A photograph of a sculpture by Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988 (installation view at the Palace of Versailles, Versailles). Courtesy Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
On a recent visit to Manila I had the distinct displeasure of experiencing the city’s legendary rush-hour traffic. To say “rush-hour traffic” is more than a little inaccurate, for traffic implies at least some movement and while around me there was plenty of graceful resignation, there was not much rushing, except for maybe the hours. My friend explained that part of the reason for this almighty jam is because vehicles have to negotiate labyrinthine routes around the city’s large gated communities. With names like Forbes Park and Bel-Air Village, these enormous enclaves deny access to non-residents and transform quick journeys into laborious obstacle courses. The residents of these compounds can then exchange “car passes” among themselves in order to enjoy the privilege of universal access on restricted community roads and traffic-free journeys winding between well-kept complexes. The results are fiendishly complicated journeys caused by the absurd privatisation of what should be public space – an enterprise reminiscent of the way that Palestinians living under occupation must often make lengthy and arduous detours around Israel’s so-called “security barrier” to arrive at geographically close locations.
A visitor might naively speculate not only about the blatant inequity but also the silliness of the system, what has been termed the South Africanisation of cities. For one thing, the elite also suffer the jams that they create, as it’s clearly impossible to live and work in one enclave at all times, so that queuing to get in and out through the compound gates is collateral damage in their segregationist fantasy. Indeed, one of the key features of living in a bubble is that said bubble is invisible from the inside and glaringly obvious from the outside. So I won’t rush to cast the first stone. A single pebble pelted in the form of such an observation is justly answered with a hailstorm that ricochets back towards one’s own fragile glass house. It is just too easy to notice when friends with newborn children are so engrossed with their little darlings it verges on madness, or to despair loudly when politicians and bankers appear less and less anchored in society’s common concerns and experiences. While one may find the occupants of the “baby bubble” endearing, there is a dimmer view of the politicians wrapped up in the enclosed universe of Westminster while raining death and destruction on others, as noted by Nesrine Malik.
There are fashion bubbles (see the veteran fashion journalist Colin McDowell’s historical review) and art bubbles; professional, ethical and cultural bubbles. It is possible, even likely, to be simultaneously the inhabitant of many self-contained bubbles while remaining smug in the illusion that one possesses the clarity of vision to rise above them. That point is made eloquently by Lili Owen Rowlands, who describes the phenomenon of the filter bubble: the way in which our digital horizons are narrowed by algorithms that filter our browsing history in order to show us more of the same, thus creating an echo chamber of our own ignorance that is amplified and resold to us as the music of the heavens.
Best known are the market bubbles common to every generation and era. The well-known and oft-quoted tulip bubble of 1637 arose when Dutch enthusiasm for newly imported Turkish tulips caused frenzied speculative investments. The madness of the crowd generates surges in irrational market behaviour. However, bust rapidly follows boom, as was the case with the 2007 US subprime market collapse, where similarly frenzied speculative investments brought on the near collapse of the world economy. The distinguished economist Mariana Mazzucato (see page 108) has been one of the most brilliant and enlightened voices to challenge the corruption and foolishness of bailing out failed private speculators by implementing painful austerity measures for the rest of us. Mariana is among a stellar selection gathered to form Jeremy Corbyn’s economic advisory committee. She proposes, as an alternative to austerity, a plan for selective public investment in scientific and technological research in order to invigorate and encourage innovation as well as renewing infrastructure that will grow economies, instead of bleeding the general populace in order that our failed financial institutions might be saved.
On a less optimistic note, the observation that the end of one bubble leads almost seamlessly into the formation of another is central to the ideas of the leading German philosopher and public intellectual Peter Sloterdijk. Sloterdijk is less known in the English-speaking world, something that will hopefully be redressed with the forthcoming translation into English of Foam, the final volume in his Spheres trilogy. The first volume, Bubbles (2011), gave us the theme for this issue and we are introduced to Sloterdijk by our esteemed friend from Delhi and former guest editor Kai Friese, whose enthusiasm for the philosopher is perhaps more infectious than he intended. By virtue of his spatial distance in India from “our bubble” in the West, he has helped to spot the existence of his own bubble – something we should all aspire to.
The usefulness of Sloterdijk’s bubble metaphor, which undoubtedly sits within a vastly more complex set of ideas, is that it provides a set of polarising lenses that make it easier to spot the peculiar characteristics of our contemporary condition. Hal Foster, possibly the most brilliant man ever to sit in one of our meeting-room chairs, extends his critique of the art world to push back, not only against the dominant art market for its spectacle but also against the critics and commentators forever looking inwards, talking in riddles and covering such thoughts in a cynical prose that passes for cool (see page 280). Hal is part of a tiny minority who successfully travel outside their gated community without getting stuck in the jam. §