Deconstructing Beck’s Risk Society

I’m tempted to work through a formal deconstruction of Ulrich Beck’s concept of the Risk Society, especially through its most current model identified in his 2009 work, World at Risk. In it, Beck establishes that following post-Enlightenment innovations in science, quantitative analysis and risk management practices, societies have rationalized a space for the tolerance of risk and loss within the system. Practices that recognize this risk as a social norm include insurance payments and revised legal codes that prescribe the obligation for remuneration for individual losses. Through the expansion of these practices, Beck claims that this gives rise to a society that has accepted risk in the local realm (as the consequence from local risk is covered by code or culture), permitting it to rise to the global condition where excessive systemic risk is the consequence. Global warming, world financial meltdowns and other unprecedented catastrophes are the consequence for this local-to-global tolerance for risk. This sustains Beck’s fundamental analysis that post-Enlightenment interpretations as applied to the local-to-the-global are a root cause and reconceptualization of reason is necessary to address risk-as-the-global.

However, it appears that a Derrida deconstruction is applicable to Beck’s analysis. Instead of the local giving rise to the global, Beck’s argument appears to require inversion to exploit this misunderstanding in the causal analysis: Post-Enlightenment systems profoundly affect the global/universal in interpretation as much as the local and certainly fall short when handling local multiplicities and systems of difference. Modern universals are problematic spaces that one should be wary of trusting, given their proclivity for semiotic, not literal collapse. In fact, it is difficult to read Beck’s analysis of such concrete universals without inquiring where they physically reside, as every historical society has had its universal monsters that lurk beyond the Symbolic. Pure functions derived of semiotic construction, these global risks are error-filled signifiers themselves, troubled as much as the local signifiers and their noise.

It would appear that the misconceptualization that Beck identifies is occurring out of Enlightenment’s system of reason instead functions as a global-to-the-local, where societies social-universal fear of risk-as-the-global (“the great and terrifying uncertainty that is out there beyond us”) is instead used by power structures to effect Foucaultian discursive power upon the individual. Panoptic systems multiply throughout institutions and societies in an effort to control the local as rationalized by the fear of the global; Beck’s World at Risk is a corrupting function within that produces a systemic end-to-end noise of the risk signifier, not the outcome, of Enlightenment’s misconception which functions as the catalyst for surveillance state rationale.

Initial thoughts to the potential for deconstruction are encouraging, as I’d suggest that Beck even falls prey to the same idealistic interpretations of the risk-free “noble savage” who only becomes corrupted and brought-into-risk through the application of the system of risk management, quantitative analysis and interpretation through written standards, models and consultative texts. This would initially appear to correspond to Derrida’s criticism of Rousseau, Saussure and Levi-Stauss, providing risk as the analog to the “taint” that occurs to the signifier through semiotic systems. I would fully expect this corruption to function as signifier risk, noise, error. Serres’s Parasite seems to be a curious candidate for positive explanation of the risk that is within both local and universal systems and absent a serious evaluation of the Foucaultian aspect, any World at Risk is remarkably incomplete.


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