, though I question whether most have ever read) gruelling; though ultimately rewarding, I would prefer a more accessible form. I am much happier when Milan Kundera or Alain De Botton kindly serve-up their own interpretations of such texts through metaphor and allusion, enlightening theories through the actions and inter-actions of fictional characters.

It is for the above reason I approached Jock Young’s The Vertigo of Late Modernity with some trepidation. Interrupting Camus’ The Plague (again, philosophy through metaphor), to read and review Young’s book, I feared how long it would take me to plough through what I assumed would be a dense, unforgiving text, a text that would likely see me re-reading passage after passage. It is to the great credit of Young that I found my fears were ill founded; though an essentially academic text, The Vertigo of Late Modernity is an excellently evidenced, helpfully structured and obscenely interesting ontological thesis on class, crime (domestic and international) and the (late) modern existence, including all its fears and insecurities.

Young begins his quietly ambitious book by discussing and explaining theories of ‘Othering’ (the projecting of attributes, often negative, upon others to identify their differences in class, race, religion, etc.), ‘Disembeddedness’ (a sense of alienation or detachment from one’s own culture, community, workplace, etc.) and ‘Essentialism’ (an attempt to define one’s identity by means of aligning with society defined factors). These theories underlay the entire work and by identifying them early in the narrative Young is able to build upon them, providing the reader a greater shared knowledge, therefore affording an easier understanding of more complex arguments later in the work.

“Vertigo is the malaise of late modernity: a sense of insecurity of insubstantiality, and of uncertainty, a whiff of chaos and a fear of falling,” writes Young and he is right to use ‘malaise’ for as his discourse develops, even though his investigation is thorough, he himself is aware, as the reader becomes too, that there is an uneasy feeling to the state of modern society, politics and culture. As Young exposes the contradictions of our society and argues against previous thinking, there still lingers a sense that it is only a “sense […] of uncertainty” that we are left ultimately in a state of paranoia, inevitably leading to cynicism, or worse: empathy (a state Young urges us to avoid in his conclusion).

One of the societal contradictions superbly explained by Young is that of the paradox of our living in a supposed meritocracy. In a meritocracy work and effort are rewarded fairly i.e. based on merit. However, Young argues convincingly how our (First World) governments and the massive influence of media constantly undermine the concept of meritocracy: “All of these factors: lack of comparability, broken narratives and arbitrariness, are profoundly unmeritocratic for they bring into doubt what is merit and, most importantly, whatever it is, if it is rewarded. None of this would matter two figs if we lived in a society whose highest values were luck, fortune and destiny. But we do not for a whole host of our key institutions carry the central legitimation of a capitalist society — meritocracy.”

Young talks throughout the book of ‘blurring’. In the beginning he uses the term to describe the “blurring of the borders” of classes within cities. He dispels the widely recognised ‘dual city’ theory, that a city’s prosperous classes are spatially separate from its poorer classes. He instead points out that far from being excluded from the communities of the middle and higher classes, the lower classes pass each day into those same communities: as workers and as servants: cleaning the houses, stocking shelves, maintaining the gardens of the higher classes. This ‘blurring’ goes further, it is not merely spatial. “Physical, social and moral boundaries are constantly crossed in late modernity.” Young goes on, “they are transgressed because of individual movement, social mobility, the coincidence of values and problems both sides of any line and the tremendous incursion of the mass media which presents city-wide and indeed global images to all and sundry while creating virtual communities and common identities across considerable barriers of space. Boundaries are crossed, boundaries shift, boundaries blur and are transfixed.”

This constant blurring of the physical, social and moral leads Young to examine in depth the idea of inclusion and exclusion in society. He deconstructs how different forms of othering, both conservative and liberal, have equally dire consequences on inclusion and the possibility of cohesive communities, devoid of poverty, racism, and incivilities. He considers how the concept of disembeddedness and the lack of personal identity and security, in a society were there are no longer any constants (the rise of job insecurity, the breakdown of relationships/family, the contradictions of celebrity), leads to essentialism and in turn the ‘vertigo’ of the book’s title.

A particular success of Young’s work is how he deals with terrorism. I found that by discussing morality, class, race and religion for the first hundred or so pages (the book is relatively slim, only 213 pages in total) with hardly any reference to the conflicts in the Middle East, when he finally reaches the issue, approaching first through a concentrated discussion on immigration, he was able to calmly discuss the it with excellent objectivity; cunningly, he was able to take the theories of Orientalism and Occidentalism back to the earlier established theory of Othering. The result is a thoughtful, considered and well-evidenced discussion, much more useful that the wealth of hysterical, nationalistic, and often inherently racist journalism that is thrown around so much these days.

Though at times the discourse can get a little ‘chewy’ and some perseverance might be needed, it is worth it. Young isn’t adverse to the odd moment of wry humour either. When referring to a 1997 report by Peter Mandelson’s Social Exclusion Unit which reported one of the characteristics of teenage mothers as being “a preference for being a young mother,” Young notes “that the major risk factor of doing an action is wanting to do it takes obviousness to new heights. Presumably further research studies will show that the major factors causing people to smoke marijuana will be the desire to do so, and drinking light ale liking it!”

I’m surprised how much I enjoyed reading The Vertigo of Late Modernity, though ‘enjoyed’ isn’t necessarily the right word when reading about the terribly fragile state the world is in. It is stimulating and thought provoking; at times infuriating (reading of the true horror of capitalism and celebrity); it can be depressingly scary (at one point Young quotes a journalist, Evan Wright, who, accompanying marines into an attack on an Iraqi village, reports a young marine suggesting the attack was just “like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City […] It was fucking cool.”); and it can often be worrying (realising the ambiguous nature of any possible way out). Young’s book is a well-written, informative and interesting discussion of the most important issues facing our society and its future. If you happen to be interested in that, then I would happily recommend you try and get hold of a copy. If you’re not interested in our society… well, I hope you’re not scared of heights.

Glenn Fisher was born in Grimsby, in a county that no longer exists, in 1981. After working in local government since leaving college in 1997, he took very early retirement in 2004. He is currently studying on the Professional Writing degree course at the Grimsby Institute.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 22nd, 2007.