Escaping Inside Utopia


Part 2 of Zygmunt Bauman Interview


The idea of ‘the good life’ is often associated or equated with some notion of ‘the good society’ or at elast some form of ‘utopia’ – the imagination of alternative, better futures for humans and their societies. Although utopia is not a conventional concern of sociologists, the topic of utopia – the idea of a different or even better world – is nevertheless a recurrent theme in Bauman’s writings from the early books – e.g. Socialism: The Active Utopia (1976) to Liquid Times (2007). Profesor Bauman has argued in various writings that the notion of ’utopia’ serves an important purpose in that it undermines the sense that the present state of affairs in un-changeable and thereby stimulates action towards change.


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MHJ: Michael Hviid Jacobsen (MHJ) Professor of Sociology, Aalborg University, Denmark KT: Keith Tester (KT) Professor of Sociology,
University of Hull, United Kingdom
ZB: Zygmunt Bauman  (ZB) Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Leeds & Warsaw



MHJ/KT: So Professor Bauman, why is utopia important for understanding society?


ZB: Utopian dreams, as prodromal symptoms of an approaching modernity, needed two conditions. First, was the overwhelming (even if diffuse and inarticulate) feeling that the world was not functioning properly and had to be attended to and overhauled to set it right. Second, the confidence in human potency to rise to the task; the belief that ‘we, humans, can do it’ – being armed as we are with enough reason to spy out what is wrong with the world and find out with what to replace its diseased parts, and with enough strength to graft such designs on human reality. In short, the potency to force the world into a shape better fit to the satisfaction of human needs – whatever those needs already are or yet may become.


With those two conditions now (at the present time) by and large missing or at least enfeebled, there is little or no room left for utopian musings; not many people would treat utopian blueprints seriously, were they offered them for consideration.


MHJ/KT: Why do you say that people in today’s world would not take utopian ideas or plans seriously?


ZB: Even if we knew what to do to make the world better, and took the job of making it better to our hearts, the truly puzzling question would be who has sufficient resources and strong enough will to do it …


For a large part of the modern era, the hope of re-making the world used to be vested in the resourceful authorities of nation states – but as Jacques Attali recently observed in La voie humaine, ‘nations lost influence on the course of affairs and have abandoned to the forces of globalization all means of orientation in the world’s destination and of the defence against all varieties of fear’.


Under the new circumstances, Roget’s Thesaurus, justly acclaimed for its faithful recording of the successive changes in verbal usages, had every right to list the concept of the ‘utopian’ in close proximity to ‘fanciful’, ‘fantastic’, ‘fictional’, ‘chimerical’, ‘air-built’, ‘impractical’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘unreasonable’, or ‘irrational’. And so are we indeed witnessing the end of utopia?


MHJ/KT: But isn’t the desire to move forward towards a better future also associated with “progress”?


ZB: ‘Progress.’ Yes, that is another, closely related notion, which played a seminal role in the shaping of the modern world; but the notion of ‘progress’  also seems to have fallen on hard times. When (if) that notion crops up nowadays in public discourse or private contemplation, it no longer refers to a forward drive — rather than a chase after a spinning-along utopia, it implies a threat that instead of promising improvement makes an imperative out of a lucky escape; it inspires the urge to run away from a breathing-down-the-neck disaster.


Progress, to cut the long story short, has moved from the discourse of shared improvement to that of the individual survival. Progress is thought about no longer in the context of propulsion to rush ahead, but in connection with the desperate effort to stay in the race. We do not think of ‘progress’ when we rejoice watching the world around running faster ahead, but when we worry about staving off the fall.


The notion of ‘progress’ is saturated with the anxiety and redolent with the odour of the rubbish heap: it exudes the fear of being excluded. The time flows on, and the trick is to keep pace with the waves. If you don’t wish to sink, keep surfing – and that means changing your wardrobe, your furnishings, your wallpapers, your look, your habits – in short, yourself; and as often as you can manage.


I don’t need to add, since this should be obvious, that the present emphasis on the disposal of things – abandoning them, getting rid of them – rather than on their appropriation, suits well the logic of consumer-oriented economy. People sticking to yesterday clothes, computers, mobiles, or cosmetics would spell disaster for an economy whose main concern and the condition sine qua non of survival is a rapid and accelerating assignment of sold and purchased products to waste, and in which the swift waste-disposal is the cutting-edge industry.


MHJ/KT: And so what has replaced the idea of utopia?


ZB: Increasingly, escape has become now the name of the most popular game in town. Semantically, escape is the very opposite of utopia, but psychologically it is the sole available substitute: one would say – its new rendition, re-fashioned to the measure of our deregulated, individualized society of consumers, the kind of society in which you can no longer seriously hope to make the world a better place to live and you can’t even make really secure that better place in the world which you might have managed to cut out for yourself.


What is left to your concerns and efforts is the fight against losing: try at least to stay among the hunters, since the only alternative is to find yourself among the hunted. And the fight against losing is a task which to be properly performed will require your full, undivided attention, twenty four hours a day and seven days a week vigilance, and above all keeping on the move – as fast as you can …


MHJ/KT: So what kind of life would that be – the life of escape?


ZB: Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-American philosopher-poet, vividly described the kind of life that has been set in motion and prompted by the compulsion to escape. The lot of the losers, of the poor, is – he says – violent rebellion or, more commonly, drug addiction: ‘In general, a man shooting heroin into his vein does so largely for the same reason you buy a video’ – Brodsky told the students of Dartmouth College in July 1989. As to the potential haves, which the Dartmouth College students aspire to become,


you’ll be bored with your work, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you’ll try to devise ways of escape. Apart from the self-gratifying gadgets mentioned before, you may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate, you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis…


In fact, you may lump all these together, and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amid a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, with a heap of bills from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window…


Andrzej Stasiuk, an outstanding Polish novelist and particularly perceptive analyst of contemporary human condition, suggests that ‘the possibility of becoming someone else’ is the present-day substitute for the now largely discarded and uncared-for salvation or redemption:


Applying various techniques, we may change our bodies and re-shape them according to different pattern … When browsing through glossy magazines, one gets the impression that they tell mostly one story – about the ways in which one can re-make one’s personality, starting from diets, surroundings, homes, and up to rebuilding of psychical structure, often code-named a proposition to ‘be yourself’.


Sławomir Mrożek, a Polish writer of a world-wide fame with a first-hand experience of many lands, agrees with Stasiuk’s hypothesis: “In old times, when feeling unhappy, we accused God, then the world’s manager; we assumed that He did not run the business properly. So we fired Him and appointed ourselves the new directors”. “But”, as Mrożek, though notoriously loathe of clerics and everything clerical, finds out – business did not improve with the change of management. It has not – since once the dream and hope of a better life is focused fully on our own egos and reduced to tinkering with our own bodies or souls, “there is no limit to our ambition and temptation to make that ego grow ever bigger, but first of all refuse to accept all limits …


I was told: ‘invent yourself, invent your own life and manage it as you wish, in every single moment and from beginning to end’. But am I able to rise to such a task? With no help, trials, fittings, errors and rehashing, and above all without doubts?”.


The pain caused by the unduly limited choice has been replaced; we may say, by no lesser a pain, though this time inflicted by the obligation to choose while having no trust in the choices made and no confidence that further choices will bring the target any closer. Sławomir Mrożek compares the world we inhabit to a:


market-stall filled with fancy dresses and surrounded by crowds seeking their ‘selves’ … One can change dresses without end, so what a wondrous liberty the seekers enjoy … Let’s go on searching for our real selves, it’s smashing fun – on condition that the real self will be never found. Because if it were, the fun would end …


The dream of making uncertainty less daunting and happiness more plausible by changing one’s ego, and of changing one’s ego by changing its outer wrappings, is the ‘utopia’ of liquid modern times; the ‘deregulated’, ‘privatized’ and ‘individualized’ version of the old-style visions of good society, society hospitable to the humanity of its members.


MHJ/KT: Why have people adopted “ESCAPE”?





ZB: As Blaise Pascal centuries ago prophetically noted, what people want now is “being diverted from thinking of what they are…by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show…”. People want to escape the need to think of ‘our unhappy condition’ – and so ‘we prefer the hunt to the capture’. ‘The hare itself would not save us from thinking’ about the formidable but intractable faults in our shared condition, ‘but hunting it does so’.


The snag is, though, that once tried, hunt turns into compulsion, addiction and obsession. Catching a hare is an anti-climax; it only makes more seductive the prospect of another hunt, as the hopes that accompanied the hunt are found to be the most delightful (the only delightful?) experience of the whole affair. Catching the hare presages the end to those hopes – unless another hunt is immediately planned and undertaken.


MHJ/KT: So are we then seeing clear signals of the end of the idea of utopia?


ZB: Is this the end of utopia? In one respect it is – in as far as the early-modern utopias envisaged a point in which time will come to a stop; indeed, the end of time as history. There is no such point though in hunter’s utopia, no moment where one would say that the job has been done, the case open and shut, the mission accomplished – and so could look forward to the rest and enjoyment of the booty from now to eternity.


In the utopia of hunters, a prospect of an end to hunting is not tempting, but frightening – since it may arrive only as a personal defeat. The trumpets will go on announcing the start of another adventure, the greyhounds’ bark will go on resurrecting the sweet memory of past chases, the others around will go on hunting, and there will be no end to universal excitement … It’s only me who would be stood aside, excluded and no longer wanted, barred from other people’s joys; just a passive spectator on the other side of fence, watching the party but forbidden or unable to join the revellers, enjoying the sights and sounds at best from a distance and by proxy.


If a life of continuing and continuous hunting is another utopia, it is – contrary to the utopias of the past – a utopia of no end. A bizarre utopia indeed, if measured by orthodox standards; the original utopias promised temptingly the end to the toil – but the hunters’ utopia encapsulates the dream of toil never ending.


Strange, unorthodox utopia it is – but utopia all the same, as it promises the same unattainable prize as all utopias brandished, namely the ultimate and radical solution to human problems past, present and future, and the ultimate and radical cure for the sorrows and pains of human condition. It is unorthodox mainly for having moved the land of solutions and cures from the ‘far away’ into ‘here and now’.


Instead of living towards the utopia, hunters are offered a living inside the utopia. The end of the road would be the lived utopia’s final, ignominious defeat. Adding insult to injury, it would also be a thoroughly personal defeat and proof of a personal failure. Non-participation in the hunt can only feel as ignominy of personal exclusion, and so (presumably) of personal inadequacy.


Utopia brought from the misty ‘far away’ into the tangible ‘here and now’, utopia lived rather than being lived towards, is immune to tests; for all practical intents and purposes, and it is immortal. But its immortality has been achieved at the price of frailty and vulnerability of all and each one of those enchanted and seduced to live it …


MHJ/KT: Thank you once again.


© Michael Hviid Jacobsen & Keith Tester


Also see The Bauman Institute, School of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds inspired by the sociological imagination of this unique thinker.

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