Posts Tagged ‘Zygmunt Bauman’

Zygmunt Bauman goes “to liquid eternity.”

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“There is beauty, and there are the humiliated.” In Wrocław, 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist and a major public intellectual, is dead at 91 – or, as his widow put it, he has changed his place of residence “to liquid eternity.”

According to The New York Times“The Polish-born left-wing thinker’s works explored the fluidity of identity in the modern world, the Holocaust, consumerism and globalization.” The article continued:

Renowned for an approach that incorporated philosophy and other disciplines, Bauman was a strong moral voice for the poor and dispossessed in a world upended by globalization. Whether he was writing about the Holocaust or globalization, his focus remained on how humans can create a dignified life through ethical decisions.

He wrote more than 50 books, notably “Modernity and the Holocaust,” a 1989 release in which he differed with many other thinkers who saw the barbarism of the Holocaust as a breakdown in modernity. Bauman viewed the mass exterminations of Jews as the very outcome of such pillars of modernity as industrialization and rationalized bureaucracy.

“It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable,” Bauman wrote.

In the 1990s, Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a contemporary world in such flux that individuals are left rootless and bereft of any predictable frames of reference.

In books including “Liquid Times” and “Liquid Modernity” he explored the frailty of human connection in such times and the insecurity that a constantly changing world creates.

Read the NYT obituary here. Or, from a more insightful Polish perspective, you might try this piece by Polish scholar Artur Sebastian Rosman over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost:

His Liquid Modernity might be the single best description of the world we inhabit where all that is solid melts into thin air. The center does not hold, but Bauman is a sure guide to understanding what all that means. What Liquid Modernity describes, and it is something I’ve briefly discussed before, is not an academic exercise, but something that affects not only the present, but also the collective future. I cannot recommend this work highly enough if you feel confused about the world we inhabit and where it is heading. If you can’t relate to this feeling of vertigo then you probably have some bigger problems.

But I don’t want to dwell on psychoanalyzing you, nor on the details of liquid modernity (which you can explore here); nor on Bauman’s period of zealous Stalinism (I believe in Kołakowski’s dictum from Metaphysical Horror, “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.”); instead, a couple days after Bauman’s death (I’m not a fan of the euphemism “passing,” because it lacks substance), I’d like to share the following passage from Of God and Man, since it hopes for a more humane future: “You are right (and deserve credit) when observing that, one way or the other, we somehow possess this world, and, from time to time, here and there, are even able to change at least a small part of it for the better. Given that this world of ours is still in the making, the act of its creation yet incomplete, and the work of continuing the creation and its completion has (to recall our earlier conversations) fallen to us, then it is right for us – as for any responsible host – to care for its well-being and attend to its goodness and beauty. I will repeat again Camus’ credo: there is beauty, and there are the humiliated. God grant that I never be unfaithful to the one or the other.”

Read the whole thing here. Or watch the video, “No one is in control. That is the major source of contemporary fear,” below:

The aphorisms of Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016): a few words that go a long way

Monday, September 26th, 2016

From silence and pauses…

Friends at World Literature Today pointed me to one of the smaller and lesser-known works of philosopher and political theorist Leonidas Donskis, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, who died unexpectedly last week at 54: his short, 114-page A Small Map of Experience: Reflections and Aphorisms (Guernica Editions, 2013; translated from the Lithuanian by Karla Gruodis). I bought a copy tout de suite and got it in the mail over the weekend.

“Aphorisms cannot be conceived theoretically, and one cannot learn how to write them from a manual,” he writes in his foreword. “They rise up out of authentic experience—from silence and pauses, from stopping oneself so that a thought is not drowned by the flood of words and pretentious expressions.” But they’re not complete, in a sense, until they have a reader: “An aphorism is also a space for dialogue: it is an open and unfinished thought, which always requires that we, as readers, go back and attempt to develop the ellipses and silences which the author has left for us like an invitation.”

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Donskis’s co-author for Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013), noted, “A successful aphorism, true to its mission, allows a small step to go a long, perhaps an infinitely long, way.” He thinks A Small Map fits the bill: “a perfect match to the vertiginous pace of our life, and bringing that art up to the gravity and grandiosity of the challenge we confront.”

My love of aphorisms is known to Book Haven readers (see here and here), so this was just the ticket. I quickly found with my very unsystematic reading that the book was littered with my little book was littered with sticky flags.

A sampling from the pages:

donskisbook2“Academics are paid for what they say. Politicians and diplomats – for what they do not say.”

“Provincialism is the lack of language and criteria for evaluating yourself and your environment. It is an inability to assess your own worth – a desperate plea for others to identify and assess you.”

“Great art dissolves our illusions about the importance and truth of the present.”

“Two solitudes do not beget a wholeness.”

“Love is the refusal to see oneself as the only reality, and the transcendence of fear and hatred.”

“Hatred is an unbearable dichotomy in which we imagine another’s demise while secretly hoping that he or she will survive to deliver us from meaninglessness.”

“Conscience is an intuition – that wherever two meet, a third is always present.”

There’s a reason his title includes “reflections” in addition to “aphorisms.” Aphorisms are defined by their brevity, but some push the envelope. A few of his reflections, then:

  • “According to the logic of the twentieth century, wars were historically won by those who were left standing. The wars of the future will be different. No one will really win them or have the goal of winning them. They will be needed primarily to test and improve the military industrial machine, to undermine rising foreign economies, and to shape public opinion. War will become a vehicle for maintaining the balance of economic and political forces; the boundaries between it and peace will likely be erased.”
  • “The twentieth century media universe profoundly transformed the public figure. In the eighteenth century, public intellectuals lived their societies’ concerns, raising them to the level of philosophical and political discourse. But, while they saw private problems in public terms and engaged private persons with public concerns and interests, they themselves avoided the social noice of public life. It was once considered a sign of good taste and correct attitude to avoid the press. A Victorian Englishwoman was expected to appear in it only three times in her life: on the very special occasions of birth, marriage, and death. In our era, to appear in the media a mere three times would be the equivalent to not having existed at all.”
  • “Non-Jews usually don’t possess the sensitivity or language to speak about Jews, just as most men can’t legitimately speak about women. This leads to extremes: either Jews are so admired that they are barely considered a normal people (one that includes the wise as well as the villainous), or they are blamed for the lack of security in the Western world and for all of the sins of humanity. Is this thesis valid if we substitute Gentiles and Jews with men and women? In a sense. Seeking rights and recognition, women had to gain access to a world of culture and politics created by men, just as Jews had to find niches in a world dominated by Gentiles. In both cases only one side conformed and adapted – hence the asymmetry of sensibilities.”

And here’s one for Donskis himself: “We love only those things whose fragile and temporary nature we are acutely aware of.” Au revoir, sir. From the overwhelming number of hits on my modest obituary attracted a few days ago, it’s evident you are already much missed.

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014

piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.


He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.