Ultramodern Criminology Essay

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Much of criminological theory has been constrained by theories that were developed in a specific context, early modernity, and formed an analysis developed on assumptions that are no longer appropriate. Recent attempts to overcome these constraints, notably postmodernist theories, have misunderstood the extension and alteration of modernist processes of social development. What is mistaken for postmodernity is actually an ultramodernity of social relations. Ultramodern theories build upon philosophical approaches and discussions generally beyond the theoretical traditions that have informed most of criminological theory. Influences include Michel Foucault, Erich Fromm, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Antonio Negri, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Giorgio Agamben, among others. Key contributors to ultramodern social science include Stephen Pfohl and Bruce A. Arrigo, who, alone and in collaboration with numerous colleagues, have been the main innovators in ultramodern criminology.

Ultramodern theories involve intersecting economic, political, and cultural analyses. Each of these is relevant for understanding evolving practices of the state—legislation, policing, surveillance, regulation, and punishment. Arrigo developed the notion of the criminological shadow to identify and analyze the forces that discipline the body, impede human agency, and undermine positive freedom. Ultramodern criminology poses a significant shift in understanding issues that typically dominate criminological enterprise. This includes a focus on political, corporate, and military harms as well as processes of subjectification that legitimize such harms.

Discussions of ultramodernity and ultramodern perspectives within criminology have impelled a rethinking of the construction of social knowledge within criminological understanding. Ultramodern theory challenges fundamental presuppositions within criminology. In particular, it challenges reductionist, linear, and foundational approaches in criminological theories. As David Polizzi and Arrigo suggest, theories that explain criminal behavior as resulting from psychological forces or (ir)rational choice subscribe to a cause-effect and reductionist perspective. At the same time, Polizzi and Arrigo also direct criticism at more established critical theories, although they have challenged the narrow approach of conventional or mainstream theories, which suffer their own deterministic inclinations (especially according to simple base-superstructure models of social development).

Ultramodern Theories

Ultramodern criminology is perhaps more attuned to the symbolic construction and mobilization of subjectivity than are other theories of criminology. Ultramodern theories are thus focused on and highly critical of the media in the manufacture or construction of crime, criminal events, and/or responses to crime and in the circulation of meanings of crime. For ultramodern theories the media are first and foremost corporate (rather than cultural or informational) institutions. They are billion-dollar multinational corporations with something to sell. The product of media is not news or ads but the viewer. Crime is an especially effective sales mechanism.

Arrigo’s work examines the intersection of capitalism and mass media in the construction and mobilization of the desiring subject. The objectification of the subject is wrought as a function of reductivity to socially constructed categories (e.g., race, gender, status). Desire is conceived and constructed as state desire.

The image of the criminal shows the processes of imposed categorization that imprison the subject within limits defined by the state (or capital). Once coded as criminal the subject is socially defined in a manner that impedes or restricts becoming (or transformation). The ultramodern population is sampled, tested, polled, measured, and categorized for consumerist tastes and tendencies.

Ultramodern capital is characterized by an economy of risk that commodifies and mass markets the self/society mutuality (in often phobic terms). The commodification of risk is extended through the psy disciplines that categorize and regulate, that is, produce docile bodies (a sadomasochism of dependency on authority as Arrigo identifies it). The circulation of stereotypes for exploitation and profit (the African American, the anarchist, the terrorist) characterizes the ultramodern society. Ultramodern theories draw upon philosophical perspectives (too often lacking in criminology, an often underdeveloped discipline), particularly those initiated within poststructural or postmodern analyses, in order to delink constructions of race, gender, class, and sexuality from naturalized attributions of criminal behavior.

Ultramodern theorists place great attention on the marginalization of those moved to the peripheries of telelectronic or cyberpower, especially the poor and racialized. It is suggested that their exile, long part of the structuring of modernity, is now given a dual form through the violence of the ultramodern convergence of power and knowledge. For Pfohl, ultramodern capital is terroristic as well as seductive.

Ultramodern theorists suggest that capital, especially through technocommunicative circuits of inter/ex/change, has entered an ultramodern phase that advances in a highly technologized (cyber) fashion processes of accumulation only initiated or hinted at in the modern period. A key aspect of ultramodern capital is social domination based not only or primarily upon the exploitation of human labor but rather, as Pfohl suggests, on the technologized invasion of human bodies/ minds themselves by cybernetic feedback mechanisms and high-speed, mobile processing. Pfohl’s early work only anticipated some of these developments. Recent extensions of social media have expanded these feedback mechanisms and spread them throughout social relations in various forms of mobile technology and social networks. Notably this includes the commodification and exploitation of affective labor (capacities for care, connection, relationship).

Personal images, expressions, sentiments, and emotions are broken down and rendered as code—available for distribution and exchange— for sale for profit. They are commodified in their smallest and most intimate components. Through corporate entities such as Facebook and Twitter, the consumer preferences and cultural choices of individuals are tracked and targeted by capital that can rapidly modify and individualize appeals to consumption. Just-in-time production coincides with just-in-time circulation and just-in-time consumption.

Even more, these corporate entities track and record information which can serve as a means of surveillance to target political activity. Mobile technologies also extend the surveillance apparatus of the state, bringing it into the most intimate and private settings. In ultramodern capital, the mechanisms of surveillance and exploitation, rather than being separate (as in security guards or external cameras) become unified in one, as computers measure the labor time and active practices of workers on assembly lines, offices, and the service sectors alike.

Like modernity, ultramodernity is a globally advancing mode of production. In the ultramodern period this is a rapid, even instantaneous, advance. It takes the dualist form of an appearance of classless mass consumption with a materiality of just-in-time production and hyperexploitation as centers of capital (corporations) produce only images or symbols (in the brand or logo), while low-paid-wage workers produce the actual products (that they can neither purchase nor use).

A crucial concept, and one that is at the center of social struggles in the ultramodern context, is austerity. Austerity refers to a mechanism of shifts at the level of the state in which social resources of the working classes and poor, such as health care, public education, social welfare, pensions, and so on, are vastly reduced or removed as part of a process of shifting public funds toward debt repayments to banks, of tax breaks and grants to corporations, and lessened regulation of financial institutions.

Ultramodern Period

In the ultramodern period the military metaphysic discussed by sociologist C. Wright Mills is dominant in capital developments. One might highlight the interplay between social media and video games with military advances. On another level, one might refer to the spread of perspectives of war to address what are actually social problems in the language and approaches of neoliberal policy makers from the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher period. In this regard one might make reference to the War on Drugs that saw the militarization of poor and working-class communities, especially racialized communities, in the United States. This initiated an ongoing (and growing) hyperincarceration of African American males, especially youth. As many commentators have noted, this was also a period of intense reaction to the growing militancy of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

For Pfohl, the emblematic instance of ultramodern policing in the United States was the police bombing of the MOVE community building (a predominantly African American activist communal-living project) in Philadelphia. The annihilation of the MOVE community building, with the killing of several children, was criticized as at best a disproportionate response to an armed stand-off and by many as an act of political assassination or state terrorism.

Arrigo posits the criminology of the stranger, which emphasizes structures of resistance that open possibilities for transformation or liberation from imposed social categorization and practices of othering. Given the agency of humans in struggle, ultramodernity has been marked by a revitalization of radicalism among social movements of the working classes and oppressed who have suffered from economic crises, the restructuring of work, and neoliberal social policy innovations that privilege the wealthy.

This renewed radicalism has been reflected in numerous riots and insurrections as well as violent street clashes between protesters and police, as in Greece, Turkey, Canada, and the United States, as well as in such examples as the Arab Spring uprisings. In addition there have been bold workplace actions including factory occupations and reclamations. In the Global North, demonstrators viewing the ultramodern state as one that supports global capital over human interests have abandoned the nonviolent civil disobedience of the postwar Keyenesian period (roughly 1945–80) to take up more assertive practices of direct action to confront institutions of global capital and/or states directly.

Ultramodern movements reject traditional political practices such as lobbying or protesting as viable means to effect meaningful social change. Significantly this is a rejection of the simulacra of representational politics in which movements engage in symbolic acts geared toward publicizing an issue or raising awareness. The ultramodern activists are too well aware of the dangers of mediation of their messages and movements by corporate mass media.

Ultramodern theory moves beyond the statist problematic of Marxism, or authoritarian communism, by which the path to liberation (often singular) from capitalism pursues a new state formation (typically a workers’ state). Drawing upon poststructural theories and heterodox forms of socialism, including anarchism (antistatist socialism), ultramodern theories suggest that the rejection of capitalism does not mean the acceptance of communism, as the political Left did for generations following the Russian Revolution of 1917. For ultramodern theories, a relationship with any state will significantly influence possibilities for personal liberty and social responsibility.

As capitalism replaced the repressive bonds of feudalism, Marxism or statist communism reproduces a dynamic of repression, posing similar problems for personal freedom and social responsibility. This is one reason why anarchy, as a philosophy and movement, poses an important challenge in ultramodern terms. Anarchists have always rejected the authoritarian path to liberation and have challenged the individual state society construction.

Indeed, with the collapse of Soviet systems, a crucial occurrence in the ushering in of ultra modernity and notions of the “end of history,” anarchism has become perhaps the most significant political perspective for new generations of people seeking alternatives to capitalist exploitation and statist domination together. Anarchy is perhaps the ultramodern movement par excellence, having influenced, in form and content a range of global resistance from alternative globalization demonstrations to the Occupy movement to workplace reclamations to Arab Spring assemblies.

Some ultramodern theorists have noted the convergence of anarchism with post-Foucauldian social theories. All affirm that there is no movement liberation after which all is well and taken care of. Anarchists argue with Foucault that liberty requires a constant, ongoing challenge of taken-for-granted assumptions. Notions of truth must be contested. A key impetus in this rethinking is the largely overlooked work of radical individualist philosopher Max Stirner, the protoanarchist who prefigured much of the better known perspective of Friedrich Nietzsche—work which heavily influenced the philosophical insights of Foucault and his successors. Indeed, Stirner’s work goes beyond individual/social constructions to declare the end of both (as sides of the same process of modern domination).

For Pfohl, it is essential for any engaged academic, or indeed anyone concerned with knowledge production, to join what he calls the most progressive feature of cybernetic culture. The sociologist must become, of necessity and fidelity to one’s discipline, a hacker (hacktivist or cyberanarchist).

From one perspective society has never been postmodern. That is, the recent and current period of social development identified as postmodern is characterized by a renewal of laissez-faire liberalism, globality, austerity, and withdrawal of the social welfare state in favor of the “night watchman” state in politics, and just-in-time shifts in labor and technology, along with precarity in economics. Such characteristics represent a hyper (or ultra-) development of central features of modernity. This is not postmodern—it is a form of ultra modernity—a recomposition of state, capital, and culture at a more technologically advanced, speedup level of development.

Key characteristics of modernity—the deployment of the state for military and policing purposes and the imposition of a bourgeois work ethic against the poor around service-sector jobs—are at the heart of ultramodern social transformations.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A. “Madness, Citizenship, and Social Justice: On the Ethics of the Shadow and the Ultramodern.” Law & Literature, v.23/3 (2011).
  2. Arrigo, Bruce and Dragan Milovanovic. Revolution in Penology: Rethinking the Society of Captives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
  3. Arrigo, Bruce and C. R. Williams. “Existentialism and the Criminology of the Shadow.” In Existential Criminology, D. Crew and R. Lippens, eds. London: Routledge, 2009.
  4. Johnson, Kevin. “Rashid.” In Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art. Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2010.
  5. Pfohl, Stephen. “Twilight of the Parasites: Ultramodern Capital and the New World Order.” Social Problems, v.40/2 (1993).
  6. Polizzi, David and Bruce Arrigo. “Phenomenology, Postmodernism, and Philosophical Criminology: A Conversational Critique.” Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology, v.1/2 (2009).
  7. Shantz, Jeff. Protest and Punishment: Repression and Resistance in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2012.

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