Sunday, April 24, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part I

Liquid Modernity (2000) is probably Zygmunt Bauman's most important work. This is where the philosopher introduces concepts that will inform his Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), Liquid Life (2005), Liquid Fear (2006), Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006), etc. Since Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers (probably the second favorite after Žižek), I hope eventually to post reviews of all these books on my blog. As usual, I will dedicate the first part of my review to going over some of the ideas from Liquid Modernity that I found to be useful. Later, I will publish the second part of the review that will discuss what I consider to be flawed parts of Bauman's argument.

The main idea that Bauman advances in this book is that it is a mistake to see modernity as a monolithic period that stretches more or less unchanged from the late XIXth century until today. Bauman distinguishes between two stages of modernity:

1. The first stage of modernity, according to Bauman, is the "solid" stage. This is the moment in history of our Western civilization where solid certainties of pre-modern times had disintegrated to such an extent that the only thing to do was to sweep these rotten underpinnings of pre-modern societies out of the way completely. The goal of this first stage of modernity was to erect its own solid certainties in the place of the ones that were going to be swept away by change. If we think about the trajectory of the Soviet approach to modernity, we will see that it fits Bauman's argument perfectly. The transformative push of the first few years of the revolution led to an impenetrable fortress of a repressive Communist regime.

Bauman points out that the main fear of this first stage of modernity was that totalitarianism would emerge from its push to create a new set of certainties on the wasteland of the old society that had been destroyed by the advent of modernity. Orwell's 1984, says Bauman, is a perfect example of what this solid stage of modernity saw as its worst-case scenario. As we know all too well today, totalitarian regimes did, in fact, flourish during this first stage of modernity.

2. Bauman refers to the second stage of modernity as "liquid." At this stage, there is no more effort to replace a set of old rules, certainties and identities with a new one. The freedom to switch identities as often as we want, move around, transform ourselves is now seen as an end in itself and the most prized characteristic of our existence. Bauman's goal in Liquid Modernity is to analyze the main concepts that inform this liquid stage of modernity and to point out the limitations of this freedom.

One of the main struggles of individuals in pre-modern societies consisted of defending their private sphere from the encroachment of the public sphere. People belonged to their families, their clans, guilds, social classes. Their identities that were assigned to them at birth were inexorable and inescapable. If you were born a woman, for example, this very fact implied a set of roles, behaviors and life strategies that was pre-ordained and that you could try to escape at your own peril. If you look at the history of art, you will see that it isn't until the birth of the Romantic movement in late XVIII century that individual emotions and minute shades of personal feelings start being discussed as something valuable. It is only at the end of the XIXth century that we begin to see a slow process of liberation from identities one is assigned at birth.

Today, however, Bauman maintains, it is the public sphere that needs to be salvaged from the constant encroachment of the private sphere. According to the philosopher, our public sphere has been eroded by a constant parade of exhibitionist private issues that there isn't any public sphere left to speak of. Think about the following statement by Bauman in terms of what we are witnessing in today's politics:
What are commonly and ever more often perceived as 'public issues' are private problems of public figures. . . Not one among the 'great and mighty', let alone the offended 'public opinion', proposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton for abolishing welfare as a 'federal issue'. (70-1)
We can see that this tendency has become even more pronounced today, 11 years after the publication of Bauman's Liquid Modernity. To give just one example, there is a huge group of people whose political activism is limited to a painstaking investigation of whether Sarah Palin's child is truly hers (I blogged about these folks here), as if her motherhood had anything whatsoever to do with whether she will make a good presidential candidate. We get regaled with endless stories about Michelle Obama's personality, President Obama's shoes, George W. Bush's daughters, Donald Trump's ex-wives. In the meanwhile, a discussion of what it is they are doing as politicians gets relegated to the realm of the inconsequential. 

While we are concentrated on discussing the private issues of others and exhibiting our own private sphere to the world (blogging and Facebook are a perfect example of this), we fail to notice that the very nature of power has changed. Formerly, those who possessed the greatest masses of land were the most powerful. Power was bogged down by the enormous apparatus of hardware and people needed to maintain it. Today, says Bauman, power has become liquid:
We are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics. (13)
The power today is hard to pinpoint in every sense of the word. As everything else, it has become mobile and uprooted.

(To be continued. . .)

1 comment:

Rimi said...

This book was spectacular. With rust spots here and there, but philosophy is subjectively valued, so what can one expect?

In case 'modernity' and its monolithic, colonialist discourse is one of your pet peeves -- and I know you enjoy Indian lit. -- try reading Partha Chatterjee's 'Our Modernity', if you haven't already. I'm also saving up Bruno Latour's 'We Have Never Been Modern'. Review it if you've read it?