Zygmunt Bauman, the Narrative
of the Second Modernity
Giancarlo Bosetti 24 January 2017

He was the narrative voice of the “second modernity”, the one unmoored from its “solid” foundations and no longer tethered to mass heavy industry, a voice that was always in search of a revenge against extreme inequity and blind consumerism. Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most prominent European sociologists of recent decades, has died. The Polish-born thinker passed away at his home in Leeds, England at the age of 91.

The world will never again come across his slim and towering presence, his stretched neck, and his mild-mannered appearance that belied a strong and determined eloquence capable of seducing the most erudite audiences. In his lectures, Bauman spoke fluently and precisely, often without prepared notes. Before holding a lesson, he engaged in a ritualistic process of preparation. Bauman would often concentrate in a secluded corner for a few moments before devoting the entirety of himself to his audience, much like an experienced actor.

Bauman was born in Poland to a Jewish family. Originally born in Poland, Bauman and his family fled to the Soviet Union following the German invasion, where he joined the Soviet army. Decades later, following a brief return to his native country, Bauman was again forced to leave when faced with a wave of anti-Semitism. He briefly taught at universities in Israel -– where he came into conflict with his father, whose Zionism he did not share – before eventually settling in Britain. Bauman led the Department of Sociology at the University of Leeds until his retirement in 1990. One of his grandsons, Michael Sfard, is a famous Israeli human rights lawyer.

Death was a subject dear to Bauman, well before the loss of his wife Janina in 2009 – a significant blow that for some time halted his prolific output as an author – because he was strongly inclined towards philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and for other general questions about the meaning of life that many “technicians” of knowledge avoid because they endanger the scientific reputation of all disciplines. And death, that “stinger of the fragility of life,” of human finiteness, of the inevitability of the end (the main subjects addressed in Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies), often appeared in his lectures as this element, coeval to humankind, became even more subtle in the fluid world of “late modernity” that replaced the previously solid and stable era. Of course, “first modernity” managed to keep us committed as far as “life’s meaning” was concerned and distract us more effectively from the “stinger.”

The Individualized Society, one of the greatest collections of Bauman’s essays, begins by addressing the negation of death. Human beings reach out beyond nature and rise above it, but it is precisely the flight of life that inevitably (and literally) leads us to meet with the earth. It is when flying that we can better observe our finiteness, rendering it more tangible, unforgettable and painful. And as we cannot forget our nature, we must continue to challenge it. Bauman supported the thesis advocated by Ernest Becker, the cultural anthropologist of the “negation of death,” which stated that everything we humans do in our world of symbols is an attempt to deny and overcome our grotesque fate. We pursue “strategies of transcendence” in many different ways. We blindly throw ourselves into the oblivion of societal games and psychological tricks; all our concerns are cut off from reality. It is a form of collective, agreed-upon madness, a shared and dignified madness, but still madness nonetheless. We describe it as society, says Bauman, that colossal contraption necessitated for this very reason: to concur, share, and confer dignity to what has been agreed upon and shared. Customs, habits and routines eliminate the poison of the absurd “stinger.” All societies are manufacturers of meanings, but also something more; they are the breeding grounds for a “life filled with meaning.”

Bauman was a voracious reader, re-enlivening and reimagining the work of other authors, while following the thread of his own thoughts, which provided the language now commonly used for describing the shift from late modernity to post-modernity. In this weaving of a new established language, Bauman pulled from sociologist colleagues like Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, Claus Offe, Richard Sennett, Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Castel and philosophers such as Gadamer, Rorty and Richard Bernstein.

Bauman’s post-modernism is primarily defined by its material bases; the end of orthodox capitalism – where the capitalist makes workers dependents – immobilises them, linking capital and labour in a union Bauman likened to heaven-made marriages that no human power can dissolve. Heavy and solid modernity was that of reciprocal dependency between capital and labour, a shared prison in which each party had a vested interest in maintaining the condition of the other. This was the social democratic and Fordist view of the welfare state, a long term one, in which work was seen as a permanent job in a company whose existence was clearly longer than its single workers’ life expectancy (as that of the individual members of the family owning the business).

In “liquid modernity,” the view is short term. The idea of shared interests becomes nebulous and eventually incomprehensible, solidarity is no longer a rational tactic. Uncertainty is a factor of individualisation: one changes jobs ten times in the course of one’s life. “Liquidity” presents a totally different understanding of how to live than the imperative that drove the militant left. The workplace appears more like a camp site than a home and there is often unilateral disengagement from capital and work. It is not surprising that the same volatile model should also take root in sentimental and family lives. The system imposes flexibility and obliges individuals to find individual and biographical solutions for a general problem. The disastrous detail is that such solutions do not exist and therefore it is necessary to find pretexts to distract oneself or hang up one’s bad moods. There are market consolations of course, but consumerist heaven has its own “portable hell”; the torment reserved to visitors with no rights. One could possibly call this the “triumph of nomads” following a lengthy historical period that began with the “triumph of non-migratory people” (agriculture and the old big factories). This was globalization according to Bauman. The non-territoriality of the power of the new elites (Manuel Castells), winners of the great war of independence from space, is similar to the Christian idea of heaven, in an after-world.

Bauman advanced a powerful idea of cultural pluralism and of cross-cultural dialogue, in controversy, for example, with Ernest Gellner and theses concerning the superiority of the Western reason and individualization as a model for universal life. In his opinion pluralism is irreversible, world views are deeply rooted in different cultural traditions and are not reducible to just one. Hence communication through different traditions has become the main problem of our times. When saying goodbye to an amiable grand old man who has left us, one should take note that there will not be a massive conversion to any form of homogeneity. There is an urgent need for expert translators and the development of the art of civilised conversation, following the best teachings of the philosophy of hermeneutics and pragmatism, two of the best outcomes of human thought, the first in Europe (from Gadamer to Ricoeur), the second in America (from James to Dewey and Rorty).

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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