A review of “Overheating” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen)


Jan Blommaert 

Overheating: An anthropology of accelerated change. Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Pluto Press: London 2016, 192pp. $30, paper, ISBN 9780745336343.

(An abridged version of this review will appear in the Journal of Anthropological Research)

This book is iconic in the Peircian sense: its structure and style resemble, “mirror” even, its contents. It offers a mountain of information and even more food for thought, and it does so in a text that can be read at lightning pace. For those who have read Eriksen’s earlier Tyranny of the Moment (2001) the topic and style are familiar: Eriksen provides an update here of his earlier statements on the present stage of globalized modernity as characterized by spacetime compression and acceleration, and by issues of interacting – clashing – scales as defining many of the problems currently experienced in various parts of the world.

EriksenThe world, indeed, is the space within which Eriksen sets his book, and this world is trop plein, argues Eriksen – not just with people, but even more with the processes, products and side-effects they generate at an incredible rate. Eriksen writes an anthropology of the world-in-motion, and being an anthropologist he does so by means of a superb intellectual device: the alteration of statistics to sketch the higher scale-levels of the issues he addresses, with ethnographic vignettes documenting the lower scale-levels of the same issues. These issues are laid out in the five core chapters 3 to 7, on energy, mobility, cities, waste and information overload, caught between an introductory chapter dominated by the spectacular growth of the world’s population (chapter 1) and a chapter laying out a conceptual vocabulary (chapter 2), and a final chapter in which things are pulled together in a vision of clashing scales (chapter 8).

Le monde est trop plein is the motto that directs the argument. In the twentieth century, the world’s population rose from less than two billion to almost seven billion, and this massive increase has gradually shaped a scale level unknown to earlier generations of anthropologists and social scientists. There are, for instance, presently more people living in urban areas than the entire world’s population in 1920. Distinctions between the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ that were so important in the formative stages of anthropology, and indeed the entire conception of the  ‘local’ as the circumscription within which ethnographers operated, consequently, now have to be reimagined as dispersed over a variety of interacting scales. The interactions of such scales constrain and condition what happens ‘locally’, and Eriksen draws on some of Bateson’s vocabulary to define the often uneasy effects of such cross-scale frictions – the frictions causing the ‘overheating’ of the processes he describes. There are runaway processes, treadmill syndromes, double binds, and flexibility issues – concepts all referring to the loss of local agency, stability and control – generated by a general crisis of reproduction – the incapacity to extend current modes of life into the future – framed by multiscalar neoliberal engines of global scope. This, Eriksen explains in his final chapter, leads to global issues of trust, of risk-experience, of uncertainty and instability.

We have, for instance, witnessed a phenomenal expansion of the wage-labor population over the past half century, and this process largely went hand in hand with the growth of superdiverse megacities around the world. This high-scale process triggered several others. It triggered a crisis in energy consumption and, inextricably related to this, in pollution and surplus waste production, as well as in the growth of a huge informal economy and a global increase of exploitation and inequality alongside wealth accumulation and extraction. Eriksen’s well-chosen ethnographic vignettes demonstrate how people around the world have to find ways – usually new ways – to manoeuver the complexities of everyday life economically, socially and culturally, in a continuous but nonlinear and often paradoxical loop between local needs and higher-scale constraints and affordances. Previously well-functioning methods have ceased to be useful, and trusted systems of authority and sociopolitical equilibrium have equally expired as valid problem solvers.

The core argument, thus put, is reminiscent of that developed decades ago in Fernand Braudel’s description of three layers of time, where such layers corresponded to degrees of consciousness and individual agency. Typically, people would be aware of the évenémentiel in their world, since it corresponds to their own bio-chronological scales and allows them degrees of responsiveness and even anticipation. The higher-level layers of time, however, are rarely a matter of direct consciousness (other than through the mediation of événéments), and the longue durée – the time of climate changes and systemic transformations – is often practically unconscious as a layer of human experience and activity. As to agency: one or more individuals could have influenced (and did influence, in fact) the Battle of Waterloo, while it takes the combined efforts of many millions of people to have effects on climate change. Since, in Eriksen’s view, higher-scale processes now become far more palpable as effects on everyday life, there is a growing “tension, typical of modernity, between the system world and the life-world, between the standardised and the unique, the universal and the particular” (7).

This world, in its present state, is new, Eriksen underscores, and its birth year is 1991, when the Cold War as we knew it ended. There will forever be those who jump up as soon as “newness” is mentioned, and will argue that nothing much has changed. But Eriksen is adamant: the explosive expansion of the world’s pool of wage labor, for instance, has transformed not just the entire economic system (with industrial delocalization as a typical phenomenon, resulting in what Wallerstein, long ago, foresaw as a new global division of labor). It also transformed the social system, creating a worldwide new class called “precariat” by Guy Standing, and doubling, between 1990 and 2010, the number of South-North migrants from 40 to 80 million (59-60).


The point Eriksen makes – often implicit – is: scale matters. Even if there was global tourism prior to the 1990s, for instance, the fact that the number of tourist trips around the world nearly doubled between 1995 and 2012 (from about 500 million to 1 billion) is itself a social, cultural and economic phenomenon without precedent, creating not just entirely new forms of cultural encounters but also new forms of cities and infrastructures not constructed by local needs but shaped by needs to cater for visitors, and new forms of consumer markets, flows of capital and modes of employment. More concretely: when Spain welcomed 15 million holiday makers in 1979, critics already bemoaned the disastrous transformation of the Spanish costas; in 2015, the number of tourists had risen to 60 million, or 120% of the country’s population, with equivalent effects on not just the costas, but the entire country. A shift in scale is a qualitative shift, argues Eriksen, transforming the phenomena themselves, and not just a shift in numbers that leaves older fundamental structures intact.

Consequently, such shifts invite a new anthropology, for, when Lévi-Strauss wrote his pessimistic lines on the “escapism of traveling” in Tristes Tropiques, “the number of tourist arrivals in the world was about 2 per cent of the present figures” (64). The anthropologist’s world, thus, has drastically changed, and some of the runaway processes and double binds that used to be relatively ‘niched’ in an earlier stage have become systemic now – exceptions have become rules. Since most of our intellectual and bureaucratic tools for addressing the world have their roots firmly in such earlier stages of development of our societies, they operate as anachronisms, often accentuating the problem and creating a void of responsibility and potency for change; consequently “in the multiscalar kinds of societies in which most contemporaries live, all forms of blaming are present simultaneously” (143).

Eriksen extends this argument over a vast range of domains, succinctly pointing towards origins and futures and focusing on the present state of the processes and phenomena he examines. Many of the facts he submits in this book are rather well known, but they usually only reach us piecemeal, in scattered and disintegrated forms. Eriksen’s achievement is not just the synthetic form in which he combines tremendous amounts of data and information, even if precisely this synthesis makes this book mandatory reading for students, for whom, as participants in the huge changes described here, the scope and speed of such changes often remain cryptic and experiences anecdotal. His achievement is to have sketched a colossal domain for anthropologists to rethink, reinvent and reimagine. Some accelerated change in our theoretical and methodological development is needed – this is the food for thought offered in Overheating.




Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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