“Each moment of human history is, to a greater or lesser degree, an open-ended situation; a situation which is not entirely determined by the structure of its own past, and from which more than one string of events may follow.”
Is it possible to start anew? Is there an alternative? They say the world is never made once and for all. Einmal ist keinmal – a German phrase that translates as one day is not once. We start afresh only when we believe in the possibility of changing. Einmal ist keinmal – means something like once is never. Like if you do something just once it’s like you never did it.We all seem to believe in this possibility of starting afresh for ourselves as individuals. We start every New year thinking so. We get stuck in a rut, develop some bad habits and we seek change come January 1st. However, does the same possibility of starting over exist for our society too? Are there no alternatives? If one looks back into human history, then one finds that human society has also started over many times. It seems human societies also cannot be fixed in one interminable condition once and for all; and it is only because creative humans (within those societies) have thought their way out of impossible situations. In order to escape being fixed in one situation with no alternative, society desperately needs critical thought – by experts as well as laypeople – in order not to ossify in its habitual and routinized ways of thinking and doing.
Einmal ist keinmal – also used if someone makes a mistake. One time is easily forgiven… like it never happened.
At the start of the New Year, I decided to explore the state of our world. Since I am trained as a sociologist my gaze turned towards society. And just like many of you, my reading of contemporary society provided neither encouragement nor enthusiasm. My mind turned to the writings of Zygmunt Bauman who critically diagnoses contemporary society (he terms it liquid-modern society) and some of its major ailments such as the liquefaction of everything solid, the evaporation of Politics (with a capital P), the rise of the TINA syndrome (there is no alternative), the abandoning of the agora (public space), the individualization of misfortune, and the feeble and toothless character of social critique. All in all, his work paints a rather bleak picture of contemporary liquid-modern society. Moreover, nowhere does he propose any concrete solutions, cures or prophylaxes against the ailments of liquid modernity – in this way his inherently dialectical thinking remains somewhat negative and his critique immanent.
However, in Zygmunt Bauman’s understanding, his chosen discipline of sociology is by its very nature an inquisitive and critical activity. As he once observed, “there is no choice between ‘engaged’ and ‘neutral’ ways of doing sociology. A non-committal sociology is an impossibility” (Bauman 2000:216). And despite the sombre and often bleak undertone in much of Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid-modern society, Bauman’s vision of sociology remains uncompromisingly optimistic and confident because sociology has the ability, critically, to pinpoint the problems faced by society and thereby inspire society to start questioning itself: Does it have to be this way? Are there any alternatives to the present? Can we change society for the better? Are there still undiscovered promises and potentials open to us?
Sociology as such is a committed, critical discipline and as an ongoing inquisitive conversation with human life-experience is an important and integral aspect of any autonomous society. Bauman’s vision of sociology has always been that of a committed, critical and iconoclastic discipline serving as a knife’s edge pressed relentlessly against the throat of everything that presents itself or parades as common sense, natural, habitual, taken-for-granted, inevitable or unchangeable.
Bauman’s critical sociology is indeed an enigmatic exemplar of what Austrian writer Robert Musil once wonderfully termed a ‘sense of possibility’ which is an indispensable supplement to the all-too familiar and all-too-safe ‘sense of reality’ found in most writings of philosophers and social scientists. This ‘sense of possibility, wrote Musil, “could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not” (Musil 1953/1996:12). In Zygmunt Bauman’s work, critical sociology is precisely seen as such a distinctive sense of possibility, as a discoverer of horizons and as a harbinger of that which is – and maybe always remains – not yet.
After a solid start in an academic career in Poland through the 1950s and 1960s where he went on to become a professor at the University of Warsaw, he, along with a group of critical professors, were accused of corrupting Polish youth and of being critical of the system. In 1968, he was dismissed and decided to leave the country. After shorter stays in Israel, Canada and Australia, Zygmunt Bauman and his wife Janina – whom he had met during the late 1940s – ended up in exile in Leeds in England where, until retirement in 1990, he served as Professor of Sociology. Today, more than twenty years after retirement, Zygmunt Bauman still lives in Leeds (Janina passed away in 2009). He has received many awards for his outstanding scholarship.
Throughout his entire career, Bauman has written at an incredible pace; particularly in the last few decades, publishing almost one or two new book titles every year. He has published more than 40 books in English, numerous articles in academic journals and book chapters in books, and several books in his native Polish language. Besides this he is a frequent columnist and interpreter in various newspapers providing insightful analyses of topical issues. Being often labelled an ‘intellectual guru’ or ‘sociological superstar’ – much to his own dislike – Bauman is frequently asked to reflect and comment on his own work in interviews published in academic journals or newspapers. Moreover, his work is by now translated into numerous languages making his thoughts and ideas accessible to a global audience. Zygmunt Bauman is regarded as one of the major stalwarts of contemporary sociology. Despite this recognition and success, he – perhaps by choice – remains an outsider and maverick within the discipline.
Inspired by the sociological imagination of their Emeritus Professor, Zygmunt Bauman, the University of Leeds has launched The Bauman Institute, an international research and teaching centre dedicated to analysing major social change around the world with their primary research interests in the areas of: money and consumerism, ethics and social responsibility, new technologies and data, as well as resistance and power in ‘liquid modernity’ (see http://baumaninstitute.leeds.ac.uk/).
One of the key concerns of Zygmunt Bauman’s writings throughout the years has been to describe and diagnose the gradual transformation of modernity – from a pre-modern phase followed by a ‘solid modern’ to a contemporary ‘liquid modern’ phase. Acknowledging that these labels are merely analytical concepts aimed at reducing the unfathomable complexity of social life, they, however, according to Bauman, still provide sociology with some analytical substance, useful conceptual distinctions and interpretive value. ‘Liquid modernity’ – as an antithesis to ‘solid modernity’ – is a modernity characterized by the giving up of the long-term planning, the obsessive ordering, structuring and organizing as well as the abandoning of any collective insurance for individual misfortune so characteristic of its earlier solid incarnations.
So what exactly is Liquid Modernity?
The idea of the liquefaction of modernity –‘liquid modernity’ as the new form of society – was first proposed by Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Modernity (2000). In this book, Bauman moved on from many years of preoccupation and association with the idea of ‘postmodernity’ in the 1980s and 1990s; and instead began to develop a more comprehensive theoretical framework of ‘liquid modernity’. Bauman started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he saw in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity (which implied a disjuncture), Bauman suggested that there was no rupture, rather a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life. Bauman’s characterization of modern society or solid modernity was that of a society obsessed with the need for order—a need to domesticate, categorize, and rationalize the world so it would be controllable, predictable, and understandable.
Solid modernity is made of those watershed changes in society noted also by Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi (1944) in his fascinating description in the mid-20th century of the so-called ‘great transformation’ during which ‘gain’ replaced ‘subsistence’ and through which a marketization of human relationships was achieved. ‘Solid modernity’ – although Bauman never dates its duration, is most probably an epoch spanning the centuries from the European Enlightenment project up to the latter part of the 20th century – would be something emphasizing the stable, heavy, lasting, condensed, systemic and orderly systems. Whereas the notions associated with ‘liquid modernity’ would rather be those of fluidity, lightness, short-term, network, the capillary and fragmentary (Bauman 1999b:123). Whereas solid modernity was top-heavy, the weight in liquid modernity has decidedly shifted to the bottom – on to the shoulders of the individual.
For Bauman, the one area where the shift to a liquid modernity can be discerned most easily is that of contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that is coherent over time and space is near-impossible. Bauman says that contemporary humans have moved from a period where being human was understood as being a “pilgrim” in search of deeper meaning to that of a “tourist” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.
According to Bauman, liquid modernity’s main characteristics are about the individual, especially increasing feelings of uncertainty and the privatization of ambivalence. It is a chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the ‘liquid modern’ man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support.
Entry into the globalized society is open to anyone with their own stance and the ability to fund it, in a similar way as was the reception of travellers at the old-fashioned caravanserai. The result is a normative mind-set with emphasis on shifting rather than on staying—on provisional in lieu of permanent (or ‘solid’) commitment.
Initially, the idea or metaphor of ‘liquid modernity’ was coined and used primarily as a general descriptive term capturing a variety of social processes and transformations characterizing the shift from solid to liquid modernity such as incessant individualization, dis-embedding without re-embedding, the separation of power from politics, the curtailing of collective responsibility for social development as well as individual life-challenges, and finally – and perhaps most dramatically – the relinquishing of any hope for a better future. Later, however, Bauman has applied the notion to various specific contexts such as love, fear, consumption, inequality, utopia, culture.
According to Bauman, the idea of liquid modernity is to be seen as a root metaphor for a society in which the time-honoured, tried and tested moulds that previously held things together are rapidly disintegrating or are progressively dismantled. These social entities, thus, can no longer keep their content stable or solid for any substantial period of time. Everything – relationships, power structures, identities, communities, moralities and ideologies – begin to leak from their previously firm moulds and flow freely without any apparent ability to or interest in forcing them back into their previous solidity and stability. In Bauman’s writings, ‘liquid modernity’ is a metaphor that only makes analytical sense if contrasted with another important metaphor: that of ‘solid modernity’. In many ways, liquid modernity is an inversion of and diametrical opposition to the characteristics of solid modernity.
In Liquid Times, Bauman highlights five central features of liquid modernity that all point to different landslide developments differentiating the liquid-modern world from its solid-modern predecessor. First, the dissolution of ‘society’ and ‘the social’, which is now increasingly deregulated, privatized and individualized. There is, as Bauman often critically quotes the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ‘no such thing as society’.
Everything solid decomposes and disintegrates making it impossible for structures and social forms to maintain their composition and coherence for any substantial period of time. Society is increasingly besieged on two fronts – by individualization and globalization – each in their way tearing society apart (Bauman 2002a).
Second is the separation and pending divorce of power from politics, leaving the former without substance, purpose or direction and the latter totally impotent and unable to have any real impact. Hence problems remain globally unsolvable because available political solutions remain entirely locally embedded.
Third, a gradual and apparently irreversible withdrawal or erosion of a common, collective, state-sponsored and state-guaranteed insurance against individual misfortune as was previously evident in the solid modern welfare state. With this we also see the demise of ideas about the ‘just society’ or the ‘good society’ which caters for the well-being of all its members and particularly the weakest.
Fourth, the breakdown of long-term planning, thinking and acting and the subsequent lack of investments in the future. Instead of developing, building, learning and maturing, now the most valuable skills – in individual lives as well as in society at large – are those of forgetting, avoiding binding obligations and responsibilities and constantly staying on the move.
Fifth, is that the responsibility for one’s own life, its successes and failures, its victories and misfortunes, now falls back upon the individual who has no one else to blame than himself or herself. Society no longer takes any responsibility – it is now all up to you. As Bauman says, living in liquid-modern society is like being on board a flight where all the passengers are painfully aware that the pilot – those in control – has long since evacuated the cockpit and that the plane is set on a crash course (Bauman 2007a:1-4).
‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA)
Our society has stopped questioning itself – where it comes from, how it got to where it is now, how it may become different from what it currently is and where it is headed? One of the main and indeed paradoxical consequences of the rise of liquid modernity is the fact that society seems immune to change or self-critique. This situation has made Zygmunt Bauman proclaim the prevalence of the so-called ‘TINA Syndrome’. TINA is the acronym for a condition spelled out as: ‘There Is No Alternative’.
Just as Bauman’s previously mentioned statement that in liquid modernity ‘there is no such thing as society’; the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ is also attributed to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, whereas Thatcher used the catchy phrase to pronounce that there was no viable alternative to liberalist society and capitalist economics, Bauman is rather suggesting that the world nowadays has altogether forgotten that it can be made and re-made in another way by men and women and therefore people live their lives as if this is the only world possible.
Ironically, our so-called liquid society that is living under the shadow of TINA Syndrome paradoxically is ushering a solid age, which means that it is becoming utterly resistant to critique, change and dialogue about alternatives. As Bauman insists, it is actually because of fluidity that the world seems stubbornly un-manageable and solid as ever before. The world has altogether forgotten the art of questioning itself and lost interest in imagining itself different from what it is or could be. The world succumbing to the TINA Syndrome is therefore a world surprisingly resistant to change and immune to as well as suspicious of suggestions for possible alternatives to or lives lived differently from what contemporary liquid modern consumer society deems worthy, interesting or desirable. Such a world is thoroughly self-confident – indeed impervious even to doubt itself – that it beyond any reasonable doubt is the best of all possible worlds:
‘Our form of life’ has once and for all proved both its viability and its superiority over any other real or imaginable form, our mixture of individual freedom and consumer market has emerged as the necessary and sufficient, truly universal principle of social organization, there will be no more traumatic turns in history, indeed no history to speak of. For ‘our way of life’ the world has become a safe place.” (Bauman 1992:175)
However, such a ‘safe place’ heralded by the dominance of the TINA Syndrome is not only a tedious place but also a dangerous place because it threatens to ossify and turn into an immutable entity existing beyond human intervention or control.
A world whose way of thinking is ruled by the “TINA” Syndrome refuses to talk about a different state of affairs, multiple realities, different paths lying ahead or an alternative future awaiting in the horizon. The concept of “utopia,” on the other hand, aims at setting imagination in motion, inspiring thought and prompting speech. Unlike TINA … utopia cannot but be an invitation to dialogue” (Bauman 2002b:183-184). Utopia – at least in some of its many incarnations – provides the alternatives deemed dubious, impossible or ineffective by TINA, thereby restoring the open debate and unrestricted dialogue so important to any truly autonomous, democratic and pluralistic society.
As Bauman has reminded us, if an optimist is someone who believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist is someone who suspects that the optimist may be right, the utopian instead places himself or herself in the third camp: that of hope. By its refusal to pre-empt the shape of the ‘Good Society’, utopianism cannot but question, listen and seek alternatives to that which currently seems to be or parades as the only reality possible. According to Bauman, however, there is always an alternative. As he once stated, “each moment of human history is, to a greater or lesser degree, an open-ended situation; a situation which is not entirely determined by the structure of its own past, and from which more than one string of events may follow” (Bauman 1976a:10).
Furthermore, the prevalence of the TINA Syndrome not only questions viability of possible alternatives to the current state – how is it possible to change things for the better – but, it also raises the problem of agency – who is going to change the world. The paradox is that with our heretofore unprecedented freedom of choice, our increasingly individualized lives and our increasingly popular ‘life politics’ comes also increased impotence and lack of engagement and investment in changes: “We believe too that, were we able to make a change, it would be futile, even unreasonable, to put our heads together to think of a different world from the one there is and to flex our muscles to bring it about if we consider it better than the one we are in” (Bauman 1999a:1).
In a world ruled by the TINA Syndrome, people are both blind to alternatives and unaware of possible paths to alternatives and thus live their lives wearing blinkers, being unable to see that the world can indeed be different from what it already is. It is a world of defeatism, despondence, disinterestedness and indeed a deadly limitation of mind. The people populating such a world are equivalent to what American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) once labelled ‘cheerful robots’ who go about their daily business without any consideration for anything but their immediate personal concerns and who do neither criticize nor want to change the present state of affairs. As Bauman thus observed, “dangers lurk on [two] sides. The world without an alternative needs self-criticism as a condition of survival and decency. But it does not make the life of criticism easy” (Bauman 1992:185-186).
One of the first and major casualties of the prevalence of the TINA Syndrome is therefore that of critique and critical thought. Bauman often quotes Cornelius Castoriadis for stating that the most dangerous situation arises when society stops questioning itself and that this is exactly what has happened to contemporary liquid-modern society. This deadly sin of stopping to question oneself is dangerous because it leads to a situation of stagnation, lack of critical reflection and opposition to the status quo and last but not least society self-consciously taking itself for granted. In such a society, the need for critical sociology is greater than ever before. According to Zygmunt Bauman, the main objective of critical theory – or at least of any kind of theory deserving of that distinguishable label – has always been human emancipation (Bauman 1999b:130). One of the key facets of any kind of critical theory is exactly its incessant inquisitiveness that never stops short of insisting that what ‘is’ or seems to ‘be’ might just as well have been different. As Bauman once wrote on the nature of critical theory:
Unlike other theories, critical theory will not be, therefore, satisfied with the optimally faithful reproduction of the world ‘as it is’. It will insist upon asking: ‘How has this world come about?’ It will demand that its history be studied, and that in the course of this historical study the forgotten hopes and lost chances of the past be retrieved. It will wish to explore how come that the hopes have been forgotten and the chances lost. It will also refuse to accept that whatever is, is out of necessity; it will suggest instead that the structures be explored which perpetuate what is and by the same token render the alternatives unrealistic. It will assume, in other words, that until the contrary is proved, the reality of some attributes of the world and of utopianism of their alternatives are both conditional on the continuation of some practices which, in principle, can be modified and altered … Critical theory, as it were, relativizes what seems to be absolute, pulverizes the solid contours of reality, transforms certainties into a mere game of chance, strips external pressures of their authority and brings them into the reach of human control (Bauman 1991b:280-281, 289).
Our present day world is perhaps not particularly well-attuned or accommodating to this type of critical thinking. In a world where the ‘tyranny of the moment’ reigns supreme (see, e.g. Eriksen 2001; Rosa & Scheuerman 2008), there is no time to stop and think, let alone conduct in-depth critical investigations suggested by Bauman.
Our world seems to have made critique utterly toothless and useless for the purposes of changing society or pointing towards alternatives. Critique is now commonplace, perhaps even ordinary – everybody is allowed to be critical and voice his or her critique or critical opinion at any time or place. Everyone is entitled to be heard – but the problem is also that nobody seems to listen to the millions of voices now communicating and incessantly chatting on television, on the cell phones or on the internet blogs and websites (Jacobsen 2015). In order for critique to be consequential, it needs to be heard – today critical voices overcrowd channels of communication and thus drown out each other.
Moreover, this liquid-modern type of critique remains solely at the level of life-politics as murmurings about private discontent or personal dissatisfaction from where it is unable to coagulate into collective concerns or have an impact on actually existing social arrangements. Self-critique has replaced or squeezed out societal critique, the former signalling a perpetual self-disappointment and self-disaffection that remains however inconsequential (Bauman 2000:38; Willig 2013). In Bauman’s view, societal critique has been disarmed and disassembled.
The Dissolution of ‘Politics’- More about “campaigns” and “carnivals” than about “movements”
One of the most prominent casualties of the advent of ‘liquid modernity’ is that of Politics (spelled with a capital P to emphasize that we are here talking about emancipatory and collective Politics and not the ‘life-politics’ concerned with self-identity, personal life and self-actualization). In his 1999-book In Search of Politics, Zygmunt Bauman makes it clear that the landscape of the “political” is undergoing some radical changes. Under the influence of liquid-modern individualization processes the previously held collective agendas of most political ideologies are increasingly become focused on personal matters instead of that which concerns the larger public.
What happened to the political prophets, visionaries and dreamers who contemplated and shaped the ideas of the ‘Good Society’, the ‘Just Society’ or the ‘Great Society’? According to Bauman, they have increasingly been evacuated their offices and been replaced by other more up-to-date and less ideological protagonists. Today, “clerics, churchwardens and vergers of the new cult of pleasurable and entertaining sensations will do nicely” (Bauman 1999a:104). Politics – which previously was concerned with debating and securing a certain level of livelihood, influence and human decency for all the members of society – now becomes yet another charade that merely caters for individualized consumer demands. Politics is only interesting when something can be gained or obtained from engaging in it.
At the same time, according to Bauman, contemporary politics in liberal democracies has been decoupled from power leaving the former altogether impotent and the latter in the claws of capitalist and consumerist interests. We now have global capitalism but not global politics – the capitalist market has overtaken the role of the state in catering for individual and collective dreams and desires and in the process it has successfully elbowed out any opposition to its own monopoly. In such an increasingly capitalized and depoliticized world nobody seems to trust politicians to create a better society or to promise a better future.
Politics has been reduced merely to a means for providing pockets of consumption for the insatiable inhabitants of liquid modernity as well as promising them a sense of law and order in a world apparently ruled by the triple-headed spectre of unsafety, insecurity and uncertainty. Therefore, the rise of the ‘politics of fear’ – politicians consciously playing on human Unsicherheit by insisting on the presence of imminent dangers, risks and free-floating fears – has now replaced the previously positive agenda of ‘emancipatory politics’ aimed at promoting human well-being and social solidarity (Bauman 2006).
In solid modernity, the world was populated with planners. In today’s world of liquid modernity, Bauman claims, nobody seems to be a planner because there are no great plans to conceive let alone implement anymore. And the tedious task of planning and waiting to implement something in a society increasingly suffering from an ‘impatience syndrome’ seems utterly futile and pointless. In such a society, the waiting is to be taken out of the wanting so that immediate satisfaction can be achieved. Planning for the ‘Great Society’, the ‘Just Society’ or the ‘Good Society’ seems too elusive and/or too inclusive to attract the attention of politicians and their voters.
Delayed gratification – the driving mechanism of political ideology and planning in the past– is no longer the name of the game. The solid modernity of the past had the Puritans who willingly delayed their gratification according to German sociologist Max Weber wrote of the rise of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of modern capitalism. Today, these Puritans have been replaced by the ‘sensation seekers’ of liquid modernity for whom instant satisfaction is the only thing that really matters. They are not concerned with the emancipatory, collective or long-term effects of political decision-making but rather with the immediate outcomes of the ‘life-politics’ of which British sociologist Anthony Giddens stated that it was “concerned with human self-actualization” (Giddens (1991:9). However, the problem with ‘life-politics’, according to Bauman, is that it tends to be centred on the individual and his or her intimate life-sphere thus having little impact on more substantial social issues such as inequality, injustice or other topics that transcend the individual. ‘Life politics’ seems insufficient to provide lasting solutions for the problems confronting contemporary liquid-modern society.
Today, politics, like anything else, has become short-term and unconcerned with the big picture. We therefore need ‘movement politics’, in the terminology of Richard Rorty (1998), rather than ‘campaign politics’. We need long-term hopes for the future instead of short-term investments for profit; comprehensive political plans rather than merely sketchy politics based on individual cases, precautionary prognostications or lucky punches. The incrementalism and fragmentary character of ‘campaign politics’ will not be sufficient to counter contemporary causes of suffering and stem the waves of injustice and inequality threatening to tear society and solidarity asunder.
‘Campaign politics’ – which are rather similar to ‘life-politics’ – clearly seem sympathetic to the ‘contended majority’ of the well-off countries. But, to the ‘discontented minority’ within these countries or the global majority of sufferers it offers no substantial hope of salvation. ‘Campaign politics’ often merely scratches the surface or serves to provide absolution for deeds not done and are therefore ‘carnivalesque’ in their aspirations and celebrations.
In Bauman’s view, besides the shift from ‘Politics’ to ‘life-politics’, the main challenge for contemporary politics is not only that it needs to be re-oriented towards a more comprehensive and long-term political agenda in order to counter the exhaustion of political energies – it also needs determination and agency. As he states, “the hub of the present-day crisis of political process is not so much the absence of values or confusion caused by their plurality, as the absence of an agency effective enough to legitimate, promote, install and service any set of values or any consistent and cohesive agenda of choices” (Bauman 1999a:74).
If politics is to be revitalized in an individualized, liquid-modern society, it needs to emphasize autonomy as well as responsibility. According to Bauman, the art of Politics (again with a capital P) – if this kind of politics is deserving of the label of democratic politics – is simultaneously to dismantle limitations to citizens’ freedom at the same time as it also needs to insist on self-limitation (Bauman 1999a:4). A truly democratic society is only possible if the unprecedented freedom of the individual merges with collective aspirations to create a truly autonomous society. The question arises: Who will do it? Do we have the political agency to execute this task?
The camping site critique
In our society unprecedented freedom goes hand in hand with unprecedented impotence. Bauman uses the metaphor of the ‘camping site’ for the contemporary state of critique: “The place is open to everyone with own their caravan and money to pay the rent. Guests come and go, none taking much interest in how the site is run, providing they have been allocated a spot big enough to park the caravan, the electric sockets and the water taps are in good order and the passengers of nearby caravans do not make too much noise and keep down their portable hi-fi and TV speakers after 10 pm” (Bauman 1999b:122). In such a camping site milieu populated by individual (and individualized) caravan owners, no one takes any interest whatsoever in the ‘common good’ because there is nothing to have in common – apart from access to privatized means of keeping up a good, quiet and comfortable life at the camping site.
Bauman continues to admit that “while hospitable to the critique after the fashion of the camping site’s hospitability to caravan owners, our society is definitely and resolutely not hospitable to critique in the mode which the founders of the critical school assumed and to which they addressed their theory” (Bauman 1999b:122). However, the reason why our world is not hospitable to the kind of critique practiced by the founders – and their intellectual inheritors – of critical theory is not only to be found in the fact that the character of critique has changed but perhaps rather that the very object to be criticized – society – today is very different from when the classical critical theorists first wrote their incisive analyses. The society envisioned by the classical critical Frankfurt-thinkers such as Theodor M. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse was that of a gigantic common household with certain norms and rules as well as rights and obligations (Bauman 1999b:123). Although this society, as classical critical theorists warned, also contained its imminent dangers (e.g. of totalitarianism, quantification, homogenizing, levelling and the subsequent erosion of the non-identical), the camping site society of contemporary liquid modernity – with its individualized, compartmentalized and privatized lives – has lost its coordinating core and is now splintered into uncountable and seemingly unconnected fragments. As Bauman thus proposes in what may be termed a ‘reversed colonization thesis’:
The task of critical theory has been reversed. That task used to be the defence of private autonomy from the advancing troops of the ‘public sphere’, smarting under the oppressive rule of the omnipotent impersonal state and its many bureaucratic tentacles or their smaller-scale replicas. The task is now to defend the vanishing public realm, or rather to refurnish and repopulate the public space fast emptying ... It is no more true that the ‘public’ is set on colonizing the ‘private’. The opposite is the case: it is the private that colonizes the public sphere (Bauman 2000:39).
Bauman proposes that the main problem today, in liquid modernity, is the invasion of the public sphere by private and individualized life-pursuits. Today, the main problem no longer seems to be that of totalitarianism against which so many of the classical critical theorists warned. So may the call to arms in order to secure individual autonomy, freedom of choice and the right to self-assertion in today’s thoroughly individualized and liquefied society finally be called off? Not all, insists Bauman, because that would indeed be a premature conclusion.
Critical theory’s main enemy from the age of solid modernity was the metaphor of the Panopticon – the notion of Big Brother who was constantly watching its subjects, intruding on their privacy and autonomy – the case of “the few (at the top) watching and monitoring the many (multitudes of masses).” In the age of broadcast television and celebrity gossip, this seems to have been supplanted by the notion of the ‘Synopticon’ (Norwegian sociologist Thomas Mathiesen’s term), where the many or multitudes watch the few on the media. Both Panopticon and Synopticon, have to do with the role of surveillance and control in society. However, the control in our liquid modern society is of a different variety – more a mental game than actual physical coercion. And it being won by dividing the people further and further into smaller and smaller units of private individuals.
The ‘private’ is now overtaking the ‘public’ thereby emptying everything that characterizes a real ‘public’ – deliberation, negotiation, mutual recognition and so on – of any value, meaning or purpose. In an individualized world, anything that oozes of being ‘public’ is now regarded with ill-concealed suspicion at best or as an obstacle to individual life-pursuits at worst.
What is the solution then? Bauman suggests that what is needed is a repopulation and a revitalization of the agora or public sphere – the meeting-ground between individual and collective where common problems or concerns are raised, discussed and resolved. With the rapid decline or demise of the agora, the hope to reach such a resolution is perhaps nowhere in the offing. However, exactly in such a society, critical sociology has an important – yet new – task to perform: to defend the public sphere from disappearing altogether while, at the same time, enhancing individual freedom and holding out the promise of human emancipation. Indeed a brave new and daunting – yet equally important – agenda for critical sociology.
Conclusion: Is then “A Sociology of Possibility” possible?
Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life – liquid modernity. He says that these concepts exist only in juxtaposition to each other. One of the key aspects of solid modernity (and something that led Bauman away from using the term post-modernity) was Bauman’s view that modernity had always been characterized by an ambivalent, “dual” nature – a paradox. On one hand, underlying modern society was what Max Weber had described as a rationalizing tendency – a need for order, to categorize, and to rationalize the world so it could become controllable, predictable, and understandable; and on the other, there was a tendency to radical change built into modernity. A tendency to constantly overthrow tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship. This was what Marx and Engels had described in their line —“all that is solid melts into air.” Thus, solid modernity was characterized by an inherent paradox.
Our (contemporary) time and age, going by Bauman’s analysis of liquid modernity, also has a long list of inherent paradoxes: freedom versus security, individualization versus a craving for community, self-sufficiency versus increased interdependency, globalization versus localization, fear versus indifference, a desperate search for love and recognition coupled with a detestation of intimacy and responsibility, and so on.
Bauman’s analysis of liquid modernity actually discloses and diagnoses the many paradoxes and inner ambivalences created by the increasing liquefaction of contemporary modernity. In this context, a paradox is defined as inner tensions or contradictions that defy common sense and which are created by or exist with a social environment – tensions and contradictions that are often accompanied by unintended consequences or unanticipated and indeed also undesirable side-effects. Obviously, all societies and all historical epochs, in one way or the other, create patterns of ambivalence or paradoxes on the social, interactional and psychological level (see, e.g., Merton 1976). Paradoxes, dilemmas, contradictions, chasms, ambivalences and tensions are endemic to most societies most of the time. Some of these paradoxes of liquid modernity are:
- the paradox of saluting a world of open opportunities and nonetheless narrowing it down to no alternatives;
- the paradox of celebrating the individualization of life-circumstances and life-choices at the same time as abandoning responsibility for life-consequences and making the individual solely blameable whenever life-problems arise;
- the paradox of making life-politics as important as ever meanwhile denigrating all other more comprehensive forms of political engagement;
- the paradox of emptying public space of meaningful action and at the same time making it thoroughly policed and closely monitored;
- the paradox of simultaneously making critique ubiquitous and societal critique utterly irrelevant, redundant, trivial and impotent; and
- the paradox of ridiculing earlier utopian aspirations of the ‘Good Society’ and simultaneously living every single day as if one could grasp utopia within moments – believing every consumer object can take us to that utopia. Living life on the utopian treadmill.
- the paradox of liquefying everything and simultaneously making society thoroughly solid and immune to change;
To the naked eye and according to most common-sensical conventions, it does seem paradoxical in itself to suggest that many features of liquid modernity are increasingly becoming solid. However, as Bauman once explained in interview on this apparent paradox between ‘liquid’ modernity and its drift towards increasing ‘solidity’:
“No contradiction here – I learned it from Claus Offe and Pierre Bourdieu. It is because of fluidity that the world is so stubbornly un-manageable. Offe explained the apparent paradox by pointing to the tools of actions being sorely inadequate to the enormity of the task – hence the forces let loose rebound as intractable necessity (I tried to grasp it in the trope of the ‘frontier-land’). Bourdieu uncharacteristically leaped into psychology pointing out that people deprived of the grasp on the present cannot seriously think of controlling the future. This way or the other, we are invited back to the problem of missing agency. Since we do not know who would be able do it were we aware what was to be done, we are disinclined to waste time designing what is to be done, and the summary result is the intractability of reality being perceived as self-reproducing. The odds appear overwhelming. But the odds are as fluid as the rest, and they keep changing in the course of action.” (Bauman in Jacobsen, Marshman & Tester 2007:269-270).
Therefore, the surprising solidity of liquid modernity is perhaps not so surprising after all – it stems from and reflects the fact that the abandonment of long-term investments, shared social responsibility, collective action and the belief in a better society means that human intervention in the social world is drastically reduced thus leading to a thoroughly static state of affairs.
One might surmise that the presence and myriad of so many paradoxes and inner tensions to some extent may also reflect an inner paradox, inconsistency or contradiction in the mind of the observer/writer. However, such ambivalences, inconsistencies or paradoxes are not only the result from the workings of the creative imagination of the observer/writer – they are also an endemic part of the world of modernity described, analysed and diagnosed. As has been observed about this world of modernity and its impact on sociological analysis:
“Such ambivalence has often been held against one or another modern theorist, for example, as a symptom of personal confusion or inconsistency, but it now needs to be recognized that modernity is complex and multi-faceted; any insightful analysis, and especially any penetrating evaluation, should recognize and reflect this complexity. It is not a question of personal confusion about an unambiguous phenomenon, but a question of personal insight into a phenomenon which is in many respects ambiguous.” (Kim 2003:109)
In Bauman’s work, insistently pointing to the paradoxes and inconsistencies of modernity – solid as well as liquid – should be seen as creative openings, as imaginative inroads and as interpretative ways of teasing out or breaking open a human world that is never as one-dimensional, never as unambiguous, never as transparent, never as uni-linear and never as predictable as we might hope for or, by the powers that preside over us, are deceivingly tricked into believing.
Bauman’s description of the metaphor of ‘liquid modernity’, primarily focuses on the negative or disruptive aspects of recent social development and hardly touches upon any positive outcomes or consequences. In this respect, Zygmunt Bauman’s sociological description and diagnosis of liquid modernity is one-sidedly sombre and dystopian – but this is indeed a conscious part of his methodological strategy to use the bleak picture to point to or tease out those yet undiscovered and still available possibilities to create society anew.
According to Bauman, to increase awareness about these paradoxes created by liquid modernity – that often remain largely invisible to the naked eye and which are often hailed as successful and laudable achievements – and especially to puncture the prevailing myths about the apparently impenetrable solidity of liquidity is exactly the ambition of and a new and daring task for contemporary critical sociology. Bauman’s writings look deep into some of the main reasons behind and the most spectacular repercussions of the paradoxes produced by liquid modernity, but besides pointing to the breeding-ground for and the consequences of liquidity, his work is also characterized by a deep-seated aspiration to make his readers aware that something can in fact be done about it and that the human world is not yet ossified into immutable structures. As noted by one observer:
“Instead of theoretical unity and the persistence of the same critical judgments, [Bauman’s] books relentlessly emphasize the intellectual need to cope with emerging social problems, crises, contradictions and paradoxes and highlight sociology’s role in facilitating responses to them.” (Přibáñ 2007:2)
One way to create or increase awareness of such paradoxes and ambivalences, not to mention to strengthen the ability to act on them, is continuously critically to question society as it confronts us. Such awareness thus calls for a critical attitude towards the present. It is, however, important to remember that the freedom of critique – in liquid modernity as well as elsewhere – does not come without a cost. The freedom of critique even in an open and autonomous society is always something intimately bound up with the outcome of protracted historical struggles. In Zygmunt Bauman’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds in 1972, he thus stated on his own personal experiences in Poland:
“I have seen morally inspired, noble and lofty ideals smashed to pieces by the merciless logic of the reality their bearers failed to assess. I was with those who took … upon themselves to re-define the world they lived in, to fill the world with a new, better, more human meaning, to deny its repulsive reality in the name of the untrammelled human potential. I was with them still when they saw their ambition shattered against the wall of the same stubborn reality they refused to admit, and the same moral squalor sprouting again from below the thin film of ideals. And then, fortunately, I saw the same, always young and vigorous, indomitable spirit of exploration and perfection rising again to challenge the ungratifying reality. There seemed, indeed, to be no end to the drama in which the meaning and the reality, the subjective and the objective, the free and the determined, merge continuously to mould our present into our future. Such – contradictory and mischievously elusive to all clear-cut unilateral descriptions – is the shape of the human world (so I learned), my metier – sociology – is about. And the lesson I learned was, I think, congenial to the collective experience from which sociology in its modern form emerged. It was born of the painful realization of the vexing discrepancy between the ends people read into their actions and the consequences these actions bring about; between anticipations and results; ideals and reality; the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’.” (Bauman 1972:186-187)
As Bauman has since then continuously insisted, our world needs an iconoclastic and critical sociological perspective in order to open up for understanding and for the possibility of acting on the inherent paradoxes of human history and on the yawning and widening chasm between ‘inspired, noble and lofty ideals’ and the ‘merciless logic’ of a ‘stubborn reality’, or the discrepancy between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ (to be). Can we at least open the debate between the two this year rather than just letting things be?
© Michael Jacobsen (editorial inputs from The Essayist)
See Readings for this article linked here: Reading List: Zygmunt Bauman
The Magic Roundabout – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Swindon)
Some images from The Bauman Institute at http://baumaninstitute.leeds.ac.uk/