Fear and loathing at the multiplex: everyday anxiety in the post-industrial city.

Author:Hubbard, Phil

The adoption of risk as a common part of contemporary societal construction has been tied to an environment of proliferation, multiplication, specialism, counterfactual guess-work, and, above all, anxiety. Deliberations on the growth of anxiety and fear have concentrated largely upon the impact of globalisation and the advent of new technological regimes. However, as discussed here 'ambient fears' and anxieties can saturate the social spaces of everyday life. Hence, this paper examines a mundane and routine social activity-cinema-going--to demonstrate that fear, risk and anxiety are deeply embedded in the fabric of contemporary capitalist cities, shaping all manner of social practices. A central argument within this paper is that fear is inescapably caught up in the fabrication of social difference, with the strategies of risk avoidance that people practice in their everyday lives reinforcing boundaries between Self and Other.

Risk is something which has not happened yet, which frightens people in the present and therefore they might take action against it. Risk is not catastrophe; if catastrophe happens it is a fact, an event. Risk is about possibility, a future possibility... (Ulrich Beck, cited in Boyne, 2001: 58).

Since the German sociologist Ulrich Beck first outlined his concept of 'risk society' in 1986, it has been widely adopted by social scientists and media commentators as they seek to make sense of the culture of fear that pervades contemporary society (see especially Furedi, 1997; Glassner, 1999). In Beck's formulation, the contemporary risk climate is one of proliferation, multiplication, specialism, counterfactual guess-work, and, above all, anxiety. In caricature, he suggests this has resulted from the breakdown of the stable modes of social regulation associated with industrial capitalist process and their replacement by the more diffuse and amorphous flexible production systems associated with postindustrial accumulation processes. Forms of (national) state regulation, financial management and welfarism appear increasingly unable to provide certainty and order in the face of global fluctuation and instability, while transnational organisations like the UN, World Bank and International Labour Organisation seem distant, obscure and out-of-touch. Beck argues that this perceived 'breakdown' has prompted individuals to reflexively confront risks and manufacture new certainties in an era characterised by global fluidity, flux and uncertainty (for example, by opposing GMO crop testing, organising consumer boycotts or picketing company headquarters). Hence, while there is little evidence to suggest that the contemporary world is any more dangerous than in the past, Beck suggests we are now profoundly anxious about the fact there are many risks for which there is no 'insurance policy', with globalization introducing international risk parameters which previous generations did not have to face. Successive scares concerning the hazards of global society--air pollution, climate change, drug side-effects, food safety, genetic modification, rogue bankers, computer viruses--all seem to add weight to Beck's thesis, reinforcing the impression that we live in an era of rapid technological innovation and scientific development, but where no one fully understands the possible risks and dangers we face.

Though Beck and those who have subsequently developed his ideas have focused mainly on the global spectres of environmental disaster, stock-market meltdown and, post-September 11th, international terrorism, it is important to stress that the risk society has another, more invidious, aspect; namely, the 'ambient fear' and anxiety that saturates the social spaces of everyday life. This is a fear that requires us to vigilantly monitor even the banal minutiae of our lives, with Doel and Clarke (1997) arguing that fear is no longer confined to the exceptional or the extreme (epidemic, catastrophe, meltdown etc). Instead, everything has become hazardous: 'from transport, communication and energy systems; through domestic appliances, office furniture and cuddly toys; to the air we breathe, the water we drink and even the ten million potentially dangerous sporting injuries in Britain each year' (Doel and Clarke, 1997: 21). Hence, this paper examines a mundane and routine social activity-- cinema-going-to demonstrate that fear, risk and anxiety are deeply embedded in the fabric of contemporary capitalist cities, shaping all manner of social practices. Moreover, the paper suggests that fear is unavoidably implicated in the production of social difference, with the strategies of risk avoidance that people practice in their everyday lives (and specifically, their decision to visit one cinema rather than another) creating boundaries between Self and Other that, in turn, contribute to emerging socio-spatial divides. Exploring cinema-going in Leicester (UK)--a mid-sized provincial city of 300,000 inhabitants-brings these issues into sharper focus, demonstrating that fear is implicated in the making of distinctive, post-industrial urban geographies. While no particular claims are made about Leicester's typicality, this geographical-specificity does allow for an examination of local practices and sensibilities, showing that the politics of fear translate into specific geographies (see Sparks et al, 2001).

To these ends, and to situate cinema-going within the broader literature on urban fear and anxiety, the remainder of the paper is organised into three main sections.

The first of these traces shifting geographies of cinema in the city, drawing on secondary sources to detail broad trends in film exhibition and consumption, not least the recent move 'out-of-town'. The second section documents the increasing significance of fear and anxiety in the contemporary (post-industrial) city, demonstrating that the relentless depiction of city centres as lawless environments is contributing to the perception that cities are inherently risky and unpredictable environments. While this begins to suggest a plausible reason for the move of cinemas out-of-town (i.e. consumers wish to avoid 'crime-ridden' city centres), in this section, it is noted that there is in fact a paucity of data explaining why multiplex cinemas are popular with consumers drawn from particular socio-economic groups and areas. Hence, the third section of the paper draws on an extensive survey conducted by the author in Leicester (UK) to detail which socio-economic groups are using out-of-town cinemas (and why). On th e basis of this data, it is concluded that the popularity of multiplex cinemas can only be understood in relation to contemporary urban fears- fears that are creating socio-spatial divides between different consumer factions and socio-economic groups.

Cinema-going as an urban ritual

That there is a significant relationship between cinema and the city is beyond doubt. Donald (1999) suggests cinema emerged at the fin de siecle as a distinctly urban phenomena not simply because cinemas were principally located in the city, but because they were of the city, helping citizens make sense of the complexities and rhythms of urban life. Significantly, the cinema was also a space of mass consumption, where the idea of acquisition was instilled as being the means of achieving happiness and where desire was 'democratised'. Unlike the company-sponsored recreations that served to amuse and distract the working classes, or municipal sites of edification like pleasure gardens, museums and art galleries, the cinema became identified as the first nighttime leisure activity that involved all classes and social types:

The cinema, whether taciturn or chattersome, fills a need in our lives which no preceding age has ever felt... The cinema is at once the most public and secluded of places. One can go along, a deux, en famille or in bands. One can take one's children there to keep them quiet or one can take one's girl there to be quiet one's self. Punctuality and decorum are of little consequence. One can drop in and out at will. One can smoke. One can chew sweets, or peel oranges or manicure one's nails. It is an essentially democratic institution' (Shand, 1930: 9-10).

Of course, such assertions should not overshadow the fact that many cinemas adopted a hierarchical seating arrangement designed, among other things, to keep the working classes away from the more polite members of society. Equally, from the earliest days of film exhibition in Britain it was possible to discern sites catering to different tastes (and pockets), with the 'first wave' of cinema development (the 'Edwardian boom') characterised by a mix of gaudy nickelodeons (catering primarily for working class audiences) and more austere Picture Palaces (such as those pioneered by the first major circuit, Picture Ginematograph Theatres).

What these cinemas had in common, however, was their location in accessible city centre locations, where they could be reached through expanding webs of mass (public) transport. As such, the cinema relied on a number of innovations in transport, building and display to create a distinctly Modern form of mass urban consumption. Yet is was only in the 'second wave' of cinema development in the 1930s that the metaphor of cinema 'reaching out to the masses' was regularly deployed by the emerging cinema circuits to market their (by-now) 'super-cinemas'. Perhaps the most celebrated was Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain. While the design of the flagship Odeons varied quite considerably, it is the combination of an Art Deco auditorium and Modernist exterior that perhaps encapsulated the Odeon ideal. Deutsch in fact aped Le Corbusier when he spoke of the cinema as a 'machine for watching cinema in', and much of the success of the circuit was down to its ability to cut down building costs (each costing around [pounds sterlin g]40,000 for a 1500 seat auditorium).Yet despite the lack of...

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