Friday, June 11, 2004

Zygmunt Bauman's doubts about 'postmodernism'

Zygmunt Bauman is a well-known postmodernist philosopher originally from Poland, now retired from teaching and living in England. In his recent book Liquid Modernity Bauman gave a signal that he was turning against 'post'-al terminology, if not the modes of thinking one associates with postmodernism. I recently read Liquid Modernity (trans. 2002) as well as Community (trans. 2001), and recognized Bauman's line of thought to be roughly similar to that of Fredric Jameson or (in his more sane/lucid moments) Jean Baudrillard. For postmodernists, something is happening differently in the present moment: Space is imploding, time is imploding. And Marx's famous 'All that is solid melts into air' is turning out to be literally true.

But courtesy of Political Theory Info, I recently came across an interview in Eurozine where Bauman takes a rather different stance. It's worth quoting at length:

ZB: I've some time ago distanced myself from the "postmodern" grid of the world-map. A number of reasons contributed.

To start with, the concept of "postmodern" was but a stop-gap choice, a "career report" of a search - still on-going and remote from completion. That concept signalled that the social world had ceased to be like the one mapped using the "modernity" grid (notably, the paths and the traps changed places), but was singularly un-committal as to the features the world had acquired instead. [...] About the qualities of the present-day world we can say now more than it is unlike the old familiar one. We have, so to speak, matured to afford (to risk?) a positive theory of the novelty.

"Postmodern" was also flawed from the beginning: all disclaimers notwithstanding, it did suggest that modernity was over. Protestations did not help much, even as strong ones as Lyotard's ("one cannot be modern without being first postmodern") - let alone my insistence that "postmodernity is modernity minus its illusion". Nothing would help; if words mean anything, then a "postX" will always mean a state of affairs that has leaved the "X" behind. [...]

I had (and still have) reservations towards alternative names suggested for our contemporaneity. "Late modernity"? How would we know that it is "late"? The word "late", if legitimately used, assumes closure, the last stage (indeed - what else one would expect to come after "late"? Very late? Post-late?) - and so it suggests much more than we (as sociologists, who unlike the soothsayers and clairvoyants have no tools to predict the future and must limit ourselves to taking inventories of the current trends) are entitled responsibly to propose. [...] I would perhaps embrace George Balandier's surmodernité or Paul Virilio/John Armitage's hypermodernity, were not these terms, like the term 'postmodern', too shell-like, too uncommittal to guide and target the theoretical effort.

I tend to agree, above all, with the idea that 'postmodernity' necessarily suggests that modernity is over, and that the attempt to reload the concept with various alternative spins is unconvincing. I also agree that there are novel aspects to the present conjuncture, which need to be described using 'positive' terminology. 'Globalization' and 'hybridity' are examples of positive descriptors, though both terms are actually quite limited; more terms are necessary.

In contrast to any of the alternatives to modernity, Bauman (in his book, and to a lesser extent in his interview) proposes a concept of liquid modernity, which I find interesting, but less than convincing. Though he never abandons the terms 'modernity' and 'modernization', the concept still maps chonrologically and conceptually to the idea of postmodernity he is questioning above. For Bauman, what is novel about the present moment (aka, modernity II, liquid modernity) is the sense that the old social bonds of family and community are being replaced by concepts of identity that are by their nature fluid and flexible. Modernity originally aimed to break primordial social bonds only to reform and relocate individuals in even stronger, new bonds (such as the nation, or the nuclear family). Liquid modernity means strong bonds are out entirely.

I don't agree. I would allow that some forms of social order are indeed more flexible, but it's for certain people, and in certain circumstances. Bauman mentions the transition from a patriarchal society ordered by marriage to one where the idea of cohabitation is increasingly the norm. He's thinking of Europe; it's not particularly true in the U.S., though it may become so once gay marriage is normalized.

Even if the transition in family structure were to become universal, this liquefaction doesn't apply to other aspects of social life. It doesn't change the fact that for billions of people, strong bonds of identity centered around religion, family, nationality, and ethno-linguistic particularity, are still at the core of social being. Even in the states in Europe where 'marriage is passé', there are strong movements to limit or cancel immigration from the south and the east -- in the interest of preserving national identity.

In both Community and Liquid Modernity, Bauman addresses the question of class and labor, often with clever and provocative insights. For instance, he is compelling (if not utterly original) on how Fordism and Taylorism have dehumanized labor by instrumentalizing workers. Also, in his analysis of the contemporary breakdown in the idea of community, Bauman is careful to point out that it is first and foremost the cosmopolitan elites who 'secede' from community (he calls it the 'secession of the successful'), to the privatized spaces of gated communities, automobiles, and airport lounges. In contrast, non-elites are still bound by their particularities -- by community.

The class-basis of Bauman's 'secession' theory is good -- so good, it swallows up Bauman himself. In Liquid Modernity, it seems to me that Bauman himself is guilty of thinking about globalization's effect on space and time from the international airport (or worse, from the hotel swimming pool), rather than from the city street or the impoverished farms of the world's rural hinterlands. For people without money, without a visa, etc. modernity is not liquid, it's hard.

Despite his interesting gestures to the contrary, it seems to me that Bauman is still a utopian postmodernist.


Rob Breymaier said...

I always wondered about the late capitalism too. It seemed as though postmodernists were assuming that capitalism was phasing out. But, there was hardly any speculation into what would occur next. In this respect, I think Bauman (whom I've never read) seems to be in synch with Harvey. Postmodernism is an epoch within the modern era still playing by modern rules but, with increasing sensibilities (i.e. multiculturalism) pardoxically accompanied by increased desensitization (i.e. sweatshops).

Meanwhile, it appears that capitalism is far from over. Indeed, it might be now that capitalism is truly entering its "high" mode. Instead of interpreting the transition to a global market with all of its speculation and fictitious capital as a response to the crisis of capitalism (as Harvey insists), post-circa 1973 could also be interpreted as the moment where capitalism finally took off. It is around this time when Shumpeter trumps the Welfare State and the interests of capital begin their steep emphasis over the interests of labor, justice, and environment.

On the other hand - when looked at in this more economic light - this period is not that all unlike the previous fin-de-siecle. At that time, capital globalized and Europe (now the West) increased its influence across the planet. Perhaps, its just a cycle that will repeat itself throughout the capitalist era.

11:49 AM  
Amardeep said...

Brey, I have a suspicion that with your interest in space/geography, you might enjoy Bauman. In the end you will probably disagree with more than a few things, but it's probably worth your while. Better, anyway, than Derrida, Agamben, etc. At least Bauman is intelligible without a German dictionary.

(In response to your request for suggestions on what to read in your own blog)

3:38 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Thanks! I'm going on a 2 week writing binge beginning July 5 for my proposed dissertation or book (depending on if I can get funding for graduate school). After that, I'll need to start reading more to bring in examples and supporting ideas.

5:27 PM  

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