Violent Night: Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture

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Gavin Smith’s  (very positive) review of Simon Winlow and Steve Hall’s Violent Night: Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture (2006, Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd) sees Winlow and Hall’s work as offering “an intriguing new way of understanding violence and its connections to neo-liberal political economy and the related forms of instrumentality, marginalisation, frustration and anxiety that it stimulates, linking such processes to social status, building, self-identity formation and escapism practices occurring within the NTE [the night time economy].” (p.2055) And it certainly sounds it from this review….

Smith begins: “The past 20 years have witnessed a significant transformation of UK town and city centres at night into locales of mass consumption. Whilst such urban spaces have long been associated with sociability, changes in political economy have led to important architectural and sociocultural alterations. In particular, the emergence of advanced consumer capitalism, flexible labour workforces and neo-liberal governance, have extended the uses and functions of previously desolate areas, in a bid to generate profit, attract inward investment and develop decaying infrastructure. This revenue comes largely in the form of major leisure-sector businesses opening up entertainment premises ranging from cafe´ bars, pubs and clubs to restaurants, fast-food outlets, cinemas and casinos. Consequently, most major conurbations across the country have centres remaining open for business until the small hours, seven nights a week. As nighttime leisure economies become big business, cultural changes associated with such consumerism have also occurred. These include omnipresent public relations campaigns, which offer a target population socioeconomically constructed promises of adventure, rampant sociability, fantasy and hedonism, resulting in peer pressure amongst certain age-groups to ‘party every weekend’ and drink to excess. Thus, with an agenda of escapism (albeit temporary) on their minds, hordes of young people are increasingly propelled into town and city centres in search of excitement, seeking to break free from the shackles of largely low-level service work monotony, socially induced anxieties and the corollary social and cultural constraints of daylight comportment. However, parallelling the growth of the night-time economy (NTE) has been a distinct rise in serious alcohol-related violence and disorder, an understanding of which was the inspiration behind the enlightening book, Violent Night.” (p.2054)

Apparently, “Winlow and Hall develop a …profound, grounded empirical understanding of why certain groups of young men in particular, frequent the town centres in search of women, alcohol, identity construction and, ultimately, violent confrontations. They put forward an eloquent argument in a lengthy three-chapter introduction to the book’s central themes, asserting that changes brought about by an economic shift from industrial to consumer capitalism and an accompanying anchoring of neo-liberal rule, have led to a fundamental fragmentation in working class identities, communal solidarity and collectivity (p. 184). The upshot of theses changes, according to Winlow and Hall, has been a rapid growth in the marketisation of social life, individualism and social division amongst the populous. This has been further exacerbated by the emergence of low-paid, tenuous and short-term-contract service-sector jobs, effectively limiting the formation of meaningful identities based on mutuality, permanence and collective experience.” (p.2054)

“An overview of the NTE is then provided in chapter 4, Winlow and Hall neatly summarising the economic and socio-cultural reasons behind its growth and its attraction to young people. They even suggest that the NTE is now the principal [-p.2055] place of identity construction, lifestyle expression, superficial friendship networks and cathartic release for many alienated, frustrated and isolated workers.” (pp.2054-2055)

“Interestingly, the authors of Violent Night draw our attention to the NTE’s somewhat paradoxical function of having to facilitate ‘controlled disorder’ in order to remain successful.” (p.2055)

Winlow and Hall’s explanation of prolific violence in the NTE goes far beyond naıve media sensationalisation of simply ‘drunk thugs’…. Instead, the authors regard violence, interestingly, as a habitual ‘doxic’ in this field. In this, habituses are being influenced, created and shaped by the ubiquity of violence in this locale and the ‘specific normalising process’ which operates to create a climate of risk and trepidation amongst its revellers. This leads effectively to the establishment of a ‘hit first or be hurt’ mentality and leaves many, perhaps understandably, in an ‘on-edge’ state of permanent alertness and adrenalin (p.109).” (p.2056)

“They also contend that, for many, violence, retribution and fortitude are intertwined within a complex array of masculine hermeneutical processes, including amongst others the massaging of self-esteem and fulfilling individualised social justice and peer codes of honour. In addition, Winlow and Hall claim that the failure of manufactured hedonism to deliver fully upon its promise of unbridled excitement (offering as it does, only temporary escape from the monotony and harsh realities of everyday life), can often leave great numbers of frustrated, intoxicated bodies, gathered in small hot-spot areas, vying for attention. In such cases, the potential for violence is an ever-present threat. Indeed, worryingly, in their conclusion, the two writers claim that the state’s incessant embracing of neo-liberal values of money-making, marketisation and privatisation is increasingly placing the pursuit of profit above that of public safety (p. 171).” (p.2056)

Smith sees this work as placing “a valid emphasis on the wider political, cultural and, particularly, socioeconomic forces, perilously shaping the habitus and identities of modern youth and, apparently, influencing their decisions to commit acts of seemingly sporadic violence.” (p.2056)

Note: Smith does point to “an overwhelming focus on young, White, financially constrained men in the study” (p.2056) as well as a couple of other methodological and theoretical flaws. On the whole, it is a very warm review.

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Gavin John Douglas Smith (2007) Book Review: Violent Night: Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture SIMON WINLOW and STEVE HALL, 2006 Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd 240 pp. £19.99 paperback ISBN 1845201647 paperback. Urban Studies. 44: 2053-2056

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