Nov 16, 2009

Mobility. Prison. Class. Strands of society from sociology and rap

According to an online dictionnary, a strand is "a pattern forming a unity within a larger structural whole". Can a juxtaposition of quotes from a book* by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and some songs** of french rap (with english subtitles) bring light to some aspects of a larger structural whole ? If you have about half an hour, you can see for yourself.

"The mobility enjoyed by "the people who invest" - who have the capital, the money needed for investment - brings about a disengagement of power towards any duty, a phenomenon which takes a new form, of a yet unseen radicality : no more duties towards the workers, towards the youngest or weakest, towards future generations, towards the preservation of the condition of life. In one word, we are witnessing the end of the duty to contribute to everyday life of the community, and its perpetuation. Today exists an assymetry of a new kind between the deterritorialized nature of power and the maintenance of "life in general" in its territorial frames - life which the new power, able to move suddenly and without warning, is free to exploit, and to abandon to the consequences of this exploitation."
Bauman, 1999, p. 20.

"The summit of the new hierarchy is extra-territorial; its lower strata are marked by varying degrees of spatial constraints, and the lowest is that of the glebae adscripti (those who are ascribed to the glebe), exploitable at leisure. "
Bauman, 1999, p. 160

"The state that seems the most awful to us, the most cruel and ghastly, is forced immobility, the fact of being enchained somewhere without having the right to leave; what makes this situation unbearable, is impossibility to move, rather than frustration which would come from an actual desire to leave. Not being able to move is a remarkable sign of impotence, incapability and pain. (...) Immobilization is the fate that people who are haunted by their own immobilization would like to see imposed on whom they are afraid of, and who deserve to their eyes an exemplary and cruel punishment."
Bauman, 1999, pp. 183-184.

About why the penal system strikes lower classes harder than higher classes, Bauman gives the following reasons :

"On the one hand, we find the particular intents of lawmakers, who have a very precise notion of order. What actions are susceptible to find a place in the Penal Code ? Acts which can committ those who are excluded from this notion of order : losers and oppressed ones. Stealing the resources of entire nations, is "promoting free enterprise"; stealing the livelihood of whole families and communities, is called "downsizing", or "rationalizing". Those two thefts are of course not inscribed in the list of criminal acts and susceptible to sanction."
Bauman, 1999, p. 185

(Lyrics -in french - here )

"On the other hand, as every police services dealing with this kind of affairs know, illegal behaviors committed at the "summit" of the hierarchy are hardly separable from the tight web of day-to-day and "ordinary" affairs. (...) The crimes of "high society" are ill-defined, and are furthermore extremely difficult to track down. (...) These crimes imply a degree of financial and juridical sophistication, almost impossible to understand for an outsider, especially if he is profane or unexperienced. These wrongdoings are "disembodied", they are without physical substance; they "exist" in pure space, in the imaginary space of pure abstraction : they are literally invisible. Relying on its intuition and its common sense, the population can suspect that the constitution of fortunes is punctuated with thefts, but nothing is more difficult than to point a precise action. (...) It is hard to see how judging the convicted ones could alleviate the everyday sorrow hauting poor neighborhoods or dangerous streets of our cities. There is thus not really any political advantage to get for who "actually" act against crimes "at the summit" . "
Bauman, 1999, 186-188.

[the following video contains graphic violence almost from the beginning]

* I translated the quotes from a french edition : Zygmunt Bauman, 1999, Le coût humain de la mondialisation , Hachettes. [1998, Globalization. The Human Consequences, Polity Press and Blackwell publishers]
** Kery James - Banlieusards // Kery James - Thug Life // Mafia K'1 Fry - C'est la Guerre // Ideal J - Hardcore //
- Subtitles by youtuber hiphopisdead92 Very big thanks to him.

If you wish so, please feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. This is a really excellent post JM.

    What strikes me is how much more mobilizing the songs are than the quotes. As Bauman points out, being able to define "order v. disorder" is a power in itself. The rap songs really key in on this, and spend a lot of time redefining.

    Bauman is definitely good at pinpointing problems. For example here: "These crimes imply a degree of financial and juridical sophistication, almost impossible to understand for an outsider, especially if he is profane or unexperienced. These wrongdoings are "disembodied", they are without physical substance; they "exist" in pure space, in the imaginary space of pure abstraction : they are literally invisible."

    What the songs do is take it one step further, for instance showing that the wrongdoing IS embodied. Take the list of the incarcerated in "Thug Life" for example -- real people suffer because of it, but the people are hidden away from society in jail, as if they didn't exist at all, literally invisible and yet not. Although, we could still use some insight into the other side, the "financial and juridical sophistication" that's so hard for non-experts to see through and unravel.

    Another thing: The systems and power relations that Bauman describes come across as highly stable. So stable as to seem impenetrable, unchangeable. The songs convey a very different picture, not easy to challenge but definitely not solid or all-controlling either.

  2. Thanks. The songs and the book are quite excellent to begin with, all I did was to put them together.

    Yes, the songs are much more mobilizing than the quotes. And I am not sure this would change if one was to try rapping the quotes on a good beat !

    About insight into the "financial and juridical sophistication" of the "summit"'s wrongdoings, it could definitely be of great use. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of it in Bauman's book, and it is not exactly what he intended to give. Nonetheless, he gives some general indications.
    Then, maybe this could be one kind of endeavor for "public anthropology" (it would change a bit from usual social sciences dealing with "juvenile delinquency" and "deviance" of the poor).

  3. About the same kind of issues, I found this very interesting talk on youtube :

    Laura Nader, When the Rule of Law is Illegal :


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