Liquid Modernity: Zygmunt Bauman And The Rootless Condition


“It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust unthinkable.”-Zygmunt Bauman

Modernity, as the late Zygmunt Bauman noted in his magisterially provocative Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) has not necessarily entailed enlightenment, the liberation from immaturity.  Since the cave dweller existence, humanity has retained traditional forms of savagery.  What mattered was the sheer lethality of it all, driven by a sociopathic rationality: mass murder became industrialised; population control became ever more ruthless.

The zealous could be, essentially, more efficient, thereby doing, as Adolf Eichmann did, a sterling job for his employers in the Nazi death machine.  Hitler may have been the fantasist of racial purity, but what his dreams needed were the machine men and women on the ground, the practitioners to make a vision not merely real but grotesquely normal.

The glories of technological discovery could easily be reversed: the radio, becoming a disseminating device for hatred; the television, a dystopian tool for surveillance; the charnel house, the final resting place for millions.

Zauman was better equipped than most to understand that: Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance retains a file documenting his own stint in the country’s communist past as an official of the Internal Security Corps.  It was a point that delighted historian Bogdan Musial, who insisted in 2006 that Bauman had actively engaged in the purging of regime opponents.

Bauman would subsequently dismiss most of Musial’s charges, but accept that he did join the secret service for three years after turning 19. For that stint at “counter-espionage,” (“Every good citizen should participate in counter-espionage.”) he bore “full responsibility.”[1]  The greatest test of character in the twentieth century, a point noted persistently through Bauman’s works, is retaining such responsibility within the totalitarian nightmare that subverts, even inverts, the framework of ethics.

The circumstances of the modern condition did not make Bauman morbid. Using the spirits of those in mass graves, the tormented memories of survivors, the trauma of history, was not something that appealed to him.  He proved harsh, for instance, on Israel’s continued, near infantile insistence on using the Holocaust for political gain even as it persecuted the Palestinians.  The premise of avoiding victimhood can become the basis for the next round of historical bullying.

He was the analyst and examiner of modern deracination, the floating wonder of societies where the family and social structure had withered before the speed of consumption and production, the ubiquity of social networking and the handheld device that does everything. The virtual condition is distressingly ephemeral.

“In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a  time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change.”  Through the prism of consumerism, everything has a market value, and everything is disposable.

In the Liquid Society, human relations are contingent and easily mutable.  Having now departed the scene of such modernity, the irony of Bauman’s works is how they encourage, in the reading community that has embraced him, a deeper effort to understand, if not celebrate, such absences. What is there to do other than to re-invent community and conversation?

At the core then, was a necessary humanity to preserve, a point he made in a short publication on the refugee crisis, Strangers at our Door.  He was bewildered by a Europe hostile to the stranger, a clear antithesis of Kantian cosmopolitan feeling.  Fear has been rendered official doctrine, enlisted by politicians who have turned the cosmic angst customarily reserved for God, to a secularised terror that finds form in votes.

The ground for such political manipulation has been rendered fertile by unholy rains and misfortunes, exploited by scape goating opportunists who see the wooing for votes as far more appropriate than grand ideas. The state, entailing security and protection, has atrophied, slipping and stuttering towards de-territorializing.

It is a point that agitates the insecure commonweal accustomed to reassurances, protection and guarding against threats from the outsider.  Societies, claimed Bauman, emphasise an “imperative of performance” much like a boarding school code – those who cannot engage in the mantra of the accelerating, modern environment move, either by choice or by consequence, to the cold, alienating sidelines.  Woe to the non-performer – society will abandon and forget you.

This leads to what Bauman called “adiaphorization” (Giorgio Agamben’s own term on this was the now similar homo sacer – the sociologist re-cycles and re-uses with pious dedication), a form of exclusion, an unmasking, and then deprivation of human rights for a set of people, a group, a category deemed undesirable.  The modern condition has thereby produced “the area of human inter-relationships and interaction exempted form moral evaluation […] subject solely to assessment by its efficiency in ‘bringing results’.”[2]

How do we then combat this enervating, negative state?  Drop the categories, the sham show of patriotism and go for the humanity of it all.  Converse; engage in dialogue.  Talk, in other words, with the strangers.  Open doors; unleash the reserves of compassion.  Rather than demonising them with modern, secularised hell fire as threats to national security, engage them.  This would ensure “the royal road to agreement […] and solidary coexistence”.

Delightful sentiment, but perhaps, in the current climate of ruthlessness, a touch optimistic.  Borders are being reasserted, and cruelty, as a currency, is the only one not depreciating on the global markets.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: [email protected]



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