Zygmunt Bauman 1925-2017 - Tidningen Kulturen




Zygmunt Bauman

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Polish sociologist and philosopher, WWII survivor and former Polish military officer Zygmunt Bauman dies in Leeds aged 91.




Bauman’s impressive body of work revolves around, e.g., society and modernity, utopia and dystopia (or a dystopic utopia; for is there ever such a thing as a true or pure utopia?), rationality and its opposite, human fear and the Holocaust (he shares views with Hanna Arendt in his lucid book Modernity and the Holocaust, where he also draws from Adorno, and suggests that “the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire”), and human ambivalence at a time when ambivalence and uncertainty have become defining words.

The world according to Bauman was anything but an upbeat place. Known for his frank and existential ponderings often on our postmodern times (we may now have entered a post-postmodern era) he tirelessly wrote accounts on his contemporary world, often from a sombre yet insightfully realistic perspective, and until the very end. Now gone, he leaves us with thoughts that echo across our world and throughout our times, and shape the way we ourselves look upon society and our role in it.

Born in Poznań, Bauman later served in the Polish army as one of its youngest Majors and had prior to that spent a stint in the former Soviet Union after his family was forced to escape the invading Nazi army back in Poland, in 1939. Participating in the First Polish Army as a political instructor and serving in several battles, Bauman eventually returned to his native land but never shared his father’s Zionist views, which caused a rift between the two. Serving as a Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, Bauman later lectured also in Israel (in Tel Aviv and Haifa) and in 1971 was appointed Professor (and later Professor Emeritus) of Sociology at the University of Leeds. This last, extensive period of employment facilitated the publication of a number of highly relevant and pertinent texts that have had a great impact on the reader up until this day and that, despite their often very heavy subject matter, are remarkably accessible and easily digested. The University also honoured Bauman by founding the Bauman Institute, in 2010.

Bauman’s impressive body of work revolves around, e.g., society and modernity, utopia and dystopia (or a dystopic utopia; for is there ever such a thing as a true or pure utopia?), rationality and its opposite, human fear and the Holocaust (he shares views with Hanna Arendt in his lucid book Modernity and the Holocaust, where he also draws from Adorno, and suggests that “the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire”), and human ambivalence at a time when ambivalence and uncertainty have become defining words.

Bauman’s thoughts are crystalized in writing in a number of astute reflections on particularly a 1990s era influenced by mindnumbening and soul killing commercialism, which still very much governs us today. Postmodernity also becomes a major concept and concern for Bauman and he talks almost incessantly of its hold on our increasingly globalised world. Reading Bauman’s books and articles (all equally pertinent) is an enlightening experience where the renowned sociologist explores the world in which we live, highlighting periods that can be considered milestones in the sense that they have deeply shaped our contemporary society, our views, and attitudes to our fellow citizens. And all the while he boldly plunges into an exploration of the human psyche, detailing the both individualistic and collective way we think and operate - in an often confronting and disconcerting manner.

Fluidity and a liquid state become brilliant keywords in Bauman’s texts. In a number of these he introduces the concept of a “liquid” modern society. His sharply critical and much cited works published in the past three decades include Postmodernity and its Discontents(1997), Globalization: The Human Consequences(1998), Liquid Modernity(2000), Society under Siege(2002), City of Fears, City of Hopes, and Liquid Love(2003; the latter a more light-hearted reading experience), his three sequential, globally concerned Liquid Life(2005), Liquid Fear (2006), and Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty(2007), as well as the highly engrossing Culture in a Liquid Modern World(2011). In these accounts and others Bauman perfectly encapsulates the essence of postmodernity and globalization and how these movements or conditions impact on cities, societies, and people. Always acutely aware of the double-edged sword that is the globalizing movement, Bauman views the often disillusioned postmodern individual as a product of an ever more fragmentary process equalled to “the human condition that arrives afterpeople stop believing in the big promises made by modern ideologies” (Dennis Smith, Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity, 1999, 15).

In texts and interviews, Bauman speaks of a society in flux, one defined by its modern and also postmodern elements. In his mind,

‘[li]quid life’ and ‘liquid modernity’ are intimately connected. ‘Liquid life’ is a kind of life that tends to be lived in a liquid modern society. ‘Liquid modern’ is a society in which the conditions under which its members act change faster than it takes the ways of acting to consolidate into habits and routines… (Liquid Life, 2005, 1).

He defines the “time of postmodernity” as an “unfinished” and also“unfinishable … project of modernity” (Bauman and Keith Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, 2001, 75). In doing so he highlights how postmodernity is simultaneously a reaction to a previous era and a movement that depends on the one it rebels again, for its existence. Bauman’s arguments can be directly applied to our particularly urban environment today. This liquid, or fluid, society where individuals enjoy great independence may well have allowed for more liberal and liberalising trends. Yet at the same time this very lack of unfinishability, paired with an individual lack of a clear direction in a society of constant movement and action, triggers certain nostalgia amongst postmodern citizens in relation to the past. We live in a time of the never standing still and experience a sense of loss not only with regard to the past, but are at the same time we ourselves lost in a current era of increased emotional detachment between people, as well as increased materialism in the name of technological breakthroughs and innovations. In these often bewildering global times we are ultimately strangers not only to each other but also to ourselves.

Appropriately given the above, one of Bauman’s last books is entitled Strangers at Our Door (2016), and is to be followed by Retrotopia (apparently published posthumously later this year). In 2013 the Polish Postmodern Prophet spoke about the end of one world order yet the lack of another to replace it, in the recorded lecture Living in Times of Interregnum given at the University of Trento. The same topic was the focus of a lecture in which Bauman addressed also Stockholm youths, at the tender age of 86.

Expressing himself with bravado on virtually all aspects of (post)modern life, Bauman has left us with thoughts and insights that worry and engage us all at once, while all along he helps us gain a better understanding of our fluid identity in often very troubling times.

Dr Jytte Holmqvist

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