Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zygmunt Bauman Leaves Behind Tools and Hopes

by Dean Dettloff

Zygmunt Bauman, November 19, 1925 - January 9, 2017
It is nothing short of ominous that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, that prescient sage of our contemporary, liquid lives, should die in January 2017, when the spirits of fear and resentment are busy reanimating what many took to be the corpses of a more solid modernity. Writing late into 2016, at the age of 91, Bauman leaves behind not only a legacy of conceptual handles and cultural observations, but also a set of hopes, fears, and determinate advice for those of us gazing into a troubled horizon. We would do well, therefore, not just to remember Bauman, but to recall his most recent observations (some of which are linked in the following text) and take them as a relay baton from the previous century into the next.

Famous for his identification of what he called “liquid modernity,” Bauman tried to articulate the anxieties produced by the rapid social and technological changes of the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries. According to Bauman, ours is a society marked by ebbs and flows, more conditioned by the flux of time than the boundaries of space. What used to bind us together no longer holds. Bauman is not nostalgic here, for he recognizes that many of these older forms of solidity, like ideologies of blood and soil, were rightly melted away. At the same time, however, it is unclear how to build any new sense of trustworthy, solid ways of stabilizing ourselves, of dropping anchor, leaving us adrift on tumultuous tides. Caught between the solidity of earlier ideologies and an unclear future, Bauman calls our present time an “interregnum,” tarrying between the devil and the deep blue sea.

For the last several years of his life in this interregnum, Bauman turned his research and commentary to issues of reaction, migration, and the need for a new solidarity. Having the ground shift beneath our feet makes us scared. So scared, in fact, that Bauman, a leftist thinker, updated the previous identification of the “proletariat” with an exploration of what he calls the “precariat,” united, paradoxically, by a common experience of individual suffering. Bauman does not thereby deny social inequalities, but rather shows how they mutate, bringing out the pervasive affects and effects resulting from the precarious position of people beholden to the flows of networks like global labor markets.

According to Bauman, this is what makes the present refugee crisis so difficult, for the refugees represent what the precariat fears might happen to them. Just recently many of the refugees streaming into Europe were educated persons, with families, jobs, housing—and now their lives are even more precarious than those of the precariat itself. Instead of welcoming the stranger, precarians refuse the stranger as a symbol of their own fears, and they respond by making enemies and forming phobic collectives.

The picture Bauman paints of contemporary liquid life is troubling. But Bauman is not content only to articulate the problem. Among a variety of recommendations he makes throughout his work, perhaps the most common is his call for dialogue in an effort to create new forms of solidarity. True dialogue, Bauman suggests, is not simply talking with people, but intentionally talking with others who are different. In this effort, Bauman suggests Pope Francis as a model, one who thinks about those on the margins of a globalized society and who reaches out to others of alternative perspectives. In an interview with Vatican Insider, Bauman, who was not a Catholic but who was himself known for dialoguing with people of other positions, said, “I am in awe of everything Francis is doing; I believe his pontificate gives not just the Catholic Church but the entire humanity a chance.”

What will happen in the coming years as we continue to be tossed about the waves of uncertainty and precarity remains to be seen. Bauman's forthcoming book, due out this year, is entitled Retrotopia, promising to analyze the growing popularity of visions of the past as a response to the problems of the present (e.g. promises to make America great again). As far as Bauman is concerned, however, creating new forms of solidarity with others through open dialogue is the only way in which we will retool our communities for an unclear future. With Bauman's passing, we have indeed lost one of our best navigators. But out on this open water, if we are willing to speak with each other, perhaps we might cobble together some kind of life raft after all.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies. His doctoral research deals with the intersections of media, politics, and religion.

Image used from Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny, flickr.

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