idea / Europe, Bauman's Scenario

A Casual Passer-By

Maciej Wiśniewski

Zygmunt Bauman asked about his own life, he says it is “one of the most boring subjects he could and would ever talk about.” Although he is one of the best storytellers in contemporary sociology, he insists he does not know how to tell stories about himself.

According to many, no other sociologist today is in so closely in touch with the Zeitgeist, and the analysis of no other is so close to everyday life. When he writes essays about people, he looks at them closely. He himself does not like being put under scrutiny, though. He did not hide his displeasure when a colleague wrote an impression based on a close observation of his private life.

Asked about something, he will usually reply by posing a question, and asked for an opinion, he will most often quote another author. Still, he is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding and influential social thinkers of today. His concepts, as we read in the statement of the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities he received in 2010, have “created … singularly valuable conceptual instruments for understanding the changing, speeded-up world in which we live.”

It’s Not Me Thinking, It’s the Ideas Thinking Themselves

His most important works include Legislators and Interpreters (1987) and Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). In the former, he presented a brilliant analysis of postmodernism as an intellectual phenomenon; the latter, which initially received a very cool reaction, is now among the 10 most quoted books on the Holocaust. In it, he argued that the Shoah was not a momentary outbreak of irrationality or a result of German barbarism, but a logical consequence of the development of modernity. But while he is regarded as one of the “prophets” of postmodernism, he has never been its apologist. After a brief period of fascination with the term, he abandoned it and coined a new one: “liquid modernity.”

Retiring in 1990 as head of the department of sociology at the University of Leeds, he told himself that from now on, he would no longer be writing for his professional colleagues but rather for “ordinary” people. He changed his strategy, opting for closer contact with the life-world, started publishing small büchleins instead of thick volumes, and transformed from a standard scholar into a “sociology writer.” For a dozen years now he seems to have been writing one and the same book about the changing condition of modernity. According to his analysis, not only is power shifting to transnational forces, but the old “order-building” institutions are dissolving, leaving us without fixed orientation points, forced to search individually for liquid identities and norms.

He has been publishing this magnum opus in installments, as it were, in successive büchleins, such as The Art of Life, Community. Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Liquid Life, The Individualised Society, Consuming Life, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Liquid Fear, Society Under Siege, and others. Asked about the stages of his work, the major themes and differences in his approach to these themes, Bauman replies,

“I could hardly point to any such caesura if I tried to. And I’m not. My interests branch off and multiply or, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, ‘rhizome,’ by themselves. I have little control over this and it’s hardly a result of conscious decisions. As Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested, ‘It is not me who is thinking, it is the thoughts thinking themselves out.’”

Despite his age, he does not intend to rest, publishing two or three books every year, writing countless essays, and providing comprehensive introductions and afterwords to other authors’ works. He gives interviews with equal generosity, and considers the form to be an important way of popularizing his views. He usually prefers to conduct them in writing, with the assumption that such a formula is much more effective if the interviewer really wants to know what the interviewee thinks. This was the case with his most recent volume of “conversations,” Living on Borrowed Time, conducted by the Mexican sociologist Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo, in which Bauman condensed his views on a variety of issues, such as the welfare state, the financial crisis, and the consequences of “the culture of easy credit” and biotechnology.

It suffices to look at the schedule of just a single month to comprehend the pace of his work-filled life: at the end of October 2010, after receiving the Prince of Asturias Award, he spent a few days in Spain, mainly giving interviews, then took part in a video conference in Buenos Aires, then spent a few days in Poland, then Leeds, only to give more TV and press interviews, then a trip to Bratislava and Vienna, then Poland again, back to Leeds, and Poland again, to take part in a marathon of events commemorating his eighty-fifth birthday on November 19.

Asked about his upcoming plans, he replies, “I’m currently focused on composing my lectures and traveling around the world with them. My latest collection of essays, Collateral Casualties of Inequality, will be published in a few months. I’m also writing, sporadically, a “non-daily journal” – “on the spot” comments on the world’s successive twists and turns, as I digest them intellectually. How far I manage to take this – god only knows...”

Pessimism of the Intellect – Optimism of the Will

At first glance, Bauman’s sociological literature is deeply pessimistic. In fact, there is hardly any good news in it – his criticism and scepticism about the surrounding world seem infinite, leaving the reader feeling helpless. “We all suffer today as a result of a divorce between power (Macht) and politics (Politik). Vacillating between, on the one hand, forces able to change something but in fact reluctant to act towards change because of the limitations it would impose on their wilfulness and, on the other, institutions unable to change anything because they’ve been deprived and stripped of the power required to do so. The problem, therefore, lies not in that we cannot reach consensus but in the powerlessness of all consensuses…,” says Bauman, and the few lines aptly sum up the overall tone of his analysis.

Although he urges us to seek and save politics, he stresses there is no public space, no agora, where it could be practiced. Although he points to the need for self-organization to oppose the dominant asymmetry of work vs. capital, he hastens to add that it is a global issue and that in this case, as in other cases, we lack “global instruments to solve global problems.” When he notices social movements amid unbridled individualization, he argues that they do not represent an alternative for the dominant order, and at best only delay the march of the “Juggernaut of capitalism.” And the recent financial crisis was, according to him, not a consequence of a failure but of a huge success of capitalism, which has made us accustomed to the culture of easy credit. Despite the implosion of the financial markets and the collapse of the old “normality,” no new “normality” has appeared to take its place.

Keith Tester, British sociologist, professor at the University of Hull, who in the 1980s did his PhD under Bauman, author of Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman (2001) as well as several books on him, believes that the argument about Bauman’s alleged pessimism is much exaggerated. But he admits that the earlier books were more optimistic (Bauman still hoped then that modernism could be reformed) and the successive ones grew more and more sceptical, now serving only to find ways of surviving in liquid modernity. Bauman himself, speaking once about the difference between optimism and pessimism, said that an optimist was someone who thought the world we lived in was the best the possible one and a pessimist was someone who suspected the former might be right. Only, alongside Claude Off from whom he had borrowed the differentiation, he excluded himself from the opposition, hoping that the world could indeed be better.

Bauman’s true lesson seems to be as follows: firstly, we should study the society that is emerging from the ever more globalized, individualized and privatized condition, and not content ourselves merely to question it, and secondly, social processes are a result of human actions and decisions, there being nothing inevitable in them (like the Holocaust, determined by the logic of modernity, but not inevitable).

Everything, therefore, is in our power. In this sense, the Baumanian dichotomy of pessimism vs. optimism is enriched with another element – hope. Bauman awards the central role to ethics and there is a tension in his work between his belief in the individual and dis-belief in the world. “I’d probably be in the minority here,” Keith Tester says, “but if I were to raise one fundamental criticism of Bauman’s work, I’d say that it is too optimistic, filled with too much faith in humanity.” Australian sociologist Peter Beilharz, professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, author of Zygmunt Bauman – Dialectic of Modernity, believes similarly, calling the Polish-born thinker an “anthropological optimist.” However, unlike Tester, he abstains from criticism. According to Beilharz, Bauman is not afraid to be a bearer of bad news because he hopes we can find remedies for them. “During one of the conferences,” Beilharz recalls, “when someone in the audience criticized Bauman for being too optimistic, he replied, ‘If I communicate bad news to you, it’s only for you to do something about it!’”

Europe: A Hope-Less Adventure

“To live without hope in ‘dark times,’ as Hannah Arendt called them, is hard. But it is also hard, not being a mystic or anchorite, to live with ungrounded hope, not tied to the time or place, a spirit without a body. Nor will others allow you to content yourself with such fleeting hope, they will torment you with questions about the nitty-gritty: “what are these hopes based on?,” “what proof do you have they are not vain, that they are not just pipe dreams?’”, says Bauman, and adds that questions about pessimism have been asked at all public
events in which he has taken part. “Unless, that is, I talked about Europe. Then I was asked why I was so optimistic!” That is not a coincidence. Bauman has pinned much of his hopes precisely on Europe. He has also devoted a separate book to it, titled Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (2004). The Old Continent, according to him, is the only one that has shown an ability to coexist with the “Other.” People of various cultures, languages, religions, living together in a relatively small area, have learned to effectively negotiate the conditions of their coexistence. This phenomenon was noticed earlier and defined as “hospitality” by Immanuel Kant, in a tiny, forgotten treatise, dusted off by Bauman, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View –

if the world is a globe, there is no other place to go and people have to learn to live together.

“ Hospitality,” according to Bauman, is something Europe was able to offer to the world. Unfortunately, as it has begun its slow decline into decadence over the past few decades, the rest of the world has ceased to be friendly and “hospitable” towards it. This argument seems to actually work both ways: Europe, uncertain of its identity, has also become Festung Europa, an in-hospitable fortress. “Europe, the home of Kant, the prophet of a hospitable world, has turned into a shining example of in-hospitability. To its own undoing, in fact. Most impressive technological inventions are used to close and seal gates or detect and catch intruders. And yet those intruders are not only people wishing for Europe to pull itself out of trouble – they are also its victims, as it were, people who have been thrown into misery by a form of life once invented and tested by Europe and then eagerly exported to other continents. A form of life that produces mass numbers of redundant people, slated to waste and recycling – the rejects of ‘rationalization’ and detritus of ‘economic progress.’ As a pioneer of ‘modernization,’ Europe once used global solutions to deal with the locally generated problem of ‘overpopulation’; today it expects other countries (which it has itself tempted or forced to embrace the obsession of ‘modernization’) to seek local solutions to globally produced problems.”

Problems can be seen not only on the bulwarks but also within – since the arrival of the crisis, Europe has begun to prefer national austerity measures over community solutions and, cutting back the welfare state, started to relinquish any ability to protect its citizens from the consequences of “negative globalization”. Bauman uses the latter term to denote the globalization of finance and trade as opposed to the “positive globalization” of executive and legislative institutions. “I’ve been saying over and over again that global issues can only have global solutions. We cannot blame Europe for not being able to solve such problems on its own and solely in its own yard. This, in fact, makes one optimistic because it exposes the falseness of the idea of Festung Europa. We only can, and should, hold it against Europe that it has done little (nothing, really), and is doing equally little today, to promote ‘positive globalization’ – the only means of reining in ‘negative’ globalization and saving us from its disastrous effects”, explains Bauman.

The “European adventure” seems not to be fulfilling the hopes pinned on it. “Was I wrong? Perhaps. Despite pledges and hopes to the contrary, Europe no longer has anything to offer to the world (because it does not want to). So what about hope? Well, my hope is that, given the global condition of the world, an instinct for self-preservation and a moral sense will urge joint action – in this global boat that we are all crammed into, we will either help each other row, or we will all go down together…”

The Purpose-Less Use of Reason

One of the main features of Zygmunt Bauman’s thought is its lack of programs or suggestions for practical solutions. “He avoids showing ways because he believes that, left to their own reason, people are able to act ethically,” says Keith Tester. “Besides, his thinking is characterized by profound modesty. Aware that he cannot know all the answers, he abstains from giving them, limiting himself to general orientation, to identifying the major issues and challenges.” There are no programs in Bauman’s works but there are – in the best tradition of Montaigne – attempts to raise issues. Instead of goals or predefined paths, an ethically and politically oriented direction: a fairer society. Asked about the “modest” dimension of his project, Bauman replies, “Cornelius Castoriadis regarded ‘not questioning oneself’ as the most dangerous ailment of our world. And Maurice Blanchot said that an answer was a misfortune of the question. I firmly support both statements.

The purpose of asking questions is seeking answers rather than actually finding them, because answers leave the questions toothless and declawed. So I’ve been trying for years, however awkwardly, to articulate questions and disarticulate answers”.

This Baumanian “articulation of questions” and “disarticulation of answers” is the best example of the “public use of reason” – egalitarian, universal thinking, independent formulation of views and their communication to other members of society, one of the greatest achievements of the Enlightenment, according to Kant. Its opposite is the “private use of reason,” that is, thinking subordinated to some external, positivistic purpose, focused, for instance, on narrow “problem solving.”

The “Bologna process,” an overhaul of European universities started in the 1990s, providing for greater standardization of teaching, greater specialization and the pragmatization of questions, is a negation of the legacy of Kant’s “public use of reason.” Subordinating higher learning to the needs of the market and replacing “thinking” with “expert opinions,” the reform, in its essence, shifts the stress from “public” to “private,” depriving us all of the ability to put our society in question. For Kant, this would mean a restriction of individual freedom. This is important insofar that, as Bauman showed in Legislators and Interpreters, intellectuals (or “experts”) are not an “answer” in themselves but merely “part of the problem.” We should pursue the answer together. Although Kant advised in Perpetual Peace that the ruler should consult philosophers, he could not, of course, foresee the rise of the 20th-century totalitarian ideologies and the role intellectuals played in shaping them. But free-thinking intellectuals can be as dangerous (In the 1960s, following China’s first successful nuclear test, Karl Jaspers advised a preventive nuclear strike against Beijing to “protect world peace.”). This is one of the reasons why Bauman makes it clear that he does not belong in the corridors of power and why he shuns everday politics. Or even, as Keith Tester points out, why he formulates his recommendations in a manner that precludes them from being used by politicians.

Political Digression

In this sense, Bauman is the antithesis of such thinkers as the quasi-official philosopher of the European Union Jürgen Habermas, whom Bauman in fact feels very close to, or leading British sociologist Lord Anthony Giddens, chief ideologist of Tony Blair’s now-defunct “Third Way” and “New Labour” (incidentally, despite their differences, Bauman and Giddens held each other in high regard and appreciate each other’s works).

But, quite unexpectedly and independent of his attitude, the Polish sociologist’s thought began filtering through to official politics with the recent election of Ed Miliband as leader of the British Labour Party. Ed’s father, Ralph, a Marxist sociologist, also of Polish-Jewish descent, taught at Leeds and was friends with Bauman. His sons, Ed and David, both active politicians of the British left today, grew up in an intellectual atmosphere on which the author of Liquid Modernity had left his early mark. The recovering left opposition’s agenda, especially the appeal for a “good society,” was greatly inspired by Zygmunt Bauman’s thought. This is confirmed by Neal Lawson, British commentator, author of All Consuming, a recently published book on consumer culture (dedicated in fact to the Polish sociologist), who once worked for Gordon Brown and today is one of the coordinators of the left “pressure group” Compass. “We’ve been promoting Bauman’s ideas on the British left for quite a long time now. The fact that these ideas are being embraced by Miliband today – like when he advocates community or speaks on behalf of the excluded – is a result of both his personal history with Bauman and of the work of Compass,” says Lawson.

Bauman himself unexpectedly took a position in this context too, wishing Labour to recover its moral compass and expressing hope for a revival of the left in Britain. But that reaction was purely human rather than intellectual. Asked for advice or his suggested course of action, he replies with his characteristic contrariness,

“I’m asked questions like these very often, and I usually reply with an Irish joke: a driver pulls over and asks a passer-by about the way to Dublin and the man replies, ‘Dear sir, if I wanted to go to Dublin this is not where I’d start!’”

And he adds, “But we must go to Dublin, unfortunately we have no other place. Still, not possessing any prophetic skills or the qualifications of a political expert, and accepting the reasoning of the passer-by, I cannot be much more helpful than him in finding the way.”

A Methodical Lack of Method

“ Bauman is a theoretician who tries to show to us the mechanisms and phenomena occurring in the contemporary world. To make them visible. And he does that in a far more accessible manner than others. Just as Giddens has brilliantly highlighted some limitations of Enlightenment-era modernity, so Bauman does the same with the modernity contemporary to us – complex and global,” says Saskia Sassen, Dutch sociologist, professor at Columbia University in New York, author of Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Also Keith Tester stresses the “communicativeness” of Bauman’s philosophy, arguing that he tries to talk to the reader through his books. His work is open, in permanent process. It is a constant criticism and questioning of ourselves and the institutions surrounding us. In this sense, Tester adds, there exists no single, ultimate way of reading Bauman.

Peter Beilharz, one of Bauman’s most interesting interpreters, lists the following as fundamental components of his sociological praxis: criticism of modernity, order and conformism, Weberian Marxism (a term coined by Maurice Merleau-Ponty to denote Marx’s criticism of commodification and Weber’s criticism of rationalization), Eastern-European critical thought, and a sociology of “surplus population and excess.”

The latter aspect seems particularly valid at a time when, as Bauman stresses in Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, there has been a growing shortage of storage space on the planet for the “human waste” produced by “order-building” and economic progress (which is not a geographic argument but a political one). Bauman’s “sociology of excess” not only points out the excess of modernity itself and infinitely voracious capitalism (as it keeps devouring the successive “virgin fields” of uncommodified areas of our planet and social life) and stresses that state socialism was too excessive in its intentions, but also, importantly, it is a call to moderation and modesty.

Bauman does not aspire to originality. As Walter Benjamin says in his monumental Passagenwerk (the Polish edition of which, incidentally, includes a comprehensive afterword by Bauman about Benjamin-the-intellectual), “there is nothing to say, only to show.” Not having developed his own, unique, sociological method, Bauman reworks and confronts old theories and views, adapting them to today’s worldview in a quest for a new synthesis. In doing that, he is not only eclectic but also voracious, finding inspiration virtually everywhere – in philosophy, literature, film, pop culture, etc. His key intellectual lodestars are George Simmel, Max Weber, and Antonio Gramsci, who, for him, has saved the humanistic message of Marxism and shown the ever open horizon of possibilities. Bauman himself always adds his Polish professors: Stanisław Ossowski and Julian Hochfeld. Bauman’s style, Peter Beilharz has noticed, can be best described using a term attributed to Simmel: “sociological impressionism.”

No Bauman School

The lack of method also entails a lack of any particular sociological school. In fact, as Tester points out, the breadth of Bauman’s intellectual and cultural references is too great for anyone to be able to simply imitate his way of work. Still, there exists a group of sociologists in Britain – Tester among them – regarding themselves not so much as Bauman’s heirs as debtors to his style of thinking, sharing with him not methodology but ethical and political coordinates.

But there are also critics. British sociologist John Goldthorpe, student of Norbert Elias, the founder of figurative sociology, which emphasizes process, reportedly called the Polish sociologist a “charlatan” who “invents everything.” Tester says the majority of the academic community does not know what to do with Bauman. “The main charge is lack of methodology but usually, instead of being openly criticized, he is simply ignored.”

Internationally, the first countries that “embraced” Bauman included Spain and Italy. The recently published 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World are a collection of column pieces from La Repubblica, in which he commented on “breaking news” such as the crisis or swine flu. Bauman has also “caught on” in Germany, Scandinavia, and Latin America. Relatively most recently in France: Modernity and The Holocaust was published there only several years ago. The least friendly market so far has been the United States. In the essay “Towards a Critical Sociology,” Bauman admitted he had learned nothing from the “pope” of American sociology, Talcott Parsons. The US, with its idiosyncratic, strictly institutional sociology model ― a cult of schools and their founders, has obviously paid him back in kind. This does not mean there is no critical thought in North America, but it always follows one and the same format, alien to Bauman, a good example of which is Immanuel Wallerstein: he has his method (the analysis of “world-systems”), his school, and an institution watching over it, the Fernand Braudel Center. Richard Sennett, an American sociologist Bauman feels close to, was therefore right in remarking that Bauman did the right thing by deciding not to stay in the US, where he had found himself for a while after leaving Israel. It would have doomed him to marginalization. In Britain, on the other hand, he found a convenient place from which to speak to the world.

A Sociology Writer

For British sociology, Bauman proved an entirely new phenomenon. Not only by virtue of the nature of his analysis but also, explains Tony Blackshaw, British sociologist and author of Zygmunt Bauman (2005), of his writer’s skills (even though English is not his native tongue) and storytelling talent. Instead of a unique sociological method, Bauman has developed “his own way of looking at reality,” and has created a “language and concepts for talking about them.” Instead of case studies, he has decided to employ “ideal types,” unique poetics and metaphors, led by the category of “liquidity.” Through it, he makes us familiar with the “unstable,” because, Saskia Sassen says, “the role of the category is to bring a process to a halt for a moment so that we can study it more closely. With ‘liquidity,’ Bauman has performed a perfect trick enabling us to better understand our present condition,” says Sassen.

With his sociological practice, Bauman not only forces us to search, literary-style, for new categories to describe his work (perhaps “sociology writer” would be best here?), but he also likes to contextualize fiction writers in the field of the social sciences, counting among his “most insightful philosophers” such authors as Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera. The works of the former show how the then “solid” modernity generated its characteristic sense of “lack of place” and “lack of certainty,” whereas the latter provides terms for conveying the atmosphere of our “liquid-modern” life, characterized both by an “unbearable lightness” and a sense that “life is elsewhere.” In his speech upon receiving the Prince of Asturias Award, Bauman cited Miguel de Cervantes, ― in his words, the author of the greatest novel of all time ― as the “father of the social sciences”. According to Bauman, the author of Don Quixote was the first to achieve what social scientists have always, with mixed results, been trying to achieve – he “tore down the curtain” (a reference to Kundera) of prejudices and myths obscuring the world we are trying to understand.

Horizons and Footnotes

Treating sociology as a “kind of writing”, Bauman also demonstrates a typically literary approach: he constantly reworks several basic ideas that he wants to advance to the reader. In his writing, he borrows not only from philosophers (Rorty, Habermas) and sociologists (Pierre Bordieu, Richard Sennett, Ulrich Beck, Giorgio Agamben), but also from authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Joseph Brodsky and the aforementioned Kundera and Kafka.

From Calvino, Bauman has borrowed not only the imperative to “tell stories,” but also the way of portraying the members of his “liquid” society – as residents of its “invisible cities,” such as Leonia, where the “advancement of a modern country could best be gauged by the number of waste dumping sites and the legions of the excluded and outcasts…” A glance at Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino’s published series of mid-1980s Harvard University lectures dealing with the challenges facing literature on the eve of a new millennium, allows us to see in them not only a set of principles that Bauman-the-writer might take into consideration but actually an avant la lettre textbook of Baumanian terms and a program of his studies. Calvino, himself inspired by authors such as Aristotle, Boccaccio, Flaubert, Queneau, Perec, and Kundera, wrote of Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity (work on the sixth memo was interrupted by death). It is also a set of challenges facing our society, in which, as Bauman noted in Liquid Life, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”

Even though Calvino’s “quickness” meant “precision” and Bauman’s “precarization” and “sense of uncertainty,” just as the Italian writer, despite the risks, deeply believed in literature, so Bauman, in spite of everything, has deep trust in our society and its members.

Another writer worth adding to this constellation is José Saramago, with whom Bauman shares a similar sensitivity towards the world. His favorite novel of the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner is As Intermitências da Morte, which begins when, in a certain country, people stop dying. One critic referred it to the Kafkaesque tradition – just as in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis impossible events, e.g. the protagonist’s transformation into a bug, become probable when superior impossibility is assumed, so in Saramago when death stops counting its toll, everything suddenly becomes possible, such as that the Grim Reaper turns into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a certain cello player.

This is, as it were, a Baumanian horizon – everything we see and experience around us is so incredible that it is actually possible.

Even a different, fairer, world and society.

Life: A Processing Manual

Bauman interlaces life and work as few other authors do. His personal experiences not only provide him with themes but also determine how they are approached. Rejecting the Weberian notion that sociology should be a neutral sphere devoid of personal values, Bauman has opened it to his own living, combining “sociological imagination” with “personal worries.” The author of Liquid Life likes to stress that “for your work to be of any value, it has to be a reworking of your own experiences.”

Born in 1925 in Poznań, he fled the Soviet Union with his parents after the outbreak of World War Two, to then return as an officer of the Polish army and get as far as Berlin. After the war he lived in Warsaw, after serving in the Domestic Security Corps, from which he was discharged in 1953. With time, he developed an academic career at the University of Warsaw, situating himself within the current of broadly construed revisionism. In 1968, as a result of an anti-Semitic and nationalistic campaign, he was forced to leave Poland and renounce his citizenship. He left for Israel, but was soon discouraged by its nationalism (another form of which he had just fled), and he left the Middle East. After a period of wandering around the world, he returned to Europe and settled in Britain.

Writing about issues as diverse as modernity and its incarnations, the Holocaust, freedom, ethics, security, community, work, socialism, consumerism, life strategies, identity, globalization, poverty, fear, Europe and love, he has experienced them in varying degrees in the course of his life, stretched between the Great Depression of the 1930s, the era of totalitarianism, the “golden era” of capitalism, the decline of producer society, and the rise of consumer society, to the latest financial crisis.

This personal orientation and the longue dureé of his view make it absolutely unique. Only someone who himself has experienced the hardships of assimilation could have written so lucidly on identity. Only a thinker sentenced initially to wandering around the world could have developed such a personal attitude towards Europe. Only a witness of the decline of producer society could have captured so precisely the gravity of the transition from the ethics of work to the aesthetics of consumption. Bauman’s magnum opus, Modernity and The Holocaust, owes a lot to the conceptual interpretations of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, but even more to the influence and inspiration of the WWII experiences of his beloved wife, Janina – who died in 2009 – described, for example, in her memoirs, Zima o poranku [Winter in the morning]. In fact, only a man profoundly happy in emotional life could write a book like Liquid Love. Zygmunt Bauman explains that Gramsci has shown him “what,” Simmel has shown him “how,” and Janina (with whom, he stresses, he was “one person of two names”) has shown him “for whom.”

But, leaving the door to his experiences ajar like this, he keeps shut tightly that to his private life. And when Peter Beilharz wrote Bauman’s Coat, a personal reflection on his visits to Leeds and his work with the Polish sociologist, Bauman felt offended. “I also remember,” adds Beilharz, “that when reviewing my book about Bernard Smith, a leading Australian intellectual, he wrote me that I devoted too much attention to the ornithologist – and yet I should be interested in the birds too.”

Sixthly: Consistency

Although Italo Calvino did not live to write his sixth Memo, we know that it was to be titled Consistency. Meaning “density,” but also “accordance,” “firmness,” and “resolve.” “Consistency” is a very adequate term for describing the alloy of Bauman’s life and work. Urging “criticism of excess,” he himself has been proposing and proving with his modest life, anchored for nearly forty years now in a Leeds suburb, that going beyond the imperative of endless consumption is possible and that life itself can go on happily without us pursuing its ever new incarnations. During the inauguration of the Bauman Institute at Leeds University in September 2010, despite the fact that the whole event and the accompanying conference, attended by several hundred, were devoted exclusively to him, he spoke only once.

His only excess can be found in his immense kindness, the warmth he radiates in personal dealings and the virtually incredible hospitality that is a sanctioned rule of his home.

Despite being doubtful about the world, he maintains quite exceptional personal optimism. This makes him different from many thinkers, such as Adorno, immersed in the autumn of their lives in profound defeatism. Embodying the “pessimism of intellect” and “optimism of will” discussed by Gramsci, Bauman says: That the world is as it is does not mean that its inhabitants should not be changing it.

At the same time, he often likes to “complain,” both in private and public, about his “inexcusably long life.” Answering questions or giving another interview, he stresses time and again that he is giving “his last, probably in both senses of the word, reflections.” The title of the aforementioned conversations – Living on Borrowed Time – serves as a similar allusion.

“I remember him quoting Thomas Mann about the importance of dying at the right time. For Zygmunt, preparing for death is a fundamental part of the art of living,” says Tester. In fact, Bauman has devoted a separate volume to death – Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (1998). And, as Beilharz claims, it is probably his favorite of his own books. In it he argues that death is not only the big absentee of sociology, but a necessary condition of culture in general. Only in its face do we create and maintain traditions, seeking ways to “survive our own death.” For Bauman, death is not only a constructive idea of our society, but also a horizon of our notions about it and the limit of what it could possibly be.

“For a couple of months now, I’ve been traveling again with lectures, escaping loneliness after Jasia’s death. Many other such excesses on the record – I’m provoking fate, asking the grim reaper for some haste, making things easier for the inevitable.”

Unless otherwise noted, all of Zygmunt Bauman’s statements are from the author’s private correspondence.

Translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak