Bauman before ‘Bauman’ – A Conversation between Zygmunt Bauman, Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a larger conversation which examines the decade of the 1980s and various issues form commodification of intellectual work, the role of culture in changing the future, the dilemma(s) of post-modernity, nuclear weaponry, and whether Russia is European?


Born in Poland, eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been writing since 1960 when he published his first book. However Bauman became the man we know since the 1990s. After moving to University of Leeds Bauman published extensively in the English language; and his reputation has grown globally.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s Bauman wrote about modernity, bureaucracy, rationality and social Zygmunt Bauman final t use 2014exclusion. Bauman said that modernity sought to address the uncertainties of life by creating rules and regulations, hierarchies and bureaucracies and essentially exert control over nature. The attempt to make chaotic human life ordered and systematic led to increased control over human society and categorisation. Thus, we exchanged our individual freedoms with our need for security. Bauman also argued that such efforts to impose order and create manageable categories also led to social exclusion and used the concept of the “stranger” to illustrate the ill-effects of such ordered categories.


In the mid-to-late 1990s, Bauman wrote on postmodernity and consumerism. Bauman noted a change from a society of producers into a society of consumers. The need for security was exchanged for the freedom to consume. Bauman wrote of this shift as being a shift from modernity to post-modernity. However, due to the mis-understanding of the term postmodernity, Bauman started using metaphors of “liquid” and “solid” modernity.


This conversation examines the man and his life and thoughts before he became Bauman. It starts with the 1980s and takes a cinematic flashback or “walk backwards” approach as we follow the man before Bauman from the 1980s to the 1960s when he started publishing his sociological writings.



michael-hviid-jacobsen keith-tester bauman-Octaedrajpg
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


The 1980s

MHJ/KT: Since the end of the 1980s (early to mid-1990s) you have been a ‘big name’ sociologist and thinker- The Zygmunt Bauman, who travels internationally and whose books have become widely publicised. Does this mean that your own work has been commodified and, if it has, can it still be critical?


ZB: I would gladly exchange the doubtful honours of being a ‘big name’ for a bit more effectiveness of critical efforts. To take a hint from Daniel Boorstin: a ‘big name’ is a person who is known for being well-known, and that sad foible of our times puts a yet sadder meaning into Wittgenstein’s already sad conclusion that ‘philosophy leaves everything as it is’.

But your worry is accurately directed. I share the feeling that my work ‘has been commodified’ and I fully agree with your view that commodity markets are not the best sites from which to launch a critical reassessment of reality, let alone the fight to save or recover certain aspects of human togetherness from commodification.

I have been breaking my head in vain to find a way out of the quandary. The agora of our times is filled to the brim with market stalls and admits only the buyers and sellers of commodities. Information travels only when it is commodified, only when it is sold and bought. And if you wish to repair that sorry state of the agora, you must first gain an entry. You have to be listened to if you wish to be heard. Gaining entry to the market stalls is anything but the guarantee of being heard. But it is, alas, its unavoidable preliminary condition.


MHJ/KT: In 1987 you published Legislators and Interpreters, a book which contained a theme about the relationship of cultural production to the market. Can culture still be a ‘knife pressed against the future’ if it has been commodified? As a subsidiary question, where are the really sharp knives nowadays?


ZB: To start from the end, almost all of the sharp knives, as well as the blunt ones, have been confiscated by the security guards (barring a few carried by genuine terrorists).


That remark is only partly intended as a joke. Safety concerns (this is how the worries misnamed as ‘securitarian’ ought to be properly called) prompt retrenchment reflexes. They point to the past, to the good old times without Al Qaeda, asylum seekers and GM foods, and into an altogether different future, an unlike-anything-you-know future. These concerns can be and are expressed under any banner, a conservative one no less than a revolutionary one. What culture leaves behind is never exactly like what it found, even if its job has been done in the name of preservation or retreat to the old.


But I understand why you may doubt whether Santayana’s metaphor of the ‘knife pressed against the future’ is still applicable. First, the trope suggests the application of a steady force, and secondly it tacitly suggests that but one knife is in operation (if there were many knives, the ‘future’ would be cut into pieces rather than opened up, as the metaphor implies). Neither of these two assumptions sounds sensible today. There are so many knives around, each pointing in a different direction, and none keeping sharp for long. All the knives tend to be abandoned before they have the time to do their jobs. Knives cancel out each other’s effects and make the ‘future’ more like a bag of flour than a body pliable to carving. Perhaps the ‘culturalist turn’ in social thought followed the habit of Minerva’s owl and noted the future-carving function of culture when that function has been already played out and forsaken?


However, I am inclined to think that it is culture’s, and perhaps also the future’s, rather than the knife’s part in Santayana’s aphorism that makes us feel uneasy these days. Since the beginning of its presence in modern idiom, ‘culture’ implied a more or less cohesive totality and unity of purpose. And so did the future. It was a whole that could be handled in its entirety, rather than like flour, needing to be carried in a bag. And the future was a whole with a pointer, so that it might be turned one way but not the other. Nowadays such images are awfully difficult to uphold. They are challenged by daily experience. Can you apply a knife, sharp or blunt, to a liquid? And if you did, would the liquid show the cut?


Among the most fateful consequences of the liquid modern condition is that of the fragmentation of human aggregates and of time. The first is known under the name of ‘individualization’, the second has been recorded variously as the demise of the ‘long term’, as episodicity, or as the cité par projets… The outcome of individualization (beware though, this is a treacherous term, absorbing more meanings that it can carry) is that all forms of association, from the most formal to the most radically informal, evolve nowadays towards swarms (aggregates with no structure, hierarchy, command centre and lines of command – yet notorious for their astonishing similarity and synchrony of moves; see Bauman 2001a). The outcome of short-termism is that the swarm drifts aimlessly, with little rhyme or reason, from one meadow to another, hardly ever stopping for long. It is pushed by accumulating waste and tedium as well as diminishing returns, rather than pulled by fresh fragrances and guided by the discoverers’ curiosity. This is, I guess, why the metaphor that speaks of culture, future and the knife-cutting feels out-of-joint with the Lebenswelt. It was meant to answer a question few if any people are today inclined to ask…


MHJ/KT: Starting with the publication of Legislators and Interpreters in 1987, you wrote a series of books that played a very significant part in making postmodernity a key part of sociological discourse. But if your approach to the matter is compared with that of others, it is possible to identify a very distinctive way of thinking. For many people the question of postmodernity was conflated with postmodernism, and so there was a turn by sociologists to aesthetics, architecture, social geography and so on; all of this might be summed up in the phrase you just used, ‘the cultural turn’. Meanwhile your approach focused on questions of morality and ethics. Did you ever feel part of a wider debate, or was it more like writing in hope of finding readers?


ZB: If I ever took a ‘cultural turn’, it must have been in early 1960s, and it was Antonio Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks, hardly a postmodern or even a proto-postmodern tract, that took me along that path. Culture versus Society marked the breakthrough. I wrote it just after the publication in 1964 of my Introduction to Marxist Sociology, which was still a very orthodox piece by both Marxist and Parsonian standards. The Introduction presented society as a sort of recycling contraption, a mechanism that bribes or forces ordinary humans to do willingly what they must do, and which discharges fully ‘patterned’ humans at the far end of the assembly line and then uses that recycled product to go on reproducing itself so that further recycling may be done endlessly. Between the two diametrically different books stood my discovery of Gramsci.


From Gramsci I learned about culture being a thorn in the side of ‘society’ rather than a handmaiden of its monotonous order-reproducing routine; an adamantly and indefatigably mutinous agent, culture as propulsion to oppose and disrupt, a sharp edge pressed obstinately against what-already-is. Culture became shorthand for the human propensity to set apart the ‘is’ from ‘can be’, the ‘ought’ from the ‘is’, and for the inclination to rebel against the ‘is’ in the name of the ‘can be’ and/or ‘ought’. The concept of ‘culture’ refers to the lifting of the human mode of being-in-the world above and beyond the site which ‘society’ tried and goes on trying to ensconce and fence off. I came to Britain with such a view fully formed and operational. It was a time when the notion of culture, despite Mathew Arnold’s Herculean efforts, was only beginning to be recalled from its protracted exile, thanks mostly to Stuart Hall’s pioneering, formidable labours.


To cut a long story short: your guess is correct. I seem to have entered the ‘postmodernist’ discourse through a different door than most of its other participants. Well before the word ‘postmodernity’ was coined and much before it became the badge of belonging to an exclusive company of the chattering classes, I desperately sought a generic name for a large set of intuitions: that despite modern ambitions the war against human waywardness and historical contingency is unwinnable, that the resistance of human modality to logic and rule is here to stay, and that the modern crusade against ambivalence and the ‘messiness’ of human reality only multiplies the targets it aims to destroy. ‘Postmodernity’ fit the bill nicely. I first spotted the term in the context of architecture, where Charles Jencks put it. That helped me to invest all my concerns in it and so adopt the term in good conscience. After all, architecture was the very epitome, simultaneously, of the modern pilgrimage to finitude and the war of attrition which modernity waged against contingency. When applied to architecture, ‘postmodernity’ suggested most vividly a castrated modernity admitting its own impotence, a disempowered modernity, stripped of the confidence that the end is round the next corner or the corner after the next. ‘Postmodernity’ also seemed noncommittal and open-ended. It spoke about what no longer could be held to be true, but it wisely refrained from any alternative syntheses, which would be inevitably premature and half-baked.


Or at least this is what seemed to me to be the case at the time. Alas, I should have known better. Entering a discourse bent to become the talk of the town (of the urban salons, to be precise) meant giving hostages to fate from the start. Soon all my efforts to protect the intended meaning turned out to be hopeless. I had been ‘filed away’, and having read the label on the file’s cover, who would care to contemplate the possible subtleties inside?


MHJ/KT: Certainly, if we look at publishers’ catalogues, it is immediately clear that in the early to mid 1990s piles of books were published with the word ‘postmodernity’ in their title, but that around 1997 or so the tide started to turn. Nowadays postmodernity almost has become a love that dare not speak its name. There are three obvious reasons why the debate might be in the past rather than the present tense: First, perhaps the social world stopped being amenable to analysis as postmodern. Second, the debate might not have disappeared at all. Rather it has now seeped out to cover everything, so that now the word ‘postmodernity’ is obsolete – we are all postmodernists nowadays. Third, it was a publishing phenomenon and the academic publishers pulled the plug on titles with the word because the profit margin could not be guaranteed.


ZB: All three of your hypotheses have a lot going for them. I guess that the third hypothesis offers a hint to what has indeed happened. Consumer society works through excess and currently favoured targets tend to be overshot. But I trust the publishers to have learned (if only the hard way) when to pull the plug. They have by now become good judges of the admittedly shifty consumer moods, and above all they are well aware of the brevity of the consumers’ attention span. Boredom is the sequel and consequence of any hype, and seasoned publishers, like prudent generals, do not commence any action without an exit scenario. The trick is to spot in time when the hype has reached its limit, targets are no longer met and the time to dismantle the unused missiles or remainder (or shred) the unsold books has arrived.


Boredom was bound to come. We get tired of buzzwords. To this general factor add a specific one: the purely negative function of the ‘postmodernity’ concept. It said what social reality was no longer but it kept silent or sounded neutral about what it was instead. How long can you go on listing the has-been traits? The term ‘cleared the site’, but once ground-clearing jobs are done the bulldozers need to be removed lest they block the start of building works (by the way, in my view this applies to other contemporary and apparently alternative terms as well, notably ‘late’ and ‘second’ modernity’). It is high time to arrive at more ‘positive’ concepts, referring to what our realities are, instead to what they have ceased to be. For me, liquid modernity is such a concept.


The postmodernity debate may have been a ‘fleeting affair’, but in its time it was indispensable. Like many other good intentions, it went astray (see Bauman 2004b, 2005). The earth that was taken away from the future building site was dumped over the rocks on which the foundations of the new building should have rested. Or, to paraphrase the cliché, the baby has been drowned in the muddy bathwater…


MHJ/KT: For us, at least, one of the most important consequences of the postmodernity debate was that it raised in a contemporary way questions about the responsibility of intellectuals. And yet it is hard not to conclude from the debate as it worked itself out that intellectuals are more likely to be attracted by abstract questions rather than by any desire to enter into a dialogue with men and women in the world. Quite simply: Was the postmodernity debate a feast in the time of locusts?


ZB: Or I may say ‘fiddling when Rome is burning’ since I have already resorted to clichés. ‘Postmodernism’ was for a time a darling of the ‘Left’ or whatever part of it scrambled out of the debris of the Berlin Wall. The timing was perfect – bereaved minds on one side, an all-smiling chirpy toddler yelling for adoption on the other. The toddler’s vocabulary was colourful and naturally limited, and the few words it mastered were yet to be composed into meaningful sentences. For the would-be foster parents, the adoption was like being born again. The toddler’s babbling that politics is a sham, even though everything is political, was particularly endearing. It was exactly the kind of soothing balm that fingers singed to the bone in hot, fiery and yet shamefully lost political battles badly needed.


I thought I spotted a potential for lifting critical theory to the level of the new challenges in what I had provisionally called the ‘postmodern condition’. That was one thing. The ‘really existing postmodernism’ (that is, talking about the postmodern condition) was something else. The latter developed as a wholesale absolution for the critics bereaved of a vision of the ‘good society’ and as a consolation for the intellectuals, wardens deserted by their wards. Richard Rorty noted a number of years ago that nobody was “setting up a programme in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense”, in the sense relevant for the postmodern academic Left.


MHJ/KT: The 1980s were topped and tailed by events in Central and Eastern Europe. The decade started in Poland with Solidarity followed by martial law. It ended symbolically in November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this the defeat of what Norberto Bobbio called the ‘upturned utopias’ of the East, or was it simply that the West won the Cold War?


ZB: I suppose archivists will go on quarrelling about ‘what it was’. They will not revise ‘what actually did happen’, as Ranke wanted historians to do, but they will try to develop the received wisdom, the one ‘historical truth’ of a reality that stoutly refuses to admit an ‘ultimate’, ‘last word’ interpretation. They are after the ‘one and only’ interpretation that would make all further interpretative effort redundant. I am inclined to grant the ostensibly competing versions – all of them or at any rate most of them – the virtue of complementarity, rather than the vice of exclusivity. That applies as well to the dilemma you’ve presented: it would benefit from ‘and-and’ instead of the ‘either-or’ treatment.


Right away, I would add to your two ‘complementary alternatives’ a few more. And I repeat: these are additions, not substitutes. They are but reports of my own mental turbulences at the time, the lessons which the collapse of the Berlin Wall seemed to me to contain.


First came the refutation of one more of Karl Marx’s ‘historical laws’, this time the ‘law’ that societies do not posit themselves tasks unless they are capable of fulfilling them. ‘Really existing socialism’ collapsed under the burden of the tasks it undertook, while being incapable of fulfilling them; to put it more simply, it crumbled under the load of its own unfulfilled promises. Its defeat was to no small extent the ‘unanticipated consequence’ of its success in arousing and prodding dreams and ambitions. It occurred to me that such bizarre and ultimately suicidal dialectics could be a wider phenomenon. Perhaps the tendency to set unfulfillable tasks comes closer to grasping ‘how history really works’ than Marx’s proposition. If that surmise was correct, it would go some way towards explaining all those frequent changes of regimes, political formulae, political agendas and ‘redemptive strategies’, none of which left the scene having completed its job, having resigned or been dismissed in the middle of its career.


Second, there was the collapse of the ‘logic of history’, of ‘progress’, of the preordained sequence of forms, and indeed of the whole set of tacit assumptions underpinning the evolutionary conception of human history. The Marxist evolutionary schema was a member of a big family of ‘natural sequences’, each implying a different, but similarly strict, succession of stages one after another riding into history on the backs of their immediate ancestors, while condemning their mounts to the abattoir or to an exile with no right to return. In that family of ‘natural sequences’, the Marxist schema was perhaps the most elegant, allowing each known form of human togetherness its rightful place in the temporal order of things – but only that one place and no other (remember ‘late Marx’ struggling desperately, though in vain, with the possibility of a ‘shortcut’ from the Russian rural commune straight to the socialist society; this was an illegitimate irruption and irresolvable mystery when set against his predetermined evolutionary sequence). All of that aesthetically pleasing order has been buried, though, under the debris of the Berlin Wall.


A third meaning of the Berlin Wall’s collapse: Since the communist venture was a plot to whip up sluggish history into an accelerated gallop towards the fulfilment of the modern dream of the perfect order, a fulfilment held back elsewhere because of insufficient concentration on the main task, the failure of the communist adventure could be seen as the resounding refutation of the viability of modern ambition as such. It said volumes about the value of the idea of the ‘perfect order’, the idea that was the cornerstone of all modernity and its principal moving spirit. I would say that for me precisely that lesson was one of the main reasons to explore the ‘postmodernity’ hypothesis: namely, that the pursuit of a ‘perfect order’ that would bring history to its natural end (the hope/anticipation that the communists borrowed after all from the prophets and advocates of modernity) is neither viable nor any longer plausible.


MHJ/KT: A question that often emerged in the wake of Soviet clampdowns in Central and Eastern Europe was one about whether or not Russia is European. Kundera is pretty sure that Russia is outside of Europe, while Gorbachev used to talk about the admittance of Russia to the ‘common European home’. Is Russia European, or is it an outsider?


ZB: Norman Davies, who is arguably the most ‘synthetic’ among the recent historians of Europe, is quite emphatic on that point, and I tend to agree with his opinion: Europe was anything but a geographical definable entity, as its borders were at all times contentious and no one quite managed to draw them clearly, un-contentiously and above all durably. When asked to describe the most conspicuous characteristics of ‘the European’, Alexander Wat (a Polish, yet much travelled and shuffled around avant-garde poet, at some points in his life a revolutionary and at others a victim of the revolution), listed the kinds of virtues that were of crucial, and of literally life-and-death, importance to the concentration camp prisoners. And then, having rummaged his capacious memory, he offered an exemplar of this European character: ‘I knew one such person. He was an Armenian’.


I guess you are not asking about ‘Europe’ as a geographic notion. If you were, you would have rather consulted the first handy atlas of the world, where conventional land divisions have been recorded. I gather instead that you ask about ‘Europe’ as an idea, as a notion that is always a step away from political, military and all other earthly realities. To make the quandary trickier yet, and to make this instance of Whitehead’s ‘essential contest’ yet more rabid, the idea in question departs from reality in more than one direction. Ideas, after all, reside in that nowhere place called ‘future’, the natural home for all disagreements and of the hope for their resolution; and in a nowhere place, all is similarly plausible and all similarly improvable. Unlike reality, imagination – the future’s sole tenant – has no limits except those it sets itself (until further notice, as it were).


Only quite recently, a mere half century ago, an authority was established that claimed the exclusive right to set those limits (that is, the limits to permissible and acceptable imagining) and so made the bid to confine the scattered works of imagination in the framework of politico-military-economic realities. This authority is of course the European Union, and with its establishment the kind of question you ask would be directed to ‘an appropriate department’ entitled to answer it in a no-appeal-allowed way. But having been so re-directed, it would no longer be the question you asked.


‘Europe’ stood and stands for the only way of life that presented (imposed?) itself as a pattern for universal emulation, and which was sometimes willingly, at other times resentfully, accepted as such, even while it staunchly refused to imitate any other form of life and was angry and disdainful when it was suggested that it do so. No wonder then that Europe (as an idea, a phantom, a Shangri La) is a magnet of enormous attractive power, a constant provocation to be joined. It is for that reason that the outer borderlines of the geographic, and now also ‘unionised’ Europe, are like an elastic band; push and pull forces join in stretching it, the pull taking over once the push runs out of energy and staving off the prospect of the ‘unionised’ Europe succeeding in its (half-hearted and in fact unconfident) efforts to fall upon itself.


I said that Europe is a magnet. But it is a curious magnet, since the further away from it that the iron filings are spilled, the stronger its attraction. Imagination, unlike reality, gains in vividness with the growth of spatial or temporal distance. I suppose that unlike the Russians, the Georgians and the Azerbaijanis, or for that matter the Kazakhs, wouldn’t think twice were they to be asked to join the EU. And I guess as well that there would be fewer doubts in Brussels about their eligibility than would arise in the case of Russia.


MHJ/KT: An important political theme in the 1980s was nuclear weaponry and nuclear power. In the early 1980s there was a widespread carnivalesque politics against the weapons and in 1985 Chernobyl blew up. Yet, unlike some social thinkers, none of this features terribly greatly in your work. Why not? What was your view on the ‘nuclear question’?


ZB: In the eighties the Moscow nukes, and today the (address unknown) Al-Qaeda terrorists, served or serve as a basket to locate (dislocate) the fears emanating from and saturating the human condition. The basket has changed now, though the warehouses are as full of nukes, if not fuller now, than they were in the eighties, and the nukes are still stocked as close to the major conflagration points of the globe as they were then. The function assigned to the basket (and, haltingly, performed by it) has not changed though. There was then, as there is now, a good deal of trickery or even downright swindle in the expedient of shuffling human anxieties away from the places where they could condense into domestic troubles. This is a convenient stratagem indeed, and one that is used whenever the powers-that-be wish to be seen as the protective shield and the warrant of security, even as they blatantly or surreptitiously add to the fears from which their subjects crave to be protected.


I know from Bakhtin that this is exactly what should be expected from the powers-that-be of the day, of any day. But to see the ‘thinking classes’ settling with relief and relish inside the comfort of the agenda set by the power-holders, and then to see the ‘thinking classes’ parroting and endorsing the official definitions of human problems and their solutions, should make our eyebrows rise.


(to be continued…)



Important Note: This interview is an extract from the book Bauman Before Postmodernity. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press (2005).

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