Zygmunt Bauman and the sociologies of end times

[This post was originally published at the Sociological Review blog’s Special Issue on Zygmunt Bauman, 13 April 2017]

“Morality, as it were, is a functional prerequisite of a world with an in-built finality and irreversibility of choices. Postmodern culture does not know of such a world.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Sociology and postmodernity

Getting reacquainted with Bauman’s 1988 essay “Sociology and postmodernity”, I accidentally misread the first word of this quote as “mortality”. In the context of the writing of this piece, it would be easy to interpret this as a Freudian slip – yet, as slips often do, it betrays a deeper unease. If it is true that morality is a functional prerequisite of a finite world, it is even truer that such a world calls for mortality – the ultimate human experience of irreversibility. In the context of trans- and post-humanism, as well as the growing awareness of the fact that the world, as the place inhabited (and inhabitable) by human beings, can end, what can Bauman teach us about both?

In Sociology and postmodernity, Bauman assumes the position at the crossroads of two historical (social, cultural) periods: modernity and postmodernity. Turning away from the past to look towards the future, he offers thoughts on what a sociology adapted to the study of postmodern condition would be like. Instead of a “postmodern sociology” as a mimetic representation of (even if a pragmatic response to) postmodernity, he argues for a sociology that attempts to give a comprehensive account of the “aggregate of aspects” that cohere into a new, consumer society: the sociology of postmodernity. This form of account eschews the observation of the new as a deterioration, or aberration, of the old, and instead aims to come to terms with the system whose contours Bauman will go on to develop in his later work: the system characterised by a plurality of possible worlds, and not necessarily a way to reconcile them.

The point in time in which he writes lends itself fortuitously to the argument of the essay. Not only did Legislators and interpreters, in which he reframes intellectuals as translators between different cultural worlds, come out a year earlier; the publication of Sociology and postmodernity briefly precedes 1989, the year that will indeed usher a wholly new period in the history of Europe, including in Bauman’s native Poland.

On the one hand, he takes the long view back to post-war Europe, built, as it was, on the legacy of Holocaust as a pathology of modernity, and two approaches to preventing its repetition – market liberalism and political freedoms in the West, and planned economies and more restrictive political regimes in Central and Eastern parts of the subcontinent. On the other, he engages with some of the dilemmas for the study of society that the approaching fall of Berlin Wall and eventual unification of those two hitherto separated worlds was going to open. In this sense, Bauman really has the privilege of a two-facing version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This probably helped him recognize the false dichotomy of consumer freedom and dictatorship over needs, which, as he stated, was quickly becoming the only imaginable alternative to the system – at least as far as imagination was that of the system itself.

The present point of view is not all too dissimilar from the one in which Bauman was writing. We regularly encounter pronouncements of an end of a whole host of things, among them history, classical distribution of labour, standards of objectivity in reporting, nation-states, even – or so we hope – capitalism itself. While some of Bauman’s fears concerning postmodernity may, from the present perspective, seem overstated or even straightforwardly ridiculous, we are inhabiting a world of many posts – post-liberal, post-truth, post-human. Many think that this calls for a rethinking of how sociology can adapt itself to these new conditions: for instance, in a recent issue of International Sociological Association’s Global Dialogue, Leslie Sklair considers what a new radical sociology, developed in response to the collapse of global capitalism, would be like.

As if sociology and the zeitgeist are involved in some weird pas-de-deux: changes in any domain of life (technology, political regime, legislation) almost instantaneously trigger calls for, if not the invention of new, then a serious reconsideration of old paradigms and approaches to its study.

I would like to suggest that one of the sources of continued appeal of this – which Mike Savage brilliantly summarised as epochal theorising – is not so much the heralding of the new, as the promise that there is an end to the present state of affairs. In order for a new ‘epoch’ to succeed, the old one needs to end. What Bauman warns about in the passage cited at the beginning is that in a world without finality – without death – there can be no morality. In T.S. Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton: If all time is eternally present, all time is irredeemable. What we may read as Bauman’s fear, therefore, is not that worlds as we know them can (and will) end: it is that, whatever name we give to the present condition, it may go on reproducing itself forever. In other words, it is a vision of the future that looks just like the present, only there is more of it.

Which is worse? It is hard to tell. A rarely discussed side of epochal theorising is that it imagines a world in which social sciences still have a role to play, if nothing else, in providing a theoretical framing or empirically-informed running commentary of its demise, and thus offers salvation from the existential anxiety of the present. The ‘ontological turn’ – from object-oriented ontology, to new materialisms, to post-humanism – reflects, in my view, the same tendency. If objects ‘exist’ in the same way as we do, if matter ‘matters’ in the same way (if not in the same degree) in which, for instance, black lives matter, this provides temporary respite from the confines of our choices. Expanding the concept of agency so as to involve non-human actors may seem more complicated as a model of social change, but at least it absolves humans from the unique burden of historical responsibility – including that for the fate of the world.

Human (re)discovery of the world, thus, conveys less a newfound awareness of the importance of the lived environment, as much as the desire to escape the solitude of thinking about the human (as Dawson also notes, all too human) condition. The fear of relativism that postmodern ‘plurality’ of worlds brought about appears to have been preferable to the possibility that there is, after all, just the one world. If the latter is the case, the only escape from it lies, to borrow from Hamlet, in the country from whose bourn no traveller has ever returned: in other words, in death.

This impasse is perhaps felt strongest in sociology and anthropology because excursions into other worlds have been both the gist of their method and the foundations of their critical potential (including their self-critique, which focused on how these two elements combine in the construction of epistemic authority). The figure of the traveller to other worlds was more pronounced in the case of anthropology, at least at the time when it developed as the study of exotic societies on the fringe of colonial empires, but sociology is no stranger to visitation either: its others, and their worlds, delineated by sometimes less tangible boundaries of class, gender, race, or just epistemic privilege. Bauman was among theorists who recognized the vital importance of this figure in the construction of the foundations of European modernity, and thus also sensitive to its transformations in the context of postmodernity – exemplified, as he argued, in contemporary human’s ambiguous position: between “a perfect tourist” and a “vagabond beyond remedy”.

In this sense, the awareness that every journey has an end can inform the practice of social theory in ways that go beyond the need to pronounce new beginnings. Rather than using eulogies in order to produce more of the same thing – more articles, more commentary, more symposia, more academic prestige – perhaps we can see them as an opportunity to reflect on the always-unfinished trajectory of human existence, including our existence as scholars, and the responsibility that it entails. The challenge, in this case, is to resist the attractive prospect of escaping the current condition by ‘exit’ into another period, or another world – postmodern, post-truth, post-human, whatever – and remember that, no matter how many diverse and wonderful entities they may be populated with, these worlds are also human, all too human. This can serve as a reminder that, as Bauman wrote in his famous essay on heroes and victims of postmodernity, “Our life struggles dissolve, on the contrary, in that unbearable lightness of being. We never know for sure when to laugh and when to cry. And there is hardly a moment in life to say without dark premonitions: ‘I have arrived’”.

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