Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)
Author: Valerio Baćak
Review of: Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Modernity is over (without ever having happened)…1
There is a long tradition in social theory when it comes to making sense of modernity. Actually, there is almost no renowned social theorist who did not tackle this issue, while most even have it in the title of at least one of their books. And as we are moving faster into the information revolution and facing steady change in the form of human relationships, theories of modernity are piling up. Although they are coming to the fore of current theoretical debates under different names all theories of modernity share essentially one thing – a concern with insecurity (précarité, Unsichersheit). Zygmunt Bauman is certainly one such theorist. His work is widely read, especially the book under review here, so there is no need to point out the familiar because it is more useful to interpret the fragile theoretical outcomes of his sociology of modernism.
Liquid Modernity, naturally, is about the new “sacred trinity” of insecurity, uncertainty, and risk, and that is the main mark of human condition today, having for its consequence people lost in a desperate search to find security in places like fragile communities usually linked by ethnic solidarity. Even people who have now the freedoms they formerly dreamed of, nevertheless strive for a reference group that will provide meaning to their precarious, individualized lives.
Communitarianism, an ideological movement that Bauman is not at all fond of, wants to help people on their way to this self-protection while having as its main appeal “the promise of a safe haven, the dream destination for sailors lost in a turbulent sea of constant unpredictable and confusing change”2 – it is simply trying to create an artificial (and thus fragile) balance between individual freedom and security. At least that’s how Bauman sees it.
But where communitarian-type community did not and will not succeed, in his view, a reinvigorated public sphere will: “any true liberation calls today for more, not less, of the ‘public sphere’ and ‘public power’”.3 We should find a way to translate private problems into public issues and allow public politics to take back its functions from life-politics of an atomized, severely individualized society. Only then, Bauman argues, will individual autonomy – “that autonomy which cannot fulfill itself anywhere except in the autonomous society”4 – be found and located. This means that, as Bauman lucidly discusses in his chapter on emancipation, individual de jure cannot turn into the individual de facto without first becoming the citizen. So emancipation is possible, only its task is reoriented towards more public sphere and less of the private one. He offers no clear explanation about what this public sphere actually is, and what are the media for its realization (if it’s not community), but he calls for more of it as if it is the only medicine for the illness of individuality that our society is facing today.
This ambiguous task can be helped by “sociology made to the measure of liquid modernity” whose prime concern “needs to be the promotion of autonomy and freedom”.5 After all, it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel of insecurity and disappearance of social solidarity, and we not only should, but we can find “possibilities of living together differently, with less misery or no misery”.6 No matter how unsatisfied Bauman is with the human condition he encountered in his speculative analysis of contemporary human affairs, he is an optimist who sees social life once again organized in a “just society” but this time beyond solidity or fluidity of the alternatives that humankind has known thus far.
Unfortunately, Bauman does not support his optimism with anything more than the humanism of a concerned intellectual nor does he provide at least basic guidelines as to how this just society will look like and how it should be achieved. What he does, though, is an unconscious attempt at overcoming the simplified binary oppositions he used as strategies to construct his narrative of modernity. Fluid-solid, heavy-light, individualism-collectivism, secure-insecure are only some of these oppositions that have been put under reification and now are standing tall as legitimate explanatory pillars of our “liquid life.”
Bauman is not successful in this attempt to offer an opening to an alternative, better, world. He is fixed in a dichotomy between fully free individuals in so called liquid modernity who are not capable of bearing the responsibility that goes along with this freedom on one side, and individuals in solid modernity who lack the freedom but have the security of the routine and the Big Brother on the other. There is no sign of transcending this simple theory of modernity, but only signs of a social theorist who postulated his vision of contemporary society as an objective fact albeit a fact that left out people and their “shifting cultural expectations, fears, and hopes that intervene between contemporary risks and their perception”.7 People still live in a social world that is predictable and secure as much as they make it so. There is no current crisis with which humankind cannot cope, and it is not true that people are lost amid a “runaway world”8 or a “risk society”.9 What is going on today is that people are facing a different type of security in a world in which it has always been a challenge to live in. They are developing life-strategies that enable them to go on with their lives, and support their endeavors with meaning and purpose.
A passage from Jeffrey Alexander captures the problem of Bauman’s approach:
In order to explain the new and often unnerving experiences of their changing societies, intellectuals develop binary oppositions whose constructions of sacrality and profanity allow them to place the present in relation to a simplified past and future.10
This is precisely what Bauman does while ignoring the complexity and nuances with which humans create and sustain their lives. Although they seem rootless, and devoid of any stability when viewed from Bauman’s essentially rationalistic perspective that has its origin in what he calls “solid modernity”, from a contemporary perspective of the world in which we live, they are rooted and stabilized within the networks of meaning that they construct for their actions and human interrelationships. Therefore, Liquid Modernity is worth reading, but mainly as an example of the way intellectuals create “modernity” through simplified narratives when asked to explain a rapidly changing world.
About the Author
Valerio Baćak is Editor-in-chief of the journal Diskrepancija. http://www.diskrepancija.org/casopis/ (link no longer active 2019)
1 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:41.
2 – Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000:171.
3 – Ibid:51.
4 – Ibid:52.
5 – Ibid:213.
6 – Ibid:215.
7 – J. Alexander and P. Smith. “Social Science and Salvation: Risk Society as Mythical Discourse”. Zeitschrift fur Soziologie . Volume 25, Number 4, 1996:253.
8 – Anthony Giddens. Runaway world. How globalization is reshaping our lives. New York: Routledge, 2000.
9 – Ulrich Beck. Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage, 1992.
10 – Jeffrey Alexander. “Modern, Anti, Post and Neo: How Intellectuals Have Tried to Understand the Crisis of our Time.” Zeitschrift fur Soziologie. Volume 23, Number 3, 1994:165.